Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Getting beyond delusion to what is really real

Our exquisite blue little planet: the only home we’ve got

"NASA - The Blue Marble" by smiteme is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Observing the recent rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience, a visitor from another planet might diagnosis much of the American public as delusional. So says Nicole Karlis in a recent edition of Salon Magazine.⁠1 After all, a third of all Republicans think the COVOD-19 outbreak is a plot by a powerful elite.  Sadly, eighteen percent of Democrats agree. On top of that, a majority of Republicans believe Trump won the last election, despite no evidence of fraud. 

The only thing Americans  can agree upon  today is that we disagree. 

Are many of us delusional? Karlis says, yes, a large swath of us are suffering from delusional behavior, a condition predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. According to this renowned psychologist, individuals are easily attracted to 'unreal ideas,’ because we aren't as rational as we think we are.

To Jung, Americans were particularly prone to such society-breaking delusions because we are blind to our past; as a result, we don’t have the tools to make mature judgments about the present.  To remedy this, we would have to overhaul our whole educational system.

Toward that end, the educator, Roosevelt Montas, promotes studying Great Books as necessary for everyone to get “a sense of how to decide what your life is for amid all the possible choices before you; understanding that the ethics of how civilizations and power operate is complex rather than reducible to facile binaries and snap judgments.”⁠2

At one time, Montas was in charge of the Great Book core curriculum that I completed during my freshman year at Columbia, back in 1963. Looking back on it now, I see these seminars were a transformative learning experience: sitting around a table several times a week, debating the big questions of life in the company of some of the wisest authors of all time.

Karlis also highlighted another central theme of Jung's work: society can't thrive without a central guiding paradigm. Studying Great Books can also  help here, shining a light on the dynamics of how civilizations change over time. One learns that Christianity provided a stable underpinning for the West for over a thousand years until the Renaissance emerged, putting reason over faith; then, in the late 19th Century, modernism arose, predicting that industrialism and technological advances would improve life for everyone.

Faith in technology was still ascendant when I was growing up, as I once wrote about in my blog: “During that time, science was next to godliness; we wholeheartedly supported its quest to unravel the mystery of life while making life a breeze for all of us. A senate committee in the 1960s projected that as a result of improved technology, the American workweek would be reduced to 14 hours by 2000. And scientists predicted we would soon have unlimited atomic power “too cheap to meter.” 

Sadly, those rosy predictions ran aground on the shoals of capitalism. Instead, working folks are slaving away for many more hours to earn a smaller paycheck on a treadmill that moves faster each year; meanwhile, inequality between the haves and the have nots continues to rise, while the cost of everything has skyrocketed. In addition, rather than basking in paradise, we now face toxic pollution, pandemics, and the threat of climate change apocalypse.

The bloom is now off the rose, causing unrest and paranoia across the country. Rather than viewing science as our savior, it is now often seen as the enemy. The government, it is said, no longer works for the ordinary person.  Too often, authorities are accused of “just making things up." Rational analysis, based on facts,  is now often ridiculed as the highfalutin, mumble-jumble.

The center no longer holds. 

Our common guiding myth has shattered, like what happened to Humpty Dumpty when he fell off the wall. Some associate this fragmentation with postmodernism, which, for some in academia, means downplaying the idea of universal Truth. Instead, they contend that our world is socially constructed, resulting in multiple truths depending on an individual's background and standing in society.

Jung is correct: finding a path back to reality is crucial to our survival. The question is, divided as we are, is there still a common theme that might unite us. To my way of thinking, a book published back in 1997 points the way: Resurgence of the Real by Charlene Spretnak.⁠3  She calls it ecological postmodernism.

While she acknowledges that some aspects of reality are socially constructed, the essential parts that make us human are really real: the innate wisdom of our bodies, our sense of place, and Nature Herself. These truths, spelled with a capital 'T,' could be the basis of a new paradigm, replacing the groundlessness of today with "the groundedness of bodily, ecological, and cosmological processes."

I guess some would call this a new religion celebrating the Earth, but nothing about it is new: indigenous peoples around the world have been practicing it since the dawn of time.



1 ttps://


3 The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in the Hypermodern World by Charlene Spretnak

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

To see the world in a mud puddle

“Finding Infinity in a Mud Puddle."
CC Jean Stimmell

A note to the reader: I wrote the following essay in  response to a Monitor article from last week. In no way do I mean to detract from the joy and sacredness of  this Christmas  holiday which I savor as much as anyone

To see the world in a mud puddle

Some might call me a heathen for rejecting established religion. At least  I’m not alone as I found out from an article in the Monitor last week: What’s your Religion? In US, a common reply now is “None’”⁠1 

It turns out, 29% of us are not affiliated; if we were a church, we would be the largest religious group in the United States. Some are atheists, some agnostics, but many, like me, are spiritual. I agree with what one of the unaffiliated folks, previously a Catholic, said in the article: “It just means finding meaning and perhaps spirituality without practicing a religion …pulling from whatever makes sense of me or whatever fits with my values.”

Facing my fourth cancer has  prompted me to look more closely at what makes my life meaningful. While I am comforted and buoyed up by something bigger than myself, it is not that bearded, old, white man in the sky. My spirituality, instead, comes from my Buddhist outlook coupled with my identity with Mother Earth.

Nevertheless, I still experience sacred moments with a sense of awe. For instance, just centering my breath on the present moment can induce a sublime sense of oneness, causing an involuntary smile to spread across my face: I am not my puny self anymore but tethered securely within a living Earth and the cosmos beyond.

I’m attracted to Buddhism because it provides a pathway toward living a meaningful life, not by worshipping a supreme being but by coming to terms with who I am within an impermanent world. It is now paying dividends by helping me deal with the uncertainty of my medical prognosis. Like being drenched with a bucket of ice-cold water, cancer has woken me up to the present moment,

An American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron, said it best: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land. To experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”⁠2

Connected to my Buddhist sensibility is my bond to the Earth. I identify with what  Pablo Casals, the great cellist, wrote about nature’s mastery: “I do not think a day passes in my life in which I fail to look with fresh amazement at the miracle of nature. It is there on every side. It can be simply a shadow on a mountainside, or a spider’s web gleaming with dew, or sunlight on the leaves of a tree.”⁠3

Casals' ability to be present in the living moment was extraordinary, reminding me of William Blake's famous quote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. 

Or this from another of Blake’s poems:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.

I get fleeting epiphanies like this from my photography. I like to carry my camera with me because it forces me to slow down and actually see what is in front of me: a magical shadow on a rock, a hidden world in an ice crystal, or heaven in a mud puddle.

I am secure in my faith now, but as a young man,  I was agnostic or worse. Christian Wiman has written a profound and poetic book: “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” addressing folks who believe in God. I am cheeky enough to think it also applies to me:

When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.⁠4




2 When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön


4 Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 1). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition. Page 10

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

What if rootlessness is the cause of our unease?


Uprooted tree by the Suncook River in  Barnstead NH

We are being uprooted from our ground like trees in a hurricane, separated from our extended family, local community, and the natural world.  Witness the fate of Generation Z, born in the mid-to-late 1990s, who are predicted to hopscotch all around the U.S. in their lifetime, working 18 jobs, spanning six careers, while living in 15 different residences.⁠1  Contrast that with  my  parent’s generation, who often worked their whole lives at one trade while living in the same house in the same community.

It can’t be denied: we have become uprooted from the land where our ancestors were born and died;  where local customs with maze-like connections to our community have withered and died with the rise of interstate highways, TV, and social media; where even the smells of the earth and of the air itself have become a distant memory in the antiseptic suburbia of America that have blossomed like overfed algae since WWII.

Our rootlessness accelerates in pace with climate change, obliterating nature's normal rhythms, which always served as our most reliable guide. Political polarization is undermining the bedrock of what we believe our democracy to be. And now, along comes Covid: Beyond attacking our physical bodies, it is short-circuiting our social habits, which, by their intimate regularity, affirms our humanity by connecting us to our community.

It’s a big deal!

As a retired psychotherapist, environmentalist, and follower of Carl Jung, I believe our roots to the earth – and to each other – are as essential to our survival as food is to our bodies. So you can imagine my delight in discovering a book, Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, by Christy Wampole that examines this subject every which way. It's a limited edition academic tome that cost an absurd amount to buy on Kindle, but I had to have it.⁠2 

I believe we are like trees, except our roots connect to the earth through the sprawling, subterranean networks of our brain. Wampole expresses this notion in academic language: “I claim that the root is not only a powerful figure that represents home, the past, death, memory, and the mother; it is a figure for the subconscious itself.⁠3 

Here are some other musings from her book: “Subterranean life, imagined as the final resting place and a return to the womb of Mother Earth, is subconsciously strived for by all people. Both humans and plants rest in beds.”⁠4 

Traditional cultures,  particularly indigenous ones, can’t comprehend our rootless, free-floating existence. As an example, Wampole writes about the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, who was amazed, after moving to America, that when a baby is born here, the umbilical cord is thrown away.  "In the Congo, it is kept and buried in the soil of home, which remains a permanent place of return. With this symbolic attachment of the child to her homeland, a transfer from the mother’s body to the body of Mother Earth, initiation into life begins with a tethering."⁠5 

What an embracing notion for those of us not traditionally religious who, like motherless children, feel cast out alone into a bleak, postmodern world. The feeling of being forever tethered is a real security blanket. Of course, we have trees.

Look at all the recent, best-selling books touting trees' miraculous, human-like qualities. With each new book, we discover more ways that plants, particularly trees, are like us. But, Wampole says, the most recent scientific research suggests we have it backward: it's not that plants are like us but that it is we who are like plants.

In fact, she says, due to our new love affair with all things digital, we are becoming more plantlike. “In our increasingly vegetative state, in which we access the remote world through a screen, we have taken on something of the plant’s existence, which requires everything to come to it.”⁠6

Wampole concludes by going further afield, erasing the separation between plants and us: “Humans and plants have always been in direct communication via their shared cellular consciousness, which is so intimately and reciprocally attuned that the boundaries between plant and human are dissolved.⁠7


But one thing is for sure: whether tree or human, you can cut off a bunch of our roots, and we will still thrive – but cut a few more, and we will die.




2 Rootedness: The Ramifications of a Metaphor, by Christy Wampole. Kindle Edition

3 ibid.Location 263

4 ibid Location 669

5 ibid. Location 511

6 ibid. Location 1519

7 ibid. Location 5225

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Revising what I was going to write last week

Yin and Yang leaves outside my window in first snow

Last week I started a column contending that, emotionally speaking, events in the 1960s were as disjointed and perilous as the existential angst we face today. My mind had flashed back to those olden days as I cut kindling with my hatchet to start the first fire of  the season with wood I had harvested off my land.

The war in Vietnam War raged. Each day the news reported, like a sports score, how many of the enemy we had killed, as if that number justified the death of many of our brothers and sisters who also became cannon fodder that day. Things flew further out of control as the decade unfolded. 

Our beloved president, JFK, was assassinated, along with his brother Bobby when he ran for office. Tragically, the murders continued to accelerate, not only MLK and Malcolm X but "almost every major national leader of the black struggle in the United States."⁠1 The National Guard was patrolling our streets. Our cities were on fire. Polarization  between pro-war and anti-war Americans reached a fever pitch. It felt like the apocalypse had arrived.

We tried fighting for social and environmental justice; we tried to stop the war any way we could, some of us after fighting in it, but to no avail. Finally worn  out, overwhelmed by events outside our control, we retreated back to the land, looking for solace and simplification in our lives. For many, including me, it was a revelation.

I  found refuge in the  land: it was soothing to my soul to get off the consumer-driven rat race by living as simply and sustainably as I could. My  apprenticeship with the natural world changed my life, teaching me the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. That’s when  the true significance of the well-known Zen saying “Chop wood, carry water” became clear to me.

The origin of this saying goes back into ancient times when a young boy who had become a monk complained to his Abbot that all he did was chop wood and carry water for the monastery. I want to learn, he said.  I want to understand things.

The Abbot replied, “When I started I was like you. Every day I would chop wood and carry water. Like you I understood that someone had to do these things, but like you I wanted to move forward. Eventually I did. I read all of the scrolls, I met with Kings and gave council. I became the Abbot. Now, I understand that the key to everything is that everything is chopping wood and carrying water, and that if one does everything mindfully then it is all the same.'"⁠2

That’s the lesson I wanted to write about, but it got edited by real life: I underwent surgery and discovered I have cancer, again. 

Not surprisingly, this had a sledgehammer impact on me, smashing the words I was going to write so blithely about chopping wood and carrying water. Because of the intervention of real life, it struck me how I was “talking the talk rather than walking the walk.” Or, in Dale Carnegie’s words, I was “dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon.”

This week I can feel the actual prick of the rose thorns in the ouch of my stitches. Now it is real: The chickens have come home to roost, forcing me to ask again: how do you cope gracefully when things go to shit? 

Yes, I can bloviate about watching our ecosystems and societal structures  self-destruct around us. But that is still abstract, different from how it feels when my body is the target, when the comforts of middle-class life and the supportive armor of white privilege can no longer protect me. The question then becomes visceral: what do I do now, coming face-to-face with the grim reaper of old age, illness, and death.

I found great solace in Jon Aaron’s discussion of this in “Finding Joy in Uncertainty.”⁠3 His radical solution is to refine the focus of “chop wood, carry water” – and our entire existence – down to just this breath right now: We can receive each breath with gratitude; we can receive each breath as an opportunity: “Oh, here I am, another moment to be fully present.” Then we can start to see the contrast between conditional joy and unconditional joy.⁠4

It works. I breathe in with joy in this perfect moment, the sun shining through the window, writing to you.






4 ibid

Tuesday, November 23, 2021


"kurt-vonnegut" by Rashawerakh is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I was psyched to see "Unstuck in Time" about Kurt Vonnegut, a new film by Robert Weide and Don Argott. I had devoured Kurt's most famous book, "Slaughterhouse-Five" when it came out in 1969, soon after I got back from serving in Vietnam. As someone who viewed my war as unnecessary, illegal, and immoral, I could identify with his anti-war stance and how he questioned authority. Later, I became intrigued with him for being a wounded warrior, as were my patients, after working in the VA treating veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD).

In  Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator and Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego, both exhibit classic signs of PTSD: inability to sleep, lack of focus, nightmares, and flashbacks. In addition, Vonnegut suffers from moral guilt, a new diagnostic category validated by historical records, detailing such suffering in soldiers going back to the ancient Greeks. Moral Guilt happens when an individual’s values are betrayed, when their sense of right and wrong is violated.

Moral guilt, over time, can eat a soldier up, as it did for Vonnegut in real life. How could it be otherwise: As a Prisoner of War in Germany, he was an eyewitness to tens of thousands of civilians being incinerated as America and its allies fire-bombed Dresden, a city renowned for its culture and art.⁠1  Then, in a nightmarish sequel, Vonnegut and his fellow POWs were forced, on pain of death, to pull out the charred, reeking remains of countless bodies from the smoking wreckage.

Vonnegut's bedrock assumptions about the world being a safe place where good things happen to good people were shattered. Also typical for trauma survivors, his memories of these distressing events were fragmentary.  He labored for more than 20 years, attempting to piece them together, trying to find a language to express what had happened to him but, still, the missing pieces remained too radioactive. His solution came from entering the world of science fiction where Billy Pilgram could be his surrogate, acting out the big picture Vonnegut couldn’t.

Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alto ago, brings to mind another gangly, awkward kid, ill-suited for the military, who had been one of my patients. Like Vonnegut, who moves back and forth in time, I am going to digress and tell this story. 

As too often happens, soldiers least suited for combat, like my patient, are the ones who are thrust into the front lines. One day, out of the blue, his base camp came under an intense mortar attack. Everyone dove for cover, except my patient, who attempted to avoid the rounds exploding all around him by frantically running in circles.

Finally exhausted, he collapsed to his knees, resigned to imminent death. Strangely, at that exact moment, the deafening barrage stopped. That's when he became unstuck in time and morphed into God – at least, that's what he thought happened. He was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and discharged. After that, he was okay most of the time, except when triggered by a sound or scent reminiscent of the mortar attack. Each time that happened, he fell down on his knees and became God again; after which, his civilian doctors remanded him back to the psych ward. So it goes…

Sorry for the digression.  Now back to the documentary, which shows how Vonnegut learned to cope after enduring so much. Learning how to cope in extreme situations is no longer is confined to wars. All of us must master this skill in the uncertain world we find ourselves in today, inundated by multiple scenarios of pending doom: terrorism, insurrection, and climate change – while, at the same time, confronting the negative aspects of our history we thought we had swept under the rug, like slavery, white supremacy, and the genocide of Native Americans.

The horrific trauma Vonnegut suffered during WWII stripped him of any semblance of his former ideals. Yet, he didn't surrender to bitter resentment but transformed himself into a humanist – albeit one with a dark sense of humor – by following a philosophy similar in many respects to Zen Buddhism.

Here, in a nutshell, is his philosophy, spliced together from comments he made in the documentary, highlighting the importance of living in the present: “I mean, this day is as real as any we are going to live…” When are we going to be able to pause for a moment and say out loud, ‘ if this isn’t nice, what is?’…Yet we miss it, looking ahead, hoping for “even better days…forgetting this is all there is.”

So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut, we miss you.




Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Waging War Against War and Climate Change


A rendition I made from a photograph I took of “Fireside Angel” painted by
Max Ernest. To me it personifies the menacing, destructive, chaotic nature of
both war and climate change.
(photograph taken in 2013 at Portland OR Museum)

On Veterans Day, President Joe Biden saluted the nation’s military veterans for being “the spine of America.” As a Vietnam veteran, I respectfully disagree. The real spine of America is our democratic way of life. Our Armed Forces are only a tool toward that end, much like the pistol, a family keeps locked away until needed. 

That used to be the case with our military, as John Buttrick pointed out in last Sunday's Monitor. Veterans were seen as citizen soldiers, just doing their duty, and then standing down; that is until in the aftermath of World War II, when politicians and the Pentagon began morphing every one of us into a warrior, whether we fired bazookas or peeled potatoes. 

Now, the transition is complete; our part-time soldiers have become an ever-present warrior class, permanently manning nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries.⁠1 The cost of maintaining this gigantic force approached one trillion dollars in 2020, 39 percent of total worldwide military spending.⁠2

Such a drain on our national resources erodes the welfare of us all, particularly the most vulnerable, as General Dwight Eisenhower made crystal clear: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”⁠3

On top of that, our bloated military has become one of the biggest culprits in accelerating climate change. In fact, the Pentagon is the single largest industrial polluter globally, causing more greenhouse gas pollution than 140 other nations combined.⁠4 As a result, the Pentagon’s gigantic budget has sucked all the cash from our national coffers desperately needed to combat climate change.

We are facing extreme danger already: The havoc already caused by climate change is the equivalent of being in a war. The latest Quincy Institute report has revealed that climate change has already wreaked more significant destruction, economic disruption, loss of life and property on Americans than anything threatened by China and Russia could do short of a major war.⁠5

Yet, while Biden mouths the words that climate change is an existential threat, the White House’s first priority, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass,  continues to be “gearing up for the emerging great-power face-off with China and Russia.”⁠6 

A more urgent and fundamental problem causing growing conflict worldwide is the rising flood of refugees, fleeing the devastation wrought by extreme weather – climate refugees that are predicted to reach 200 million by 2050.⁠7

One reform suggested in the Quincy report is a "massive reorientation of federal spending toward research and development on alternative energy." As it stands now, we spend $73 billion on military research, 20 times the government's spending on energy research.

Even then, that would only be a drop in the bucket. What is needed now is to think big – really big. For instance: Why not unilaterally inform Russia and China that we are cutting our military budget by 10% this year and request that they do the same. And redirect the savings into helping not only each nation's citizens – but people all around the world –  from the mounting scourge of climate change.

It’s a gamble with little downside. The enemy we now face is relentless and will give no quarter to any nation. If this were an alien invasion from space, mightn’t we shallow our petty disagreements and come together to save the earth. And that’s exactly what’s at stake here!

But make no mistake, it will depend on the will of we, the people. That's because most of the entrenched interests in our country profit from war. Obviously, the military has a vested interest, but so do the thousands of corporations and businesses that make money producing weapons of war – and whose deep pockets reward politicians who support ever-increasing military budgets.  

Both republicans and democrats have been bought off. While blind allegiance to the military may have become the spine of most politicians, as citizens, we must insist that we put democracy first for the sake of freedom and our planet.

Nations worldwide have no choice but to come together as one to wage war against this existential threat. If we fail, there will be no victor – just a destroyed, burnt husk of a planet.





3 DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, speech, Apr. 16, 1953





Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Back to the Future

Taos Pueblo: 1000 years of tradition: A  living Native American Community
Jean Stimmell©2012

The world is made up of stories says scholar David Loy in his book by the same name – and I agree. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, teaching us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.⁠1 

The stories I heard growing up in the 1950s were about “heroic,” white men like John Wayne, who brought law and order to the Wild West,” killing as many Native Americans in the process as he could. It was the white man’s duty: that’s how progress came about. 

It was part of the broader story I was told about human evolution: that humans existed in a “wild man” state, not much different from animals until we settled down and started cultivating crops. This was a turning point in our history: It was agriculture that made specialization, urban life, and the existence of the state possible, “leading to the splendor of civilization.”⁠2

A  contrary story, languishing in the background, was best personalized by Rousseau’s celebration of the noble savage over effete civilization. It came back into vogue again in the 1960s with my generation, who, at least in  our hippy days, yearned to return to a natural way of being, hoping to cast off civilization’s corruption like dog poop off our sandals.

This new, revisionist story had legs; it gained status, at least in part, due to the efforts of two big-name public intellectuals. Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has denounced the agriculture revolution as the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”  And  Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling book, Sapiens, called the agricultural revolution the turning point “where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.”

Nevertheless, Diamond and Harari both sadly concluded we had no choice,  that’s the price we had to pay for progress and all the babbles that come with it: As an inevitable result of settling down in cities, we became specialized, creating different classes of people, resulting in untold riches for a lucky few above and misery for the many below. Aside from the age-old moral and ethical problems associated with this kind of progress, now we face the additional existential threat of climate change if we do not change our ways.

But the story doesn’t end here: This week a new book came our, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow. They demonstrate that our version of civilization is not the only game in town: there are other, better ways.

“Recent archaeological discoveries, they write, show that early humans, far from being automatons blindly moving in evolutionary lockstep in response to material pressures, self-consciously experimented with a carnival parade of political forms.”⁠3

From extensive research, the authors have unearthed countless examples over the last 4000 years of people moving happily from tribal life to civilized cities: Examples of large cities, governed without kings, queens, or all-powerful rulers, where everyone lived in spacious quarters without stratification or the massive inequality. They also provide examples of once stratified cities with all-powerful rulers reversing directions to become more equal and self-governing.

Graeber and Wengrow give us all hope by showing we are not stuck with what we’ve got. Indeed, various models exist thrughout history showing how folks have peacefully lived together in vibrant communities in a sustainable and equal manner without a coercive government. Polls show that’s what Americans want.

And, according to a recent piece in the NYT, the good news is that we may be gaining: “The technology to support less centralized and greener urban environments — appropriate to modern demographic realities — already exists.”⁠4

I’ve written before about a new day dawning around decentralized local control: Farmer’s markets, coops, CSAs, and buy-local campaigns; communities developing their own internet platforms and producing their own energy in local solar farms; conserving open land in the spirit of the old NE idea of the town commons. For a recent example, we need to look no further than concord’s ambitious plan to enlarge public trails, which, in essence, will become a new gigantic new park for the people.

These are all promising embers we need to fan into bright flames to light the pages of our exciting new story.



1 The  World is Made of Stories by David Loy, Wisdom Publishing, Boston 2010 The stories




Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Achieving Flow


CC Jean Stimmell

I noted with great sadness the passing of the man with the unpronounceable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.⁠1 He was influential in my life, along with some of my patients, particularly overly-conscientious, workaholic teachers and business executives who, after studying his book, became more effortlessly productive while rekindling  joy and happiness in their lives.

In this seminal work, written in 1990, he used the term “Flow” to describe the sense of creativity that emerges from an intense absorption in a challenging activity, whether in the arts, sports, business, or a hobby.

 We’ve  all experienced it: being wholly absorbed in the activity at hand, being so involved in it that we lose our our sense of time or even our sense of self. This state of being is what folks are describing when they say they’re in the zone or in the groove. His book was about what makes this happen and how to get more of it.

It's not rocket science, according to him: "Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can." The crucial point is that Flow doesn't just randomly happen; we make it happen.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as totally focused, "completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.⁠2 .”

Deep focus is central to Csíkszentmihályi's notion of Flow, the opposite of that old cliche, "going with the flow," which too often is an excuse for apathy and indifference. When properly understood, Flow is a profound concept integral to spiritual and religious practice.

This notion finds its strongest voice in Taoist and Buddhist traditions. As it is for Csikszentmihalyi, the core idea is not to force or grasp our way through life but instead live life spontaneously, in harmony with the natural order. Rather than doing nothing, it is about connecting to an effortless flow by connecting deeply with what we love. Then we are not doing a task; we are becoming it.

In many ways, as a society, we are going in the wrong direction: In an interview in 1986, he blamed television for the decline in hobbies, avocations, and lifelong education that blend aspects of both work and play. According to him, such pursuits promote Flow and, as a consequence, happiness.⁠3  Unfortunately, if we were to equate the distraction of watching TV in 1986 to having a beer after work, the distraction of the internet today is like mainlining heroin 24/7.

One bright sport is how we as a society are turning on to mindful living, meditation, and paying attention to the present moment. Linda Stone asserts that paying attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. But it all depends on how we use it. We can enhance it with passionate practices, diffuse it  with technologies like the internet, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. But, in the end, we have no one else to blame: "we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.”⁠4  



1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row




Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Solitude, though much-maligned, can be a blissful reset

Solitude on Pleasant Pond in Deerfield

As I wrote in my last column(Monitor 10/24/21): Besieged by a perfect storm of unsettling events beyond my control, I took refuge in solitude. 

Such a course of action can be a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But it can produce a positive function as Buddhist writer, Steven Batchelor, points out, providing the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you.⁠1

Finding space for solitude is getting more difficult because the  internet and social media are intruding into every facet of our lives. Pamela Paul, in her new book, “100 things We’ve Lost to the Internet,⁠2” documents these losses.

By no means does that make our wired world all bad; it has revolutionized communication and taken a lot of drudgery out of our lives. The plethora of news and data I can effortlessly plug into on my phone, updated to the moment, would be beyond Walter Cronkite’s wildest dreams.

 I love the internet for that ability, but it comes at an enormous cost: A whole way of life has been lost, things we thought were timeless. 

As a review in the Kirkus Review stated, From handwritten letters to quiet, unoccupied moments, cursive writing to vacations without work (or email), school librarians to newspapers, LPs to mixtapes to the notion of “closure”—so much we thought eternal is quaintly antiquarian or gone forever.⁠3  Worse yet is how the internet and social media have sullied our character and morality as a nation, orchestrating an alarming nosedive in civility, empathy, and the very notion of what constitutes the truth.

In my personal life, another infuriating downside is the constant buzz of electronic noise, driving me crazy like trying to garden at the height of the black fly season. I’ve had to swat these pests aside for the sake of my sanity. Like Nancy Reagan, I  just said no.

That’s also the core message in Pamela Paul’s new book: We are not puppets: we can make choices – and we must. Especially in our private  lives, we don’t have to adopt every new technology: We can go back to what we used to do before the internet. And for younger individuals, who grew up in the digital age, it’s important to explore alternative ways of being. 

The choices I have made are tailored to my personality. I’m all in with email and search engines but boycott Facebook and Twitter. I avoid texting because the alert ‘beep’ of an arriving message breaks my concentration. Studies have shown that after such a distraction, it takes almost 30 minutes to get back on task – at my age, with memory already faulty, I don’t need that!

Noteworthy individuals throughout history have sought out solitude, not just curmudgeons like me. For instance,  Wordsworth equated solitude with bliss: For oft when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.⁠4

Michel Montaigne, a French lawyer and civil servant, lived in times more deranged than ours,  confronting not only a plague but having to avoid being murdered by warring religious factions. He retreated to his  library to explore what’s really important in life by writing his timeless essays, including this passage: 

We must take the soul back and withdraw it into itself; that is the real solitude, which may be enjoyed in the midst of cities and the courts of kings; but it is best enjoyed alone.⁠5

Most important, Batchelor emphasizes, solitude is not a momentary escape but  “a practice, a way of life.⁠6 One takes up the practice not to become creative or smart but to feel complete without wants, merging inconspicuously into the fabric of life itself. He emphasizes the importance of this point by quoting Buddha, who, when looking back on his life, discovered that his first experience of solitude was a premonition to what was to come:  

“Once, while my father...was at work, I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree. Untroubled by sensual desires or unskillful ideas, I entered into and dwelled in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thought and reflection, by rapture and well-being born of solitude. Could that be the way?”⁠7 

Could that be the way for us as a society, too?  Less internet extroversion and more soulful introversion. According to writer Natalie Goldberg, such stillness is the road to happiness:

You don’t do happiness. You receive it. It’s like a water table under the earth. Available to everyone but we can only tap it, have it run up through us, with our stillness.⁠8 



1 Batchelor, Stephen. The Art of Solitude . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.(loc 76)

2 100 Things We've Lost to the Internet by Pamela Paul (Penguin Random House; 2021)


4 Batchelor


6 Batchelor, loc 37

7 Batchelor, loc 950

8 The True Secret of Writing by Natarlie Goldberg