The Artist’s Way

It took me a long while to get to it. I first looked at a friend’s copy years ago. He recommended it highly, though he hadn’t done the program, just dabbled in it. Same as a lot of other people i talked to over the next few years — people who owned the book, intended (some day) to follow through its 12 weeks, but hadn’t — yet.

I’ve been a blocked, underproducing artist for some years now, sinking slowly into frustration, bitterness and a general rut. My artistic life consisted of mostly attempts to finish up things begun months or years ago, a backlog of seemingly good ideas that i couldn’t let go of and really should finish up so i could move on to the new stuff. It wasn’t crippling — i have managed to throw together a quite a few good poems and pieces — but there’s no doubt the energy and the fun was draining out of my writing, and out of life too. Continue reading

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Youth followship

So i was waiting in line at Capers, on Robson Street in  Vancouver, grabbing a porridge breakfast en route to the Wild Salmon rally and an hour at the Cohen Commission (“into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River”) last Monday. There was a bulletin board, and among the for-sales and event announcements there was one that struck me: an announcement for a “youth leadership” program. It struck me i’ve seen many similar ads in recent years — youth leadership has become something of a trend among social progressives (apparently unsatisfied with the current state of “elder leadership”). Not having custody of any youths myself, i never paid them much attention before. But now i wondered how many young leaders there might be out there, fostered by all these youth leadership programs.

Then i thought, a leader is nothing without her/his followers. And suddenly i was wondering how many more wanna-be leaders we really need. It seemed to me that, given the necessary numbers split between leaders and followers, what we need is more is educated, thoughtful followers. Too many leaders is like too many cooks; everybody visioning and bossing, nobody actually doing anything. In a nutshell, isn’t that the trouble with the political left these days? Every “leader” with a cause in their bonnet these days gathers three like-minded friends, registers a nonprofit, throws up a website, applies for a grant, and by dint of furious effort, proceeds to make little or no difference in the world.

There are some giant-sized problems wracking our world right now, problems big enough that ten thousand fractious, scattered, isolated little groups can’t begin to grapple with them. Humanity needs a huge pulling-together if we are going to have a hope of making a dent. So a solid course in youth followship might be more desirable than yet another on leadership. Off the top of my head, such a course might address:

  • detecting duplicity, hypocrisy, dysfunction, dishonesty in leaders
  • detecting “big man syndrome” — ego-driven leaders, versus those who serve a cause and the people
  • how to tell when leaders are working for your interests, versus theirs (or their funders’)
  • distinguishing a movement from a cult
  • seeing through sound-bite politics and spin
  • telling short-term thinking from long-term

The program might also begin correcting the cultural bias that casts leaders as great/important/famous/sexy, whereas followers are seen as mere sheep.

Many say the world is crying out for leadership. Yet so many of us are following the leaders we have — into wars, climate disaster, social decay and economic decline. I’m thinking the world needs a few million smart, discerning followers. Then, in the way of things, the right leaders will spring forth when the conditions are ripe.

Speeching to grads (1)

Here’s a zinger from the CharityFocus.org site: Paul Hawken’s commencement address in Portland. Thank you, Josie O, for sending it around.

Read it. Then deny it. Better yet, forget it in the rush of your busy, busy life. Continue living as though nothing in your life requires changing, or even a second thought. Drive your car every day. Eat meat. Buy as much stuff as you can. Let somebody else make an effort to turn your kids’ future away from a living hell.

Sorry, sudden outburst of cynicism at my fellow human beings, there. To the speech:

Paul Hawken is a friend of CharityFocus, renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental activist, founder of Wiser Earth and author of many books — most recently Blessed Unrest.

Last week, he was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University of Portland, when he delivered this superb commencement address.

Commencement Address to the Class of 2009
University of Portland, May 3rd, 2009

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” No pressure there.

Let’s begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity.  Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of
people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.

Speeching to grads (2)

A more conventional pep talk to UBC arts grads this year, published in The Tyee. Save the world, kids — God knows it needs it, after your parents got through with it.

Dear Grads, Help Save Us!

Armed with an Arts degree, you can be a hero.

By Michael Byers
Published: May 27, 2009

[Editor’s note: Political science professor Byers delivered this speech to graduating students at UBC’s “Great Arts Send-Off”.]

In medieval England, before the development of written land registries, local children were conscripted as witnesses to real estate transactions. At the exact moment that a piece of turf was symbolically handed from seller to buyer, the kids were whacked on the side of the head. By making the transfer of land memorable, the assault provided security of title for as long as the children lived.

Twenty-one years ago this month, I wrote my last exam as an undergraduate Arts student. I remember the occasion vividly because, with just 30 minutes left to go, the university was struck by a power outage.

There we were, rows upon rows of anxious students, sitting at temporary desks in a windowless gymnasium in pitch darkness. A quick-witted invigilator opened two outside doors, allowing a dull light into the hall — along with a blast of cold air.

Four years of English literature classes had equipped me to recognize the symbolism. The lights had gone off — not on — at the conclusion of my Arts degree. As for the blast of cold air: what better metaphor for the harsh realities of life outside the university?

The true value of an Arts degree

In retrospect, I learned many useful things during my studies. I learned about passion and politics from William Shakespeare, evil from Joseph Conrad, cynicism from Niccolò Machiavelli and hope from Immanuel Kant. I learned that differences of culture, religion, ethnicity and sexuality make the human species more interesting. I learned that history matters; that asking questions is a mark of intellect, not ignorance; and that words, wielded well, have the power to change the world.

I even learned about the existence of the female orgasm — though only because my French professor talked about it in her class.

Continue reading

Sat Chit Ananda

Well. The more i mess about in this new-age consciousness business, the more i think that everybody is saying exactly the same things. It can’t be described directly, of course — that’s the catch-22 of the whole game — so it must be illustrated obliquely, through yogic posture or Buddhist ritual or, most often, linguistic metaphor.

I’m convinced that two-thirds of the struggle (once one gets to the point of beginning to struggle, which is a whole epic in itself) is simply to find the metaphors that resonate most strongly with you. Some people — “seekers” — go through their whole lives from guru to guru, method to method. A lot of this is egoic procrastination — the threatened self not truly wanting to find the simple secret that will mean its dissolution — but much of it, i’m convinced, is metaphor search. 

For me, the rational, scientific argument works best. For me, yoga is just good exercise; meditation is simply ritual; far-flung foreign monasteries are but theme travel. Yet give me a good, hard-nosed, evidence-based logical argument for the empty mind and the universal self and i’ll eat it up every time. 

That’s how 1950s-60s British-American scholar and “religious entertainer” (his description) Alan Watts first kick-started me down this path, lo, those three (four? six?) long years ago. I listened, i was entertained, there were no cross-cultural references that i didn’t get … it just straight-up made sense. Eckhart Tolle was another one, speaking and writing from right here in B.C. I didn’t get through The Power of Now, but his follow-up world-wide hit A New Earth just laid it all out like … well, for me, the meta-metaphor is mathematics: a chain of small logical (or at least sensible) steps that leads like a path of stepping-stones to a conclusion that feels right on every level.

Did i say “laid it all out”? I overstated. I’ve always had questions, gaps, holes and unbridgeable interregnums in my understanding of even the relatively simple logical argument. Besides, all these myriad approaches, every one of them, is just a recipe; none of them is a cake. No matter how good, how thorough, how compelling the recipes are, until you’ve made cake, you don’t get cake. So no, it hasn’t yet been all laid out, not for me. But it feels like i’m getting there.

In pursuit of which i’ve been browsing about like mad on this marvellous Internet, here in Victoria with lots of free time, and yesterday i happily stumbled on what might be the clearest, most concise wrap-up of the whole plate o’ spaghetti that i’ve yet run across (for me, as always). It was this The Evolution of Consciousness page, and in the space of maybe 3000 words it runs neatly down a long, long evolutionary timeline. The headings: 

  • Are All Creatures Conscious?
  • Consciousness and Biological Evolution
  • Language and Consciousness
  • Self-Consciousness
  • Transcending Language
  • Sat Chit Ananda
  • Our Evolutionary Imperative

The page is on Peter Russell’s website. I don’t know anything about the guy, but i plan to look into his sizeable site over the coming days.