2020-01-03

Telling numbers, missing stories


Almost half a billion animals have been killed in Australia’s raging wildfires with fears entire species may have been wiped out. Ecologists from the University of Sydney now estimate 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been lost since September with the figure likely to continue to soar. Devastating fires have ripped through the states of Victoria and New South Wales in the past couple of days alone,“
Zoe Drewitt wrote on Jan 2nd 2020 in an article on Metro online.
pic: Pexels, free to use

They are estimting the vertebrates only, I guess. The staggering numbers don't mean much, though, in the face of each and every death being a tragedy of its own. Imagine your pet and multiply the heartache half a billion times, coming from the Australia wildfires alone.
Add to this, among others 300 million cattle, 440 million goats, 540 million sheep, 1500 million pigs, and 45000 million chickens slaughtered every year for human consumption, which does neither include the wholesale destruction of wildlife in the name of progress, nor the victims of global warming all over the globe.

The body count you never hear about might be in the -trillions- per year.
Again, each and every one a tragedy both for the victims and for those left behind.

As we the civilized begin to understand that plants, forests, rivers and soils, as well, are conscious sentient intelligent beings we become hard-pressed to rethink our attitude towards our own place in the Universe and towards non-human life on Earth.

I'm not saying that death as such or feeding on another being were in themselves somehow inacceptable. My point here is the industrial scale on which it's happening, the exploitative manner, the huge collateral suffering and killing (such as these wildfires, or the slashing of the Amazon forests), and, worst of all, our complete indifference towards it all.

If this is the price of civilization - and indeed it is - then it needs to be taken down and abolished forever.

2019-12-21

Who killed the Egyptian pyramids?

Tesla is the name of a band whose music tens of thousands of hardrock fans love to dance to since the eighties... Really? Well, it's true, but I'm joking of course. The Californian band is just one out of many groups of people, most of them companies, which adopted the name of the famous engineer who, among other things, invented the Tesla coil, the Tesla turbine, the remote control and an AC induction motor. Nikola Tesla (1856-1843) supposedly built some kind of electrical car which could have revolutionized transportation from the early 1930s on had it been produced at industrial scale. But it hasn't, since the concept was stolen and hidden by one or the other powerful corporation, various conspiracy theories purport.

Two years before Musk's introduction of today's most famous electric car brand in 2008 – guess what, it's named after the engineer – Chris Paine directed the sensationalist flick “Who Killed the Electric Car?” This might have been a sneaky marketing trick, or there might be some truth to Nikola Tesla's ingenuity – after all he was an engineer, a word derived from genius – which supposedly produced wireless energy transmission, zero-point modules, and in 1931 an electric car which ran without batteries. Whether it is true or not is beside the point for our discussion here. The fact is that he might as well have, and another fact is that we just don't know.

Through the death of an inventive person we lose all of his or her knowledge that has not been expressed in text, formulae, or artifacts, as well as all of his or her potential for further inventions. Whether destroyed by powerful interests or lost through biological termination, the year 1943 effectively saw the disappearance of a number of technologies. 
Who killed the pyramids? (pic by Gregory Rogers, Pexels)
In the same way, we may assume, the death of a civilization brings about the loss of much of its practical techniques and technological knowledge. Not only may we assume it, we know it for a fact. History is indeed replete with examples thereof, some of which I will mention a few paragraphs on. Most of the times it happened unintentionally. Some of the times people chose to 'forget' the kind of knowledge they would rather not apply. As much as the latter concept seems foreign to the members of our culture it is a sane reaction to thoughts that may easily disrupt a community or a society. The Pirahã, a tribe of the Amazon basin, have been taught a number of concepts over the centuries, yet they keep forgetting the significance of Jesus' crucifixion or European ways of building a boat, for instance. The Inquisition, as an example from our own culture, put millions of alleged heretics to trial, killing tens of thousands of herbwives as witches in the process. Both the spiritual understanding of druids and mystics and the intuitive and practical knowledge of healers were threatening the Christian order of the time; thus they have been extinguished where they were found. The eradication of knowledge was thorough and would have led to the complete loss of techniques, had they been of the engineered kind. To our great advantage mysticism and intuition are kinds of ingenuity which, given a chance, return again and again as they are immutably part of our humanity.

Much of our technological knowledge today, though, is of a completely different kind – the kind I would call inhumane, alienating, and destructive. Sitting at a laptop right now, on the one hand I almost break my fingers over typing the things I'm going to tell you now; on the other hand I need to work with what I have, and I am not someone who believes that the master's house cannot be dismantled using the master's tools. The core idea I would transmit by way of this article is that both our survival and the wish for a humans-appropriate life requires us to throw away – forget – most of the scientific knowledge, professional techniques and engineered technologies in use today. Civilization critic Jerry Mander, for example, makes the case against computers, saying,
Most people, even those who see the relationship between computers and increased destructive potential, consider the computers themselves to be harmless. Value free. Neutral. "People invent the machines," is the common wisdom. "People program them, people push the buttons."
And yet, it is a simple fact that if there were no computers, the process of engaging in war would be much more drawn out, with a lot more time for human beings to change their minds or seek alternatives. It is only because computers do exist that a virtually automatic, instant worldwide war, involving total annihilation, even enters the realm of possibility. So, can we say that computers are to blame?
It is also a fact that if computers somehow totally disappeared, the world would be instantly safer. Even if atom bombs continued to exist, they would no longer have effective delivery systems. Pakistan could still drop an atomic bomb on India, but the presently envisioned, all-out nuclear war, which quite possibly could extinguish the human species, would be impossible.
I know that this is a difficult position to accept. Critics call it throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because computers are integral to modern systems of nuclear annihilation, does that mean we must rid ourselves of computers? I am not sure, but I think so. This society upholds a fierce technological idealism. We believe we can get the best from a given technology without falling into worst-case scenarios of the sort described above. We maintain this idealism despite the fact that we have no evidence of technology ever being used at an optimal level, or even being sensibly controlled. – Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, (Sierra pbk ed. 1992) p.73f
Considering that computerized data processing and electronic memory storage has become so cheap and ubiquitous, is the forgetting of computer technology even possible? It sounds paradoxical somehow, yet all it takes is a collapse of the global trade network, and all that takes might be a major currency crisis, a spike in oil prices, economic upheaval in Western countries, or widespread revolts of the Arab Spring or the Yellow-Vests kind shutting down neuralgic points of the world economy. Global industrial civilization is an intricate system the complexity of which makes it prone to collapse from any of the numerous possible impulses. It's not like this was outside near-term probability, as anyone who has followed world news recently must acknowledge. It is also not like this had never happened before.

Think of tribal medicine, or indigenous survival skills, or shamanic ways of knowing the future, all of which have been completely forgotten once civilizations had killed those tribes off or absorbed them. The same happened to Celtic druids in the early Middle ages, and yet again to the herb-wives a.k.a. witches of the late Middle ages and the Renaissance. It happened to the astrological, construction and transportation knowledge of the architects of Stonehenge, and again, thousands of years later, to similar knowledge on Rapa Nui with its Moai. What of the forgotten knowledge of Inka airtight stone setting, or, as one of the most famous mysteries of all times, how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza? We don't know for sure how old those are and what they were originally for. One man's grave, that's laughable. We are not quite sure what the Greeks built the Antiklythera machine for; astronomy? Possible, but the know-how definitely got lost for the next couple of millennia shortly thereafter. With the collapse of the Roman empire its knowledge of road construction, aqueducts, high-rises, war machines and other items got lost during the so-called 'Dark Ages,' to be rediscovered only one thousand years later. Many skills known from the Middle ages till the 19th century, ranging from the area of raftsmanship to tawery to rope making to vessel mending to hand-weaving are unknown to similar professions today. Heck, we're about to forget how the steam engine and the Stirling motor are working. 280 years after Stradivari's death (1737) there is still research and experimentation going on, in an attempt to reproduce the unique sound of his violins, and technologies the Apollo program was running on have been lost due to negligent handling of data.
Who killed the Antikythera mechanism? (pic wikimedia user Juanxi, cc by-sa 3.0)
Who killed the pyramids? Who killed the Antiklythera mechanism? Who killed the Apollo program, the aqueduct, grandma's cookery, or Megalithic construction techniques? The answer in most cases is “nobody in particular;” It was merely the death of a person or a culture. In some cases, though, like with the witches' herbal medicine, the knowledge in question was simply too inconvenient, its ramifications too disturbing to allow its continued existence, and it was often our own culture which chose to make it forgotten. The oft-heard sayings that the march of progress couldn't be stopped and that the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle once it's out – they are lame excuses for a mental laziness and, worse than that, a lack of willingness to take responsibility for one's actions. The obvious and appropriate conclusion from researching into atomic energy would have been to abandon this direction of research altogether. As members of our culture have chosen – fully in compliance with its overall notion – to continue on their path to complete annihilation of all human cultures, extinct they will go. Given business-as-usual, and given our unwillingness to change we are doomed to fail. You can read the signs of disaster written all over our geo-biological, social, scientific, or economic systems already. Technology will eat itself, and society as well.

Future forgetting due to societal collapse would encompass the loss of industrial extraction and production methods, mass communication, nuclear power, high speed transportation, deep sea diving, space travel, plastics production, genetic engineering, bio-weaponry, micro and nano tech, computers and other electronic devices. As these technologies require resources from around the world, and as the global transportation system requires some of these high technologies for functioning, the industrial economy is unlikely to ever reboot once it got cracked. Its digital data storages will be lost, its analogous (paper) storages – the few libraries which may survive the immediate collapse – would soon disintegrate from the onslaught of water, mold, fire, theft, and vandalism. The biggest, most valuable book magazines would become least useful while most prone to destruction because its contents have been shelved in mechanical ways, accession by accession. With their electronic catalogues out of order they are, practically spoken, monstrous piles of millions of books in no accessible order whatsoever. As professionals die, professors forget, gears break, and spare parts rot or get lost our whole culture eventually goes to hell in a festival of human suffering. Does it have to end this way? Yes, perhaps.
Who killed grandma's recipes? (pic public domain)
Historically seen, technologies and techniques die out some of the times; some of the times they are getting killed before they can cause damage. We did it before; we could do it again. In principle we have that choice, yet systemic obstacles built into the worldview upon which our machine culture rests make it seem unlikely that we actually will. Jerry Mander points out that we ought to have a closer look at our technical systems anyway, to re-evaluate them from a holistic perspective, and that we ought to chuck out those which are found incompatible with Earth's sustainability and diversity. He goes on to say that
“There is no denying that all of this amounts to considerable adjustment, but it's not as if there were much choice. Truly, such change is inevitable if sanity and sustainability are to prevail. To call this adjustment "going back" is to conceive of it in fearful, negative terms, when the changes are actually desirable and good. In fact, it is not really going back; it is merely getting back on track, as it were, after a short unhappy diversion into fantasy. It is going forward to a renewed relationship with timeless values and principles that have been kept alive for Western society by the very people we have tried to destroy.
As for whether it is "romantic" to make such a case, I can only say that the charge is putting the case backwards. What is romantic is to believe that technological evolution will ever live up to its own advertising, or that technology itself can liberate us from the problems it has created. So far, the only people who, as a group, are clear-minded on this point are the native peoples, simply because they have kept alive their roots in an older, alternative, nature-based philosophy that has proven effective for tens of thousands of years, and that has nurtured dimensions of knowledge and perception that have become opaque to us. It is the native societies, not our own, that hold the key to future survival.” – Mander, p.384

2019-12-11

Extinction Medallion (1st class), or, Ready for the Reaping


Seventy-five years after the end of WW2, Germans today are so afraid of the return of Adolf Hitler that they rather evaporate in a nuclear holocaust than be seen marching for peace side by side with a purported right-winger. They overlook, though, that fascist leaders, in the guise of democrats, are already standing at the helm of a system more inhumane, violent, oppressive and deadly than any other before them, be it Ivan the Terrible, Ghengis Khan, Attila the Hun, Pol Pot, or said individual whose deeds are so easy to hate and decry in our times, when you virtually risk zilch by speaking up against them.

"The meaning of the Hitler salute"
Political correctness actually requires you to speak up against them lest you want to be called an anti-semitic tinfoil-hat nazi conspiracy-theorist. No relativization (ie. putting sth into relation) allowed whatsoever. Platform tickets obviously still sell like hot cakes when Germans wish to have a revolution in the train station; and so it has been from the early 1800s on through 1848/49, 1918/19, and 1989/90 til the present day, when civil disobedience starts with seeking permission for a demonstration from the authorities. And when they march for environmental protection, as seen recently at the XR/FFF climate strike in Berlin, carrying a hammer-and-sickle flag – for lack of imagination of real alternatives to capitalism – bloviating about capital and class struggle and expropriation, they couldn’t care less that communism disregards the non-human world just as much.

And the olive-Green Party? It’s the party that, in 1999, sent German soliders into their first war since WW2, in violation of the UN charter, and under the pretense of (contrived) Serbian “concentration camps” in the Kosovo. It’s the party that would love to see us back at war with ‘evil’ Russia, that has forgotten about its demands for leaving NATO, and that supports nuclear power plants. And we really, really love to vote for them because they make sure we’ll continue to segregate our constantly increasing household waste while the right of big industry to pollute unimpededly til Kingdom Come is never questioned (for fear of losing jobs).

Wouldn’t it be nice if we got born with a hunchback already, so we may serve our democratically chosen oppressors more obediently?

2019-11-07

Karuppaa, ingge vaa!

As the event slowly but unstoppably unfolded – his life shifting from one state to another – these words from a song about a drug addict began to invade my thoughts; at first just a line or two. The further time proceeded the more the verse completed and the more often – and more urgently – it pushed itself to the foreground. In my life, like you probably did as well, I have heard devastating songs about losing someone, and I have read wise books about facing ultimate loss. None of those was present in my mind. It had to be this one; please don’t ask me why.
And can you hear me now
Or are there just too many doors
Between then and now
For me to ever reach on through
And pull you back somehow
But that can't happen anymore
Still in the night
I think I hear you calling
Can you hear me now, Savatage, 1991
But let’s start at the start.
It was Christmas, 2018, early morning. Hasini, the oldest daughter of our matriarch Zicke, gave birth to the first kid in the third generation of our goat herd. Before anyone could rush to her support the kid lay there on the ground of the pen, by the side of his bewildered mother. She obviously wasn’t her usual self though, not the self-confident member of a herd who has always been the first to point out to us that one of her mates was in need of something. She wouldn’t look at the kid, she wouldn’t lick it clean like most mammalian mothers use to do immediately after birth, and she certainly wouldn’t suckle the boy. We needed to hold her fast; she would withhold her milk anyway. Soon enough we had to supplement with cow milk. And thus began the little fellow’s early discovery of the world beyond the pen’s limits, the land of milk and cuddling and safety from getting puffed by other goats which his mom would not protect him from. Humans became his foster parents who named him Karuppaa, based on the Tamil word for ‘black’. Apart from his reddish black hair his signature features were his slightly prolonged upper jaw and a distinct way of bleating that sounded something like “mmma!” Yes, it ended on an audible exclamation mark which indicated that he was addressing us with a request, and it would sound rather like “mmaa?” when he was inquiring our whereabouts. A typical dialogue ran like this:

Karuppaa (searching): Mmaa?”
Me: “Karuppaa, ingge vaa!” (Tamil: come here).
Karuppaa (closing in): “Mmaa?”
Me (teasing): “Wo isch dr Bua?” (Swabian: Where is my boy?)
Karuppaa: “Mmma!”
Me: Ah, do isch dr Bua!” (Swabian: There’s my boy!)
Karuppaa (demanding): “Mmma!”
So I offered him food and stroked him.


Hasini, bewildered
Karuppaa was all over the place. He roamed the farm like a dog; like a dog he used to sniff out the places where we lived or worked; such a delight. When we collected and cleaned the harvest from our farm Karuppaa would inspect the items with great interest; then he would nibble on some of them, preferably those which we had cleaned and bundled already. When he roamed the fields himself he went for the grasses and herbs. He rarely touched the crops.

Ten months passed, time that usually indicates that a young one survived the most vulnerable time in a goat’s life, so I wasn’t prepared for an existential crisis setting in. From previous losses we knew that younger kids may die from that condition which brings about progressing weakness and belly aches. We believed that Karuppaa was strong enough to make it through anyway. We were worried, though. Experience taught us that veterinaries wouldn’t visit for a goat, and when they eventually do they don’t ask much for details as long as they may sell their overprized drugs. As we still didn’t know what the matter was we tried various home remedies some of which Karuppaa liked while he was protesting others. Nevertheless his health deteriorated further. When he could hardly stand up anymore we called a vet who, to our surprise, immediately agreed to pass by – though it would take him another day.

He was all over the place
I spent that night, like the night before, mostly in the goat pen, to help Karuppaa getting up, for stretching his legs, peeing, eating and drinking, and to prevent the others from pushing him over. His friends Leela, Karuppi (a bluish-black doe) and Jackie huddled with him, keeping him warm. Tintin, Shakti, Hasini and Niko joined in now and then. Midnight passed, Divali began, the Indian festival of lights. I thought he’d die before the doc could see him. “Happy Divali, Karuppaa!”, I said anyway, wishing him well while counting down the hours till his last hope for a cure was supposed to arrive. Being late by yet another three hours the vet administered four injections (one to each leg), two bitter tablets, and some tasty neon-coloured energy drink, all of which seemed to stabilize the kid somehow and caused him to relieve himself of a whole lot of crap that had caused him visible discomfort. I dare say I had high hopes for a recovery. For closer observation I took him to my home where he rested, tucked between a yoga mat and some warming shirts. Karuppaa craved that energy drink which I continued to offer him hourly, as prescribed by the good doctor. He sucked noisily on the syringe’s nozzle. Then, around seven, when the night had fully broken, things got worse quickly. The cramps returned as viciously as never before.

in the land of milk & cuddling
I put another mat, sitting myself by his side, talking to him, holding his belly and keeping it warm. That seemed to relax him a bit.
Attempts at getting some sleep were interrupted by moaning. When Divali ended the both of us were awake and we would stay so, perhaps each of us sensing that we were spending our last hours together. When around three o’clock his limbs went cold I knew he was on the slippery slope now from which there would be no return. Intermittent rain set in, hammering on the tin roof of my home, drowning out his signs of life. Would I notice when his breath stopped? Is it as comforting to pass away to the sound of rain as it is when going to sleep? When the rain subsided the call of the muezzin from a neighboring village came through. I listened for his heartbeat. It was now inaudible, only his flat breath was noticeable, and the belly pain weakly responded to by cramps. Tears swelled from his eyes. His last minutes were ticking away.

Karuppaa,” I cooed one last time, “wo isch dr Bua?” He replied in his usual way, crowing faintly Mmma” in response to my call. I would have loved to see him recover and mature, but this was now beyond possible. He needed to move on, and I had to let him go. Resisting the urge to hoot the usual 'ingge vaa', I said, with a breaking heart, the words instead which I never spoke to him before: “Angge po,” go there, to the ancestors and the friends who are no longer with us. “Send them my greetings and tell them I still love them and think of them.” I opened the door and curtains of my room, letting him take in the beautiful scene of the dawn rising upon our farm. Grey sky and lush vegetation reflected from the puddles the rain had created everywhere. Silently he passed away with open eyes, around the time when I usually came to see him in the goats' pen. It was Monday, October, 28th 2019, 5.55am.
Karuppaa...”
I cried.


inspecting items
Karuppaa has taught me how to love, so I may have been too attached to his survival to not call the doctor. I fell for the hope that doing the doable might save his life. After all, if I hadn’t done it I would have killed him by omission, right? But what if the treatment only extended his suffering, or worse: did the actual killing? After all, allopathic doctors know everything about the signs of sickness, yet nothing about healing. They misunderstand the essence of life in the same way that most everyone in our culture misunderstands the nature of death.

What is life? What is death? I don't know. The immensity of death brings with it doubts and questions amass. All I know is that life and death are not what I thought they were, not the concepts I carried in my mind, about discrete states of existence, about being switched on or off, about individual consciousness encapsulated in separate bodies. What makes a goat a goat? What is a human being? Who is that Me that claims to own thoughts, emotions, body, and things? What is time? We tell ourselves stories that attempt to answer these questions; this is the stuff of mythology.

Every culture has its own mythology. Ours is called science – the set of myths that tell tales about separate material objects which get pushed about by meaningless forces within an unconcerned universe. I have lived this story for four decades straight, and it has killed all the life that has been in me when my mother gave birth. I was emotionally dead, save for a burning anger that increasingly shifted its modus operandi from occasional outbursts to permanent battle with depression, and I felt nothing apart from the pain of being in this Dawkins dog-eat-dog world of materialist meaninglessness.

what is life?
It is thanks to the animals on our farm – among them being Karuppaa – that I learned to notice the space in-between, the realm of relationship, of meaning, purpose, spirit, joy, love, sacredness and other immaterial yet essential ingredients of existence. I began to explore that space, a space of multi-layered reality in which “me”, “my life” and “death” are basically stories, concepts, mental constructs. Except for on the level of thoughts and emotions they have no discrete existence. The reason for our not understanding the “unjustifiable violation” (Tolkien) of our freedom and integrity by death, our not getting the essence of what life and death are, lies in the dysfunctional concepts by which we use to define them. The ceasing of metabolic activities and the disintegration of the body, i.e. the things that separate the living from the dead, catches our eye; a whole lot of continuing phenomena don’t. While we overrate the significance of the individual object, life – the space between objects – is seemlessly carrying on.

The world is not populated by lonely, autonomous, sovereign beings. It is made of a constantly oscillating web of dynamic interaction in which beings mutually transform each other. It’s the relationship that counts, not the substance. Andreas Weber: Lebendigkeit. Eine erotische Ökologie. Koesel, 2014, 3. Aufl., p. 36; translation mine

Other cultures have less trouble integrating death into their lives. This is perhaps due to the fact that, for them, things are not lifeless masses in the first place. For many of them mountains and trees are people too. When we listen to cosmic radiation for signs of civilizations, or when we have robots dig up Mars in search of extraterrestrials our failure to find any is perhaps related to our culture’s inability to see the conscious aliveness in plants and animals, in landscapes and ecosystems, or in the Earth as a whole.

impermanent beauty
I’m not sure about it yet but I think it highly possible that the difference between that which is alive and that which is not is merely conceptual. Let me give an example.
What is a symphony? Is it the sheet music? The sound waves? Our perception of those sound waves? The process of making music or, in its place, the playing of a record? All of these? None of them? Is the music ‘dead’ after the last note has faded? Does it resurge when it plays in our mind, as a memory?
In the same way, who is “Karuppaa”? Did he have an existence completely apart from mine? Or did I define him as much as he defined me when we co-created, shaped and inhabited the space in-between? What does it mean for his existence when I think of him today?

I find it likely that life, just like music, consists of stories that we fabricate to make sense of the phenomena we perceive. They don’t have to be anything else but digestible explanations on how the world works, so that we can function within it. There are places where those stories break down, usually in the extremes of infinity and nothingness – which is especially true for mathematics, one of the core sciences – but as long as we don’t go there we’re safe from the Unknown. Problem is, our mythology has reached its limits; as the world around us now rapidly disintegrates we begin to understand that our rationalistic worldview ignores too much of reality for us to live sustainably.

The conventional models of human response are based on the civilized world and, yes, there are common strands in all cultures but, for instance, when a death occurs in a tribal culture that has, like all animals, accepted death as part of life then denial is not part of the equation. Neither is bargaining – for how can you bargain with the inevitable? When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross posited her model for bereavement, it was always going to a be a model for how the civilized human deals with death; it took no account of the way all humans deal with death, for not only are we all slightly different in our approach to everything – not just bereavement – we, as de facto civilized humans, are freaks. Homo sapiens civilis never evolved. Civilized humans have been created in the image of the machine: we don’t behave as normal human beings any more. Keith Farnish: Underminers. A practical guide for radical change, 2012, p.92

I swear I hear you calling
When it comes to encounters with the “end of life” I don’t deny, rage, bargain, or despair any longer. Death is a natural and therefore acceptable part of my existence. And yet the pain from seeing someone suffering or losing him or her is tremendous. Is the immensity of the phenomenon we call “death” really only of cultural nature? Maybe not alone, but certainly to a degree. Life as such is normally not perceived as immense or intense; it is ordinary to us because we became used to it by having lived uninterruptedly for years. (It speaks volumes that people who came back from a coma, had a near-death experience, or “died” to their old way of perceiving the world see things in a different light.) Death, though, breaks this normalcy; to our great horror we have no power over it. Our usual mode by which we analyze, label, rationalize, manipulate, control and wage war on “problematic” situations fails us. Our linear (rather than cyclical, or eternally present) conception of time – flowing unidirectionally from a definite beginning to a definite ending – cripples us further; linear time perhaps produces the misconception of the life-death dichotomy in the first place, and with it our impotence to handle it in a meaningful way.

Impotence creates despair, which leads to denial, which leads to acceptance, the most dangerous state of all. In the civilized world the Kübler-Ross model of bereavement is powerfully analogous to how we deal with all sorts of stressful events. The way to break out of it is not to grieve for what may be lost, but to leave this linear pathway and create something that has numerous outcomes.(Underminers, p.479)

Teacher
I would agree to that last sentence only after one slight change: “the way to break out of it is not to grieve indefinitely for what may be lost” but to re-enter the circle of life, transform grief back into love, and use this energy for fostering life. For strong grief comes from great love, and love is the most powerful driver of all when it comes to living one’s life.

Love is the agony of living. And the modern addiction to painlessness makes love impossible, makes it flatten so much that life merely trickles away. Reimer Gronemeyer: Die Weisheit der Alten, p.68; translation mine.

The shift from the linear to the circular paradigm, from the fear-based to the love-based worldview is not easy for me. Decades of civilized socialization – otherwise known as domestication – created all kinds of traps and obstacles to get stuck in. So please forgive me for asking more questions than offering solutions. I’m also not keen on publishing obituaries though there were ample opportunities to write them. There is the danger of getting attached not only to the past, but to this one written version of the past especially. There is also the danger of building Tadj Mahals for the dead while the living, neglected, dwell in shacks. I love all the animals on the farm, and I accompanied the dying of a few of them, similar to how a hospice worker would. But Karuppaa was a special friend, someone who would not let me escape without deep inquiry into suffering, his and mine. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, you know.


Grey sky and lush vegetation reflected from the puddles

2019-09-30

Ivan Illich and the end of transportation as we know it


The computer solves the problems we didn’t have without it, they say – not to mention a growing number of problems it created, like the surveillance state, cyber addiction, and the possibility of fully-automated warfare, to which there is no solution other than abandoning the use of electronic processing.
Similarly, high-speed transportation saves us time on trips we wouldn’t have taken before the advent of the respective transportation technology, says Austrian social philosopher Ivan Illich in his book Energy & Equity (1974).

This became especially apparent around 1900 when the mileage of passengers had increased by a factor of one hundred within just fifty years after the introduction of railroads. People picked up business at greater and greater distances, to the disadvantage of the places they lived. Beyond a certain average amount of energy per capita put into transportation, means of moving shift from metabolic energy driven to mineral fuels driven locomotion. Next thing we know is, we abandon our innate freedom of moving on our own feet, to any place and in any direction that is not legally of physically barred, in exchange for pre-fabricated routes, to approved destinations and at a price.
From the moment its machines could put more than a certain horsepower behind any one passenger, this industry has reduced equality among men, restricted their mobility to a system of industrially defined routes and created time scarcity of unprecedented severity. As the speed of their vehicles crosses the threshold, citizens become transportation consumers. – Ivan Illich, Energy & Equity, p29
As with other factors of society – wealth, power, privilege – the results of industrialization of traffic are not shared equally among its participants:
Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip further and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips. (p29)
Ivan Illich, by Wikimedia user Adrift Animal (cc 4.0 intl)
People in industrialized countries spend four to seven times more time “on the road” than their fellow men in more traditional cultures. They travel up to one hundred times longer distances per day, using up to one third of their income for commuting to the job that pays their trips to the job. The product of the transportation industry, Illich says, is the habitual passenger, a person uprooted from her place of origin. She is rushed in a closed cabin behind the windows of which untouchable landscapes pass by. Her time is scarce, her feeling of autonomy low, and life without means of transportation provided by remote powers such as governments, automobile industry and railroad services, has become unthinkable to her. Without external help she feels immobilized.
The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To ‘gather’ for him means to be brought together by vehicles […] He takes freedom of movement to be the same as one’s claim on propulsion […] As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by the media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it. (p37f)
Could it get any worse? Yes it can. From Illich’s view, the whole setup is foolishly self-defeating because not only does this set of living arrangements affect the individual, eating away on her freedom, leisure, connectedness, and wealth, it also widens the gap between privileged and burdened members of society continuously, thus putting tremendous stress on the integrity of society as a whole.

Beyond a certain threshold, further energy input makes a society’s compounded time expenditure on transportation rise significantly. In other words, speed increases for those who can pay for it while everyone else spends more time inbetween places.
In Germany, for instance, more than 16% of mostly rural railroad lines have been closed since the inception of the first inter-city express connections (ICE) in 1991, the rate of train delays rose, and people spend more time waiting for connecting trains due to a thinned out railway schedule.
Within cities, inequity leads to visibly slower traffic on average. Illich compared Bombay in the early seventies (where the very few cars already began to impair the flow of pedestrians and bicycles) with Western megacities like Paris, London, or New York. He found that the rate of locomotion in India was superior to that in fully industrialized countries.
Beyond a critical speed [around 25 mph], no one can save time without forcing another to lose it. The man who claims a seat in a faster vehicle insists that his time is worth more than that of the passenger in a slower one. Beyond a certain velocity, passengers become consumers of other people’s time, and accelerating vehicles becomes the means for effecting a net transfer of life-time. The degree of transfer is measured in quanta of speed. This time-grab despoils those who are left behind, and since they are the majority, it raises ethical issues of a more general nature than kidney dialysis or organ transplants. (p42)
So growing energy comes at the expense of equity – a mechanism that should ring alarm bells with anyone concerned about people’s participation in decision-making. If ecologists are right to assert that non-metabolic power creates pollution, it is also true that it corrupts the citizens, processes and institutions of society. 
 
Looking back at fourty-five years of ‘progress’ since Illich’s essay the brilliance of his analysis has not faded in the face of ‘new’ – more-of-the-same – developments. If anything, the manifestations of high-speed transportation have become more pointed in the places I have visited in my lifetime, be it in the United States, the European Union, Japan, or in India. Speaking up at the time of the Oil Crisis of the early-seventies when OPEC’s policies wreaked havoc on the transportation-intense – or should I say, transportation-addicted – economies of the West Illich took traffic as an example for pinpointing how the dominant culture phrases its problems in all the wrong terms. There is no “energy crisis”, he said, just a crisis of ever-increasing demand, and that’s as true today as it was back then. Instead of replacing fossil fuels (as the promise went, and still goes), so-called alternative energy sources help with covering the still-increasing demand for more, topping up the stagnating fossil fuels. The price both humans and the community of life must pay for our trips – habitat destruction, pollution, breakdown of social cohesion, human alienation from landbase, waste of lifetime on commuting etc pp – has accumulated to the point where civilization stands at the brink of collapse while a sixth mass extinction begins to denude the Earth of species diversity. Therefore it is only logical of Extinction Rebellion to seriously consider cuts on transportation. 
 
From understanding how addicted most of us seem to speedy transportation we can just as easily understand why both the current establishment and most of the citizenry alike resist the idea that aviation, private automobiles, container and cruise ships get restricted for the sake of life on Earth. Given the choice between death and unemployment, they opt for their sources of income.
The cure that Illich saw lies in the limitation of energy use. Speaking of traffic he meant lowering the maximum speed of vehicles to around 15 mph, which implicitly translates into less distance covered per day, closer-knit communities rather than urban sprawls, fewer roads with less space and materials used etc.
High speed is the critical factor which makes transportation socially destructive. A true choice among political systems and of desirable social relations is possible only where speed is restrained. Participatory democracy demands low energy technology, and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle. (p23f)



Post scriptum
Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a philosopher and catholic theologian.
I have first come across Illich’s work ten years ago when I happened to see a funny yet disquieting clip quoting from his book Deschooling Society. While he did not question civilization as such his revolutionary ponderings certainly deposited explosives close to its foundations. Unsurprisingly enough his name has almost vanished from public awareness. His findings, though, stood the test of time, so far, and his written legacy found its way into libraries all over the world. Many of his manuscripts and notes have been collected in the Illich Archive in Wiesbaden, co-founded and co-maintained by professors Reimer and Marianne Gronemeyer who base their work on Illich’s philosopy. In upholding the origial spirit, they apply those teachings to our times.

2019-09-07

Forest planet


Millions of trees, billions of trees, trillions of trees to be planted. This is what recent headlines ask of governments. After nuke plants built to replace coal power, after desert ecologies falling victim to solar panels, river valleys drowning in catchment lakes and hill tops getting plastered with windmills, now it's savannas becoming destroyed by artificial forests – all in the name of the CO2 narrative.

What's wrong with renewables and carbon sequestration? Nothing with those things as such. The problem lies with the notion of man-the-engineer, man-the-saviour, man-molding-the-future-of-planet-Earth. Man who is God; an idiot god which is afraid to die, that is. We're obsessed with numbers, with mass, and we tend to forget the space inbetween, the relationships, the immaterial matters; such as the longing of living beings to build their own community.

Not lonely, autonomous, sovereign beings populate the world. Rather, it consists of a constantly oscillating web of dynamic interactions in which one is transformed by the other. The relationship counts, not the substance.

[Andreas Weber: Matter and Desire. An Erotic Ecology]

Every ecosystem has its own value. Rather than a system it is a community of beings organizing themselves in a way that works for them and for the world. So even when we attempt restoration of wetlands or forests we need to honour these beings' better knowledge in bringing their place back to life. Even with the best of intentions behind our attempts to help, we think too often in economic terms. The lumber friendly arboricultures of central Europe, for example, are not forests; they are impoverished monocultural deserts ridden with bark beetles and troubled by Waldsterben 2.0 . In Lusatia, on the other hand, a region in Germany heavily reshaped by lignite strip mining, nature is quickly and steadily recovering all on its own. A succession of plants and animals reconquers the moonscape shaped by giant excavators. We've also heard of Pripyat's growing forest ecologies, wild boars conquering Fukushima, or the revival of coastal waters after the trawlers have left the scene.

Photo by Lou Levit on Unsplash
Humankind has got a role in restoring a balance that resembles the Holocene, preventing the planet from slipping into a new hothouse Earth. We better not try to decide what is best for the planet, though. We got enough to do with removing dams and fences and heavy weaponry and chemical factories and nuclear power plants, with turning industrial agriculture into permaculture gardens, with breaking down our lifeless societies into living communities, and – first and foremost – with challenging and changing our unquestioned assumptions on how the world works and what our role in the Universe is.

Some of us may plant trees in places where there once have been forests. Some of us may plant sea grass where there have been meadows before. Some of us may reintroduce locally extinct species or restore swamps and wetlands and savannas. But in my humble opinion, all of this would happen in homoeopathic doses, guided by local savants of ecology, and in an unobtrusive manner.

2019-08-20

In proximity with a neurosis


S. Freud & C. G. Jung 1909 (pd)

"Freud considers a neurosis to be a substitute for a direct means of gratification. For him it is something inauthentic--a mistake, a subterfuge, an excuse, a refusal to face facts; in short, something essentially negative that should never have been. One hardly dares to put in a good word for a neurosis, since it is apparently nothing but a meaningless and therefore irritating disturbance. By treating a work of art as something that can be analyzed in terms of the artist's repressions we bring it into questionable proximity with a neurosis, where, in a sense, it finds itself in good company, for the Freudian method treats religion and philosophy in the same way."  ~~ C.G. Jung – The Spirit of Man, Art, and Literature

In the case of arts I rather tend to be with Freud than with Jung (who usually talks greater wisdom) and I'd say that arts, religion, and philosophy (like science, politics writing, and a ...hrm... few other things) belong into the realm of civilized neuroses and psychoses. Ridiculous, isn't it, when we have the common image of a nutcase in mind, a person that we cannot identify with, especially as an artist. We don't feel sick.

But I don't mean to say that artists were just loonies or that I weren't affected and couldn't create arts myself, or that pieces of art can't be beautiful. I just begin to let go of the idea that mental disturbances were "something essentially negative that should never have been." To me, they rather represent a healthy reaction of the mind to an overwhelming challenge, and that overwhelming challenge is civilization. As you may have guessed already I hold that a percentage in the high nineties among us is mentally disturbed by the dominant culture; the more so the more actively a person believes in separation.
From this point of view, regarding any issue or topic, I ask the question, Does this exist among wild peoples, does it exist with animals, does it exist anywhere else? And if so, how does it manifest? What could be the underlying notion there?

Kali mata (N Dhar, Pexels licence)
Interestingly enough, prehistoric artifacts, cave paintings, and tribal totems often find themselves depticted in tomes about 'primitive arts' but that's a complete misrepresentation of what they are to their (physical) creators, I believe. They are not even 'sacred objects' (Wikipedia), and they don't represent the Sacred; they are sacred subjects – beings in their own right. So art is not involved here. The 'artist' neither depicts reality, nor does she interpret it her way, nor does she express herself. The Sacred is expressing through her. To some degree we find this even in modern times, where the sculpture of a Hindu goddess – say, Kali – becomes the goddess herself at the moment when the sculptor finishes his work. The sculpture is Kali in person, neither a piece of art, nor a representation of the goddess, nor a ritual object. That's why she doesn't bear the name of the sculptor on her back.

Compare this to what arts have historically been or what they mean to us today, and what the driving motivations for creating art were/are.
Again, this is not to diminish the artist's perception, creativity and craftsmanship, or to deny artistic beauty, but to put it into another perspective. Arts, despite modern individualistic views, isn't merely personal, it has a collective dimension. And the collective is... impaired.


2019-08-12

Lt. Doolittle strikes again


Those who harbour a knack for science fiction books and films might have enjoyed John Carpenter's Dark Star, a grade-B comedy on the crew of a cosmic ice breaker removing unstable planets across the galaxy to blaze a safe trail for future colonists. One day, after twenty years of deterioration, the ship has a serious malfunction: one of the intelligent planet busters gets stuck in its brackets, threatening to blow up right at the side of the ship.

Due to the damage to the ship's computer, the crew members cannot activate the release mechanism and attempt to abort the drop. After two prior accidental deployments, Bomb #20 refuses to disarm or abort the countdown sequence. The computer activates dampers to confine the blast to a diameter of one mile, but that is all it can do at the moment. As Pinback and Boiler try to talk the bomb out of blowing up underneath the ship, Doolittle revives Commander Powell, who advises him to teach the bomb the rudiments of phenomenology. After donning a space suit and exiting the ship to approach the bomb directly, Doolittle engages in a philosophical conversation with Bomb #20 until it decides to abort its countdown and retreat to the bomb bay for further contemplation. [Wikipedia: Dark Star]
Bomb #20 & Lt. Doolittle, scene from John Carpenter's 'Dark Star'
Doolittle's conversation with the bomb counts among the funniest moments in science fiction. The lieutenant attempts to convince Bomb #20 that it cannot know for sure that it has received a real detonation order, as that order has arrived by way of electrical impulses only – mediated. Without immediate knowledge of the outside world there is a significant probability the impulses have transmitted false data. Would the bomb shed its existence, once and forever, based on a – perhaps false – perception?

Dark Star has amused me ten years ago; it has me chuckling even today, 300+ philosophical essays after first watching the film. The problem Doolittle puts before the bomb cannot be solved by rational means. Cartesian rationality has reduced selfhood to mind, and mind located in the brain or in a micro-chip of an individual. The brain in a jar scenario Doolittle sells the bomb as nature-of-reality keeps us caught stewing in our own juice, with no means of knowing whether there is an outside world at all – unless we allow irrational knowledge in. Despite heavily building on Descartes' emphasis on the mind as the core of what we call 'me' (the subject), modern science admits the sensory perception of an observer for determining what is objectively true and real. Insisting on just one reality existing 'out there', well knowing that different observers see different realities, science has outsourced perception to supposedly unbiased machines, thus adding another layer of perception between the observer and the observed.

Despite everything that is wrong with the general notion of modern science, let's just assume for the sake of argument that it has a good grip on reality, and let's try and solve some exemplary questions.


What is Time?
So there we delve right into the 'matter' of time. What is time?
Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change... [Wikipedia: Time]
Wikipedia's definition of time as a measurable process might be just as good as any definition, weren't it for the fact that numerous philosophers, whole cultures even, have denied its existence altogether, for good reasons I won't get into with this article. So what are we left with?

The above definition negates itself by saying that time is indefinite, literally not defined, i.e. without an end. We might also say it pervades everything in its way, informs everything, or even is everything. So it cannot be a separate thing; rather a no-thing. Following the above formulation it could be an aspect of existence, a 'component quantity', as Wikipedia put it, a quality, or just a mental concept.

Apart from this not-merely linguistic observation, considering that time is not a thing we can touch, smell, taste, feel, hear, i.e. perceive physically, how do we perceive time scientifically? How to we measure time?
We don't.

As opposed to the above definition, time is not getting used for sequencing events, comparing durations, or quantifying change – time's existence is assumed on the basis of our perception of changes. A snail creeps through our visual field from left to right; we think that this takes time during which the clock has moved from displaying one-quarter past the hour to one-half past the hour; we think that the clock has measured time. But the clock doesn't react to something timy. It has not observed an external process or thing, it just follows a mechanical or electronic program: the movement of the sun past a sundial, the falling of crystals through the neck of an hourglass, the releasing of a spring, the movement of electrons. A mechanical clock not fully wound or a digital watch whose battery is mostly empty give different figures. So clocks don't measure time. If anything they measure 'energy' discharged from celestial bodies, Earth's gravity, a spring, a battery, or decaying atoms.
Sgt Pinback & Lt. Doolittle, scene from John Carpenter's 'Dark Star'
What is Energy?
So what is energy? Can you see it, touch it, hear it...? Again, there is no way by which we could safely state that energy is a thing in the usual sense of English vernacular. Energy is a concept encompassing a broad range of different manifestations, from gravity to heat, electricity, velocity, or light. Again, like with time, we cannot measure the essence of it; its mere presence cannot be perceived, only effects that we attribute to its discharge. That means it is hardly different from black holes, dark matter, and dark energy, all of which cannot be perceived; they exist merely within mathematical formulae that describe concepts in physics.


What is Matter?
So what is matter, then? This is the stuff of perception... we believe. We can smell and taste the sweat on our skin, yet those molecules which reach our sensory organs represent only a tiny fraction of the diverse stuff a human being consists of. We can hear the clap of a hand or the sigh of a breath; another fraction of reality. We can see the shape and colour and movement of an animal, yet more fractions. And we may touch its body. (We'll come to this in a minute).

What happens when we see something? Rays (another imperceptible concept) of light approach a body, then get reflected by it and enter the eye of the observer. On passing the cornea they are getting refracted and inverted, then they hit the retina which reacts by sending electric signals to the brain. The brain interprets the signals into an image which the observer may use for orienting herself in 3D space. The rays, the reflector, the retina image, the signals and the brain's image are not the same thing, and certainly they are not the thing as such.

Rays of light are invisible until they hit an object and reflect into the observer's eye. The light particles that hit my eye are not the same which hit yours. The light changes its brightness and colour in interaction with the reflector. That thing we think we both see is invisible as long as there is no light reflecting from it. Its shape and colour come into existence only in interaction with light, and each light reflection is unique. So we don't see the same thing: each of us is taking in a different set of altered light rays. Fascinating, isn't it?

Eye sight has become the most important sense of civilized humans, but it provides perception only at a distance. According to the latest science visible matter is the smallest part of the stuff that makes the Universe. Less than one half percent can be seen. Not sure whether that includes other sources of radiation like micro-waves or infra-red, but the overwhelming amount of what the Universe supposedly consists of cannot be perceived or measured; it is getting deduced from formulae. A person who hears poltergeists or sees demons and ghosts, or someone having lucid dreams does have a less-distanced grasp on reality, you could say. At least they see something meaningful to their lives.

Now let's get closer. Let's touch that thing we've seen, say, a cow's horn. What happens here? Molecules emitted from the surfaces of hand and horn, some of which can be smelled, begin to mix when we approach the animal. The closer we get the more homogenous the mix, while at the same time it gets displaced by the very mechanism that will eventually stop the moving-closer of the hand. From what science believes, the space between atoms is huge. In a way it is empty, filled only with something science calls 'forces' – energy which, again, cannot be seen or otherwise perceived directly. The atomic charges of human skin and cow horn keep the actual atoms within each surface at a distance. They never really touch, though the repelling forces are taken up by our nerve ends, transmitted to the brain and then interpreted as a feeling of hard resistance, of pressure. We think we touch a cow when actually we're not. Amazing.

Perhaps it helps to rid ourselves of the idea that matter is made of atoms alone. Perhaps the 'forces' are part of matter as well. Even so, we still have the problem of not being able to directly perceive or measure it. We can't get to the thing-as-such. So far, it's all myths and stories, and they work only within a certain range. It's like with the Sun revolving around the observer – a good-enough story for a farmer, not for space exploration.


The thing as such, what is it?
Bombed out in space with a spaced-out bomb!
As all rational information comes pre-selected and mediated by our senses and interpreted by our brains only, direct contact and immediate knowledge seem impossible to achieve under the rationalist-materialist paradigm. The realm of numbers and hard facts are but an illusion. Which is not to say we cannot learn something here, or that there weren't other ways of knowing. Wild people have told white people how to learn about the beneficial effects of herbs: by asking the plants. It is not known to us how the Dogon acquired their knowledge about the stars but we may assume they have their way, and it's not by making it up. Just two examples of how perception might be quite different from how we think it works and/or how the substance of existence might be quite different from what we think it is.

The story of the six blind and the elephant describes perfectly how the thing-as-such cannot be grasped fully by perceiving (or measuring) it. One organ of perception alone captures one slice of that thing, and each further organ and each further technical measurement capture further aspects of reality, but neither the essence (if there is such a thing) nor the totality of it (if there is a separate existence to it) can be grasped by sensory perception alone. And perhaps even matter is not everything there is to existence. Hardly news to anybody not buying into the culture of utilitarianism, rationalism, materialism or scientism.

It's quite interesting what those notions have taught us. Yet we better not fall into the trap that those were the only ways by which perception can be interpreted into cosmological knowledge; nor do they provide the full truth about existence. The linearity and directedness of the dominant world view is limited by definition: things must have a beginning and an end, and we move from the first to the second. The civilized worldview breaks down with the infinitesimally small and the immeasurably huge because mathematics use to break down when Zero or Infinity enter the equation. What was before the Big Bang? It's a pointless question. There was no time before time has emerged through the imagined singularity.

By its non-understanding of circularity, diversity, unity, emptiness, or quality, the materialist world of the separate and discrete me-the-mind creates threats to its own existence. Based on the Cartesian worldview Doolittle has taught it, Bomb #20 believes that, as there is nothing outside of it that can safely be called real, it has to orient by what it knows about itself. Being a bomb and therefore being destined to explode it utters, “Let there be light,” before blowing itself up – a perfect mirror of the myth of the technological Golden Age and the reality of a world in collapse.

2019-07-30

Separation from Emptiness


Returning from Friesenheim once more, where I participated, for the third time [2017][2018], in the summer university's discussion on a given topic, I feel a bit at loss how to summarize what we have found. We were talking about 'being weak' – this was the event's topic at least – which, to a certain extent, we did. But the subgroup I was with immersed itself deeply in the meme of separation central to a text excerpt from Charles Eisenstein's book The Ascent of Humanity we used, and we were also grappling with the near-term demise of global industrial civilization, another meme which popped up all over the place. People seemed to unanimously expect it to happen, and often imagined it to come about in a kind of crash, because it was hard to see for them, us, how our culture would change voluntarily. 'People' means, academics mainly from sciences like sociology, psychology, or religion, but also biologists, therapists, engineers, ministry officials, self-employeds, craftsmen, book authors and a range of other professions.
the conception of ourselves as discrete and separate subjects in a world of other. This is the ideology of separation. The ideology that has created the human realm we know is the same ideology that has us despair we can ever change it ~~Charles Eisenstein's website
it is separation that has generated the converging crises of today's world. People of a religious persuasion might attribute the fundamental crisis to a separation from God; people of an ecological persuasion, to a separation from nature; people engaged in social activism might focus on the dissolution of community (which is a separation from each other); we might also investigate the psychological dimension, of separation from lost parts of ourselves. For good or ill, it is separation that has made us what we are […]
No, I'm not going to blame it all on "capitalism", for our economic system too is more a symptom than a cause of separation. ~~Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity, Introduction
'By chance,' on the very day after my return from Friesenheim, separation also played a role in an online discussion on the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. Being asked whether I knew something that would clarify the meaning of Nirvana, I said something to the tunes of:
I'm not sure about 'knowing' more, but I would add some more delusion and confusion, if you allow me to ;) I'm not closely familiar with the Buddha's original teachings but I think we'll be getting close enough.
Marianne Gronemeyer, professor emeritus, social scientist, philosopher, book author, and one of the Friesenheim hosts strongly suggested in a verbal exchange that “understanding” another person is impossible to achieve. We will never know what someone truly felt or meant to say, and it is a sign of arrogance to claim otherwise. This is not to invite sloppiness into our communication, but humbleness and deep listening. Nevertheless, in general, I find it nourishing and useful to develop our own understanding from even the most superficial take on other people's concepts. Even false or decontextualized quotes may help with this (as long as we don't use the originator's name in an authoritative way, claiming that she'd agree with us).
So, diving into the Nirvana discussion with my online discussion mate, she quoted from Joseph Campbell.
“The verb nirva (Sanskrit) is, literally, ‘to blow out,’ not transitively, but as a fire ceases to draw… Deprived of fuel, the fire of life is ‘pacified’ i.e. quenched, when the mind has been curbed, one attains to the ‘peace of Nirvana,’ ‘despiration in God.’ … It is by ceasing to feed our fires that the peace is reached, of which it is well said in another tradition that ‘it passeth understanding’ […] The word “de-spiration” is contrived from a literal Latinization of the Sanskrit nirvana, nir = “out, forth, outward, out of, out from, away, away from”; nirvana = “blow out, gone out, extinguished.” ~~Joseph Campbell, Hero with A Thousand Faces, p. 139
The etymological meaning of Nirvana adds an interesting new angle for me, as I have learned the word as describing Emptiness, the liberation from attachment to the material world, and the end point of the cycle of rebirth.

The void is the fifth element known to Asian cultures. The void is obviously the dominant, most abundant element. It is not empty in the European sense of emptiness or nothingness but holds the relationships between things, so it's actually very full. Many regard it as the real substance of existence. Life, for Asians (and also wild peoples), is relatedness, as opposed to the European sense of separate selves and discrete objects.

Adyashanti, a modern teacher with Zen and Christian roots, describes Emptiness as the matrix from which form (matter, thought, emotion etc) emerges. Sound rises from silence which is always there. Thought arises from stillness which is always there. Existence arises from non-existence which is always there. Enlightenment is our mode of existence; that's why we cannot attain it, but only awaken to it. Enlightenment is realizing Emptiness, Nirvana, in which no thing exists, which means there are no distinctions, which means this is 'where' Oneness lies. So Emptiness is both empty and not-empty. Important to note, here, are the different concepts of Emptiness: Oneness (formlessness) in Buddha's sense, relatedness (which requires forms) in Asian folk religion/culture, as well as in Eisenstein's philosophy, of course.

My conversation partner developed an interesting thought:
This may sound strange, but I wonder if releasing all the delusions that the mind creates and then holds so dear is not a lot like peeing... and the relief of emptiness once all the stuff the body can no longer use is gotten rid of... maybe the mind needs to get rid of all the stuff it can not longer use.
Yes, it feels exactly like this when I'm writing. It's like pee seeking release from its narrow confines, collecting, releasing, and collecting once more.
As for getting rid of 'stuff,' by which we usually mean thought and its contents – that's not necessary in an extinguishing way in order to enter Nirvana. All it takes is being with it. Imagine that like sitting in a car with the motor running idle, when the motor doesn't force the car into motion. There's a funny moment in one of Krishnamurti's talks (The Real Revolution #1, 16:00 –19:25) where he 'explains' that issue to somebody asking, How?

Adyashanti says, the idea of control over one's life
is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. It is based on an understanding that you are a separate individual person, human being, separate from the whole, separate from others and separate from life, and you need to make sure that your life and your car get where you want it to get. If there is a prescription for suffering, I'd say, that's about as accurate as you can get. Funny thing is that the very prescription for suffering is the very thing that we think is the prescription for happiness. ~~Surrender or suffer
Mel Weitsman put the matter of getting rid of thought like this: “When thoughts come, you can invite them in but don't serve them tea.” There is a time and place for the application of thought; just don't let thought run your car.

Words rest in thought; thought creates illusion which veils the reality of Emptiness, Non-Existence. That's why we may enter Nirvana by being still and detaching ourselves from delusion. When you chip away everything that is not true in your life you end up with nothing to hold on to: Emptiness.

Language (especially European languages) acts like an obstacle in the way of understanding here because it only inaccurately translates Asian / Zen reality into the concepts and the basic assumptions of (our) culture. Words create paradoxies where there are none, eg. if Non-existence is that which does not exist, Non-existence does not exist; what does that mean for a (no-) thing like 'Emptiness'? These things are better seen than spoken about.
On a side note, those paradoxies are powerful tools for shocking people out of unquestioned assumptions and help opening them up to the reality of Emptiness. Having clear concepts of Nirvana does not help with either understanding or awakening to it; so I'm not sure whether my words do you any favour :D

PS
see also: Deepak Chopra - The nature of reality
Thanks to Rob de Laet.