Mind and Body

Collage by Eric Edelman

The New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, argues that spirit is necessarily enfleshed and flesh is necessarily enspirited. This perspective affirms the human body unequivocally, and, it seems to me, implies that after death, no soul migrates to Heaven, nor does the mind reincarnate — though our legacy lives on, as does Life.

Making Memories,” by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff, a review of Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich in the August 17, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, considers recent neurological studies that seem to support Crossan’s view — though the review does not address Crossan’s point directly.

The review reports:

Essential to the brain’s creation of memories is that all of our memories are subjective—they are created from the point of view of the individual who is remembering. We have a sense of self because we have a preexisting sense of our body that contains that self. The basis of our subjectivity is our “body image,” a coherent, highly dynamic (it is constantly changing with our movements), three-dimensional representation of the body in the brain. This body image is an abstraction the brain creates from our movements and from the sensory responses elicited by those movements….

Since our subjectivity depends on our body image, if our body image is altered for neurological reasons, so too are our recollections…. Memories are altered every time the brain recalls them. This alteration of an existing memory is called reconsolidation. Because the memory trace changes, you can never remember the same thing twice in exactly the same way…. The way the memory is represented at the synaptic junction is altered.

Those studies also conclude:

Memory is the establishment by the hippocampus of complex relations among a variety of sensory stimuli from the point of view of the individual who is remembering…. Memory depend[s] on the ability of the hippocampus to establish relations between an individual and his or her surroundings…. The hippocampus receives and integrates many other varieties of information to create multisensory relations, which is what memory is all about…. All recollections depend on a setting that the individual may or may not be aware of.

These conclusions, which affirm a holistic attitude, strike me as relevant to daily life today for numerous reasons.

Crossan argues that prior to the spread of Greek philosophy, the Jewish faith was holistic. But the Greeks tried to split the mind and body. That dualism has persisted in Western thought and has contributed to a denigration of the body, especially sexuality. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson reinforced that Idealism. Confusion on the issue is reflected in many spiritual circles today. The holistic perspective leads to a more fulsome and wholesome embrace of the human body.

Another benefit from seeing the mind and body as being necessarily integrated is a more honest acceptance of death, which contrasts to the American tendency to try to deny its reality.

In addition, it seems to me, those neurological studies suggest that we can intentionally alter the brain in a beneficial manner through mental activity, such as making the effort to recall events for which we are grateful, as well as meditation.

The review also highlights the risk that’s involved with altering the brain neurologically. The history of psychiatry is littered with examples of devastating brain damage that resulted from arrogant or indifferent attempts to alleviate suffering with neurological tools. The brain is a fantastically complicated mechanism that has been tweaked by eons of evolution. Any attempt to mess with Nature’s miracle should be undertaken with great care.

Moreover, “Making Memories” substantiates that individuals are not isolated, but rather are profoundly interconnected with their environment, including other individuals. Even our memories depend on placing the memory in a “setting,” even if we don’t remember the setting!

And lastly, I was struck by the account of how abstractions, or generalizations, emerge from specific events. As one who is wary of ideology, that description confirms the legitimacy of certain abstractions. The danger arises when abstractions become detached from concrete realities, and ideologues try to force reality to conform to their desires. Dreams of a better world can be helpful. But those dreams are best grounded in reality. Pragmatic idealism seems to be the wisest course.

The Miwok Village

The primary destination for my birthday celebration was the Miwok Village, a replica of the kind of village lived in by the Coast Miwok people prior to the Spanish invasion. Named Kule Loklo, the structures are located about one-half mile from the Point Reyes Ranger Station.

My first visit to the village was about 20 years ago. I sat there alone for about an hour and imagined what it would’ve been like to live there. Having read Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way expedited my visualization. I could easily imagine having lived there then. It would have been like camping out in the Garden of Eden.

This time I visited with my sister and brother-in-law. What struck me most is that the Coast Miwok lived there in the Bay Area much the same way for 8,000 years in villages that averaged 200 inhabitants. Imagine that. 8,000 years!

They felt no need to migrate. They felt no need to conquer other nearby indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Ohlone. Such an idea was probably foreign to them. They might not even have known how to rule and dominate.

Presumably they felt no need to expand because they lived in Paradise. The fish were so plentiful the Spanish threw rocks into the water to kill them. And when startled, birds would fly off and would block the sun like an eclipse.

Some 50 tribes lived peacefully in the Bay Area, with only occasional internecine conflict. Originally from China, I assume they left China because it was too crowded, migrated here probably looking for warmer weather, and decided the Bay Area would suffice! No wonder. Acorns were their staple, the ocean was plentiful, and they did some hunting. Most times of the year, they wore little or no clothing.

This visit I took note of the fact that several members of one extended family slept together in their small houses. That must have been cozy! Presumably they could have build more houses, but felt no need to do so. No isolated, suburban single-family homes there!

I was also struck by the fact that there were very few visitors to the village. Though the nearby visitor center was very busy, we were at the village more than 30 minutes and had the space completely to ourselves. The village fascinates and mesmerizes me. It documents vividly how modern life is not natural and inspires me to seek some kind of return to our roots. But apparently few people share my interest. Alas.

 

Reflections On My 73rd Birthday

As I turn 73, adjusting to retirement, tweaking my freedom schedule, I’m haunted by:

  • The Dalai Lama’s advice, “Today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.”
  • The Charter for Compassion, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.…”
  • Each day throughout the world more than 8,000 children die needless, preventable deaths and millions of Americans suffer from severe social and economic injustice.
  • That suffering is imposed by a self-perpetuating global social system.
  • It’s like a monster drowning more babies than can be rescued.
  • Only strong nation states can control that monster and transform the System.
  • That transformation will require massive, unified grassroots movements within each nation.
  • American individualism and materialism undermine that movement.
  • Americans are becoming increasingly selfish, thanks in part to their addiction to screens.
  • The desire to climb social ladders and look down on others drives the System.
  • My decision not to get a professional degree was fateful.
  • I wanted to avoid being elevated above others.
  • I wanted to organize holistic, democratic communities.
  • But I still had a college degree and others knew it.
  • And I acted like an educated man.
  • People often thought I was a lawyer.
  • So my effort to be an ordinary man was only partly successful.
  • My community organizing produced only occasional fruit.
  • I squandered too much of my youth.
  • In my old age, I hope to squander less.
  • My resistance to traditional marriage left me with no children and no partner.
  • My family has been the human family.
  • My true love is truth, justice and beauty.
  • But now that I’m retired, I often feel lonely at night.
  • I rarely felt lonely before.
  • TV offers virtual companionship and a chance to tap passion.
  • But I’m trying to break that addiction.
  • At night I prefer to meditate, listen to music, read, write.
  • I’d like to socialize more, but I get tired of being the organizer.
  • I wish more people reached out to me to get together.
  • I feel like a low-energy wallflower.
  • Most conversation quickly bores me.
  • Most people just tell stories, pontificate, or gossip.
  • I’d like to talk with my close friends the way I talk to my therapist.
  • I’d like for them to respond to me the way my therapist responds.
  • I’d like for them to talk to me the way I talk to my therapist.
  • I’d like to respond to them the way my therapist responds to me.
  • Intimate direct action.
  • Why not?
  • All we have to fear is fear itself.
  • Humans are resilient.
  • So, while remaining open to, and available for, authentic human encounter, I write.
  • I’m summing up my thinking in a new “declaration for action.”
  • Then I’ll share it with others, initially people of color.
  • Ideally others will collaborate to rewrite it.
  • If not, I’ll pursue it myself.
  • Get it out as widely as I can.
  • I believe in what I have to say.
  • I believe it’s important and rational.
  • Hardly anyone has ever told me my thoughts are crazy.
  • The main reaction has been lukewarm support.
  • It’s just a question of how to spark more action, and what is realistic.
  • Something dramatic must happen to help humanity evolve.
  • When I finish that declaration, I’ll write something else.
  • They say a writer is someone who must write.
  • So I guess I’m a writer
  • Even if the number of my readers declines.
  • Even if I’m a majority of one.
  • I am compelled to write.
  • While remaining open to deep dialogue with fellow seekers.
  • I see no choice.
  • I am bound to my calling,
  • Waiting for that rebirth of wonder.
  • Grateful for so much, my close friends, my home, my health, the Holy Spirit.
  • I celebrate my birthday with joy in my heart.
  • Reassured that my true love will always be by my side.

A Thought for Bernie Sanders

The following essay, “A Thought for Bernie Sanders: Maybe He Should Join the Democratic Party?” is by Tom Gallagher, who’s chair of San Francisco Progressive Democrats of America, was a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

When I received it, I emailed him, “Yes, indeed. Well put. And what about organizing an ‘activist caucus’ dedicated to transforming the Democratic Party into an activist organization that fights for its national platform in every Congressional district year-round by organizing the grassroots — including precinct-based clubs — and runs candidates for local Party positions who support that caucus?”

Tom replied, “Thanks.  And I’d say that Our Revolution — among others — has that notion.  But between the notion and the fact are many many people hours.”

I’ll post subsequent exchanges with Tom in the comments section to this post.

+++++

A Thought for Bernie Sanders: Maybe He Should Join the Democratic Party?

We all know how thoroughly Bernie Sanders shook up American politics, particularly within the Democratic Party, when he took his challenge to the generally unchallenged, and usually unspoken rule of big money in politics. Even now they’re starting to argue about whether he’s the party’s 2020 frontrunner. And yet political currents at home and abroad suggest a case for him doing something that could shake up the applecart just as thoroughly for a second time – by actually becoming a Democrat for keeps.

It’s not as if his record as the longest-serving independent in the history of the U.S. Congress (a status only interrupted during his run for the presidential nomination) hasn’t served him well, or anything like that. Clearly it’s been a significant contributor to the fact that even people who disagree with him regard him as a straight-shooter. No, so far as his own career goes, Sanders might just as well stay independent. It could well be the case, however, that the enthusiasm his campaign has injected into mainstream politics would be more effectively channeled if he made his plunge into party politics permanent. The question ultimately comes down to one of unity – and clarity of purpose. What would best unify the broad swath of activists and potential activists trying to develop a political force capable of breaking corporate dominance in American politics?

Sometimes things can be clearer from the outside looking in. Canadian author Naomi Klein, for instance, while recognizing the difficulty “of taking over a party that has been colonized by neoliberalism and by the interests of economic elites who do not want to change”—i.e., the Democratic Party—understands the effort as an unavoidable part of a “battle for the soul of, not just the party, but the country.” This perspective seems not always as clear back home, though, where only recently Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United—an organization as closely linked to the Sanders campaign as any—warned a California Democratic Party convention that “If we dismiss progressive values and reinforce the status quo, don’t assume the activists in California and around this country are going to stay with the Democratic Party.”

And yet, isn’t that precisely what those committed to maintaining the status quo of big money hegemony in politics should assume—that the activists are going to stay and fight to end their control of both major parties? Their worst nightmare is not that we will pick up and leave if we don’t get what we want, but that we won’t leave!

Meanwhile, for those who fear that abandoning capital “I” political Independent status necessarily means compromising small “i” independence in the eyes of the electorate, you won’t find a better example of that ethos than in the recent experience of Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party. For all of the grievances that some people who came into electoral politics with the Sanders campaign may have against the Democratic Party, they surely pale in comparison with Corbyn’s treatment at the hands of the Labour Party, whose Members of Parliament last year voted no confidence in him by a 172-57 margin, despite his enthusiastic support among the party rank and file. (And his treatment in the establishment media was even worse.)

But still he—and they—persisted, ultimately producing an electoral platform that proposed re-nationalization of the railways, free public higher education, and a range of other policies that proved to resonate far better with the electorate that those of the pro-business New Labour types who frown upon them—and him.

Why did Corbyn’s supporters stay and fight in a party where they were so clearly unwelcome? Because if they were serious about changing their country, there was nowhere else to go. Which is much the situation we face in regard to the Democratic Party here, where any smart big money guy has got to hope that the anti-corporate control types will get fed up with feeling unloved and leave the field to those who’ve been running the show.

Any decision as to Sanders’s political status is obviously ultimately his to make, of course. Yet his oft-stated point, “It’s not about me, it’s us”—so central to his campaign—does suggest that the consideration is a legitimate matter for all of “us.” And one can’t help but wonder if Bernie Sanders couldn’t add a measure of clarity to the current situation.

 

The History and Future of Consumerism

Consumerism did not begin in post-War America. Nor did it begin in the Renaissance, when most people dressed like their grandparents.

In “More Is More,” a review of  Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First, Deborah Cohen reports, “The age-old prohibition against gluttony, together with the fear that goods in the wrong hands eroded the social order, had helped to inhibit consumption. The challenge was to transform a drive for accumulation into something virtuous.”

In northwestern Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ordinary people began earning higher wages and taking pleasure in novelty, which

set off an avalanche of products both new and newly cheap: clay pipes, white soap, knitted stockings, a dazzling array of fabrics, and eventually imported drug-foods such as tobacco, chocolate, and coffee.

According to some historians, the taste for goods prompted many families into factory work.

Writers stepped in to justify the drive to acquire material goods. In his Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville argued that greed is good, and in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that consumption was the “sole end of all production.”

Through this rise in consumerism, Trentmann “thinks people are far more prone to keep up with their friends than with their social betters.”

As of 2010, on average, residents of the thirty-four richest nations consumed over 220 pounds of stuff every day.

In 1966 only 5 percent of German men changed their underpants every day. By 1986, 45 percent did.

Trentmann’s book does not end on a happy note. According to  Cohen:

It isn’t until the end of his expansive book that the hopelessness of our current, consumer-driven predicament overshadows the story he has told…. If Empire of Things were a play, the stage would become in each scene ever more crowded with amiable consumers who have good intentions and better lives. In an explosive final act, though, they would blaze into spontaneous combustion fueled by their own excess—the unhappy place where we now find ourselves.

Do you disagree?

 

 

 

 

 

David Brooks on Pierre Bourdieu

Last night, prior to going to sleep, I was struck by a simple, straightforward statement Bob Dylan made in a 1964 profile written by Nat Hentoff for the New Yorker, “The Crackin’, Shakin’, Breakin’ Sounds.” After explaining why he reacted angrily to the high-end scene when he accepted the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, Dylan, after he had decided to stop writing “finger pointing” songs while still in his early 20s, said:

People talk about trying to change society. All I know is that so long as people stay so concerned about protecting their status and protecting what they have, ain’t nothing going to be done.

Then, this morning I read “Getting Radical About Inequality” by David Brooks on The New York Times website and I was encouraged that readers would gain a greater understanding of Pierre Bourdieu’s important work. However, after reviewing the most highly rated of the more than 600 comments on Brooks’ column this afternoon, I am less encouraged. Those commentators did not seem to “get it.”

Brooks’ summary of Bourdieu includes:

Every minute or hour, in ways we’re not even conscious of, we as individuals and members of our class are competing for dominance and respect. We seek to topple those who have higher standing than us and we seek to wall off those who are down below….

Every hour most of us, unconsciously or not, try to win subtle status points, earn cultural affirmation, develop our tastes, promote our lifestyles and advance our class. All of those microbehaviors open up social distances, which then, by the by, open up geographic and economic gaps.

Bourdieu radicalizes, widens and deepens one’s view of inequality. His work suggests that the responses to it are going to have to be more profound, both on a personal level — resisting the competitive, ego-driven aspects of social networking and display — and on a national one.

Dylan, Bourdieu, and Brooks  are saying that “the problem” is not only “out there.” It is also “in here,” within each of us, deeply embedded by the dominant society. As such, it nurtures division and undermines community. None of the comments I saw on the Times site seemed to acknowledge that dilemma.

Until we learn how to set aside those divisive tendencies and really respect one another,  “ain’t nothing (to speak of) going to be done,” as Bob put it.

Direct Action by L.A. Kaufman: Forthcoming Review

After I finish reading Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism by L.A. Kaufman, I’ll post a review of it in a week or so. Despite some differences of opinion with the author, I consider it a valuable book. If you read it between now and then, we could compare notes. One option would be for you to write your comments before reading mine. Then we could share independent reactions.

The release of her book by Verso prompted Rolling Stone to publish an interview with her titled, “How to Take Action – and Stay Sane – in the Trump Era.” The sub-title was “’Direct Action’ author L.A. Kauffman discusses how to get motivated and fight burnout, and why ‘protest works.'”

Five of the six customer reviews on Amazon give it five stars. NPR also reviewed the book.

Verso’s description of the book reads as follows:

A longtime movement insider’s powerful account of the origins of today’s protest movements and what they can achieve now

As Americans take to the streets in record numbers to resist the presidency of Donald Trump, L.A. Kauffman’s timely, trenchant history of protest offers unique insights into how past movements have won victories in times of crisis and backlash and how they can be most effective today.

This deeply researched account, twenty-five years in the making, traces the evolution of disruptive protest since the Sixties to tell a larger story about the reshaping of the American left. Kauffman, a longtime grassroots organizer, examines how movements from ACT UP to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter have used disruptive tactics to catalyze change despite long odds.

Kauffman’s lively and elegant history is propelled by hundreds of candid interviews conducted over a span of decades. Direct Action showcases the voices of key players in an array of movements – environmentalist, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, feminist, LGBTQ, anti-globalization, racial-justice, anti-war, and more – across an era when American politics shifted to the right, and a constellation of decentralized issue- and identity-based movements supplanted the older ideal of a single, unified left.

Now, as protest movements again take on a central and urgent political role, Kauffman’s history offers both striking lessons for the current moment and an unparalleled overview of the landscape of recent activism. Written with nuance and humor, Direct Action is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the protest movements of our time.

Verso’s biography of the author is:

L.A. Kauffman has spent more than thirty years immersed in radical movements as a participant, strategist, journalist, and observer. She has been called a “virtuoso organizer” by journalist Scott Sherman for her role in saving community gardens and public libraries in New York City from development. Kauffman coordinated the grassroots mobilizing efforts for the huge protests against the Iraq war in 2003–04. Her writings on American radicalism and social movement history have been published in The Nation, n+1, The Baffler, and many other outlets.

Consider checking it out. I look forward to evaluating it, hopefully with some of you.

 

Twelve Steps for Growing Deep Community: Step One

Toward the end of my autobiography, My Search for Deep Community, I suggested “Twelve Steps for Growing Deep Community.” Following is Step One:
 
Ask questions. When you meet with friends, ask many questions, not just one or two polite ones. Be curious. Ask follow-up questions to deepen your understanding of how other people view themselves and the world. See what you can learn. Talk less and listen more. Watch screens less and connect with humans more. These simple questions work well: Why? Why not? How did you feel about that? What are you feeling? How might you achieve that goal? Can you tell me more? What’s been on your mind lately? Other options include: What’s your passion? What’s the purpose of your life? Why not ask questions like that and listen carefully to the answers? Improve your friendships by becoming a better listener.

Words, Harm, Blame, and Splintering

 


by Wade Hudson
Tikkun Daily
July 10, 2017

[Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the key to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.

–Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman

Cruel words can trigger hurt feelings and anger. Individuals who speak those words need to be held accountable and we need to reduce their frequency. But a compassionate response avoids blaming only the speaker. Listeners share responsibility for their reactions, and social conditioning and other factors contribute as well.

The Dalai Lama said:

You have to think: Why did this happen? This person is not your enemy from birth…. You see that this person’s actions are due to their own destructive emotions. You can develop a sense of concern, compassion, even feel sorry for their pain and suffering.

Words do not directly cause harm like a hammer causes pain when it hits my thumb. Cause and effect is a linear dynamic; emotions are immersed in a holistic system. Words contribute to hurt feelings, but how I process what others say is another factor. I am partly responsible for how I respond. I can learn how to react differently.

So I no longer tell people, “You hurt me.” That phrase shifts all responsibility onto the speaker.

It can be more constructive to say, “When you said X, I felt Y.” In that case, the focus is on a single action. That makes it easier to acknowledge a mistake and resolve not to repeat it, which can help heal the relationship.

On the other hand, “You hurt me” focuses on the other. As such, it can be seen as a personal attack, a challenge to who you are at your core. That can make the exchange more heated and lead to a reciprocal, escalating blame game with each party accusing the other, which often degenerates into ad hominem name-calling.

One result is personal fragility. People become less likely to speak honestly, because they’re afraid they will cause harm or be accused of causing harm. That fear gives power to people who are prone to charge, “You hurt me.” Those accusers can then try to manipulate the speaker with guilt trips.

“You hurt me” is like charging a felony rather than an infraction. When “defendants” plead “not guilty” to that felony, “prosecutors” often punish, shun, or excommunicate them. As a result, former allies often splinter over disagreements about tactics.

Faced with that harshly judgmental dynamic, many potential allies withdraw from social engagement and operate in a safer environment with a small circle of friends, which reinforces the splintering.

America’s highly individualistic culture exaggerates the responsibility of individuals. But the primary problem is the System, which includes our institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. A kind response to mean words takes into account that reality.

I wish I were not so easily offended. I wish others were not so easily offended. I wish that like-minded people did not divide so easily into factions. After all, we need community, not fragmentation.

Blaming individuals diverts energy away from organizing to change institutions and policies. More compassion and less blaming could help nurture a broad-based movement to transform the United States into a supportive community that would enable you, me, and everyone to be all we can be.