28 December 2008

The real meltdown

The snow cover, some of it two feet deep, has nearly vanished after a day of rain that rose to +8 C. Rain at this time of year is not so very unusual, but after all the snow and cold this month, it seems truly bizarre. Well, that's life in the last days of '08.

Life itself is the imperative to continue by self-renewal. No force in the universe is more ruthless, or more creative, than life. It is the root of all suffering; it drives the mutual interference among life-forms; it is therefore the ground of compassion. It is the source of suffering and of release from suffering: when we learn from suffering, we go beyond it. Only by learning from experience of life-and-death can we know something deeper.

25 December 2008

Happy Birthday to The Anointed One

Winter mornings on Manitoulin are always quiet, but Christmas morning especially so. The loudest sound in the universe is coming from the goldfinches complaining about the encrusted icy snow on their favorite feeder. Yesterday's very wet snow has frozen overnight to coat everything, including every branch of every tree, in a hard whiteness. I had to scrape some of it off the satellite dish to find out of there's still another world beyond all this beauty. And to upload this appreciation of it.

Maybe it would be just as well to keep my silence. But a bird gotta sing, even if it's only about the hard and white. And i'm happy that, since there's nowhere to go today or tomorrow, i won't have to shovel any more of that frozen slush today.

I wonder how the outer world is doing — but hardly enough to find out.

23 December 2008

The explicit intricacy

Today i'd like to introduce a passage from Blake's Milton, a long poem about its own genesis. In Book 1
Milton, who walkd about in Eternity
One hundred years, pondring the intricate mazes of Providence
descends back into the fallen world of everyday life to unite his prophetic inspiration with Blake's, and thus to correct some errors of his earlier life's work. Blake and Milton together become one with Los, who might be defined as the Creative Imagination who expresses, or makes explicit, what Eugene Gendlin has called the implicit intricacy.

The division of being into beings or systems, each with its inside and outside, is what makes it all so intricate. On Plate 26 of Milton we find a vision of the natural environment as the work of Los. Here it is (replacing some of Blake's remarkably quirky punctuation with my own):
Thou seest the gorgeous clothed Flies that dance & sport in summer
Upon the sunny brooks & meadows: every one the dance
Knows in its intricate mazes of delight, artful to weave;
Each one to sound his instruments of music in the dance,
To touch each other & recede, to cross & change & return –
These are the Children of Los; thou seest the Trees on mountains
The wind blows heavy, loud they thunder thro' the darksom sky
Uttering prophecies & speaking instructive words to the sons
Of men: These are the Sons of Los! These the Visions of Eternity.
But we see only as it were the hem of their garments
When with our vegetable eyes we view these wond'rous Visions.
Our eyes are ‘vegetable’ when they are not animated with the creative power of vision – the same power with which you the universe are at once wholly guided and animated.

19 December 2008


The current credit bubble – which has hardly begun to burst – inflated because systematic inflation was a way for clever and powerful people to make money instead of providing real goods or services to others.
Good for what? Service to whom?
Nothing permanent, that's for sure.
Mutual good or service depends on differences.
Even the web of life is a bubble, held together by surface tension.
Yes, it's bubbles all the way down.
I think the Buddhists call this ‘emptiness’ – or ‘interbeing’.
It's the source of inspiration, which Jesus calls the bubbling spring that I have tended (Gospel of Thomas 13.5)

Take a deep breath.

17 December 2008

Snowshoe musings

A day and a night of rain this past weekend made the blanket of snow here quite a bit thinner – the ditches are still running like rivers even though the temperature has dropped again to around –10. But today the snow cover has been refreshed, and since there was hardly any wind, the trees are once again wearing white. There's still a surprising amount left on the ground despite the rain, and the deer tracks i found today in the snowshoe trail i made yesterday seemed to show that they appreciated my efforts. It's only fair, since i like following their trails too. Though it would be hard not to – the bush here is riddled with them.

A flock of goldfinches also brightened up the day today. A real service, now that we're less than a week from the winter solstice and the sun hardly shows his face. And a free service too! (unless you count the bit of birdseed i provide for them).

16 December 2008

All over now

All that matters is what's present to the mind. This is what mattering means.
(What mind? Whooth?)
It's the wind in the woods.
It's a quiet Little Current Conversation.
It's the crash of collapsing economies,
or the groan of ever-growing debt.
It's Blake's Jerusalem, or John's Apocalypse.
It's all over now, baby blue.
It's written all over your face.

12 December 2008

Stuck in the tar sands

This article from the David Suzuki Foundation's ‘Science Matters’ column shows how far we are from a sensible energy policy.

11 December 2008

Re: vision

The artist possessed by the creative process is inspired, in the groove, in the flow. When the work is complete, it quickly turns into an anchor he has to cast off, a skin she has to shed, in order to re-enter the zone of inspiration.

The seeker of truth wants only to pin it down; her goal is the ‘fixation of belief’, as Peirce expressed it in a famous essay. He imagines a fully understood world in the distant future, and aims to contribute something to that final knowledge. And yet any belief which becomes a ‘fixation’ weighs her down like a heavy chain, or a cross he has to bear. If Truth really is eternal and unchanging, it can only be kept alive by the constant turning of time, presenting it every day from a different angle.

10 December 2008

Everything that happens will happen today

This is the title of a new collaboration by David Byrne and Brian Eno, two major contributors to the late-20th-century music scene. Their 1980 release My Life In the Bush of Ghosts is still a favorite of mine. (I may live in the backwoods, but i still have a weakness for innovative music – ‘city music’, if i can call it that … )

This new one is mostly music by Eno, lyrics and vocals by Byrne, and the result is something quite different from what either of them would have come up with on his own, as they say in their own notes on the process. ‘Electronic gospel’, they call it. The lyrics are not ‘religious’ in the sense that most gospel music is, but some of them are quite profound – a quality that Byrne sometimes takes pains to avoid, or so it seems. Some of his lines here, like the title above, are well worth pondering. And all work well with Eno's music, to give us an unexpected and welcome gift from two veterans of the Talking Heads era who haven't lost their creative edge.

09 December 2008

Snow job

So much snow has fallen on Manitoulin Island in recent days that i've spent a lot of time shovelling when i could have been blogging. Well, no great loss for blog readers, i'm sure … and moving this much snow does get the blood pumping, even better than walking. Besides, there's nothing more beautiful (especially in the sunlight, if you're lucky enough to get any) than a field of totally undisturbed snow.

A day like this erases all tracks, here in the woods, and the preoccupations of civilization seem even more distant and strange. Of course i wouldn't need to clear the driveway at all if we were really cut off from busy world – but still, once Pam's taken the car off to work, it feels almost like i'm hibernating while awake.

I do intend to make some tracks, though, next time i get a break from shovelling. Last winter the snowfall was so thin that i hardly had to use my snowshoes at all. This one, so far, looks like a new kind of winter, with a new kind of walking ahead.

05 December 2008

A brief political interlude

Woke up this morning at 6 to a starry sky, glittering with that brilliance which is unique to cold, clear winter nights. City dwellers never get to see this spectacle – another good reason for living in the woods. Maybe that's why politicians, who are nearly all city people, have such a shortsighted view of the world …

Here in Canada, political history was made yesterday when the Governor General agreed to shut down Parliament for 7 weeks at the request of the Prime Minister. (The technical term for ‘shut down’ is prorogue – a verb suddenly in wide use by millions of people who didn't know what it meant a week ago.)

Here's my perspective – broadened by starlight, i hope – on how this situation came about.

All over the world, and most notably in the United States, the political trend is finally turning toward a more sustainable economy. The recent bursting of the credit bubble and stock market crash has reversed the trend toward deregulated, free-swinging, robber-baron capitalism. The Friedmanite Shock Doctrine (as Naomi Klein calls it), which has destroyed so many lives, seems to be on the way out. This is a first step toward waking up to the dangers of the consumptive economy, which widens the gap between rich and poor while degrading ecological systems. But the government of Canada continues to distinguish itself by lagging behind the global trend toward economic accountability and democracy.

PM Stephen Harper – a ‘lite’ version of George Bush, you might say – is still at the service of the wealthy and the big corporations, fighting a rearguard action against socio-political-economic reform. In the recent election, the Liberal platform included a carbon tax, while the NDP campaigned for a cap-and-trade system. Without getting into the question of which is better, it's clear that one or the other is essential to any policy that will be viable over long term. But Harper managed to pull the wool over many voters' eyes with fraudulent claims that the Liberal plan would take money out of their pockets. Both Harper's Conservatives and the NDP made gains in the election, at the expense of the Liberals (the Green Party was also a factor in the election but didn't win a seat in Parliament).

After the election Harper, who didn't get the majority he wanted, talked in a vaguely conciliatory fashion about cooperation with the other parties; but his government's first presentation to Pariament after the Throne Speech, an ‘economic update’ as they called it, made it clear that he is more determined than ever to impose his brand of economic ‘shock treatment’ on Canada. The position taken by the government was so extreme that it united the opposition parties, a feat which would have seemed impossible a few weeks earlier. In a matter of days they put together a Liberal-NDP coalition which could have taken power, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, after the government was brought down by a non-confidence motion to be presented next Monday. So Harper chose to shut down Parliament rather than face the non-confidence motion, and the Governor General went along with that – something unprecedented in Canadian history.

If a more viable economic policy – one which addresses the real economy, not just corporate profits, and looks beyond the next election – comes out of all of this political maneuvering, then it might be worth closing down the business of government for 7 weeks. But i will be very surprised if the Harper government comes up with anything close to that; they will more likely try to break the coalition, or come up with some scheme for clinging to power. And even if the coalition does take over and manages to stay together – which in itself would be quite a political feat – the addiction to economic ‘growth’ will probably still take top priority, in the form of some ‘stimulus package’ which gives insufficient attention to renewable energy sources. Canadians will have to kick the consumption-and-debt habit for themselves rather than waiting for any government; and many will find this hard to do because they are employed in resource-extraction industries. As for the politicians, too many still think – some of them quite sincerely – that ‘growth’ is the solution, when in fact it's the problem. And they are too wrapped up in power struggles to have any realistic vision of the future.

God grant us the serenity of the stars looking down on all this, and a steadier light to live by than the creed of greed.

03 December 2008

The old urge for the new

Grant (me) what no angel has seen nor archon heard, and what has not entered the human heart.

I came across this line from an ancient Valentinian prayer on April DeConick's Forbidden Gospels Blog. It expresses an aspiration as old and as new as humanity itself: to see or feel what's never been seen or felt before. This represents the opposite pole from the desire to be totally secure in a stable, no-surprises world. Most of us inhabit a ‘comfort zone’ somewhere along the spectrum between those two extremes.

William James commented on that spectrum in the chapter on perception in his 1890 Principles of Psychology:
There is an everlasting struggle in every mind between the tendency to keep unchanged, and the tendency to renovate, its ideas. Our education is a cease-less compromise between the conservative and the progressive factors. Every new experience must be disposed of under some old head. The great point is to find the head which has to be least altered to take it in. Certain Polynesian natives, seeing horses for the first time, called them pigs, that being the nearest head. My child of two played for a week with the first orange that was given him, calling it a ‘ball.’ He called the first whole eggs he saw ‘potatoes’ having been accustomed to see his ‘eggs’ broken into a glass, and his potatoes without the skin. A folding pocket-corkscrew he unhesitatingly called ‘bad-scissors.’ Hardly any one of us can make new heads easily when fresh experiences come. Most of us grow more and more enslaved to the stock conceptions with which we have once become familiar, and less and less capable of assimilating impressions in any but the old ways. Old-fogyism, in short, is the inevitable terminus to which life sweeps us on. … Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.
— James (1890, v.2, 109-10)

You might think that psychology has changed a lot since James, with all the new tools and techniques we have devised to study the biological basis of thinking, feeling and so on. But when it comes to the patterns of everyday experience – old patterns constantly renewed – the descriptions of James are still hard to beat for elegance and clarity.

02 December 2008

The swing

A song of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore (you can find more at the Internet Sacred Texts Archive):

II.59. jânh, cet acet khambh dôû

BETWEEN the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabîr a servant.

There are servant leaders, and then there are servant singers: they serve by singing the praises of the Lord.

01 December 2008

Signs and pictures, Peirce and Dogen

There is no meaning without signs, but no sign can say more than its reader can mean with it. The act of meaning is never fully determined by the sign.

C.S. Peirce makes a
distinction between the two kinds of indeterminacy, viz.: indefiniteness and generality, of which the former consists in the sign's not sufficiently expressing itself to allow of an indubitable determinate interpretation, while the latter turns over to the interpreter the right to complete the determination as he please. It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe — not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as “the truth” — that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
— EP2:394 (1906)

What Peirce says there about signs can be compared to what Eihei Dogen says here about pictures:
Because the entire universe and all things are, as such, pictures, both humans and things actualize themselves through pictures. The Buddha-ancestors perfect themselves through pictures.
— Dogen, ‘Gabyo’ (Kim 2007, 116)

Is ‘pictures’ a sign of signs? Is ‘signs’ a picture of pictures? Consider this comment by Hee-jin Kim (2007, 118):
Dogen once wrote: ‘The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen based on words and letters, if they devote efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.’ Replace ‘words and letters’ in the above passage with ‘pictures,’ and its gist is the same — the reason is that for Dogen, picture is language and language is picture. Both in turn belong to thinking. Thus the visual and linguistic, the spatial and temporal, imagination and conceptualization, the material and the mental, the sensuous and rational coalesce in Dogen's religious method and hermeneutics.

Kim also comments that Dogen's method ‘amounted, in essence, to critical, reflective thinking as an integral part of meditation’ (Kim 2007, 122). Peirce's ‘critical common-sensism’ was likewise an integral part of his philosophical practice.

As for me, i'm taking a break from digging out after the first big snowstorm of this winter. It seems all the time i've been shovelling signs.