Our Blind Spot on the Future

January 27th, 2017

We can all see how the pace of life is speeding up. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds.

And we feel it in our own lives. Remember when you used to write a letter, stick a stamp on it, mail it, and then be OK waiting several days for a reply. Now we email or text and expect to hear back within hours or minutes. There seems to be more and more things to take care of, more and more information to absorb, more and more technologies to adapt to, more and more time spent on line, and less time to do it all in.

But this accelerating pace of change isn’t new. Throughout the history of life on Earth development has been compressed into shorter and shorter times.

Imagine the 4.5 billion years of our planet’s history compressed into just one year.

Simple cells first appear in March.

But multicellular life doesn’t evolve until early September.

The first mammals appear on Christmas Day

But human beings don’t arrive until a quarter of an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In the last twenty seconds, the first civilizations.

The Renaissance, four seconds from the end.

Moon walks, the Internet, global warming—all in the last quarter second.

So where’s it all going? What is going to happen in the next fraction of a second?

One thing’s certain, development will continue to be compressed into shorter and shorter times.

You’ve probably heard of Moore’s law in computing which shows how computer power keeps doubling every eighteen months. On this basis,, sometime in the 2030s there will be computers whose performance surpasses that of the human brain. These super-intelligent machines could then be used to design even more intelligent computers. And do so even faster. Leading to a further explosion in acceleration. Within decades, rates of change would be astronomical. In the century beyond that, unimaginable. The curve would be off the charts. It would be both way beyond our comprehension—and way beyond any feasible reality.

But when we come to look at our long-term future, ever-accelerating rates of change present us with a major contradiction. On the one hand, there’s every reason to suppose the rate of change will keep increasing. On the other hand, when we imagine a long-term future for humanity, we unconsciously assume that rates of change will be relatively static.

Take the TV series Star Trek for example, set several hundred years from now. Technology on the Enterprise, and that back at Federation headquarters, doesn’t seem to change much over time. But how could that be? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be developing fast. Indeed, given the exponential nature of development, the pace of change would have become unimaginably rapid long before the Enterprise was launched—and even more rapid in the following years.

The same is true with just about every other long-term vision of humanity’s future. They are not set within the context of accelerating change. In most cases, any development there might be is imagined as linear and slow—more appropriate to pre-industrial times.

This is our bind spot on the future. Accelerating change is inherently incompatible with a long-term future.

But anyone who contemplates the future of humanity hundreds of years ahead must first explain how the acceleration of development—which has been going on since the dawn of life—will suddenly come to an end. How does exponential change transform into slow linear development?

And we’re not just talking about technological or material development, but cultural, social and mental development. It would mean human innovation and creativity slowing to almost nothing.

If the rate of change continues to accelerate—and there is every reason to suppose it will—or even if it should steady up and remain at today’s dizzying pace—we have to radically reconsider our ideas about where we are headed.

It calls for an entirely new paradigm of the future. And of the role of humanity in the cosmos.


For a more detailed exploration of the implications see: Blind Spot

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Synchronicity and the ‘Support of Nature’

October 29th, 2016

Back in the sixties I spent time studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India. When he was assessing how we were each progressing in our practice, he was often not so interested in our experiences within meditation itself—whether we were noticing subtle levels of thinking, discovering the true self, having deep insights or visions. His principal interest was whether we were noticing, what he called, “increased support of nature” in our daily lives. By this he meant: Were we noticing that the world seems to support our needs and intentions—in other words, were we noticing what many of us would call increased synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

His thinking went as follows: In meditation we are transcending thinking and reconnecting with our true nature. Much of our thinking is a manifestation of our ego-mind—thinking that is primarily concerned with our personal needs and desires—and by transcending, that is “going beyond,” it we are freeing ourselves from its demands. It is clear that many of the problems we see in the world—from international and environmental problems to social and personal problems—stem, in one way or another, from our egoic thinking. So by stepping out of the ego-mind we are supporting nature in the most fundamental way possible. And nature returns the favour by supporting us.

I have never heard of any other teacher taking this approach (which is not to say there may not be some). And although it may sound a little like “magical thinking” I have noticed it to be frequently true in my own life. When I am meditating regularly, and in particular when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to be working out very well, many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. On the other hand when I’m stressed, not in touch with my true self, but caught up in the demands of egoic thinking, synchronicities like this do not happen so much.

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Loss and Revival of the Timeless Wisdom

September 18th, 2016

The following is from the Preface I wrote for the new edition of Rupert Spira’s book, The Transparency of Things

We live in unprecedented times. Science is answering age-old questions about the nature of reality, the birth of the cosmos, and the origins of life. We are witnessing technological advances that a century ago would have seemed science fiction, or even magic. And, more alarmingly, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact our burgeoning growth is having on the planet. Yet, along with these rapidly unfolding changes is another development that is passing largely unnoticed. We are in the midst of an unprecedented spiritual renaissance, rediscovering in contemporary terms the timeless wisdom of the ages.

Most spiritual traditions began with an individual having a transforming mystical experience, some profound revelation, or inner awakening. It may have come through dedicated spiritual practice, deep devotion, facing a hard challenge, or sometimes unbidden, out of the blue—a timeless moment in which one’s personal dramas pale in the light of a deep inner security. However it came, it usually led to a delightful joy in being alive, an unconditional love for all beings, the dissolving of the sense of self, and an awareness of oneness with creation.

The profound transformation they experienced caused many to want to share their discovery, and help others have their own awakening. But those who listened to their teachings may have misunderstood some parts, forgot others, and perhaps added interpretations of their own. Much like the party game of Chinese whispers in which a message whispered round a room can end up nothing like the original, as the teaching passed from one person to another, from one culture to another, and was translated from one language to another, it gradually became less and less like the original. The timeless wisdom became increasingly veiled, and clothed in the beliefs and values of the society in which it found itself, resulting in a diversity of faiths whose common essence is often hard to detect.

Today however, we are in the midst of a widespread spiritual renaissance that differs significantly from those of the past. We are no longer limited to the faith of our particular culture; we have access to all the world’s wisdom traditions, from the dawn of recorded history to the present day. And the insights of contemporary teachers from around the planet are readily available in books, recordings, and via the Internet. None of this was possible before.

Rather than there being a single leader, there are now many experiencing and expounding the perennial philosophy. Some may be more visible than others, and some may have clearer realizations than others, but all are contributing to a growing rediscovery of the timeless wisdom. We are seeing through the apparent differences of the world’s faiths, past their various cultural trappings and interpretations, to what lies at their heart. And, instead of the truth becoming progressively diluted and veiled as it is passed on, today our discoveries are reinforcing each other. We are collectively honing in on the essential teaching.

As we strip away the layers of accumulated obscurity, the core message not only gets clearer and clearer. It gets simpler and simpler. And the path becomes easier and easier.

At the leading edge of this progressive awakening is what contemporary teachers such as Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira call “the direct path”. Recognition of our true nature does not need studious reading of spiritual texts, years of meditation practice, or deep devotion to a teacher; only the willingness to engage in a rigorously honest investigation into the nature of awareness itself. Not an intellectual investigation, but a personal investigation into what we truly are.

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Consciousness does not identify with anything

June 23rd, 2016

I sometimes hear people claim that pure consciousness identifies itself with the ego, with thinking, or with the body. What they are effectively saying is that the pure Self, i.e. that which is conscious of all experiences, believes it is a separate self, a thinker, a chooser, and doer of actions. But the pure Self, does not believe or think anything. It is that which is aware of the thoughts and beliefs that are arising—the “knower” of all experience.

This Self is not tainted or affected in any way by the perturbations of the mind. It’s essence remains unchanged, just as the water in a wave is not itself changed by the wave’s motion. Unchanging, the Self is the silent knower of all that appears in our experience.

What is actually happening is that the attention becomes absorbed in the thought-system of the ego.

Attention is intrinsic to being aware. It might be thought of as the spotlight of awareness, focusing on one particular aspect of the enormous breadth of the totality of our experience. It’s job is to attend to things that may be important.

The attention has two basic modes of operation. There is a relaxed mode where everything is OK. We are at ease, and the attention moves effortlessly, from one possible interest to another, with no voluntary effort or control—attracted to the sound of a bird, an itch, a moth flying by. In this mode, our attention is not pre-occupied with who we are, or our sense of self.

Then when we do notice something of interest our attention stays there for a while. We pay attention. We consider whether this may be important for our well-being? Do I need do anything? If so what? The focus of consciousness is now on the issue at hand, and the thoughts we are having about it.

If the issue at hand is deemed important for our well-being, then the seamless whole of our experience is divided in two. There is this body, the organism that needs taking care of, and the world around that may need to be changed in some way, or conversely be prevented from changing. We create a sense of being an individual self who is thinking and acting in the world. But this sense of self is, in the final analysis, just a set of thoughts and beliefs. It is another form arising in experience, another “thing” we are conscious of.

Consciousness has not identified itself with this sense of self. The identification is in our thinking. Consciousness itself remains, as ever, the silent witness of all these shenanigans. It is simply aware of them as it would be of any other thought or experience.

The separate sense of self is like a character in a novel. If it is an engrossing novel, we, the reader, can become so absorbed in the story, the ups and downs of the hero’s adventure, that we temporarily forget we are the reader of the story. Our attention is absorbed by the drama, imaging the world of the hero. Similarly with the dramas of our own lives, our attention becomes absorbed in our own hero’s journey—the challenges and opportunities, our hopes and fears, the choices we must make, the risks we must take. But the pure Self, the knower of all experience, has not identified with the separate self, the character in our personal story. It merely experiences the machinations of this particular way of thinking.

So when we say consciousness becomes identified with the ego, with thoughts or the body, what is actually happening is that the attention is so focused on these aspects of our experience that they dominate our experience. For a while, the fact that we are much more than that does not get a chance to enter. We forget we are that which is watching the drama unfold.

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There is no such thing as self

June 17th, 2016

Let me be clear, the emphasis is on “thing”. We all experience a sense of personal self, a “me” that is reading these words, an individual with its own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. And we also know a sense of I-ness that is always present, that which knows this experience right now, and every other experience we’ve ever had. But neither of these senses of self is a thing, an object we can identify and go find.

When I look within I find various things that I am aware of—thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. I also find ideas about who I am: a name, gender, age, personality, memories and fantasies, hopes and fears. But these are not my self. They are just experiences that give me a sense that I am an individual being, with a unique set of attributes.

When I feel I am caught in my ego, there’s not a “thing” that is controlling me. What I’m caught in is a self-centered way of thinking—usually about how can I get what I need from the world so that I can feel OK. It is just a mode of thinking, determined by a mind-set or belief as to how to get what I want. There’s no actual thing called an “ego” directing my thoughts; just patterns of responses, each in their own way seeking to help me feel safe and survive. And at times I am very grateful for this way of thinking. Without it none of us would have survived for long.

Then there is that ever-present quality of “I”, the knower all experience—including the experience of being a separate unique self. That is no-thing either. Unlike the ego-mind which has a whole host of qualities associated with it, the knower, the “I am” at the center every experience has no intrinsic qualities. It is consciousness, the subject of all experience.

Having no intrinsic qualities, the ever-present sense of “I”, often called the “pure self” or Self, can never be known as an object of experience. For that it would need to have a form that could be known. One may seem to experience it as a location in the body, a quality of presence in the heart perhaps, or a deep feeling of me-ness. But in the final analysis, however, subtle, and perhaps “spiritual”, these experiences might be they are all experiences, and as such are known to and by consciousness. They are not the pure self, that which is aware of them all. For that reason this self can never be known as a thing.

If I ask “Who are you?” the mind can come up with all manner of answers. But if I ask simply “Are you?” the answer invariably is a simple “Yes.”

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The Emergence of Self-Awareness: The Mirror Test

July 7th, 2015

Do other animals have a sense of self?

One common way of answering this question is with the “mirror test”. Does an animal recognize itself in a mirror?

The test was first devised by Charles Darwin who held up a mirror to an orangutan in a zoo, noting how the animal reacted with unusual facial expressions. In the 1970s the test was refined by placing a mark on an animal’s face, and then observing how it responded when it looked in the mirror. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos will poke the spot or try to remove it, showing that they see the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas also pass the test. And recently elephants have been shown to pass it.

Dogs and cats, however, fail the mirror test. Dogs will occasionally bark at their reflection, and cats have been known to go look behind the mirror, but generally these animals ignore their image in the mirror. It is therefore assumed that they have no sense of self. But can we draw such a clear line between creatures with a sense of self and those without?

That a dog or cat generally ignores its reflection rather than behaving as if it were seeing another animal is interesting. They do not pass the test in the sense of recognizing themselves in the reflection; yet they do not completely fail the test either. They know they are not seeing another dog or cat. I call this “not-other” awareness, as opposed to full self-awareness.

I suspect not-other awareness is to be found in any animal that drinks from water. As it leans forward to drink, it is likely to come face to face with its own reflection. If it interpreted this as another animal looming close, it would probably back off (and, if repeated continually, die of thirst). For such creatures, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in the inhibition of the “other” response when seeing their own reflection in water.

With the great apes, dolphins, and elephants, consciousness has now evolved to the point where it can recognize the “not-other” as itself.

So it would seem that the evolution of self is not a black or white affair. There are many shades of gray between no self-awareness and self-awareness.

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Fireworm Spectacular

April 11th, 2015

Sitting on a dock in Isla Morada, watching the stars come out as dusk turned into night, when suddenly a bright green luminescence appeared in the water. At first I thought it must be a glowing jellyfish. Then more appeared, and looking more closely I saw each was a brightly glowing wriggling worm, a couple of inches long, creating around it a luminescent pool about a foot across. They were there for a minute then vanished. Altogether forty or so must have suddenly appeared, and just as suddenly disappeared. Within minutes the show was over.

Subsequent research revealed I had just seen the mating ritual of the bearded fireworm. It happens on the third quarter of the moon in Spring, fifty-six minutes after sunset. The females come out of the mud, swim up to the surface and put on this spectacle, attracting the males up to them.

But how come such exact timing, I wondered? At first I must I thought be triggered by the degree of darkness reached 56 minutes after sunset, on a day when there is no full moon. But a day or two after the full moon, the sky would be that dark. Why did it not happen till the third quarter – and this was exactly on the third quarter, seven days after the full moon.

I was left in wonder. One of those fascinating ways life on Earth is linked to the cycles of the moon – and so precisely.

And my own timing was perfect too. Had I not stayed on the dock till it got dark, I would not have seen them. Had it been en another day, I would not have seen them. Perhaps this is the only time in my life I will be privileged to witness this magic luminescent dance. But I shall be eternally grateful for having done so. (Or maybe I will return on the third quarter of the April full moon next year.)

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Running Dry – II

April 7th, 2015

Five years ago I posted a blog (Running Dry) charting the water levels in California’s reservoirs for the previous five years, pointing out that if the trend continued California would begin literally running out of water in a few years. Fortunately the following winters brought increased rainfall and the immediate danger was averted. But since then, with four consecutive winters of low rainfall, the situation has become even more dire—and much more so than most realize. Jerry Brown’s order of a 25% cut in consumption, and his $6 billion for better collection and distribution, which won’t come on line for another five years, may be respectively too little and too late.

CA reservoir levels

Looking at the graph above, it is clear that if the winter rains over the next couple of years follow the same pattern—and current models of climate change suggest that this is indeed the long-term expectation—and people, farming, and industry don’t drastically curb water usage, then the reservoirs will begin to run dry.

What will happen then? California will no longer be such an attractive place to live in. The net influx of people attracted by the many opportunities California has to offer, will give way to a net outflow. People and corporations will begin migrating elsewhere—just as other civilizations have when faced with prolonged drought. And the greatly inflated property prices around San Francisco and Los Angeles will begin to fall, perhaps collapse. What will happen when people have to move elsewhere, but cannot sell their homes? There’s another economic disaster waiting in the wings. And it may well be the first major such disaster directed related to climate change.

Moreover, since over 40% of North America’s fruit and veg is grown in California’s central valley, less water will mean reduced crops and higher prices throughout the USA. Moreover any shortage in the US will be made up by imports, raising prices in the developing world.

Many central-valley farmers have turned to pumping out the aquifers to irrigate their crops. But it doesn’t take any great brains to see that this is a short-term solution and will lead to even greater tragedy when the aquifers run dry.

See also:
California Wake-Up Call
What if California’s Drought is Permanent
It takes one gallon of water to produce one almond!

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Returning to Natural Mind

September 26th, 2014

In the final analysis, the hope of every person is simply peace of mind. Behind all our endeavors lies the desire to be happy, to feel content, relaxed, and at ease. No one wants to be in pain or to suffer unnecessarily. This is our true bottom line. We may think we are seeking some external goal, but we are seeking it in the hope that, in one way or another, we’ll feel better for it.

Why then, are we so seldom at peace? After all, we’re intelligent beings, who can look ahead and plan for the future. Moreover, we have many tools and technologies with which to create a better world. One would think that we, of all creatures, would be content and at ease. Yet the very opposite seems to be the case. Paradoxically, it is our remarkable ability to change the world that has led us to this sorry state. We have fallen into the belief that if we are not at peace, then we must do something about it. We believe we need to attain some goal, possess some thing, find some new experience; or conversely, avoid a situation or person that is causing us distress. We assume that, if we could just get our world to be the way we want, we would finally be happy.

In the short term, this approach seems to work. When we get what we want, we usually do feel better. But only for a while. Before long, we are off in search of some other source of happiness.

We live in what Indian philosophies call samsara, which means “to wander on.” We wander on, looking for happiness in a world that provides but temporary respites from our discontent, fleeting satisfactions followed by more wandering on in search of that ever-elusive goal.

Moreover, believing that peace of mind comes from what we have or do often makes us feel worse, not better. Imagining that something is missing or needs changing creates discontent. Our attention gets preoccupied with what we need, the choices to be made, the plans to carry them out—much of it concerning situations that don’t yet exist, and probably never will. Our thinking moves from one issue to another with seldom a pause.

Rather than feeling more at ease, we generally end up more tense. Throughout history, there have been those who’ve discovered a timeless truth about human consciousness: Our natural state of mind is already one of ease and contentment. By “natural” they do not mean the state of mind in which we spend most of our time—which, for the vast majority, is not one of ease and contentment. They are speaking of the mind before it becomes tarnished with desires and aversions. It is how we feel when everything is OK; when we are not worrying about anything.

Time and again they’ve told us that we don’t need to do anything, or go anywhere to be at peace. We simply need to cease striving for a moment. Let go of any attachments as to how things should or should not be. Become aware of our experience in the present as it is, without resistance or judgement. Then—and this is key—let the attention soften and relax.

When we do, we taste how it feels to be free from worry, anticipation, deciding and planning. We find the peace of mind that we have been seeking all along. A peace that is not at the mercy of events, or the vacillations of the thinking mind. A peace we can return to again and again.

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Praying to One’s Self

April 17th, 2014

A friend recently asked if I ever prayed for anything. My response was yes, but not in the conventional way. I don’t pray for intervention in the world, but for intervention in my mind, for that’s where I most need help.

We usually think of prayer as an appeal to some higher power. We might pray for someone’s healing, for success in some venture, for a better life, or for guidance on some challenging issue. Behind such prayers is the recognition that we don’t have the power to change things ourselves—if we did, we would simply get on with the task—so we beseech a higher power to intervene on our behalf.

Trying to change the world occupies much of our time and attention. We want the possessions, opportunities, or experiences that we think will make us happy—or conversely, avoid those that will make us suffer. We believe that if only things were different we would finally be at peace.

This is the ego’s way of thinking. It is founded on the belief that how we feel inside depends upon our circumstances. And if things aren’t the way we think they should be, we start to feel discontent. This can take various forms—disappointment, frustration, annoyance, impatience, judgment, grievance—yet whatever its form, the root of our discontent lies not so much in the situation at hand, but more in how we interpret it.

For example, if I am stuck in a traffic jam, I can see it either as something that will make me suffer—being late for an appointment, missing some experience, or upsetting someone—and so begin to feel impatient, frustrated, or anxious. Or I can see it as an opportunity to relax, and take it easy for a few minutes. The same situation; two totally different reactions. And the difference is purely in how I am seeing things.

When I catch myself feeling upset in some way, I find it helpful to remember that my annoyance might be coming from the way I am interpreting the situation. If so, it makes more sense to ask, not for a change in the world, but for a change in my perception.

So that is what I pray for. I settle into a quiet state, then ask, with an attitude of innocent curiosity: “Could there, perhaps, be another way of seeing this?” I don’t try to answer the question myself, for that would doubtless activate the ego-mind, which loves to try and work things out for me. So I simply pose the question. Let it go. And wait.

Often a new way of seeing then dawns on me. It does not come as a verbal answer, but as an actual shift in perception. I find myself seeing the situation in a new way.

One memorable shift happened a while ago when I was having some challenges with my partner. She was not behaving the way I thought she should. (How many of us have not felt that at times?) After a couple of days of strained relationship, I decided to pray in this way, just gently inquiring if there might possibly be another way of perceiving this.

Almost immediately, I found myself seeing her in a very different light. Here was another human being, with her own history and her own needs, struggling to navigate a difficult situation. Suddenly everything changed. I felt compassion for her rather than animosity, understanding rather than judgment. I realized that for the last two days I had been out of love; but now the love had returned.

The results of praying like this never cease to impress me. I find my fears and grievances dropping away. In their place is a sense of ease. Whoever or whatever was troubling me, I now see through more loving and compassionate eyes. Moreover, the new perspective often seems so obvious: Why hadn’t I seen this before?

The beauty of this approach is that I am not praying to some external power. I am praying to my self for guidance—to the true self that sees things as they are without the overlay of various hopes and fears. It recognizes when I have become caught in the ego’s way of thinking, and is ever-willing to help set me free.

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