Tag Archives: Wisdom

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” — Albert Einstein

I recently heard a world-renowned public-speaker say that all the best books he’d read were given to him by others.  He said he made a habit of buying cases full of the books he loved, and giving them to people all along his journey.  “I’ve found this book really added value to my life, and I thought you might appreciate it.”

Recently, a friend handed me a book called The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, by Wade Davis.  (Davis, it just so happens, has the infinitely enviable job title: “National Geographic – Explorer in Residence.”)  Essentially, Davis spends the book introducing the reader to some of our world’s oldest and most ‘exotic’ cultures, and doing what he can to dumb down their ancient philosophies to a level our tiny Western minds might comprehend.

It’s rare that a book hooks me as this one has.

I came to realize, simply by being with Otto and his family, that in a sense the Aboriginal peoples had never been truly nomadic.  To the contrary, they lived locked within the territories delineated by their ancestors.  This was a revelation.  Imagine for a moment if all the genius and intellect of all the generations that have come before you had been concentrated on a single set of tasks, focused exclusively on knowing a particular piece of ground, not only the plants and animals but every ecological, climatic, geographic detail, the pulse of every sentient creature, the rhythm of every breath of wind, the patterns of every season.  This was the norm in Aboriginal Australia. (p. 156)

The Australian Aboriginals are one of the many groups he lived with, developed relationships with, and profiles in great depth.  A common thread that seems to connect the cultures he elucidates is a very intimate connectedness with their environment.  Running in stark contrast to the modern notion of land as a capital asset, for these people the land itself is quite literally alive.  It defines them as living beings, as members of their families and communities, and importantly, as links in a chain that extends backwards and forwards through time.

What linked the clan territories was not the physical movement of peoples but rather the strength of a common idea, a subtle but universal philosophy, a way of thinking.  This was the Dreaming.  It refers on one level, as we have seen, to the first dawning, when the Rainbow Serpent and all the ancestral beings created the world.  And it is remembered in the Songlines, which are the trajectories that these ancestors travelled as they sang the world into being.

But the Songlines, I discovered from Otto, are not straight or linear.  They do no even necessarily exist in three-dimensional space.  In their numbers, however, they weave a web across an entire continent.  For a civilization that lacked the written word they became a record of the past, a promise of the future, and a network that in the moment bound together all people.  The goal of the individual, as Otto taught me, is not to follow the Songline from beginning to end, but to honour the ancestors at the points of power and memory that mark the passage of a Songline through one’s particular clan territory.

But, critically, the Dreaming is not a myth or a memory.  It is what happened at the time of creation, but also what happens now, and what will happen for all eternity.  In the Aboriginal universe there is no past, present, or future.  In not one of the hundreds of dialects spoken at the moment of contact was there a word for time.  There is no notion of linear progression, no goal of improvement, no idealization of the possibility of change.  To the contrary, the entire logos of the Dreaming is stasis, constancy, balance and consistency.  The entire purpose of humanity is not to improve anything.  It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.  Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had been focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation. (p. 157; emphasis added)

I wonder more and more about our culture’s conception of time, articulated perhaps most eloquently in the old adage: “time is money.”  It is very difficult for me, raised in a culture of commoditized time,  to even fathom an existence without “time.”

For thousands of years, our culture – that of intellect, invention, and industry –  has fancied itself as the pinnacle against which all others ought to be measured and to which all others ought to strive. Reading this book has really thrown into stark contrast the transience of many of those things our so-called civilization worships, and the fundamental importance of so much that we ignore, disregard, and belittle.

A world-view without time seems unimaginable, but when such a world-view is placed in its larger context: life lived in harmonious unity with its natural environment; a life where every mountain, butterfly, and gust of wind is imbued with life and significance, that which seemed unimaginable presents itself  like the forest that was lost among the trees.

I’ve heard it said that only a fool thinks himself wise.  Standing, as we are, at the forefront of Western civilization, and the ongoing technological/economic/information revolution, it seems fitting that so many wise-men, disregarded as savages, have shaken their heads at us.

Peace and love.

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“The highest form of wisdom is kindness” — The Talmud

“Our soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius

I like reading the words of the wise.  I think most of us can agree that life can be a bit confusing at times. At other times, ‘confusing’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

It is almost certainly true that life doesn’t come with a training manual or a guide book.  We are simply born one day, and somewhere along the way we become self-aware and then we just sort of go about living, and trying not to die.  Days and weeks and years drift along, and we do what we can to occupy, distract or amuse ourselves, only vaguely aware for the most part, that sooner or later the ride must come to an end.

If at some point on our journey down the river of life, we are to feel a bit tired or lost, stopping and asking for directions is not really an option.  The river never stops, and even if it did, there is no map.  Different people find ‘maps,’ of a sort, in different places, whether science, philosophy or religion, but the near-universal disagreement on which map is ‘true’ really doesn’t lend any specific map a great deal of of credibility.

Still we are fortunate.  I imagine the experience of life must not be very different for a fish, or for a deer, or perhaps even for a bacteria.  They are born, have hungers and fears, and do what they can to occupy, distract and amuse themselves while trying to avoid death for as long as is feasible.  It would seem, though, that we have one up on them, in that the written languages of human beings provide us with something resembling context.  We may be unable to get off the river, or to look at a map, but we can share our insights, and can share in the insights of those who have come and gone before us.

While only the revelations (or lack thereof) that come with death can really define for us the meaning of a “good” or “full” life, there certainly seem to be many human beings who have, on the surface at least, approached such ideals.

Perhaps they excelled in their fields, exploring the limits of their potential.  Perhaps they broadened our understanding of life or the universe.  Perhaps they left a world behind that was better off than they world they were born into.  Perhaps they simply lived happily and at peace.  Many of them wrote, in their youth, their prime and their age, and I believe that their words – their thoughts, ideas, insights and imaginings, are among the greatest of human treasures.   It may amount to nothing more than the blind leading the blind, but many blind men and women have lived lives of misery and toil, while many have found achievement, happiness and serenity.  Though it’s impossible to know what the point of all this living is, it certainly seems likely that experiencing joy, love and completion for as many  of these few short hours of life is preferable to squandering them away in suffering and self-loathing.

Not unexpectedly, many of these so-called wise tend to agree on a lot of things, including an approach to living, and an attitude on life.  To be continued …

Well, each beautiful thing I come across tells me to stop moving and shake this riddle off.  Oh well.

And there was a time when all I wanted was my ice cream colder and a little cream soda.  Oh well, oh well.

And a wooden box and an alley full of rocks was all I had to care about.  Oh well, oh well, oh well.

Now my mind is filled with rubber tires and forest fires and whether I’m a liar and lots of other situations where I don’t know what to do at which time God screams to me “There’s nothing left for Me to tell you!”

“Nothing left for Me to tell you!”

“Nothing left!”

Oh well, oh well, oh well, oh well.

Oh well, oh well, oh well, oh well.

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“Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide. I’m gonna find you, and make you want me.” — Lauryn Hill

“The potential for rescue at this time of crisis is neither luck, coincidence, nor wishful thinking.  Armed with a more sophisticated understanding of how change occurs, we know that the very forces that have brought us to planetary brinksmanship carry in them the seeds of renewal.  The current disequilibrium – personal and social – foreshadows a new kind of society.  Roles, relationships, institutions, and old ideas are being re-examined, re-formulated, re-designed.

For the first time in history, humankind has come upon the control panel of change – an understanding of how transformation occurs.  We are living in the change of change, the time in which we can intentionally align ourselves with nature for rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions.

The [new] paradigm sees humankind embedded in nature.  It promotes the autonomous individual in a decentralized society.  It sees us as stewards of all our resources, inner and outer.  It says that we are not victims, not pawns, not limited by conditions or conditioning.  Heirs to evolutionary riches, we are capable of imagination, invention and experiences we have only glimpsed.

Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence.  It has only to discover itself.  The new perspective respects the ecology of everything: birth, death, learning, health, family, work, science, spirituality, the arts, the community, relationships, politics.”

Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980)

I found these words quoted in an anthology of astounding quality called “Peace: A Dream Unfolding,” which was published in 1985, and deals primarily with averting the threat of nuclear war.  I have read this passage perhaps two dozen times over the past couple days, and am constantly surprised by how accurate, and prophetic, her words remain, 30-years on.

In recent weeks, I have frequently heard parallels drawn between breakthroughs in the early days of nuclear science, and Craig Venter’s recent successful synthesis of artificial life.  While many of the parallels involve the scope of the respective achievements in human and academic terms, many also express concern at what terrors such an understanding may unleash upon our world.  Though history has so far shown (knock, knock) the intense fear of a nuclear holocaust to be mostly unfounded, I must admit that I am afraid of what might be lurking in this newest box of Pandora’s.  I lack the knowledge of bio-chemistry to really qualify my fears, but I know that human beings have definitely proven themselves willing, time and again, to utilize science to enact great horrors on one another in the name of progress, profits and power.  With modern man sitting as we now do, more than ever before, at the “control panel of change,” I am worried about who is doing the driving.  The internet has certainly added an immense amount of weight to the power of “the autonomous individual in a decentralized society,” but this true-democratic dream has so far shown little reformative value, except perhaps in identifying pop-culture’s next teen heartthrob, or marginally-witty-catch-phrase.

She does seem to have been right about a lot of things, though.  Just as our technology is constantly redefining our relationship with change, allowing us, quite literally, to “intentionally align [or re-align] ourselves with nature” so too has our history armed us with a more sophisticated understanding of how change occurs.  The forces of technology and globalization have placed the future of our planet, and our species, in our hands as never before, but they have also provided us with access to information and education unfathomable to the thousands of generations which came before us.  As we are handed the most important and complex stewardship in human history, the great question of our generation, may be: ‘have we been paying attention?’.

I suppose the book of life, like any other, can be read only one page at a time, and only time will reveal what the next chapter holds, or how many will follow.  Though our generation has proven itself highly capable of ignorance and apathy, the “seeds of renewal” articulated by Ms. Ferguson three decades ago have borne beautiful fruit as well.  Our “roles, relationships, institutions and [especially] old ideas” have undoubtedly been “re-examined, re-formulated and re-designed” and while resource exploitation, human suffering, and geo-political inequality remain rampant, much of our population lives in a world that is significantly more equitable and more just than it was in 1980. The promise of expanded “imagination, invention and experience,” has bloomed perpetually, for better or worse, in the “rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions,” and new perspectives on practically every element we’re aware of are re-imagined daily into the newer, newest and newest-er frontiers of thought.

“Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence.  It has only to discover itself.”  As a new, exciting and dangerous era in bio-technology dawns, will our ecological wisdom and imagination be up to the task of finally transforming and transcending the persistent disequilibrium in our personal and social world, or will tomorrow’s new society be just another genetically modified strawberry – bigger, brighter and longer lasting, but born bereft of nature and nutrients, in the womb of a test-tube, so that some short-sighted white guy can buy a bigger car to overcompensate for his undersized stem.  We most certainly are the heirs to vast evolutionary and intellectual riches.  Then again, so were the Mayans.

“In the past, it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country.  Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat.  This fact should fully compel everyone to face a basic moral consideration; from now on, it is only through a conscious choice and then deliberate policy that humanity can survive.”  Pope John Paul II was standing in Hiroshima when he issued this warning.  Now it is the biological foundations of the life itself that have come under threat.  Will we make the conscious choices necessary to sustain the essence of our humanity, or will we follow the cloned lemmings of desire into the great Petri-dish of ‘I-wish-I-could-be-like…?’  Whatever the answer may be, I’m sure it will be found on reality TV.

Ancient of Days (1794) by William Blake

Ancient of Days by William Blake

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“Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty” — Socrates

Last night around 1:00am, I found myself loitering in front of some place called the Tattoo – Rock Parlour on Queen West.

Don’t ask.

I was distracting myself, as I often do, by making premature, and often grossly inaccurate judgments of the many people who wandered through my frame of vision.

Lots of people will tell you that they don’t judge.  Well I do.  I also judge people who say they don’t judge.  I judge them as being “untruthful,” perhaps most of all to themselves.

We judge in others those things we ourselves feel most guilty of.

At least I don’t pretend I don’t judge though.  Judgment is how we know that the present environment is safe, or sexual, or whether we can expect to eat or go to sleep.  Judging people, that is, drawing conclusions based on incomplete information, is unconsciously happening pretty much constantly.  Sorry.

The “Tattoo” in Tattoo Rock Parlour, is a little Tattoo shop, with a wide, well-lit window, flashing directly to face the lined-up semi-drunks, and the buzzing street beyond.  In the window is a woman wrapped in white, but for a black bra, and the bodily-scars of past visits to the artists’ chair.  I saw her, from across the street, and I wondered, “what would compel a person to display themselves as such?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with it.  Really, it’s beautiful.  But not everyone would voluntarily sit, lit in display on such a stage.  So what kind person does such a thing?   And so I judged.  Etc. Etc.

I met a woman, standing on the street.  I had met her before, so to speak.  “Can you spare some change?”  That was her sales pitch, repeated…  I had heard it many times.  The insanity of urban life made us neighbors, and our chance paths crossed often.  She bounced from pedestrian to pedestrian, like a ball in a secret game of soccer that nobody told her she was playing.  I guess she wasn’t playing.

Bouncing from one to another, I saw that soon her path would bring her to me.  She is older, perhaps in her 50’s.  Her fading hair hangs limply around a face that could use some color.  Her gait is stunted, as old shoes drag on the sidewalk, and dirty clothes hang on limp shoulders.  “Help me.”  That’s the judgment I made.

I see her first and catch her eyes: “I’m sorry, I can’t spare any change.” I say with a smile.  She looks at me, perplexed at first.  She who exists in the neglected and ignored corners of our well swept society is suddenly seen.  I continue to smile, and looking at her, see quickly that she understands a great deal more than meets the eye.  Her face breaks into a smile befitting the warmth of a grandmother, and she shrugs her shoulders slightly, with a squint, as if to say “great secret, huh?,” before meandering on.

Like I said, I see her often, preying on the fish in the stream as they flow through a bottleneck at a busy street-corner.  I also sometimes see her in front of the community housing in which she lives.   Leaning back in a comfortable chair, under a tree that seems about ready for puberty, she smokes a cigarette with a cup of coffee in her hand.  It’s late afternoon, and the rays of the eventually setting sun fall fully on her face.  Though I steal only a glance in passing, it seems almost as though the light reflected is greater, or perhaps grander than it was when it struck her skin.

It is the unmistakable glow of contentment, hiding here in the unlikeliest corner.  She is judged, this woman.  So it goes, in a life where pride is surrendered.  They look at her saying “help me,” and many, I’m sure, read little more than “less valuable than me.”  I know that I have encountered many who lived by mercy and kindness in my life and have frequently looked down upon them as I stepped by.

Yet, in her quiet moments, she knows contentment.  Contentment, the elusive prey sought by all.  I believe it eludes most of us.  We have happy moments, sure, but in the silence, we are rarely content.  There is always something to need or want, or that soon needs to be done.  Or perhaps it is something past that didn’t go right, or a wish for how it might have.  If past and future lie silent, the tricks in the shadows plant seeds of worry, and their vines creep slowly, unnoticed until that have already tied us in knots.

No, contentment is tricky to find, and trickier to hold onto.  There it was though, glowing outwards from her soul.

Perhaps she holds the greatest secret of all.  If she did, would you listen?

Peace and love

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“Dead man lying by the side of the road, with the daylight in his eyes. Don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning.” — Neil Young

I think often of the role played by elders in a society.

In elementary school growing up, we learned quite a lot about the various cultures of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.  I remember clearly the respect that the words of their elders carried, and the position of esteem and prominence that they played in their social units.  Elders, both male and female, were the leaders, the teachers, the decision makers and the judges that enabled their cultures and traditions to survive for thousands of years.  I imagine this wisdom played a role also in the survival of the people themselves, having chosen a particularly harsh environment in which to call home.

Traveling through Africa’s deep-rural areas, I regularly encountered much of the same reverence for the wisdom of the aged.  I was fortunate to witness many quiet deliberations, long minutes disappearing in silence with looks of distant concentration written in the deep lines of old faces.   I was fortunate also to hear the subsequent judgments, on issues ranging from agriculture to religion to love.  Universally, their words emerged with a slow and quiet caution, each carefully considered and weighed before being given a voice.  While many of those I happened to witness couldn’t read or write, and had certainly never studied logic or rhetoric, they spoke with lucidity of mind, and an intelligence which drew its source from a place far deeper than that available in books and displayed on expensive pieces of paper.

A few weeks ago, chance brought me into the foyer of a “retirement community” in suburban Toronto.  There, tucked in an out-of-the-way corner where they can’t bother anyone, is our culture’s store of wisdom.  I have been in a handful of such places, and I am always struck my the impression that everybody is waiting for something.  They sit, frail and gray, scattered about in comfortable arm-chairs, staring vacantly into space, or napping silently.  Hours later, I pass again through the same space and am slightly taken aback at just how little has changed in so many ticks of the clock. Perhaps the nappers are now staring vacantly, and the vacant starers are now napping.  Either way, precious little seems to be said of the thousands of years of collective life experience brought together in a single room.

There is something unsettling to me about all that waiting.  What are they waiting for?  After a life-time lived, one doesn’t expect the grand conclusion to be a drawn out hum, like the vertical coloured bars and mono-tone of an old television station, signed off for the long hours of the night.  Often, the comfortable arm-chairs seem to have arranged themselves around the main-entrance – spectators waiting for a show, any show at all, to punctuate the hum, even if only the Fed-ex guy dropping off a package. Do they have a choice, or is their actually their best-of-all-possible-options?

True wisdom is that gained from experience.  How tragic that this very moment, thousands of life-times of experience sit silently across our country and our continent.  Are we better off, for their silence?

We have little patience for such non-sense as wisdom anymore.  When the kids need to get to soccer practice, the truck needs an oil change, the neighbors just got a new TV, and there is talk of lay-offs at work, who has the time to bother with wisdom.  What place is there for slow and cautious consideration in a world ruled by a rule called “time-is-money”?  None, it would seem, except perhaps a nice, quiet corner, where they can’t bother anybody.

I’m not sure how it happened, but it does seem undeniable that reverence for the wisdom of our elders has been usurped by the indulgent whims of our children.  I grant, of course, that I am effectively comparing so-called “primitive cultures” with our so-called “developed world.”  I recognize how our quality of life differs across both time and space, and I am certain that, by what I have said so far, one could argue that the whims of children are superior to the wisdom of elders.  But does anybody really believe that?  The children may choose the most interesting paint job for the car, but do we let them drive, determine the destination, choose the path and look after the maintenance as well?

It’s obvious that modern technology and thought has brought us many wonderful things, but at what cost?  Those “primitive cultures” managed to survive for thousands of years, and provided we don’t kill them all, will likely go on for thousands of years more.  Our culture, on the other hand, though an infant itself in the grand scheme, has been compared to locomotive racing off a cliff.  We have created a world defined by unsustainability, instability and inequality.  No fancy computer modeling can sustain our level of resource consumption, and yet every day we consume more than the day before. Every day we consume more than the day before.

This is to be expected, I suppose, when the growing three-year-old in the backseat, tired of watching his personal DVD player, tired of playing with his various movie-themed, but creatively stagnant toys and tired of the wide variety of processed snacks his mom was able to gather (on sale) for the trip, begins to cry out for something else, something different, something new.

Kids are annoying when they cry.  I really wish there was something I could do to entertain him, to distract him, to just shut him up.

Old people are also annoying when they cry.  Good thing we have retirement communities to shut them away in, or we might have to listen to their slow, rambling and obsolete ideas about our flawless society.  Hurry up and get the kid in the van, or we’ll be late.  See you next year grandpa.

Peace and Love.

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