Generally, the staff blogs of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the principal organization I’ve worked/consulted for over the last decade, are worldly in character. They deal in rational ideas, matter-of-fact reporting, heavy-duty policy prescriptions, and the quotidian hand-to-hand combat over control of the public debate that are an issue advocate’s stock-in-trade. That’s one reason a new post from Peter Malik, director of NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation (can’t get much more reality-based than that), struck me as so unusual.
Malik is just back from Ecuador, where he spent four days in the company of the Achuar people, whose village life deep in the Amazon is much as it was “before contact.” He describes a sort of communal early morning ritual the Achuar practice every day:
We got up at 4 a.m. and slowly assembled in the communal longhouse. It was pitch black, with only the perpetual fire smouldering in the middle of the floor offering some light. Sitting silently in a circle alongside the Achuar, we were soon offered bowls of wayusatea. Drinking gradually, we individually trickled beyond the edge of the compound to make ourselves vomit. Once reassembled, the most important part of the day could begin.
Ingesting the wayusa tea (made of a regular herbal extract) and the subsequent purging makes one enter a lucid, highly alert state of mind. And as dawn starts to turn the sky to the east slightly gray, the Achuar relay their dreams from the previous night to each other. On the basis of the interpretation of these dreams, they decide to go hunting or fishing that day, they glean what the weather has in store and receive all information necessary to give the day direction and content. Dreams and their interpretations are an invaluable daily compass for the Achuar.
In fact, the whole early morning period is. They use the clarity and calmness of the mind for the discussion of any contentious issue, and resolve it by compromise. In addition, any proposal to marry must be made during this period. By the time it is light—around 6 a.m. —the day has content and no issue of importance has been left unresolved.
Strange? Yes and no. The highest entity in the Achuar world is Pachamama. It represents all the beings and objects in the world and extends to all of the universe and all of time, past, present and future. As such, it is the ultimate One. Everyone and everything in Pachamama is interconnected. And all actions, large and small, affect all of Pachamama. Of course the complexity of such a web of relationships is literally infinite. That’s why the Achuar believe in the role of the mysterious and resort to their dreams in order to determine the direction of their actions. It is a humble and wise posture, one that considers people deeply integrated into the surrounding world and doesn’t put them above anyone or anything else. It is the ultimate holistic view.
Wow. I was moved to leave the following comment:
What a treat to read this story.
In the western world, we typically give no time and energy at all to starting the day with a centering practice like you describe — the alarm rings, and we go from dreams to a full-tilt sprint of doing, doing, doing. Who has time to reflect, to reconnect with a sense of the whole of things, how we fit into it as individuals, the very real way in which we are interdependent with all else?
The problem with this way of living, in my experience, is that it makes each new day nothing more than a continuation of the past’s momentum. It forestalls the possibility of intentional change, which requires a surrender to … well, stopping, and listening, and looking deeply. And in the end, the daunting global problems we face today will overwhelm humanity if it is not up to the challenge of making intentional, rather than adaptive, change.
I have been so angry and frustrated of late with the American political landscape. But I wonder what would happen if I (and everyone concerned about climate change) were to live as the Achuar do and begin the day with contemplation. I’ve tried this but it hasn’t become true habit. I bet I’d do a better job living well and in a less resource-intense way. And maybe I (we) wouldn’t see those on the other side of the divide as the “other”; maybe, in affirming each day that we are all one, new possibilities might open for engaging those folks.
When people consider how humans might evolve from here, it’s usually increased intelligence we think of. But I suspect that if humans avoid going the way of the dinosaurs, it will be because of increased spiritual capacity more than brain power.
I’ve actually been thinking about how spiritual practice might affect my work for years. I decided long ago that I really needed some sort of centering practice, for many reasons. But I’ve always struggled to make it stick, to establish it as daily practice. One reason is the the voice in my head that tells me things like, You can’t go to sleep … you need to finish that task! and You can’t get up at 6 for morning meditation — you’d be on 3 hours of sleep and useless at work! and even If you really gave yourself to this Buddhism business, you’d lose your edge — your competitiveness, fighting spirit, ability to work from urgency and anger and passionate resolve.
But then I look around, and the evidence suggests that maybe I’m somehow wrong about the value of that “edge,” at least as I’ve relied on it to this point. Maybe what’s more important is living from principles. If I put a spiritual practice centered on principles first and foremost, would I be a better communications pro? I think that kind of questions is worth consideration — for all of us.
Took a trip down the memory hole this evening, spurred by the Lennon 70th Birthday hullabaloo.
I take John Lennon for granted; always have. The Beatles songs and his solo records have always just sort of been there, omnipresent. More often than not, my back-to-the-land era parents had Apple Records–labeled vinyl spinning on the record changer in my childhood home. The White Album and Sgt Pepper and Revolver, Let It Be and Abbey Road and Imagine — they were the ambient soundtrack. And even at 10, 11 years old I was riveted by many Lennon songs; loved McCartney’s “Blackbird,” Harrison’s “Taxman,” and many others where Lennon wasn’t the dominant presence (either in the writing or the performing), but I’d get this instant live-wire connection to John’s songs. Couldn’t have explained it to anyone; didn’t have the vocabulary and concepts at that age, hadn’t yet an inkling of how as I got older I’d build identity out of musical affinities, Nick Hornby/High Fidelity–style, how — in the way guys do — I’d more or less navigate my own interiority by laying hands on cultural artifacts (songs, books, movies, TV shows, etc) and size others up by the way they did the same. (Okay, yes, there are major drawbacks to relying on this sort of thing for bearings and connection, as opposed to learning to directly experience what’s going on within and without. But that’s another story.)
Now, at 44, I can look back and recognize that live-wire thing as spiritual energy. As I write this I can see, grounded in specific memories, how certain Lennon songs reached territories within that I’d had no idea were there. I remember, yes I do:
I was a little boy in a flimsy lifeboat, afloat in a great ocean of unknowably large rages and fears, lonelinesses and yearnings for connection … and then I’d hear “Revolution 1″ and know (not with words, not fully consciously, usually not in any way that could be captured and made use of) that I’d always been angry, no, spittle-spraying fucking enraged — there was so much change-the-world bullshit around me that I had no say-so over and the perpetrators of this bullshit were deaf/blind to the consequences of said bullshit.
I’d hear “Dear Prudence” and know my own despair, or at least fleetingly experience it, heartsickness would ripple through, an ephemeral wave — no one was going to sing me out of the place I was in….
I’d hear “Imagine” and perceive, somehow, that there was love and connection big enough to transcend the twisted brambles of the life I knew, it was nearer to hand than I ever imagined and I had within me a great welling hunger for it.
These songs and others took me to these places within, made it a little bit okay that they were in there. My soul wasn’t some Area 51. I wasn’t, after all, the only one burdened with facets of interiority that felt just unspeakable; this Lennon guy knew about this stuff — he’d been there himself.
Rolling these memories around in a way I don’t think I’ve ever done, I feel certain these preteen trips I took with Lennon weren’t just to “emotions” I otherwise wouldn’t have accessed; they were to awarenesses, truths — intellect and powers of observation were sharply engaged, even if I didn’t have words. Seeing that, I feel like I’m reclaiming something of my pre-teen self I hadn’t expected to find. Like I knew the score, in a way, when I was that young — didn’t have the tools to own that awareness or put it to any practical use, but I knew when the world I’d come into wasn’t adding up. I feel proud of that kid; he was nobody’s fool.
I was 14 years old when Lennon was killed. I think I spent at least a couple of days more or less barricaded my room, glued to the little table radio I’d take under the covers with me for Sox games and music. I remember bawling — which by that age never happened, as I was well into a glaciated emotional state I’d remain in for a couple decades. (Always had plenty of grief, anger, sadness etc refracting around inside, but any direct contact with difficult feelings would simply trigger automatic shutdown.) I remember being really disturbed, freaked out. Bewildered as to why anyone would shoot you. Imagined myself going to New York to find this Chapman asshole and beat the living shit out of him. Afflicted with a sense of loss and grief that seemed scary-big and out of proportion, even to my teenaged self. Now I look back and see myself — this unhappy, lost kid who trusted almost no one and constantly felt overmatched, without adequate maps and tools — suddenly bereft of a source of precious gravity. Yeah. No wonder that I was upset.
Anyway, thank you, John Lennon. Through some alchemy of temperament (courage, desperate need for connection, generosity of spirit) and talent in your medium, you were able to broadcast the unsayable that’s inside. Turbulence, mess, ferocity, piercing insight, stubborn hope, bitterness, joy, fearlessness (and fearfulness), all this and much more sprawls across your music. And so you helped me along the long road I’ve walked toward accepting and embracing that I’m not alone in the howling void.
Cobbled together a YouTube playlist — 20 of my favorite John Lennon songs. (The video player here in this post won’t play ‘em all — it skips over several — but you’ll be able to see them all if you go to YouTube proper.)
“If youâ€™re going to play a game seven, you might as well win, and if youâ€™re going to win, you might as well enjoy it.” â€“ Josh, hours before the final set-to in the Indians-Sox clash for the AL pennant.
A sweet and juicy day for me. Overnight temps abruptly dipped into the 30s the last few nights here in Asheville, and today there’s no haze over the Blue Ridge peaks; instead it’s brilliant sunshine, crisp air and fall colors to rival the sugar maple shows I grew up with in Vermont.
We went to the local playground this morning, and on impulse I plopped my almost-four-months-old son Theo into a baby unit on the swingset, a first for him — I gave him a gentle push, a tentative smile bloomed on his face, and my wife and I drank in the new sight of our two small, beautiful, astounding children swinging side by side.
This past week we signed a contract to buy a home here in West Asheville, and almost immediately I began to feel a lifetime of transience and rootlessness begin to slough away. It feels good to think that I’ve found a place that I might live in for 30 years. The bosom of family, a castle to call my own, work that feel passionate about — I’ve got a lot to be grateful for, and that’s exactly how I’m feeling today.
What’s more, watching the Sox roar back from a 1-3 deficit to force a for-all-the-marbles contest tonight has fully roused my inner 9-year-old’s enthusiasm. And I do mean nine, for that was my age when I clambered on board the Red Sox bandwagon for good, during their dramatic run in the Fall of ’75 on the backs of El Tiante (who my brother writes about today), and Fisk, Carbo, Yaz, the rookies Lynn and Rice.
Today I feel like I did back then, just excited, having a good time. I remember being in a KMart or similar store, giddy, and stubbornly refusing to leave the crowd of people in front of a row of TVs watching Tiante wheel and deal and 3-hit the A’s. Of course the Sox couldn’t quite grasp the brass ring; I threw my first sports-fan tantrum as the seventh game slipped away and the Reds took the Series. And then over the next 29 years I was, in my estimation, bound to an inordinate amount suffering via the Sox and other greater, more personal anvils of the spirit. But the sun’s out now, and may the weather hold. Even when it doesn’t, I’m feeling reasonably confident that, like the Sox since 2004, I have reclaimed enough mojo to fight through the storms, bounce back from mishaps, and truly enjoy the sweet moments.
A great line from my brother Josh, writing about being at loose ends:
my life was like a game in the hands of an unraveling bullpen.
Hee hee. I know that feeling — I daresay most people do, whether they admit it or not. A deep, pervasive sense that some cataclysmic boom is about to be lowered. Bane of the recent graduate — or anyone who’s in the midst of a major life transition. I guess I’m wise enough now to know that this is generally just noise, the production of a human brain anxiously trying to solve all problems with too much thinking. Thank goodness for Joko Beck, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Han et al.
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The following clip, from a recent Sox-Twins set-to, unfolds with the unhurried, timeless rhythm of a Strauss waltz. There’s a conference on the pitcher’s mound… a ground-ball foul down the third-base line… a sweetly turned 6-4-3 double play… and one man lovingly (and at length) stroking the head of another, before god, TV lights, and 30,000 ticketholding spectators.
Manny Ramirez may indeed be the best right-handed hitter of his generation, but his most incandescent talent is clearly for The Weird.
This may seem an odd way to return to blogging after a lengthy hiatus, but I can’t help myself and want to be reminded of this clip every so often.
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