America’s culture of fear – in a photo (3rd and last)

I’ve been discussing (here and here) a very destructive syndrome that continues to unfold in our culture. As each decade and perhaps even year goes by, we find ourselves becoming more and more the slave of fear. Of both individual fears – which steadily multiply – and fear itself, fear as a way of life. By now I don’t think we even realize how far down the road we have travelled, but increasingly simply take it all for granted.

Fear has a thoroughly crippling effect upon freedom of thought and activity. It distorts reality by forcing it through its own unacknowledged filters. Of course, when a particular manifestation of fear is sufficiently powerful it achieves the status of taboo. At that point, we can no longer rely on a straightforward rational approach to relating to it. Instead, we find ourselves needing protection from the protection, as it were – ie, since creating any kind of rational protection requires looking into the fear, and we’re unable to do this, we need an additional layer for distance. But sometimes even that isn’t enough, and we end up with a whole construct, each layer distorting the actual nature of things more and more, stifling more and more human autonomy.

The recent revelations about Orwellian NSA activity are one prominent demonstration of this, but the syndrome is endemic now. It can be seen perhaps at its most expansive and fully hysterical in the realm of sex and relationship more generally, but that requires its own series of posts at another time. For now, I decided to focus on a simpler, more compact topic to illustrate the dynamic, namely our laws regarding the purchase and consumption of alcohol (please see previous posts).

Here is the next layer we’ve created – and this is where it gets rather interesting. Again, we’ve already raised the age, nationally, at which we might purchase even so much as a glass of beer, to five years beyond the age at which we are allowed to drive a car. And we are one of the very few countries in the world with a drinking age so high (the vast majority have set 18). One would have thought it sufficient then, with such a high age to begin with, that enforcement involve a straightforward assessment of whether or not a prospective purchaser of alcohol indeed seems to be at least 21.

In other words: a liquor store employee simply has a look at the person who has next approached the counter (while warmly greeting them, it goes without saying…), and if it appears as though they might be under 21, she/he requests proof of age. Easy, right?

Well, it doesn’t appear so. Because we seem to have lost any discretion here whatsoever. Someone who looks 21 might actually be a mere 20, or 19, or at a pinch 18 even! And how dare such a person, who is trusted with driving an extremely dangerous vehicle, trusted to marry and raise children, trusted with the ability to vote for their political representatives, trusted with the option of joining the military of their country where they might have to make genuine life-and-death decisions, and as it happens trusted in virtually every other country of the world to decide what they would like to drink – how dare somebody so terribly young conceive of buying an alcoholic beverage! Now if only they were a mere day over 21, all would be fine. But a day under? Better that all possible danger of mistake be eliminated than that one … single … person under that literally magical number ever succeed in … purchasing a couple of beers.

So here’s what we now do: in virtually every store I’ve been to that sells alcohol, there is a house policy – often posted – of requiring anyone who appears as if they might not be over 30 to prove their age. Now think about what this is really saying for a moment. An employee of a liquor store takes a look at someone and thinks: “ah, that person’s definitely old enough to drink, he looks 30, 32 or something.”

But then they stop and ponder: “although, come to think of it, they might actually be more like 29, or even 27. And in fact, despite their looks, it’s at least conceivable that they might be 24, 23.” So, because the employee’s best guess is 30 or 32, that’s not good enough, because that person might just – one time in 50 or so – be ten or twelve years off.

And if they’re wrong, that one person in however many might just be someone who not only drinks that night but also drinks to impairment and then drives a car. Forget about the inconvenient fact that the next person in line, a completely acceptable 22, might well do the same thing of course. No, all we care about is that absolutely nobody, at no time and in no place, noways and never, who is a single day under the magic Number, ever evades that almighty number and gets to … buy a drink.

Again, I can’t even be sure I’m being understood here because we have gone so far down this particular road. But in any event now let’s continue even further down this path of reductio ad absurdum. I would argue we’ve already reached it with such a policy, but clearly even this isn’t good enough, because in a large number of stores which sell alcohol I have seen signs which state that anyone appearing to be under 40 will be asked to prove their age. Forty! Is there, honestly, a single human being in this country who genuinely appears to be 38 or 39 but is actually 19 or 20? A single one? Well, who knows, just maybe there are one or two, but…

So we can see what has happened. The penalties against having served a “minor” are so crippling to a small business that they have decided all discretion has to go out the window, and we are left with a hysterical policy that has left all common sense behind. Again, remember, the law itself is only indirectly connected to drunk driving in the first place. Drunk driving requires three components: alcohol, enough alcohol to cause impairment, and then the act of driving. The original law was passed to reduce a percentage of a percentage. A certain percentage of all people will combine those three components – and we can’t do anything about it if someone decides to do so. So we simply raise the drinking age as a measure far more politically acceptable than raising the driving age.

Finally, three times now I have come across 50 given as the arbitrary cutoff point – as per my photo in the previous two posts. And you know what? If there actually does exist a single human being in this country who appears to be just barely under 50 but is in fact 19 or 20 … then please give that person a drink! Just do it, on the house, absolutely! Because clearly they’ve been through way, way too much…

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (2)

In the previous post I suggested that the capacity to be at least a little bit curious about an object of fear is essential to maintaining our humanity. Fear has a ravenous nature; if unchecked it simply keeps expanding. Over time multiple layers of protection can solidify around a core fear, like the concentric circles of an onion. We can’t even name the fear itself at that point, can’t even access it. But each of those additional layers cuts us off more and more from reality and creates various kinds of scapegoats we are unable to acknowledge. Each increasingly distorts our perception and diminishes our personal autonomy. It’s not hard to see that this syndrome has now pervaded our entire culture.

America’s current approach to alcohol is a straightforward illustration of this, and I’d like in this post to try and identify the core fear or fears – the center of the onion – lying behind it. In the following post on this subject I will then build up the onion, as it were, showing how we get from the core fear … to this (a photo I took last summer at a convenience store in upstate New York):


So, what is behind our de facto national prohibition of alcohol to those under the age of 21? (Note: with the exception of those Muslim countries in which alcohol is entirely illegal, only a handful of countries in the world have a drinking age above 18. Some have set 16, a number of others don’t legislate on the basis of age at all. So, we are in the draconian bottom 5-10%.) Our first thought is likely to be: the desire to reduce incidences of injury and death resulting from drunk driving. After all, this was the stated aim of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at its founding in 1980 by Candace Lightner, who had lost her young daughter in this way.

With the help of then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, New Jersey), MADD succeeded in getting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, which, through financial pressure on the states, resulted in every state raising their drinking age to 21 by 1988. Since then, having achieved its objective, the organization has gone on to lobby for further toughening of existing laws and additional measures, most controversially the creation of frequent sobriety checkpoints on roads and the raising of excise taxes on beer to match that on spirits. (Candace Lightner herself moved away from the organization in the mid-’80s, stating in a Washington Times article from 2002: “”It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”)

We need to take a step back at this point and look more closely at what is going on. What are the components of the problem as such? There are three, and they are inseparable: alcohol, drinking too much, and driving. If any of these three are absent, we don’t have drunk driving, period. Notice also that age as such is irrelevant here. When a person of whatever age a) drinks alcohol, b) drinks to the point of impairment, and c) gets behind the wheel of a car, then and only then do you have a situation of risk.

(It’s important also to note that what constitutes “too much” does in fact vary from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour, especially at lower levels of consumption. But in a scientistic culture where, more and more, mind is being collapsed into brain, these kinds of empirical truths increasingly can no longer be seen. All that matters is whatever magic number is called into service. It’s also crucial to remember that “impairment” occurs in lots of other ways too, via any form of inattention, whether it be texting, taking too long to change the radio station, turning to stare at a beautiful guy/girl, tiredness, or whatever it might be. Any of these scenarios can and do cause accidents, and most in the long run are simply impervious to legislation.)

So: why not just maintain a law against, well … drunk driving, and leave it at that? This is the entire point, after all.

The argument given is that raising the drinking age can be correlated with fewer incidences of drunk driving, and this can’t help but be true. (Much of the decrease surely also can be correlated with greater public exposure of the problem.) But if this is our logic, then why stop at 21? Raising the drinking age to 25 would save even more lives. Going back to Prohibition – even more. And in fact, of the three necessary components to drunk driving I pointed to above, driving is actually the most proximate cause of all, because it’s the vehicle which directly brings about the harm. So why not simply raise the driving age to 21, which would bring about all sorts of additional benefits?

And it is this last option I think which points to what is going on at a deeper level here. Even though raising the driving age to 21 would be even more effective at reducing car-related deaths than raising the drinking age, no one would dream of seriously suggesting it. And why not? Because despite the fact that car accidents are one of our leading causes of death, and have brought about all kinds of other negative environmental, social, and health effects, greater mobility is seen as a pure, innocent, necessary good. Intoxication of any kind, however, the heightening of ordinary, functional consciousness? Suspicious, always, in this culture. Especially in “the young.”

And let’s go one step further. Why is heightened or altered consciousness suspect? Simply because it moves in the direction of the previously unknown and the less certain. It threatens inertia, the purely habitual. It is a catalyst of new perceptions, can enable new ways of seeing.

Therefore we have a driving age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. And this says it all. At 16 we are deemed responsible enough to operate an extremely powerful and dangerous machine, but not responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine – or, heaven forbid, sometimes several!

I don’t want to diminish the power of alcohol either. As we know it plays a part in a high percentage of instances of violence in our culture, and there will always be a relatively small minority for whom it will become a very destructive problem. But it seems that when it comes to the realms of bodily enjoyment and mental expansiveness we have lost all sense of balance. This feature of our core collective fear is so deeply buried that automatic suspicion has become the norm. We really don’t trust ourselves to navigate our own bodies and minds, so we relinquish responsibility to an abstraction called the law, which removes more and more of our individual discretion.

I’m leaving aside the question of enforceability here, though it’s not insignificant. An 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to enter a university environment where they will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other students their age is going to drink if they want to, regardless of the law. Any college student can testify that such a prohibition is easily, regularly, and almost universally flouted.

Mainly what I’m trying to show at this first level of response is that it is a purely pragmatic measure that has been elevated to moral crisis. Our culture treats this number as a moral principle in itself, as witnessed for example by the portentous – and infantilizing – tones of any number of public service advertisements on the subject over the years. Someone a single day over that magic number of 21 can purchase and drink as much alcohol as they like; someone who is younger by a mere two days is treated as having a “criminal mind” if they attempt to do the same. Many 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly; many who are 26, or 36, or 56 are not.

A number will never make for a moral argument. Our culture worships numbers, however, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to make intelligent discretionary decisions, partly because we have come as a society to value safety and risk-aversion above almost everything else. So: more and more and more laws aiming to create a perfectly safe world which … can never come. Hence – as I’ll touch upon in the third and last post – a process that is hysterically out of control.

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (1)


I took this photo last summer. The sign appears in the window of a service station/convenience store in upstate New York and provides, I think, an especially compact illustration of an entire story that can be told about our collective psyche these days.

Before telling it in my next post, a few words as introduction:

It’s not hard to see that fears have a kind of self-propagating or self-aggrandizing power. They are ravenous, ever-expanding, until we can begin to examine them. This is so because fear designates precisely that which is beyond the pale, unencounterable, for what cannot be faced becomes to that extent inescapable. Ordinarily we see this most clearly in nightmares, when we are at the mercy of our mind’s projections. Within the nightmare we are bodiless and so running away doesn’t – can’t – succeed: we are attempting, impossibly, to flee ourselves.

The Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa taught that becoming a “warrior” (in the sense of a spiritual warrior) does not mean being free of fear or cultivating a tough exterior. Rather, it arises out of a very different quality, which is the capacity to open fully to the world, to allow the world with all its phenomena in, so that we can actually be touched by it. He suggested that when we do so its effect is to soften us, and that out of this “tender heart of sadness,” as he called it, our long-cultivated dualities of Self and Other can begin to soften too. The Berlin Walls in our minds become more permeable.

A glimpse of genuine fearlessness can arise out of this experience because in that moment we are not trying to protect ourselves and our territory in quite the same way. Ultimately, we fear anything which threatens our belief in a separate, independent, unchanging Self. It naturally follows that allowing our habitual defences to soften, “letting the world tickle our raw and beautiful heart,” as Trungpa so wonderfully put it, fosters the birth of true warriorship.

(From this standpoint an American president once said something truly profound – who’d have thought?!: “the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”)

Returning to nightmares in this context, I’ve been told by more than one person that if, when confronted by a monster in a dream, we can stay with it, face it, ideally even take a step in its direction, it will lose its power over us, even dissolve or turn into a harmless- or sad-looking cartoon character. Best of all is when the dreamer is able to feel a sense of compassion towards it.

So then, what happens when we do the opposite, when instead of trying to take a step forward, even a tiny one, or at least not running away, we … slowly back up, in rising panic. Or just turn round and run for the hills. Does the fear go away?

Well, how can it? We’ve only shored it up, made it even more solid. From this standpoint “fear itself” is nothing other than the duality we continuously strengthen. It resides in and arises from precisely that ultimately non-existent gap between self and projection. But the more powerful we allow it to become, the more layers of protection we will find ourselves creating. The whole thing becomes tighter and tighter. And more and more demons have to be invented too – scapegoats we sacrifice to keep the nature of reality at bay.

A metaphor that comes to me often in thinking about this is that of an onion. If the core of the onion represents a fear we cannot even look at, we create a layer around it as opaque as possible. But if for various reasons the fear is so strong that one layer isn’t enough, we add a second – we put something in place which protects us from our initial barrier that we realize is not 100% strong enough. And then sometimes we need a third layer if we sense the second itself may be a bit fragile. So that when something becomes so taboo that we are incapable of looking at it at all, incapable of any kind of reasoned response, the end result is hysteria – and loss of humanity.

In the next two posts I try and deconstruct, fairly thoroughly, the quite numerous layers of that onion of fear which are embedded in the photo above. And suggest that in America today this approach has become our routine, automatic, indeed pathological response to insecurity and uncertainty of all kinds.

the blindspots in our religion of Scientism

There are many. Here are some of the most important:

1) Science is viewed as uniquely trustworthy because it contains a continuously self-correcting mechanism in the form of peer review.

2) For this reason, it constantly evolves over time, getting better and truer in every way. Unlike religion, science is incapable of succumbing to dogmatic stagnation and therefore remains incorruptible.

3) Its practitioners maintain a more-or-less pristine purity – of motivation and integrity, intellectual and moral courage.

4) Even where this is not so, Science’s methods are somehow transcendently “objective,” ultimately enabling it to rise above all human partiality and short-sightedness.

In short, we can confidently cede to Science the same kind of trust and faith we once gave to religion. We may as well even (were it not for the fact that we dislike the word so much) call it “God,” because it serves the same primary function for us, being our source of complete and absolute Truth.

When challenged, apologists for scientism – which is not the practice of genuine, humble science but rather precisely this ideology or religion of Science – can be counted upon to deliver these assertions. Mostly, however, they don’t need to, because these have become thoroughly embedded in our culture. The trouble – the big trouble – is that none of them happen to be true.

Taking them one by one, briefly:

1) Peer review is still trustworthy within certain domains of science. Unfortunately, in other areas – particulary medicine and psychiatry – this process has clearly broken down, as has been demonstrated in many publications of recent years. Big, big money and other vested interests infiltrated it quite some time ago. Pharmaceutical companies maintain various means for influencing the interpretation and reception, even the initial framing and design, of studies. (See an earlier post on this.)

2) The idea that science, a purely human enterprise, must necessarily keep getting better is an impulse of religious faith, and nothing more. We laugh today at nineteenth century science’s forays into phrenology: how could they ever have believed that the shape of one’s skull could indicate “moral degeneracy” or “criminality”? Yet today we see research positing a connection between finger-length ratios or inner ear functioning and openness to same-sex sexual expression! All of these kinds of studies have been picked to shreds by numerous analysts, but they still persist and are even widely believed because … science keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?

But, of course, this is simply not so. There are wrong turnings, and dead ends. There is wishful thinking, and the need for new paradigms. There are simply no guarantees that at any given moment in any particular area of inquiry we are on track. There is even, and very much so, the possibility that dogma may set in, so that an entire erroneous way of conceiving something becomes stuck in falsehood or incoherence for quite a long period.

3) Once upon a time, “the scientist” represented an ideal type. She (though in fact almost always a he, since science until a hundred years ago or so believed women to be unfit for higher education and in fact damaged by it) was a lone, heroic seeker after truth, wherever it might lead. Humble, radically open, laboring away with purest and most disinterested motivation.

Those days, needless to say, are long gone. Though such people undoubtedly still exist, “science” today is a vast domain of disparate activities, many of which are indistinguishable from pure advocacy or profit-making. The reality is that enormous profits may hang upon the acceptance of one study or another, and that big contracts await those who can persude governments or corporations of future cash potential in a line of research. There is more generally the reality of job-seeking and grant application at all levels, and the all-too-human phenomena of ambition and peer pressure, of competitiveness and factions within research institutions.

Some human beings may be saintly, purely disinterested seekers after truth wherever it may lead them. Most of us would prefer, ideally, to have more influence rather than less, to be revered rather than viewed as an eccentric crank, and so on. On top of this, larger cultural paradigms and expectations inevitably influence how we conceive the “scientific” to begin with. By definition, we cannot see a cultural blindspot until something shifts in the paradigm, revealing what was previously obscured.

4) The notion that Science is somehow separable from the human minds which create, define, and practice it is completely insupportable. This is precisely a transcendent, religious notion – an article of faith.

Materialism – the belief that all that exists is measurable, perceptible to the physical senses of human beings – is inescapably a philosophical, not a scientific, position. It contains a number of difficulties which the best minds of countless generations have grappled with. Indeed, there is something rather comical in the spectacle of human minds getting together to express the idea – no, make the dogmatic assertion – sometimes even in formulations of dense theoretical abstraction, that consciousness as such doesn’t exist! That everything mental is somehow generated from the physical. (The buddhists put it the other way round – but they also don’t claim this as dogma to be believed, rather a way to see which we can each personally investigate.) The fact that the material realm does obey certain formulable rules does not warrant an assertion that we can reduce the nature of reality itself to concept.

“We are nothing but the firing of neurons,” say – somehow – the firing neurons…

All interpretation is necessarily subjective, unless, in the seizing of “objectivity,” we want to proclaim Science as dogmatic religion, as our God: indisputably true, the final arbiter in all and every last meaningful question we might put to it. Not just – for here is the most crucial point – within the sphere of non-sentient matter, but also that of sentience, consciousness, itself.

Look at what happens, after all, whenever the arguments I have made above appear in the national press – when they are even allowed to appear. One is told that as a non-scientist one has no right even to speak on the subject, being so ignorant. Science also commandeers all purity of motivation today; all those who lament the extent of its dominance must be, maybe even secretly, employees or spies of Religion. (The only trouble is that when science PhDs say the same things they too are intimidated or mocked.)

We are told:

Sit down, shut up, and marvel – with genuine religious awe even – at the photos we are going to show you of galaxies and the brain (but wait until we first color them in so that they look as startling and aesthetically pleasing as possible, otherwise, actually, you might be rather unimpressed).

We are told:

Do you see that beautiful orange region right there? That, my friends, is “gregariousness”! And that breathtaking purple underneath it? Hold onto your seats, but, yes, that’s the region which, when activated, causes you to weep with joy when listening to Ravel’s Piano Trio or petting a faithful dog! And one day we will be able to locate the exact region where “addiction-proneness” resides, so that – with enough funding – we can develop forms of surgery which will ensure a population where nobody is addicted to anything! Of course, it’s true, the purple area might also light up when you get some unexpected good news, or in numerous other scenarios, and in fact other regions light up too when you pet that dog, and admittedly we can’t actually conceptually bridge material and immaterial yet – um, at all – but give us more time, and tons more money, and we promise we will eventually be able to tell you how you get from a neuron firing to all the immense richness and complexity of aesthetic experiences and human emotions of all kinds.

You can trust us, for we are the representatives of the living twenty-first century God Who has dethroned wisdom as wimpy new-age ‘woo’ in favor of endless, directionless, value-free accumulation of knowledge. We ourselves, of course, are as wooless as woolessness can be. [Note: “woo” is a technical term used by, eg, Jerry Coyne and his fellow warriors devoted to the death of all religion. It means, as far as I can tell, anything enthusiastically stated using a language other than science, especially if it contains sentiments of awe, mystery, amazement.]

It has all become rather a racket. Good research being done, certainly, mixed in with much that is very badly conceived. Everyone scrambling for money, with fame and honor to be gained if something either pans out or can be made to appear promising. An entire culture desperate to believe in something, desperate for certainty – now that most within it can no longer subscribe to religious dogmatism. Corporations, naturally, ever on the lookout for a technological innovation that will give them an edge. Governments, naturally, searching for more successful means of manipulation, control, power. A public with miniscule attention spans and an insatiable desire for “news,” for non-challenging, easily digestible reductionism, the more sensational the better – turning to the media and its nearly uncritical acceptance of anything that comes out of the mouths of our contemporary priests and bishops – the Scientists.

Wisdom? What’s that? Just a certain quantity of “knowledge,” right? Quaint term, but what does a wise person have to give us anymore, anyway? Now if you’ll just read this new study over here, scientists have discovered (sort of, not quite, well not actually at all, but if you read the fine print they have possibly contributed to the advancement of a suggestion of) the next new earth-shattering Revelation…


… He felt changed, growing; he felt new tensions and new harmonies between himself and the world. There were times, now, in music, Latin, and mathematics, when he could master tasks that were still beyond his age and the scope of his schoolmates. Sometimes he felt capable of any achievements. At other times he might forget everything and daydream with a new softness and surrender, listen to the wind or the rain, gaze into the chalice of a flower or the moving waters of the river, understanding nothing, divining everything, lost in sympathy, curiosity, the craving to comprehend, carried away from his own self toward another, toward the world, toward the mystery and sacrament, the at once painful and lovely disporting of the world of appearances.

from Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, translated by Richard and Clara Winston

the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

Goldie – “Sea of Tears”

A 12 minute drum-n-bass symphonic masterpiece from the CD Timeless that I just listened to again for the first time in awhile.

Here’s a guide for those who’ve never heard it and might think they don’t have 12 minutes to spare. Maybe this will nudge you to make a bit of contemplative space in your day…

So if you click the play button below … you will first hear a purely electronic descending sequence of notes (F-C-F sharp) put through various effects, and have no idea where you are. It’s a mysterious, metallic landscape, a kind of limbo. (But that three note sequence will be shifting around within new contexts throughout the whole piece.) The guitar theme layered on top of this at 0:48 adds to the enigma, and if you are not patient (!) you might decide to hit Stop and find a cat video or something. But of course this would be a big mistake! BECAUSE …

At 1:36 the drums come in (this is d-n-b after all), and they play an unusual pattern of bars that alternate 4 beats, then 3, then 4, then 5. So now we are off… But where are we going?…

Suddenly at 2:48 the beats regularize into 4 as a jazzy, gorgeous theme on guitar enters: spacious and warm. Pure joy. This is the point, when I first heard it way back when, when I realized something quite amazing was taking place…

So we have nearly two minutes of this before just as suddenly the drums stop as a woman’s voice simply says “tears.” And we hear samples of breaking waves and seagulls crying in the distance joining the mix. Gradually, over the next half-minute or so, everything else fades out except for strings playing two notes, the voice repeating “tears,” and the sea and seagulls.

Then we are in another limbo, because at this point even the strings are gone, and we’re listening to sea and seagulls and nothing else. This is at 5:12, smack in the middle of the track: how cool is that? But then, over the continuing samples … the first voice we heard asks a question, and another voice, a child’s, replies:

“What are you doing here?”
“Washing away the tears.”

Thwack to the heart. And it always makes me think of the end of Allen Ginsberg’s poem for his friend Jack Kerouac too – “Memory Gardens”:

Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work –
and what’s the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken

But we are just halfway through! A new guitar line enters of simple plaintiveness. This is all we hear for a minute or so, the guitar over the sea and gulls. And at this point, another miraculous moment. At 6:34 the first voice reenters, saying “wash … away … the tears.” And a wordless vocal line enters too, and strings, with the previous guitar line returning. And then … the drums return, and there is a hint of crying in the mix, while the vocal line acquires words: “sea … of tears.”

But you know what? This track is still not out of new and beautiful ideas. Because at 7:48 we get yet another version of the initial three-note sequence – and the crying returns, and for nearly two minutes it’s almost unbearable…

Until 9:25 … and yet another guitar line, again simple, lovely. The crying now stops, and we just hear the guitar and three-note synth sequence, with drums and bass, a mysterious landscape akin to the opening. We float in this world until 11:00, when the drums stop again, for the last time, the previously crying woman says “sea … of … tears,” and then “wash … away … the tears … tears,” and then “wash … away … my tears.”

And the last 20 seconds are just the sound of the sea…

So – normally I wouldn’t want to try and do that kind of analysis here but I’ve always been in awe of how intricate and organically unfolding this piece is, and thought I would try to convey this in the hope that someone straying onto the site who might otherwise be dubious about the full potential of electronic/dance genres of music might be reminded that genius arises anywhere it likes…

The point, as always, is to listen for yourself. Which, since I will now shut up (!), you now can do.