2020 Notes: This too…

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan meditation master, recently told a story that illustrates the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.” Long ago, a king gathered all the sages in his realm and asked them to tell him something that is always true. After conferring among themselves, the wise men and women returned and in just four words, told the king the one thing that is true in every possible circumstance: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes that’s good news, but in 2020, it seldom is. This year, everyone has experienced loss and the fear of loss. Significant among the losses in this country is the loss of confidence in our future and in “the American way of life.” In a recent Gallup poll, only 13% of Americans expressed “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.”

That many???  I don’t personally know anyone in that 13%, and it’s hard to imagine who they are. Extremely rich? Comatose? Living with wolves? The rest of us may be split over which outcome in November will benefit the nation or destroy the remnants of American greatness, but for most of us, the sense of multiple crises is pervasive.

I’ve long had the sense that the arc of that greatness and its decline extends over many decades, but I’ve not been able to express it or find someone who could until now. I highly recommend an article which appeared on August 6 in Rolling Stone: The Unravelling of America, by Wade Davis. It’s a long article, but worth it.

Davis relates that six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured 90% of the world’s rubber making capacity. To ramp up the war effort, the U.S. government called for a speed limit of 35 mph to extend the life of existing tires, and the nation complied! No one accused the government of overreach. No one complained that their freedom was compromised or suggested that mandating shared sacrifice during a crisis somehow violates the Constitution.

Perhaps that aspiration for greatness was best expressed by John Kennedy, when he said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country  can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That spirit probably started to die when Kennedy did, and Davis reviews, in heart-rending detail, some of the missteps that led us from then until now.

Wade Davis’s article concludes with the observation that when Trump said of the coronavirus, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” he might as well have been speaking of the American Dream…

And yet, to start to imagine solutions to a problem, we must begin by trying to understand what the problem really is. It also helps to remember what the ancient king’s philosophers told him: this too shall pass. 

Anti-vaxxers, mask-slackers, and maybe pessimism is good for you.

Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, 1954

When I was a kid, scientists were a big deal, almost as important in the movies I watched as cowboys. At the Saturday matinees, we learned that when you’re under attack by Godzilla, or the Blob, or space aliens, things always go better when you listen to the people in lab coats. In the world outside, hydrogen bomb drills and the fear of losing “the space race” to Russia, added to the mystique of scientists.

So why is it now, when the world is under far greater threat than it was during the Cold War, that so many people don’t just ignore, but actively denigrate the advice of scientists, and especially medical scientists? It’s not just in America.  Recently, a large crowd marched in Berlin, packed close together and without masks, to protest covid-19 restrictions.

In a twisted way, it was comforting to learn that America isn’t the only land of idiots. It also makes the issue more complex, for the German protestors are clearly not members of the Cult of Trump. One clue is afforded by historical precedents – fear and denial are nothing new in the face of pandemics! Continue reading

2020 Notes: A Truth Teller

If you go online anywhere these days, you see advice on how to reduce stress. Mostly the suggestions are ones I’m familiar with and already try to practice: diet, exercise, sleep, meditation, contact with others by whatever means are possible, and so on.

A few weeks ago I saw a suggestion that keeping a journal reduces stress. I first started a journal when I was a teen and have done so on and off ever since, but it’s no easy task when all of our structures appear so fluid and ephemeral that nothng seems constant from one day to the next. “All the children are insane,” sang Jim Morrison when I was in high school. Nowadays truly insane adult children run the country.

We are inundated with learned essays by people trying to make sense of it all, but even the best analyses are also fluid and ephemeral. Their relevance barely lasts a day.

I often think that if we want truth, we’re better off looking to poets. Think of The Second Coming, which has only increased in relevance in the hundred years since Yeats wrote it.

This morning, Mary showed me, Of the Empire, a 2008 poem by Mary Oliver which also seems more true today than it did a dozen years ago when it was published.

Of the Empire
by Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Finding a truth teller these days is infinitely precious.

2020 Notes 4 – Silence

It’s strange to walk in the local park when it’s so empty – just a few other dog walkers who wave from a distance, or runners, or families with kids on bicycles. The silence has an appeal all its own. It’s not really silence, of course. It is bird songs and the sound of a breeze stirring the leaves rather than calls of “Hey batter, batter,” from the softball fields.

For those of blessed to be safe and healthy right now, and with the time and inclination to pause and reflect, the space and silence we have is a gift and a profound opportunity. To reflect deeply at this time of pandemic driven isolation can be a way to reconnect with ourselves, which is, in many ways, a deeply subversive act in a manic culture so bent on distracting us that lately videos with loud and annoying soundtracks are even starting to show up on gas pumps.

In a 1985 essay that I recommend to everyone, Report From El Dorado, journalist Michael Ventura wrote, “To go from a job you don’t like to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life, by and large.” In the same essay, Ventura noted that the average American family watched six to eight hours of television a day. He concludes that the “fundamental message of television is: ‘It’s all right,’ and “The culture…is in the infantile position of needing to be assured, every day, all day, that this way of life is good for you.”

Ventura’s essay was written during the “good times,” the Reagan years, one of those boom times for many, when the cracks in the culture were hidden from those who weren’t paying attention. I suspect it’s one of the periods of supposed greatness that inspires nostalgia in MAGA people.

There will be no return.

There never is after this kind of event. A cultural inflection point like this changes everything forever, as did World War I, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and 9/11.

Those with a vested interest in the crumbling status quo are in full panic mode, desperate for us “to get back to work,” no longer even pretending it’s good for us. A spike of 2% – 3% in the body count is “acceptable” according to both the Lieutenant Governor of Texas and Dr. Oz.

People who know how to pause and be silent, to disconnect from their screens and mental chatter, will not be so fast to lay down their lives for predatory capitalists.

I’m blessed to have a back porch where I can sit in the shade, and pause, and reflect. There are many ways to still ourselves. One simple method was advocated by James Finley, who teaches Christian contemplative practice. He advocated this reflection on a phrase from Psalm 46:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

People who are able to connect with their inner Awareness are the ones we will need to shape a post epidemic future that will be worth living.

2020 Notes 2

The night before last, I had a hug dream:

I seemed to be in a restaurant, waiting to pick up a takeout order when I spotted a friend. He and I hugged, but then, at the same moment, said, “Shit!” and jumped back to to a six foot distance. I ducked into the restroom to wash my hands, knowing that hands were not the issue, and pissed that I’d have to start counting down 14 days again to feel safe from contagion.

Most of the time, the dreaming mind brings up issues and themes we ignore in waking life. When something as topical as the corona virus appears in a dream, we know how far it has penetrated deep into the psyche.

Out in Fair Oaks Park, the weather has mostly been pleasant and the skies stunning.

We see others strolling in ones and twos, with and without dogs. Many of them wave or ask from a distance, “How are things going for you?” Again I sense that, left to ourselves, a crisis like this would pull us together. Our natural instinct is to lend a helping hand.

Then why are we so divided?

The real question is “Who benefits when we are so divided?”

A Contemplation of Heroes, Toilet Paper, John Wayne, and John Ford.

Paramahansa Yogananda told a story of two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, who were neighbors during the violence that preceded Indian independence in the late 1940’s. Food was scarce due to rioting, but the mother of the Hindu family got hold of a bag of rice. When she realized her neighbors had nothing to eat, she took half the rice to the Muslim family before lighting her own stove. When we were young, many of us aspired to that kind of heroism. Now we hoard toilet paper.

In all fairness, this is a manufactured crisis, driven by our online yellow press with so many pictures of empty paper good shelves that anyone paying attention might conclude that they better get some extra. But the TP story brings up one of our culture’s major living room elephants – our worship of individualism. Me first. I gotta be me. Do your own thing.

When I studied counseling psychology, we had a unit on “cross-cultural differences,” to learn not to project our biases onto people from other cultures or sub-cultures where identity rests as much on family and community membership as it does on our northern European focus on individuation. Without such training, we would have been ready to put labels like “enmeshed” and “codependent” on anyone who didn’t regard “self-development” as the pinnacle of psychological development.

Fun Fact: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, the bible of mental health or its lack in our culture grew out of a study commissioned by the Marine Corps after WWI. They sought a personality test to filter out those who were most at risk of shell shock. In other words, our mental health norms in this country  are based on the attributes of a good combat soldier. Think about that for a while… Continue reading

2020 Notes 1

Fair Oaks Park, February

February was warm and bright, and I got out regularly to walk the dogs in the local park. It was the finest early spring I could remember, although it struck me that the only other place I’ve experienced such warmth so early in the year was Phoenix, and that suggests a hot summer.

By early February, or certainly mid-month, everyone who was paying attention knew the corona virus was coming, and it was going to be serious. I certainly didn’t anticipate the force of the shock when it hit our shores, but during those sunny walks, I had the sense that this was going to change our world in profound ways. I think lots of people, over the last few years have understood on some level that we’ve been living in a house of cards. I suspect that much of the fear and anger that fill the air derives from this understanding, even if we didn’t quite grasp it consciously.

I thought of what I have read of the prelude to another world changing event. By all accounts, the spring and early summer of 1914 in Europe were the most beautiful that anyone then living could remember. One of the best histories of that period is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman wrote another fascinating history of another period that changed the arc of world civilization, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Fourteenth century Europe was ravaged by climate change, never-ending war, and pandemic which triggered the collapse of medieval culture. I am not making this up!

The century opened with two decades of cold, now known as “the little ice age,” which caused widespread famine. The “Hundred Years War,” continued through the century, and in several outbreaks, bubonic plague killed a third of the world’s population.

At this moment, 20 years into the new millennium, no one knows how this century will end beyond the absolute certainty that the way of life we have known will be but a memory.

*****

Yesterday afternoon, Mary and I left home on the important mission of picking up her birthday cake (it’s tomorrow) at Baskin Robbins and having some ice cream while we were at it. I had to laugh when I heard “Love Me Two Times,” on the audio track. The Doors were way too subversive when to play in an ice cream shop when they first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago!

But who knows? I have no idea when I’ll next be able to get a haircut, so my true colors as an aging hippie may soon be revealed!

James Hillman – on Changing the Object of our Desire

Watching this video in which Hillman so clearly shines a light on the core issues of so many of our current crises, it is hard to realize he left us 2011. It makes what so often passes for journalism and analysis of events seem trivial…