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This article was originally published on Reality Sandwich in mid_January of 2013.

On New Years Eve of 1999, artist Daniel Northcott and his friend scaled The Lions, an iconic pair of peaks that rise some 5400 feet above Vancouver, BC. As the first sunrise of the third millennium brightened the sky over Daniel’s beloved hometown, the twenty year old could see with prophetic clarity what he wanted to do with the third decade of his life: he would travel the world with a video camera and the intention to weave a story of global unity, cosmic interconnection, and wonder. Along with video footage, he would collect stones, pottery shards, and other relics that reflected what he called “orbicularity,” his unique cosmology based upon circles within circles.

Daniel’s wanderlust had recently been ignited by his first trip abroad. JAfter defiantly leaving high school just one month before graduation, he had spent a semester teaching English in Taiwan with his older sister Erin, an experience that had drawn the siblings closer than they had been in years. Despite differences, Dan and Erin—son and daughter of Canadian folk singer Tom Northcott—shared a love of music, learning, and travel, along with a profound trust in each other that would prove to be fateful.

Of the two, Dan had always been the dreamer. His mother remembers him as a gifted “star child” with an insatiable curiosity and a deep connection to the natural world that compelled him to roam barefoot through the forests and meadows surrounding his rural childhood home. Even when his Y2K epiphany took him further afield to Egypt, Cambodia, Guatemala, Japan, and dozens of other countries, the self-described “tragic romantic nomad and existential documentarian” preferred to walk with the damp earth beneath his feet and the warm sand between his toes. His greatest wish was to reconnect all of humanity with the Earth, and to expose the half-hidden patterns that permeate the universe and bind everything together.

So intense was Daniel’s fascination with symbolic forms that it led him to tempt fate and provoke the gods. After seven years of traveling and filming, Dan found himself on the Yucatan peninsula, in an ancient Mayan burial cave, amidst the remains of women and children who had been killed in ritual sacrifice. “Those bones are charged with bad vibes,” his friend warned. “People who have taken these bones home…have gotten sick.” Unfortunately, Dan had already become captivated by a small, calcified sphere that represented his orbicular worldview. He couldn’t resist the urge to drop the bone into his pocket, surreptitiously.

It would be the last souvenir Daniel would collect. Months after returning from Mexico, he was diagnosed with leukemia—cancer of the bone marrow—and given three to six months to live. During that time his body grew weaker, but his spirit remained strong, as did his will to live and to find and return the bone on his way to finishing his epic film. With characteristic openness and bravery, Dan documented in raw detail his struggle with mortality. His hope for recovery lasted until the end, which came on the summer solstice of 2009, eleven months after his diagnosis and six months before his 30th birthday. As per his request, he was given a green burial, wrapped in a simple cotton shroud.

In his will, Daniel bequeathed over 1000 hours worth of unedited film footage to his sister, along with a request to finish his as-yet-untitled opus. Despite assurances from Dan that her intuition would direct her, Erin was so overwhelmed that nearly three years passed before she felt ready to take on the project. When she did, however, the pieces began to fall magically into place. Through a producer friend in Los Angeles, Erin connected with Ojai-based Elevate Studios, whose founder Mikki Willis was moved to tears by what he saw and learned about Dan and his vision. Soon thereafter came the title, which had been hidden in plain sight at the end of Dan’s final film sketch and woven throughout his life: Be Brave.

It was a message that Erin herself needed to hear. In another synchronicity of the time, she found the mysterious bone that may have ended Dan’s mission and life. Instead of destroying it in turn, however, the family decided to honor Dan’s desire to return the bone to its initial resting place. Shortly after the long-awaited winter solstice of 2012, Erin left Vancouver for the land of the ancient Maya with a small film crew and a deep desire to finish what her beloved brother had started.

The rest of the story remains unwritten.

Before his passing, Dan predicted that “a bunch of allies would come together to complete his film.” Perhaps he foresaw the talented Elevate team, or maybe he imagined hundreds of like-minded people from all over the world. The project is now being crowd-funded through Indiegogo, where Erin and her family hope to raise $183,000 to edit and market the film. If you feel moved by Dan’s story and inspired by his message, please consider contributing to the campaign to turn the late filmmaker’s dream into a reality.

“The film I want to make in the future will speak every language, cross every country, all of time, and make the journey personal to anyone who watches it. Please help me… Join me and learn what you already know, once and for all. We are the same. We share the same origin. The same apparatus… flesh, bones, blood.”

Postscipt: The indiegogo campaign was successful in raising the required funds. The Elevate team is now working on the film with hopes to complete it by the end of 2013. Stay tuned!


The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 29, 2013.

Surely you’ve heard about the “law of attraction.” It has appeared in many guises since at least the middle of the 19th century, when the movement known as New Thought first swept America. Another big wave hit in the early 20th century, when books like The Science of Getting Rich made explicit the connection between positive thinking and material wealth. If you buy into the 2006 movie The Secret that most recently popularized positivity, the law of attraction has been known and safeguarded throughout history by towering figures like Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, and Lincoln.

Frankly, I hope you don’t buy into The Secret and its dubious claims. Both the film and the book have been widely criticized for promoting materialism, victim blaming, and a political passivity that ignores or dismisses the deep flaws in the system. The suggestion is that if you’re poor or otherwise beset with misfortune, it’s basically your fault. If this loopy logic sounds familiar, that’s because it’s frequently espoused by Christian conservatives.

Which raises the question of why the law of attraction has been embraced by so many New Age liberals. Granted, the prescription has shifted from thinking positive to cultivating a “mentality of abundance,” and the focus is often extended beyond money to include meaningful work and loving relationships. Still, judging from the number of books and expensive seminars on the subject, the “think and grow rich” notion remains alive and well, especially among those who are already quite wealthy by global standards.

According to the Census Bureau, median income in the US is about $30,000 per person. This might sound fairly modest until we consider that half the world lives on less than $2.50/day (about $900/year), while a quarter live in “deep poverty” on less than half of that. The usual response to this disparity is to advocate raising the standard of living for people in poorer countries, and rightly so. But few folks in the so-called developed world would be willing to consider lowering their own standard of living. In fact, the resounding chorus of capital sings incessantly of economic growth, while most us either absentmindedly hum along or single-mindedly chant the mantra of “more money.”

The question rarely asked by moguls and manifestors alike is how much is enough? Well, thanks to author and activist David Ulansey, we can calculate an actual dollar amount by dividing the Gross World Product (about $80 trillion in 2011) by the number of people on Earth (~7 billion) to arrive at a figure of roughly $12,000 per year per capita. Since this GWP figure is already adjusted for purchasing power, 12K marks a particular standard of living in the US and its equivalent in other countries, NOT what that amount would buy elsewhere. Based on an equal distribution of wealth, then, 12K/yr is the amount to which each human being is entitled, meaning that a higher income involves taking more than one’s fair share. Ulansey is more blunt, stating that “any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery.”

The kicker is that this amount is already unsustainably high for planet Earth, which has been in resource overshoot since 1986. Since then, humanity has been living off of its ecological credit card, taking about 130% more than can be replaced, essentially borrowing if not stealing from future generations. Accounting for this overshoot as well as the increasing global population, the figure in question should be more like $6000/yr. This is the acceptable level both ethically and ecologically, given that the more money you make, the more resources you consume. Collectively, we Americans use about 1/3 of the world’s resources, yet comprise only about 6% of the global population.

Thus most Americans, rather than increasing their means, need to decrease them, in many cases dramatically so. This is the secret law of attrition. It’s a secret not only because most folks don’t know about it, but also because they don’t want to know about it. By and large, we have become so attached to our material comforts that we can scarcely imagine living without them. Little do we realize that our possessions have come to possess us, that our houses are like so many prisons built upon foundations of scarcity and fear.

Although based on compassion, the law of attrition is not about making some difficult and noble sacrifice but about extending the concept of wealth beyond the material realm into the natural, social, artistic, and spiritual realms. It’s about shifting from quantity to quality, and from making a living to making a life, along with the time to enjoy it. It’s about actually embodying the maxim that less is more, and about finally learning the lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions that the key to happiness—the true secret, if you will—lies not in getting but in giving, not in having but in sharing, not in holding on but in letting go.

The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 1, 2013

Note: The following exercises are intended for advanced practitioners who have cultivated a thick skin-encapsulated ego and an understanding of satire.

First, find a comfortable position in life that allows you to spend hundreds of dollars per month on yoga classes, kombucha, raw cacao, and superfood smoothies, resting quietly in the illusion that doing so will preserve your youth and good looks indefinitely.

While taking a few deep breaths, obsess about your first world problem of having to park four blocks from the yoga studio, which made you have to walk by that homeless guy who always asks for change when what he really needs is inner transformation to help him to cultivate an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.

Begin your formal “me time” by standing in tree pose in front of a full-length mirror. Open your awareness to just how awesome you look in your new yoga gear. While inhaling and lengthening your spine, bend over backwards to justify spending more on a pair of pants than the average Kenyan family spends on food in a month, bearing in mind the importance of moisture-wicking material that flatters your form so perfectly.

While sitting in half lotus in front of the mirror, see yourself as a living god or goddess. Press your palms together in Namaste and bow three times to your reflection while chanting your own name, or the name you would prefer to be called, such as Mahatma, Morpheus, Chrysalis, or Shamanica.

Allow your eyes to close gently. In your mind’s eye, visualize your favorite Hindu deity from among the three or four that you know. That elephant guy will do nicely. Imagine him spewing a fountain of golden light while you emit from your heart chakra your deepest intention: to cultivate inner peace and tight abs that will be the envy of everyone who sees you on the cover of Yoga Journal someday.

Form the “no evil” mudra by gently putting your thumbs into your ears and using your fingers to cover your eyes. From within your peaceful bubble, spend as much time as possible not thinking about poverty, war, racism, sexism, imperialism, global warming, mass extinction, injustice, inequality, white privilege, and other things that bum you out. Keep your thoughts focused on the positive, like how much fun you’re going to have at that yoga retreat in Bali next month.

Raise your right arm above your head and bend at the elbow to reach behind your back. Using your left arm to pull your right elbow downward, pat yourself repeatedly on the back for being so conscious and so dedicated in your spiritual practice.

Reward yourself with a decaf soy mocha latte from Starbucks. Consider getting something healthy like fruit, but opt instead for a cinnamon roll because dammit, you deserve a little self-indulgence now and then.

The following review was originally published on Reality Sandwich on February 22, 2013 as part of a “Top Ten” article.

To rock fans, Brian Eno is known as a producer for U2, Taking Heads, Depeche Mode, Coldplay, and a host of other bands, whereas electronic music aficionados know him as the self-described “non-musician” who coined the phrase “ambient music” and who was instrumental (pun intended) in defining the genre. After a short stint with the glam band Roxy Music in the early 70s, Eno embarked on a solo career that quickly veered from quirky pop songs into experimental soundscapes “designed to induce calm and space to think.”

Indeed the best thing about good ambient music is that it is mentally and emotionally unobtrusive. Unlike most music, it’s less about generating a particular mood than providing a space into which one’s current thoughts and feelings can flow. As music that Eno insisted “must be ignorable as it is interesting,” it can be listened to (psycho)actively or heard passively as background music. This was certainly the intention behind Eno’s most famous ambient release, subtitled “Music for Airports” (1975), which was in fact played at LaGuardia for a time during the 80s. In my mind, the four-song album could have been called “Music for Yoga,” as I have found it especially conducive to ritual relaxation and even for meditation. If silence is golden, then ambient gets the silver.

If I had to choose a single transcendent track, it would have to be “Thursday Afternoon” (1985), one of the first recordings ever to take full advantage of the then-fairly-new CD format. Clocking in at almost exactly 60 minutes (again, ideal for a yoga session), the composition incorporates a handful of sparse piano and droning synth loops of varying and unsynchronized lengths that overlap in ever-shifting ways. The loops also vary in volume throughout the piece such that the piano notes recede gradually from foreground to background. In contrast to Eno’s darker ambient albums like On Land and Neroli, Thursday Afternoon is relatively light and airy. In my mind, it will forever be associated with the smell of Nag Champa and the delicious feeling of free-flowing prana and mental quiescence.

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich on February 1, 2013.

Don’t be fooled by the cheerful yellow cover, by the New Age-y words in the title, or by the huge sign above the display that says “Revolutionize Capitalism.” Just take a look at the first endorsement on the first page, which reads, “Conscious Capitalism is a welcome explication and endorsement of the virtues of free-enterprise capitalism—properly comprehended, there is no more beneficial economic system…” and you’ll properly comprehend that the new screed by Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey and co-author Raj Sisodia is about as revolutionary as a lazy Susan filled with fantastically overpriced GMO corn chips.

In the introduction, Mackey confesses that before cofounding Whole Foods Market in the late 80s, he had “drifted into progressivism,” grown his hair, and worked at a food co-op under the banner of “food for people, not profits.” He then experienced an “awakening” in which he discovered that capitalism was “fundamentally good and ethical.” His transformation was catalyzed, predictably, by the books of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and other neoliberal prophets of profit who consider altruism immoral and dream of drowning government in the bathtub.

Revolutionizing capitalism would entail abolishing the Fed, overhauling the global banking system, prohibiting usury, strictly regulating Wall Street, and abandoning GDP and other metrics that demand endless and therefore destructive economic growth. At the very least, it would require ending the ability of corporations to externalize costs, i.e. pass them on to the public and the environment. Needless to say, Mackey doesn’t suggest any of these measures. Instead, he defies his more heartless heroes by advancing a kindler, gentler capitalism that embraces purpose, considers the wellbeing of employees, customers, and communities, and focuses on the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits. Mackey’s nod to Gaia would be laudable if it weren’t so laughable, coming as it is from a climate change denier. For the record, Mackey also hates unions and Obamacare, likening them to herpes and fascism, respectively.

If Mackey is conscious of anything, it’s that capitalism is on the defensive these days; thus his attempt to “change the narrative” and inspire in his readers an epiphany akin to his own regarding the “heroic spirit of business.” In the first part of the book, he waxes prosaic about how capitalism has “transformed the face of the planet [much for the worse, unfortunately] and the complexion [interesting choice of words] of daily life for the vast majority of people.” In another example of organic cherry picking, Mackey hails the flourishing of democracy under globalization, ignoring the many instances in which democracy and capitalism have found themselves at bitter and often very deadly odds (see especially The Shock Doctrine for devastating details).

Towards the end of the book, Mackey attempts to counter the anticipated argument that his book is little more than a “lipstick on a pig.” I would contend that “conscious capitalism” is a much bigger and more dangerous oxymoron, more like a T-rex in a tutu who wants to kindly and gently destroy everything you’ve ever loved.

Don’t buy Mackey’s ruse. In fact, don’t buy anything at Whole Foods if you can help it. Shop at your local farmer’s market and bank at your local credit union. It’s high time to starve the beast of modern capitalism, or at least deprive it of oxygen until it becomes as unconscious as its faithful servants.

Movie Review: Chasing Ice

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich on December 14, 2012.
In the modern West at least, seeing is believing. Therein lies the power of “Chasing Ice,” a multi-award-winning documentary that follows nature photographer James Balog on a heroic quest to document glacial melting in the Arctic. While trekking with bad knees and a small crew to some of the most unforgiving locations in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska to install dozens of time-lapse cameras, Balog himself turned from skeptic to true believer upon seeing the rapidly shifting icescape with his own eyes. Even more revealing were the images that the project (dubbed Exteme Ice Survey) yielded over several years, which clearly show the targeted glaciers retreating faster than anyone could have imagined.

Thanks to Balog, we no longer have to imagine. His time-lapse sequences comprise the centerpiece of the film, and of the presentations he now gives to slack-jawed audiences throughout the world. Temperature graphs have their place, but there’s something visceral about seeing unfathomably huge and ancient mountains of ice disappear in a matter of seconds. In one the film’s most stunning clips (see below), a glacial chunk the size of Manhattan rumbles, ruptures, lurches, and crumbles into the ocean, in real time. Along with these gut-wrenching images, the film provides a rare glimpse into the breathtaking beauty of the Arctic, of its unique sculptural forms, its blue-hued shifting shadows, and shimmering displays of borealis light.

Speaking of light displays, Christmas is just around the corner. If you have loved ones who continue to deny global warming in the face of increasingly frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, tornados, and hurricanes, then you have an opportunity—if not a moral responsibility—to buy them a one-way ticket to reality, courtesy of Jim Balog and company. Tell the relatives that “Chasing Ice” is a must-see holiday movie. Bonus points if can convince the whole family to walk, bike, or take the bus to the theater.

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich on November 9, 2012.

moneyless manifesto
While reading the free, online version of Mark Boyle’s new book, The Moneyless Manifesto, I compulsively clicked over to my Facebook feed only to see the image of a presumably homeless man holding a tattered cardboard sign reading: “Keep your coins. I want change.” It struck me how this clever meme could well be the motto of Boyle himself, a UK resident also known as the Moneyless Man for having written a book by that title while living without a pence to his name—on purpose, mind you.

Coincidentally, Boyle went moneyless in 2008, the year of the Wall Street crash that brought the subject of money front and center in the collective consciousness, with many people wondering, “Where did it all go?” and others asking, “Where did it come from in the first place?” The weird wizardry and inherent injustice of money creation has been covered by countless YouTube videos including the Zeitgeist films of Peter Joseph, while the deeper questions about the unnatural nature of money have been eloquently addressed in books like Debt: The First 5000 Years (David Graeber) and Sacred Economics (Charles Eisenstein), both of which are referenced in The Moneyless Manifesto.

Indeed the book begins with a foreword by Eisenstein, followed by a careful unearthing of the assumptions that support what Boyle calls the money delusion, including the root belief in a separate, independent self. Like Eisenstein, Boyle explains why money is so destructive to the social fabric and the web of life and maintains that money is simply a story, a shared illusion. But he boldly goes a step further than most by unraveling the restrictive yarn that money is a necessary evil, something we all need to survive. And he does so by way of quiet example, not just surviving but thriving—reconnecting to the rhythms of nature, to the gifting spirit of others, and to his own peace of heart-mind by living a money-free life.

For those interested in doing the same, Boyle advocates an incremental approach that he ingeniously describes as a Progression of Principles towards a truly moneylesseconomy, defined by Boyle as one based on gifting, local resources only, and a pay-it-forward attitude. Here he reveals his Luddite leanings by eschewing imported gadgets and dismissing techno-utopian solutions like those advanced by the Zeitgeist films and the Venus Project. Like Derrick Jensen and others, Boyle regards agriculture as a massive mistake from which humanity is still trying to recover, and insists that our only hope lies in reconnecting to our Paleolithic—or at least preindustrial—past. As an ecologically engaged Buddhist, I’ve long imagined a middle path, although I’m encouraged to reconsider this as a delusion tied to my addictions to modernity.

Boyle’s path, which he prefers to tread barefoot, is beautifully earthy: “I believe that the depth of your spirituality is revealed by the ways in which you attain and eat your food, create fire, how gently you walk in Nature…” In the latter part of his book, Boyle gets pragmatic by describing the many methods of meeting one’s needs for free, from labor and materials to housing, food, water, heating, transportation, clothing, communication, education, and health care (an especially tricky area, like land acquisition and use). He lists the growing number of free-sources like Freecycle, Freegle, Couchsurfing, and dumpster diving (called “skipping” in the UK), as well as the moneyless (but not technically free) exchange programs like Help Exchange, WWOOFing, time banking, and Local Exchange Trading Systems. Especially inspiring is the gifting network founded by Boyle himself, Freeconomy, which is based on unconditional giving—no credits, no recordkeeping, simply a cadre of kind souls offering over 500,000 free services in over 160 countries throughout the world.

I should note that Boyle is not the only brave person to quit currency in recent decades. In fact, his moneyless stint falls far short of that of Daniel Suelo (living free since 2000), Jurgen Wagner (since 1990), and the woman known as Peace Pilgrim, who spent 28 years walking across the US and in fact served as an inspiration to Boyle. Whether viewed as misfits or mythical heroes, these people show us that a moneyless life is indeed a viable option. It might not be everyone’s cup of wild nettle tea, but for those of you who feel called to live without lucre, I encourage you to read The Moneyless Manifesto, forego the cold comfort of cash, and be the change you wish to see.

The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich sometime in mid October, 2012.

Why isn’t everyone dressed in amazing costumes and giving away food, gifts, back rubs, heartfelt hugs and compliments? Why can’t I ride around on a giant mechanical octopus that shoots flames? How come nobody is dancing in the streets? Why do I have to *pay* for things? Why are people doing things they don’t really want to do? Why is the default world so ridiculous, in the worst kind of way?

These were the burning questions that filled my mind and appeared on my Facebook page after my return from Black Rock City (more specifically, after unpacking, sleeping for what seemed like three days straight, and gradually recovering my capacity to think in a semi-logical fashion). I was having a hard time making sense of the default world and understanding why I should participate in it. Indeed, it struck me as exceptionally weird that anyone would want to take part in the mind-numbing, soul-crushing, earth-ravaging, life-denying enterprise called modern techno-industrial culture. Inasmuch as I was able to maintain a consistent thought, it was this: What, exactly, is the point of it all?

It didn’t help that my period of reintegration and recovery coincided with the Democratic National Convention, at which speaker after speaker spouted the same jingoistic affirmations of American exceptionalism and promises of economic revival. Although several folks acknowledged global warming as genuine threat, nobody seemed to understand that on a planet with finite resources, economic growth is the not the solution but the problem. As Chris Hedges points out in a recent article, to believe in continued economic expansion amidst continued ecological failure is to embrace a delusion—a pathological one, I might add.

The closest anyone came to speaking truth to power was when the economist and senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren asserted that the system is rigged. She was referring, of course, to the unfair advantages enjoyed by the 1% through tax cuts and loopholes, corporate welfare and subsidies, full-time lobbyists, and the ability to purchase politicians and thus undermine our supposedly democratic system. But despite Warren’s candor—not to mention the sincerity of the FLOTUS, the warm vegan glow of Bill Clinton, and the usual confidence of the POTUS—no mention was made of capitalism as a whole being a rigged game that inevitably increases economic disparity between the haves and have-nots. Doubtless this would have quieted the chants of “USA!” and “Four More Years!” from those who seem to want a bigger slice of the American pie rather than a brand new recipe.

Then there was this CNN video clip of Tea Party chairperson Amy Kremer, who tried desperately to make the case that Obama doesn’t love America “the way we do” (the “we” apparently referred to conservative WASPs, although Kremer refused to clarify). Her central claim was that Obama has “a global…a global…oh, what’s the word?” She seemed to be groping for the word “perspective,” although she might have preferred the sinister-sounding term “agenda.” Eventually Kremer clarified that this one-world outlook of Obama represents an evil that cannot be tolerated. Evidently Romney and the Tea Partiers inhabit an alternate reality in which there exist multiple worlds—presumably red and blue, American and un-American, Christian and anti-Christian, freedom-loving and freedom-hating, etc. This myriad worlds notion might be laughable if it weren’t just a variation on the theme advanced by both parties that the earth can and must provide unlimited economic growth for the benefit of a single species—a small percentage of our species at that.

Apart from being delusional, proponents of this idea never bother to address the fundamental question posed earlier: What’s the point? Why is unlimited growth a good thing? The obvious answer that it can only be beneficial inasmuch as it contributes to human happiness, while the obvious realization is that it obviously isn’t working (and not just because the working class isn’t working). One need not consult the depressing statistics on depression; signs of unhappiness are painfully apparent everywhere. Indeed one of the biggest challenges of my return from Burning Man was precisely this realization that very few people in the default world seemed genuinely happy.

Not that I was particularly surprised, having experienced this aspect of culture shock many times now, whether post-Burn, after each of many voyages abroad, or in the wake of various inner journeys. In fact, my contention is that the current global system—let’s call it Calvinist corporate capitalism—not only fails to foster human happiness, it is actively antagonistic to it. If you happen to be happy, it isn’t because of the system but despite it; you have managed to avoid being indoctrinated and infected with the addictive grasping after more and more—more money, more possessions, more power, more pleasure, more praise. Perhaps you’ve learned that the “pursuit of happiness” is an oxymoron, that contentment (not bland “good enoughness” but scintillating joy) is not something to chase after but to allow. It does not exist somewhere in the future and cannot be found out on the ever-receding horizon of “progress,” but can only happen in the here and now.

Despite all the recent books and expensive seminars on the subject, happiness is actually quite simple. The primary components are decent health, a sense of security, of community, and of meaning. Unfortunately, all of these basic human aspirations are thwarted by global capitalism, which feeds us GMO and junk food, promotes warfare and competition above human welfare and peace, converts natural wealth into “goods” and connection into commodity (i.e. “services”), and defines individual purpose as the capacity to consume or otherwise contribute to GDP. By contrast, Burning Man strengthens community and trust through cooperation and gifting. By providing a break from corporate culture and advertising, it allows us to see that the American dream is indeed an empty fantasy, mainly because life is more about giving than getting. Last but certainly not least, Burning Man reminds us that nothing is permanent.

So if you’ve been wondering why all those dusty people in all those Facebook pictures are smiling like there’s no tomorrow, it’s because in that world—dare I say the real world—there isn’t.

America the Addicted

The following article was originally published on The Mindful Word on November 12, 2012.

Uncle Sam Addicted to Oil
Soon after his awakening, the Buddha gave what would prove to be his most popular and enduring teaching, known as The Four Noble Truths. After first establishing suffering or stress as intrinsic to life, the Buddha then posited the root cause of this dis-ease as tanha, meaning “thirst.” More common translations of this ancient Pali word are attachment, craving, clinging, and grasping.

Although each of these interpretations comes close, none of them quite hits the mark. First of all, thirst is generally a healthy desire, especially in our chronically dehydrated culture. (Have you had your eight glasses of water today?) “Attachment” works better, except that there are healthy forms of attachment, such as love between mother and child. Cravings are usually unhealthy, though they may also indicate a nutrient deficiency. And while grasping and clinging definitely cause distress, these tendencies are so common and subtle as to be mostly undetectable.

As I see it, the best diagnosis is “addiction.” If not the most accurate translation, it’s certainly the most applicable to our modern industrial culture in general, and to America in particular, where highly addictive drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are perfectly legal and widely available. (Meanwhile, many non-addictive substances, some known to actually cure addictions, carry long prison sentences.) Topping the list of socially sanctioned, addictive drugs are prescription painkillers, which have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Our country’s obesity epidemic bespeaks an addiction to unhealthy convenience foods, many of which are engineered to keep us hooked. Our collective addiction to shopping is evident in the fact that the US comprises only 5% of the planet’s population yet consumes about 1/3 of its resources. Our addiction to TV keeps us glued to the set for almost 6 hours a day on average, and the time spent staring dumbly at our smartphones and computers is steadily increasing.

Yet these are just our most obvious addictions, merely symptoms of a problem that goes much deeper. Instead of blaming the victim, we must realize that addiction lies at the very core of American culture. We are, after all, a country predicated on “the pursuit of happiness,” which too often means grasping after fleeting pleasures. This is certainly the message of advertisers, who endeavor to sell us the next trendy gadget designed to fall immediately into obsolescence. Indeed, if consumer culture were to provide us with lasting happiness, it would render itself obsolete.

Is the media to blame? Only partly, for they exist mainly to serve corporations, which in turn exist only to make money, a fact well understood by the CEO who must either remain in the black or be given a pink slip. But the buck doesn’t stop there, because the necessity of profits is dictated by a monetary system based on usury. Due to banks’ ability to charge interest on money created from thin air, there is never enough money in existence to repay debts. This generates the need for GDP to rise exponentially.

Thus at the heart of the system lies a constant demand for more, at any cost. This is the impulse of the addict, who will lie, steal, and even kill in order to obtain the next fix. On the collective scale, the politicians and pundits do the lying, the corporations and banks do the stealing, and the government does the killing—all in the name of maintaining business-as-usual, even in the face of global warming, mass extinction, ocean collapse, continents of plastic, rising cancer rates, decaying social structures, and other crises we are encouraged to ignore.

Addiction is, by definition, unhealthy and destructive. Taken to its extreme, it is suicidal, aligned with what Freud called the death instinct. Apparently, this is part of human nature, but it is not the better part. As members of the Earth community, we are also driven by a strong instinct for life, which includes a desire for growth, healing, and spiritual realization. This is the essence of the Buddha’s third Noble Truth: recovery is possible.

In the realm of addiction, the desire for life often manifests only at death’s door, or at the point of utter despair known as “hitting bottom.” This is where humanity seems to be headed. In some cases, however, the addict is prevented from hitting bottom by an intervention, which on the cultural scale might look like revolution. Unfortunately, interventions and revolutions often meet with limited or temporary success, mainly because the impetus for change originates from an external source and leaves the underlying motivations intact.

In the best instance, the bottom can be raised, as it were, by the addict’s own realization of where his behavior will lead. Not only will it destroy him physically, it will not and cannot bring the emotional security he so desperately seeks. As our spiritual traditions tell us, true and lasting happiness must come from within. Wealth, power, fame, status, good looks, and other externalities that our culture peddles are nothing but fool’s gold—artificial substitutes for the real thing.

Despite what the old ads say, Coke is not the real thing. The real thing, that which we want most and fear most, is intimacy—with others, with our selves, and with our own emotional states, however difficult they can be. Essentially, addiction is a way of avoiding intimacy in all its forms, a turning away from reality. But we have turned away long enough. It’s high time for us to look squarely at our predicament, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our culture and our selves, and to take steps toward true freedom.

“My name is Uncle Sam, and I am powerless over my addictions. My life has become unmanageable…”

11-11-11 and “Thrive”

The following article was originally published on elephant journal on 11-22-11.

Just after 11:11am on November 11th, I posted a Facebook message reading: “We have just passed through the portal.” It seemed like the thing to write, although I actually had no idea what I was talking about. Like many people, I couldn’t help but attribute some significance to that auspicious alignment of ones, and spent the day with my psychic antennae fully extended, hoping to pick up on whatever transmissions might trickle through the noosphere.

As evening approached, I was ready to put the whole triple-eleven meme down for a century-long nap. I’d heard no angelic choir, felt no activation of my DNA, and experienced no shift in consciousness except that provided by Earl Grey. The thing that had most piqued my interest that day was the premiere of an “unconventional documentary” called Thrive: What On Earth Will It Take? that was to be screened in dozens of places in the Bay Area and beyond. The trailer looked compelling, so I headed down to my local metaphysical bookstore with my antennae at half-mast.

The film is the brainchild of Foster Gamble, whose family comprises one half of the Fortune 500 company Proctor & Gamble, who brought us Tide, Crest, Downy, and the anal leakage associated with Olestra. Groomed for business leadership, Foster instead became interested in sacred geometry and profane geopolitics, which inspired him to devote most of his life and inheritance to the making of Thrive. For all his silver spoon slickness, Foster makes a great narrator, speaking clearly and earnestly about his quest to understand why most humans live in suffering, despite the earth’s abundance and our natural capacity to thrive. The question is a salient one, and Foster’s thread of reasoning is surprisingly easy to follow, even as it weaves through free energy technology, ancient aliens, crop circles, international banking, and the global domination agenda, tying them all together in a seamless package.

Along the journey, we encounter such New Age and countercultural icons as Nassim Haramein, Vandana Shiva, John Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Catherine Austin Fitts, John Perkins, Paul Hawken, Amy Goodman, and Barbara Marx Hubbard. The ride is so smooth that I found myself wondering: “Who wouldn’t eagerly climb on board Foster’s truth-seeking, computer generated, toroidal spaceship?” The most obvious demographic, as the movie reveals, is the global elite, those sinister banksters who apparently conspire to keep humanity docile, subservient, and ignorant of its true potential. In venturing down this particular rabbit hole, Foster taps the twisted brain of David Icke, who, while explaining his insightful “problem-reaction-solution” equation of control, comes dangerously close to making his asinine assertion that global warming is a liberal hoax. By giving so much airtime to Icke, the movie treads onto thin ice when it could safely remain on relatively solid ground (assuming aliens can be associated with terra firma).

An even bigger problem, however, is that the movie devotes so much time to the global domination agenda and to a fear-based narrative. Indeed an entire section of the film is spent speculating on what the agenda might be and what its endpoint might look like, invoking a fascist police state engaged in constant surveillance, mind control, violent suppression of dissent, and torture. The section ends with the ominous warning that “there will be nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.” After dragging the audience through his New World Order nightmare complete with clips of goose-stepping soldiers, Foster calmly admits that the future is uncertain, but what is certain is that the domination agenda is based on fear and scarcity. Does he not see the irony, or did he hire a counter-production team?

After spending far too long on Illuminati stuff, the film finally moves on to proposing a set of solutions, most of which would please your average Occupy assembly, such as: abolish the Fed, bank locally, take part in critical mass actions, help keep the Internet open and free, consume independent media, support organic and non-GMO agriculture, reform campaign finance, and invest in alternative and free energy technologies. Just as remarkable as the filmmaker’s prescience is his preparation, as he directs the viewer to a substantial, well-designed, interactive website, which not only allows you to watch the film and “Play it Forward” but highlights the movie’s core themes, documents all of its assertions, and provides a host of resources for people inspired to change the paradigm and save the world.

Despite its shortcomings and overindulgences, Thrive manages to capture the zeitgeist, even more successfully than the movies and movement of that name, with which it can be compared. After flying through the cosmos with a room full of aging hippies and Gen X-ers on 11-11-11, I felt more certain than ever that the long-awaited shift is indeed underway. Hold on to your hats and let go of your hang-ups, because we’re passing through the portal.