A world on fire… so much suffering… and questions we can’t help but ask

There's so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It's natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It's the separation we feel from one another that's to blame,” we're told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It's just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.
There’s so much pain, so much suffering. What do we do? Why is this happening? It’s natural to seek out root causes, and there are plenty of people willing to provide explanations. “It’s the separation we feel from one another that’s to blame,” we’re told. And that sounds about right. Thinking of someone else as being separate and apart from you makes it possible to hurt them without regret. Looking at others as being, well, Other, makes it awfully easy to dismiss their humanity and do to them what we will, regardless of the downstream impact it has to future generations – or us. This is nothing new. Humanity has been divided over one thing or another since we first walked this earth. It’s just that now, with repeat warnings about the fragility of our climate and our environment, a seemingly endless string of military conflicts flaring up, the divides between rich and poor widening with each fiscal quarter, and nuclear war actually being discussed as a distinct possibility, the coordination and collaboration we need to solve our global problems together seem more elusive than ever.

“We live in a world on fire”

The Sarah MacLachlan song from years ago keeps running through my head. There’s something reassuring about the enduring popularity of that song (she performed it at the 2017 Juno awards), but there’s also something distressing.

Because if we keep singing about this, and the lyrics of distress from 10… 20 years ago, are still as impactful today as they were back then… well, what have we been doing in the meantime?

Waiting for someone else to fix it for us?

Maybe. I mean, we’re all busy, right? We’re all occupied with our own concerns, our own dramas, our own direction. And the problems of the world seem so vast, so overwhelming, so out of our control, it’s almost impossible to know where to start.

But we have to start somewhere, right? Even if it’s just at a level of understanding. Even if it’s just at a level of the myriad day-to-day interactions that we tend to take for granted. Every single detail in our lives does matter, and how we behave towards a total stranger leaves an impression on both them and us… and it ripples out, like a pebble tossed in a pond, affecting everyone else they and we interact with at a later point. Even if it’s just a small thing (and who among us really knows just what’s “small” or “large”?), it still matters.

It all matters.

And nowhere is that more true than in our bodies. We’re constantly picking up on signals around us. We may not perceive them — not every piece of sensory data gets through — but they’re there. And they affect us on levels we can’t even detect, much of the time. It’s quite amazing, if you think about it. How the heck do we get through life, in the first place?

But I digress.

Here we are, on the brink of a whole lot of pain. It feels like we’ve been here for an awful long time. Between international conflicts, to political struggles, to class and race clashes… the list of turbulence never seems to end. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost too much to think about, and everyday it seems like more revelations are coming to light about what goes on in the shadows beyond the attention span/range of our distracted and otherwise-entertained population.

It may feel like too much to process, but we actually have the innate capacity to deal with it all. I’m convinced of it. Since 2013, I’ve spent a whole lot of time realizing just how well-equipped we are to handle it all — and do so with grace and mastery. We just seem to have forgotten that we can… we’ve lost touch with the qualities and capabilities that not only allow us to do it, but compel us to step forward, to engage, inquire, explore.

What we’re facing now, is (in my opinion) not so very different from challenges that past generations have faced. We’ve just forgotten some core truths about ourselves and what it means to be human and alive. Beloved Distance is all about reminding us that, yeah, we got this.

And here’s a chill remix of the now-classic song, for your listening enjoyment.


Beloved Distance - The Separation That Connects Us to AllNow Available

Beloved Distance – The Separation That Connects Us to All

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Beloved Distance – In Depth

What’s “Beloved Distance” About?

In our modern globalized world, fraught with strife, violent conflict, and daily casualties numbering in the tens of thousands, separation is often perceived as the enemy of humanity. Keeping oneself at a distance from others is seen as the root of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and myriad other -isms which preclude even the slightest chance of peace. “To become a true global citizen,” Suzy Kassem sounds a common refrain, “one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. … This is the only way mankind will truly evolve.”

A message of eradicating the distance between oneself and others resounds across the ages, from the Buddha’s warning, “There is … No sorrow like separation,” to John Lennon assuring us that if we all join together, “the world will be as one.” This perspective is practically a given among those who consciously seek our collective evolution. After all, the prototypical Fall from Grace was an act of separation from the Divine, as well as an innocent blindness to the difference between Good and Evil. And the antedote for our loss of grace? Unity. Connection. Oneness – the ultimate goal of an evolved species. And anyone who claims differently is likely still trapped in a toxic, dying paradigm that threatens to destroy us all.

In this work, I explore an alternative view: namely, that rather than being our enemy, Separation – or Distance – from a perceived Other is at once endemic to our human nature and an invaluable bridge to the connection we hungrily seek. And only by accepting the fact of our separation can we truly learn to creatively navigate the spaces that divide us.

Separation and Distance is, in fact, a fundamental component of our participation in this thought-form theater we term “reality”, beginning at the most basic of our sensory functions and extending throughout our entire human infrastructure. Experience of Distance from Others is not due to inferior design or devolved consciousness. Quite the contrary — it’s part and parcel of who we are, how we’re built. In this work, I propose that our acceptance of and successful integration of Separation, combined with our ongoing impulse to close the Distance between Ourselves and the Other, is the very thing which provides the essential influx, aggregation, and processing of “data points” which inform and evolve our human experience, raising it from mere existence to engaged, expanding evolution.

Starting from the following basic fact about our physical condition, that at our most minuscule neural level, we are separated from direct contact with the world around us, I will explore how:

  • due to this separation, we never have direct contact with anything, and
  • our experience of reality depends on a complex yet well-integrated process of data detection, decoding, and interpretation, which “fills in the blanks” in ways that are both enriching and problematic,
  • rather than suffering from separation, our experience of ourselves and our world is continuously enriched and evolved as an end product of this process, and
  • we can learn from our physical systems’ in-born capabilities to address the issues of “Otherness”, separation, and alienation in our outer world and actively, intentionally find commonality that makes us more than the simple sum of our connections.

We need not vilify and excise all Separation and Distance and sense of Other from our roster of acceptable life experiences. Indeed, we can holistically embrace the contradictions of Separation and the tensions of Distance in our experienced reality, in much the same way that our physical systems do. Rather than banishing the experience of Distance as “unreality”, I propose that we embrace it more fully as a building block of an expanded Reality and recognize the opportunities inherent in its gaps to take ourselves beyond the limits of our imagined constraints. For indeed, ultimately richness and meaning is added exponentially to our lives precisely because of the essential separateness of our natures.

Order Your Print Copy on Amazon Now

Now Available

Beloved Distance The Separation That Connects Us to All

Paperback 9×6″

168 Pages

$11.95 (+$2.99 s/h)

Printed on-demand, takes 5-10 days for delivery.

Order Your Print Copy on Amazon Now

Click here to buy in Kindle Format ($9.95)

Beloved Distance – Book Overview

Beloved Distance Overview

In our modern globalized world, fraught with strife, violent conflict, and daily casualties numbering in the tens of thousands, separation is often perceived as the enemy of humanity. Keeping oneself at a distance from others is seen as the root of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and myriad other -isms which preclude even the slightest chance of peace. “To become a true global citizen,” Suzy Kassem sounds a common refrain, “one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. … This is the only way mankind will truly evolve.”

A message of eradicating the distance between oneself and others resounds across the ages, from the Buddha’s warning, “There is … No sorrow like separation,” to John Lennon assuring us that if we all join together, “the world will be as one.” This perspective is practically a given among those who consciously seek our collective evolution. After all, the prototypical Fall from Grace was an act of separation from the Divine, as well as an innocent blindness to the difference between Good and Evil. And the antedote for our loss of grace? Unity. Connection. Oneness – the ultimate goal of an evolved species. And anyone who claims differently is likely still trapped in a toxic, dying paradigm that threatens to destroy us all.

In this work, I explore an alternative view: namely, that rather than being our enemy, Separation – or Distance – from a perceived Other is at once endemic to our human nature and an invaluable bridge to the connection we hungrily seek. And only by accepting the fact of our separation can we truly learn to creatively navigate the spaces that divide us.

Separation and Distance is, in fact, a fundamental component of our participation in this thought-form theater we term “reality”, beginning at the most basic of our sensory functions and extending throughout our entire human infrastructure. Experience of Distance from Others is not due to inferior design or devolved consciousness. Quite the contrary — it’s part and parcel of who we are, how we’re built. In this work, I propose that our acceptance of and successful integration of Separation, combined with our ongoing impulse to close the Distance between Ourselves and the Other, is the very thing which provides the essential influx, aggregation, and processing of “data points” which inform and evolve our human experience, raising it from mere existence to engaged, expanding evolution.

Starting from the following basic fact about our physical condition,

  • that at our most minuscule neural level, we are separated from direct contact with the world around us,

I will explore how:

  • due to this separation, we never have direct contact with anything, and
  • our experience of reality depends on a complex yet well-integrated process of data detection, decoding, and interpretation, which “fills in the blanks” in ways that are both enriching and problematic,
  • rather than suffering from separation, our experience of ourselves and our world is continuously enriched and evolved as an end product of this process, and
  • we can learn from our physical systems’ in-born capabilities to address the issues of “Otherness”, separation, and alienation in our outer world and actively, intentionally find commonality that makes us more than the simple sum of our connections.

We need not vilify and excise all Separation and Distance and sense of Other from our roster of acceptable life experiences. Indeed, we can holistically embrace the contradictions of Separation and the tensions of Distance in our experienced reality, in much the same way that our physical systems do. Rather than banishing the experience of Distance as “unreality”, I propose that we embrace it more fully as a building block of an expanded Reality and recognize the opportunities inherent in its gaps to take ourselves beyond the limits of our imagined constraints. For indeed, ultimately richness and meaning is added exponentially to our lives precisely because of the essential separateness of our natures.

CHAPTERS

Introduction

  1. We Can’t Get There From Here : On Building Community and Falling from Grace
  2. Discriminating Safety : Who Stays, Who Goes, and Why It Matters
  3. There Is No Here : How Separation Is Our Natural State of Being
  4. More Separate Than We Know : Other Dimensions of Our Distance
  5. Going The Distance : How Connection Is Our Natural Process of Becoming
  6. Filling In the Blanks : Of Data Loss and Instinctive Invention
  7. But What Does It Mean? : The Interpretations That Make Us
  8. Every Separation Is A Link : Welcoming Other-ness as an Opportunity

Conclusion

To work in the mode of Cajal

Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The article I found yesterday about Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s roots in fiction was a welcome addition to my overall work direction. In it, I found my own sentiments mirrored — and by one of the great leaders in neuroscience.

If we would enter adequately into Cajal’s thought in this field,” Sherrington continues, “we must suppose his entrance, through the microscope, into a world populated by tiny beings actuated by motives and striving and satisfactions not very remotely different from our own.” Cajal highlighted that subject and object—the brain scientist and the neuron—descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.

Here was a man who literally transformed his field, and he did it (at least in part) by reimagining the human relationship with his objects of study — animating them with qualities similar to our own, because after all, we are “descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.”

It’s easy to lose sight of this correspondence in our increasingly fragmented world, where experts slice off ever slimmer targets of exploratory interest and specialize to the point where they know “more than anyone else about less than everyone else”. And in these days of funding battles and the struggle to be taken seriously in the scientific world, the idea of finding correspondences between a cell and a full-sized human being might seem like too risky a prospect to even entertain.

And yet, there’s so much to be gleaned from the correspondences we find, and there’s a lot we can learn from how our neurology behaves… just as Cajal learned a lot about our neurology by understanding how the human heart and spirit behave. Beloved Distance is a sort of “reverse-reprise” on Cajal’s particular “take” — as I turn our gaze from the microscope to our macroscape and reference not Don Quixote or shadows dancing on the ceiling, but the mechanisms of neurotransmitters leaping into the gaps between our neurons.

It may sound like a stretch, within the context of 21st Century science, but Cajal was in direct conflict with some of the dominant beliefs of his day, as well. And look where his approach got him — and took us: To a whole new understanding of how we’re actually put together, without which we’d have a much less complete understanding of ourselves, and perhaps a completely different version of medicine.

I’ve always had a marked respect for Cajal. It’s my understanding that the prevailing attitude of the day was that the nervous system was all continuously interconnected, like our vascular system. Cajal was an outlier, in that he believed in the “Neuron Doctrine” which held that all cells are individual entities (and so cannot be continuously directly connected). Others were believers in the Neuron Doctrine, but Camillo Golgi (whose stain made it possible for mere humans to view neurons) in fact devoted his Nobel lecture to discounting the Neuron Doctrine. He shared the stage / prize with Cajal in 1906, so the Spaniard was literally sharing space with someone determined to tear apart his work from the scientific pulpit.

What does it take, for someone to hold forth in their work, regardless of vehement opposition? Cajal’s defiantly resilient character, which took him through years of beatings by his father, surely played a role. And yet, there seems to be more at work than a cast-iron temperament. There are flights of fancy in the mix, too. Fancy which is deeply practical and has its place alongside the driest of facts laid out on a slide beneath the microscope.

That fancy, those flights, that imagination is something we all need, to carry us forward. It both tempers us and inspires us, and it makes the long slog of the necessary work into something more than… a slog. Just as we dance between separation and unity, between distance and closeness, the dynamics of creation and observation are complementary. And when blended with intention and intelligence, they can take us in some wonderful places.

You needn’t be a polymath to grasp how mutually beneficial supposedly opposing approaches can be.

You only need to be human… with a sense of adventure.

Sharing: The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

I came across this totally by accident, last night, but it’s very much in keeping with my current work. I’ve always loved the Paris Review. It was one of my most prized companions, back in the early 1980s. I’m still a fan – here’s one more reason why:

The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

By

Arts & Culture

For the father of modern neuroscience, cellular anatomy was like the most exciting fiction.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience.” All images courtesy Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.

Fiction is, by definition, a world away from fact—but Santiago Ramón y Cajal, often heralded as “the father of modern neuroscience,” used it to find objective truth. Cajal spent his days at the microscope, gazing down at faint, entangled fibers that appeared to his fellow anatomists as inscrutable labyrinths. Contrary to prevailing theory, the Spaniard discerned that the nervous system, including the brain, comprises distinctly individual cells (neurons), which, he theorized, must communicate across the infinitesimal spaces between them (synapses). It was Cajal who first applied the term plasticity to the brain; he went so far as to recommend “cerebral gymnastics” for mental enhancement, presaging twenty-first century insights and trends about brain exercise. “If he is so determined,” Cajal said, “every man can be the sculptor of his own brain.” If all Russian literature comes from Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and all modern American literature comes from “a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” then international brain research, including grand projects like the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, emerges from the unlikely work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Read the full piece here – it’s worth it!

To understand our place in the world, we must consider both body and mind

The Thinker by Rodin
“The Thinker” by Rodin

If you’re reading this, you have a brain. You may (or may not) use it to the utmost of your ability, but if your eyes are following this text, as you peer at your device or laptop or desktop monitor, your nervous system is working overtime shuttling information through your system, which most definitely includes your brain.

90,000 miles of nerves interconnect, both directly and through chemical synapses. They bridge the distance between our skin and our spinal cord, between our internal organs and our cerebrum. Our whole system is afire with electricity and chemical reactions, with our billions of neurons firing some 200 times per second. And all the while, the brain is “unconsciously” making sense of it.

As George Lakoff points out, an estimated 98% of thought is unconscious.

Lakoff embodied consciousness intro text
George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis Click the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuUnMCq-ARQ for the full video

If you think about how busy your “conscious” brain is, just imagine how much moreso is the rest of you. All that chatter and static between your ears is but a paltry 2% of the total thought activity going on. Right now. All the time.

Just let that sink in for a moment…

Okay, let’s come back now. The brain-body connection has been talked about for decades, now, very much in terms of mental health and physical health. A lot of us have reached the conclusion that of course the brain and body are interrelated. How could they not be? The brain is part of the body, and its processes are organic, as well as consciousness-related.

The thing is, we seem to lose sight of this, when we think about our “higher mind” activities. When we get into philosophy and try to understand the nature of reality and our place in the world, we especially tend to split the brain from the body, like a space capsule leaving the rocket behind as it propels into the outer reaches of our cosmos. When we think long and hard about things, when we’re rapt with attention on abstract concepts. the very idea of the body seems to fade away. We forget to eat, drink, use the bathroom. We forget we have a body at all.

But of course, it’s still here. It’s not going anywhere — especially when we’re wrapped up in higher thought.

I usually think of Descartes, when I think of the brain-body split. Mr. “Cogito ergo sum“, who surmised that since he thought, therefore he was. Well, that’s fine. And certainly, it’s true. But I think it can also be said that “We think because we are.” So much of our physical systems are involved in thought, and so much of our systematic functioning is analogous to our thought processes, that the idea of neatly separating out the body from the mind and treating them as separate and distinct seems, well, very 17th Century.

Of course, it feels a lot neater, if we can conceptualize thought as something that’s mind-based, rather than body-based. It’s neater, somehow. It feels… cleaner. But as we’re learning more (and more, every day it seems) how much of the body is involved in processing the information our brains work with, that sanitized neatness carries a significant cost to true understanding. And that costs weighs us down with the burden of ignorance — both passive and active — as we both overlook important considerations and also willfully ignore the physical facts right in front of us.

In order to understand the workings of our minds, we have to understand the workings of the body. We have to understand how our nervous systems work, how they react and shape us in relation to the world around us. And when we understand the principles at work on the microscopic level, it gives us an added frame of reference, a finely tuned lens, we can use to gain greater insight into our innermost workings.

Knowing the body first, before approaching the brain, has stood others in good stead. Freud, in fact, started out as a neuroanatomist. I had no idea, till I did some digging a few months back. Long before he turned to psychoanalysis:

He carried out pioneering neurobiological research, which was cited by Santiago Ramóny Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, and helped to establish neuroscience as a discipline.

See Freud was a pioneering neuroscientist at The Guardian to read the full (and fascinating) article.

Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor in recent years, from what I hear. But apparently some of his findings are being proven out, much as Einstein’s Theory About Gravitational Waves Was Just Proved Right. I have to wonder if maybe Freud’s understanding of neurology actually put him ahead of not only his peers but also his professional descendants, so much so, that it’s taken greater neurological understanding on our part to fully appreciate what he was talking about. It’s a theory…

And just as debunked theories sometimes need a closer look, our favorite concepts sometimes need to be called into question. Like the idea that the mind and the body are (or can be) separate and distinct from each other. Like the idea that you can disregard the body when you’re engaged in intellectual activities. Like the idea that the mind can completely rule the body, or that the body must be overcome and made wholly subservient to the mind, in order for the human spirit to rise.

All the undercurrents of hostility to the physique that trace through the Western tradition, seem pretty much like the product of people with some serious body issues. But of course, they weren’t alone. And their Körperfeindlichkeit (hostility to the body) filled a need in the Western psyche that didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the human body, until fairly recently.

Fortunately, the trend is shifting, as more and more people are connecting body and mind in philosophical terms, as well as world view. And I find myself quite comfortable within this trend, albeit on the margins, since I’m not exactly up to speed on all the latest thinking. It’s been a long time coming — and about damn’ time, if I say so.

From where I’m sitting / standing / working, it’s literally impossible for us to understand our place in the world or fully grasp the meaning of our existence, unless we factor in the body. It’s both a full partner in our thought process, as well as full of microscopic templates that can inform our macroscopic patterns. Our bodies guide us unconsciously, and when we engage with them consciously, they can enrich us even more.

And now it’s time to get a drink of water. My brain can use the hydration. And the walk to the water cooler will do my mind good.

Oh, but we love our distance…

hands reaching out to each otherOkay, I know we’re all supposed to strive for unity. We need to reach out to each other, cross the divides between us. Connect, cooperate, unite.

Especially at this time of year, when the holidays bring us together with friends and family in our annual rituals of connection.

Separation leads to suffering, we’re told. This is our season to overcome it.

We’ve all experienced the pain of separation at some time or another. There’s no denying that it can be excruciating.

At the same time, though… we still love our distance. The separation between us actually draws us closer together. It makes us more keenly aware of how much we need to connect.

Try this:

Like in the image above, hold your hands just an inch or so apart from each other. See how long you can do that, until they’re drawn together. They may seem to have a life of their own, as your palms meet or your fingers intertwine.

Now try this:

Hold your hands, palms facing, an inch apart. Leave them there for a count of 10. Now, slowly draw them apart… feel that? Feel how each hand pulls on the other, almost like there’s an ever-strengthening magnet between them?

That’s the connection we experience from separation. And that connectedness across separation actually animates our entire bodies. The gaps between our neurons — the synaptic clefts — are the sources of neurotransmitters which pass information throughout our systems. And the total distance actually adds up to thousands of miles, when you tally it all up, end-to-end.

That’s a lot of distance.

And we love it.

We have other types of distance in our lives, as well. Whether we’re starting a book that begins with an intriguing premise (and promises an ultimate resolution at the end)… or we’re watching a football game between two teams that are so evenly matched that nobody knows who’s going to win… we’re incorporating distance into our lives. It’s the journey across that distance which intrigues us, pulls us in, and holds us rapt until we reach the “other side” of that gap between what-is and what-will-be.

We love our distance. We’d better… we’re chock full of it.