Sunday, July 25, 2021

Adopting a new myth to live by, which is really an old one

Just as fish don’t know they live in water, we don’t know we live in a myth. The myth we are living today tells us we are rational  beings with big brains like computers, separate from and superior to our bodies and nature. According to this story, our goal on earth is to maximize personal pleasure and profit. When we do, something magical happens: the hidden hand of the marketplace magically transforms our personal greed into the common good.

Growing up under the spell of this myth, I regarded the Pawtuckaway Boulder Field as merely a bunch of big rocks strewn about from the last ice age. However, the older I get, the more I am mesmerized by this spot. It has become my sacred spot.

Something happens as soon as I pass over the last ridge and descend into the valley of the boulders. I feel the temperature drop and sounds fade, like being ushered into the cool stillness of a great cathedral. Time slows to a crawl, and I find myself being lulled into a deep, meditative trance. Along the way, if I am lucky and the light is right, I come across great, hulking personages, some two stories tall.

Perhaps they are stone guardians, put in place to protect this sacred spot by the Pennacook, a peaceful, indigenous people who once dwelled here until broken and emasculated by the White Man.

The Pennacook, like indigenous people in general, live by a different myth than ours, one grounded not in being the apex species but an interdependent cog, part of a living earth. One can make a strong case that the best hope for the earth and its inhabitants, including us, is to readopt this old indigenous myth as our new myth.

According to historian and mythologist Arther George, a functioning myth must reconnect us to what the ancient world called the center of the world: “a sacred spot where the divine, in the heavens and the underworld, connected with the earthly… at the heart of reality.⁠1

In more straightforward language, a sacred spot is a temple or sanctuary where we can interact with our deities and experience transcendence. I’m aware this likely sounds like New Age mumbo jumbo, something acknowledged by Gary Snyder, poet, scholar, and Pulitzer Prize winner: “This ancient aspect of religious worship remains virtually incomprehensible to EuropAmericans.”⁠2 

One aspect of this indigenous worldview comes from reverence for their ancestors, as Chief Seattle made clear in his famous 1854 speech: “Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours…⁠3

 More insight comes from anthropologists who study aboriginals in Australia, the oldest human race on the planet, many of whom still live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Their respect for nature comes from a deep connection to the land-based on “inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.” This practice is the basis of their spiritual expression and, ultimately, their way of life.⁠4

Rather than being consumed with making progress – competing to see how much each individual can accomplish and how much stuff he can create – they believe that connecting to nature leads to “a deep understanding and knowing [that] can be reached through contemplation and silence.” As a result, their pace of life is slow and measured: “they don’t mind waiting because they want things done with care.”⁠5

 I practice transitioning back to this ancient way of being at Pawtuckaway: By defocusing my mind, while staying still and relying upon intuition, I can feel myself slipping into the living world of indigenous life. Entering this animate world is like smelling the first spring flower: The oppressive weight of our modern myth starts to dissipate, like throwing away useless gear from a heavy backpack.



1 “WillMythology Save Us?” Conversations with Willi Paul and Arthur George. Magazine

2 Gary Snyder, “The Practice of the Wild.” page 81

3 oration, ver. 1


5 Ibid

Saturday, July 17, 2021

America Moves from Churches to Self-Storage

Demolishing St Charles Church in Dover NH
CC Jean Stimmell: 2017

Across our country, churches are being abandoned, demolished, or repurposed into  hip businesses and condominiums. Meanwhile, self-storage units are breeding like the Japanese beetles in my garden because we can no longer shoehorn any more stuff into our homes.  It appears we have forsaken the spiritual goal of becoming one with everything to embrace the consumer creed of having one of everything.

Statistics don’t lie: self-storage facilities have become  a $40 billion-a-year industry with over 49,000 storage facilities nationwide.⁠1  More than 10% of Americans now rent units, giving each of us 5.9 square feet of storage space if it was divided up equally. 

This trend defies logic. When I was growing up in the 1950s, families were larger than they are now, but our houses were half the size – yet still big enough to hold all our stuff. Why, then, one must ask, do we need off-site storage now. One primary reason is because Madison Avenue, in cahoots with Wallstreet, has conned us into buying ever more stuff. It has been said this corporate advertising campaign is the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race.⁠2 And one that will have a sorry ending.

 Back in the day, when houses were small, we fixed old stuff when it broke.  It’s empowering to use our ingenuity to restore things to working order. After all, having evolved from tool-using primates, it’s in our genes.  I know the satisfaction I get from fixing things around the house. I get particular pleasure from working on my Farmall Cub tractor that I inherited from my father, who bought it in 1946, after coming home after fighting in WWII.

Things were built to last back then and, because customers did much of their own repair, they were designed to be easy to work on. In the process of ratcheting up the disposable society, we have lost all that, and in the process, stripped away the sense of dignity and integrity that comes from living a simple lifestyle based on self-sufficiency, a way of life fundamental to our forebearerse.

Today we can neither sell nor give away our stuff – that is no longer the newest and coolest on the block – because no one else wants it either. At least we could take those excess possessions to the landfill to give them a proper burial. But no, that would force us  to face up to our mindless addiction. So we do the easy thing and put it in self-storage, out of sight, out of mind. And  then, all too often, in the end, abandon it to the auctioneer’s gavel.

In the big scheme of things, what good is all this stuff? We are born onto this earth without stuff and will leave it without stuff, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That being the case, why do we mindlessly accumulate it?

Paul Wachtel has a compelling answer in his book, The Poverty of Affluence, written back in 1983. He suggests our commitment to consumption is a frantic attempt by us, as individuals, to buy stuff as a substitute for the group solidarity and sense of community that used to give our lives meaning – that is until economic growth tore it apart.

Buying more stuff can be an escape from tedium. But, in the end, our precious possessions will mean nothing, as they lay scattered haphazardly about the landscape, like bones beneath an owl’s nest from what was left of her prey.




2 Alan Kanner & Mary Gomes, “The All-consuming self” in Ecopsychology, ed. Theodore Roszak, 1995

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Moral Injury and the Fate of the World

Sand Dunes at Hampton Beach State Park
CC Jean Stimmell


Back in 2019, I wrote a column for the Monitor1 about “moral injury,” a label first given for a malady afflicting Vietnam vets: the guilt and betrayal they felt(and still feel) for not doing 'what's right.' Moral injury, now recognized as a universal human reaction to war, has been described in history going back to the 8th century BC when Homer wrote the Iliad.


Recently I listened to a podcast by Stephanie Kaza, professor emeritus of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, who has extended the concept of moral injury to include the guilt we feel for the part we are playing in the destruction of the natural world.


I don't want to discount the seriousness of moral injury: it can cause severe depression and suicide. But Kaza's podcast made me wonder if there might be a silver lining, revealing society's deepening facility to feel the pain of others: We seem to be gaining empathy for life's creatures, large and small. Could it be we are rediscovering the animate world of our indigenous ancestors who saw all of nature as aware and capable of feelings? 


During my own life, I've seen a significant shift in that direction. 


I grew up in an avid hunting family in the 1950s, competing with each other to see who could shoot the most ducks, grouse, and pheasants each fall. Even as an eager participant, I remember feeling terrible about the suffering I caused when the kill was not clean. Then, in college at Columbia, I was assigned three white rats to use in psychological experiments to test various hypotheses, often using electric shocks as negative reinforcement, resulting in one of my rats going insane. It's hard to believe today that such behavioral research was cutting-edge psychology in 1963. I slink down in my chair as I write this, mortified at how I have treated animals. After that, something even worse happened: my tour in Vietnam. 


I have changed over my long life, as has society. Folks treated dogs as canine alarm systems back in the day, often keeping them chained outside, even in winter. Dogs were expendable, having no more legal protections against abuse than slaves had against their plantation owners. Now dogs are revered by their owners, pampered, treated almost like children. And that kind of loving care continues to extend to a wider variety of pets – including a pet chicken friends of mine adore. 


All around us, we are waking up to and gaining empathy for, what the ecologist David Abram calls, the more-than-human world. While we have long felt a close connection to certain animals, like the great apes, with whom we share as much as 99% of our DNA, we are now gaining an appreciation for the intelligence of birds like ravens, whom our Maine neighbor, Bernt Heinrich, has written about.


A recent piece in the NYT points out similar intelligence in various other birds before discussing species like the cuttlefish, who are closer to insects than humans. Despite having green blood, no bones, and a body like an iridescent football, they retain "the full portfolio of mental abilities as these birds.”  Of course, we can’t leave out the cuttlefish’s star cousin, the octopus, whose extraordinary abilities have been the focus of several recent books. In praise of them, Sy Montgomery, National Book Award finalist, has written, “If I have a soul, and I think I do, an octopus has a soul, too.” 3


And that's just scratching the surface: recent books like Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard show how intelligent and relational trees are: She explains how old mother trees connect all the forest trees through a 'jungle of threads and synapses and nodes… 'communicating and responding to one another by emitting chemical signals… identical to our own neurotransmitters.' 'The older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own kin [and] nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children." 4


Shedding our thick rhino-skin myth that we are superior to all others, that we are the only species who can think and feel, is our best hope to survive and flourish in the future.






3“The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery.

4Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021


St Pete Beach, 1/12/19
CC Jean Stimmell

This column marks the end of an era in my life that began 28 years ago when I quit stone masonry to get my Master's Degree in counseling psychology. As of the first of this month, I have chosen to retire as a therapist by letting my license expire.

In another milestone, Coco, our plott hound, who had been in-home hospice care, was put to sleep on June 21st. She was laying on the rug, unable to get up when the vet arrived but was able to wag her tail at, who had become her new friend. The vet gave her that final shot while Coco munched on dog treats out of my hand and then dozed off peacefully to join Socrates and Buddha chasing rabbits in another realm.

All of this is a long-winded way of announcing that my byline will be shrinking. This week also brings to a close a recent series of columns, showing how we are interrelated at every level: from biology, psychology, society, ecology, to quantum mechanics.

Our connectedness is something we have most often taken for granted. That's why it is so troubling today how many of us have skidded off the tracks, rejecting our inter-relatedness to celebrate macho individualism and unfettered freedom.

It seems to me to be an adolescent kind of thing. I sure felt that way growing up, craving the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I was wilder and crazier than most. But I internalized the interlocking nature of rights and responsibilities fighting in Vietnam, raising a family, and just growing older.

I wonder what kind of parents could justify pursuing their right to freedom if it was detrimental to their family rather than working together for the common good. Looking outward, local, state, and national governments are extensions of the family, instituted provide essential services and establish common rules so we can all get along together. 

Covid-19 points up the fact that in some areas, our responsibilities are international. As Covid ceaselessly mutates into deadlier variants, none of us will be safe until the whole world is vaccinated. The same goes for nuclear weapons and climate change: the only solutions are global.

But I don't hear much about the common good today. Instead, we are paralyzed at every level of government by a consuming fear of the Other, magnified by social media, dark money, and unscrupulous politicians. What's it going to take to lure us out of our bunkers of identity-based grievances to see the big picture: To marvel and take comfort in what both religion and science are telling us – that we are not separate but one.

To scientists, it is indisputable that we are utterly interconnected. The theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, boils down quantum mechanics to its core that everything in nature is relational: "a photon, a cat, a stone, a clock, a tree, a boy, a village, a rainbow, a planet, a cluster of galaxies . . . These do not exist in splendid isolation. On the contrary, they do nothing but continuously act upon each other."⁠1 Roveii readily admits the parallels with Buddhism. Over the years, the Dalai Lama has returned the favor by touting the scientific method as our mightiest tool in the pursuit of the truth.⁠2

The bedrock of Buddhism is well-stated by the scholar Christina Feldman: "The process of dependent origina­tion is sometimes said to be the heart or the essence of all Buddhist teaching…[which says that] everything is interconnected—that there is nothing separate, nothing standing alone. Everything effects everything else. We are part of this sys­tem."⁠3 

She goes on to say something with which Rovelli would agree. It is a message that freedom-loving patriots today need to take to heart: Freedom is not found by trying to bypass our inter-relatedness:

 "It is not a question of transcending this process to find some other dimension; freedom is found in this very process of which we are a part. And part of that process of understanding what it means to be free depends on understanding inter-con­nectedness, and using this very process, this very grist of our life, for awaken­ing."⁠4

Let us hope we all wake up before it is too late.



1 Rovelli, Carlo. Helgoland (pp. 74-75). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition



4 Ibid