Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Why can’t we pay attention?


Stillness out my office window without electronic distraction

Most of us lament the increasing difficulty we have paying attention. Part of the problem is losing our ability to focus because of smart phone and social media distractions. Back in 1961, way before the World Wide Web was invented, Kurt Vonnegut examined the nature of this problem.

He wrote a dystopian story set in the future where the government enforces total equality with no exceptions. For example:  “There's one character who's deemed too intelligent, and the way they make him dumber is by forcing him to wear a radio in his ear so that they can constantly distract him with obnoxious content."⁠1

Now, thanks to modern technology, we all suffer from that ever-present buzz in our ears – not because it is forced upon us but out of our own free will. L. M. Sacasas points all this out in a recent podcast.⁠2  Certainly, losing our focus due to electronic distraction is a significant problem.

But Sacasas’ emphasis is on another kind of attention, one that thrives on stillness – something I explored in a recent column.  He called it  “a kind of openness to experience where I'm not looking for anything, but I'm ready to receive something. It's more of a contemplative stance towards my experience.⁠3

Sacasas makes clear that the stillness we need is not just an excuse to be alone with our thoughts. Rather, the purpose is to be open to what’s happening around us. That is what Buddhists and mystics like Eckhart Tolle call "living in the present moment." 

And what deserves our attention above all else?

For Sacasas, it is on our fellow human beings: He says, when he is with an individual, “whether that's a friend in conversation, the stranger that I meet in passing, I think it's good for me to be able to attend to them without distraction.” He considers this a spiritual orientation.

He quotes the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch, who equates this type of attention with love, a "kind of moral vision to see justly, to see truthfully:  'To be able to offer ourselves up in that way, in some sense, to get ourselves out of the way, getting out of the way of ourselves so that we're able to see people for who they are, to give them the gift of our attention, which honestly may be one of the most profound gifts that we can offer to somebody to be fully present before them.”⁠4

We all know how special it is when another person wholeheartedly and unconditionally attends to us. Sacasas considers giving such undivided attention to be a moral sensibility. Of course, our ability to provide such relational engagement, like our ability to focus, is being waylaid by our rush, like rats on an accelerating treadmill, to instantly respond to the onslaught of incoming emails, texts, and social media posts. 

This presents a clear and present danger. 

Sacasas warns we are coming to resemble what we pay the most attention to, that we are "starting to reflect the rhythms and the biases of those technologies." Increasingly, these machines influence how we think, molding our minds into a facsimile of the same damn electronic devices that are corrupting us.


It's the ultimate addiction, rewarding us with instant feedback that confirms all our biases. It's so tempting just to take another hit and be instantly transported into the soothing world of the electronic metaverse. 

What can we do?

The first step is to admit that our dazzling digital frontier has failed to live up to its utopian promise, predicted back in the early days of  the internet. As Hari Kunzru wrote in the current Harper’s Magazine: Instead of achieving global consciousness, we have created “a giant machine for selling ads.”⁠5

Worse yet, we now face an existential menace that is changing what it means to be a human being. On our own, we are powerless against this technological juggernaut that is arrayed against us. The key, like for AA, is to believe in a higher power because, in essence, this is a spiritual and  moral question. 

 Do we slide down the rabbit hole into becoming a machine like our electronic devices? Or do we use our attention to embrace our greatest gift, our human connection with each other?





3 ibid

4 ibid

5 Harper’s Magazine/January 2023. p. 7

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Radical Hope to Heal a Divided Nation


I took this photograph at Hampton Beach State Park in 2014

The Crow people were a proud and thriving Native American Nation until the U.S. defeated them in battle while killing off the Buffalo, the primary source of their subsistence. As their legendary chief, Plenty Coups, explained, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again.”⁠1

This example of human vulnerability– that of a people faced with the end of their way of life – prompted Jonathan Lear, philosopher and psychoanalyst, to write a book about the human suffering that comes about from societal collapse. 

To my perhaps warped way of thinking, I see a similarity between the psychological consequences of what happened to the American Indians and what is happening to a sizable segment of our fellow Americans today: those still imbued with that macho frontier spirit personified by John Wayne. (Please excuse the following exaggeration)

This segment of our fellow citizens, often followers of Trump, to one degree or another, still attempt to live by the creed of the Wild West: They sneer at regulations and community and worship their version of the Bible which declares nature is meant for them to possess. They march under a flag that says ‘don’t tell me what to do’ or prevent me from riding out of town on my trusty steed packing my trusty six-shooter to  patrol against dark-skinned immigrants, a constant threat like the 'Injuns’ were.

Writing this will probably get me run out of town on a rail. I'm only exaggerating this comparison to emphasize Lear's more significant point. Losing one's way of life –whether a Crow or a Trump believer – is excruciating, a psychological death. One's first inclination to fight on, as many Indian tribes did, or hold a lasting grudge, as the confederacy did after our civil war.

The Sioux and most other tribes viewed Plenty Coups as a coward for not battling the white man, but the chief understood that fighting back against the endless convoy of settlers moving west was futile. Instead, he chose to work with the newcomers by leading a delegation to Washington and negotiated a treaty with the U.S. that allowed the Crow to keep their ancestral land..“Today members of the tribe express pride that the Crow were able to keep their mountains.”⁠2

Plenty Coups' radical action flew in the face of the age-old warrior ethic never to concede, to fight to the end for your beliefs. That way of thinking was pervasive at the time, held by everyone from the cowboys to the Indians to the U.S. Army cavalry. Needless to say, this warrior ethic still flourishes, underlying U.S. Foreign policy today. 

Most thought Plenty Coups' approach of having "compassion, empathy, and the willingness to seek understanding" as weak and naive. Yet he persevered, creating a better future for his tribe through understanding and dialogue. Even today, he is remembered by his people for telling them:  "With what the white man knows he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again."⁠3

Although it may appear that I am writing this column to infuriate both sides of our cultural divide, what I'm attempting to do is promote Plenty Coups' vision of radical hope. As Lear describes it:What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”⁠4

It's impossible to summarize Lear's book in 700 words because it is dense and complex, relying on nuance. Let me close by defining radical hope in terms of how I think it could help mend our fractured nation.

 For liberals, it means not viewing Trump supporters as 'a basket of deplorables.’ If we resist our first impulse to make moral judgments, perhaps we can feel empathy for how psychologically devastating it is to lose a way of life – the ethic of the American wild frontier – whether it is factual or increasingly hyped up on social media.

Conversely, it’s equally important that my friends who support Trump foster radical hope: to hold out the possibility that supporting community and diversity will not spell the end of a way of life  but be the start of a more productive and meaningful one.



1 Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 31-32). Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395)

3 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395).


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Stillness Speaks


Calm Before the Storm along the Merrimack: 11/15/22

Stillness Speaks

Suffering from writer’s block, I’ve taken refuge in photography. The part of my brain that spawns words has been blown out of the water like what happens when dynamite is used to catch fish, the result of the blast of doomsday news we face each day.

Facing such a barrage of pending peril can feel like being trapped on a sheer cliff, according to Elizabeth Mattis in a Tricycle Magazine article. She says we must not panic but have the wherewithal to relax to find our way down. That’s because “when we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness – the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points.⁠1

I can see now, in a like manner, how photography became my foothold. Looking through my latest images, stillness is the common denominator, salve for my wounded brain. You can see my recent healing images on my blog:

Over the years, I have copied down quotes I find enlightening. Searching back through them now, I see some address the nature of stillness. Here’s one from Natalie Goldberg.s book, “The True Secret of Writing.” Despite her writer’s block, it dawned on her she was happy, feeling confident that her energy would rekindle, allowing her to return to writing with full passion.

“But as I lay in bed,” she wrote, “I realized passion was different from 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.⁠2” 

For me, I see now I tapped into stillness by photographing it.

 Joan Halifax, the Buddhist anthropologist, tells us that indigenous people live this truth every day of their lives; as such, they are a precious resource who could help us repair our rapidly disintegrating world. “This wisdom cannot be told, but it is to be found by each of us in the direct experience of silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity…and vision. [They understand] our interconnectedness with all of creation. They know as well as I do that these words are intellectual concepts until this self is directly experienced.⁠3

Echoing indigenous wisdom, the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr considers silence to be “the very foundation of all reality. It is that out of which all being comes and to which all things return.” Unless we learn to live there, “the rest of things—words, events, relationships, identities—all become rather superficial, without depth or context.⁠4

Rohr goes on to say,”if you can see silence as the ground of all words and the birth of all words, then you will find that when you speak, your words will be more well-chosen and calm.”⁠5  That’s a truth I used to abide by when I practiced meditation regularly: Worthy words and fresh ideas flowed into me unbidden out of the void. Regrettably, not so much now after letting my meditation practice lapse.

According to all these sources, wisdom and creativity flow from that profound stillness that dwells below our thinking minds.  Eckhard Tolle agrees, adding this analogy:“The equivalent of external noise is the inner noise of thinking. The equivalent of external silence is inner stillness.⁠6

Eckhart clarifies that stillness is more than simply the absence of noise and content: “No, it is intelligence itself – the underlying consciousness out of which every form is born.”⁠7 He says the next step in human evolution is to transcend thought. That “doesn’t mean not to think anymore, but simply not to be completely identified with thought, possessed by thought.”⁠8

From my personal experience, that’s the truth of it. Whenever my whole being merges with words and thinking, I become deadened and barren, divorced from the larger reality of who I am.

Thankfully, I’ve discovered I can release myself from the straightjacket of my thinking mind simply by releasing the shutter on my camera.




2 “The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language: by Natalie Goldberg

3 Joan Halifax. The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom (Kindle Locations 1417-1421). Kindle Edition.

4 Rohr, Richard. Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (pp. 1-2). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

5 Ibid, p 8.

6 “Stillness Speaks” bu Eckhart Tolle. New World Library. Large Print Edition. 2003. P22

7 Ibid. p 26.

8 Ibid 41.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Stillness of Things

Lately, losing the capacity to express myself in words. I have taken refuge in photography. The ever-present shrillness and hysteria of the news gushing from the media – pandemics, climate catastrophe, nuclear apocalypse, the unraveling of our democracy – have unraveled  my brain, short-circuiting any sense of peace and wholeness.  

Looking through my latest images, I discovered they have a common component:

Stillness, salve for my wounded brain.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

War: What's it good for?


The Scream, 1893 by Edvard Munch

In 2002, Vernon Klinkenborg, known for his odes to country living, wrote The Rural Life, assigning a chapter to each month of the year. In his November entry, he veers off subject, observing that World War I veterans“are impossibly old by now.” (he appears to be making reference to what we now call Veterans Day, celebrated on November 11 – but first observed in 1919 on the first anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.)

Rather than dismissing these old-timers, Klinkenborg argues, we should bring them front and center to remind us of "the intractable knowledge that comes from a place like the battlefields of WW I," where every faith "especially the faith in moral and technical advancement seems to totter.“⁠1

Now, twenty years later, it is us Vietnam veterans who have grown old. Like our WWI forebears, we fought another protracted, brutal conflict that achieved neither peace nor victory. Again, like the architects of the first World War, America has continued to be deluded, blundering ahead into more debacles rather than learning a lesson. Most egregious were our Iraq and Afghanistan wars, attempting to install democracy through the barrel of a gun, but leaving behind a legacy of chaos, charred bodies, and civil War.

Now we are fighting again in eastern Europe, the birthplace of WWI. While we haven’t sent troops, it’s still a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Suddenly the Cold War era has returned and gets hotter by the day. Pulverizing artillery and missile barrages shake Eastern Europe, triggering traumatic memories of WWI as described by Klinkenborg: 

“The clouds have the texture of steel wool. Winter could come the next minute or the next month. But what November has ever been like November in the embattled salience of the Great War, where the earth itself was dismembered, its flesh, confused with the flesh of soldiers, horses, and mules?”⁠2 

This November in Ukraine, history is repeating itself. The sheer inhumanity of it is too much to bear. The shriek of chainsaws, echoing over our NH hills, from folks cutting their firewood now brings to mind the plaintive cries of Ukrainian civilians, mourning the smoldering ruins of their lives.

Why has War been our constant companion throughout history despite its malevolent nature? According to the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, when we are in the throes of War's passion, we are aroused into a frenzy that's not rational. "It is a human accomplishment and an inhuman horror, and a love that no other love has been able to  overcome.”⁠3

However, because War may stir our passions doesn't make it acceptable. Just as cultures around the world reinforce rules against rape and incest, so it must do the same for War because it has no redeeming qualities.  As Chris Hedge states in his new book, War is the Greatest Evil: “War destroys all systems that sustain and nurture life–familial, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and social.”⁠4

No matter how obsessed we are with War, it is not normal. War is a cancer: A bad gene within us, a destructive force that must be excised before it kills us. The way to stop a war is not by upping the ante but by declaring a ceasefire followed by negotiations to de-escalate the situation.

Time is not on our side. 

Rather than prioritizing peaceful alternatives, Congress steams full speed ahead, doubling down on War: Each year, we significantly expand the military budget, continually granting more than the Pentagon requests. Who are we competing with?

We already have 750 bases worldwide and spend more money on War than the next nine countries combined (we spend 12 times what Russia spends). Yet, rather than more peace and safety, we become ever more embroiled in forever wars. 

Perhaps that’s the problem: because we have the world’s biggest military hammer, the whole rest of the world looks like a nail.

We have an immense war establishment, now deceptively called the US department of defense, seamlessly connected to major corporations that make money for its shareholders through War (the military-industrial complex). We have myriad think tanks, bought-off politicians, and lobbying outfits that thrive off this immense beast like pilot fish prosper by eating the parasites on a great white shark, feasting on leftovers the beast does not have room to eat.

It defies the imagination that we have no Department of Peace to offset the military's institutional juggernaut. Instead, we have only small grassroots organizations, like Veterans for Peace, to which I belong. We must support our local peace-seeking places of worship and dedicated nonprofits like NH Peace Action and AFSC. 

They may well be our saviors. War will never be.



1 The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Little, Brown and Company: 2002. p. 183

2 Ibid p. 184

3 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman.   P. 214


Sunday, October 23, 2022

Taking a Break


CC Jean Stimmell:  October 2022

  I went to the dump last Saturday, intending to hurry back to finish buttoning up for winter. But instead, overcome with inertia, I decided to play hooky by following a circuitous route home on back roads imprinted on my brain from a lifetime of travel. The past-peak foliage of muted, harmonious colors lured me on, distracting me from the ever-more-exposed tree trunks, stark skeletons of winter to come.

My father always accused me of getting a bad case of "spring fever" each year, that listless, lazy feeling caused by the first warm weather after the long winter's chill. I'm one of the few also prone to "fall fever," triggered by autumn's last warm Indian summer days. I could tell it was happening to me again today.

I stopped by an old familiar pond where Great Blue Herons previously nested in tall dead pines drowned long ago by the rising waters after the beavers built their first dam. I took photos of  cat-o'-nine-tails along the edge, no longer trim and tight-bodied in the prime of youth, now expanded in girth and wrinkled by old age like me – yet still beautiful in their own way, at least to my sympathetic eye.

Russet and I once explored these waters in our kayaks on an enchanted summer day without a breeze or cloud in the sky. We were blissfully gliding along in sublime silence when suddenly a thumping explosion drenched us with water as an enormous beaver torpedoed by, slapping his broad tail – a stern warning we were violating his territory. He was like an apparition from another world, arriving like a bolt out of the blue.

That explosion of water from the beaver's tail startled us like Mother Earth must have been shocked sixty-six million years ago when that massive asteroid struck, the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists now calculate the impact generated a monster tsunami with waves more than a mile high.”⁠1 

That’s what it felt like to us.




Sunday, October 16, 2022

Despair and Resurrection


CC Jean Stimmell

I know I haven’t written anything lately for the paper. I’ve been going through a gestation process. The changing of the seasons has been a melancholy time for me: chilly mornings and falling leaves, a precursor of wintery times ahead. On top of that, the aches and pains of growing old, coupled with disasters here and around the world, have weighed me down.

The threats we face today have been compared to the four horsemen of the apocalypse—a pandemic, climate catastrophe, nuclear destruction, and the impending destruction of what remains of American democracy.⁠1 Altogether, it’s been a test of my spiritual foundations, such as they are. 

Usually, my spirituality serves me well, putting my faith in Gaia, the Earth is our living mother,  Buddhism and Carl Jung. But lately, I’ve found myself wondering about the difference between faith and trust: Some say there is no difference between the two; others say faith is a spiritual concept, while trust places total confidence in another person.⁠2

I’m most impressed by the story about the famous tightrope walker, the Great Blondin, which is told both in bible classes and A.A. Blondin’s greatest stunt was walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope pushing a wheelbarrow. “Before he began his wheelbarrow stunt, when he asked the assembled crowd if they believed he could do it, they all roared ‘Yes’. After the stunt when he asked them if anyone would sit in the wheelbarrow as he pushed it along the tightrope, nobody said a word.⁠3

That story says it all. We have to be able to act upon our faith, not just believe it in our heads. There was a time when I would have said ‘Yes’ to the invitation to ride in that wheelbarrow, providing Mother Nature was pushing it. I considered Her to be an unassailable supreme force back then. But now, as climate change is flailing Her flesh ever more deeply, I wonder how long She can last – in the same way I worry if our precious democracy can survive.

That being the case, I’ve retreated to my fallback position: the Buddhist core belief that “we just can’t know.” This exposes a dilemma expressed well in a recent Buddhist publication:“until we know the truth, we live by faith. .. after that we need faith, even more, because not knowing is truth itself.”⁠4 

I believe that’s the Truth. But it sure is scary.

We find ourselves huddled together, pushed along in a rusty old wheelbarrow on a rapidly unraveling tightrope overlooking a world we don’t recognize. All the old signposts that showed us the way are being washed away by thousand-year storms, rearranged by authoritarians,  or chopped down  by angry militants, indignant that their liberty has been infringed.

Who knows what will happen next?

We’ve endured other harrowing times in our history when things looked bleak. By happenstance, this is the hundredth anniversary of when “The Waste Land” by T. S. Elliot was published, perhaps the most influential poem of the 20th century. He wrote it during that distraught span between our first barbaric World War with the second, an even more horrific one, looming on the horizon; we were in the midst of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the ascension of powerful dictators around the world.

Elliot’s words conveyed a hopelessness that I’m fighting against now:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.⁠5

Yet back then, miraculously, despite the odds, we came together and triumphed. And we have it within us do it again if we can muster a common purpose, stop fighting each other, and honor humankind’s greatest asset: our imagination. As Michael Meade, scholar and mythologist, has written: “Although decidedly frail, perpetually foolish, and seemingly about to destroy the whole thing, humans are blessed with an imagination equal to the world and essential to its way  continuing.⁠6  


Setting our imagination free can create a future beyond anything in science fiction, as recently noted by the NYT, reporting on the "mind-blowing" implications of new research into black holes: It suggests we may all be holograms living in a three-dimensional universe. 

Carl Jung would applaud.

“In this version of the cosmos, there is no difference between here and there, cause and effect, inside and outside or perhaps even then and now; household cats can be conjured in empty space.”⁠7 We can all be Dr. Strange,” like the Marvel Comics superhero.

No doubt about it, life is more mysterious – and sacred – than we can ever know.








6 “The World Behind the World” by Michael Mead. 2008. Greenfire Press.   P. 64.


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Be Here Now


Dotty, the downy woodpecker at my feeder

I am sitting here on my deck in the dappled sunlight, the breeze blowing through my hair, barefoot in a trance. A profound peacefulness reigns, a sense of contentment, a feeling of belonging, of being grounded – all of this orchestrated by a downy woodpecker swinging from the suet cage in my crabapple tree. Her name is Dotty.

It dawns on me that I have been missing in action as of late,  too busy to be grounded in the really real, too caught up in the daily political dramas. All of which distracted me and, I can see now, hurt me, absorbing me deeper into theWorld Wide Web and the nonstop yearnings of our 24/7 consumer culture.

I experienced a glimpse of a deeper, more complete world just now on my deck, a state of silence described well by Eckhart Tolle: “You are present. You have stepped out of thousands of years of collective  conditioning⁠1, As I sat there, I could feel the gears in my head stop grinding from thinking too much.

I should know better by now from lessons learned in “Be Here Now,” written in the 1960s by Ram Das.  He made abundantly clear that “Meditation goes beyond the thinking mind….[illuminating] the truth that who you really are is more than who you think you are.”⁠2

For a blessed moment, I removed myself from the cacophony of civilization and joined Dotty’s world. I had no choice. Starting a few days ago, she started audaciously knock, knock, knockin’ on my door – actually the wall above the door.

She wasn’t kidding!

 She proceeded to punch a series of holes, one directly under the other, straight through the one-inch, rough-sawn pine boards that clad my home. The pile of wood chips was starting to pile up on my front stoop. I had to do something.

I hung up some suet to pacify Dotty and withdrew to my deck to relax. That’s when I fell into the trance already mentioned, while Dotty celebrated her victory: wakening me up to the present moment while getting fed a treat.

I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, yet I can see now I’ve spent too much time watching the news and listening to talking-heads bloviate about the cacophony of crises that confront us. Altogether, electronic media combined with excess thinking had abstracted my being. I was unaware of the consequences: These entrancing flickering screens were grooming me for Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. 

It took Dotty to show me that his virtual world is a phantom cloud without substance, separating me from my true self. I, of all people, should know better from being a long-time fan of Charlene Spretnak, who convincingly makes the case that only three things are really real: our body, nature, and sense of place.⁠3

Of course, that doesn’t mean I can ignore the outside world, but the balance has been lost. It has made me ungrounded, distracted, and disoriented, progressively unable to be truly present with my friends, Dotty, or the earth itself.

After meditating on the deck, I felt life ebbing back into my bones, which spurred me to write this essay. All I needed to finish was a snappy ending. Going back inside the house – as if by synchronicity – I found what I needed in an email that had just arrived from a trusted friend: It was a Taoist parable about how to find meaning in life.

“During a time of great drought, a Taoist master was asked by members of a village if he could help bring rain to their dry fields… The master agreed to come and asked for a small hut with a garden that he could tend. For three days, he tended the garden, performing no special rituals…”

“On the fourth day, rain began to fall on the parched earth.” But the master refused to take responsibility. Instead, “he explained, when he came to the village, he had sensed disharmony within himself. Each day, as he tended the garden, he returned a little more to himself. When he returned to balance, the rain came naturally.”⁠4

It is said this was one of the favorite stories of Carl Jung, the legendary psychologist. I’m not surprised because he believed nothing was a coincidence – including what happened to the farmers in the parable or to the woodpecker and me. Instead, he thought that the inner attitude of a person is inseparable from events taking place in the world. He called this psychological principle synchronicity.

Dotty and I are true believers.



1 “Stillness Speaks” by Eckhard Tolle. Gale Engage Learning. 2003. page 23.

2 “Polishing the Mirror,” by Ram Das. 2014. Sounds True, Boulder CO. page 1

3 “The Resurgence of the Real” by Charlene Spreknak. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1997