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Archive for May, 2009

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret; actually, a great secret. But not quite yet.

It’s an abbreviated week. This evening the holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, begins. I’m on my way to celebrate and teach. Because of other obligations, I haven’t had time to prepare something for you yet this week. The remainder of today, tomorrow and Saturday will be taken up with festivities. So, this week what I give you is a promise.

Tonight, we commemorate the receiving of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and the Ten Commandments. If you think you know what that means, what the Torah is, I urge you to think again. For the past four years, I have been pursuing an answer, aiming to solve a riddle. Nachmanides, the great scholar, philosopher and kabbalist, in his extraordinary commentary on the Torah, points to what he called one of its greatest secrets. According to him, this is a secret that Moses himself, who we traditionally say wrote the entire Torah, did not know.

I have spent the past few years struggling to comprehend what Nachmanides was driving at. I can’t say that I fully understand what he wrote, but I have gained a deeper feeling for it. The commitment I make to you is, by sometime next Friday, June 5th (b’h), I will begin the process of unpacking this secret. I will endeavor to share, to the best of my abilities, some of the truths Nachmanides was pointing towards. I make no promise that it will change your life; I only promise to speak my truth about it.

Until then, may the light of revelation shine upon you.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Trust is such a delicate bird. I’ve been planting recently, a number of things—hopes, ideas, dreams…Now, waiting to see how fertile the soil is, I grow restive; which way will things grow?

I’ve long admired the above quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., so full of hope and vision, so full of trust. In this world of mixed messages, it seems especially helpful. Which way are we going?

Earlier in the week, I was thinking I might write about the Obama administration’s plans to announce uniform fuel efficiency standards for automakers nationwide, kind of a continuation of an earlier posting about Chrysler’s bankruptcy. I was reflecting on the reasons why car manufacturers have been so keen on national standards, why they all want to share the same minimum requirements. It demonstrates a kind of retrograde vision, how the entire American industry is organized around least, rather than most.

Why be concerned with minimums at all? Shouldn’t all of our efforts, now more than ever, be focused on maximums? Essentially, the message the auto industry is sending is, we’ll only innovate if you force us. This lowest common denominator thinking is exactly why they’re in the toilet. This is simply another illustration of what was, after decades of championing it, a revelation about capitalism for the former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan: Rational self-interest is not the true organizing principle of our current economic system. Surprise!

What I’ve been thinking is, laudable as the impulse to establish them may be, why should we settle for the negotiated, compromised standards set by the federal government (35.5 miles per gallon by 2016)? Let’s set our own. If we can get enough Americans in their auto-buying years to commit, clearly and boldly, to only purchase an American automobile if it is a plug-in hybrid that gets x miles to the gallon (50? 60? 100?), we can send a clear message to the industry that they’ve got to step up to the plate. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be faced with the wilted fare on offer, which we either eat, or eschew in favor of foreign delicacies. If a million people were to sign on (we could even use this website, if anyone is interested in helping to set it up), which in today’s day and age is not an impossible number, it would represent a considerable share of the new car market. The industry would have to respond; it would shake them, somewhat, of their continuing drive to compete for the dwindling shares of the soon to be obsolete combustion engine market, and get them competing for the market of the future.

There are two forces in the universe, two directions—expanding and contracting. The first is based on trust, the second in fear. No matter where we are, we can find evidence for both; which we use to guide our actions, our lives, our world, is our own choice.

The heel-dragging of the American auto industry is based in fear. Its member are anxious, in part, that should any one of them innovate too quickly the others will get away with doing less, and possibly get more of the current market share.

In considering a move beyond government to “regulate” our auto industry, we find this week that available evidence also points in two very different directions—towards expansion or contraction—forcing us to make a choice. On the one hand, the very state that upped the ante on fuel standards, California, is in a legislative tailspin following what some would call the meddlesome involvement of its citizenry in Tuesday’s special ballot. Many are claiming the state to be ungovernable, and calling for constitutional amendment to limit public involvement in decision-making.

On the other hand, we see the birth of a landmark initiative by the Obama administration, calling for an open, nationwide brainstorming session on how to make government “more transparent, participatory, and collaborative.” Between May 21st and 28th, citizens are invited to share our ideas on how we can become more involved in our democracy—www.opengov.ideascale.com.

Which way do we go? The arc of democracy, such as it is, is long, but it bends towards ever greater involvement by the public. Now, we have historic tools at our disposal to make the endgame of this trajectory a more deeply experienced reality in our lives. At some point, as we progress along this arc, we will have to begin taking certain matters into our own hands. This week, we are being given an invitation to do so. How far we go in this direction will depend on whether we choose out of fear, or trust. Do we trust ourselves to do the right thing? Clearly, when we designate small groups to choose for us—industrial, legislative…they don’t always make the right decisions. Most research indicates that the many, within certain constraints, are wiser than the few. It’s not likely that we’ll do much worse.

Ultimately, democracy in its truest form will be not when government invites us to join in some of its decisions, but when we invite government to weigh in on ours. Perhaps it’s time we begin to grab the arc of our democracy and curve it a little closer to the mark.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I don’t know how most of you do it. I’ve been in the city a week now, and I’m just about cooked.

One thing I’ve noticed out here is how much green has become part of the landscape. It’s everywhere. Seems that the big beast of profit has figured out green sells. This is probably no news to you, but being in an urban environment full-time for the first time in a long time, I can see how remarkably this trend has grown in almost no time.

It’s one thing to label the world green, however, and another thing altogether for it actually to be so. I’m beginning to see more clearly the symbiotic relationship between concrete and ego—ego being that sense of separateness we carry around within us, that I am who I think I am, and that what I do has little to no bearing on you. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the psychological underpinning for war, poverty and destruction of all kinds.

Part of becoming awake, present, returning to god, source, the divine, one, whatever you want to call it, is spacious awareness. It’s a state where everything becomes available, where the light and color, sounds and energy of this world move through us fluidly, effortlessly. The urban world, it seems to me, is an outward projection of the state of mind where this is simply not so, our so-called “normal” state of mind. The concrete jungle is a reflection of our inner compartmentalization; it’s the planet, made rational.

Have you ever been in raw, un-manicured nature? If you have, then you know the way that something within us unlocks, lets go. Nothing is in a rush. Most of it isn’t going anywhere at all. Yet it’s astoundingly here, alive, happening. This is true green. Nature, unchecked.

I remember years ago reading about a campaign to have one square inch of silence protected in each state. It’s a deceptively simple idea, until you realize how much space needs to surround that square inch to make it possible—miles of un-peopled land in every direction.

We used to live in the natural world. Our settlements were pockets in the otherwise vast cloth of unrestrained nature. This reality has been fundamentally reversed. We banded together, in part, to protect ourselves from the forces of nature. Now, nature needs protection from us. One of the milestones on our journey towards balance will surely be the recognition of how essential the natural world is to our own wellbeing, in too many ways to be counted.

If we really want to go green, let’s actually be green, and reintegrate nature back into our lives. I’m not suggesting we all live in our own square inch of silence, but I am suggesting that we move beyond our current stage, where the natural world survives in our midst as lonesome outposts, representatives of a fallen army standing in soldierly, spindly rows on our streets. Rather, let us integrate dense colonies of green into our lives, scenes from another world we move through in order to navigate our own, until we realize that they are one and the same.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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Living as a mostly hermit, I’m not as in touch with the daily news as I suspect other bloggers must be. The fact that I knew, last week, that Chrysler was going under for its “surgical” procedure was a matter of chance.

I aim, little by little, to tune into news that doesn’t change. Ezra Pound thought that was literature; I’d like to think of it as truth. The problem is, what is true evades capture by those pesky things we call words and sentences; this makes it an especially challenging topic for a medium such as this.

One worldly news-like item I did read up on this week is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) they built on the Franco-Swiss border. You know what I’m talking about, the world’s largest particle accelerator that cost more than 6 billion to build, the one they had to shut down after only two weeks. I was aiming to disabuse myself of possible hype I’d heard that those tiny particles, if they ever actually do collide and break apart, could take the earth, or even the whole universe, along with them. The independent scientists hired to assess the risk determined there was none. Of course, since the whole purpose for building the thing is that we have no idea what will happen if there’s a collision, how they could know the outcome will be safe is beyond me.

Still, the thing is impressive. It is, essentially, a 17-mile proton racetrack buried deep beneath the ground; two actually, since they run in both directions. To keep them going round and round, the thing requires close to 2000 gigantic magnets, each weighing from roughly 30 to 2000 tons. Once they get that fake rabbit back up and running, and the protons are released from their paddock, they’ll gallop round that over-sized ring in a breezy 90 microseconds. That’s about 11,000 times per second, or .999999991 times the speed of light.

It’s the largest, most sophisticated and expensive scientific apparatus built in human history; thousands of scientists from all over the world have contributed to its design. All of this expense and effort to understand one of the most common things in the world; the scientists who lead this effort have themselves calculated that the kind of “experiment” they’re conducting happens naturally “many many many trillions” of times every second throughout the universe, all around us, all the time.

What this tells me is we don’t have a clue as to what’s really going on. In fact, some scientists, even those intimately involved with it, feel that the best, most interesting outcome for the LHC project would be if they find nothing at all—no new particles, no extra dimensions, nothing. The thinking is that a no show will show how little we have actually figured out, opening all kinds of new directions for physics to go in.

Even if they do find something, however, I’d like to venture a guess that it will simply be one more perplexing, plump babushka in the ever-vanishing succession of Russian dolls that makes up our universe.

The LHC is essentially, through us, an attempt by the universe to examine itself; this is why advanced physics is so weird. Let me explain.

The briefest way to characterize the LHC is as an attempt to understand the Big Bang. The Big Bang however, if that’s how things happened, was an episode that involved every point in the universe, all of space and time, being compacted into an infinitesimally small point, the singularity. That point is the seed from which the universe, in a sense, grew. But, and this is a Big But (ha ha), we cannot allow ourselves to think of that seed as having grown over time, since the seed itself contained, or inhabited, all of the time in which it would grow. The singularity of the Big Bang and the universe it spawned cannot be thought of as truly separate, in space or time. The seed, in effect, is the flower and the flower is the seed. The chicken and egg arise simultaneously.

So what’s my point?

We cannot properly think of ourselves as separate from the universe since we are, literally, a function of it. That cosmic episode, the one they’re trying to figure out, contained within it the possibility of us, the cosmo-genetic coding that brought us into being. Any attempt by us to apprehend it is, in a very real sense, navel-gazing. This is why we only see sub-atomic particles where we look for them, why they appear responsive to us. The fact that they could be virtually anywhere until we look for them means, in a very real sense, that they must somehow be everywhere until we do. And they are. And so are we.

If this sounds strange or troubling to you, get a grip. If you haven’t yet discovered that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye in this world, it’s time you cottoned on.

What I’d like to suggest here is a shift in perspective. How do we come to truly understand the universe? It’s time we began to see that we are the experiment, and the microscope. Apprehending just how strange and magnificent the universe is is not something we can ever do with our eyes and ears alone. We will never see the nature of the cosmos, not even if we build a yet more dizzyingly expensive, colossal apparatus that reaches to the heavens, because it cannot be seen.

The only instrument we have that can come to appreciate the nature of all that is, is ourselves. How do we do this? We use the entire machine. What we are is an astonishingly sophisticated, fully-integrated, cosmically interpenetrating device designed, if you can call it that, as an opportunity for the universe to know itself. To grasp the universe and fully realize this opportunity requires employment of the whole organism—body, mind, spirit. It involves tapping into that integrated place where we effortlessly know the nature of the universe because we finally know our true selves. As expressions of the universe, the flower of that singular seed, knowing ourselves and understanding the cosmos are one and the same.

The LHC took decades to build and cost more than 6 billion dollars. We took 15 billion years to evolve from that crazy singularity, and the only way we’ll ever truly understand it is when we’re absolutely free.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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What astonishes me, in the midst of our generalized global economic meltdown, is how shortsighted we still seem to be. Even as the spiraling fates of American industry flash us time-lapsed glimpses of our own future, we still don’t seem to get it.

Among this week’s calls to restructure the American auto industry, I haven’t seen anyone climbing atop the spire of the Chrysler building to shout, “Enough!” Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that we’re connecting the dots.

This planet is in shock, and we are the cause. Our behavior is compromising the integrity of the organism on which we live and upon which we depend, literally, for absolutely everything; we’re jeopardizing its ability to grow food, create oxygen and produce water. We need these things to survive. This behavior is, at best, nuts.

When it comes to cars, we act as if the only problematic thing about them is the gas that goes into their tanks, and the subsequent carbon they release from their rear ends. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Every time we buy a new car, we’ve got to extract all that metal from the earth, not to mention the plastics and chemicals involved. We can’t keep doing this forever.

Our desires are limitless, literally without end, and often run contrary to our self-interest in their effect. Organizing our societies around the pursuit of these inexhaustible desires, which is how things currently work, what capitalism is, is to design for certain catastrophe. It’s the antithesis of every true spiritual teaching passed down to us through the ages.

Rather than a car industry, what we need is a far industry (couldn’t resist); that is, a transportation industry that looks deep into the future. Currently, industry thrives on incrementalism. Changing things bit by bit allows the corporate world to sell us more, but it doesn’t make sense when we look at the size of the planet and the number of people we’ve got. Every material good we have comes from the earth, and it needs a rest. So what I propose is that we bypass hybrids altogether—at best a transitional technology, think peak oil—and go straight to electric. But rather than go out to build and buy fancy new electric cars, we simply convert all the cars already on the road as they come of age.

Converting a combustion car to electric is a rather simple procedure that can be done within a day or two. If we were to dedicate the remains of the auto industry to this pursuit, including all the labor already familiar with how our cars are built, we could probably make the turn around even quicker, and certainly cheaper. Electric motors, once in place, run for years without need of repair; some say they can pass the million-mile mark without need of replacement. They do need their batteries swapped every so often, but as we move in this direction battery technology should catch up pretty quickly, especially if we make it a priority. Any way you cut it, it’s a lot cheaper than buying a whole new car. For most people, the 150 – 200 miles that an electric car can run on a single charge is more than enough. We can fill in the gaps for the remaining 5 percent of us with plug-in hybrids or some other technology.

Rather than give the auto industry a facelift, we should be giving it a heart transplant. Same body, different motor. In order to get our money, Chrysler, along with any other manufacturers who may follow suit, should be required to reorganize at least some of their plants to get up to speed with a massive fleet conversion. There are roughly 150 million cars on the road in the US. Think of how much we would diminish our impact on the earth if we simply re-use them.

Taking this route would be far more responsible. We fetishize the new, but how much hipper would it be to know that our great-grandchildren will look back and think of us as a generation that finally woke up to our duty? Let’s choose the future with our eyes open, not our wallets. We have the opportunity to leap forward; the more we lag behind, the longer we have to smell our own gas.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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