Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Walk in the Future

I will begin this post with apologies to my regular readers for taking a mid-winter writing hiatus this year. The truth is, in early January, my wife and youngest daughter and I moved out of the city and back to rural Colorado where we are home. After ten years of urban homesteading—creating a half-acre farm on an unused church lot, putting chickens, bunnies, bees and goats in our backyard (in violation of local ordinances but not against the wishes of the neighbors), community-building wherever possible, and, most important of all, raising teenagers who participated in all of the above—we pulled up stakes and returned to our small-town roots in the mountains.

Here we have a ready-made community of old friends and ample opportunity to make new ones. I’ve gone back to writing for the local newspaper about issues that really matter to the locals, but rarely make it onto anyone’s radar farther than a day’s walk from here. Above all, since my return, the living landscape of snowy mountain trails and sleepy, icebound rivers has sent me hourly invitations to walk and get reacquainted. I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on the news from the year-round neighbors: fox, rabbit, mouse, muskrat, magpie, bald eagle, coyote, red-tailed hawk, willow, wild rose, cottonwood, deer, elk, raccoon—just to name a few.

The net result has been an onset of severe attention deficit anytime I picture sitting in front of the computer for longer than absolutely necessary. The creek nearby is never the same at sunset as it was in the morning, a fact I feel compelled to personally verify. Many of the itinerant citizens are beginning to return or awaken—robin, geese, skunk, beaver, red-winged blackbirds—and I hate to miss the opportunity to be the first to greet them. The Milky Way is vivid in the sky most nights, and the moon is a lazy and companionable town crier marking the time of the month.

In this setting, a brisk walk feels too fast, and in any case is only possible on manmade roads. Trails are made for stopping and looking—one continuous scenic turnout. Straight lines are an abstraction. If it weren’t for power poles and the angular walls and roof of my house I might stop believing in them altogether. Even the bare willow branches reach sideways in arching yoga poses that seem to deny the very existence of rectitude. It is a meandering, curvaceous, flibbertigibbet world—a state that is highly contagious to wanderers. Old stories tell of travelers who stumble into enchanted groves and fall out of time, forgetting who they are (or at least who they are expected to be by others). Storytellers lay the blame on mischievous fairy folk, but I begin to believe in a less exotic explanation. Up and down, east and west, in summer and winter, the whole world is timeless already and quite content to simply be. This gives off a thoroughly intoxicating fragrance.

But please don’t think I am only talking about this particular style of living in this particular place. I know that most people have no choice but to live in the city. And let’s be honest, most of those would stay where they are in any case. Many of my urban friends think I’m bonkers for preferring starlight to the late-night neon excitement of metropolitan life.

I’m talking about what happens to anyone, anywhere on the planet when you become available and open to having a relationship with the world and with the ground-level facts of your life. Pigeons and potted plants are just as rooted in the timeless now as pine trees and beaver ponds. A tomato vine on an apartment patio can connect you with the living community that provides your food. Running barefoot through soccer field grass will heighten your sense of belonging on the earth and remind you that putting one foot in front of the other—literally—is something you have in common with every other person who has ever lived. I’m talking about a universal way to experience time, people, nature, walking and breathing that is more in synch with true human nature than living at a machine’s pace.

It is also in synch with the future. The fact is, most of the complex systems which isolate us from the earth and alienate us from each other in today’s frantic world are already in steep decline (even if your iPhone still functions for a while). It isn’t hard to justify that claim. We need only consider the fact that the era of cheap oil over for good, clearly evident in the present, prolonged economic crisis and associated geopolitical seizures. Add in the combined stresses of a number of social and environmental emergencies and it becomes implausible—if not impossible—to believe in a future where prosperity continues to be defined as endless economic growth and financial profit. That model is mortally wounded.

If human history is a novel, then we’ve reached the climax, the final turning point in which the protagonists (us) either change or die. We now must grow or suffer unspeakable consequences. This is the moment when we find out if the burning question raised in act one can be resolved in act three: “Will we cease our juvenile infatuation with ourselves and visions of our own splendor and return to balanced relationship with the rest of creation in time to avoid a really unhappy ending?”

This morning, as I walked along a snow-free ridgeline formed by south facing outcroppings of schist and gneiss more than 2 billion years old, I thought, “Of course we can. We possess everything we need to succeed.”

Then I remembered the question wasn’t can we evolve our way into a better future; it was will we. That’s up to each of us right where we are. I recommend you begin by slowing down and paying attention to things that have always been.

Breathe. See. Love. Give.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Two Kinds of Power

Just about anyone who ponders the perils we presently face as a civilization will eventually trace the roots of the crisis to the fact that modern people—Americans in particular—are born into a cult of consumerism. It is inherited servitude to an addiction that, so far, has seemed to grow more entrenched in every new generation. And we intuitively know it is killing us (along with a great many helpless others).

That’s why, if you have read the many books, blogs, articles, and opinion pieces written about the unsustainability of our way of life, you have certainly run across this bit of “what-you-can-do-about-it” advice:  Stop buying.

It is a logical conclusion and a powerful strategy. Production and consumption are a millstone continually grinding away at what remains of a life worth living. So, if enough consumers were to go on a buying strike in unison—well, let’s just say it might put a wrench in the works and bring a few Important People to the bargaining table for once.

But, we have yet to follow that excellent advice in any meaningful way. Sure, consumer spending is down from the bubbly highs we reached in 2006, but generally not by design, not as an act of collective non-cooperation. We simply don’t have as much money as we did then.

So far, our potent capacity to deflect the course of humanity toward catastrophe goes untapped. Though we complain bitterly about income inequality, class warfare, and corporate insanity—in the end we keep writing the checks that pay for it all. Every month. On time. With interest. We keep taking their trinkets to the check out lines like the addicts that we are.

That’s because the words “stop buying” barely scratch the surface of what is actually required of us. It is like saying to an alcoholic, “Just stay away from bars”—when he drives by twenty of them on the way home from work each day. No, to challenge the mad machine world we’ve built—and we must challenge it—we have to dig deep.

We have to stop wanting.

This is a radical thought that marketers spend billions of dollars every year to keep you from thinking—to keep you from knowing you even can think it.

Many people will cry foul about now. “Stop wanting? We are human beings. You might as well tell us to stop breathing.“ Very well, let’s rephrase: Stop wanting things that are not real. Better still—train yourself to want something new and better.

A few years ago I happened to be in a mall at Christmastime—not my first choice or my natural habitat. But I’ll admit, the food court smelled good. The clothes on mannequins in every window were appealing. The music was uplifting, the 25-foot tree was beautiful. Most everyone (not working) was happy to be there, pleasantly high on the experience.

Suddenly I realized where the buzz was coming from—it emanated from a shared feeling of power. Our culture defines that kind of power like this: the ability to walk into the mall at Christmas and leave again with anything you want. “Purchasing power” is the phrase we use.

Here is the alternative source of power I saw clearly that day: the ability to walk into a mall at any time and not want what they are selling. To not be fooled by the marketing sleight of hand that conceals what the spectacle of consumption actually costs the earth and people who are far less empowered.

You see, what they are selling is not clothes, or shoes, or phones, or furniture. They are selling the “right” to think of ourselves as special—as powerful. They are selling an illusion that blinds us to the truth: we are addicts, and the whole world is paying for our habit. That price may be the death of us all.

The first essential step to recovery is to resurrect and strengthen our will to choose which kind of power we value and will invest in. Do we want the counterfeit kind that keeps us dependent on systems that are inherently cruel and destructive? Or will we choose the power we all are born with to be more, to be better—to be free?

This is the question of our time. How each of us answers it may very well hold the key to our survival. Because once we decide to align with authentic power—power that instills and rewards honor, integrity, self-sacrifice, and courage—then we’ll be ready to stand and fight.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Comes a Fight

Here is a fact that most well-meaning citizens simply don’t want to face: There is an epic, inescapable, high stakes battle brewing in our society. History has handed us a job to do that will require a whole new word for courage before we are done.

Some readers of The Jailbreak Journals who agree with that assessment have questioned the relevance of my focus on the interior landscape of our habitual thoughts and beliefs at a time when the exterior world is in clear and present danger of coming apart at the seams. They’ve asked:

“Really? Another New Age canard?”
“What part of emergency don’t you understand? It’s time to act, not meditate.”

Well, let’s put that to rest: I get it. I’ve preached it, written it, marched it through the streets, and purposely leaned into this rising emergency for over 20 years. I’ve lived off the grid in a house I built out of discarded tires and other reclaimed materials. My family has carved an urban farm out of a forgotten field of weeds that amply provides our vegetables for the year. We’ve consistently chosen real resilience over financial “security”—often by means of civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

After all that experience, I’ve concluded that there is, indeed, an epic battle coming that we can’t avoid and will test us beyond any limit we can presently imagine. But more importantly, I’m convinced that we cannot fight it, much less win, until we take back vital territory that has been in enemy hands our whole lives. Strategically speaking, nothing else matters. No other campaign can succeed if we fail in this.

Yes, I’m talking again about the interior landscape of thought and belief. That’s because this is where our will is formed. It is where we are outfitted with the moral, spiritual and philosophical armory we must possess to have any hope of standing up to the forces presently arrayed against us. Many have wondered why Americans appear to be willing to suffer blatant criminal abuse from systems of power gone berserk with little complaint and almost no meaningful resistance.

The reason is that our minds are presently occupied by exceedingly effective propaganda and agents of social conditioning—our own thoughts and beliefs about how the world really works, who we are, what we are capable of, what we deserve, what we must do (or endure) in order to survive, entitlements due to the wealthy and powerful, the intrinsic value of our earth community, and on and on. This unseen web has dampened our instincts for self-defense and consistently caused us to act against our own self-interest.

We have not yet stood up because we don’t believe we can—or should. We are conditioned to prize expedience over justice, comfort over conflict, access to “security” over principle. We continue investing in thoroughly and obviously corrupted social and economic systems because we lack the courage and conviction to accept the consequences of saying the only word that matters: No.

There is a battle brewing because all the traditional ways we had for saying no—and standing behind it—are gone. The ballot box, for instance, is useless to force anything more than marginal change, never coming anywhere near the centers of so-called power. While individual causes may occasionally plant a flag on their particular legislative hill, whole continents of injustice and inequality remain untouched.

If we are able to imagine a better world, we rarely go on to visualize the price we may have to pay to make it real—a price that is always denominated in personal, individual risk and hardship. What is required now—all that is left to us, in fact—is action that cannot be outsourced to a non-profit group with a membership and check, a petition signature, a strongly worded letter, or even an appearance at a rally.

The need for civil disobedience and non-violent non-cooperation has never been greater. But we must be clear: A “no” that does not put you at risk will never, ever move the frontlines by so much as a micron. That’s because you are the frontline, and all resistance is done at arm’s length.

To engage in earnest, you must place yourself under a microscope and ask: What do I believe in? Am I willing to live by it, no matter what it costs me? Inconvenience? Financial loss? Social isolation? Physical harm? Jail? Death?

Surely these are the questions that went through the minds of civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama before they decided to cross the bridge and take the brunt of racist fear and anger; United Farm Workers struggling against de facto slavery in the fields of 20th century America; British “subjects” in India who followed Gandhi into beatings and jail cells for what they believed.

And what did they believe?—that liberty and justice do not belong to a privileged elite to dispense as they please, but are the inalienable right of any human being, at any time, anywhere on the planet.

If you believe that in your bones—and if you are willing to live by it—then meaningful action will arise by itself. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Speak Up

Words are powerful objects.

As we go about gathering the tools we need to mount a jailbreak from the confines of life as we’ve been living it, this bit of understanding is indispensible. It is no accident that we use the same vocabulary to describe the act of assembling words—to spell—as to magically influence events and the conditions of reality—to cast a spell. We are taught to regard words and thoughts as insubstantial wisps of smoke, but that simply isn’t true. It’s time to take responsibility for what we think and say—and reclaim the full creative potential we each possess.

The power of words lies in their ability to conjure mental imagery: to cause whole worlds—and all the assumptions upon which they rest—to instantly materialize in your mind. Meaning and emotions that would require volumes to communicate in words are contained in a single image.

For instance, for most people in the 70s—and even today—the word “Vietnam” produces a mental picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running in terror and agony after a US napalm attack—an image that embodies all the horror of the time. The word “gulag” evokes ice bound Siberian prisons that swallowed Soviet dissidents by the millions—but also the image of stern-faced men standing above Red Square in Moscow surveying a parade of missiles.

Entire chunks of history—and everything you think you know about what actually happened and why—are contained in a couple of syllables. If your mind were no more than a movie screen in a darkened theater—and words a kind of passive projector—then so what? Not much power in that.

But your mind does far more with imagery than simply reflect it. What you think you see and know inevitably shapes what you can see. That, in turn, collapses all other possibilities and encrusts your world in the belief that it can’t be any other way.

For many millennia, all manner of mystics, and others gifted with the ability to see beyond the confines of apparent material reality, have reported that what goes on in the mind—all that we visualize, think and believe—has incredible, possibly limitless power to shape the world we experience. Imagination is our native language, and the foundation of reality.

In some respects it isn’t terribly hard to see how this works. If the word “redneck” and the mental image it evokes causes you to think you already know what a person from the rural south thinks, believes and values, then you will act accordingly and reinforce the structural biases built in to present day society. This happens every day—in all directions—and goes a long way to explaining the dangerous levels of political and cultural polarization we’re experiencing today.

That simple example barely scratches the surface of the true influence your thoughts and beliefs—and the words you use to convey them—have on the world you experience. Your power to create reality is limitless. In fact, you do it all the time, whether you realize it or not.

It would be tempting to dismiss that claim as a metaphysical fantasy—were it not for the fact that a whole generation of quantum physicists peering into the ultimate nature of reality speak of their findings in very similar terms. The behavior of the subatomic world has led them to a stunning conclusion: Human consciousness can no longer be left out of their equations and their models of why things are as they are.

Nobel prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner summed it up like this: "When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."

Martin Rees went further: "In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it."

You can bet this was not an easy conclusion for rational men and women of science to swallow. Einstein himself was deeply offended by some facets of quantum theory when it first surfaced in the early 20th century. Niels Bohr, an early pioneer of quantum research, said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.”

But in the end no one could ignore a repeated and consistent laboratory finding—that the specific outcome of experiments involving subatomic particles depended upon the intention and expectations of the scientists themselves. Since they also see in the quantum soup an underlying unity to all things, there is no reason to assume this startling fact is limited only to very, very small things, but ultimately includes everyday reality as well.

Physicist Pascual Jordan: “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it."

A popular bumper sticker says: “Question Everything.” That is excellent advice, but only if it begins with your own words, thoughts, beliefs and assumptions about “the way things are.” We have the power to choose whether our words and shared images are weaponized, inflicting maximum amounts of fear (and creating a world by that blueprint), or will become our allies in gaining our freedom from a way of living gone wrong.

With this in mind I invite you to examine the words I have chosen to frame the conversation in these essays: Jailbreak. If that evokes imagery of desperate and angry people destroying everything in sight and beating their erstwhile “jailers” to a pulp—smoke, blood, shouting mobs—then now is the time to capture that thought and turn it over, because it is not at all what I see.

Picture instead a group of people who are laughing, smiling, dancing, singing, embracing, crying, effusing pure joy and gratitude, telling each other poems and stories of a new world—an infectious party of epic proportions—all because it has dawned on them—on us!—that the gates to the prison we’ve inhabited since birth not only never were locked, they never existed in the first place.

That will be the scene once we have seen what Annie Dillard wrote: “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap.” Freedom is ours when we say it is, when we believe it is and visualize what it looks like. From there we will act accordingly and the hopelessly tangled knot of problems we face will begin to untie itself.

I’m breaking out of here. If you’re with me, speak up!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Arrow of Evolution

The grand procession of human evolution has delivered us to a pivotal moment—a crisis that contains both creative and destructive potential. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. At the height of any evolutionary crisis, the two pathways appear side by side and illustrate the contrast between traditional traits that no longer work and new ways of being that can carry the species forward.

For years now we have become increasingly aware of what doesn’t work. A consensus has formed, at least among those committed to honest appraisal, that “we can’t go on like this much longer.” The consequences of a million misguided choices have converged in our time to make that abundantly—and depressingly—clear.

It has been much harder to look past the frightening scenarios of impending collapse and see what we stand to gain on the other side. If we know what traits can’t cross over this evolutionary boundary—a domineering and rapacious relationship with the earth, for instance—then what will replace them? What does a more evolved human look like?

We sense that the answer doesn’t lie in more or “better” technology, or any “upgrade” to the existing machinery of western civilization. The rational mind may not want to accept this, but in our deeper selves, we know: What comes next must be radically new. It must not simply ensure our basic survival, but also deliver what we have longed for and sought after through all the millennia of our history: Freedom. Belonging. The peace that comes from knowing who we are—and living in harmony with our true nature.

We know there is far more to being human than we’ve ever allowed ourselves to be. We feel in our bones that our present devotion to the pursuit of profit, property, power and privilege is an absurdity, that we are meant for and capable of so much more. So much more.

The poet Rumi put it like this:

You sit here for days saying
This is strange business.

You’re the strange business.
You have the energy of the sun in you,
but you keep knotting it up
at the base of your spine.

You’re some weird kind of gold
that wants to stay melted in the furnace,
so you won’t have to become coins.

Say ONE in your lonesome house.
Loving all the rest is hiding
inside a lie.

Here’s the point: This truly “weird” way of living—hiding inside the lie that we are small and helpless victims in an indifferent world—is already headed for the evolutionary scrap heap.  This is the trait—this alienation from our authentic identity and sacred source—that cannot enter the future we have collectively created. We will either grow into our true potential this time, or we will perish.

As Rumi suggests, what has held us back until now is not fate, or the whims of capricious gods, or any backroom cabal of conspirators. The guard towers of this prison are manned by nothing other than our own thoughts and beliefs. Your thoughts and beliefs. Day in and day out they reinforce your decision to “stay melted in the furnace,” rather than take responsibility for the truth: There is no world but the one you make.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s because wise men and women from every mystical tradition throughout time have been saying the same thing. Yes, these ideas inevitably lead us back to the realm of spirit, and to the thousand marvelous names we have for Mystery. It's a dimension we've tried to ignore in modern times, a fact which has only served to deepen our confusion. Happily, that wisdom is as available and inviting as ever.

Lately, however, the conversation has been joined by a new chorus of voices: scientists at the leading edge of exploration into the fundamental nature of reality. Turns out there is no “stuff” in our stuff, no tangible BBs at the bottom of the pyramid of existence. Our universe is a unitary field of intelligent and infinitely creative potential surging with energy. We participate in turning possibility into particular reality all the time—through the content and quality of our thoughts and beliefs in each present moment.

This marvelous capacity for aligning with universal wisdom in consciously choosing what we think and believe—as a means of reshaping ourselves and the world for a radically different future—is where the arrow of human evolution presently points. It is the essential characteristic of the new humanity currently emerging. It isn’t a short or an easy road, but it is the one we are destined to walk.

Next week I will discuss why harnessing the power of your thoughts has nothing at all to do with dreaming up a new Mercedes in the driveway—and why the evolution of conscious creative awareness is also a genuine revolution in the making.