Friday, October 30, 2009

Academic "Pilot Study" of Fomer Adidam Members Reviewed

I recently came across a recently published “study”, if one can call it that, titled “Adidam, Controversy, and Former Members”, by James R. Lewis, presented at a recent CESNUR (Center For the Study of New Religion) conference in Salt Lake City. Lewis' study consists of a questionaire which ask a mere eleven questions of some thirty-three former members of Adidam aimed at establishing a reasonable estimate of the attitudes of these former members towards Adidam and Adi Da. Lewis' analysis of the results of this question is quite sweeping:

“If the attitudes of this sample can be extrapolated to the population of all former members, what this data indicates is that vocal ex-members who attack Adidam on the Internet are not representative of most former participants. This does not mean their criticisms should be rejected as entirely lacking in merit. Rather, it means that the impression created by this handful of individuals – that most former members feel that they were abused and are angry with Adi Da and Adidam – should be rejected as lacking in merit.”

Much of the study seems aimed at countering various stereotypical notions about groups that have been labeled as cults, which is a apparently a long-term focus of Lewis' work. I can certainly applaud a lot of that, as stereotypes are a universally pernicious obstacle to serious understanding of any and all social or religious phenomena. Nonetheless, a major flaw in Lewis' approach is that he frequently reduces the criticism of former members of these groups to stereotypical tropes himself, thus negating much of the value he might have gained by his initial efforts. He complains at times that his work has been attacked by anti-cult groups as amounting to “apologetics” for the abuses of cults – and yet it's hard not to see this particular study as amounting, essentially, to just that. I can't say that it's intentional on Lewis' part, but the serious flaws in his study essentially make its conclusions meaningless and yes, little more than a form of weak apologetics for the negative impression much of the public has garnered about Adidam from former members, and of course it doesn't address at all the negative impression the public has developed in relation to Adidam from Adidam's own current members, missionary works, books and publications, and various other public contacts.  

One must keep in mind that the influence of critical former members of any religious group is often of only minor significance in the evolution of a religious group's public image. For example, I'd suggest that most people who have formed a negative view of the Hare Krishna group have done so simply by observing it's most visible and enthusiastic members chanting on the streets or soliciting donations at airports, and not from reading news reports of various scandalous accusations by former members.  

The same is true of Adidam. I know, because I was involved in Adidam for some twenty-eight years, and during that time was often quite active in working with the public, and observing the public's reaction to Adi Da's life and teachings, even when we tried to present him in the most favorable possible light. Generally, the reaction was negative, or at least included many negative impressions sufficient to marginalize us as an aspiring religious movement. This is not terribly surprising, considering how foreign so many of Adidam's beliefs and teachings are to most people. Furthermore, Adidam makes a number of explicitly extreme claims that tend to drive away all except those who, for whatever reasons, are inclined to entertain and embrace extreme ideas. All of this accounts for the overwhelmingly poor response to Adidam's missionary efforts over the years.  

One should recall that even before the first wave of public scandals broke out in 1985, Adidam's growth had been very slow and unremarkable. Having gone public in 1972, the Adidam religious organization had grown to only some 1200 members by 1985, in spite of having published many books and engaged in strenuous efforts to build membership not only nationwide, but around the world. This is a tiny result compared to that achieved by many other new religious movements, and it cannot be attributed to the rantings of former members on the internet, since the worldwide web did not even yet exist.  

In fact, many of the negative impressions about Adi Da (then known as Bubba Free John, and later Da Free John) and his organization were the result of Adi Da's own publications and public pesentations. In particular, the book “Garbage and the Goddess”, describing the events and teachings from late-1973 through the summer of 1974, and a theatrical documentary film of the same name covering this period , and in particular one weekend in July of 1974, that was released shortly thereafter and given frequent showings for several years, openly described a series of controversial, some might say scandalous, teachings given during this time. These teachings included the dissolution of devotees' marriages and sexual relationships, the initiation of a highly experimental period in which wild sexual activity, use of alcohol, cigarettes, and meat, and Adi Da's own open exploitation of all these things, including openly having sex with a great number of his female students, even forming a circle of “wives” with whom he engaged in open sexual relations. At one point in the movie, Adi Da is shown drinking from an open bottle of champagne, and laughingly declaring “my reputation is now ruined”m which was of course the truth, and no one's fault but his own. He is also shown spiritually “initiating” people admist horrifying screams of terror and physical pain by devotees, in scenes of dramatic but, to many people, frightening examples of Adi Da's spiritual power over people. In voice over, he described the spiritual process he offers people as one of “spiritual invasion”, in which their bodies and minds are taken over by him, and people are actually “lived” by him.  This hardly assauges any fears some might have that Adidam involves some kind of "mind control" or brainwashing. 

Given this kind of public relations program, one cannot rationally attribute the negative attitudes many in the public have developed about Adidam to the complaints of former members. I would invite Lewis to read the Garbage and the Goddess book, and see the original uncut version of the movie, and conclude that it is former members who are responsible for various negative impressions and stereotypes becoming fixed in the public's impression of this group. One can certainly suggest that people got the wrong impression from these sources, but one cannot blame anyone but Adidam itself for them, and Adi Da himself for choosing to “teach” in the manner he did.

Since that time, Adidam has tried to clean up that tarnished image numerous times, including by trying to destroy all extent copies of the book, and not releasing the movie for further viewing, and by putting out the story that this was some kind of unique period of experimentation, never to be repeated. And yet, as many know, the partying and self-indulgence around Adi Da went through various phases of stopping and starting, but essentially continued for decades until he himself was simply too old and weak to go on with it any further. This kind of information was frequently kept suppressed within Adidam, but such efforts were generally unsuccessful, and filtered out into the public. Even when they did not, there were any number of rather obvious indications that strange things were going on within Adidam, including the changing names and nature of the published teachings of Adi Da, the unprecedented use of capitalizations in his writings, the increasing claims of unique and unprecedented spiritual greatness and power on his part, a general mood of arrogance and self-absorption, and the seeking for more and more glamorous, expensive, and grandiose living circumstances and services from devotees and the public, including major efforts to recruit celebrities and the “rich and famous”. These were openly pursued missionary policies of Adidam, not scandalous charges made by former members, and they did a great deal to poison the public's view of Adidam - at least that small portion of the public that was actually paying attention to him.

So, in the midst of all this, we have the rather specious charge that former members posting on the internet are primarily responsible for Adidam's frayed and damaged public image, and the existence of various cult stereotypes about Adidam. I'd like to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt, and think that's he just hasn't done his homework, that he's never followed the actual public activities of Adidam, and that he naively assumes that Adidam is suffering some egregious wrong at the hands of a handful of disgruntled former devotees.  

Whatever the case may be, let's just look at the actual study he's done, this questionaire he sent to 33 former members of Adidam, and see what value and meaning it might have.  


The first thing we have to ask is, how did he find this supposedly representative sampling of former members? It turns out, he simply asked current members of Adidam to give him the names of people they know who had left Adidam. I'm not kidding. Is there any remotely intelligent person who would consider this an unbiased sampling? I mean, honestly, not only do members of Adidam each have a sacred responsibility to protect and preserve Adidam's publc image, they actually are required to do missionary work themselves. The chances that any current member in good standing is going to refer Lewis to someone they know to be a disgruntled former member who has a negative opinion of Adidam is virtually nil. In light of that, what's surprising about Lewis' study is that he finds any disgruntled former members at all. That he does suggest that some of these respondents are people who tend, when dealing with current members of Adidam, to hide their negative views, but are willing to voice them to an outsider's questionaire. In either case, this method of creating a sample population is completely unacceptable to even a half-assed standard of truthfulness.  


I could stop right here, but there's the matter of the questionaire itself. The first question asks about the educational level of the former member, which it turns out is very high on average compared to every other spiritual group Lewis has data on. In general, I'm not surprised, in that Adidam certainly seemed to me to attract a high number of intellectually oriented members. However, he again fails to address the issue selection bias, in that Adidam members who are selecting the best examples of former members would tend to select people of rather high societal standing and accomplishment, rather than just average (or below) former members. And thus, we end up with the strange implication that people with a high degree of education tend to become former members – in other words, the smart people leave Adidam. I'm not sure if that's much of an endorsement, but given the uncertainties regarding the sample (and the lack of any data about current member's educational status), even this has no certainties from which any conclusions can be drawn.  

The second question is about how the former member first made contact with Adidam. Lewis is surprised that some 54% of respondents' first contact was through a book, rather than through personal friends, as he has found to be the case with most other new religious movements. Again, this reveals Lewis' lack of familiarity with Adidam, which has stressed from its inception using its publications as the primary missionary tool. To be fair, this simply takes advantage of Adidam's traditional strength, which for much of its history has been the writings of Adi Da himself, who is a highly talented, even brilliant writer (until the more abstract an unapproachable books of recent years)/. However, this question also reveals the relative weakness of Adidam's efforts to gain new members through personal contacts. (only 24% first came to Adidam through friends). Books, being by nature relatively impersonal and carefully edited, can more easily mask the problems Adidam has on the personal level.


The third question finally gets down to asking about the former member's attitudes about Adidam. Unfortunately, the question itself is a red herring: “Have you ever used the term “brainwashed” to describe your involvement in Adidam?” 94% of respondents reply never or rarely, which again is hardly surprising. How many people, even members of the worst kinds of cults, would describe themselves as having been “brainwashed”? I'd suggest, very few. It's a scare word that is guaranteed to distance people from whatever issues it might be intended to address. It's a meaningless question, in that the term is not even defined, and whether someone uses it or not has little to do with whether people think their views about Adidam, while they were involved, were untrue and the result of peer-pressure or various forms of indoctrination.  

The simple truth is that when “brainwashing” actually works within a cult setting, it's not even noticed to be brainwashing. The term implies some kind of forceable imposition of views and belief from outside the individual, whereas the reality of most “brainwashing” is that it involves a willing suspension of disbelief and acceptance of views, similar to the deeply misunderstood reality behind the phenomena called “hypnotism”. In one very real sense, there is no such thing as hypnotism, in that the phenomena is actually a willing exercise of people who seize upon the opportunity to do and see and think things that they would normally have their guard up against. And yet in another sense it's perfectly real, in that people really do fall into these states of unguarded acceptance of the hypnotist's input. It's simply that it's a participatory submission, not a forceable one. Of course, even in the extreme examples of “brainwashing”, such as Nazism or Charles Manson's cult, most of the participants were both enthusiastically willing and did not consider themselves to have been brainwashed. So this kind of self-reporting question doesn't really tell us anything about whether Adidam uses or esploits techniques that could be reasonably called “brainwashing”, since if it actually was any good at this, they wouldn't be consciously aware of it in the first place.  

The fourth question repeats the problems with the third, asking “Have you ever used the word “cult” to describe Adidam?: Again, “cult” is a scare word, and few people will use it to describe something they themselves have been involved in. Like brainwashing, it's a term most of us will only use to describe something other people become involved in. Nonetheless, if asked to describe a group that was exactly like Adidam, but given a different name and populated by a different group of people, I'd be willing to be they would be more inclined to call it a cult. So this question is, again, meaningless. It does not define the term “cult” in any meaningful way, and it relies entirely on a subjective usage of the term that encourages self-deference.  

And this is of course a major problem with this questionaire. It does not ask a single factual question aimed at discerning any actual practice in Adidam that might objectively be described by outside observers as cultic in nature, or forms of brainwashing, or examples of abuse, or manipulation, or exploitation, or even coercion. Instead, it relies entirely on some subjective sense of an internalized self-definition which we cannot rely upon us to tell us much anything meaningful about the former member's experience or views about Adidam, other than, you guessed it, the most stereotypical of generalizations. By taking these stereotypes as meaningful elements of the criticism of former members, Lewis not only reduces those criticism to stereotypes, he also defines the attitudes of his respondents by those stereotypes, which are then easily rejected. This is a classic example of constructing a straw man to prove a point. But in so doing, Lewis proves precisely nothing, other than that he's not really serious about delving past the stereotypes into the real nature of former members' attitudes about Adidam.


The fifth question is also deeply unsatisfying. It asks, “Which best describes Adi Da? Great Religious Teacher, Average Teacher, or Not a Genuine Teacher?” Some 90% choose “Great”. Again, given the choices and the vagueness of the question, what is to be gained from this question? I mean, if you were to ask whether Hitler was a great political figure, an average one, or not a genuine political figure at all, I think more than 90% would have to say “great”, if they were at all honest. It's a meaningless question, except to show that most people do recognize that Adi Da was a very powerful spiritual figure in their lives. I certainly do. But there's no meaningful definition of “great” offered, much less “average”, or “genuine”. The question obscures rather than illumines former members' actual views about Adi Da as both a teacher of others and a spiritual source. And of course, the lack of options leaves little opportunity for people's real views to be expressed. At the very least, one could be asked on a scale of one to ten to rate Adi Da in this and other categories, with one and ten actually being defined by clear examples, or precise concepts rather than subjective adjectives like “great”.  

The sixth question also suffers from vagueness. It is “How would you describe your attitude to Adi Da since ending your membership?” The answers are “Positive; More positive than negative; Neither positive nor negative ; More negative than positive; Negative.” In this case, at least some gray areas are given in the possible answers, but once again, the options are so vague as to defy meaningful interpretation. If I were asked this question, I would have to answer “More positive than negative” myelf, and I'm one of Adidam's harshest internet critics. I'd answer that question that way not because it represents some kind of objective assessment of what I think the value of Adi Da's teaching is, or whether Adidam is a destructive cult of not, but simply because that's my own internal subjective feeling. I'm just not a hater. I used to love Adi Da deeply and for a very long time, and in many respects I still do. My general attitude towards life, and just about everything is positive. On the other hand, this answer, worded to draw out my internal subjective feelings, doesn't do any justice to the criticism I or others have made of Adi Da and his religious movement. Nor can it be expected to do that for others.  

These kinds of questions simply demonstrate how inadequate a simplistic questionaire like this is in trying to evaluate as complex a relationship as most former members have had with Adi Da and Adidam. If there's anything that can't be reduced to a simplistic answer, it's the question of what kind of attitude former members have with Ad Da – any more than one could about anyone else who had been deeply involved in anything that didn't work out for them, including a marriage, a job, a religious conversion, going off to fight in a war, immigrating to a foreign country, or any other example of a powerful and significant life-choice.  

Question seven repeats these problems, asking “How would you describe your attitude to Adi Da since ending your membership?” Again, the response is largely positive, and again, I'd have to say that my attitude towards Adi Da, despite all his faults and problems, is pretty positive as well. I don't hold anything against him on a personal level, and I consider us to be at peace with one another. And the same goes for most of the Adidam community. That doesn't mean that I don't have some deep criticisms, or that I would even consider being involved ever again, or recommend it to anyone who wasn't powerfully drawn to it themselves.  

These kinds of questions simply don't get anywhere near to the criticism made by many former members such as myself and those who I've encountered on the internet. Remember, I was involved in every online discussion of Adi Da of any significance for over ten years, during the first five of which I was the most aggressive defender of Adi Da posting as a current and active member of the organization, and I encountered every kind of critic in the process, many with a serious bone to pick, and I tried to counter all their arguments as best I could. Likewise, after listening to those criticism for years, and finally coming to the realization that they were true and stronger than any defense I could must, I was for the following several years probably the most prolific critic of Adidam on the internet, feeling a sense of moral obligation to re-evaluate what I'd previous said and done, and to some degree atone for my defenses of things that were, I finally concluded, indefensible.  

The real criticisms that Adidam has faced on the internet are, for the most part, highly specific and practical criticisms of things actually done or not done, abuses committed, lives damaged and psyches harmed. It isn't about anyone's subjective attitudes about Adidam, positive or negative. These criticisms are simply not addressed in this questionaire. There are no questions, for example, about whether the persona ever saw money being abused or raised improperly, under the influence of alcohol or immense peer-pressure, say. There's no questions about drug and alcohol use, no questions about sexual activity with the Guru or others, no questions about whether people still believe Adi Da is who he claims to be, or if any of the teachings he gave are valid or true. No questions about whether they would recommend Adidam to others. There's no questions like “How much money have you donated to Adidam over the years”, or even, “How long were you in Adidam, and how long ago did you leave?” I could go on, but I hope you see the picture. Instead, we just get these weasily subjective questions.

Question eight is a fair enough question: “When you ended your membership in Adidam, were you able to do this freely, without interference from the community of Adidam?” However, since this isn't one of the criticisms Adidam's critics have generally made of it, it's not terribly meaningful;. However, I gather the question is a way of comparing Adidam to other groups, some of which do indeed make it difficult for people to leave. In that respect Adidam has a pretty good though not perfect record. Even so, it doesn't address the issue of whether people who leave Adidam encountered strongly conflicting internal pressures about not leaving, or guilt and various negative feelings encountered in the process of leaving and its aftermath.  

Question nine, “How would you describe your relationship to the Community of Adidam since ending your membership?” is pretty much a variant of the previous questions about Adi Da himself. Again, it's a subjective question that doesn't address any actual criticisms or evaluations of Adidam.  

Question ten, “Has your involvement with Adi Da and Adidam influenced your life for better or for worse?” is also hard for anyone to answer in a way that actually reflects on Adidam. I mean, people who survive terrible disasters will often say that it influenced their lives for the better. This doesn't mean that disasters are good things we should cultivate. It means that a person who is determined to profit from their experience can take lemons and make lemonade from them. The general pattern of these question is a passive one, as if we are being asked to evaluate Adidam like a fruit salad rather than something we all actually participated in. I, too, would say that Adidam's influence in my life was positive overall. That doesn't mean that I'd consider it a wise choice on my part, or something I'd recommend to most people. And I'm not sure that most former members would feel much different.  

Question eleven, “Why Respondent Left Adidam”, has a range of five responses: “Guru; Organization/Community; Sadhana; “Simply stopped”; Grew away, “life got in the way” . This is a good question, but it doesn't tell us much without followup, or allow people to list more than one answer, since in most cases there is not a single reason for leaving, but several. The two most popular answers, “Simply stopped”, and “Grew away” are hardly very meaningful, and indicate either a subconscious decision-making process that the individual can't describe very well even to himself, or a simple reluctance to describe the real reasons for leaving. Half the listed responses fell into this category, which suggests that in this pool of respondents, at least half the people were motivated by some kind of subconscious or unspoken reason for leaving Adidam, and that they still aren't entirely sure what it was. This is something I have seen in a lot of people who leave Adidam, and in many respects its a healthy way of avoiding the internal and external conflicts that make many people reactive and unhappy as they leave. However, it avoids self-awareness for the sake of that peace.  


Lewis' conclusion, “that vocal ex-members who attack Adidam on the Internet are not representative of most former participants,” is simply not warranted by the evidence described in this study. In the first place, there is no documentation given describing what “vocal ex-members who attack Adidam on the internet” actually think. They were not given this same or another other questionaire to compare their answers to. Lewis simply assumes that they would be negative up and down the line about Adidam and Adi Da. But he doesn't seem to have spoken to a single one of them to form a basis for any comparison to this sample group. At least he doesn't report any efforts to find out what these people think. So there's no way to find out how their views compare to the study group.  

And, of course, there's the problem of how this sample group was obtained in the first place, and the lack of response even within this biased sample. 80 questionaires were originally sent out, and Lewis received only 33 responses. This suggests a further sampling bias, in that most people who have negative views about Adidam (and other cult groups) are generally disinclined to speak about them openly, especially when they might not know or trust the person doing the study. In that respect, Lewis is quite right to say that vocal ex-members are not representative of the whole, since most people by nature are simply not vocal. Further, when one considers that the total population of ex-members of Adidam probably numbers between 15-25,000 over the years, a sampling of only 33 can hardly be considered representative of anything, particularly when it is not a random sampling at all, but biased towards those with favorable view towards Adidam on at least two screening levels.  

On the other hand, it isn't altogether nutty to suggest that vocal critics on the internet, regardless of the subject matter, are unrepresentative of just about any similar group. It's one of the best known facts of the internet itself, that it tends to attract vocal characters with an ax to grind on one or another issue. That doesn't mean such people aren't accurate in their criticisms, however. To answer that question, one would have to do more than send out dubious questionaires asking people for subjective evaluations of their attitudes. One would have to actually investigate the criticisms made to determine whether they are valid or not. Or, one would at the very least have to ask factual questions that can return genuine evidence about Adidam and people's participation in it. Lewis has done nothing of the kind, nor does he even seem interested in those kinds of inquiries.  

The problem with Lewis' approach is that it seems from the outset determined to prove something that everyone already knows, which is that vocal critics of Adidam on the internet are likely to be more negative in their attitudes towards Adidam than others who have left. And yet, he's failed to demonstrate even that. Which is quite an accomplishment, when you think about it. 

The conclusion that Lewis finally comes to, “that the impression created by this handful of individuals – that most former members feel that they were abused and are angry with Adi Da and Adidam – should be rejected as lacking in merit.” itself lacks merit. Lewis has not even demonstrated that this “impression” exists in the first place. He's not demonstrated that ex-members on the internet are more or less angry than a random sampling of ex-members, in part because he never did anything remotely resembling a random sampling, and second, because he never made a survey of any kind of ex-members who are internet critics of Adidam. Not to mention the weak and subjective nature of the questionaire itself. In other words, to put it simply, this is hack work.  

I'm not sure what a genuine study of ex-members would reveal about them and Adidam itself, but I do know that this study doesn't even come close to answering any important questions that might be out there. It seems, on both first glance and after careful analysis, to be aimed at discrediting and marginalizing the critics of Adidam, and by extension, the contents of their criticisms, without actually addressing any of those criticisms in any meaningful way. One can be an ex-Catholic who still harbors some positive feelings about the Church, but who cannot abide being part of a group that allowed the sexual abuse of children to go on for decades without protecting them from predatory priests. A questionaire which merely asks this person about the general attitude towards the Pope and the Church, does nothing to address the issue of whether these abuses occurred, or even whether the respondent themselves was abused in any way – because no such questions were even asked. Using this study to rationalize away the criticisms of Adidam as being the work of an angry, unrepresentative group of apostates simply diverts attention from the actual criticisms that have been made, which represent real actions on the part of Adi Da and his organization, not merely subjective and general attitudes.

I'd be among the first to say that Adidam is far from the worst of cults and new or old religions. I'd also be among the last to deny that it has been guilty of serious breaches of trust, propriety, and good faith, or that it has committed many abuses over the years, and that it has tried mightily to cover them up. Lewis seems to be an unwitting participant in that coverup, but the poor quality of his work and the lack of justification for his conclusions suggests that he has either been complicit in that coverup, or is simply not even trying to be objective about it.  

Lewis has a general attitude that new religious movements such as Adidam are unfairly stereotyped and treated with greater suspicion than other, more commonly accepted groups with beliefs that might objectively be considered equally baseless or preposterous or an offense to reason.. In this he is probably correct. The word “cult” is often thrown around with abandon at small, non-mainstream groups, and is almost never used to describe the abuses of mainstream groups, such as the Catholic Church, Evangelicals, Judaism, Mormons, or any number of others that have fought to achieve some kind of mainstream status. This is an unfortunate fact of life. However, this does not mean that many of these small groups aren't cults, or that they do not abuse their members, or engage in practices that amount to brainwashing and mind-control. One cannot excuse the activities of groups like Adidam or teachers like Adi Da simply because others have done similar things and gotten away with it. Nor can one point to the Charles Mansons, the Hale-Bopps, and the Rajneeshis of the world and suggest that because Adidam isn't as bad as they are, that its critics are somehow overreacting.  

Many cults exist in this world, in all kinds of forms, with varying degrees of abuse and exploitation on any number of levels. Adidam is just one on a continuum of such groups. The pertinent question is not what its ex-members subjectively feel about their experience in Adidam, but what actually went on, what abuses did or did not occur, what claims it made and what the truth of those claims actually is, and whether those who in the future wish to become involved in Adidam are getting all the facts and an accurate picture of what it means to be a member of Adidam.  

Personally, I have no objection to people who advocate Adidam, as long as they are honest and open about Adidam's real history and inner workings, on every level. The truth, unfortunately, is that it has hardly ever been either honest or open, and I have no serious expectation that it ever will be. That's hardly a unique phenomena in the history of religion. One can look to other modern examples, such as Scientology, to see a similar pattern. It's no accident, I think, that Adi Da himself was a former high-ranking member of Scientology, nor that he imported a number of its organizational principles into Adidam when he formed it, just a few short years after leaving Scientology. Both, in my views, are cults, but they differ in a number of important ways, including in size and extent. In either case, the set of facts that describe them and their various positive and negative aspects differ, and it is that set of facts that should be the subject of any inquiry, academic or otherwise. Mere subjective attitudes are pointless areas of inquiry, and it's disappointing to see supposedly serious studies devoted to such useless matters. If James Lewis wishes to be taken seriously, he should start asking serious questions.  


A brief look at James R. Lewis' resume shows that he has a Ph.d in Religious Studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter.

According to Wikipedia, this is not the first time Lewis has become involved in defending new religious groups from criticism. Previously, he was a vocal defender of Aum Shinrikyo, which was accused in 1995 of launching a deadly Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway which killed twelve and injured hundreds: 

In May 1995, after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, he and fellow scholar Gordon Melton flew to Japan to hold a pair of press conferences in which they announced that the chief suspect in the murders, religious group Aum Shinrikyo, could not have produced the sarin that the attacks had been committed with. They had determined this, Lewis said, from photos and documents provided by the group.[2] Police reports describe that they had discovered at Aum's main compound in March a sophisticated chemical weapons laboratory that was capable of producing thousands of kilograms a year of the poison.[3] Later investigation showed that Aum not only created the sarin used in the subway attacks, but had committed previous chemical and biological weapons attacks, including a previous attack with sarin that had killed seven and injured 144 persons.[4] During the Aum Shinrikyo incident Lewis and Melton's bills for travel, lodging and accommodations were paid for by Aum, according to The Washington Post.[5][6]

With a Wikipedia entry like that, it's no wonder Lewis is hostile to internet critics. The question naturally arises, as to whether Lewis was paid by Adidam to conduct this study, or if any of his expenses were paid for by them. If so, that would constitute a serious breach of ethics, especially since he does not disclose this in the study itself. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Skeptical Science on Climate Change - A Partial Snapshot

Our friend maia-gaia replied in comments once more, reprinted here in full:

“Oh that link! Realize its always dangerous to try satire with a topic with such volatility but that was my intention with the Euthanasia Society link- ill advised it turns out.  

Actually most of my pages deal with highly charged and controversial subjects and I do often throw in some links to the ever-present extreme pro and con views so readers can consider the broadest perspective. It was unfortunate that combining "cancer" and"euthanasia" created a perfect storm for offending everyone.

The only pro activism I advocate for individuals to help save Earth's nature is to join and perhaps volunteer in environmental and wildlife organizations. Neither ecospiritual social networking nor the postmodern movement for self realization have anything near the potential that the collective will and means orgs have to grow political support for the Gaia imperative- essential for actuating sustainable conservation.  

I'm afraid my analogy between Aurobindo and Ramana - and engagement and detachment, got lost when the term "tradition" replaced "detachment". The conversation went tangential from environmentalism to all about whether Ramana was a Neo Vedantan. Refocusing: I think there is simply too much data to sustain the old hats of- Oh- threats are overblown; things really aren't that bad; Gaia isn't fragile and is resilient and there have always been extinctions yet nature recovers, etc. Such equivocations become rationalizations for adopting a detached Maya paradigm- leaving Gaia to fend for herself. This seems to deny the essence of the realization to which we aspire-to apperceive our wholeness. How better to anticipate our awakening than to become loving allies in defending against her/our defile.”

First, let's be clear that no one, least of all me, is accusing Maia-Gaia of literally believing the extreme point of view of the “humanity as a cancer” crowd. It's clear from his website that he entertains all kinds of viewpoints, and while having some sympathy with many of them, I doubt he actually believes any of them fully, lest of all this kind of extremism. I assume that he has his own unique viewpoint that is only described in his own words, not those of others.

Of course, it's certainly true that I picked up this extremist position from reading his website and commented on it accordingly. And it's also true that some version of this theme has gotten traction within the eco-spiritual movement, and even within parts of the general public. Humanity has a lot of misgivings about modernism, modern technology, and the whole scary Frankenstein-monster sense that we are breaking some kind of Divine taboo about tampering with the powers of life that is endangering our Eden-like world, and thus we are flirting with Divine punishment, expulsion from the Garden, and that we must resist these demonic temptations.

These fears are deeply embedded in our culture, going back thousands of years. Whenever the facts of modern science seem to point in their direction, we immediately tend to seize upon those facts to support this kind of emotional sense of doom. And yet, in so doing, we also tend to distort the facts to fit the narrative we have already been given by our culture, and we like to think of those who resist this narrative as “deniers”, which is how those who are skeptical of environmentalists sounding the alarm about the imminent dangers of global warming tend to be characterized. (Not by Maia-gaia, let's be clear, but by many out there in the public conversation about this issue).

For a moment I'll simply address these scientific facts, since they go to the root issue of whether the data really does point towards climate change alarmism being justified, or whether it is overblown. I don't want to overly complicate this website with an endless scientific debate on the evidence - there are plenty of places on the web already devoted to that, and I'd recommend interested parties read the arguments on both sides - but let me just print a few simple charts that I think at least begin to illustrate an important aspect of the skeptic's argument - that the kinds of climate changes we've been going through are most likely mostly natural in origin, and not due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

The above chart maps two fluctuating sets of data over the last 20,000 years - Greenland's temperature, and world-wide sea-level rise. I use Greenland's temperature chart for a number of reasons, primarily that it's the most accurate of all the temperature proxies used by scientists. It's derived from ice core samples that can trace the ratios of Oxygen isotopes going back several  hundred thousand years, creating one of the most reliable records of temperature in the world. Likewise, Greenland is at one of the "sensitive" locations in the climate debate, being within the arctic region that tends to respond most powerfully to climate change, and it is likewise the ice cap which is most threatened by melting, and thus a source of global sea rise, in the global warming models used by climatologists to predict future effects of any man-made warming.

It's important to note that one temperature proxy from one location is not enough to draw definitive conclusion about world-wide temperature patterns. Some have questioned whether the patterns in Greenland are simply local variations due to changes in the local climate. Others have questioned whether such warm periods as the "Medieval Warm Period" existed outside of Europe. The problem with those arguments is that they tend to rely on much more questionable temperature proxies, such tree rings growth patterns, which respond to all kinds of environmental changes, not just temperature, and it is thus much more difficult to discern a definitive temperature signal from other facts such as precipitation and available sunlight, which are much stronger drivers of tree growth. Further, there's been some scientific scandals related to those proxies revealing that they rely on extremely small samplings of trees which often seem to exclude data that undermines the researcher's theories. Likewise, further studies from around the world, such as in MesoAmerica and Indonesia, seem to support the notion that these previous warming periods did in indeed exist, and were even greater than our present warming trend.

That said, I invite you to simply examine the Greenland ice core temperature record. It indicates, of course, that Greenland has gone through extreme swings in temperature over the last 20,000 years ago, when the last ice age was near its nadir, and temperatures in Greenland were some 15C colder than they are now. Greenland went through a number of fairly sudden warming and cooling periods, some of them spanning mere decades. Some 14,500 years ago we had a sudden warming spell, and then almost just as abruptly, a sudden cooling that actually sent Greenland into another brief cold spell even colder than most of the previous ice age. About 12,00o years ago Greenland abruptly warmed again, stabilizing at about 10,000 years ago in a relatively warm holocene period, during which virtually all of human civilization developed., in large part due to these warm and stable conditions.

If we look closely at the temperature record in Greenland over the last 10,000 years, we see that while it's more stable than the previous 10,000 years, it certainly contains some significant fluctuations. One thing we can note is that most of these last 10,000 years, the temperature in Greenland has actually been warmer than it is at present. In fact, a number of periods have been considerably warmer than the present time, peaking on at least three occasions at some 3C warmer than the present. And yet one can also see that world-wide sea levels have remained very stable during this time, and have in fact often been higher than they are at present. 

What's also evident from this data record is that the Medieval Warm Period,. peaking about 1,000 years ago, was warmer than the present period. It's certainly true that temperatures have been rising from those experienced during the Little Ice Age that lasted from about 1350-1850, but they have yet to come close to those of the previous peak, much less early peaks several thousand years ago. In fact, it's evident that the Little Ice Age represented some of the coldest temperatures of the last 10,000 years, and that the general climate trend for most of that period has actually been a downward trend, without our current warming period being a very small upward tick in the midst of a long downward cycle, one that is very likely leading us to another worldwide plummet in temperatures as we head into the next full blown Ice Age. 

For the last 800,000 years at the very least, the world has been experiencing regular Ice Ages lasting some 100,000 years, interrupted by brief warming spells of about 10,000 years, more or less, but never much more. None of these temperature changes have been driven by Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The evidence strongly indicates that these cycles are driven by natural variations in the earth's orbit, as well as by changing ocean current patterns that are perhaps related to the closing of the Isthmus of Panama over the last three millions years (when the pattern first began to emerge). Clearly, the climate reaches tipping points after which changes can come suddenly, but it's also clear that these are driven by variations in the solar radiation received by the earth, not by greenhouse gases.

Likewise, even the climate rises and falls experienced within the last 10,000 years, during the holocene, have not been driven by CO2 levels, which have in fact slightly increased during this time (by natural causes) from about 270ppm to 280ppm in pre-industrial modern times. Whatever has driven these climate changes, it has not been man's activities.

So what is the basis for believing that any portion of the warming we have been experiencing for the last 150 years or so is man-made, and due to the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere? Well, it's a highly speculative theory that presumes that the warming effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have the capacity to drive world temperatures to extreme that go beyond any natural variation. The arguments of the global warming theorists have basically been that we don't know of any natural drivers which could account for the recent warming - therefore, it must be the rise in CO2. However, this presume a kind of arrogance about our knowledge of climate that just isn't justified. We simply don't know how our climate actually works, and what forcings account for the climate fluctuations during our holocene warming. Therefore, it's highly presumptuous to suggest that only some unnatural source of warming could account for what has occurred in the 20th century.

The science of climate prediction has relied to an extreme degree on computer-programmed climate models which have been shown time and again to be inadequate at actually predicting or describing the details of how climate changes. It has also relied on assumptions about the sensitivity of climate to minor forcings such as those which it is agreed upon can be brought about by increasing levels of CO2. For example, the basic physics of these gases tells us that they alone can increase world-wide temperatures by no more than about 1C for every doubling of CO from the pre-industrial level of 280ppm. The computer climate models use various scenarios of "high sensitivity" to suggest that this warming will trigger other elements within our climate to magnify this modest rise into something that could be catastrophic, an increase in temperature of anywhere from 3-9C. The problem of course with this kind of thinking is that of GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). In other words, if the assumptions behind these models are false, so too will be their results. 

One of the most hotly contested aspects of these models is the numbers they use to calibrate climate "sensitivity". At present, most models use a very high value for this number, without actually being able to justify it on the basis of the data. Richard Lindzen, a climatology professor from MIT and one of the most respected figures in the field, has for years argued that an analysis of the data indicates that a much lower figure for climate sensitivity than is used by the models is justified, and that it could even turn out to be negative - that whatever increases in temperature are driven by CO2, are actually negated by other factors in the climate, such as increased clouds albedo. The problem with the models, he points out, is that climate is too little understood and that attempts to recreate it using computers will not do anything but reinforce existing illusions of certainty that are not justified by the actual data. 

The computer climate models, contrary to what has been said in the media, simply don't match up well with the actual climate data, except to the degree that they vary so much in their predictions that some of them are bound to fall within the margins of error. One thing they all agree upon, however, is that CO2 emissions did not begin to result in warmer temperatures until about 1970. This means that a large amount of the warming since the end of the little Ice Age, from about 1850-1970, amounting to about 0.6C, was not driven by man-made causes. What was it driven by? We don't know. So how can we say that the warming experienced since 1970, which has been about 0.4C, is man-made? A good question. The global warming theorists have answers, to be sure, but let's be honest, whatever those answers might be, that's a fairly small temperature increase over a very brief period, climatically speaking, to draw such huge and threatening conclusions from. 

Here's an example of one of the most famous series of climate model predictions, presented by James Hansen of NASA to congress in 1988:

As you can see, Hansen's primary model scenario has been over-estimating warming since it was released. Hansen did give two other scenarios which would result in lesser degrees of warming, but he emphasized the above scenario as the most likely. However, even the lower of the other two scenarios has departed from the trends of recent years. In short, there's little reason to think they are reliable, especially in that warming has fallen flat for the last 8-12 years, and is actually on a statistically downward trajectory, although it's too soon to tell if that will last. Hansen tries to explain the gaps in his predictions by suggesting that some unknown climate factor has been masking the CO2 warming trends for the last decade, and that when this unknown factor goes away, warming will resume "with a vengeance". However, even he admits that that if it doesn't happen soon, there will have to be some "rethinking" of the models. Indeed. 

You will have to pardon me if all this leaves me more than a bit skeptical. There are all kinds of models that can be constructed to agree with past climate data, but very few that can actually make accurate predictions, or justify the notion that our climate is now primarily driven by GHG warming. For example, virtually all the climate models that rely on GHG warming to explain recent trends make specific predictions about the internal details in the atmospheric warming to be expected, a kind of "signature" or "fingerprint" which gives us reason to think, if that pattern is found, that the warming we are experiencing is due to GHGs rather than other causes. This creates, n the climate graphs, a kind of "hot spot" in the atmospheric temperature patterns. And yet, in all the data that has been accumulated over the last thirty years, this "hot spot" is missing. If it were to appear, then the climate models could claim some kind of vindication, but it hasn't, and this shed further doubts on their understanding of how climate actually works. 

As a side note, I'll post here a graph of an alternative peer-reviewed climate model published in 1996, which is based mostly on cycles in our ocean currents, and leaves out entirely any forcings due to GHGs.

As you can see, this more simplistic model manages to capture quite well both the trend prior to 1996, and those that have come since. According to this model, we are actually just past the peak of the recent temperature rise, and are coming down once again. This model is not at all unique, however. In fact, a number of climatologists who actually are in the alarmist camp are now saying that worldwide temperatures may be flat or continue to decline for the next 20-30 years, and yet they still maintain that after that, temperatures will resume their rise, and this time much more steeply due to the accumulations of GHGs in the interim. Again, this strains credulity, and seems like the behavior of people who are clinging to a failing hypothesis. 

One thing I'll say about those at the forefront of the global warming movement: they have good intentions. They may be wrong, they may even be somewhat deluded, but they have good intentions. They genuinely believe that the world is in danger, and they are acting according to that belief to try to save it. If I believed in the underlying facts, I would join them, regardless of the faults in their emotional approach at times. I don't like the polarization that has occurred in this debate, and the sense that some people are the good guys fighting the bad guys who are callously destroying the earth for profit. It's certainly true that there are people out there who are callously wrecking environmental havoc for profit. And it's certainly true that the oil and gas industries would oppose the climate change movement regardless of the facts to protect their profits. But that doesn't change the actual facts. If tobacco really didn't cause cancer, the tobacco companies would be right to resist warnings and restrictions on smoking, if it were just some subjective notion of morality that was behind the crusaders.

The point being that even well-intentioned people can be wrong. And further, well-intentioned people can create unhealthly polarizations on the issues to paint their side as the "good" people and the other side as the "bad" people. My reading of the movement is that this is indeed what has occurred with the climate change movement, and it has taken a wrong turn it will severely come to regret in the coming years. 

One must recognize that whether the fossil fuels industry has been driven by greed or not, it has been of tremendous benefit to mankind, overall. This, despite the clear damage it has brought about in all kinds of ways, even if one entirely excludes the issue of greenhouse gases. Humanity surely does need to mitigate and reverse that damage over time, but one can't ignore its clear benefits. Fossil fuel use in China, for example, has certainly polluted its air and bled over into neighboring countries, yet it has also not only greatly improved but saved the lives of many millions of people there. The same is true around the globe. One cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. It's certainly true that fossil fuels are dirty, and if they really were on the verge of destroying our ecosytem with greatly higher temperature, then yes, we'd have to pay the cost of dramatically curtailing their use. But that is simply not the case, and the argument that it is, is based on very weak science. 

The trends in science, I think, are very clearly positive. There are remarkable breakthroughs every year in every aspect of alternative energy production and use. They are not as rapid as some of the scariest of climate change warnings say we need to change over to alternative fuels, but I think they are completely compatible with the actual trends in climate and other forms of environmental degradation they cause. Over the next 20-30 years these alternative energy sources will come more and into use, and eventually dominate our energy markets. The efficiencies of solar, wind, nuclear, ocean current, geothermal, and other energy technologies are increasing on an exponential scale, as is their installed base. There is every reason to believe that they will eventually become even cheaper than most fossil fuels, especially oil, which is likely to decline in production relatively soon and rise in price even further. Even so, there's no reason to rush the gun and get in the way of the economic developments which are raising so many billions out of poverty, and are driving the alternative energy market in developed countries. There will be plenty of time to switch over to these cleaner and safer fuels, and to even patch up the damage we've done.

That doesn't mean that the future is entirely rosy. There are significant problems with the destruction of natural habitats, especially rain forests, and the supply of basic needs such as clean water. One cannot expect those problems to go away overnight, but the good news is that population growth is slowing dramatically and looks to turn net negative within the next 50 years. Overall, I would say that things look rather positive, despite the clear challenges ahead. 

And spiritually, I think we are also turning some important corners. The overall movements in consciousness that underly all these vast social, political, scientific, technological, economic, and environmental changes are significantly positive, despite their often chaotic appearance. One need not fear the future, or lapse into doubt about humanity's essential role in the planet's spiritual evolution. Faith is not unjustified either as an attitude or a method in dealing with any of these problems. 

A Love Supreme

Sorry for not posting yesterday. I'm really trying to keep this blog going, but yesterday happened to the 26th anniversary of meeting, on a blind date, my wife Victoria, love of my life and the best thing that's ever happened to me by far. I owe her my human sanity and happiness, and a great deal of whatever spiritual wisdom has fallen upon me by the Grace of the Goddess . Being more in love now than ever before in our twenty-six years together is an amazing gift, and a testament to her patience and obvious saintliness. I don't know who else could have put up with me for this long, which includes patiently letting me post my crazy ideas on the internet without (much) objection to the time and energy I've expended here over the years.

I'm reminded of my favorite quote from Nisargadatta, who when asked by a student if there was anything that was real in this world, replied (I don't have the exact quote, I'm just paraphrasing - if anyone knows the exact quote I'd be very happy if they let me know - I'm pretty sure it's from "I Am That"):

"Yes, the love we feel for one another in this world is real. Everything else we experience here, all objects we see, even the world itself, is unreal, is an illusion of the mind. But the love we feel for one another is real. It is a sign of the Supreme Reality that is our true nature."

To me, that's perhaps the most profound single teaching I've ever read anywhere, from any spiritual teacher. I come back to that teaching time and time again, day after day, as a guiding principle of my life to help me separate my own bullshit from what is real. This world is a strange place, and all of us in it are strange characters, struggling with illusions and reactions to illusions left and right, like children lost in a carnival hall of mirrors. In the midst of all that, however, one thing remains real - the love we find for one another in the midst of it. Sometimes that love is rare and hard to find, and even harder to hold onto, but it's the one thing we have, the one light in the darkness that can lead us out of this maze of mirrors. 

I'm a very lucky man to have found some real love in this world, and I intend to hold that light as high as I can to make my way through this world to the reality it points to. The rest may be an illusion, even my own body and the bodies of those I love, but the love itself is always real, and we should never doubt that.

A Love Supreme

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

One more note on Maia-Gaia's comments. He made the following remarks in an attempt to describe two possible extremes of “activism” and “traditionalism”:

“I happen to be reading about a Neo-Vedantic philosopher- Swami Vivekananda at your fellow blogger- kelamuni - Like Aurobindo, the swami was a Hindu nationalist and spiritual reformer repudiating things like the caste system. Their activist approach can be contrasted with Ramana who during the same period showed no interest in worldly politics beyond that which affected the title to his ashram property or had any concern about oppressive religious discrimination. His satsang gatherings were dutifully arranged according to caste with a curtain separating Brahmin. Your  environmental essay contrasting our ego (where guilt over our evil potential arises) with our spiritual essence seems inspired by Ramana's emphasis on the Self and his detachment in contrast to the engagement of Aurobindo and ultimately is a reflection of the ontological maya-gaia dialectic.”

I think a few things need to be corrected about this. First, Ramana is not actually a good example of a traditional Hindu teacher. In fact, Ramana often denied being a Hindu at all, and often said that he just went along with the culture of his time and place, largely because he was indifferent to such things. So he allowed an ashram to grow up around him, but he considered himself “atiashrama”, which means, “outside the ashram”. He looked favorably upon many aspects of Hindu culture and teachings, at least those aspects which seemed in accord with his own realization and mode of living, but he did not feel any particular need to conform to them. As far as the caste system goes, he had no interest in it whatsoever, and didn't live according to caste rules or obey the general strictures of caste association. Among his own devotees he made no distinction between castes, and frequently commented that such things were absurd, and even upbraided his closer devotees when they tried to institute such things around him.  

On the other hand, Ramana was very considerate of others, even to the caste traditions others followed. When visitors came to the ashram, Ramana would try to accommodate them as much as he could. Sometimes when visitors came who followed strict caste rules, Ramana would have the ashram follow them, particularly in diet and seating. So yes, there were occasions when Ramana divided devotees sitting before him by caste, so as not to make the visiting traditionalists uncomfortable. When they left, he would take the screens away, and resume his normal mode of life.  Such things were never a normal part of his ashram life.

In general, Ramana's ashram was not a good example of a traditional Hindu ashram, and his teaching was not a good example of traditional Advaita. One can certainly say there is enough looseness within the Hindu religion to accommodate people like Ramana, and even to herald them as great realizers, and that Ramana's teachings are in accord with the principles of Advaita, but they deviate from them in important ways. So one should really not use Ramana as an example of a traditional Hindu teacher, as opposed to Vivekananda's crusading reformism. In fact, in the general stream of these movements, Ramana is usually put in the same general camp as Vivekananda, as a “neo-Advaitin”, rather than a traditional Advaitin. His life and teachings represent a powerful reforming and modernizing influence within Advaita, in some respects even more influential than Vivekananda at this point in history.  

If one were to look for an example of a Hindu traditionalist who ranks among the century's spiritual luminaries, one should probably look to someone like The Shankaracharya of Kanchi, also known as the Sage of Kanchi. He was a strong defender of the caste system through and through, and of most aspects of traditional Hindu culture. Of course one has to realize that even Vivekananda did not call for the total abolition of the caste system. He knew quite well that it was too deeply entrenched within Indian religious and political culture to entirely eliminate. So he too was an accomodationist to a serious degree.

One can certainly say that Ramana was not an activist crusader, on this or any other issues. Vivekananda clearly was. One thing to remember is that Vivekananda was not a Selfrealizer, at least not until his death. As Ramankrishna told him, realization would be withheld in his case until he had completed his life's work, and once he had realized he would give up the body, which is precisely how it happened. So Vivekananda is not a good example of how a realizer works in relation to the world.

Ramana, on the other hand, was a realizer from the age of sixteen on. His life demonstrates the truth that silent realization can be a more powerful influence on the world than any amount of activism. People would sometimes ask Ramana why he wasn't actively working to change the world for the better, and his reply was always “How do you know I'm not?” From his point of view, the real sources of spiritual transformation in the world are not in the realm of action, but in the realm of silence and stillness. One of my favorite quotes from Ramana is a response to these kinds of questions, when he said “An old women who finds the peace of God in her prayers does more to change the world than all the intellectuals combined”. It's not as if activism plays no positive role in these matters, but it's value is often exaggerated. Real change occurs through genuine heart-opening.  

There's a kind of activism which can combine aspects of both. An example is found in this video: 

An invitation

As a side note, it's worth mentioning that Gandhi often expressed a desire to visit Ramana Maharshi at his ashram, and this almost happened a number of times. However, his close aide Rajagopal gave strict orders that under no circumstances should Gandhi be allowed to see Ramana, because he feared that if they met, Gandhi would renounce his mission and retire to Ramana's ashram. So every time a meeting seemed possible, Rajagopal would find some excuse to rush Gandhi away to some emergency somewhere far away. This was all a little hilarious, and probably unnecessary, but you never know.  

Humanity as Gaia's Teenage Nervous System

An old intent buddy, Maya-Gaia, who has a great internet site you should all check out, wrote in respone to me recent essay, “Climate Change, Environmentalism, and the Problem of Human Evil” some interesting comments worth responding to, including a practical matter to clear up:

“Gee willergigs - Conrad!....I respectfully must protest that in my 100-page website, nowhere is there any essay about "Humans as Cancer". There IS the following comment: "If we accept the Gaia Theory, what is inescapable, is that human civilization is analogous to Earth's cancer. The personal challenge then, for each of us, is to evolve from a virulent to a benign strain, by raising our environmental consciousness." This is from my page about the Gaia paradigm and is a fervent call to practical action- to support and participate in environmental and wildlife conservation projects. Eco-spirituality doesn't have anything to do with our ego's atavistic guilt about humanity's intrinsic evil but is an intuitive response (occasionally evoked from  direct revelation) to the real-world devastation being wrought on Gaia and her beautiful, innocent, disappearing nature. Our species is not evil but is endowed with the means and will to survive and overpopulate at all cost to nature. Raising ten children, in a rightous act to feed his growing family, a single poacher, homesteading on the borders of Udege Legend National Park in Far-Eastern Siberia- harvests gall bladders to sell to the Chinese apothacary trade. He- singlehandedly- can easily wipe out the Himalayan black bear to extinction. The ecospiritual approach- - is to set up infrastructure to train him to become a wildlife ranger for ecotourism and provide birth control for his community.”

Okay, first things first, on this page at the Maia-Gaia website, under the heading "Our Greatest Challenge..." one can find the above quote, and one can clearly see that the words "earth's cancer" are highlighted as a link to a webpage, where the essay "Humans as Cancer" by A. Kent MacDougall can be found. So yes, this essays is linked, I assume with some degree of approval, on the Maia-Gaia website. Perhaps Maia-Gaia forgot he had done so, but there it is for all to see. Of course, I'm not suggesting that he entirely approves of this message or its point of view, but he does seem to find it a logical and perhaps even necessary part of the Gaia hypothesis. I can't say I entirely blame him, since this viewpoint is quite common in the spiritual-ecological movement, and even James Lovelock seems to give it serious consideration.

But this is just the problem I'm pointing to. In the first place, I would strongly suggest that the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a living organism which regulates its own ecosphere, does not indicate that the human species is a cancer growing within that organism. Nor is it a virus, a parasite, or a pathology of some kind. This suggests a distorted and deeply biased understanding of how organisms grow and prosper, and the stages of development they pass through.

It's important first to ask oneself what kind of organism the Earth is, and what role human beings play in it. Obviously, there's something rather special about human beings, or we would not be discussing their place in the ecosphere in the first place. Human being are the only highly sentient technologically civilized speices on the planet. If we were a cancer, we would be a simplistic organism that merely made very large tumors, such as giant ants might build massive anthills over the face of the earth. Obviously we are the most highly sophisticated organism on the planet, at the very head of the food chain, and capable of altering the earth on an unprecedented scale. There are many analogies to this in biology, and cancer is simply not one of them.

The best analogy I can think of is the evolutionary and developmental example of the human nervous system within our own bodies. Our brains and nervous system consumes a great deal of energy and resources in our body. For it's tiny weight, it consumes a highly disproportionate amount of protein, glucose, oxygen, and all kinds of vital nutrients. Most of our body is dedicated to keeping our brain alive at whatever cost to the rest of our system. When resouurces are scarce, the body directs an even greater portion of them to our brains, even at the expense of other vital components of our body. This is actually good for the body. In evolutionary terms, our bodies have also paid a great price for developing our brains. It has required us to grow large heads, which increases mortality at birth, and produces a very long extended childhood, which makes us very vulnerable for a long period of time and requires a massive investment from parents for many years to protect and raise us. The total investment of resources in these large brains of ours hardly seems worth it if the survival of the body is the sole measure of our worth and purpose.

But of course survival alone is not the sole measure of our body's worth and purpose on this planet, nor is that the case for the planet itself. Just as our bodies are subservient to the development of our brains and nervous systems - because these in the end benefit us the most - so are the earth's resources subserviant to the development of the human species, it's culture, and most of all, it's intelligent consciousness. Mother earth certainly loves all its creatures, but she values human beings above all other creatures in the same way that the body values the brain over all other organs and parts. This does not mean there are no limits to be set for human beings. Like any mother, she knows that we need discipline as well as nurturing. But there is no sense in which she ever sees us as a cancer, or anything remotely resembling a pathogen. A mother does not see her child as an evil invader who must be cut from her body, but only, perhaps, as an unruly adolescent who needs to be grounded or disciplined. Human beings are essential to the very purpose of this planet, and our consciousness is more akin to the nervous system of our world. 

One of the facts of life for human bodies is that our nervous systems grow in haphazard fashion. At several stages in our development, our nervous systems vastly overgrow themselves and have to be pruned back. Adolescence is one of those periods. The human brain embarks on a massive growth spirit in the early years of adolescence, growing synapses and connections at a massive rate, consuming massive bodily resources and even spinning out of control. This is one of the reasons adolescence is such a difficult time mentally and emotionally. The brain is literally overcharged and overgrown. At a certain point, the brain actually stops growing these connections, and switches over to killing them off. It has made too many connections, and over the next ten years, up to the age of about twenty-five, the brain actually engages in a massive pruning operation, cutting out and killing off about 20% of our dentrites and synapses, trying to get rid of the ones that don't work properly. This is an entirely necessary exercise, and has nothing to do with some notion that parts of our brains are a "cancer" upon us. They are not, they are just part of the natural growth process, as is pruning them back,

I would suggest that what the human species, and our planet, is going through right now is akin to adolescent brain development. We have been rather haphazardly and even chaotically overgrowing ourselves, establishing all kinds of wild and new connections, and to some degree, creating ones that don't entirely work. In the process we've been using up resources like a teenager at the dinner table, eating as much as possible of anything and everything, and not always with much discrimination. We eat healthy food and junk food and anything that isn't nailed down. Our Mother may not like everything we are doing, but she still encourages us to eat, because that's what we are supposed to do at this stage in our growth. And likewise, we are supposed to be acting a bit crazy and undisciplined, we are supposed to be letting our brains grow wild and establish all kinds of new connections, even though some of them aren't going to turn out to be useful, because we will be pruning them back over time as well, until we settle down into adulthood. Teenagers are not a pathology. But the idea that teenagers are some kind of cancer on the family is a disturbed, neurotic, and dysfunctional pathology which needs to be cut out as quickly as possible. It's hard enough being a teenager without being made to feel guilty about it, as if teenagers are some alien invader into the peaceful home of our planet who should be suppressed and made to feel as if they are bad, when all they are is being teenagers. 

So yes, I think this notion that human beings are cancers in the earth's body is a completely dysfunctional and pathological interpretation of the Gaia hypothesis. It's completely off-base and without any spiritual foundation. The people who put forth these kinds of ideas really need to examine the plank in their own eye first. 

As I said before, it also great over-exaggerates the damage human beings are doing to the planet. Certainly we are throwing a wild party, but any lasting damage is really pretty minimal. I'm pretty confident that the global warming hysteria is just that - people overreacting. In some sense, the overreaction is itself just another example of teenagers going crazy, this time in the other direction, blaming themselves and forming negative self-images, trying to control and regulate each other and so forth.  This too is part of what teenagers must go through as their brains go through these massive growth and pruning periods. Emotionally it is very difficult to form a properly discriminating perspective on these things. From the viewpoint of a mature spirituality, it's not to be taken terribly seriously one way or another, but allowances have to be made for what teenagers need to go through in the process. There certainly are violent and destructive impulses that need to be curbed, but one should not confuse the ordinary patterns of adolescence with such things. 

There certainly are good and mature people taking steps to introduce discipline to the unruly teenagers on our planet. Maia-gaia cites some good examples of that. I approve of a great many things being done by the ecological movement. The Global Warming scare is a mistake, I think, but it will pass too, like most such things, and we will even learn something from it. Humanity will eventually emerge from its adolescence with a heightened sense of purpose and discipline -  the signs of that are already present. We must simply be patient, and let the kids grow up in a natural fashion. Eventually if we are patient and loving towards one another there will be a long period of mature growth ahead. The earth is not being destroyed. We must have faith in the process of our own development, and in the powers of our Mother to guide us properly. We are all greatly loved and cherished, even the more boisterous among us. There is no evil among us here. Teenagers are easily spooked by scary stories and horror movies, but it's just a stage of mental development for most, not a reality we need to take seriously. The few individuals who really are sick and pathological will be taken care of by our immune systems. We should not characterize the whole by the failings of a few. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Let the thieves live together and let the few really free people spread all over the world.

To break for a moment from the thread of my previous posts, I happened on a couple of outakes from the Integral Movement. The first is what can only be described as a chest-thumping mass-marketing sales email from Ken Wilber, the other an article from an old acquaintance from my Adidam days, Terry Patten, who is now apparently hawking his skills as an "Integral Life Coach", public speaker, seminar giver, and all-around integral philosopher/renaissance man - you all probably know the drill. 

The Terry Patten article strikes me as the most revealing, I suppose in part simply because I knew the guy back in Adidam. My first, gut-level reaction: wow, what an asshole. This guy is a spiritual teacher now? Second, reflecting reaction: hey, that's not fair, give the guy a break, that was years ago, and a lot of people in Adidam acted like assholes. Maybe he's changed since he left (which was years before I did). Third, self-revealing reaction: yeah, but he was particularly assholish towards me, and even after he left Adidam. I mean every time I bumped into the guy he'd make condescending snearing, passive-aggressive remarks couched in spiritualese, revealing himself time and again as a classic new age douche.  Fourth, self-reflecting reaction: get over yourself, Conrad, past is past and who cares who was a douche to you fifteen years ago and counting? Were you any better? Fifth, self-estimating reaction: yeah, I probably was. But if you want to stay that way, stop holding onto these old emotional reactions to people like this. It doesn't help me or them. And anyway, the guy was clearly deeply insecure and somehow felt threatend by me for God knows what reason. Sixth and final reaction: read what the dude has to say and see if it shows any value in itself, or signs of overcoming all that Adidam assholishness we all were immersed in for so long. 

That out of the way, there's the article itself, which brings out a very strange point of view about the spiritual process, or what these guys like to call "integration". Terry offers up this odd question to frame his thoughts:

1. How will we creatively manage the tensions between "purity" and "openness" in the world of leading-edge spirituality?

The question is raised as a lead-in to discuss the ethical qualms many have raised about teachers and leaders in the Integral Movement, and calls that have made to avoid certain teachers whose ethics seem questionable, or to create some kind of self-policing standards within the movement about these matters. Terry seems a bit upset about this issue, I don't know why, or what specific things he's responding to, I don't really follow the Integral Community very much, but I am on mailing lists and I get various things sent to me now and then, and I like reading the Integral Options Cafe website because it has so many good articles there (jeez, they even used to quote and link to some of my posts when I was actively blogging).

The point Terry comes to is a plea for understanding, which is spelled out here:

Both purity and openness are values worth respecting. Either too much openness or too much purity can do damage. So both principles need to be respected, within reason. Staying true to one's principles is essential, and yet refusing to associate with people can erode the spirit of generosity and collegiality so essential to building a movement.

What to say about the false dichotomy presented here? It's an example of the kind of distorted thinking that emerges from a “movement”. In the first place, there is no “tension” between purity and openness, nor need it be “creatively managed”. This is all just plain wrong. There is no conflict between purity and openness, and no need to trade off one for another, to strike some “balance” between the two. To paraphrase Keats, “purity is openness, and openness is purity, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The dilemma Terry is actually referring to is brought on by false notions of both purity and openness. In the false world of the delusional ego, too much purity can somehow be a “bad” thing. Terry equates the two to “inhalation and exhalation”, saying both “are necessary, but each would be lethal if it were practiced to the exclusion of the other.” As if somehow purity requires being closed down and repressed, and openness requires that we forgo our purity. This is only the case if one's mind has some very deep illusions about what genuine purity and openness are. And unfortunately, in the modern Integral “movement”, these kinds of illusions seem rampant.

Why? Well, one reason is that so many in the integral field, including both Terry and Ken Wilber, are trying to market their ideas and practices commercially, in order to make a living. They have turned their “movement” into a business and commercial enterprise, and not only do they not see the obvious consequences of that, they are intellectually devoted to the idea that this is not only a good thing, but a necessary, “integral” thing. You see, they are just “integrating” business and spirituality, and there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with that, could there?

Well, there really could be. There's a reason why Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, why Ramana and Nisargadatta and other teachers of genuine realization refused to allow people to solicit donations, or commercialize their offerings. Papaji famously said that any teacher who charged money for their satsang was a fraud, and the title of the post was his reply to the question of what he thought about spiritual communities:

“Let the thieves live together and let the few really free people spread all over the world.”

There really are some genuine conflicts in life, and real trade-offs between opposing values. Purity and openness just isn't one of them. But spirituality and commercialism is. This isn't merely some kind of ideological notion that we can toss aside because we live in a new era. It's a long tested truth. Money really does corrupt. Desire really does corrupt. There is a place for money and desire in our lives, we certainly couldn't get by without them, but we always have to be aware of their proper place, and guard what we hold sacred from their corrupting influence. It's not possible to be completely free of their influence, but at the very least it can be greatly minimized. Spiritual teachings, even Ramana's and Papaji's, are best communicated to a wide audience through books, tapes, DVDs, etc., and these cost money and must be sold for money. If one has to rent a hall to give a talk in, it has to be paid for. But that doesn't mean one has to charge admission, one can find patrons who will pay for such things, if they really are of value.

So there's a level of financial need that any set of teachings must fulfill. And yet, everyone who has something genuine to say about spirituality, even lowly bloggers like me, has an obligation to minimize as much as possible the financial dimension of all that. That obligation isn't just to those being taught, but to themselves, because they too will become corrupt if they don't minimize it as much as possible. One need only look at the record of Adidam to see how corrupting money can be to a spiritual teacher, his devotees, and the “movement” they are a part of, to confirm this principle.  

Unfortunately, not everyone who left Adidam learned this lesson. Saniel Bonder is another example of someone who left the finanical corruptions of Adidam only to create his own corrupt spiritual organization and “movement”, charging hundreds and thousands of dollars for dubious teachings about “waking down” enlightenment. These kinds of teachings only debase the genuine process of spiritual life, and turn it into a corrupt and deluding business enterprise. Terry Patten of course had a long history in Adidam, and Ken Wilber was involved with Adi Da from a distance for many years. Both either left or cut their ties at some point, and tried to separate from the corruptions of that organization, but both also seem to have bought into a false notion of what it means to be “inclusive”, or “integral”. Both seem to think that this means merging religion and business together into one :”seamless whole”, as if that would be a good thing for all, and make us more “holistic”.  

Well, news flash, it doesn't work that way. This is a false notion of what it means to be inclusive, integral, and “whole”. I have nothing against business, I've run various kinds of small businesses for much of my life, and there is nothing wrong with that. Business pursuits and the life of a householder are completely compatible with spiritual life, and always has been. But one must always remember that they are distinct domains of life, and simply are not to be mixed, and to the degree that they have to .be combined, it's always best to minimize that as much as possible. Keeping each pure and whole is not a way of creating a false conflict, it's a way of preserving the true nature of each. Nor is it at odds with openness to keep them distinct. Instead, it preserves their integrity, which is the real meaning of the word “integral”. Whatever conceptual notions one might have about the world, even if one tries to go by Wilber's AQAL four-quadrant system, it's simply a false and deluding notion to think that the principle of integralism means literal mixing together of all things into a giant soup. Integralism means respecting the integrity of all the areas of life, and not mixing incompatible elements.  

What I see when I look at these windows onto the Integral Movement, such as Wilber's marketing letter, is a corruption of not only the principles and concepts of integration, but of the individuals involved. Wilber's letter is a dithering document to the destructive power of commercialism, as are most of his recent writings. One can attribute these faults to more than just commercialism, and I don't want to try to figure out whether the chicken or the egg is to blame, but one can clearly see that they work against one another's interests. Wilber's own thinking has long been in decline, and almost in exact inverse proportion to his attempts to turn his philosophy into a commercial enterprise.  

Genuine openness is not a form of naivete. It does not embrace everything without discrimination. Instead, it uses discrimination to keep separate the incompatible elements of life, those which might corrupt or corrode or work against each other. The very word “discrimination” means to separate. And that is not incompatible with “integration”, because it is essential to keep various elements of life separate from one another in order to integrate them properly. It's fine to integrate business and spirituality into one's life, but one does so by keeping them separate, by discriminating between them, and keeping each pure.  

And by the way, it's just as destructive to business pursuits when notions of spirituality are mixed in with them. I have a good friend from Adidam who experienced that first hand, when his multi-million dollar business was destroyed by those in Adidam who tried to take it over and run it according to “spiritual” principles, which it turned out were likewise corrupted in the process. It took him years to recover and restructure his business from scratch, and it's now doing gangbusters.  

I would say to the people who are trying to turn the Integral Movement into a business, why not just start an actual business, if you have those kinds of skills and inclinations, and leave your spiritual pursuits to themselves? Use the money you make in business to sponsor spiritual matters, so that they don't have to be corrupted by commercialization. Don't mix the two, but feel free to patronize your spiritual interests with your successful business enterprises. That's the way it has traditionally been done, and it works very well.  

Of course, the desire to cash in on one's spiritual seeking is often too great for many people to resist, both as purveyers and consumers of this kind of commercial tripe. And so, as Papaji said, the thieves all congregate together, which makes it somewhat easier to avoid. For anyone not involved in these sorts of endeavors, I'd recommend keeping a careful distance. For those who are involved, beware, and reflect on what is going on around you and within you.  

The Metaphysics of Evil

Bottom line, there is no such thing as metaphysical evil. The human struggle with evil, though very real within the context of earthly life, is simply not a reflection of any higher or metaphysical reality. In this I am in complete agreement with modern psychology, science, and even atheistic views. Much of what religion has taught us is simply false. There is no Devil, nor even any demons. There are no evil spirits, and no soul-damning karmic consequences to the various acts human commit that we might call evil. There is no hell where evil people are sent, and no demons trying to lure us there. All of that - literally all of it - is a projection within the context of human beings struggling to come to terms with the various mechanical and psychic problems of incarnation. 

The worst examples of evil we can think of, a Hilter say, or a serial killer, are not of demonic origin, and have not "gone over to the dark side", simply because there is no dark side. The "dark side" is a product of human ignorance, literally, about the process of incarnation. The primary problem we all tend to face in this matter of being born here is that we have very little conscious understanding of what is going on, where we are, where we came from, how we got here, what we are doing , and what we are supposed to be doing. We are not generally aware that we are actually incarnating here at all - most people simply take things at surface appearances, and we assume we are just born here as bodies in a material world that poses a lot of challenges and threats.

As mentioned in previous posts, we don't often consider the possibility that this world is an illusion of sorts, an appearance within our conscious experience, but even if we do, we don't tend to understand the mechanics of that. Even those who intuitively believe in reincarnation don't quite understand what it means. We tend to think that we just drop into this world, live for a time, and then leave it, not grasping that there are a great many biological and mechanical issues involved in the process which profoundly affect the quality of our experience here. Nor do we realize that when that process is disrupted, or not understood properly, and when it becomes aberated in some respect, this creates even more illusions within our minds about all of these matters. Trying to straighten out those illusions can be very difficult and take a lot of time, and as a human species we still have much to comprehend about this process.

Our traditional religious cultures have attempted to understand this process, but in most cases this has only made the confusion worse, in large part because the people leading the way in many of these cultures were disturbed and deluded themselves about the process that were trying to comprehend, and their maladaptation to it created projeccted notions about the state of the world and the universe and God that are simply reflections of their problems with incarnation, rather than a pure vision of what that process involves. Chief among those maladaptations are the various notions of demonic forces and evil beings who are thought to be opposed to human happiness and Divine enjoyment of our existence. We all know these examples almost by heart, depending on the culture we were raised in. Their universality, unfortunately, only tends to lend credence to the notion that such things are real.

My own experience in Adidam, for example, included being taught that such demonic spirits were a serious factor in human life, and that the great spiritual Adepts really did engage in spiritual warfare of a kind with these demons. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is said to be engaged in a battle with the demonic asuras, and his admonition to Arjuna is to righteously fight these demons. It is of course acknowledged at some level within Hinduism that these asuras are metaphorical, that they really represent our various desires and urges which keep us bound to the world-illusion, but the widespread belief throughout Hindusim nonetheless is that these kinds of spirits are indeed real, and that we have to be wary of them, and engage in endless kinds of purifying rituals and practices in order to keep them at bay. The Hindu priesthood still makes a pretty penny from offering their ritual services for this purpose, as they have since ancient times. 

I remember a sad but funny incident in my later days in Adidam that illustrates this point. I was at the Mountain of Attention Sanctuary for a celebration, which consisted of a long puja and chanting at Seventh Gate, which opened onto the gorunds of Adi Da's personal house. He was there at the time, and near the end of the Puja I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to help with a special service. Some of the ladies from the kitchen (which was in a building just to one side) need a man to carry a large crate of very expensive dishware to be used to serve Adi Da's celebration meal that day - the kind of thing only brought out on special occasions. I had to carry this crate along a narrow footpath, on one side of which was a fairly steep cliff. The ladies were very wary of this cliff, and one of them warned me in a deeply worried voice that I should be extremely careful, because if I dropped these dishes down the cliff, I would be facing terrible karmas for lifetimes to come. I nearly burst out laughing, but then realized these ladies were deadly serious. They actually believed in some kind of spiritual reward/punishment system. It was no wonder of course. In his later years Adi Da spoke at great length about the terrible consequences that could come when devotees messed up something or other of seemingly minor significance. He also spoke endlessly about demonic spirits, and his own struggle fighting these spirits who were opposing his work and doing great harm in the world. In fact, that kind of talk was one of the key matters that made me begin to suspect that Adi Da was not a genuinely free realizer, but one who was himself bound to a number of simple illusions about the world, and spiritual life altogether. In that of course Adidam is not much different than a whole host of other religious traditions, and it can certainly point to those traditions for support of its own beliefs about these things. I'm merely suggesting that all of those traditions harbor the same faults, rooted in a problem with spiritual incarnation that creates projections of evil onto both the material world and the spiritual realms. In Da's case, it's not hard to see that his own problems manifested a delusional cosmology that perpetuated some fearful notions about evil, ones that fostered fear and unhealthy supestitions in his devotees. The same pattern holds true for a great many other religious figures and traditions, of course, I only single Da out because that's where my own experience of these kinds of religious themes comes from. Catholics and Hindus and others can I'm sure relate from their own repetoire of religious demonology.

The earliest religions we know of were all shamanic in nature, and generally believed in evil spirits which had to be battled with by humans, with the aid of priests and medicine men, and of course by appeal to friendly Gods and spirits who could help us. The results of human life were generally thought to be the fruits of this battle between good and evil spirits. WHen good things happened, it was because our appeals were well recieved and our Gods were able to defeat the evil spirits, and when things went poorly it was either because our appeals were insufficient, not properly conducted by the right ritual, or that the Gods we prayed to were simply not powerful enough, and we needed better Gods. Those who lost wars to other tribes or nations often assumed that this was because their conquerer's Gods were stronger, and so the conquered people would happily convert to their conquerer's Gods. 

We are a bit more sophisticated than that now, and tend not to believe that the Gods and spirits function in quite that way, but we do still tend to believe in a similar kind of superstition, whether religious or secular in nature. Even the scientific atheists or agnostics among  us believe in the superstitions of chemistry, looking for the right combination of anti-depressants and pharmaceuticals to ward off the bad diseases and chronic conditions of human unhappiness. I'm not even suggesting that all of that is wrong, only that it lacks a realistic understanding of the genuine sources of our disturbed state of mind and body. The real problem we face is that of incarnation, of finding a way to merge our spirit-awareness with our bodily experience. 

The reasons people believe in Gods and spirits so readily is easy enough to understand. It's because we are spirits ourselves, and as spirits we are intuitively aware that our true source is spiritual in nature, the product of an immense and overwhelming love by the very Force and Power that creates and give life to all things, both material and spiritual. There's a scientific effort to explain our belief in Gods and spirits through evolutionary neurobiology, which entertains the notion that our brains and nervious systems contain the capacity for an imaginative error to see things which are not there, and to impose the sense of an entity upon these interior neurological sensations. I have to say, this scientific explanation is actually close to the truth, but no cigar. There is in fact a neurological origin to this belief in Gods and spirits, but it is based in the reality that Gods and spirits actually exist, that we ourselves are spirits, and that our connection to this world through our own bodies is that of a spirt entering into symbiotic conjunction with a physical body. As problems arise within that neurological connection, it's easy to become confused and disturbed, and to imagine that some kind of "spirit" is causing the problem, even that there are evil spirits causing all kinds of problems for us, and that the nature of the cosmos is some kind of struggle between good spirits and evil spirits, with us poor humans stuck in the middle between heaven and earth, or even heaven and hell. 

The reality is that there are no spirits trying to interfere with or negatively influence the process of our life - except, of course, the spirits of other humans who are likewise trying to incarnate in this world, and who become confused and frustrated in the process. That frustration can lead to many very poor choices, as we can see all around us. Some of those choices are violent and cruel, and what we often call evil. And yet, frustration and difficulty are simply a natural part of the long struggle to incarnate in the physical worlds, which we engage in over many lifetimes, with many patterns built up in our spiritual psyches which have to be overcome over time. These patterns are what the Hindus call "karmas", or vasanas, the tendencies of attention. It's a mistake to think of karmas some kind of list of good and bad acts we have done in our past lives. There is no such scorecard, no Santa Claus keeping track of our deeds. Instead, there is simply a complex pattern in our own spiritual bodies, a literal built in set of connections we have tried to grow over time that enable us to function through human physical bodies, and which reflect the past disturbances we have created in previous attempts to incarnate. This governs how and why we will incarnate in various sets of bodies, sometimes as a way of accentuating the patterns in our spirit, at other times to overcome problems we have developed over many lives. The overall goal is simply to create a clean and pure spirit who can connect cleanly and purely to a human body without introducing aberated patterns of mind and body to either side of the equation. Clearly, this is much more diffficult than we can probably imagine.. It does indeed require purification of old patterns, even what we might call "evil" patterns, but this is no different in kind from taking a bath or a colonic to wash the dirt and filth from our souls and bodies. 

In other words, there is no sense of "punishment" going on in the universe. Karma is not about giving bad people bad experiences and good people good experiences. Good people may require bad experiences to grow, and bad people may require good experiences to grow. The Hitlers and serial killers of the world do not go to hell to burn for eternity, or even a long time. They go through purifications to be sure, but so do we all. Their future lives are not ones of guaranteed torment until they pay for their sins, their future lives are not terribly different from our own, they get what they need to learn their appropriate lessons and grow the proper spiritual capacities to connect rightly to their future bodies. 

One must recognize that the physical world is an innocent place. Even though all things die here, or even get eaten by other creatures, there is nothing evil at work. The Ebola Virus, which human beings might consider evil, is merely an organism trying to survive like every other. It has no evil origin or intent. It just happens that human beings have almost no immunity to it. Nothing about that is evil. Smallpox isn't evil either. Evil is something that can only be associated with human beings because of their aberated spiritual relationship to the body and the world. As I've said, we are not really here, this is not our home, and so human beings feel an intense sense of alienation and disturbance in the mere existential dilemma of being alive. This is something that animals don't generally experience, and I would expect that many alien races of intelligent beings don't feel either. It's not natural for the human bodily organism to feel that way, and it wouldn't if it weren't for the fact that our bodies entertain these unique reincarnational spirits through their minds from birth to death. We don't feel ourselves to be a part of nature because we are not, we are "aliens" of a kind here. That is why we divide the world into "natural" and "man-made". It's intuitively obvious to us that we humans are not of this world, are not a natural part of the material world,. and that we are something quite different in nature from most everything here. And yet, of course, we can't actually see anything around us, or in our bodies, which confirms this feeling, which makes us feel even more disturbed. We imagine we must be crazy sometimes, that we are just imagining all these problems and should simply stop looking for metaphysical explanations, that it's all just a matter of evolutionary glitches in our brains. Or we imagine that some God put us here to fulfill a plan we can't even begin to comprehend, which isn't far from the truth, but the actual truth eludes us, because we don't know where to look for the answers. 

It's a wonder that human beings get anything done at all. It would be much easier for us, I think, if we could comprehend just the simple basics of what how this life of ours is structured, rather than operating upon some half-assed sense of ourselves that never quite comes together as a genuine vision of life. Even the atheistic secular vision, which in many respects is a justified reaction to all our internal delusions, a way of rejecting them all and settling for what it hopes will be a healthy attitude of "don't know" or "don't care" about metaphysical issues - even that can't genuinely provide a healthy vision of life, simply because it also rejects the simple, basic fact of our being spirits incarnating through bodies. One doesn't actually have to believe much of anything about religion to simply acknowledge this. One need only pay attention to one's own mind and awareness for any significant period of time, and one will begin to see where we are coming from. The existential fact of our spiritual awareness doesn't go away simply because we stop believing in heavens and hells and angels and demons. The realities of our lives demand that we address this central experience, because it defines us as both spirits and as human beings. Unless we do create a conscious life around this spiritual vision of ourselves, we are bound to live it unconsciously, and thus create more troubles than we resolve. 

One good thing that I think is beginning to develop in our culture is the rudimentary capacity to actually be conscious of ourselves as spiritual beings, as a spiritual awareness that we are bringing into this world by the mere facts of our birth. There is a growing capacity to actually become aware of ourselves as we are, and to answer many of the most basic questions about human existence, things which have plagued humanity for thousands of years at the very least. I am not even talking about the esoteric understanding of non-dual reality, I am merely speaking of the basic understanding of spiritual reality, which is a necessary foundation for anything further. I'll be getting to that higher, non-dual understanding further down the line, but for right now I just one to emphasize the very basic matters of human life that are so often overlooked or not taking seriously, both by ordinary religious and secular people, and even by many non-dualists themselves. 

Tomorrow I think I'll write about the question of death, and what comes after we have left this material world. That should be fun.