Brought together from a distance

 

setting eclipse moon near a small mountain
The setting eclipse near Mount Wachusett

One of the amazing things about distance is how it can really bring us together.

Watching the full blood blue super moon eclipse yesterday morning, and then watching rise that same moon rise last evening, I was struck by how that shared experience connected like-minded people — all because of distance.

Yesterday morning, my partner and I watched the moon as it sank in the west, as the upper left-hand side was gradually obscured by the earth’s shadow. We hadn’t realized that the moon would be setting at just same time when the eclipse was at it’s peak and the moon turned red. But as we watched it sink towards the horizon, trees hiding its descent, we realized if we didn’t do something, we were going to miss the full drama of the eclipse.

We were both still in our pajamas, and it wasn’t practical for us both to get dressed and rush out the door, so I slipped on my shoes, grab my coat and hat, and drove off in search of a good vantage point. There’s a high hill near our home where you can get great views of sunsets and moonsets. So I headed in that direction. Careful, careful, down the twisty, windy roads… careful, careful, in the morning commute time.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that in mind, either. The road, which is a secondary route that doesn’t see much traffic even during rush hour, had a line of cars all driving fast in the direction I was headed. It definitely wasn’t in the direction of work, and I suspected that the other drivers were just like me — realizing at the last minute that we couldn’t see the eclipse from our cozy home vantage points… determined to get up to the ridge for one last look at this awesome eclipse.

As we motored up the road, we would slow down a little bit at spots where we could see a glimpse of the moon. All we really wanted was to get one last good look — get maybe a picture or two and really enjoy the historic sight. After all, if something happens just once every 152 years, it’s worth enjoying as best you can.

I didn’t get all the way up to the top of the ridge, but I did find an overlook in a private drive with an unobstructed vantage point. And I wasn’t the only one. Somebody else I had pulled into that spot before me. We were both trespassing (just a little bit) and the other driver had her emergency blinkers on, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but bear with me for just 10 minutes until the moon sets.”

In my mind’s eye I could see lots of other people out on the road at just that moment, looking for the perfect space space to watch the moon make its final dramatic descent… all of us looking to the same point in the distance, some 225,000 miles away, a common point of focus for hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people all at the same time time.

This is the thing the distance can give us – a shared vantage point that’s far away, which has such a close and intimate association for so many of us. I don’t know anyone who dislikes the moon, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy the silvery wash of full moon light on a cold winter’s night.

And come to think of it, the very reason that the moon can shine her light, is because she really is so far away from the sun. Being that far away, the moon isn’t occluded by the earth or other celestial bodies (except on special occasions like yesterday). Being over 200,000 miles away from the earth, and over 93 million miles away from the sun, the moon is far enough away to not get toasted to a crips by the sun’s heat, but it’s close enough to bathe our planet in light at night. It’s far enough away to be seen by billions of people, and close enough to be observed with the naked eye.

And now that the moon is waning (she’s 98.6% waning gibbous), and we settle into the next month of the new year, I wish us all enough distance to get some healthy perspective on life, and enough nearness to let us see our way through.

New Facebook group for Beloved Distance

open book with waterfall pouring outAfter initial resistance to the idea, I wrapped my head around starting a Beloved Distance Facebook group. It’s open. Feel free to join.

I must admit, I have a (bad?) habit of writing books and then setting them loose in the world without supporting them in their physical incarnation. But books aren’t like wood ducklings, which can leap from their nest in the trees and find their way to the nearest water and start growing into full-sized ducks. Books need support. They’re inert — unless they’re enlivened by the people reading them. A book without a reader is a collection of words on paper, a saturation of ink on pulped trees, neatly bound and wrapped in a glossy cover. Without reader involvement, they don’t amount to much, beyond the mind of the writer.

I was just reading a piece this morning by an author who was troubled by a classic writer’s situation:

…it’s also funny when you talk to someone about a story (you’ve been working on) for months and months, and when they’ve read it, knowing just how important it is to you, all you get back is a “it’s great. Loved it.” Inside me, I’m screaming “what else? what did you take away from it? … etc.” But no, no review… But still, it wasn’t reviews I long for, but human conversations, debate.

Beloved Distance is very much like that. It grew out of years of reading, thinking, reading some more, and thinking even more than that. And now that the book’s out, people can get hold of it, read it, react to it, and move on. Like we do with most things.

And yet… what else is there?

That’s what I’d like to find out in the new Facebook group – from readers, for readers, because of readers. The themes of the book have resonated very strongly with me for years, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve just scratched the surface. And in fact, while I was writing the book, there were so many instances where I realized I just didn’t have the time and the space to say everything that I felt needed to be said about the topic at hand.

So, I had to defer it till later… put it in the blog

That time is now, and as I await the final notice from Amazon that the paperback is available there, I consider all the different ideas that, like puppies in a basket, are clamoring over each other to get picked up and taken home.

The book is going to mean different things to different people, and that’s the fun part of it. Some people may not care for it at all. Others may find it dramatically changes how they think about stuff that used to barely catch their notice. Others may be intrigued, then move on. But that “travel” from a state of wondering what others think to finding out… well, that’s yet another form of distance I’m looking forward to traveling.

On we go… on we go.

It’s always nice when this happens


You know those days, when you’ve been going full-speed ahead for a week, and then you realize that you’ve got all of the absolutely, positively, critical, non-optional tasks out of the way?

That’s where I am, today. After nearly a week of traveling, then chasing deadlines on Friday, running errands yesterday morning, followed by an effervescent all-afternoon/evening event, and a long drive home after dark, it’s finally sinking in that today requires very little of me.

And that’s perfectly fine.

It gives me time to think. About things that I haven’t been able to think about as deeply as I’d like. You know… work and all. Seriously, researching and writing books that have very little to do (directly) with your day job is a singular experience. Unique. And solitary. Because when you leave it all on the field after every day at work, you’ve gotta find a way to dig deep and come up with the motivation (and the moxy) to create something very different from what dominates your daily life.

Maybe your daytime colleagues are interested in the kinds of ideas that light your fire in off-hours. Maybe they’re not. Maybe people who get paid to work in the field(s) you venture into out of love and all-consuming passion notice you’re there. Maybe they don’t. In any case, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things — it really can’t — because what matters in the end is The Work. And the ways that the Work builds out and shapes your life in ways that no day-job, no official title, and no amount of professional acclaim ever could.

That being said, here I am at the nexus of my passionate interests, lingering road-weariness, and a full day to do with as I please. Sweet.

In a way, the weariness is useful. It keeps me focused. It keeps me from allowing my attention to wander too far afield. I don’t have a lot of bandwidth today, and my free hours are sufficiently precious to me to compel me to make the most of them. Monday is just around the corner. What can I do with myself and my ideas before then?

… hmmm …

Oh, I know! Let’s talk about who’s gonna care about this book, Beloved Distance. I was at a friend’s birthday part, yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned the book to a handful of people there. I never really know if other people are nearly as fascinated as I am about the intersection of science and the-rest-of-life, but it turns out, I was in good company. I had some great conversations with people who are concerned about the ever-widening schism between science and spirituality, and who don’t think there should be one.

Now, when we talk about spirituality, that can cover territory from devout Catholicism to Sufism to cross-quarter ritualizing Paganism. It can even extend to agnostics or atheists who feel a connection to something bigger than themselves that they don’t want to personalize. “Spirituality” has become a very useful catch-all for people to connect with one another on a metaphysical level, without getting dragged into dogma.

Of course, the “spirituality” moniker has its drawbacks — it can become a little too fuzzy, and it can be used to justify some actually harmful practices. Co-opting indigenous ceremonies and marketing them to high-priced clients craving a spiritual experience isn’t just questionable from a “spiritual ethics” point of view. It can also be downright dangerous. In only one example why it’s important to “keep it local”, certain Amazonian hallucinogenic ceremonies have a very practical reason for requiring strict diets before drinking the magic elixir that makes you vomit into that plastic trash can: some ceremonies can actually deplete necessary neurotransmitters, and dietary restrictions help offset the potential harm.

But I digress… of course I digress! I have the afternoon to myself, and I’m gonna write what I danged well please 😉

Let me return to the line of reasoning I started with — namely, who’s interested in Beloved Distance. And why.

The folks at the birthday party hailed from all walks of life. A construction contractor had a great conversation with an acupuncturist. And a freelance photographer and artist who supports herself caring for children spent a while talking to a technologist. A nationally syndicated radio show host chatted with a woman studying to become a wildlife rescuer. And an office manager for multiple programs at a nearby university caught up with a workshop facilitator who’s house-sitting for friends for the month of February. Each one of them had a perspective very different from my own — big distance there. And yet, each shared a desire — a need — a longing — for connection. All of us were keenly aware of our differences, and yet those differences drew us that much closer to one another, as we looked for points of contact, avenues that let us merge in meaningful ways.

See, here’s the thing — our human differences are often dramatic. Our politics, our money situations, our personal lives often stand in pronounced contrast to so many others around us, even our closest friends. We know we’re separate. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from actually finding ways that we can bridge the distance between each other and blend into the middle, creating a separate sort of dynamic that’s greater than the sum of each party.

And knowing that our time to connect was short yesterday, we all made the most of it. We didn’t mince words. We cut to the chase. We asked the questions you don’t normally ask in “polite” company. We answered the questions just as candidly as they were asked. We brought up subjects that we often couldn’t outside our intimate sphere. We settled the occasional argument with a mix of patience and exasperation, but always some element of letting each other just… be.

And in the end, each of us left that evening well-fed in many ways. Yes, we shared food. Yes, we had tea and cider and kombucha and coffee. Yes, we ate birthday cake (well, most of us, anyway) and enjoyed the candy that had flown out of the smashed piñata. And we also got fed in ways that went far beyond the physical. As we split up and went our separate ways into the evening, that sense of fullness traveled with us. Across the miles, hours later, it still lingers.

On the screenshot of my Windows Task Manger above, you can see the spikes where the CPU had plenty to do… then as I closed applications, it calmed down and settled into this even keel:

And so am I, now, as I settle into the rest of my afternoon.

I have time to think, which is the most precious (and limited) commodity of my current life.

May you have such a wonderful Sunday, if you’re reading this on such a day. Or, if it’s some other day, may you also find ways you can reduce the digital/electrical spikes and settle into knowing your own mind as only you can know it.

Peace…

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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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.

Life is trying to tell us something

light streaks coming out of a burstWhen I think about philosophy, letters, learning, I generally get a visual of a medieval monk hunkered over an illuminated manuscript, toiling away in relative solitude, till the vespers bell rings. It’s not a negative image — it actually has really positive associations for me, since I myself love to hunker over books ‘n’ such in the solitude of my own upstairs study.

Or I think of professors delivering lectures before seminar halls filled with note-taking students. Tweed. I see tweed. Button-down shirts open at the collar, sleeves rolled up, hair touseled in whatever way. That’s a familiar sight to me, as well. At least, it used to be.

Or I think of a handful of philosophers (mostly men, er, white men, to be honest), gathered ’round in a office or cozy living room, holding cups of coffee or some other more “spirited” beverage, arguing the finer points of their arguments with gusto. I imagine them reveling in the exchanges, crossing metaphorical swords in bids to either win the point or at least sharpen their weapons and skills in the process. I’ve been in on more than a few of those kinds of discussions over the years. I’m not sure if I ever really won, but I certainly sharpened my wits in the process.

At least, I like to think so.

When it comes to learnedness, study, and devoting one’s life to the love of wisdom (the original meaning of the word “philosophy”), those are the standard-issue images and associations that come to mind for me.

And yet, when I think about my own approach to writing, reading, study, philosophy — which I practice pretty much daily —  I’m struck by the extent to which that happens far from the halls of academia. Indeed, I’m struck by the depth to which I believe that (for me, anyway), it all has to happen outside of academia. My inquiries, my readings, my contemplation, and my writing about it … that has to take place and unfold in the outside world, the everyday world, the domain of the mundane and unremarkable, the place of pragmatic, where gloriously pure theory has “fallen” to the realm of the applied.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the idea of pure theory. So long as it actually is pure, I’m all for it.

The thing is, purity has its limits. And those limits can make it not only impractical, but downright dangerous. If you consider a thing only in and of itself, without reference to how it intersects with other things, as part of an ongoing unfoldment of dynamic change, you can get yourself in trouble.

Killing dreaded pests with a chemical makes a lot more sense in a lab, where all you’re killing is the targeted pests. But if you don’t consider its effects on the rest of the insects and pollinators which further the cycles of life, before you take it out of the lab, and you don’t factor that in and adapt for it before you spray it all over every danged thing… Of you don’t consider the downstream impact of manufacturing bazillions of plastic bags, or improper disposal (read, dumping them in the oceans)… Well, you know…

And I wonder, in the face of the very real threats we’re facing on a regular basis, these days… where and what-for is all our education fitting in? We sink a sh*tload of money into our educations, and yet, here we are.

Here we are.

And the older I get, the better I feel about my choice to pursue my studies and thinking outside of academia. If I’d been independently wealthy, I might have spent a great deal of the past years in the Hallowed Halls. But I haven’t been in that situation — at all — so, I’ve been doing my thang out in the world, where I get to find out, up close and personal, just how well my philosophy works. I get to apply what I learn, and not only in the direct sense.

It’s not so much about brushing up on the latest digital marketing methodologies and search technologies. Nor is it about getting an MBA specific to a certain corner of the commercial arena. Nope, it’s broader and deeper than that — more humanistic, in a way. I study people. And not just in books. I look at the news (such as it is), and I watch what people do very closely. I read up on how we’re built, from our cells to our chemicals to our prostheses, and I think about how that affects us. How it shapes us. How it makes us function in relation to each other and the world in which we move.

Most of all, I invest time in thinking. A lot of time. Sure, plenty of people think through what they read / study, but I find I prefer to really, really think through what I’ve read, rather than devouring book after book. I’ve tried to push myself to read more. And it just doesn’t work. It’s like eating a meal. I need time to digest. I need time to assimilate. Once that’s done, I can move on to the next book. Or maybe I’ll wait it out and see where else my newfound knowledge will take me.

And as often as not, I find that life is telling me plenty that I need to know. One of the reasons great literary and scholarly works are so great, is that they help us make use of what the world has to offer. They have a sort of fractality, which mirrors our own grand dramas and dynamics in their more manageable collections of carefully chosen words. They can help us make sense of what’s going on around us, and they give us more tools / inspiration to deal more effectively with what is. Or at least give us some hope, however fleeting, that we might be getting somewhere in the whole grand scheme of things.

One of the things that’s made writing Beloved Distance so compelling for me, is the correspondence I’ve found between what’s inside us, and what’s outside of us. The same types of processes we find unfolding at the cellular level are also mirrored in our larger social lives. It’s been truly mind-boggling, at times, realizing how much a microscopic process can teach me about how to handle group dynamics… how to steer a project at work away from the proverbial rocks… or even adjust to the largest high-tech merger in history. The deeper I get into the neurobiology, the better I understand the biochemistry, and the more I just plain think about it all, the more meaningful it is for me.

And ultimately, the more useful it becomes.

You don’t have to be a nerdy-geeky type like me, to get a lot out of this kind of stuff. All you have to do is really think about it… and it can add so much to your life and your appreciation of what all the world has to offer us, in terms of lessons, inspiration, and rewards.

It’s all right there. For me, for you, for all of us. Life is trying to tell us something. And it can.

If we pay attention.