December 05, 2012

The Diamond of the Mind

“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard."—From the Katha Upanishad

And so, as we approach Comment #200 on the previous post, and thus need to start another discussion (though we can certainly keep talking about Japan and technology), I figure I should say something Important and Insightful regarding the state of the world, as we slide toward Xmas and the New Year. However, the state of the world is obvious: capitalism is coming apart, and this is the real story of the 21st century. It doesn’t matter whether one is talking about Rom Mittney’s haircut, or Kim Kardashian’s rump, or riots in Greece, or Latreasa Goodman (a hero of mine), or the latest piece of techno-crap from Apple. The hilo conductor, as we say in Spanish, the thread pulling it all together, is that the socioeconomic formation that has been with us for 500 years or so is finally coming to an end. One might argue that the spiritual emptiness of capitalism is obvious to only a few, but I’m convinced that there is a subconscious awareness of this among a good part of the American population, Black Friday Wal-Mart riots notwithstanding. Americans may be stupid, but they aren’t dead.

On one level, the country is totally adrift. Thomas Naylor recently sent me an article in which he argues that Obama won the election because he is chic, cool, not because he has a vision. Indeed, says Prof. Naylor, the guy has no vision at all. Everything with him is ad hoc; he has no idea where to lead the nation, or what that might even consist of. Far from being any sort of leader, he’s just winging it—playing at being president, as it were, and the hollowness of it all, the charade aspect of it, is hard to miss. On another level, the direction of the nation is pretty clear: downward, and absolutely nothing can alter that trajectory. No empire, in its dying phase, was able to halt or reverse the downward path it was on; and despite our belief in American ‘exceptionalism’, we will not escape our fate. In this regard, Occupy Wall Street (what’s left of it) is as clueless as Barbara Ann Nowak (bless her heart) or Herman Cain (a loveable douche bag, if there ever was one).

And yet life goes on, and it contains so much that is marvelous. December, it seems to me, is a time for taking stock, for being grateful for the previous 11 months. I was lucky: my gratitude list is pretty long right about now. In terms of change, or good fortune, I like to think in terms of events that are ‘meteoric’ vs. ones that are ‘geologic’. Meteoric includes stuff like a great (if brief) love affair with a beautiful woman half my age, or taking a cable car to the top of Mount Misen on Miyajima, and looking down, through the mist, at the Inland Sea. Geologic events are things like sitting in a café and making notes for my next book, or having a good workout at the gym, and feeling completely like a body. Viewed from a certain perspective, it’s all sacred, it seems to me.

But most people on the planet don’t get to have this. In fact, something like 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day. This is the fallout from neoliberalism (capitalism) and globalization (imperialism). “There is enough for everyone’s need,” said Gandhi, “but not enough for everyone’s greed.” I’m not sure; overpopulation seems like the greatest threat to the planet, and to the human race, that we currently face. The world population forecast for 2050 is for 9 billion people, and if the past is any guide, we’ll probably hit that figure well in advance of mid-century. More and more, things are escaping from our conscious control. In terms of structural or collective solutions, it’s not clear what is to be done, or who is in a position to do it. If you are concerned about overpopulation, ecological destruction, social inequality, genocide, economic havoc, and government by corporate plutocracy, all well and good; but dealing with any of these things at a group or political level is a murky proposition. What group will you join? What politics will you pursue? What impact can you realistically expect to have? In times such as these, what are the levers of change—beyond disintegration itself, which I personally believe is how substantive change is going to take place. Geologic (micro) changes accumulate until you get meteoric (macro) changes, as Marx was one of the first to point out—the quantity-to-quality argument—although I think Epicurus beat him to it by about 2,000 years. Or to put it another way, the way we live on a daily basis is finally going to (dis)solve the way we live on a daily basis. Individually speaking, you can live better (Gandhi) or you can live worse (Lloyd Blankfein), but the long-term effects of your behavior probably won’t be in for quite a while.

Given the fact that there is no immediate or obvious answer to the issue of meaningful collective action, let’s talk about things at the microlevel instead. In the current issue of n+1, Kristin Dombek describes an acid trip she was on during her college years, which was threatening to turn really bad. At this point, a friend put her arm around her, and “I found my way to some edge, thin as a thread, where the panic turned into laughter.” She continues:

“This is the diamond of the mind, this ability….From then on when the panic crept in I could just push over the thread-thin edge to the other side, feeling the way to joy. Joy is the knowledge that the thread is there. A thread runs through the middle of your life, and if you find it, the second half can be comedy instead….You can do this yourself, if you have found the diamond in your mind.”

I had a similar experience many years ago with magic mushrooms (psilocybin), when as the landscape began to undulate (I was on Vancouver Island) and I felt the terror rising, I made a deliberate decision to enjoy what was happening. Somehow, I found the “thread-thin edge to the other side.” The next few hours were fascinating, as a result, but this may have been more the result of luck than courage, I don’t know. (Woody Allen believes most of what happens to us is a matter of luck. He may have a point.)

All any of us can do, it seems to me, is to put one foot in front of the other, and keep walking; though it does help to have a sense of the direction you want to go in, obviously. As some wag once put it, Wisdom is essentially knowing what to do next.

On that note: Merry Christmas!

©Morris Berman, 2012