The Purpose of Meditation
Meditation began moving westward from Asia in a serious way in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An early example that has persisted to this day is the Kriya Yoga of the now deceased ParamahansaYoganada. Kriya Yoga is rooted in the Vedanta teachings of India and specifically the yoga sutras of the sage Pantanjali that were written around 400 CE. More recently Siddha Yoga (a.k.a. Tantric Yoga) was introduced in the west by the late Swami Muktananda. Tantric Yoga has its roots in the Tantra teachings of India. As early as the 1970s, the eastern process of meditation was being westernized. The Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson transformed eastern meditation into The Relaxation Response about which he said, “We claim no innovation but simply a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.”
Eastern meditation was thus on the slippery slope that led from a phenomenological way of directly experiencing alignment with the source of all being to a medicalized, objectively validated way of managing stress and anxiety. Today it can be found under “scientific” scrutiny in universities and employed as an intervention procedure by clinicians. Western science has turned a spiritual practice into a scientifically validated health procedure and redirected its age-old wisdom from transcendence to stress management. For those who prefer dancing with shadows, I will leave you here with the sanitized version made “safe” for western peoples.
What I will now do, in a generic way, is introduce you to how I see the true purpose of eastern meditation. To begin with, let’s examine the worldview that lies at the root of meditation. In the origination stories of eastern traditions we find an explanation for the world that runs more or less along the following line. The material universe is a manifestation of a source state from which everything arises. This is often described as a primal vibration, frequency or sound. Interestingly, this has a parallel in western science by way of string theory in physics, which posits that everything in the material universe arises from vibrating stings of energy.
The source sound is often represented by the Sanskrit symbol for the sound “Om.” While everything that manifests has its own unique sound or frequency expression, at its core or root is the primal vibration of “Om.” The source state has many descriptions and names, which can include: The Ground of All Being, All That Is, The Unified Field of Consciousness, Nothingness, Emptiness, Universal Mind, God, and so on. Let’s just call it Source.
Mystics throughout the ages, including some western mystics, have taught that a direct knowing of Source is available to each and every human being. To know Source one should look for it within. First one should “tune in” to one’s own unique vibratory pattern and then follow that inward to its core expression, which will be the primordial vibration of Source. In short, the way to Know Source is to come into harmonic resonance with the Source frequency, which is within yourself. Mystics often describe resonance with Source as a merging with the absolute and a feeling unconditional love. The only other way to Know Source is to experience it indirectly through experience of the personal expression of Source by one who is in harmonic resonance with it.
Looking at meditation from this perspective suggests that the purpose of meditation is to turn within and silently listen for one’s unique connection to Source. If one has “ears to hear,” then one will begin to move into harmonic resonance with one’s underlying vibratory nature. The greater the state of resonance the purer the reflected expression of Source.
Mystics describe several states that can be thought of as changing levels of resonance. To illustrate these states two charts adapted from two different perspectives are provided. Assuming that one begins in the ego state (fictive-self) where one is identified with the body/mind, then the state prior to Self-realization is what I have called the natural mind and others have described simply as I AM. One is on the cusp and in a state of consciousness in which the dominant mode of being is presence, a state in which one has recovered the state of resonance with the natural self into which one was born. Such a shift moves one away from always using the enculturated top-down perception learned during development to the ability to employ the bottom-up perception of a young child whenever desired. In other words, you can see the world clearly as it is and unencumbered by beliefs, stories and conceptual schemes.
While meditation can be made into a complex subject, it is simplicity itself. It is not a doing but a being. It is not had by mastery but by surrender. Transformation, when it comes, takes one. It is not an achievement. Or, in the words of Michael Valentine Smith, “With waiting comes fullness.”
The essence of meditation, inclusive of its many variations, can be thought of as a doorway into presence. Or, as I sometimes say, “meditation is presence on training wheels.” It is not surprising then to find that there are teachers who de-emphasize formal meditation and advocate for immersion in presence. In other words, life becomes your meditation. Meditation isn’t something you add to your life and engage in daily at 7 am. It is not another of your activities. It is not a search for something that isn’t here. It is your way of being in the world.
When life becomes your meditation, you become a state of present awareness, observing your life unfold in the moment. You monitor to learn when your awareness is no longer focused on the moment, that is, when you have left a state of presence. Where can you go, you might ask? One teacher, Richard Moss, answers this question through the Mandala of Being. A mandala is often described as a circle. Think of yourself as standing inside of and in the center of a circle. When you are fully focused and centered in the circle, you are present. You are fully aware of what is right here, right now. If your focus shifts to the rear, you are focused on the past. You are engaged in memory. If your focus shifts to the front, you are focused on the future. You are engaged in imagination. If your focus shifts to the left, you are focused on your personal story. You are engaged with your identity-self or fictive- self, that is, who you think you are. If your focus shifts to the right, your are focused on narratives about the external world. You are engaged in your beliefs, opinions and concepts, that is, explanations you’ve created or adopted about the nature of things in your world.
Another teacher, Leonard Jacobson, points out in his book Journey into Now that, at root, there is only one place you can escape to from presence and that is into the mind. Memory, imagination, identity stories, beliefs, opinions and concepts are all products of the mind. He suggests that most of us, most of the time, are lost in the mind. We become deeply immersed in our memories, imagination, stories and beliefs. We are too self-absorbed to be truly conscious of our life as it unfolds in the moment. Jacobson doesn’t teach abandoning the mind but rather learning to recognize it for what it is — a tool. We use it when it is appropriate and then set it aside. Do you need to plan a trip? The mind is a great tool. Do you need to find an error in a computation? The mind is a great tool. However, we actually need this tool far less frequently than we think. We are susceptible to overusing the mind because we’ve become addicted to thinking and confuse ourselves with our thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. You are pristine awareness or as Ram Dass says, “loving awareness.” One benefit of being fully aware in the present moment is that you become an observer of thoughts arising and subsiding in your awareness. You neither cause them to arise or subside. Typically, you can and usually do focus your attention on them and begin unpacking them, which is analogous to chasing after a butterfly through a tangled forest. You usually spend endless hours lost in pursuit of elusive “butterflies” and become lost in the forest of the mind.
Jacobson simply asks that we learn to be aware of when we are lost in the mind and bring ourselves gently back to the present without self-judgment or self-criticism. For those of us strongly addicted to thinking, it may be necessary to find some way to cue ourselves periodically to monitor our thought. To reconnect with presence, Jacobson suggests that we find something in the moment to be present with to help us focus in the now. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a tree, a pet, a child, a spouse, a friend, the feel of bread dough being kneaded, the smell of onions being grilled, the sound of a piano playing, the feel of our body resting against a chair, the unfolding of the road before us as we drive, the feel of our breath moving in and out of our body and so on. Jacobson does not object to using meditation as long as it is focused on presence.
The program that Jacobson offers is first to return to presence any time you become aware that you have left it, other than to accomplish a task. This is continued until being present becomes habitual. The second aspect of his program is to become aware or conscious, if you prefer, of the things that, unnecessarily, pull you out of presence. Of these things, he asks that they be examined for commonalities so that patterns of “seductive” thoughts or escapes from presence can be identified, examined, understood and released. One handy clue about when you’re being seduced by your mind is when you find your thoughts cluttered with personal pronouns. The second activity is an important part of becoming anchored in the present. Once you are at home in presence, Jacobson says that the deepening process begins. The deeper into presence you settle, the greater your resonance with Source. At the deepest levels of presence one’s harmonic resonance with Source may bring you into unity with All That Is.
If you find it useful to begin with a program of meditation, there is no reason not to do this. You should go into a meditation program with the recognition that it isn’t an end in itself. Once you’ve acclimated yourself to being present for short periods of time during meditation, you should consider weaning yourself off of a formal meditation process. If you need a transition between meditation and being present in your daily life, I would suggest that you use a Buddhist meditation called rigpa, for which there is an example at the end of The Looking Glass. From a foundation in rigpa you can begin the transition to being present as frequently as possible in the course of your daily life. This is where the real action is and the sooner you can get there the better.
In conclusion, I should mention that in some traditions that employ meditation there is another goal that should be briefly discussed. This goal is to become so intensely focused on or present with an object of consciousness that one fully merges with it. This can be either an “objective object” or a “subjective object.” By objective I mean an object in the consensus environment that most everyone is aware of or could be aware of, whereas a “subjective object” is phenomenological, private or personal. The meditator becomes one with the object. Development of this level of presence leads not only to becoming one with the object but the realization that there is only one object — consciousness itself. The meditator ultimately becomes one with All That Is.
In western philosophy, this is similar to what Immanuel Kant meant by “knowing a thing in its self,” which he thought was not possible, and therefore, our ability to know anything was always “second hand,” so to speak. If you cannot know a thing in its self, you can only know it indirectly or by inference. To offer an analogy, suppose you were one of those rare people who have no ability to feel sensations elicited by objects. Thus, you would not, for example, be able to feel heat coming from an object and would be susceptible to having your fingers burned, though you would not feel it. In other words, you would not have any sensory awareness of heat. You could infer it by the effect that it has on your fingers, or you could infer its presence from the reading on a thermometer.
Kant argued that we are forever like the person described above relative to the world and universe at large. We can know nothing about a thing in its self. Our knowledge is always limited to what we can gain indirectly through our senses and by inference from data gathered through instruments that extend our senses. Some of the yoga traditions of India would say that this is a mistaken conclusion on Kant’s part and that it is in fact possible to know a thing in its self under the proper circumstances. The knowledge thus gained, however, is phenomenological and not public in the same sense as scientific knowledge. If you are intrigued by this notion, I recommend that you read this free e-book, What is Science?
Caveat: The following is based on my lay understanding of physics-based literature that I’ve read. I am not a quantum physicist nor any other type of physicist for that matter.
Several years ago French physicist Alain Aspect conducted a test of a proposition first formulated by John Bell in 1964 (Bell’s Theorem). Bell’s Theorem asserts that the nature of reality is local. What this means is that if you do something to x it cannot have any effect on y if the two are separated by enough distance so that even at the speed of light the effect on x could not transit the distance between x and y in the time it takes to measure y. Bell was reacting to the prediction of quantum physics that two particles (see note on particles at end) that have interacted with one another are from that point on entangled. What this means is that when something is done to one (x) it will instantly affect the other (y) and the distance between the two is of no consequence. This is what Albert Einstein once referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” In short, what quantum physics predicted was that at root, reality is non-local. What non-local means is unbounded by space-time. Thus, a confirmation of Bell’s Theorem would support locality and a refutation of it would support non-locality.
It was not until near the end of the twentieth century that it became technically possible to conduct a controlled experiment of the theorem. This experiment was done by Aspect, and the results supported non-locality. This resolved a debate that had gone on for 23 years between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr (both Nobel Laureates in physics) in Bohr’s favor. Unfortunately, neither lived to see the debate resolved. The finding has been replicated and extended by subsequent experiments by other physicists, much to the chagrin of many in the physics community who are committed to a local view and choose to ignore the implications of the experiments.
Another paradoxical experimental outcome has been the wave/particle duality established by the famous double slit experiment. As I understand it, the traditional double-slit experiment observes that when particles are directed at a panel with two slits, the particles produce an interference pattern on a sheet of film behind the panel. Think about dropping several pebbles close together into a pool of still water. Each pebble produces a ripple pattern and because they are close together, the ripples interfere with one another forming a complex pattern. This is called an interference pattern. In the experiment, the only way that this pattern could be produced would be if the atoms went through both slits in a wave form rather than a particle form. If the atoms had been in a particle form they would have produced two separate and similar patterns on the film that indicate no interference took place. If you repeat the experiment with detectors set up to identify which atoms go through each of the slits as they pass through the respective slits, what you get is a particle pattern on the film behind the panel. The implication being that observing and knowing which atoms pass through each slit causes the wave form to collapse into a particle form. If you redo the experiment and take away the detectors, you once again get a pattern on the film indicating interference and thus the atoms must have gone through the slits as waves.
In 1978 Princeton University’s John Wheeler proposed a thought experiment that hypothesized that the critical factor in the outcome of the famous double-slit experiment was not simply measurement of movement through the slits. This proposal is known as the “delayed choice” experiment and it proposes that it is the decision (must be prior to an actual observed outcome) to measure not the measurement at the slits that determines the observed outcome. Andrew Truscott, at the Australian National University (ANU), ran one the most recent experimental tests of John Wheeler’s “delayed choice” thought experiment (click here). This experimental result again confirmed Wheeler’s prediction of the outcome of his proposal. Even if you wait and decide to make your measurement just before the “particle” hits the target film and after it has passed through the slits, you get a particle pattern on the screen instead of the expected interference pattern. In other words, it is the conscious decision and implementation of that decision that determines the outcome whether the decision is make before or after the “particle” passes through the slits. There is a concrete illustration of what is going on in this experiment offered by retired NASA physicist Tom Campbell, which you can see here. If you want a more detailed explanation click here.
In other words, Wheeler’s thought experiment asked what would happen if you did not use a detector until after the atoms had passed through the slits and were about to hit the film. In other words, measured the end result rather than the movement through the slits. That is, the “particles” had already passed through the slits and, based on the prior experiments, should be in a wave form given no measurement was made at the slits. Passing through the slits in a wave form is the only explanation for the interference pattern observed when the state of the atoms has not been assessed at the slit. If no measurement has been taken at the slits, the expected pattern is an interference pattern. However, if the measurement is taken just before the atoms hit the film, you get a particle pattern on the film, which implies that the atoms did not pass through the slits as waves but as particles. The measurement just before the atoms hit the film appears to retroactively affect the atoms prior to their passing through the slits. Think of jumping off of a high dive into a swimming pool. Once you jump, you cannot reverse the action and return to the diving board but the experiment seems to imply that at the quantum level this is possible. The lead researcher, Truscott, in the ANU experiment said about the result, “It proves that measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it.” This result also supports non-locality because it implies conscious actions can produce results that are outside of space-time (i.e., locality). Accepting that macro reality is built upon the principles that appear to govern micro reality, we may be due for some serious revisions of the nature of reality.
The results from testing Wheeler’s proposal have also been described as retroactive causation. What this is intended to convey is that the effect of the delayed choice measurement actually went backward in time and changed the state of the “particles” before they passed through the slits. However, given the earlier experiment discussed that confirmed reality at the quantum level to be non-local (not bound by space-time), it may be unnecessary to invoke “time travel” to explain the results. Campbell has argued that a better explanation of the obtained results is the one that Wheeler himself proposed. According to Campbell, Wheeler thought that a particle is actually neither a wave or a particle, though potentially both. It is an information packet. Campbell suggests that measurement is tantamount to a query of the information packet, which provides a data stream defining one of the potential outcomes available in the information. In this scenario the critical variable is not where the query is made (at the slits or at the film) but that it was made. In short, the slits only appear to cause the outcome. The real cause is whether there is a query made or not. When you know does not matter so much as that you know. Wheeler thought reality was at root constructed from information. Campbell agrees and suggests that what we actually experience is a self-evolving, virtual reality. Campbell is not the first to suggest this possibility. Three physicists (Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin Savage) published a paper in 2012 proposing that the universe appears to have characteristics similar to a computer simulation.
Recently, a physicist (Menas Kafatos) and a Philosopher of Science (Robert Nadeau) wrote a book (The Conscious Universe) explaining the debate and exploring the implications of Aspect’s experimental findings. In their view, the implication is that given the 12-14 billion-year age of the universe, every particle comprising the universe has had more than enough time to have interacted with every other particle. In short, every particle comprising the entire universe is entangled with every other particle. They propose that entanglement, non-locality, order and the manifestation of the physical dimension out of a wave of probabilities through measurement or observation requires that consciousness be a fundamental aspect of the universe and is a primary, not an emergent, property. Thus, if conscious intent, as many experiments suggest, is required for a particle to be manifest out of a range of probable outcomes present in the quantum field, then consciousness is primary and matter an emergent property.
Their interpretation of universal entanglement is that the universe is an undivided whole. This has serious consequences for both the ontological (matter is primary) and epistemological (understanding the whole from the parts; i.e., reductionism) foundations on which science has been based since the time of Newton. They argue that in the case of the universe the whole cannot be known from studying the parts because an indivisible whole cannot be the sum of its parts. Further, they argue that this imposes an event horizon on human scientific knowledge. There is a point beyond which analytic study of apparent parts will yield no useful results. They do think that science can play a role in expanding human knowledge, just that it has an inherent limitation beyond which it cannot pass. They also suggest that for science to make much further progress it must undertake a serious examination and revision of its paradigm (reductionist materialism).
The authors also explore at some length the role of Bohr’s Principle of Complementarity, which in physics is the tenet that a complete knowledge of phenomena on the quantum scale requires a description of both wave and particle properties. However, Bohr himself thought the principle to be more generally applicable and discussed some of the potential macro applications in such fields as biology and psychology. Kafatos and Nadeau think that many of the phenomena in the physical world and human culture can be thought of as complementary pairs such as good and evil, logic and intuition, life and death, male and female, thinking and feeling, order and chaos, etc. Each pair comprises a whole that defies complete understanding when examined as separate phenomena. It is advocated that more holistic approaches to the study of such phenomena are needed.
One possibility explored is that the whole might be knowable through an intuitive process referred to as “knowing by being,” which is equated with reports by mystics through the ages. They suggest that it may be possible for an individuated aspect of universal consciousness to intuitively access the source and experience the whole (The One, The Absolute, The Unified Field, God, etc.). However, the knowledge of mystics is private and largely subjective whereas scientific knowledge is public and relatively objective. Each has a legitimate claim on its particular knowledge and way of knowing, and both are experiential as opposed to being mere beliefs. The authors also point out that given their mutually exclusive but complimentary natures, neither is capable of validating the other. They discuss the Indian system of yoga known as Kashmir Shaivism as possibly having the most to say to people from western culture about knowing by being. For a discussion of what yoga has to offer western science read the free ebook by Donald DeGracia, PhD, titled What is Science?.
End Note: It has been said that physicists have retained from the 19th century the use of the label “particle” for particular phenomena even though they know better. Think of an atom, which is generally thought to be a critical building block of the physical world. Our generic atom consists of an electromagnetic field populated with various “particles” such as protons, neutrons and electrons. What are these “particles” in an atom? We lay people are inclined to think of them as very small bits of matter; however, they are actually “excited states” of the field. Think of the ocean with waves arising from the surface. The wave is still the same water that the ocean is comprised of just in a different state. One might say that an ocean wave is an excited state of the underlying ocean. Further, like a particle, a wave consists of nothing more or less than what it arose from; i.e., the ocean, which is analogous to the atom’s electromagnetic field. Or, to quote Albert Einstein, “There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.”
It has been suggested that one think of an atom as a field one hundred yards across with a green pea in the center of the field (to represent the nucleus) and a BB at the outer edge of the field (to represent an electron). This leaves a lot of room or unexcited area. Someone calculated that if you took a human being and removed everything except the “particles” in each atom comprising that individual and then repeated the process with every person on the planet, one could fit the human race inside the volume of a sugar cube. So, how is it that things composed of “matter” comprised of these atoms appear to be so dense? Why can’t you easily stick your hand through a wall? The answer seems to be something similar to opposing lines of force associated with the vibratory quality of the excited states within atoms. By way of analogy, think about attempting to push the opposite poles of two magnets together. Anyone who has attempted this has observed a considerable resistance for no apparent reason.
The above question was recently put to me. At the time, I had no ready answer and some will probably conclude from this essay that I still don’t have an answer. However, after thinking a bit about it, I have arrived at an answer of sorts, and it is likely the best I’ll be able to do. It is not a delineation or a prescription but an attempt to suggest a way of thinking about the question.
I think the essential ingredient in an answer for what is in the national interest is to focus on the principles laid out at the nation’s inception. In short, follow a path that best exemplifies our principles. To do this I think requires meeting two primary goals. The first goal is to preserve the nation in order that the second can be carried out. The second goal is to firmly root the nation in its core principles. The first in the absence of the second seems to me almost pointless.
Let’s take a brief look at the first goal. Preservation implies two essential things to me. (a) A basic defense capability, which I think David Stockman has aptly described, “Indeed, in the post-cold war world the only thing the US needed was a modest conventional capacity to defend the shorelines and airspace against any possible rogue assault and a reliable nuclear deterrent against any state foolish enough to attempt nuclear blackmail.” (b) To be a good shepherd for the resources inherent in the land mass that provides the stage for the political, economic and cultural activities we refer to as the nation.
Given that we already have more than sufficient capability for meeting part (a) of goal one for a basic defense capability, the primary activity related to defense should be the downsizing of our military forces until we have met the minimum requirement for a basic defense guided by the definition given above. One thing this should do is free up a lot of human and economic capital to be deployed otherwise.
To be a good shepherd, part (b) of goal one, first and foremost, requires that we preserve and conserve our resources. This entails having a rational plan for exploiting resources. Renewable resources, e.g., farm land and forest, should be used in a sustainable manner. Non-renewable resources, e.g., metals and minerals, should be used only for necessary activities and with the maximum efficiency possible with the intent of extending them as far into the future as reasonably possible. It goes almost without saying that inherent in being a good shepherd is minimizing pollution of the environment and making good faith attempts to clean up past pollution. It also means that going forward we avoid new pollution to the extent possible and clean up any pollution that can’t be entirely avoided. In short, be able to defend the nation, if necessary, use resources wisely and maintain a healthy environment. Much of the freed up capital referred to above should probably be dedicated to the preservation goal.
This brings us to the second goal. A nation rooted in its originating principles has three parts. (a) The first step in meeting this goal is to consider the originating principles. I will offer here a definition that some might disagree with but makes sense to me. I arrive at this definition by an extraction of general principles from the founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and, in particular, the initial amendments referred to as the Bill of Rights. In short, I offer my sense of what these documents imply.
To me it seems that the founding documents imply as paramount a citizenry of sovereign individuals. This is the core ingredient in the evolution and development of each person as a human being. A sovereign individual is one who is free to exercise control over his or her decisions about all manner of things, such as what he or she does or agrees to be done to their body, how they conduct themselves, how they support themselves, what they think, what they express and how they express themselves, among others. The obvious limitation upon this freedom is that it reaches a limit when it clearly impinges on someone else’s rights to their personal sovereignty. The principle of personal sovereignty should not extend to organizational entities, for example, corporations.
Part (b) of the second goal recognizes that government has as its basic function responsibility for the preservation functions described above. One likely point of conflict between individuals and government in the question of defense is that of governmental violations of personal sovereignty in the name of defense. Personal sovereignty trumps government in such cases. Another likely point of conflict is intervention in foreign countries to protect personal or business interests. The principle of individual sovereignty requires that individuals assume responsibility for their actions. Thus, one should use discretion in making decisions to put personal or business interests at risk in foreign countries. Perhaps one can find an insurer that will assume the responsibility for a price. Otherwise, citizens should act prudently and not expect to be bailed out by the government or saved by the military. Another potential point of conflict is calls for intervention in countries experiencing internal strife. This should be considered only when the situation is dire enough to generate an international effort to bring it under control. This would be best handled through an organized international body that can make a relative objective determination that the effort is necessary. We should, however, always be willing to offer temporary or permanent sanctuary, as required, to persons fleeing persecution, natural disasters, war and so forth. We should also be willing to offer a helping hand to those in need of material assistance, whenever possible. and hopefully as part of an international effort.
The second function, part (b) of goal two, of government should be to have an active role in regulating activity inconsistent with the principle of preservation, where that activity can be clearly demonstrated to be inconsistent with the principle. These conflicts are most likely to be related to property and its use and in how individuals conduct themselves. The burden of proof should be on the government, not on the individual, and when there is doubt the decision should go to the individual. In all matters in which government regulation is permitted, it should be constrained by maintaining, to as great an extent as possible, the personal sovereignty of its citizens, while still meeting the goal of preservation. Regulation should also ensure that citizens operate on a “level” playing field, where no individual or group is permitted an advantage not available to others due to government regulation or failure to regulate in favor of preservation.
The third function of government, part (c) of goal two, should be to conduct the nation’s relations with other nations. The original question about national interests had inherent within it a question about “foreign policy,” which is where we have finally arrived. The nation should conduct itself with other nations in a manner that is consistent with how it conducts itself with its citizens. It should recognize the sovereignty of other nations as being an important principle to be followed. When matters arise with other nations that would be regulated among our own citizens, the nation’s policy should be to lead by example and through persuasion. Under no circumstance should force, coercion, deception, or manipulation be employed, unless the activities of the errant nation clearly impose a direct threat to our preservation as a sovereign nation. In such cases, the nation will conduct itself with the restraint necessary to meet and neutralize the threat and no more. In short, the view taken here is that to affect others, the first step is to put one’s own house in order and then let your conduct serve as a model to others; i.e., be an exemplar of your own ideals.
One caveat is that there are serious hurdles to implementing such an approach to governance. The reason for this caveat is the influence of the “deep state,” which has already spread throughout our society like a metastasizing cancer and has probably so corrupted the body politic that all of its vital systems have possibly been compromised beyond repair. In my view, there are already arising corporate structures that, in effect, subjugate traditional nation states to corporate interests. These structures are subverting the interests of our nation and and its citizens as well as other nations and their citizens. An example is recent trade agreements that permit legal action by corporations against governments who are party to the agreement and pass laws that are viewed to be in conflict with the interests of the affected corporations.
I think we are already in a transition phase that is well on the way to the death of sovereign nations and their replacement by zombie states. The only hope for reversing this process, in my mind, is a widespread grass roots movement of citizens intent upon seizing back control of their lives and creating new structures through which to lead those lives. The last time such a movement occurred was the rise of the counterculture in the 60s and early 70s. In its failure should be found lessons to be learned.
To open, I have no problem with rational controls on the purchase, possession and carrying of firearms. I will stipulate to the fact that some gun violence is no doubt due to the ready availability of guns. However, to be clear, a gun is nothing more or less than a mechanism. A mechanism designed to threaten, injure or kill, but a mechanism nonetheless. It is an inert metal artifact devoid of meaning except that which one imposes on it. Thus, many meanings, both good and bad, attach to guns.
I think that gun control efforts are, for the most part, confusing means with causes. It is, in my view, analogous to thinking that the obesity epidemic can be solved by taxing certain foods or that drug abuse can be stopped by criminalizing drugs. From my experience, gun controls, food taxes and drug laws will not and have not stopped violence, obesity or drug abuse.
So, why do we pursue such strategies? Because they are easy targets. It is like the proverbial drunk who has lost his keys and is searching for them under a street light because he can see better there. The real solution is much more complex and therefore more difficult and expensive to accomplish. The most important question to ask in all these cases is why? Why is someone violent? Why is someone obese? Why does someone abuse a drug? The answer is never simple and seldom the same across cases.
I accept that there very well may be some commonalities among perpetrators of gun violence, and easy access to guns might be one of them. A commonality that I think that has just as much if not considerably more influence on gun violence is being socialized in a culture that is grounded in violence. At least in my lifetime, which is inclusive of the majority of living Americans, this country has been poised on the edge of violent confrontation or actually at war. Our history is replete with violence, beginning with the genocide perpetrated against indigenous people for our own advantage and the enslavement of millions of people to exploit the land and resources that we took from and are still taking from indigenous people. Our country has the largest military in the world. We spend more on arms than any other country in the world. We sell more arms to other countries than any other country in the world, including to some countries that we know do not want them purely for defensive purposes. We also have the highest rates of personal violence of any other developed country. We have the highest proportion of our population incarcerated than any other developed country. Our entertainment media are saturated with glorified violence. Granted, some of this has elicited moral outrage and produced improved behavior at times, but one should not be in the position of having “good” behavior motivated by a guilty conscience. Further, I don’t doubt that this country has done some positive things in the world, but they are far out numbered by our less than righteous behavior. We are masters at antagonizing other peoples and then blaming them for resisting our goals.
Let’s return to the more immediate issue of gun violence, Several years ago some statisticians looked at the probabilities for various outcomes in the U.S. One question they asked was where is an adolescent or young adult most likely to be murdered, which often means shot to death? The expected answer was in an inner city ghetto of a major city. The actual answer was in rural areas in the western U.S. While they listed a number of factors that were associated with this unexpected outcome, an important factor was the cultural expectation that to be a “man” one must handle one’s own problems. In most cases, “handle” meant to seek and achieve retribution or revenge for a perceived wrong.
The above example illustrates the complexity of dealing with gun violence. Many factors appeared to contribute to the use of violence to “handle” wrongs. Availability of firearms was one factor but so too were cultural expectations that endorse violent solutions. In addition, these two factors were accompanied by other setting factors such as lack of community cohesion, economic stress, little or no law enforcement presence and alcohol abuse. What happens if you leave all these factors in place and make guns more difficult to obtain? Probably there is some reduction in gun violence, but violence can be perpetrated by far too many means to ever control by trying to eliminate the means. If not with guns, violence can be accomplished with fists, clubs, knives, poisons, explosives, fire bombs and even automobiles. The list is not inclusive by any means. I can recall examples of individual and multiple deaths affected through all of these means in this country during my lifetime.
In the case of school shootings that seem to spark the most fervor about gun control, I would suggest that school culture as a setting factors is just as important, if not more important, than the availability of guns. A school culture that permits or ignores threat, intimidation, humiliation, coercion and physical violence won’t be solved by gun control. A school curriculum that fails to motivate and engage every student in learning perceived as meaningful to the student won’t be solved by gun control. A school that fails to provide access to adequate services for students with difficulties, whether related to learning or behavior, won’t be solved by gun control. Gun control is merely one small component in the larger task at hand.
In conclusion, I would suggest that the issue will not be an easy one to resolve. It will not be easy because in the final analysis both sides are largely driven by fear. Gun control advocates, at root, feel threatened by civilians with guns. Gun rights advocates feel threatened by a range of phenomena and seek security through guns. When fear motivates both sides in an argument, rational discussion is unlikely to prevail. Thus, the debate becomes a power struggle to see who can impose its will on whom. Not a recipe for a congenial social order.
The fundamental assumption (a.k.a. ontological primitive) underlying the following comments is that of panentheism or monistic idealism. This assumption is that ALL That Is, is comprised of objects in Universal Mind, which arises from and within Primordial Awareness or the Ground of ALL Being. Consider Primordial Awareness to be an undifferentiated or unity state of potential Consciousness that is assumed to be omnipresent and have infinite intelligence, creativity and attentive capacity. Primordial Awareness, exercising its infinite intelligence and creativity, imagined a continuous process of Creation incorporating the principle of Evolution. This is not to be confused with Darwinian evolution, which is a superficial imitation of Primordial Evolution. The process of Creation then began generating objects of Consciousness in Primordial Awareness. When focus of Attention is active, then “objects” residing in Primordial Awareness are Perceived and become objects or evolving objects of Consciousness. In short, for Primordial Awareness to be Conscious of something means the “thing” becomes particularized within Primordial Awareness through focus of Attention, and thereby, there is Perception of it as individuated or separate from other “things.” Attention in Primordial Awareness is unlimited, and therefore, the objects of Consciousness are unlimited. Thus, Universal Mind comes into existence within the field of Primordial Awareness. By way of analogy, one might think of Universal Mind as a movie playing out on a screen (Primordial Awareness). Some people might even say this is a description of the Mind of God. Call it what you will.
All That Is, is the content of Universal Mind and thus everything that exists is an object in Consciousness. Every object of Consciousness is an individuated subset of Primordial Awareness brought into Consciousness by the Attention given it. If you are made in the image of God, then that identity is due to you being an aspect of Primordial Awareness and an object of Consciousness. An aspect of Primordial Awareness with biological potential can exist in a formless state within Consciousness or it can be expressed in a form. What you experience as a body is a biological form. The non-biological world that you experience is comprised of forms of varying densities (a.k.a. physical matter). Some physical matter will be denser than and some less dense than biological forms. All forms are objects of Consciousness and exist only in Universal Mind. All biological forms, as aspects of Universal Mind, have some degree of consciousness.
Since ALL That Is arises within Primordial Awareness and from its infinite intelligence and creativity, everything in Universal Mind is accepted unconditionally by Primordial Awareness. This unconditional acceptance, when experienced by a human form within Universal Mind, is experienced as Divine Love. Divine Love is always a fundamental characteristic of Universal Mind and therefore always applies to every object of Consciousness whether that object is aware of it or not. Unconditional acceptance or Divine Love cannot be judgmental, therefore, there is no “moral” hierarchy within Universal Mind — no good or evil, right or wrong, or other dualities necessary for experience.
Human forms can be thought of as attractors. A human form is too circumscribed to be the recipient of the infinite possibilities that exist within Universal Mind. Thus, each human form is like a receiver tuned to a limited set of content. In a human form, the receiver is defined by the initial conditions manifest in the biological form. Think of these initial conditions as genetic predispositions, epigenetic modifications, glandular configurations, neurological organizations, birth circumstances, etc. The initial conditions define and set certain limitations on the human form, which in turn determines what sort of content (thoughts, ideas, images, feelings, emotions, sensations, perceptions, impulses, etc.) that a human form initially attracts to itself from Universal Mind. These initial conditions in a human form are what I would equate with karma, which can be perceived as having both positive and negative aspects. Most elements comprising the initial conditions are prompts related to still unfolding development that would benefit from attention. A few elements comprising the initial conditions may be related to specific choices intended to provide entirely new conditions and an opportunity to learn from experiences related to those conditions. As long as you are identified with the body/mind, karma sets the agenda for your life. While the ‘blueprint” provided by karma can be and usually is followed, it can also be transcended.
Transcending karma requires a shift in identity. Almost everyone identifies with the body/mind, but the body/mind is only a vehicle, a means of providing Primordial Awareness access to an experiential dimension of its own creation. Your awareness is an aspect of Primordial Awareness. Interaction with the material dimension strongly focuses your awareness in the body/mind. Think of yourself as analogous to awareness and of an automobile as analogous to the body/mind. You use, appreciate and maintain the automobile but you do not identify with it; i.e., you do not confuse the automobile for yourself. Likewise, do not confuse your essential essence (awareness) with the vehicle (body/mind) that it employs. Identify “self” with awareness rather than with the body/mind and you may come to know the True Self and transcend your karma. Now, let’s return to ego.
Early in development, a human form perceives stimuli in its environment as neutral. This is what is known as bottom-up perception. Experience with environmental stimuli attracts content. There is a predisposition to react to that content according to initial conditions. A human form will then retain in memory some of the content, explore it, elaborate it and begin creating character traits or fundamental action patterns around it. Many of these patterns, along with core patterns (e.g., the survival pattern) that are preset, come to automatically produce interpretations, motivations, decisions and impulses to action. The more automatic they become the less awareness one has of their operation. These patterns, which I discuss as automatic programs (APs) a sub-section in Part I, are eventually woven into a basic self-narrative. Part of the purpose of the self-narrative is to explain why one is thinking, feeling and doing things that are being driven by APs that operate outside of awareness.
With the emergence of the basic narrative, ego has begun forming and the process of top-down perception begins. Thus, the evolving ego structure becomes a framework for interpreting experience through the narrative-defining ego. Ego structure becomes a filter that both interprets experience and selects content attracted from Universal Mind. The ego structure is further elaborated by beliefs encountered in the environment that resonate with ego’s narrative. Especially important are cultural beliefs that are incorporated into the narrative supporting the ego process. The evolving structure is reinforced and strengthened by the resonant content recalled from memory or attracted from the Universal Mind. There is a neurological process called the default mode network (click here and here) that is closely tied to the maintenance and strengthening of ego. Anytime you are in a state of relaxed attention, it begins presenting you with material either drawn from memory or newly attracted from the Universal Mind. Attending to and engaging this material helps to refresh and elaborate the ego narrative.
As I pointed out in The Natural Mind, many spiritual traditions teach that one significant task, on the spiritual journey, is to regain the ability to return to using bottom-up perception. Both meditation and awareness in the moment (a.k.a. presence) practices are used to help meet this goal. In both cases, the objective is to quiet the mind, which means dampening the effect of the default mode network. Because content naturally arises from memory and is regularly attracted from Universal Mind, it is difficult, probably impossible, to stop this process entirely. However, it is sufficient to learn to not focus attention on this content in awareness and thereby avoid making the content objects of consciousness and thereby become entangled in them.
Meditation helps you learn to maintain an attentive focus on a single stimulus such as the breath. While holding such a singular focus, it becomes possible to simply observe the flow of content in awareness as background rather than bringing it to the foreground and responding to it. Learning to simply observe content as a flow in the background will significantly reduce the amount of content arising in your awareness. In awareness practice, one focuses on a diffuse state of awareness where the field of awareness is usually external and may be full of content or potential objects of consciousness. However, none of the potential objects become true objects of consciousness. This is because nothing is singled out and established as a particular focus of attention. The focus of attention is on the field of awareness as a whole or a unified field and not on anything in particular within it. When awareness is holistic and no objects of consciousness are given focus, top- down perception is suspended.
Meditation and awareness practices are means of coming into a proper relationship with the ego process, which is a powerful process but still merely psychological. In the absence of disciplined attention, the ego process is unrestrained and dominant. Personal awareness identifies with the ego narrative, which is believed to arise from the body/mind. All experience is filtered through this narrative (top-down perception). Thus, top-down perception literally creates the reality that is experienced. A dominant ego interprets every thought, image or feeling that arises in awareness as being its thought, image or feeling and worthy of attention and thus as an object of consciousness.
A dominant ego process is the master of your life. Some narratives are largely functional, others largely dysfunctional and most somewhere in between. As one brings the ego process under control, making it a servant rather than a master, it is important that dysfunctional elements (entire sub-section of Part I) be addressed. If it is to become a useful tool (a servant), it needs to be a tool that is in good working order. Becoming a self-aware being that employs the ego narrative as a tool for negotiating the world, one uses top-down perception selectively. One becomes largely disentangled from individual and cultural narratives and thus in the world but not of the world. This does not mean disengaged from the world but rather being better at determining what to engage and what not to engage, knowing how to engage dispassionately and impeccably and accepting whatever the outcomes of engagement are with equanimity.
By way of analogy, imagine what it would be like to be an actor on stage with other actors, who are in a hypnotic trance, and thereby be the only one who is aware that a play is in progress and that everyone is merely preforming their part in the play. As is said in some spiritual circles, you would be the only one awake and the only one who actually understood what was going on. You could watch the play unfold, guided by its script, and understand that the actors are performing their parts while believing that they are engaged in reality. You, however, would have a choice whether or not to stay “in character” and perform as the other actors expect you to perform or deviate from the narrative (a.k.a. the script) controlling those expectations.
As an awake person or one grounded in the natural mind, there exists the possibility for unity with the unconditional acceptance or Divine Love that is the essence of Primordial Awareness. As discussed in a short essay, unification is not a causal event. That is, it is a response-independent event. Unity may happen and it may not. It is independent of anything you can do from within the “play.” However, being grounded in the natural mind is good preparation in the event of grace.
There has been much angst expressed over the recent presidential election (November, 2016) arising from a variety of sources, including some sites promoting a non-dual perspective in their clients. Dualism in the world appears to be the product of what the late physicist, Niels Bohr, referred to as complementary pairs. Bohr established the Principle of Complementarity in quantum physics to explain wave/particle duality. A complementary pair is merely a particular perspective on an indivisible whole. However, Bohr thought the principle applied much more broadly and offered examples of its application to fields outside of physics such as psychology. Thus, it seems that the world of duality largely rests upon the operation of complementary pairs in structuring the world we live in.
Much of the public angst then appears to follow from the practice of dualistic thinking that predisposes one to commit to one side or another. Usually the sides in a political contest are grounded in ideology, which is an elaborated belief system (see The Problem with Belief. Committing to a particular political ideology then is motivated by the belief that it, for example, represents truth or goodness in contradistinction to deception or falsity or badness. Taking such a position ignores the complementary nature of dualistic pairings. One member of a complementary pair is never true in any complete sense because its complement is also a reflection of the truth embodied in the whole. This partial reflection of wholes is to be expected from a dualistic perspective and is what drives the continuous flux that we call change and from which experience arises.
By taking one side or another in a political contest, one is committing to the ideology or belief system of that position. This leads to expectations about what the results will be depending on which side prevails and with which side one is aligned. These expectations produce an attachment to the success of a particular candidate and the outcomes associated with that candidate. From a non-dual perspective one would refrain from becoming attached to one side or another in a political contest, because to do so is to become entangled in duality. This is not to say one can’t have a personal preference, which is a far cry from an ideological commitment and emotional attachment. Recognizing the complementary nature of the sides in a contest and exercising a preference does not require becoming attached to a specific outcome and the expectations associated with commitment to that outcome.
When one lives in a reality governed by dualism, it is virtually impossible to avoid participation in dualistic choices. The goal instead should be to stand above the ideology and attachment to outcomes and instead exercise personal preference with the intent of accepting whatever outcome manifests as necessary.
The geographer Harm de Blij points out, in his book Why Geography Matters, that we are in an ice age, which is a long-term climate condition that been in effect for about a 100 million years. Within this ice age there have been numerous glacial and interglacial periods (see chart below). We are currently approaching the apogee of one of the interglacial periods. The last interglacial period ended around 80,000 years ago. At that time, the temperature peaked at above current levels and sea level was 15 feet above current levels. In that most recent peak, there can be little doubt that humans had very little if any impact on the climate cycle. Further, there also appears to be a shorter-term cycle of approximately 1500 years, which is also currently moving toward its apogee. The bottom of this cycle was the little ice age experienced a few hundred years ago. In short, our current conditions are probably mostly due to the unfolding of natural cycles that have been going on for a very long time. If anything, human activity may speed the cycles up somewhat or even slow them down somewhat. It is, however, very unlikely that we can stabilize the climate. Of course, we should exercise caution in activities likely to affect climate. Unfortunately, natural variations in climate are often catastrophic and largely beyond our control.
Anyone who thinks we can stop global warming is operating from a static conception of climate and is ignorant of or ignoring the dynamic nature of climate throughout the history of this planet. We might be able to marginally slow down the rate of warming, provided everyone, including developing countries like India and China, got on board with the program. A really concerted effort by everyone to employ methods advocated to slow global warming (e.g., Kyoto Protocol) would have an almost imperceptible effect. An atmospheric physicist, S. Fred Singer (Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service) estimates that such an effort would decrease the average global temperature by .083 (1/12th) of a degree by mid-century. The natural cycle seems to be that the warming phase triggers the events that contribute to the next cooling phase. One factor in this process may be the melting of the polar ice, which puts cold water into the oceans that change ocean currents and water temperature. Change in water temperature and currents are believed to affect weather cycles. The next glacial period in the climate cycle will make surviving global warming look like a picnic. Slowing down the rate of global warming buys a little time but doesn’t change the longer-term outcome. Even if the entire effect of human activity could be subtracted from the long-term cycle, it would only slow, not stop, the increase in temperature and rise in sea level. This cycle has been rising and falling for millions of years and human activity has only been a factor in the last couple of hundred years. To think that humans are the prime movers in this cycle is nothing but hubris.
One of the assertions that has been a problem for me is the proposed connection between CO2 levels and temperature increases often illustrated by the infamous “hockey stick” graph. This graph shows a strong concurrent correlation between CO2 levels and temperature increases. One thing that bothers me about this correlation is that it seems to be offered as evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship when anyone at all familiar with statistics knows that one cannot infer cause from correlation, only association. Another thing that bothers me about this proposed connection is the ice core data for the past one-half million years. The initial analysis of this data indicated a 800 year lag between an initial rise in temperature and a subsequent rise in CO2 levels. A number of climate scientists were not “happy” with this relationship and did additional analyses and finally reported they were able to tweak the gap downward to a 200 year gap instead of a 800 year gap. It is nevertheless still a significant gap and one that has temperature increasing before CO2 levels.
Recently, I read a proposed explanation for the gap. The proposal is that in past cycles when temperature begins to rise, this ultimately raises the temperature of ocean water. The long lag found in the ice cores is likely due to the amount of time it takes to raise the temperature in a huge volume of water. It should also be noted that there was no explanation offered for what exactly causes cyclic increases and decreases in global temperatures, which no doubt is involved in the climate cycles mentioned at the beginning of this essay. However, the proposal goes on to indicate that as water temperatures rise this causes locked up CO2 to be released from the ocean. As more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, it adds to the temperature increase that is already in progress and speeds it up since there are now, at least, two inputs. Thus, human produced CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide could very well represent a third input into this process. The additional input from human sources could conceivably increase the speed and the upper limit of the effect. However, assuming that you subtracted all the human input, the likely result would, at best, be a return to the underlying natural cycle, not a return of conditions to a hypothetical stable state.
As the table below indicates, the human contribution of CO2 is the largest contribution of the greenhouse gases generated by man. To flesh this out a bit, the estimated amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 400 pp. The total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere accounts for 3.618% of the total greenhouse effect. The proportion of naturally occurring CO2 contributes 3.502% to the total greenhouse effect. Thus, the proportion attributable to human sources accounts for .117% of the total greenhouse effect. Note that the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect is water vapor, which makes a 95% contribution while the human contribution to water vapor in the atmosphere is minuscule, coming in at .001%.
Water vapor is the most significant greenhouse gas of all (see table at end). Water vapor is not usually factored into the computer models used to predict global climate at all, because it is too poorly understood and represents a very complex variable to model. It is roughly like trying to predict the peak price of wheat without taking into account the supply likely to be available when demand peaks. The principle way in which water vapor comes into play is through cloud formation. The more cloud cover there is the more sunlight is reflected back into space and the cooler the global temperature. Conversely, the less cloud cover the more sunlight reaches the surface of the earth and the higher the global temperature.
Recent research has shown that a significant factor in cloud formation is the interaction of cosmic rays with particles of water vapor. Thus, fluctuations in the amount of cosmic rays reaching the earth will have significant effects on cloud formation and cover. The largest source of cosmic rays is our sun and other suns in our galaxy. Short-term cosmic ray fluctuations are related to cyclic activity in the sun, which is affected by other planetary bodies in the solar system such as Jupiter. When large bodies of mass approach and recede from the near vicinity of the sun, its activity is affected. Long-term cosmic ray fluctuations are believed to be related to the movement of our solar system through its orbit in our galaxy. In the course of moving through this orbit, we enter regions where stars are more densely concentrated and where they are less densely concentrated. Since other stars like our sun are major producers of cosmic rays, one would expect that cosmic ray bombardment of the earth would increase in regions where star concentrations are more dense and decrease when they are less dense. There is some speculation that this may be a major contributor to long-term climate cycles mentioned earlier that have been going on for millions of years and can be measured in tens of thousands of years.
In conclusion, I would say that, yes, we are experiencing climate change related to a warming trend, but there isn’t anything new about that. Climate has been going through cycles of warming and cooling since long before man came onto the scene. Thus, it seems to me impossible to seriously argue that human activity is the cause of climate cycles. Could human activity be contributing to existing climate cycles? It seem likely that human activity could be a contributing factor. Trying to protect the environment from degradation seems like a reasonable goal regardless of its impact on climate. In addition to trying to reduce human emissions of CO2, there seems to me to be other initiatives that could be taken.
One initiative might be to develop methods for extinguishing underground coal fires. There are hundreds of these unintentional fires burning around the globe. These fires can last for decades to hundreds of years before they consume all the available fuel. One of these has been estimated to have been burning for 6000 years. It has been estimated by one environmental group that such fires contribute approximately 2-3% of all the carbon emissions in China where around 20 million tons of coal is consumed by such fires each year. Another initiative might be projects to reverse desertification. It is well known that desert areas are increasing around the world. When foliage dies off and large areas become deserts, a huge carbon capture process is destroyed. One researcher has argued that if we could regain the carbon capture lost through desertification, then atmospheric carbon levels could be reduced to pre-industrial levels without doing anything else. Third, initiatives are needed to stop the huge problems caused by chemical runoff from agriculture. This runoff is producing large dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans. These dead zones have large impacts on the balance of greenhouse gases, not to mention fishing and the health of the planet in general. Further, consider that the population of the planet has increased approximately 800% since 1800 (see first chart below on population growth). This roughly corresponds to the period of industrial development and pursuit of expansive economic growth. Think of the possible effect on climate, not to mention the environment in general, of this huge expansion in population, with its demands for food, energy, housing, infrastructure and so on. I think the species is facing a very serious and escalating crisis about which most of the population is clue less. If a demographic implosion didn’t already appear to be in the making, probably beginning at the end of this century, one would have to be created (see second chart below on rate of population growth). Clearly, an initiative needs to be undertaken to plan how to keep population and the demands on the environment at a sustainable level once there is a significant decline in world population (Note, this is discussed in greater detail in “Is Economic Growth a Viable Long-Term Goal?.” Finally, I think belief that we can control the climate is hubris. We should never forget that once such a project is begun, unintended consequences are possible and they aren’t always good. I do think that reducing our impact on climate and the environment may be possible.
To open, let’s distinguish between economic activity for expansion, economic activity for maintenance and economic activity for sustainability. Expansion is how the standard of living in a country is increased. In short, when economic activity exceeds what is required to maintain a baseline level for a population of a given size, the result is greater affluence per capita in the population. Think of affluence as that portion of income that can be devoted to discretionary spending beyond meeting truly basic needs. On the other hand, maintenance merely keeps up with population growth, or lack thereof, and maintains the status quo. Depending on where you live this could be well beyond or below basic needs. Sustainable economic growth would be economic activity that for a given population size and life style could be continued indefinitely. An economic model that could continue indefinitely would require a lifestyle that rests upon a sustainable draw on resources and waste generation that can be absorbed and processed by the planet.
Presently, a minority of the world population enjoys an affluent lifestyle that was generated by the expansion model and depends upon an unsustainable draw on resources and waste generation. Many such developed economies are having difficulty, for various reasons, with expansion and may be reluctantly trying to hold to a maintenance model by default. There are a number of impediments to economic activity based on expansion. These impediments open up an opportunity to consider the possibility of developing an alternative model, which should focus on sustainable economic activity. It may be possible for sustainable activity to also maintain some level of affluence, given a small enough population, or significant improvements in technology and its application.
Several factors currently depress expansion of economic activity, especially in the developed economies, which are responsible for a major portion of the world economy. In no particular order of importance, the first of these is debt. Almost all of the developed world’s economies are heavily in debt, both public and private. Heavy debt is also widespread in the developing world. In January, 2017, Reuters News reported that total global debt had reached 325% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and rose by 11 trillion dollars in the first nine months of 2016 alone. The report also indicated that approximately half was public (government) and half private debt. Few embrace the implications of this situation, but it seems obvious to me that a sound economy cannot be built upon a foundation of burgeoning growth in public and private debt. Generally, debt is most defensible when it is put to productive purposes. The underlying premise of capitalism is that capital is accumulated through saving surpluses and then lent to productive enterprises that will yield sufficient return to, at minimum, repay the debt plus a reasonable return on the loan. The developed economies have drifted so far from this view of debt that to call them capitalist economies is laughable.
The second factor is birth rates (see Figure below). Again, virtually all developed countries are at or below the replacement rate for their population, which is on average 2.1 children per adult female of reproductive age. This has two obvious consequences. The first consequence is that the size of the population in developing countries is either no longer expanding, is static or is declining. For example, according to data reported in Wikipedia, as of 2005, the fertility rate in Europe was down to 1.41, in North America down to 1.99, in Japan down to 1.5 and in China down to 1.6. When population is expanding in developed countries, it is almost always due to immigration. The mere shifting people around doesn’t, in itself, affect total world population to any significant degree. It does, however, increase the demand for resources as immigrants move to developed countries with the expectation of being able to improve their lifestyle, a goal that they often achieve. This could have an effect on total population because there is a close relationship between improvement in lifestyle and lower birth rates. Lifestyle, of course, includes more income but also includes other factors such as better health care and greater personal sovereignty, especially for women. The decline in fertility rates is a global phenomenon illustrated by a worldwide fertility rate of 5.02 in 1950 and a rate of of 2.65 in 2005. It is estimated that the worldwide rate will be down to 2.05 by 2050. This rate is slightly below the projected replacement rate of 2.1. Even so, large portions of Africa and the Middle East are projected to remain above their replacement rates.
The second consequence of the decline in birth rates is to increase the proportion of older people in the population. An examination of spending by age cohort indicates that spending begins to pick up for people in their 30s as a result of career progression and family formation. Peak spending occurs in people in their 40s and 50s. People moving into their 60s and beyond, as a group, make fewer purchases in the consumer economy than do younger people. Thus, as a population ages and becomes progressively older, on average, there is a reduction in demand for consumer goods. As the demand for consumer goods falls, this further suppresses the potential for expansion of the economy.
A third factor is the proportion of the working-age population that is employed. It is obviously difficult to be a consumer of any consequence if one has little if any discretionary income or perhaps no income at all. Governments are prone to manipulate economic statistics such as unemployment rates so this problem is a bit difficult to appraise. However, an independent estimate from Shadowstats for the U.S. put the true unemployment rate at approximately 23% in 2016. At the same time, U.S. government statistics suggest that unemployment in 2016 was 4.7%. This discrepancy is due in part to Shadowstats including discouraged and displaced workers in its estimate while the government only counts individuals actively seeking employment within the past four weeks. If you’re unemployed and haven’t sought employment in the past four weeks, you aren’t counted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed. Whatever the true figure, it is clear that declines in economic activity will further increase unemployment.
To add fuel to this already bleak outlook, a recent estimate put the loss of jobs to automation, worldwide, at over one million per year, with acceleration likely going forward. This will have its biggest impact on older workers who are less able to retool for alternative employment. This is due to time constraints relative to remaining working life, existing financial demands and lack of resources to pursue such training. Many of those unemployed now and not counted because they have given up seeking employment probably belong in this group. Even for those older workers fortunate enough to retrain for alternate employment, they will be facing new careers at the entry level that seldom provides the income and benefits lost. This is not a solid basis for expanding economic activity.
A fourth consideration is resource limits. The World Population History site defines ecological footprint as the rate of consumption of natural resources and the generation of waste, together with the planet’s ability to replenish those resources and absorb the waste. Carrying capacity is an estimate of how large a population can be supported by the available resources and their replenishment, along with the capacity to reabsorb waste. The Population Institute estimates that the human species’ ecological footprint is currently between 140% and 150% of carrying capacity. Further, they estimate that before the population expansion stops and begins to decline, the total population will between 9.5 and 11 billion people (see Figure below) and will be at approximately 300% of carrying capacity. In short, to maintain the status quo now requires the resources and capacities of 1.5 planets and will soon require the resources and capacities of 3 planets. Obviously, this is not sustainable. Perhaps the load can be reduced by greater efficiency and new technologies, but if not we may be in a race. A race to see which line we cross first — an ecological or a population implosion. If the latter comes first then the former might be avoidable. If the former comes first the latter may be far greater than expected from a decline in fertility rates.
Fred Pearce, in his book The Coming Population Crash, offers a couple of interesting statistics. First, the figures he presents indicate that the ecological footprint of the average U.S. citizen is just shy of ten times that of the average Indian or African. He further compared the world’s wealthiest one billion people with the remaining people and found that the ecological footprint of the wealthiest is 32 times that of the remaining population. If you, as an individual, have an income of at least $12,500 (just above the U.S poverty criterion for an individual), you can count yourself among the top one billion. He offers the following illustration.
“A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will do less damage and consume fewer resources than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota, Manchester or Munich.”
In short, the suggestion was that a decrease in the number of affluent persons would do more to reduce the ecological footprint of the human species than to merely decrease the size of the overall population. Perhaps this will be accomplished independently of any policy initiatives or programs. A demographer recently pointed out that demographic trends, especially in the developed countries, foretell an impending world population implosion. He thinks this could begin as early as 2050 while others think 2100 is a more likely date for population declines to begin. Fortuitously, the leading edge of the predicted decline will be in the developed countries with the most affluent populations. Longer term, the trends will impact the overall world population. The critical question is whether or not this population decline and lessening of the demands on the environment will be large enough and occur soon enough to save the planet from ecological disaster.
Given all the factors potentially contracting economic activity, especially in the developed countries, one must consider whether the goal of expansive economic growth is truly a viable concept except perhaps temporarily for the most impoverished countries. Over the last decade there have been massive attempts by governments in developed countries to stimulate economic growth through lowering interest rates and by infusing money into their economies, which has been “borrowed” through various mechanism and thereby further increasing levels of government or public debt. The premise that lies behind these moves is that lower interest rates and more money available for lending will result in more borrowing and spending for consumption. The hypothesis is that this increase in spending using borrowed money will in turn stimulate economic activity. The simple fact is that private debt is already excessive. If this strategy yields any positive effect on discretionary spending, it is likely to be limited and of short duration. One technique that is invariably turned to under such circumstances is to lower credit standards to stimulate borrowing. This often has the desired effect short-term but makes likely further undermining of the economy through subsequent credit defaults.
It would appear that it is past time for the developed countries to wake up to the fact that expanding growth economies based on consumption simply can’t be sustained. Where resources should be focused is not on how to bring back expansive growth but rather on developing a new economic philosophy that is not consumption and growth-oriented. What is needed is an economic philosophy that is oriented toward a sustainable standard of living. Such a philosophy would, on average, result in a lower standard of living in developed countries and a higher standard of living in developing countries. This clearly will not come about under an economic model that emphasizes consumption and expansive growth. Whatever form such an economic philosophy might take, it will likely meet with massive resistance on many fronts. There are billions of people who aspire to an affluent life- style, many of whom will not be happy to hear that it is not possible. There are many hundreds of millions of people who enjoy affluent lifestyles who will not be happy to hear that it cannot be equitably justified nor environmentally sustained. In addition, there are huge vested interests in the business community, government and social institutions that will fight change to the bitter end.
At present, economic thinking holds that the goal should be to raise the standard of living in economically depressed countries to one approximating that in the developed countries. However, it seems highly unlikely that the resources exist to make this a viable goal. Even should it be accomplished, the demand on resources would, in all likelihood, result in an environmental collapse. Even if the environment proves more robust than believed, the current and anticipated future consumption of resources isn’t likely to be sustainable.
Presently, it is estimated that between 800 million and one billion people live lives in which hunger is a regular experience. In a recent article (March, 2017) in the New Scientist magazine, it was suggested that enough food is being produced now to meet the needs of those people short of sufficient food. All of the food necessary to feed the hungry is lost through waste, according to the author of the piece. However, the problem isn’t simply to stop wasting food, because there are coincidental factors such as infrastructure, distribution and payment for the food even if made available. It is estimated that to meet the growing needs moving into the middle to the end of the century will require an increase of 70% over current agricultural production levels.
One major problem area going forward is Africa. Africa presents a special problem for several reasons. The two most critical problems are robust population growth and failure of the green revolution, that has ended hunger in other parts of the world, to penetrate into Africa to any significant extent. However, it is time for green revolution 2.0. The first version of this revolution has relied upon intensive agriculture employing manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, new crop strains, massive amounts of water for irrigation and mechanization. All of the components comprising green revolution 1.0 pose problems that need to be addressed in version 2.0. According to the New Scientist piece mentioned above, one solution is to develop an intensive and precision-based approach to agriculture. This would include new types of food crops relying on things like algae and genetically modified crops that require less use of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Further, such crops should not require expansion of the amount of land under cultivation. Version 2.0 should also employ technology to provide precision amounts of pesticide, fertilizer and water only to the plants that need it and only in the amounts needed (see an example of precision agriculture). Finally, while 2.0 needs to be adopted throughout agriculture, it especially needs to be implemented in the areas where the need is greatest and by the people in need. To do this successfully will require overcoming political, cultural and attitudinal obstacles.
Another area that will surely become more problematic as we move deeper into this century, with growing population pressures, is farming animals for meat. This practice is a highly inefficient method of producing food. Animal farming uses more energy and water than growing crops like wheat or potatoes. Further, it puts significant amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. The US DOE estimates that there is three times as much man-made methane as man made CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Sooner or later, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will have to come to bear on methane and that means on animal farming. The worst offender is beef. Of popular meats probably the best environmental choice is poultry. If you want to make a personal contribution to reducing greenhouse gases, perhaps the best contribution you can make is to become a vegan, at least until cultured meat becomes viable.
We do not presently have a sustainable economy model, especially in the developed world. Keeping everything as it is now leads to projections of a doubling of the demands above equilibrium by the end of the century or earlier. We may somehow manage to meet the needs of a world population that is expected to expand, at least until mid-century, if not to the end of the century. However, it is unlikely that we will reduce resource consumption to a sustainable level, even if we manage to cut in half resource consumption through greater efficiency while demand doubles or even triples. Likewise, it seems unlikely that we will be able reduce pollution of the environment to a sustainable level given the needs and demands of an expanding population. Perhaps, abundant additional resources can be obtained and processed off-planet. That would reduce pollution and lessen the strain on this planet’s resources and still permit a high standard of living for everyone. A scientist and science fiction writer, Ben Bova, wrote a book, The High Road, outlining such a plan several decades ago, but it did not garner much interest. Critics think this approach is not truly viable at present and they may be correct. However, plans exist to begin exploiting asteroids for resources. If not, then there is always the hope of salvation by new planet-based technology.
Assuming that we manage to survive until world population goes into decline, the next big problem is to determine what would be the most realistic economic model that would permit sustainable economies. I am not an economist and won’t even hazard a guess as to what such a model might be (an alternative model). I’m just an observer commenting on things as I perceive them. However, I think the model would need to accomplish at least three things. First, it would need to adequately meet the material needs of everyone, which I would define in terms of providing a level of resources necessary for good health. Second, it would need to provide the opportunity for everyone to have a constructive role in society, which could include what has traditionally been viewed as work but would not be limited to such activities. Third, there would need to be enough opportunity for flexibility in lifestyle to provide for individual differences and freedom of choice without placing unsustainable demands on the environment. A model of this sort is probably not a realistic goal for a world population anywhere near its current size and expanding. Thus, the model would need to be implemented to coincide with the low point in the predicted population implosion. Some estimates put that low point at a worldwide population of approximately five billion, which would be about half the maximum of 10-11 billion projected for the end of the century. Some studies suggest that the upper limit on population, consistent with attaining sustainability, is about 7.5 billion. A goal would be to hold population, once down, to between 5 and 7 billion people. A population that stays within this range is probably the best hope for a sustainable economy and a healthy environment.
The second big problem is to get a large enough buy-in to such a model that it can be successfully implemented. On this point, I will hazard a guess that, when proposed, it is highly unlikely to be freely embraced by a majority, especially in the developed countries. In my view, for such a model to be freely embraced would require a significant shift in attitudes. For this to happen, I think there would have to be a change in the prevalent philosophy underlying the thinking of a significant percentage of the world population. The current philosophical underpinning of thinking for many people is materialism. While this has been a productive way of looking at the world for science and technology, it has a significant downside. Implicit in scientific materialism is the view that the universe and life within it came about accidentally and has no inherent meaning or purpose. At the level of the average individual, this leads to the bumper sticker philosophy of “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” In short, the average person, especially in developed countries, derives meaning and purpose from consumption and accumulation. As long as this is how many people find meaning and purpose in their life, there is no hope for acceptance of a model for a sustainable economy and healthy environment that ultimately depends more on cooperation rather than on competition.
If a sustainable model isn’t freely embraced, which doesn’t seem probable, then when circumstances reach a crisis level sufficient to make it clear to most people that there is no alternative, except the collapse of civilization and perhaps extinction, then an alternative model might be embraced. Such a crisis might be sufficient motivation, but species-suicide is not off the table. Leaving aside “crisis motivation” as the solution, what are the other options? I will answer this in terms of my own value system, which places a high value on individual sovereignty. One can use force, threat or intimidation, contrived incentives or persuasion to influence people’s behavior. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with the principle of individual sovereignty. Albeit more subtle, the third method is also coercive. The use of contrived incentives to influence a person’s choices is an effort to manipulate the person and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method, persuasion, may be the only method that is consistent with individual sovereignty and is fully acceptable to me. However, this is an approach that takes long-term thinking and planning and cannot be implemented quickly.
The mostly likely approach that I think governments will take, if they act at all, will be coercion by “police” action broadly applied and possibly leading to what might become a military dictatorship. Such an approach, I think, would require coordinated action by most of the world’s governments. It seems to me this would be very difficult to bring to fruition. There would probably also be massive resistance, overt and covert, to a broadly coercive approach. Whatever your position is on “climate change,” it serves as an illustration of how an activity requiring restraint that has to be implemented worldwide can generate resistance on many fronts. Widespread resistance would probably undermine the imposition of a sustainable model. Further, the stronger that governments become, the more susceptible they are to intellectual, economic and political corruption. Even if a strong arm approach should be initially successful, I think it would be eventually doomed to failure.
Economist Steve Keen is optimistic about the final outcome, with a caveat, “Ultimately I believe we’ll work out a means to live sustainability on this planet and, in the very distant future, to live beyond it as well. But to do so, we have to understand our current situation properly. There is no chance to move towards a better future if we misunderstand the situation we are currently in.” See the Addendum at the end of the essay for a perspective on the current situation.
I am not at all optimistic that a workable solution can be found and implemented in a successful manner quickly enough to save the planet and save Western-style civilization. I am reminded of a comment by Terrance McKenna, a commentator on culture, who described technological civilization as a cultural temper tantrum. This brings us to the most basic question of all and one that many might avoid — does it really matter whether we save the planet and ourselves or not? The quick and thoughtless answers is yes. However, consider two diametrically opposed ontologies. One has already been alluded to above — scientific materialism, which sees reality as having an independent existence, external to ourselves. The reigning paradigm posits that the material universe came into existence as a random event. As luck would have it, it just happened entirely by chance, to be organized in such a way that it would unfold with the necessary conditions present for life to evolve. Finally, again by chance, the random interaction of elements in the universe combined in such a way as to yield living cells. These living cells evolved through mutation, adaptation and reproductive fitness into ever more complex biological structures until self-aware and intelligent life arose and eventually became us. The crowning achievement of chance.
Under the materialist scenario, I think humans are a species without purpose and therefore without meaning beyond the existential meaning that each of us can wring for ourselves from our brief existence. As individuals and as groups, we weave narrative stories that give our lives meaning but only within the context of the narrative. These narratives are, after all is said and done, just stories. We are a species in a habitat subject to extinction at any time by a cosmic roll of the dice. Without belaboring the point, I suggest that you consider recent examples of some past events that without much ramping up could, under today’s conditions, have a civilization-ending impact, if not extinguish the human species. As relatively recent examples, consider super volcanic explosions such as Krakatoa in 1883, coronal magnetic ejections from the sun like the Carrington event of 1859 or incoming space debris such as the Tunguska explosion of an asteroid over Siberia in 1908. If you’re unfamiliar with these, look them up and then consider their potential impact on modern technological society. A catastrophic result would be even more likely should the event be much larger like some that have occurred farther back in the past. Then there is always the possibility that we’ll follow one of our narratives into a blind alley and destroy ourselves. We have many options for self-destruction among which we can also count the effects of nuclear weapons, weaponized biology and environmental overload and collapse. Of course, even should we survive all rolls of the dice and suicidal behavior, science predicts that the universe will eventually end. The nature of its termination is not certain but it could expand until it exhausts itself, grows cold and dies with a whimper, or it might contract, implode and die with a bang.
The second ontology and counterpoint to scientific materialism is what I have written about as panentheism and others as monistic idealism. One contemporary proponent of this world view is Bernardo Kastrup, whose several books (amazon.com) and papers (academia.edu) I recommend to you. He has a short video summarizing monistic idealism (see links page). If one looks at the the two ontologies as pyramids, they look very similar but hold radically different implications. Before describing the pyramids, recognize that all ontologies make assumptions. If there is only one base assumption, it is termed an ontological primitive. Such a base assumption is necessary because you can’t go on indefinitely explaining one thing in terms of another (e.g, where does X come from?, from X1, where does X1 come from?, from X2, where does X2 come from?, from X3 and so on ad infinitum). The “buck” has to stop somewhere and that is at the ontological primitive or base assumption. The materialist pyramid begins at the base with the assumption of space/time, which reminds me of Einstein’s remark, “Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.” Moving up the pyramid toward the apex, we come to energy & matter, then atoms & molecules, then chemistry, then biology and finally mind. The pyramid for idealism is almost identical except that it begins at the base with the assumption of awareness or consciousness and then moving toward the apex comes space/time and so on. Everything moving up the pyramid is derivative of the base assumption nx times removed.
Briefly, the big shift with this change in base assumptions is that now instead of thinking of reality as something “out there” it is something “in here.” That is, what you take to be an external reality actually is a manifestation in consciousness, and you likewise are a manifestation in consciousness. By way of analogy, think of reality under idealism like a virtual reality, computer game. If you don’t have any experience with these games, it may not be a good analogy for you. If you want to explore this analogy further, one source you might look into is the book My Big T.O.E. (theory of everything) by Tom Campbell. An analogy that has been used for millennia is that of a dream with which you probably do have some experience. However, whether you are in a dream or a virtual reality game, everything would seem real to you. The game runs under a set of rules and if the rules won’t allow you to walk through walls, you will be deflected by a wall should you walk into one. It would seem like a “real” wall but it is actually just an illusion created in a “computing” space by a computer. Essentially, the same applies to a dream, except it is being created in your consciousness by mind. In fact, some have suggested that one function of dreaming is to remind us that consciousness can generate “realities” and thereby serves as a hint for recognition of the actual nature of our perceived reality.
Under the idealism scenario, there is meaning and purpose, which for brevity’s sake I’ll just say is Awareness’ way of generating experience for itself and the opportunity to evolve. Put another way, we and our world are illusions within a field of intelligent and creative Awareness or Consciousness exploring itself. Thus, the illusion, like a virtual reality game, once set in motion plays itself out according to the defining ruleset governing it. Should, for example, the evolution of the universe, under the rule set, happen to cross our orbital path with a large asteroid or we engage in a nuclear war and life on this planet is extinguished or even if the entire planet is destroyed, it doesn’t really matter in any fundamental sense because Awareness or Consciousness goes on and you are a thread within it. It is like failing the fifth grade — embarrassing but not fatal. There will be a new game or dream on a new planet, perhaps even in a different universe.
“The standard run represents a business-as-usual situation where parameters reflecting physical, economic, and social relationships were maintained in the World3 model at values consistent with the period 1900–1970. The LtG standard run scenario (and nearly all other scenarios) shows continuing growth in the economic system throughout the 20th century and into the early decades of the 21st. However, the simulations suggest signs of increasing environmental pressure at the start of the 21st century (e.g., resources diminishing, pollution increasing expo-
nentially, growth slowing in food, services, and material wealth per capita). The simulation of this scenario results in ‘‘overshoot and collapse’’ of the global system about mid-way through the 21st century due to a combination of diminishing resources and increasing ecological damage due to pollution.
“The comprehensive technology approach attempts to solve sustainability issues with a broad range of purely technological solutions. This scenario incorporates levels of resources that are effectively unlimited, 75% of materials are recycled, pollution generation is reduced to 25% of its 1970 value, agricultural land yields are doubled, and birth control is available world-wide. These efforts delay the collapse of the global system to the latter part of the 21st century, when the growth in economic activity has outstripped the gains in efficiency and pollution control.
For the stabilized world scenario, both technological solutions and deliberate social policies are implemented to achieve equilibrium states for key factors including population, material wealth, food, and services per capita. Examples of actions
implemented in the World3 model include: perfect birth control and desired family size of two children; preference for consumption of services and health facilities and less toward material goods; pollution control technology; maintenance of agricultural land through diversion of capital from industrial use; and increased lifetime of industrial capital.”
Turner, G. M. (2008). “A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality.” Global Environmental Change 18(3): 397-411.
For me, I AM emerged into this “reality” frame on April 15, 1942.