Suburban Seeker

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

I used the restroom at work today. In fact, I use the restroom at work every day. To be perfectly honest, I use the restroom at work three to four times a day. I work four days a week, so I use the restroom at work twelve to sixteen times a week. Around one hundred people work in my office, so assuming their bathroom habits are similar to mine, that is more than twelve hundred trips to the restroom in my office each week. (It kind of makes you wonder how any work gets done.)

Each time I use the restroom I wash my hands – honestly! – and when I am done washing my hands, I dry my hands on the paper towels my work is kind enough to provide. I have written elsewhere about the insanity of delivering fresh water hundreds of miles to facilities where the water is treated and tested to ensure absolute safety and purity before finally being piped to our homes where we piss in it or pour it onto our lawns. So I won’t go into that again.

But how about those paper towels? The same principle is at play. Trees are cut down and processed and packaged and shipped and delivered and stocked. And at the end of this cycle we absentmindedly grab three pieces of what used to be a tree, rub our wet hands on them, then throw them away. This is convenient, I suppose, but convenience is hardly the best metric by which to measure something.

We live in a society that, though it doesn’t like to admit it, values convenience over anything else.  Not that long ago, in evolutionary terms, an adult human had to walk several miles a day, digging through dirt, picking fruit, and hunting in order to eat. Now you can walk to your car, drive to a fast food dispensary, get things to put in your mouth without ever leaving your car, drive home, and walk to your couch to consume said items.

This is the definition of convenience.

I realize this is a tired complaint. Everyone knows being sedentary and eating fast food is bad for your body. Your body evolved to move and does not do well with convenience. However, it’s not just bad for your body – it’s bad for your soul or your spirit or whatever you want to call the little spark that makes a human being a human being.

It is impossible to find value and meaning in convenience. Achieving something only counts for anything if it is an actual achievement. Someone who takes a helicopter to the top of a mountain and someone who climbs the same mountain are going to see and experience very different things when they reach the top. The view will not be the same because a view isn’t just what your eyes see.

Convenience devalues the world and it devalues us. It feels good in the basest sense of the word to live a life of convenience, but it feels good in the true sense of the word to live a life that is inconvenient. A life in which you work and think and create. A convenient life can never be your own. It can only be packaged for you and marketed to you.

What does this have to do with paper towels? Nothing in particular. Paper towels are just one facet of our convenient lives that we don’t even notice because we have grown so acclimated to convenience.

I would argue that by wiping your hands on a tree that died just so you don’t have to wipe your hands on a towel, without at least giving pause to acknowledge that that is what you’re doing, is to do a great disservice to the world. It is to be unthinkingly wasteful which in the very recent past was a sin. It is to take without thinking about the act of taking. It is to be ungrateful.

We are very lucky to live when we do, but this is a double-edged sword. Effort used to be required in life. Now it takes effort to exert effort. But it is well worth it. It is good for the environment and society, and it is good for you.

Beer and Music, Memory and Change

For the past few years I have spent most Thursday nights at a small brewery in my town called Ale Industries. Thursday night is open mic night. Music starts around six and ends around nine although, because it is a gathering of musicians, those times are subject to change.

Ale Industries Jamboree

Ale Industries “Live and Local” featuring my friends and me from December 2012

Open mics are great. Anyone can play. If you get there early and sign up you can probably play quite a few songs. If you get there late you may only get to squeeze in one or two.

There are older guys who can rock the blues. Young women who write and sing beautiful songs. All sorts of performers in between. There are awesome bartenders who everyone loves. A host who sings songs of sex and heartache and occasionally the Muppets. And of course, delicious craft brewed beer.

I have met many good people there. After a few years it feels like an extended family.

And come January, it won’t be there anymore. Ale Industries is doing well. They have outgrown the little hole-in-the wall commercial building with a roll up door that has been their home since they first opened. They are moving their brewery to Oakland, over the hill and twenty minutes away.

Oakland isn’t far, but it’s enough of a drive that I won’t be able to make it regularly and when I go I’ll probably miss some of my fellow regulars who maybe also won’t be so regular.

The owners have found a location for a taproom in town, but it will be different. It will have new smells, a new layout, a whole new vibe. Which is fine – life is nothing if not change.

What I sat down to write about, what I’m finally getting around to, is the idea of change and memories. If you stop and think about it you will find that nothing ever exists but the present, the moment you are experiencing right now. That moment is razor thin. And it never stays still. Or maybe it does and we’re the ones that move.

In any case, what you did today, what you are doing right now, is in a real sense already a memory. Life is fleeting because the present is fleeting.

Living in the present is something that I am told the sages can do. For the rest of us, it is only during those occasional beautiful or terrifying moments, when you realize how small and fragile and strange and impossible your life is, that you truly understand the present moment and how precious and transitory it is. You can feel it deep in your bones.

I feel it now at the Ale Industries open mic. The regulars know that pretty soon we won’t be going to our old hangout, won’t be seeing each other in the same place anymore. We know that our routines and lives will, in a small way, change forever.

Usually we ignore change, even though it is all around us, driving everything and everyone in the world.  Only when we look back over a year or two, or experience a big life event, do we notice the fact of change. For the most part we live our lives on autopilot, forgetting or ignoring the changes we are going through and the memories we are creating.

It is such a difficult thing.  We may claim to embrace change, and clamor for new and exciting experiences and distractions, but deep down we want to control the change in our lives. We don’t want it to control us. We want to hold on to the pieces of the past we would rather not lose.  But it doesn’t work that way.

The world will always change beyond our ability to control it. I suppose that’s what keeps it interesting. And somewhere in the midst of the drama and the laughter and the chaos of change is where we build our lives. We draw a circle around our memories and call the story they tell “me”.

I will miss Ale Industries and the time I have spent there. It already feels like I am walking through a memory when I am there. And yet life as always moves on. There will be new places to go, new people to meet. New songs to write and new memories to create. Therein lies the beauty of life.

Hola Amigos

In the words of the inimitable Jim Anchower, hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. But I’ve been busy!

I’ve been writing fiction lately, though none of it is ready for sharing. I am writing a silly book about zombies to try to get my writing juices flowing as well as a bunch of short stories about, in no particular order, fraternities,  war,  and the end of the world.

(If I were to write one book about the subjects it would be something like: “Why The Fact That Men Who Were In Fraternities Run Things Should Concern Us.”)

But on to the seeking!

I’ve spent a lot of time reading the works of Huang Po who was an old Zen master but is now dead. It has completely revitalized my seeking. I was inspired by a user in r/zen who sometimes seems like he is trolling and sometimes seems like he is trying to be helpful. The internet is a funny place.

He directed me to the writings of the old guys, guys like Bodhidharma, Huang Po, and Hui Neng. He’s not a big fan of Dogen or Shunryu Suzuki or spiritual entertainers like Alan Watts.

I remain unconvinced on the latter point – I could read and listen to Mr. Watts all day – but I am deeply in his debt for pointing me towards Huang Po who spends an entire book just pointing towards IT, the Absolute, Tao, God, Mind, whatever you want to call it.

“That which is before you is it. Begin to reason about it and you will at once call into error.”

“To say that Mind is no-mind implies something existent. Let there be a silent understanding and no more.”

“The matter is thus – by thinking of something you create an entity and by thinking of nothing you create another. Let such erroneous thinking perish utterly, and then nothing will remain for you to go seeking!”

Beautiful and wonderful! How could it be otherwise, and yet how often we forget!

This is an unfocused post because I am feeling unfocused today. I hope you are experiencing an optimal level of focus however you might define it.

Here is a picture of an otter in outer space.

My Friend Makes an Interesting Observation About Facebook And I Write About It

I had a good conversation with a fellow seeker about Facebook the other day. We were running through the normal litany of woes against the site when he pointed out a phenomenon I had not noticed before.

He pointed out that when he had Facebook (he has quit the site) he knew what his friends were up to. All the time. Which means that when he ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in a while, the conversation-starting question, “So what’s new?” was entirely rhetorical and he found himself not paying any attention to the response.

I had never noticed this before but it is largely true! The whole idea of catching up with friends is rendered mostly moot by a constant stream of updates from them. Which is a damn shame because I would rather hear how a friend is doing over a pint than as a blurb in my “news feed” and yet am probably less inclined to do the former now that the latter is default.

Just wanted to share a friend’s good food for thought. Now back to social networkin’!

News Brief: Mindfulness Conquers World

News Brief: Mindfulness Conquers World

This morning I was sitting down to write a bit about why the current fad in America for all things “Mindful” drives me up the damn wall. Then I came across this piece which, while it isn’t exactly the point I was getting at, did highlight the fundamental problem I see with Mindfulness in America.

This problem is Mindfulness as something that can and should be utilized devoid of any larger practice, be it spiritual, religious, secular, or some combination thereof, that is devoted to living a good, moral life.

From the “news” story:

Standing before a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Briss read from a list of activities of global importance that used to be done mindlessly but now have been brought into the full light of mindfulness. “Before, the President ordered drone strikes, but now he orders drone strikes mindfully. Before, corporate executives fired thousands of workers and raised their own salaries, but now they fire thousands of workers mindfully and raise their own salaries mindfully. The list goes on and on.”

While this is satire, the point it makes is spot on. Mindfulness is a wonderful tool. In fact it is one of the most powerful tools for living a good life because it can enable you to get a better sense of what is actually going on in your mind. But to be truly useful it needs to be a part of a larger practice.

Devoid of any context, mindfulness leads swiftly to selfishness. In fact it heightens one’s sense of selfishness. Being “mindful of yourself” places the emphasis on You: on the experiences you are having, on your own desires, and on your own needs.

With proper, diligent practice you can start to see and experience these desires and needs as being transient. You will likely find that it becomes easier to let go of anger and other destructive patterns of thought because you can see them for what they are: impermanent mental states.

Learning to let go of these impermanent mental states will enable you to live both a good, happy life and a more selfless, less selfish life. (I would argue the former is impossible without the latter.) You will find that what makes you you is the interconnectedness of the world, and not in any vague New Age-y Quantum Attracted Particles of Universal Law or Something way.

(For a small example of this interconnectedness, next time you are grumpy, watch how the people around you become grumpy too. Or consider that old saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I seem to be.” What you put into the world will directly affect your experience of it in a very real way.)

So within the context of trying to live a moral, reflective life, there are few better tools than mindfulness. But you can’t just be mindful of the things you do in your daily life and hope to be happy if you aren’t happy to begin with.

In a society in which we are already heavily conditioned to be consumers of media, experiences, and art created by others; in which we vote for people because we’re on this team and we don’t like that other team; in which cynicism reigns and morality and spirituality are largely laughed at and ignored, mindfulness will become just another means of consuming things and living in the world as we are used to it.

This is a shame because mindfulness can and should be used  as a tool for genuine personal and spiritual growth. However living your life that way takes more effort than mindfully eating dinner and saying, “My – I am very aware of how delicious this dinner is!” It takes seeing yourself as you actually are (your strengths and weaknesses) and then working with this information. It takes working through failures and set backs. It is hard.

Mindfulness, at least at the level it has permeated the mass consciousness of America, is not packaged this way. It’s packaged as another self-help fad. You want to feel good, right? I mean, who doesn’t? Try being Mindful! But the way to actually feel “good” is to become less focused on yourself and more focused on your family, community, friends, and the world around you. Being mindful of your life can help you live your life that way, but not on its own.

The Brain on Trial

The Brain on Trial

When I was in college I initially pursued a degree in philosophy. (Save your jokes – I have never been a particularly career-oriented person.) What interested me most was epistemology and the philosophy of mind. However what I found as I studied these subjects was that most of the literature was not philosophy per se, but was instead scientific hypotheses without the necessary means of testing them.

I became convinced that, just as chemistry used to be considered a branch of philosophy until science developed far enough to take over, so too would the study of our minds be eventually transferred to the science departments of our universities. So I turned my studies to political science, which contrary to what its practitioners will tell you is in no way a science.

I became more interested in the study of mind from the inside, and this led me to the eastern meditative traditions. Western philosophy, aside from the occasional phenomenological movement, has never really appreciated the value of experience talis qualus. If it can’t be put into words by an objective third party, an experience or theory has no place in traditional western philosophy.

(“I think therefore I am” may seem the simplest and profoundest of truths, but it conceals a hugely hidden variable. What is this “I” that “is”?)

The breakthrough came for me in one epistemology lecture from the brilliant Paul Churchland. He was comparing various philosophical approaches to the study of knowledge and noted that they are all dependent on language.

This is interesting, because language is itself a learned ability. It is entirely possible to learn something (fire is hot) without needing any recourse to language. What this means is that words describing a mental state will not be a description of what is actually going on in the brain.

When we study the mind we have traditionally been using folk psychology. If I say that I am angry I am describing a specific mental state which is more accurately explained by the activation of different parts of the brain. Saying “I am angry” is like saying “the sun rose this morning” – you know what I mean, but what I am saying is not a scientifically accurate statement. The sun didn’t “rise” this morning. The planet we are on made one full rotation as it orbited its source of daylight.

The linked article develops along these lines. Our justice system has always presupposed the existence of free will, a concept that makes sense when used in conversation, but has never been even close to being settled. 

If a brain tumor causes a man to kill his family, can we hold him responsible? Clearly we cannot. If the nature of the tumor is such that it cannot be removed it would be irresponsible to release the man back into society since he will be likely to cause further harm, but at no point are we “blaming” him for his actions.

If it is discovered through further neuroscience research that other criminal acts are caused by biological functions over which the individual has no control, what shall we do? From the article:

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments.

This is not to say that punishment has no place in society. But its purpose must be one of deterrence and prevention, not vengeance. And taking someone out of society should be done with the goal of rehabilitation, not with a desire for retribution.

And this, I imagine, is where things will get tricky, because it is fundamental to our concept of justice that bad people deserve bad things to happen to them. We love vengeance. It makes sense that evolution would give us this trait. Those that cause harm to the tribe must be removed from the tribe. It was bad enough dealing with water scarcity, other tribes, plagues, and saber-toothed tigers without having to deal with that asshole Fred who kept killing his fellow tribesmen.

When we describe a human as simply being “bad” or “evil” we are using folk psychology to describe something that is much more complicated. A person may very well fit our definition of evil, and he may very well need to be removed from society for his or our own good, but the world – and the people in it – are never as simple as words make it seem.

Diagnosis: Human

Diagnosis: Human

Excellent, beautiful meditation by Ted Gup on the prevalence of ADHD in children in America. (Or, I should more accurately say, the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses.)

From the article:

“Ours is an age in which the airwaves and media are one large drug emporium that claims to fix everything from sleep to sex. I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.” (Emphasis mine)

I couldn’t have put it better. To be sure there are many people who do legitimately suffer from mental illness. But the idea that we should be happy all the time is a very strange one that flies in the face of the fact that we live in a universe that is actively trying to kill us and will eventually succeed.

Life is often hard, confronting us with circumstances and challenges that we would rather not face. But think how boring and bland life would be if things were otherwise. Without the downs, the ups are meaningless.

When someone reacts to the death of a loved one by becoming sad, or a divorce by becoming depressed, they are just experiencing part of what it means to be human. When little boys throw rocks at one another when they should be doing homework, they are not exhibiting symptoms of  hyperactivity and impulsiveness, they are just doing what little boys like to do.

It is the job of parents and society at large to instill in them the value of hard work and that play time is for after the job is done. And it is the job of children to ignore this advice for as long as they can. Anything else would be inhuman.

Listening to Music

I love music, and I have loved it for as long as I can remember. I love to listen to it and I love to play it. It is very easy to grow numb to life’s inherent beauty and mystery and to be distracted by petty annoyances. Good music is one of the few consistent places to take refuge from that. However I realized recently that I very rarely listen to music.

When our forebears picked up the guitar there was very little music to be heard. Before the 1930s, no one owned recordings of music save a few sound engineers. All that existed were fleeting live performances. Even through most of the 20th century a kid growing up could go to a few concerts and listen to records that he bought with his hard-earned money.

But a kid growing up today is an entirely different story. Between YouTube, Spotify, and vast catalogs of (frequently free) MP3s, music has become something that is always available, wherever one happens to be. The same is true for us grown-ups and, though this should be a blessing, it has led to us valuing music less than we used to.

I realized that I am always listening to music and surfing the internet, listening to music and driving, listening to music and playing video games. It’s always listening to music and…fill in the blank. But I have the opportunity now to listen to more, better music than at any point in the history of mankind! No king through all of history had access to more music than I do today.

The problem is that now we take it for granted. Because we can always listen to anything we want at any time of the day, music loses its magic. Music has become tap water. You turn on the faucet and nearly-free, clean, life-giving water comes out. How often do we give thanks for that simple fact? Rarely, if at all. It has become our default. And yet without it, most of us would be dead pretty quickly. The loss of music wouldn’t necessarily kill us, but then it might. And it would certainly leave us soulless.

So I have made a resolution to listen to one album (at least!) a week. I lay on my bed or the floor and put on a pair of headphones and listen to an album from start to finish. Sometimes it’s something new, but frequently it is something I have heard before. But when I’m not doing anything else and I’m just right there with the music, my old favorite albums always sound new.

Music has become the background of our lives. Music has become Muzak. The song Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin was in Cadillac commercials awhile back, and I’ve been hearing Beatles songs in a bunch of commercials lately. This is a shame. Music should not be associated with a product. It should not be something that is done solely for profit. And it should not serve as mere background noise to other activities.

Because, as a musician myself, if I never truly listen to music, how in the world am I supposed to create it? And, as a human being, if I never truly listen to music, then what the hell is the point of being a human at all?

The Story of Bottled Water

Good video to watch on manufactured demand as it relates to bottled water, one of the biggest scams around.

One of the videos claims is a bit specious – bottled water often does taste better than tap water. But to that I have two responses: 1) get a filter if you must, and 2) just suck it up. Water’s primary function is to keep us alive. The water from your tap will do that, and, for the overwhelmingly vast majority of communities in America, it won’t make you sick.

It boggles my mind that we have defeated one of nature’s biggest obstacles to survival: we have a steady, reliable source of clean water that is continuously tested for pollutants and pathogens. We use this water largely to piss in and keep our yards green in the summer.

Drink water from the tap. If you don’t like the taste, quit whining and drink water from the tap. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll be doing the planet and your wallet a favor.

A Modern Religion

I am an atheist. Fortunately I live in the United States where that is a statement I am free to make. (Unless you live in the South.)

To put it more accurately I am an agnostic.  I dislike this term, however. I see no evidence in the universe for a “God” so I see no reason to posit one – Occam’s Razor and all that. (Prior to the Big Bang there was either something or nothing, neither of which make any sense to a brain like mine that evolved to seek out food, shelter, and opportunities for reproduction. If you want to say It came from God or It came from nothing, go ahead. Neither, as I said, makes any sense. How can something come from nothing? How can you have an uncaused cause?)

Where I differ from my fellow atheists is that I see value in religion. I do not like its political application (see: the entire history of the Catholic Church) but I do think it is important to get together regularly – once a week, say – to marvel at our lives and discuss how to live good ones knowing that our time is fleeting.

This is what draws me to Buddhism. Of all the religions I have found, it seems to be the most flexible and adaptable. It’s most famous spokesman has recently written a book wondering if “religion” as it has historically been defined is even necessary or desirable anymore. Compare that with pretty much every major religious figure in the world today.

Buddhism posits no God. It doesn’t require one to believe that the creator of the universe (a universe which every day we learn to be exponentially more amazing than we can ever conceive) cared an awful lot about a tribe of nomads living in the desert of a small planet in the corner of a relatively insignificant galaxy a few thousand years ago.

It requires an honest appraisal of our human situation, namely this: everything changes.

And the more we learn about the universe, the more profound this statement becomes. Everything we have yet discovered, does change. God, as the notion has traditionally been defined, provides a constant we can take refuge in. Buddhism starts where western religions have feared to tread.

Everything changes. We will get sick. We will age. We will die. Yet amid this, we can find a way to lead good and happy lives. This is where you find true beauty. Not in hiding from the facts of life, but in facing them head on and finding solace and comfort among your fellow humans.

I will probably write more about the details of “Buddhism” in the future, but for now I just want to say that though I am a Godless pagan, I firmly believe in the power and value of religion. I just think that religion needs to evolve.