Environment Poetry

“Who Owns The Moon?”

            National Geographic article headline.

Who indeed?

Who would profit from the

blue-green light

painting the red rocks? 

Who owns the stars?

The comets and their tails?

The black holes? 

The galaxies?

I wonder if there are



and if there are,

what commission do they charge?


Do I own my own light?

My own trauma?

My own healing?

My own joy?

Or do I give them away?

Look up tonight

to see

if you find an answer there… 


The Science of Good and Evil

There’s an important article with this title in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic – by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.

Scientists studied the brains of psychopaths, including convicted and incarcerated criminals, to see if they could find any evidence that their physical brains are different from those dubbed “extreme altruists”.

The results are illuminating. In the psychopaths, the areas of the brain that seem to dictate whether or not we will empathize with others, and thus feel compassion for them, are markedly smaller. This is especially true of the amygdala, the area of our brains that largely governs our emotions. In the extreme altruists, these areas are larger and “light up” more easily than those of the psychopaths.

So, part of the conclusion is that a predisposition to either (a) be less sensitive to the suffering of others, and (b) harm others to get what we want is largely genetic.

So, clearly, nature plays a huge part. But, the good news from the research described in the article is that nurture can also play a big part in either reinforcing a predisposition in either direction, or helping a person with an empathy deficit feel more aware of others’ pain.

Particularly encouraging to me was an experiment which showed that a loving-kindness meditation from the Buddhist tradition could help subjects feel more compassion for other s in just a few days. There’s also a juvenile treatment center – The Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin that is having excellent results training the most “hardened” and antagonistic teens to be more compassionate. They do it largely by treating the inmates humanely and compassionately, and not punishing them – even for actions like flinging feces at staff members. Instead, use a behavior rating system to measure how well the teens are doing at relating to each other and the staff, and they reward them with privileges when they do well. Eventually, even though the inmates may change their behavior in the beginning purely to gain privileges, they develop the “muscles” of empathy and compassion simply by taking “better” actions.

This is just more evidence in the growing body of research showing that our brains are less rigid and predetermined than previously thought, and that, with the right support and training, those among us who were previously thought to be incurably psychopathic can become more empathic and compassionate.

I strongly recommend the article.


Controlling the trigger finger

I’ve been musing on the phenomenon of “triggering” for a long time now, and I’m still thinking about it.

The intellectual knowledge of this phenomenon/process is pretty simple, really. Something someone says, or does, “triggers” an issue, or a wound, and we feel something – usually anger, or sadness, or simply, hurt. In my opinion, and those of many writers and sages, this is nothing more than the way we’re “designed” for growth – since the trigger is really nothing more than a signpost to something that needs to be healed in us.

Michael Brown, in his wonderful book, The Presence Process, refers to the sources of these triggers as “messengers”, whose primary function in our lives is to trigger our issues. He cautions us not to “shoot the messenger”, since they are merely the person delivering the mail, so to speak.

I’ve developed a reminder thought that I sometimes manage to remember when I’m triggered: “When I’m upset, it’s never about the other person.”

It’s interesting to me to note that pulling the more physical “trigger” results in an actual bullet being fired – so we really do “shoot the messenger” unless and until we learn how to manage our “trigger fingers”.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist, philosopher and concentration camp survivor, in his beautiful book, “Man’s search for meaning”, was one of the first contemporary philosophers to talk about the instant, the moment, after we’re triggered. When something happens “to us”, and we get triggered, we then have a choice as to how to react or respond. He posits (to clumsily summarize) that the time and space between the trigger and our response is the point at which we have power, because we are in a place of choice.

When we first start out on a spiritual path, often it will seem as if we have no choice whatsoever as to how to respond when triggered. The instant is too microscopically short for us to be able to choose. So, we lash out, usually in anger – a sort of automatic defense.

As we grow, however, and cultivate the witness within us, that witness is able to recognize that we’ve been triggered, and more and more we find ourselves able to find a little more “control” over our responses.

At this early stage of choice after a trigger, we’re able to resist or refrain from doing or saying something violent or hurtful, perhaps remembering in that moment to take a deep breath, or say a prayer, or use some other mind/body tactic that works. But that will most likely be it.
Yes, this is better than lashing out, but it doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that, in this state, most of us will shut down our hearts in a self-protective reaction.

So, this is for me the next step in this process – to discover how to keep my heart open after I’ve been triggered. Because, I’ve experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end, when my partner’s heart shuts down, and it’s palpable, and often painful. The psychic portcullis drops down, and even if the reaction is muted and civil, the wall that goes up is nonetheless studded with sharp spikes – those that were built for our protection, usually quite early in our lives.

To stay “in love” when we’re triggered – that’s the final frontier of spiritual growth.

In closing, here are three of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”


Are we making “progress”?

Progress. The word itself implies a sense of inevitability, when in fact, in the last century, its meaning applies mainly to technological or social/civic planning “advances”.

For example, the invention of plastics, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Or, the invention and widespread use of pesticides in the 1940’s. Both of these “advancements” were seen as almost wholly good at the time. It wasn’t until the birth of the environmental movement, in the early sixties, that a “dark side” to these technologies was uncovered.

Like most inventions, these technologies were invented to solve problems, or to create new markets, or both. In almost every case of a new technology introduced in the last hundred years or so, it wasn’t until much later after its introduction that its negative unintended consequences were discovered (or uncovered).

For me, progress has another meaning, as well. That is, a correction of, or replacement of a technology whose downsides and risks outweigh its benefits. And here, I’m often puzzled and disappointed as to why progress seems so slow.

Take the way we make paper, for example. We mostly plant (relatively) fast growing tree crops for harvest, a process that takes, on average, about ten years. For almost two hundred years, however, we’ve known that hemp is a more efficient crop for this purpose. Hemp grown for paper matures in 90 days, and an acre of hemp can produce 3.9 tons of paper, vs. 10 tons for an acre of trees. Please note that credible sources differ on these numbers.

But these types of remedial progress are often delayed, or almost completely blocked, by irrational attitudes, most often allied with a socio-political stance or set of beliefs. In the case of hemp, it’s the fallacious association with its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, that has given rise to its prohibition. In the 1930s, a widespread (and racist) anti-marijuana propaganda campaign was initiated largely by Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). The campaign was effective, and led to an almost hysterical anti-marijuana fervor. This meant that hemp was also considered morally suspect. This seems absurd, when looked at dispassionately, but its results are still very much with us. The cultivation of “industrial” hemp is still illegal in 36 states.

I don’t want this piece to be only about the virtues of hemp, but I’m going to continue on this track a bit further. To go back to plastics, hemp is also a good source of bio-degradable plastic. With plastic waste currently a huge problem, and with most discarded plastics having a half-life of roughly 400 to 800 years, it’s frustrating to me that this technology, this form of “progress”, is not progressing more quickly.

It’s also ironic in that hemp was in widespread use at the time of the founding of the United States. In fact, the growing of hemp at that time was considered by many of the founding fathers as a patriotic duty, so useful was the plant. As late as World War II, the government was urging farmers to grow hemp, and even produced a propaganda film at the time entitled “Hemp for Victory”.

Or, what about the generation of electricity? Until very recently, with the advent of cheaper natural gas, we were generating more than half of our electricity in the U.S. by burning coal. Then, natural gas got a lot cheaper, largely because of the larger reserves of gas available via fracking. I don’t think I need to go into the negative environmental impacts of either of these – they’re well known.

And now, solar and wind power generate electricity at a low enough cost to be competitive with natural gas. But, large sectors of the body politic, and (naturally) the coal, oil and gas industries, are doing whatever they can to shore up these industries that have proven to have negative environmental effects.

And, why is the adoption of solar and wind so slow (at least, it feels that way to me). Yes, I know that there are still some technical hurdles to surmount (such as power storage) but these problems have largely been solved.

My best guess is that a large sector of those in power are invested in the energy status quo. This is a fight that’s been going on for a long time. In the seventies, Jimmy Carter had solar hot water heaters and solar photovoltaic panels installed on the White House roof. When Reagan was elected, in 1980, one of the first things he did was to have them removed. A pretty clear message, I think, in either case. Absolutely nothing was gained by removing the panels and buying coal-produced energy – it was purely a message about priorities.

So, that all makes me wonder – why is it that those on the “conservative” right are usually the ones opposed to any environmentally protective regulations, and seemingly uninterested in renewable energy, while those on the “liberal” left tend to be more concerned about the environment, and interested in renewables?

The easy and obvious answer, with regard to conservatives, is that they believe that regulation is bad for business.

I think they also think that renewable energy is somehow allied with lefty-loosy hippie thinking, although that’s started to change. An important instance of this is Rick Perry, the ex-governor of Texas, and now Secretary of Energy, who was largely instrumental for supporting the dramatic spread of wind power in Texas. That was largely because it made economic sense.

I guess the improving economics of renewables will be the thing that will get us all in the same boat, since money is one thing we can all agree on – the bottom line is the bottom line.



Why has everyone gotten so mean?

I was just listening to a radio program on the lack of civility in public and political discourse, and it stirred up a lot of stuff in me.

It seems to me that so much of our discourse, both public and private has gotten very adversarial, and that saddens me.  I also find it scary.

It saddens me because angry, vitriolic speech is always hurtful to the receiver of that communication.  And it saddens me because it points to a lack of empathy, and therefore, a lack of compassion, in the speaker.

I find this scary, too, because I believe that all actual, physical violence (including war) has “enemy thinking” as its root. So, as thinking and speaking becomes more violent, action in the same vein is more likely to follow.

This is also a spiritual problem.  One of the most universal and fundamental tenets of most spiritual and religious traditions is the golden rule – act toward others as you would have them act toward you.  And yet, this basic and beautiful rule is so often ignored or forgotten.  That’s sad, too…

I don’t “believe” in the separation of “spirituality” and “psychology”.  In my worldview, they are simply different names for different aspects of the same universal human impetus to grow.  If the goal of that growth is to become more kind, more loving, more compassionate and more joyful, what does that say about the yelling that we find so often in the world – whether on our social media platforms, our media programs, or in our neighborhood?

So, I think that all this anger is, at root, a psychological/spiritual problem.  In A Course In Miracles, we read that “You are never upset for the reason you think”.  How I interpret that is that someone who upsets you is not only speaking to an issue that’s “on the table” now, but also triggering a response from an old, unhealed wound – mostly from our early childhood.  John Gray, in “Men, Women and Relationships” asserts that 10% of the upset we feel has to do with the present, and 90% relates to the past.  And I say, “When you’re upset, it’s never about the other person”.

That last point may seem bizarre to some.  What it means to me is that when someone “upsets you” they’re unknowingly poking a stick into an old wound.  If we were enlightened beings, and experienced someone saying (or screaming) hateful things at us, we would be able to stay calm, and centered, and simply project love and compassion at the person, realizing that, if they are acting that way, they must be in a lot of pain.  But few of us are able to manage this.

Michael Brown, in his excellent book, “The Presence Process”,  calls anyone who upsets you a “messenger”,  because they have a message for you about something in you that needs to be healed (he uses the word “integrated”).  So he cautions us not to “shoot the messenger”.

One of the biggest “light bulbs” that ever went off in my head about this issue was when I was in a workshop on Non-Violent Communication (NVC) the communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg.  In it, one of the steps in illustrating the model went, “I’m angry because I have a need for…”  That “I” was the thing that hit me.  The conventional message is, “I’m angry because you did something, or said something…” .  What a difference a pronoun makes!

Understanding the mechanism whereby people’s issues get triggered doesn’t make it any easier to take.  It also doesn’t make it any easier for me to understand why it seems to have become more acceptable, recently and currently, to say unkind or violent things to someone who upsets us – or even simply someone who has different views from us.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in summarizing Voltaire, famously wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  This speaks not only to freedom of speech, but to a respect for opinions and viewpoints differing from ours.

These days, it seems that hearing different opinions (especially political ones) mostly leads to a vitriolic, or even contemptuous response.  And, contempt is the most corrosive emotion with regard to civil, respectful discourse – whether in the private or the public orbits.

And this is not just about creating a “kinder, gentler” world, in the words of George H.W. Bush.  An adversarial, contemptuous process of communication simply doesn’t work – especially with regard to politics and governance.  Most governments consist of people with differing viewpoints, and, if we’re not able to listen to those viewpoints with a certain amount of open-mindedness and respect, it’s unlikely that negotiations around that issue will be successful. The result?  Gridlock.

This didn’t start with most conservative politicians’ intense (and often racist) dislike of President Obama.  In 1996, no fewer than 14 senators signed a letter saying that the reason they had decided to retire from the Senate was that things had become so acrimonious, and so partisan, that they didn’t think they could get anything done any more.  And that was just too frustrating.  Sadly, I think things have gotten even worse since then.

So, what’s the solution?  One of my favorite quotes from Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) is, “I can do nothing for you but work on myself…you can do nothing for me but work on yourself.”  This is the bottom line, I believe – we can’t create a kinder, gentler world until we have healed the wounds in ourselves that lead us to “spray” our anger unrestrainedly at any “messenger” who pours salt in those wounds.


Relationships Spirituality

What do you do when you’re angry?

As someone who had a “rageaholic” father, I’ve been dealing with thoughts and feelings about anger for a long time, and it really pisses me off!

Most of us “use” one of two main strategies when we’re angry – we’re repress or suppress our anger, or we release it directly at the person or thing which triggered the feeling of anger.  Reminder – suppressing is consciously “stuffing” a feeling, repressing it is something that has become so familiar and habitual that we are no longer conscious of doing it at all.

Neither of these two strategies works particularly well.  The most common, “socially acceptable” strategy is either suppression or repression.  This will have two negative effects – first it will be debilitating, both emotionally and physically, for the one experiencing the anger.  Second, it will tend to “leak” out in ways of which we are not conscious – little snide “digs” at the other person, or, more subtly, just a feeling that we project and which poisons the atmosphere.   We all feel anger coming at us, whether it’s overtly expressed or not.

Plus, anger unreleased and unexpressed becomes resentment, and to quote Carrie Fisher, “Holding resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”.  So, we poison ourselves with anger which is inwardly held.

This strategy can also lead to something a therapist friend of mine calls “gunnysacking”.  That’s where we carry a large, imaginary emotional gunnysack around with us, and into which we put every little bit of anger we experience, while showing no outward sign of it.  When the gunnysack is full, we will then use the whole thing to bludgeon the other person.  This is the source of those explosions from “out of the blue” that we sometimes experience from people.

Releasing our anger without restraint is the other common response – for example, yelling at the object of our anger, or perhaps even physically lashing out. While this is often seen as “healthier” for the person who is angry, it can be extremely unpleasant and traumatic for the recipient, and even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.  This is something I’m still dealing with, as a legacy of the many abusive exchanges I engaged in with my father when growing up.

Ever since the late sixties, there has been a movement within the psychological profession that has held that “getting the anger out” is helpful.  But more recent research has shown this not to be true.  Techniques such as deep breathing, or tensing and relaxing muscles, have been proven to be much more effective in calming angry feelings than things like primal scream therapy, or hitting a pillow.

This has always made intuitive sense to me, and now, with my study of “new thought”, it makes even more sense.  I believe that one of the metaphysical laws is “what you focus on expands”.  So, if you keep focusing on your anger, it’s going to keep expanding…

So, next time you get really angry, take several long, slow, deep breaths before doing anything else.  I’ll be breathing along with you…