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What do Europe and Yoga have in common? Union! But of what?

A line from ‘Life of Brian’ kept going through my head in Brussels: Brian: ‘You’re all individuals.’ Voice from the crowd: ‘I’m not.’ It’s funny because the person who says, ‘I’m not’ seems to be the only one with any individualism. But it was also provocative while on a two-day visit (organised through the IEN, Irish Environmental Network) to the European Commission and European Parliament. One of the first things we were told was that the benefits of the EU include the free movement of people (and meanwhile we were in buildings the entrances to which are governed by stricter security measures, in my personal experience, than entrance to JPL/NASA buildings in Pasadena, Ca., ones that might, conceivably, be associated with militaristic activities). We could most certainly not leave the group.

Yoga means Union, of course, and I’m not anti-union. In fact, I think that one of our key survival strategies, as humans, as organisms, is cooperation although competition (or ‘aggressive symbiosis’) provides grist for one another’s mills, as it were. We are not entirely as individual as we think we are. We are interdependent, even if we have deeply held personal beliefs and commitments. But our interdependence goes much more than species deep. Any organisation that fails to recognise this interdependence does us a disservice.

In other words, if the EU is to benefit us as fully as it has the potential to (and it has huge potential to benefit those within, and even those beyond, its borders), then it needs to work much harder to identify the grounds on which it bases its policies. Those began with a motivation to create peace and stability (within which to trade, primarily). The ground is shifting, though. We now need to realise that the constraints we live with are not ideological alone, but are also very real: we are a growing number on a finite planet and we depend on the health of the systems that have evolved along with us to sustain us. We need to shift the balance of attention from one that sees Nature as pretty, or even inspirational, but not essential, to one that puts the maintenance of natural systems at the heart of policy. The health of ecosystems determines the health of human systems and not the other way round. No amount of self-interested agenda-pushing is going to change that. Politics may be the art of the possible but it’s going to need to reexamine its roots if it is to represent and deal with what’s really going on.

From Mula bandha to jumping ship via climate change

An attempt here to connect some largely unrelated topics, mostly because I can’t imagine taking the time to write several posts so want to include them all in one. Firstly, on the topic of Yoga and how to understand mula bandha:

Consider the pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, not just as the group that includes the pubococcygeuspuborectalisiliococcygeus and coccygeus muscle. Consider also the deep abdominal, back muscles and diaphragm (the muscle between thorax and abdomen that helps you breathe). When you engage mula bandha, you are focussing on the natural process that occurs when you lift a heavy weight, for instance. So you don’t just lift the pelvic floor (as though you’re resisting the urge to pee), you are increasing an equal pressure in the whole abdominal core and drawing all the muscles into work evenly, towards a point about two inches below your navel.

Right, that’s the first thing. Mula bandha. You can engage it while you’re sitting or standing but it’s usually taught when you’re practicing Setu bandha.

The next, and totally unrelated, thing (maybe not totally unrelated, actually) is, can Yoga wreck your body? Yes, and your mind, since the two are interlinked. Yoga is more risky than a Zumba class because you are doing more work to engage internal muscles that affect your breathing (see above), and your breathing affects your blood pressure, so you can change your blood pressure quite dramatically. Oh, and also Yoga can be very demanding on your spine IF you’re determined to ignore your own common sense and pain signals and do things because everyone else is – but that’s human nature, isn’t it? So you are practicing becoming aware of this, and if you’re paying a lot of attention, you can actually resist the flow of what’s going on around you and decide what’s really going to work for you. It’s a sort of life lesson so you may find you don’t get it straight away, or that you understand in one context but completely fail to practice in another. That’s my experience, anyhow.

Which brings me to the next topic: how do we get people to take the human impact on ecological and climate systems seriously? The crowd flows one way. For instance, there was an article on the unexplained deaths of whales off the coast of Ghana this morning and the response of local fishermen was, hey no problem, more fish for us. This is good news. Another but far less gung-ho response was, are these deaths linked to oil drilling? We need to do some research. But which response is most likely to generate a following in Ghana? If you’re hungry, or you want to get richer, you are unlikely to be keen to investigate further research when the surface appearance is that a rival fish eater is declining in numbers, offering less competition (now I’m no whale expert but the pics look a little like baleen whales which don’t eat fish, but eat krill… but I’m just speculating).

So, how do you get people to take an interest in, and thereby take some responsibility for, human impact? Exhaustingly, it looks like it’s up to each of us individually to keep highlighting the issues (which is why I’m writing this). People who have an audience, like teachers, can use the opportunities to get students interested in the debate, and looking into the questions. Really, there needs to be a global governance response, though, that actually looks systematically at how to create policies and laws that take into account human impact (Polly Higgins’ end ecocide idea is great – but we need to see it broken down and case studies of the effects such laws would have really worked out for people). Shouting about it is all very well

But lots of people are completely turned off by mob mentality, and by being told what to do, particularly when that involves a decrease in income and standard of living – which is the unavoidable consequence of what will need to happen if those in the global North who live on more than the minimum wage are to contribute what they will have to in order to address impact.

Far more sensible is to lay out what we do have to do as individuals. Do we have to stop flying? (I’ve struggled with this one for years and for years my response has been, yes – but then I look at people who fly frequently and I feel the stirrings of jealousy – I want to see wonderful places too, and get away from the rotten Irish winter, and even escape living in a small community, however lovely the people are, just for a while…)

This is what we need to be learning in universities, and in schools: what changes make sense? Personally, I think there’s no one size fits all, but I think we could make better decisions and work better as a species if we had more clarity and better research to identify the facts.

Raining again, but this is what I did on my birthday – took the boat out – and jumped off! Image

Local Property Tax – regrets, anyone?

So. We paid. Deep regrets. Didn’t see how to get out of it. Think it’s a retrogressive tax and feel deeply disloyal to all those who have stood firm and not paid but just feel that there is no realy way of getting out of this and I’m afraid the Attack the Tax crowd didn’t sound too convincing on the question, so what do we do if you lose? Big sigh. I know exactly how coercive societies can be now. I cannot blame people for going along with government policies. If I were in government, I would begin to realise how much power I had over people’s lives. Ah, well. Another day, another noose closing. We have so little freedom within societies, which is why, ultimately, I don’t think societies are in our best interests. Yet it would take a hugely responsible community of individuals to live together without organisation. I can imagine such a group, but it would be selective. (Oh, and even writing this feels subversive. Although so few people read this that it makes as near to no difference as possible, nevertheless I am all too conscious that once this is posted, it’s out there in the ether, ready to be used against me at the click of a few buttons by anyone with the nous to do minimal research. Yet I also feel that this is important enough an issue of individual freedom further curtailed to merit a mention. Hello, future self. How do you feel now?


Chance, accidents and idiosyncracies

Consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we’ve used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response.

Jared Diamond has explained this successfully at the cultural/anthropological level in Guns, Germs and Steel. I want to take this approach in the philosophical field and see how it affects how we explain the world around us to ourselves. We have what Andrew Chitty calls ‘human condition imaginaries’, which are ways of explaining how the world is, and what the human condition is. These are deeper, more foundational, if you like, than the imaginaries we use to base our political or social or cultural ideologies on, thought those are important too. These are more like how we imagine humans relate to the world, whether we see that as positive, neutral, entirely dualistic, negative and so on. For instance, if my human condition imaginary is one that sees the relationship between humans and nature as an antagonistic one, I’d be entirely justified in thinking I’ve got to get the bastards, say bacteria, viruses, or even lions (see the recent furore about the American ‘huntress’ who posted pics of herself with a dead lion – a few people might have understood that in terms of an antagonistic perspective and lauded her bravery).

What I’m trying to do is to explore how justified we are in taking a particular human condition imaginary as the foundation for justifying particular sets of attitudes and actions.

If you’ve read any of the rest of this blog, you’ll know I’m a follower (and admirer) of Tim Morton, whose take on this is that we’re enmeshed. I like the way his response to his philosophical understanding is coherent and authentic – for instance, his understanding of how violent the systems are that we are enmeshed in was to become a vegan (that wasn’t the only reason, actually, but it was one of them). He then had a long discussion with his followers about whether or not it was ok to eat honey as a vegan. I say, give the guy a break! In fact, the whole idea of judgment, taking the moral high ground, and so on, is at the heart of the problem we now have with being able to discuss (maybe any ideas but particularly) ideas about the climate crisis, the ecological emergency, and so on.

I’m updating this because I’ve chosen, rather foolishly, to set up a link to this blog via UCC. I need to do a lot more updating and reviewing of what I’ve posted here, and that will come, in time. For now, have a browse, if you like, and do, please, feel free to open discussion on any topic you chose. James Delingpole I’m not: I’m not right about everything but I am happy to discuss where you are coming from, how that informs your view, and what kind of relationship your views might have to mine.

What is life? AGW and Humans

The first stage, DENIAL, involves people simply not believing that the earth is warming, or secondarily that humans are the cause (quick note: nothing worse than a know-all: climate scientists and Greens need to be aware that they are as vulnerable as the next person to crowing and this is not a subject appropriate for crowing. Let all ego go. Some of us were in the right place at the right time to recognise. It does not give us a right to smug. Smug stinks. Remember that. However…) Despite seeing a 50 year record of global atmospheric CO2 rising every year since 1957, and global air temperatures of the last dozen years in a row being the warmest in a millennium, they dismiss these trends as natural variability. These people see no reason to disturb the status quo. Most people rightfully started at this stage, until presented with convincing evidence. That convincing scientific evidence recently summarized in the 4th IPCC report has, according to opinion polls, dramatically reduced the number of people in Stage 1.
  Many people jump directly from DENIAL to Stage 4, but for others, the next Stage 2, is ANGER, and is manifested by wild comments like “I refuse to live in a tree house in the dark and eat nuts and berries.” People are incensed at the thought of substantially altering their lifestyle. Local newspapers have letters to the editor from people angry to the point of irrational statements hinting darkly about the potential end of modern civilization.
  Stage 3 is BARGAINING. When they reach this stage many people (such as self-righteous radio talk show hosts) who used to be very public deniers of global warming begin making statements that warming ‘won’t be all that bad, it might make a place like (insert your locality) more comfortable’. It is true that variables, like building heating requirements, can cause some decrease in energy demand. Unfortunately, this is offset and overwhelmed by negative and intensely damaging events like later Springs, less predictable weather patterns (impacting on farming capabilities, since farmers depend on seasons), more intense droughts and floods, and so on. At this stage people are still not willing to change lifestyle, or explore energy solutions that are less carbon intensive. They seem willing to ride out this grand global experiment and cope with whatever happens.
  Many people have now moved to Stage 4, DEPRESSION. They consider the acceleration of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the unprecedented speed of warming, and the necessity for international cooperation for a solution, and see the task ahead to be impossible. On my tougher days I confess to sinking back to Stage 4 myself.
  The final stage ACCEPTANCE, are people that acknowledge the scientific facts calmly, and are now exploring solutions to drive down greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, and find non-carbon intensive energy sources. Two factors are important in moving the public from DEPRESSION to this ACCEPTANCE stage.
  First are viable alternatives to show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is possible without the end of modern civilization. It is very heartening to see wind turbines, LED lighting, thin film solar and hybrid cars on the market right now, not some vague future hope. Second is visionary national leadership, a “Marshall Plan” level of national focus and commitment, so everyone is contributing, and the lifestyle changes needed are broadly shared, in fact becoming a new norm. Progress on that front has not been good so far. An obvious flaw in this analogy is that many people are simply ignoring the global warming issue, a detachment they cannot achieve when they are facing Cancer, for instance.


Update on thesis outline: twelve steps…

 Entirely subconsciously, I started using the work ‘steps’ to describe the stages of the argument and then found that I had expanded them to twelve. Oh, well. Coincidence, I’m afraid.


First step: the prevailing paradigm within which we, humanity, currently operate (the paradigm of the ‘global North’) is dualistic and heirarchical. That is, we think of humanity as separate in quality (having souls, consciousness or other non-material attributes) and this allows us to justify a sense of superiority so that we prioritise human interests over those of the rest of the ecology. This has led to our current ecological crisis.


Second step: the prevailing paradigm has come about as a result of idiosyncracies in the development of human history/culture. In other words, it was not inevitable that the paradigm of the global North became dominant. It just did.


Third step: what we know now about evolutionary science indicates that the two central elements of the paradigm – dualism and heirarchical justification for prioritisation of human interests – are, neither of them, justifiable (sub-step: ironically, it is the development of dualism and hierarchical assumptions that has allowed us to develop scientific thinking – see Descartes, etc, yet this thinking has led us back to the realisation that a mechanistic view of the universe is inadequate).


Fourth step: therefore in order to better reflect our understanding through how we act, and so that we might stop damaging and destroying the ecological context within which we’ve developed and upon which we depend for survival, we need an alternative way of understanding the relationship between our species and the ecological context. We need to uproot the illusion that the world was made for humans.


Fifth step: one way that offers this alternative perspective is to consider how idiosyncratic our historical development has been: we need not have come to this relationship with the world as a species. It was not inevitable. It just happened. The myths, explanations and ideologies we’ve used to justify our exploitation of the planet developed on the basis of our idiosyncratic history too, so do not offer stable grounds for a more integrated response.


Sixth step: looking at our development from an evolutionary/ scientific perspective offers a better explanation for how we have developed and therefore needs to be central to any further response we make. Things simply are the way they are as a result of all that has happened. In this sense, we are no more ‘responsible agents’ than a rock is responsible for its current condition, or even than a plant is. Everything that has happened to take us to this point is perfectly natural and yet was never inevitable. We can ‘wake up’ to that and then see what level of agency we have in this context.


Seventh step: Part of our understanding of ourselves in the context of evolutionary science means accepting that everything, including humans, obeys natural laws as a matter of fact. Evolution has come about by chance developments that have nevertheless obeyed natural laws. Humans have come about in the context of evolution and chance or idiosyncratic opportunities have allowed particular developments to succeed and others not to, but all successful evolutionary developments obey natural laws. One natural law is the second law of thermodynamics that states that things fall apart, that all matter cycles and energy flows dissipate towards a state of entropy. The evolution of life is sometimes said to violate this law but it accords to it perfectly, if understood from the point of view of being a) temporary and b) the development of a complex process that dissipates more energy than would be the case if there was no life (I NEED EVIDENCE TO SHOW THAT THIS STATEMENT IS PLAUSIBLE).


Eighth step: And yet there is a spectrum of response between ourselves, the plant and the rock that can be seen to operate according to the complexity of the available reactions. All processes respond to conditions, exchanging energy and information: it’s just a matter of degree to what extent and how complex this response system is. Consciousness gives us a level of ability to respond that involves an additional potential to influence the feedback processes through observation. We can see that we see and that can change how we respond. Observation or awareness of what we are doing is, in itself, a response.


Ninth step: Observation or awareness of this kind is closely comparable to the Zen practice of mindfulness, or meditation (here I describe parallels with the Soto Zen tradition). The potential for an individual to change the trajectory of his or her individual response to the current ecological crisis lies entirely in their ability to practice observing their own reactions. The very act of observation opens up the possibility of creating biofeedback processes that elicit different sets of responses. (substep: one aspect of this observation may accord further with our scientific knowledge if we can see that life is a dynamic dissipation of energy and that it has evolved at one edge towards complexity and diversity so that more niches have been filled and more energy captured in the process – I’m not sure I can justify this statement). So we can get better at responding to the ecological context by realising how embedded we are and that then may cause us to shift our responses from short-term, immediate gratification to broader consideration of the impact of our activity on all our relationships and contexts. We may see ourselves as embedded within systems, rather than as separate entities. However, there is no formula that says we ought all to do the same thing, or that reponses must be based on principle. This is the anti-meme, or anti-patterned, element to the response that is elicited by this practice.


Tenth step: A major criticism of this approach is that individual activity will not create enough of a shift to change the trajectory of the human-nature relationship. Community and political action is also necessary. But to be consistent with what has been said so far, any community or political activity will have a very different character from ideologically-based activity, being based, instead, on the notion of voluntary elicitation, non-prescriptiveness, and context-based response. The main thrust of any support for communities must be to find ways that communities can see themselves, individually and species-wide, within an ecological context. This may involve considering our activities as reflective of the activities of, not our ‘primate’ selves but of the interrelationship that we embody between virii, bacteria (both ancestral, like mitochondria, and concurrent, like gut-bacteria) and so may have implications for disease control, diet, and so on. It may involve considering the soil not as rock but as microbial ecosystem and systems in general as far more integral to our self-understanding than our current fragmented tendencies allow. It may involve developing technology that biomimics, or considering entire human manufacturing and processing systems as cyclical (cradle to cradle) along the lines proposed by William McDonough.


Eleventh step: Part of the practice of developing this kind of attitude may include becoming aware of the parallels between a evolutionary science-based understanding of our response to the ecological crisis, and the Zen practice of Zazen, Chan, or meditation. The act of watching oneself in the dynamic context of consciousness and ecology brings to light an awareness of the patterns that come into existence in thought and dissipate, the emotions that are triggered by similar patterns of activity. Some of these patterns can be rigidly repetitive and those tend to engender a sense of inescapable fatalism. In Buddhist terms, these rigid patterns are represented by the term, ‘karma’, and the idea of repeating the same reaction to similar sets of stimuli is well known in the behavioural sciences as potentially pathological behaviour (think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for instance). On the other hand, being able to reflect on the repetition of patterns of response itself develops the potential for a loosening of the inevitability of that repetition. Instead of being caught in an endless loop, the possibility emerges to situate the response in a broader context, so that new possibilities are explored and new patterns are created. This mirrors the very process of evolution itself where patterns are frequently subtly altered by the context and respond accordingly. ‘Evolution does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’, as Mark Twain might have said.


Twelfth step: It may also be useful to become aware of the parallels between our understanding of how patterns and relationships work in nature, and the human impact caused by rigid adherence to patterns. As outlined above, all activity, including all human activity, is natural, by definition. Even the most ‘permanent’ form will, at some point, yield to the second law. Yet rigid repetition of patterns occurs both in various contexts in the cosmos (very repetitive patterns and long-lived elements that cannot be broken down into their constituents might be examples here), and in the human situation. Human examples of the creation of rigid patterns include the development of plastics that cannot then be broken down for millenia, or the creation of radioactive waste. Seeing these in the context of understanding Zen teachings can help us to understand why an increasing awareness, a waking up to the impact of the creation of these more permanent, or rigid, forms is adding to the weight of what we must respond to. Seeing ourselves and our impact as impermanent and then working towards that impermanence may provide a more useful model than our current drive to make our mark on the world.

Expecting progress? Let it go!

When you have a really successful yoga practice or meditation, you can find the rest of the day begin to edge you into frustration. You can begin to feel as though you deserve the fruits of your labour, as though you have a right to ease and tranquility for the rest of the day. That’s not how it happens, though, and setting up a clear pattern of entitlement is just another way of being attached to results.  Results mean nothing. This work is all about letting each experience arise, just as it is, and letting it go, just as it is. The fantasies that there is a connection between what I have done and what I am entitled to expect is the delusion of conditioning and draws us back to karmic cause and effect. The lesson is in letting go even of a successful practice (or a successful encounter, a pleasant exchange) so there is space for the next relationship to come to awareness, paid due attention, and then released in its turn. The only progress that matters is the progress into what is happening, just as it is happening, releasing at each expectation, each fear, each attachment that can only bring suffering. (A better description of this process can be found at But you knew that. Image