Empathy

Following is another great poem by Steve Taylor in his latest newsletter. It expresses in poetic form an important truth behind much of what is ‘wrong’ with the world today. The polarity and separation evident in much of today’s politics suggests that we have a long way to go.

Empathy

If you have no empathy, you see enemies everywhere –
when others come close, you sense danger;
so you strengthen your defences and protect your resources
afraid they might steal what’s rightfully yours.

But if you have empathy, you see brothers and sisters;
when others come close, you sense kinship;
so you welcome them, embrace them, open your life up to them,
knowing they’re entitled to share what’s yours.

If you have no empathy, you feel incomplete
and the goal of your life is to accumulate –
to build an empire of achievements and possessions
to try to make yourself whole.

But if you have empathy, you don’t feel a sense of lack
and the goal of your life is to contribute –
to alleviate suffering, to help heal the world
and so strengthen your connection to the whole.

If you have no empathy, you see a world full of boundaries
and the closer you look, the more distinctions you see
and the more autonomous the different parts become
until, right at the bottom, there’s nothing but tiny, solid particles.

But if you have empathy, you know that boundaries are illusory
and the closer you look, the more absurd distinctions seem
until they dissolve away, and at the deepest point,
there’s a vast space of formless oneness.

If you have no empathy, other human beings are objects –
machines with no inner life, who only have value
if they can help you satisfy your desires
and who can be discarded once they have no more use.

But if you have empathy, every person is a universe –
a precious manifestation of spirit,
full of infinite space, deep with unknown forces,
rich with the radiance of being.

If you have no empathy, your soul is hard and constricted
and you see the world as if through the window of a cell
and your isolation fills you with a frustration
that makes you rage with hatred at the world.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.

But if you have empathy, your soul is soft and fluid
and you’re part of the world, as the world is part of you;
and through your openness, like a river through a channel.
there’s an endless flow of love.

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An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.

 

Jay encounter

Walking home laden with shopping the other day, I was aware enough to notice a Jay standing by the side of the path, almost within touching distance. I crouched to get a closer look, and still it stayed there. Now, Jays, or Eurasian Jays are usually very shy birds, so this seemed unusual. There did not appear to be anything physically wrong with the bird. What to do? Usual advice is to leave them alone if not in immediate danger, so I did.

Too good an opportunity not to take a photo with my phone. Seeing this, the bird ran away a short distance, so probably not much wrong with it. It was still not too far away to get a reasonable shot with my rather ordinary phone camera.

Given the time of year, the obvious conclusion is that this is a young Jay, maybe on its first real flight, and maybe in some sort of slightly shocked state due to its experience, maybe due to traffic on the nearby road.

 

Herring Gull

I don’t usually pay much attention to the common Herring Gull, as they are pretty plentiful in the UK (although the RSPB says the population is declining and the bird is red-listed). However a splendid sunny day at Conwy and Llandudno in North Wales gave the opportunity to see them up close.

The photograph on the right shows a gull on the nest in strong sun. Chicks were wriggling about underneath her. What I’d never seen before was the tongue hanging out, presumably helping to stay cool, like a dog.

Some of the mottled brown chicks were making their first forays out into the world, watched over by mother, and precariously positioned on a high part of the town walls at Conwy.

herring gull chicks

Buttercup meadows

Much of the area to the north east of Northwich town centre was industrial wilderness for a long time. It was like a grey ash-covered wasteland when I first visited Northwich in the late 1960s. But the land is now very much being restored. It was pleasing to recently see these buttercup meadows in full flower in Furey Wood (old tip) and Anderton Country Park (old industrial land).

Yet there is a long way to go. Great biodiversity there is not. The buttercup is the great surviver and coloniser. Like the silver birch tree, it does a great job on reclaimed land. But this is a long way from the incredible richness and biodiversity of the glorious meadows, such as I first witnessed in Switzerland in the 1960s.

Like much of the British countryside, centuries of industrialization and increasingly large-scale farming have taken their toll. This is an over-exploited landscape. There is still a long way to go.

Conwy sand bank

The patterns of nature often show an incredible beauty, like this sandbank, water and beach in the Conwy estuary, North Wales, that just caught my eye. What sinuous shapes the wind and tides have created. A beautiful sunny day helped.

conwy sand bank

Whistling Duck on Green

Sometimes you ‘see’ an image that is just a perfect colour combination. These black bellied whistling ducks were serenely progressing through the green covering on a lake in Terry Hershey Park, Houston, and almost immediately disappeared beneath the overhanging vegetation. I just managed to grab a couple of shots that weren’t too bad.

I particularly like this one, cropped, that I’ve included at higher resolution.

whistling duck on green

Northwich’s Swing Bridges

Northwich in Cheshire is notable as being an old salt town, so much so that during its history there have been frequent occurrences of subsidence as the land has subsided into old salt workings below. This proved a big problem for bridges over the River Weaver, which provided Northwich’s water link with the River Dee. The bridge pillars gradually subsided.

This was solved in 1898 with the building of the Hayhurst Bridge, followed the Town Bridge in 1899, the first electrically powered swing bridges in Great Britain. Two bridges meant that one was always open to traffic.

To avoid the subsidence problem, these bridges were built on floating pontoons, said also to be also the first of their kind in the country.

I’ve included monochrome images, trying out the capabilities of my new phone’s camera. I thought the black-white bridges could look better this way, but the colour versions actually look better to me.

Metta

Some years ago I participated in an interfaith course studying the different major religions. Two features of Buddhism particularly stick in the memory. One was of course mindfulness, the other was the practice of Metta, the subject of this post.

As well as being a subject for meditation, the practice of Metta essentially involves projecting ‘loving kindness’ or ‘universal love’ or ‘benevolence’ out to others. In its ultimate essence Metta is beyond ego and concerns of the individual self; its concern is the wellbeing of all, of life itself.

An exercise of my course was to practise Metta while walking, projecting this benevolence to all you meet. This practice does first require you to be mindful.

It is not surprising that the response of people you meet is more positive than when you are immersed in your own concerns. This is, literally, spreading goodwill around the world.

Worth a try, don’t you think?

Featured image is a Japanese representation of Buddha.

 

 

Hope

I just came across this quote from the Vaclav Havel, the much loved last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic. It particularly resonates for me, with hope being part of my family name. Our future depends on hope.

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world.
Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.
Hope is not a prognostication.
It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.
The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is.
Hope definitely is not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Amen.

 

Irritation and Imperil

The occasional irritation is a cross I still bear, echoes of bouts of sometimes incandescent anger in earlier years. Because anger is habit forming, and certainly not commensurate with participating rationally in the world, nor with inner wellbeing. It takes long years of effort to step back and move beyond this reinforced negative response.

In the Agni Yoga teachings there is the concept of imperil – “the poison resulting from irritability”, actually deposited in the nervous system. Imperil manifests as ‘spiritual wasting’, reinforcing the ego and blocking higher energies of soul/spirit. So the ego is irritable, and not amenable to its own higher faculties. And the thought forms created have a poisonous quality.

This useful concept seems quite consistent with my own experience. Imperil is one of the great blockages to our own development and to our own mindfulness.

In this age of apparent domination by ego in the media and politics, it would seem that mass imperil is actually putting our societies in peril, which is actually the meaning of the word.

I am indebted to John Rasmussen’s article “I don’t want to separate anyone from anyone” in The Beacon magazine, April-June 2018 for reminding me of this concept of imperil.

Featured image is of the painting Lotus by Nicholas Roerich, with Helena Roerich transmitter of the agni yoga teachings.

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

I’ve had Yanis Varoufakis’s book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy on my shelf waiting to review in a blog post, but then Ryan B. produces this excellent review – which I am thus reblogging. It’s a good read (the book and the review).

Ryan's Book Notes

Talking to My Daughter About the EconomyTalking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis is a short book that describes the economy in simple terms using personal stories and classical literature and myths.

To begin with, let’s start with a quote from the book, which I think might capture the overall message nicely:

“The worst slavery is that of heavily indoctrinated happy morons who adore their chains and cannot wait to thank their masters for the joy of their subservience.”

This heavy indoctrination comes in the form of economics (theology with equations) that justifies the substitution of experiential value (relationships, nature, knowledge, character, happiness) with exchange value (profit is everything), while refusing to critically examine whether or not this is a worthwhile arrangement to begin with.

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The foraging blackbird

It’s been a hot day, I need exercise in the cool of the evening. I go for a brisk walk. At length, I find myself walking quickly, mind engaged on some problem or other, unaware of the surroundings.

With that awareness I step back, internally rather than literally. I become engaged with the world around. Trees become alive. My walk has a smoother quality, a bit slower, somehow deeper. Birds are singing their evensong. A breeze arises and then falls away. A blackbird forages close by in the hedge. The full moon is full of meaning as it skates between the branches and hides behind buildings, to reappear in the gaps.

I interpret this as the difference between living in the world and living in the mind’s abstractions, living with the whole brain-body, not just the left brain.

Featured image of blackbird by Stulli, via Wikemedia Commons

The Bird of Joy

“The Mundaka Upanishad presents a beautiful way of understanding duality. Two identical birds who are eternal companions perch in the same tree. One eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other, a bird of joy, watches.  Both make up the dualistic reality of the individual. Union comes through detachment from identification with the bird who eats the fruit and attachment to the bird of Joy who watches with love. True personality detachment only comes with increasing attachment to the soul within all forms, and an ability to observe one’s self and others from the viewpoint of the bird of joy … always remembering that, in the Upanishad story, the two birds are identical and eternal companions.”

This striking quote by Steve Nation comes from the newsletter of the Lucis Trust, corresponding with the recent Gemini full moon.

“I recognize my other self and in the waning of that self, I grow and glow.”

Seed thought for the sign of Gemini.

Featured image of two gannets by By Al Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Dee Estuary

dee estuary

This recent view of the Dee Estuary from the cliffs near Thursaston in the Wirral doesn’t really satisfy the rule of the golden mean or two-thirds in photographic composition, with the horizon in the middle. But I rather like it, particularly with the muted colours of this sunset. What do you think?

On the left horizon you can see the coast of North Wales.

Chaffinch

wirral chaffinchThis chaffinch obligingly posed in a tree in the full light of the late afternoon sun in Cheshire. The full name is ‘common chaffinch‘ and it is indeed widely seen in the UK and Europe.

The name suggests that these seed eaters were associated with the chaff around wheat at harvest time.

The Common Core

A poem from Steve Taylor‘s regular newsletter that I particularly liked.

I don’t sense that you’re different from me
even if you believe you are.

I don’t believe that babies are born with distinctions,
belonging to a religion or nation.

I don’t believe that human beings die with distinctions,
belonging to different sections of a cemetery.

I don’t feel that I have my ‘people’ and you have yours,
and that the lives of our peoples have a different value.

I acknowledge your need to define yourself.
I understand your need for belonging
but you can’t separate yourself from me
without making yourself feel more alone.
You can’t withhold your empathy from me
without hurting yourself inside.

Your thoughts may convince you of distinctions
but they can’t change you underneath
where there is no solidity or boundary
and our beings infuse each other, and everyone else’s too.

I accept allegiance only to the human race.
I recognise only our common core
the essence beneath identity
the deep shared space where we are one.

I had the please of meeting Steve at the Manchester Schumacher Lectures in the early 2000’s and attended one of his seminars. A great seeker!

US Trade Deal Risks

I’ve never understood the Brexiteers’ obsession with the UK doing our own trade deals. I’m sure someone could enlighten me on areas where we can gain some advantages where our needs are different from the European average. But Brexit surely wasn’t all about trade deals?

What really scares me is the possible prospect of a trade deal being done with the US without proper democratic scrutiny, which appears to be the intention of the extreme Brexiteers. It seems we must all get to understand the risks better. The Soil Association has produced a magnificent document Top 10 Food Safety Risks Posed By A Future Transatlantic Trade Deal, which needs more widespread understanding.

My brief summary:

  1. Chicken washed in chlorine to remove bacteria caused by poor animal welfare.
    (And did you know that eggs in US must be kept in fridge, as natural protection has been washed off for similar reasons.)
  2. Hormone treated beef.
  3. Ractopamine in pork, which can cause animal disability.
  4. Chicken litter used as animal feed. (Remember mad cow disease.)
  5. Common use of herbicide Atrazine, claimed to be endocrine disupter.
  6. GMOs in 88% of corn, 54% of sugar beets.
  7. Brominated vegetable oil used in citrus drinks, believed to cause health problems.
  8. Potassium bromate in baked goods, possible carcinogen.
  9. Azodicarbonamide in baking, possible carcinogen.
  10. Food colourants that are not allowed in UK.

And this list doesn’t include anything about animal welfare – see previous post.

From my own experience of periods staying in the US, I can say that much US food is excellent, but when you get to the cheap and heavily processed stuff it is quite disgusting junk. And they mostly don’t know how to bake bread.

Rather than worry, support the Soil Association to help them fight the battles, and tell your MP about your concerns.

Featured image shows a cattle feedlot in Weld County, Colorado.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Animal sentience

Animals clearly have an inner life, feelings, emotions, and so on. You only have to observe them. Start with a pet.

So why the great animal sentience debate? Because somewhere along the line some people started treating animals as objects whose sole purpose was to be eaten, shot at, exploited. Great factory farms became necessary to give cheap food (in the US, Soil Association estimates 99% of chickens, 90% of pigs, 78% of cows are ‘produced’ in concentrated animal feeding operations – CAFOs – animal factories). Farms in UK are gradually increasing in size to stay economically viable. Great swathes of land in the UK are managed to produce birds to be shot at, which is indeed a common sport across many countries. How long is this barbarism to continue?

Fortunately scientists have decided that animals are sentient. Thank God they’ve confirmed the bleeding obvious!

Hurrah for organisations like the Soil Association, whose ambition for animal welfare is for all farm animals to live ‘a good life’ within 10 years.

It seems that EU is moving in the right direction of recognising animal sentience, as is the UK. But this is clearly going to be a major issue in any future post-Brexit trade deal with the US, when they will want us to buy their barbarically produced cheap food as part of the deal.

The root problem is abstracting human affairs from inner values and morality, leaving the money monster in control. We really do need to reclaim our humanity, our inner compass, our conscience.