Simple Living Archive

Too Smart For Our Own Good

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Last month I linked to an excellent CBC video summarizing the life, work and philosophy of uber-celebrity Eckhart Tolle. Tolle doesn’t really say anything new in his books — I think Richard Moss’ Mandala of Being delivers the same “learn to be Present” message more effectively, and the bookstore shelves are crammed with meditation, spirituality and self-help books claiming to be able to teach you how to do this.

I confess that none of these books ‘works’ for me, though I continue to strive, through a variety of daily practices, to learn to be Present.

What intrigued me about Tolle’s horribly-named A New Earth is that in it he hints at how we humans came to be so un-Present and why it seems so hard for most of us to re-learn Presence.

In both his best-sellers, he tells the story of two ducks:

“After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float along peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive, by thinking, by story-making…[even] years later… [Imagine] how problematic the duck’s life would be if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time.”

Tolle, unlike most writers on Presence, seems willing to credit most non-human animals with the “intelligence” to live (almost always) in the Present, in the Now, except for brief moments of stress. In the model below, which I have developed to attempt to illustrate Tolle’s thesis, wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right side. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted.


By contrast, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left side. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events (real or imagined) — in fact Tolle thinks they are addicted to them. The ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us. Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is developing the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

Implicit in this model is the intriguing idea that, at some point in our evolution (and perhaps also in the evolution of other large-brained creatures like chimps, whales, elephants and ravens), we became too smart for our own good. Our brains, which were evolved by our bodily organs as a feature-detection, non-urgent decision-making and navigation system for their benefit, at some point passed the tipping point at which they developed ego. This is not the same as consciousness — indeed there is a mountain of evidence now that most creatures possess consciousness. Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most Present creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly like the ducks in Tolle’s story, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by, perhaps even addicted to, stress, and our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings whenever stress hits us, absolutely feed on it, to the point they possess us and we become unconscious of what is real, traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and feelings.

In this hellish unconsciousness, we crave attention and appreciation and adrenaline, anything that will give us temporary respite from our egos’ stories and the wrenching emotions that feed them and feed off them. This drives most human behaviours, which is why our species has become, through its inventions of civilization, dysfunctional, disconnected, massively destructive, and unsustainable.

Having explained this, Tolle then takes us through a variety of practices to relearn Presence. Most of them are familiar and, for most of us, I suspect, inaccessible and unhelpful:

  • practice awareness to realize that the egoic mind and pain-body are not “you”
  • don’t “mind” being unhappy, to break the addictive egoic thinking/feeling cycle
  • give: be generous
  • know yourself (i.e. your consciousness, not the “content” of your life — your job, your roles, your possessions, your beliefs etc.)
  • appreciate chaos and complexity (e.g. by spending time in “untidy” nature)
  • accept, don’t “mind” what happens (i.e. don’t label events as “good” or “bad”)
  • don’t “give yourself more time”, but instead “eliminate time”
  • learn to be still, and silent, and appreciate both
  • practice being at once aware (alert) and relaxed
  • become non-resistant, non-judgemental, non-expectant, and non-attached to whatever happens
  • rather than acting or reacting, let “right action happen through you”
  • practice sensing and perceiving without naming, thinking or conceiving
  • be aware of your breathing (and note that this is not the same as thinking about being aware of your breathing; I keep recalling my recent satori experience of waking up at early dawn and seeing nothing but a thick blanket of fog through all my bedroom windows, and then becoming aware of a strange noise and then realizing it was my breathing)
  • practice inner body awareness (sensing/feeling parts and then all of your body “from within”)
  • recognize and resist your attention- and appreciation-seeking (and other ego gratification) behaviours

All easier said than done, and mostly said better by others. I was intrigued that this list resonated quite strongly with my recently published list of Six Principles (be generous; value your time and its passage; live naturally; self-accept; practice being present; let go of stories). I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that Tolle and I have both spent much of our lives oppressed by anxiety and depression.

None of this is particularly new advice, either: The ancient Upanishad wisdom reiterated in Eliot’s Four Quartets put it more succinctly — datta, dayadhvam, damyata — give, empathize, exercise self-control.

Tolle seems to dismiss the human propensity for daydreaming and fantasizing (including, I would presume, activities in virtual worlds like Second Life), and even “falling in love” as forms of unhealthy, “compulsive”, addictive behaviour. He prescribes breathing and other “awareness” exercises as a means to learn to stop such behaviour from “tricking” you into continuing your compulsion, and learning to stop trying to justify it. This seems outrageously dismissive to me: artists, writers, players, lovers, creators, and other imaginers of possibilities may be “addicted” to their (our) recreations, but I see this as no more harmful or “unconscious” than our addiction to eating or sleeping. And a world of Presence without imagination would be, I think, a poorer one.

In the latter parts of A New Earth Tolle becomes, I think, a little carried away with the power of Presence. He appears to claim it can cure depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and lifelong traumas. While I’d acknowledge that stress (which is everywhere in our modern society, and that is no ’story’) is only the trigger for many of our modern illnesses, not the cause, I think it’s arrogant and even cruel to encourage people to believe that these illnesses can be extinguished by what is in essence a mental trick.

Tolle also believes that millions of people are now re-learning to be Present and potentially ushering in a new era of global consciousness (hence the title of the book); I think this is a hyperbolic delusion, and the type of magical thinking that is the last thing we need as we begin to cope with the collapse of our civilization.

But the idea that we have become, as an accident of evolution, too smart for our own good is an intriguing one. If only the remedy for that — thinking less and being more — did not require more intelligence than most of us may ever hope to possess.

This post appeared originally on Dave Pollard's blog, How To Save The World.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, available now.

What Happened When The Oil Ran Out

Monday, September 27th, 2010

(This story/scenario was written as part of the preparation for the visioning exercise for Bowen In Transition, the local Bowen Island, BC chapter of the Transition Initiative, which is helping communities all over the world to prepare for the threat of energy, economic, and ecological collapse, and to transition to a post-cheap-oil, post-global-industrial-economy, post-stable-climate future. The visioning exercise is a collective collaboration to imagine how these crises will affect the local community, and what could be done now and in the near future to prepare for and adapt to these crises and increase local resilience. I’ve written this story because I think there’s a risk that those in my community may significantly underestimate the severity of the challenges the world will soon face, and hence how much work we need to do on our little (4 mile-by-5 mile, 3800 people, three miles west of Greater Vancouver) island to be ready, and to change. They will likely find my scenario too pessimistic, too dire for their liking. We’ll see I guess. I’m not prescribing solutions here, especially as the crises become more complex and start cascading into each other: This is the work that our Visioning Team, and then the Transition Working Groups, will have to do. I’ve therefore left the story unfinished, and if we want it to have a happy ending, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.)

At first we hardly noticed the changes. The price of gasoline went up, but we were used to that. It hit $1.50 and then $2 a litre. Because of the Canadian taxes and the American subsidies, at this point Canadians started flocking across to border to buy it for only US$5.50 per gallon, $1.50 less than what we were paying in Canada.

The Americans then started the first rationing — those with Canadian licence plates were restricted to just four gallons per purchase. It was a bit ironic, considering how much oil was flowing from the accursed Alberta Tar Sands into the US. They were, in a sense, restricting us from buying back our own oil!

We had always expected that the government would just let “the market” deal with the Peak Oil problem. We were told that if there was a shortage, prices would rise, which would both reduce demand and encourage innovation to find new sources for oil, and new alternatives.

But “the market” didn’t help at all. The demand for oil proved to be inelastic, and the rise in prices hardly dinted demand at all. After all, most of us just filed our expense reports with our employers, who reimbursed us for our gasoline costs and then wrote the soaring costs off as a tax deduction. And the low price for oil in the first decade of the 21st century had so suppressed the profitability of new oil exploration, that when the prices skyrocketed all that happened was that governments, short-term thinkers to a fault, yielded to the pressure from corporations (and taxpayers) to deregulate and increase subsidies to Big Coal and Big Nuclear and indemnify them from environmental laws. The “green” alternatives — solar, wind, biothermal — turned out, as George Monbiot had warned in Heat, not to be plentiful enough, no matter what the price, to have much impact on the growing oil shortage.

So we were a bit surprised when the government, despite the howls from corporations and citizens alike, began to introduce rationing. Some of us remembered 1973 and 1979, when, due to constraints of supply from the Middle East, the refineries ran out of oil and gasoline stations, unable to get it at any price, simply shut their doors, regularly, sometimes for weeks at a time. There were long lineups for gas then, but at least we could buy it when we waited long enough, and the price wasn’t too bad either. Heating oil subsidies, back then, were increased to ensure no one froze in the winter.

The first stage of the new 21st century government rationing was a bit like that. We were restricted to how much gasoline we could buy per day, and on which days of the month we could buy it. Tax credits to compensate residents for the doubling of heating oil costs were introduced.

But this time, that wasn’t enough. This time, the drop in oil production and availability wasn’t temporary or political, it was real, an economic fact. The huge surge in Asian demand had pushed OPEC countries to force as much oil as possible out of exhausted wells, and accelerated the collapse of supply when the big wells just ran out, and the technology to find new, more expensive oil supplies proved to be both prohibitively expensive and horrifically environmentally dangerous.

The second stage of government rationing was much more severe. Rationing coupons, like those used in wars and depressions, were printed, and they applied not only to oil but also to selected high-energy-consuming products (some foods, clothing, and household products and most pharmaceuticals, electronics, furniture, appliances, and cosmetics), to all forms of transportation and energy consumption, and to all imported goods, since these required lots of oil to bring to market (NAFTA, already faltering, was an early casualty of Stage 2 rationing).

Given the fierce anti-government sentiment of the time, especially in the US, and the propensity of rich North Americans for buying their way out of (or around) inconvenient regulations, complex avoidance schemes thrived, and a huge black market for these products arose. Much of the outrage over the rationing resulted not from the rationing itself, but from the fact that governments were unable to enforce it equitably. Gasoline pumps had slow-release valves and cutoff timers installed. Thermostats had maximums and minimums set, and rations on daily energy use per household, after which energy was simply cut off for six-hour periods. Mandatory per-employee business travel limits were imposed, along with a 100% surtax on airplane travel.

But abuses abounded, and many citizens openly bragged about how they had skirted the restrictions. In impoverished areas, hidden or inaccessible to government inspectors, illegal gas pumps popped up to exploit the high prices and the desperation of big energy users, and they ignored the rations. Contractors found ways to reset and bypass thermostat restrictions. Counterfeit ration coupons were everywhere. Private airplane and jet owners “forgot” to log passenger information. And with a whisper in the right ear, almost any amount of anything could be purchased, without coupons, from the public used-goods markets that had sprung up (since used goods were exempt) — if one paid enough.

Not surprisingly, it was the poor, the ignorant, the sick, and the honest, who suffered most.

The Stage 1 rationing did not have a major impact on those of us living on Bowen Island, despite our dependence on imports from the mainland for virtually everything we needed to live. There was enough accumulated wealth on the Island to weather the storm. The distance from our Island to the mainland was so small that most of us, even those who commuted to work by car and ferry each day, were not spending all that much on gasoline anyway. And our climate meant that our heating costs, by Canadian standards, were modest and our air conditioning costs negligible.

Stage 2 was a different matter, however.

In addition to rationing all Bowen residents (and visitors) to three round-trip ferry trips per week, Stage 2 effectively doubled the price of the ferry for automobiles, while keeping pedestrian and passenger fares unchanged. It also halved the number of scheduled ferry crossings per week. This was initially cheered by Bowen’s “dark Greens”, but it outraged the 50% of Islanders who commuted daily to the mainland to work, and raised doubts, concerns, and finally protests, that Bowen would end up being abandoned by all except wealthy retirees, because working Islanders simply could not afford to live here anymore.

To our astonishment, while rising supply and drop in demand caused prices for smaller homes and lots on the Island to plummet, losing half their value in two short years, the prices of estate homes and large lots held firm — almost the opposite of what we, in our Official Community Plan, were striving to achieve. We were so small and extraordinary, and the supply of global billionaires looking for idyllic places to retire (and/or launder illegal money) was so large, that the desire for oceanfront mansions on estate lots on our little island never waned.

The businesses on Bowen, faced with an exodus of residents and soaring costs for their products, began to fold. Construction, for years the lifeblood of livelihoods on the island (and of many contractors who worked mainly on the island), came to an almost complete halt. Because so little of Bowen was arable, the soaring price of imported food could not be offset by increased local production. Owners of large (and older, energy-leaking) properties were hard hit by the energy rationing, and many had to shut off parts of their homes over the winter.

A few things helped us cope as the situation deteriorated. The tourist industry stayed healthy, since the two million residents of nearby Greater Vancouver, enjoined from long-distance travel, walked, biked, back-packed and hiked our island in ever-increasing numbers, though most were self-sufficient and bought little during their visits. Much of the smaller-sized property on the island became affordable for the first time in decades. We had sufficient water for our needs, unlike many in the world who relied on importing theirs. We were significantly more physically fit than most North Americans, which helped wean us off our cars as these became unaffordable luxuries, and we had evolved a long-standing culture of generosity. And the exceptional skill, knowledge, imagination and intelligence of Bowen natives was harnessed, largely through the Bowen In Transition initiative, to begin the task of reinventing the Island as a place that was at least somewhat self-sufficient and sustainable, and resilient to whatever was to come next.

Read the full blog post here.

Ten Things To Do When You’re Feeling Hopeless

Monday, September 13th, 2010

Four years ago, when I was young, naive and idealistic, I wrote one of my most popular posts, called Ten Things to Do When You’re Blue. I still kinda like its facile advice, but these days, I’m more likely to feel hopeless than sad, more likely to feel as if nothing is ever enough, as if nothing really makes a difference, as if our whole human civilization is unraveling and there is nothing I or anyone can do about it. It’s a different feeling from sadness, and perhaps it needs a different, more complex set of ideas for coping with it. Here’s what I came up with to that end:

  1. Give up hope: That’s right, get off the hope/despair roller coaster and realize once and for all it’s hopeless! You should have known when a US presidential candidate won an election on a platform of mere ‘hope’ that it was time to give it up. Derrick Jensen explains how and why to get Beyond Hope:

    The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in [Pandora's] box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line… People sometimes ask me, ‘If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?’ The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good… Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation.

    So embrace hopelessness! It’s OK! It makes sense. Read John Gray’s Straw Dogs. He, too, will tell you that it’s hopeless, that “When [the human species] is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.” But that we can, should, must still be intentional, responsible, and joyful.

  2. Explore your gifts and passions with someone you love: Get together with someone you love and tell each other what you really care about, what you have real passion for, and what you think really needs to be done in the world, that you think you could actually contribute to usefully, and would really enjoy doing. Then tell each other what you think each other’s gifts to the world are, the things that other person is, in your view, uniquely good at doing. I bet you’ll feel things starting to shift, in ways that are practical, and intentional, instead of just desperately, uselessly hopeful.
  3. Be good to yourself: If you’ve been reading the previous points, you should now appreciate that it’s perfectly understandable, even sensible, to feel hopeless. We’re fucked, and you know it, but still you’re doing your part, taking responsibility, doing important work to mitigate or help adapt to the hopeless future we all face, right? So ease off. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself a break. Pamper yourself. Have a long hot bath by candlelight, with your favourite music playing. Go for a walk in the moonlight, or sleep under the stars. Play something, or just play around, by yourself or with those you love. Have chocolate by the fire. Celebrate the fact that you’re smart enough, informed enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, to feel utterly hopeless. You have to love that!
  4. Cry (like an elephant): Research suggests that crying is a natural response to stress and grief, with enormous therapeutic value: “Tears aren’t just salt water; they contain leucine enkephalin, an endorphin that modulates pain, and hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, released at times of stress. Tears [might] be the body’s way of flushing out excess stress hormones… a safety valve.” Elephants, with exceptionally large brains and memories, visit the sites of pack-mates’ past deaths or suffering every day for years, to remember and to cry, according to research by Jeff Masson. It’s natural, it feels good, and it’s good for you. So why does our culture not want us to cry when we feel hopeless? Hmmm.
  5. Listen to kids talk about what they care about: Kids are hopeless. By that I mean that, until their parents, peers and the education system brainwash them to start planning and hoping for their future, and living inside their heads, they live in the present, without hope. By listening to them we can relearn what it means to live without the need to hope, to just accept and be.
  6. Learn to be “present” like wild creatures: Like young children, wild creatures don’t live in hope. They too live in the real world, in the present. They have much to teach us about the First Principles of living, hopelessly: Be generous. Value your time. Live naturally. Learn to be present, your own way — meditation, exercise, walks in the woods — whatever works for you. Hope and hopelessness are both about the future. When you are present, neither has any hold on you.
  7. Talk with other hopeless people: We’re all part of the Earth organism, and it’s hopeless for all of us, so acknowledging that and starting to talk about it knowingly and honestly is the first step in making peace with our hopelessness, and with our collective grief. Perhaps it’s time to challenge the taboo in our culture that we must not admit to, or talk about, the hopelessness of our situation, and our feelings of hopelessness. You might start with someone you care about who you haven’t talked with in a long time. Right now, yeah, leave a message if you have to, and persevere. When you do converse, forget about catching up on old news or talking about future plans. Talk about what you’re doing and feeling right now. Including the feelings of hopelessness. Bring them into your present and they’ll bring you into the present in return, and out of the “hopeless” future.
  8. Avoid unactionable news and “self-help” books: The media don’t have a clue, and the “news” is all about what has already happened, dumbed down, sensationalized and oversimplified to the point of meaninglessness. And skip the “good news” pap and the technophiles’ gee-whiz “future’s so bright and green I gotta wear shades” new invention news, too. It’s all designed to make you feel hopeful, so you don’t rise up and do something dangerous or appropriate to the worst of the perpetrators who have, in fact, made everything hopeless. And while you’re dispensing with hopeless reading, throw out all those so-called “self-help” books with their glib prescriptions for you how you should live. There are gazillions of them out there, clogging the aisles of bookstores everywhere. Most of their readers will tell you (even as they buy more of them, stupidly, hopefully): They don’t work! Things are the way they are for a reason. You are the way you are for a reason. Accept what is. Appreciate it. Make peace with it. It’s all good. It’s absurd to hope that some stupid book is going to change it. Donate your “self-help” money instead to those who truly embrace hopelessness, like the local homeless people, or your local food bank, or animal rescue centre, or radical activist group. And when you’re picking what to read, choose poetry and stories about the present, not nostalgic or traumatic stories about the past or cautionary tales about the future.
  9. Dream: Dreams are alternate realities, and they are realities we can create and control. When you give vent to your imagination, it can manifest, ‘real-ize’ wonderful inventions — works of art, with amazing healing, communicating, inspirational and transformative power. Your dreams are clues to your gift to the world.
  10. Fall in love: I have no advice at all on how to do this. All I know is that it works. It’s risky and addictive, for sure, and for most of us its most blissful effects wear off too fast. But nature has given us this wonderful state of foolish, invincible, chemical-induced grace, and it makes us immune to both hope and hopelessness.


elephant weeping at his daily visit to the site where a herd-mate died; from an extraordinary photo essay by roshan patel, published in the journal “the modest proposal”

I will resist the temptation to rant about things I think are dumb to do when you’re feeling hopeless (like praying, or asking others for help), because that would get me into arguments, and arguments on things like religion and psychiatry are worse than hopeless.

So, if you’ve read this list, I trust you are not feeling better.

After all, it is hopeless.