The Fine Print on the Tree of Knowledge

The Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

The Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

On one tiny twig of the Tree of Knowledge
is the knowledge about the Tree of Knowledge itself,
the small print that nobody reads,
which says that just because Eve
ate of an apple from the Tree of Knowledge
we don’t have to spin out uncontrollably
into the outer space of technology
without any moral or ethical restraints,
without considering not only the immediate
consequences of our actions
but also the far-reaching consequences as well—
the simplest, most obvious, most ironic
being inventing and setting in motion
the computerized apple-picking machine
putting people out of work.
It should be against the law
to put people out of work
just to make more money.
Since when is technology
or even making money
more important than people?
It’s ironic that Eve was judged as evil for eating
of the apple with which the serpent tempted her
and, with Adam, was banished from the Garden of Eden
while the vast race of creatures
who supposedly descended from her
eat of the Tree of Knowledge every day
and in every corner of the world
producing, consuming, and making
vast quantities of money off
the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge,
and they are not banished from any garden
but are welcomed to the fruit with open arms.
And let’s face it, making money
is just another form of consumption,
and what are the producers paying us
so they can consume all that money?
They’re paying us the technology
that in many cases is making us sick,
making our planet sick,
causing us to go to war,
and putting us out of work.
It seems we’ve made the best
meaning of the story of Eve
a mockery and even the thumpers
of digital bibles don’t care.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Positive Existentialism and the Importance of Birds

Recently, a fellow bird-lover sent me a link to Jonathan Franzen’s April 6, 2015 New Yorker article entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” which is concerned with how our apathy toward global warming extends to the extinction of birds and other species. Franzen suggests each and every one of us is implicated in global warming but that most of us feel impotent to do anything about it—and birds and other animals are the victims of the resulting apathy. The author goes on in his article to exhort us not only to act locally but also to think locally as well so that, as individuals or in smaller groups, we can make a difference where making a difference is most critical and possible.

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes

American crow fledgling, with blue eyes (all bird photos by Rick Clark)

But birds aren’t important only from the Protestant, New England Puritan, and Saint Franciscan points of view that Franzen mentions. Birds are also important from the Positive Existentialist point of view, which I suggest undergirds the most universal of value systems and which gives us a way to see all life on Earth as endangered and as worthy of saving.

American Robin in meadow

American robin in meadow

The Existentialist writers and philosophers of the 20th century—Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Gide, to name a few—posited a world in which there is no supernatural—no God or gods, no soul, no heaven, no hell, no “given” purpose or meaning. This point of view was experienced as so alien, pessimistic, and bleak at the time that most rejected it out of hand. However, I’d like to suggest that what many view as an agonizing dilemma might just as easily be viewed in a positive, redemptive light and that adopting the Positive Existentialist orientation might save the birds (and us) from extinction.

black-capped chickadee

black-capped chickadee

The problem with Existentialism is that, according to its view, nothing is more or less valuable or important than anything else, at least not from an extrinsic standpoint. This is the most troubling critique aimed at Existentialism: that the Existentialists failed to work up a system of values. But I think that’s because they failed to see that if the supernatural doesn’t exist, then we humans made up God, and if we made God up, then we’re the source of the values and morals we’ve projected on God in creating him. I might refer to this instinct as “the moral organ” (an idea I borrow from Joseph Campbell, who suggests the myth-making impulse is a kind of psychic organ). The relativism inherent in Existentialism applies to the value we put on human life in relation to the value we put on other animal life, including birds. Yet there’s no evidence without the created authority of an all-powerful supernatural being that one species is more valuable or important than any other—or that in the context of the universe anything whatsoever is important or valuable at all. It simply is.

Canada goslings

Canada goslings

The beauty of Positive Existentialism is that our view of the universe and our place in it becomes so much simpler and easier to understand. We humans are simply the most complex and sophisticated of some seven million species striving to survive (or thriving) on a relatively tiny star-lit ball of molten iron, rock, soil, water, and air rolling through space around one of trillions of stars in a universe billions of light-years vast. But not having a colossal supernatural being out there doesn’t mean we’re any less moral. It just means it’s up to us to act according to the authority we otherwise divest in “God.” If it’s we who conceive of God, religions, and moral systems, then it’s we who are moral to begin with. Morality is in our nature, much as the instinct to survive is in our nature. The Positive Existentialist orientation puts us in the driver’s seat, fully responsible for our own existence on this planet and in the universe. And if we returned to being a race of Nature rather than sycophants of the supernatural, there’d likely be a lot less conflict and fewer large-scale wars, since believing in different gods, differing versions of God, and contrary interpretations of “sacred” texts, wouldn’t be reason to kill each other off.

common loons

common loons

Once we get comfortable with a godless universe, we realize the world is ours to create, in our own best image, with all the goodness that we’ve created an all-powerful supernatural being to expect of us. We decide what’s important to us, to our individual selves as well as to the whole of civilization. We make our own meaning, we strive for the highest universal ideals and values, and we work hard to make our planet a paradise. Not to strive to make our planet a paradise is to fail as a race. Not to hold universal ideals and values is to fight and compete amongst ourselves till we destroy life on Earth as we know it. We know in our heart of hearts that we have the choice to become bad people and create hell on Earth or to become the best people we can become and strive to create Paradise on Earth.

eastern kingbird

eastern kingbird

While the Existentialists, especially Albert Camus, also posited Absurdism (the view that there’s no reason to exist in a meaningless world), the instinct to survive is not absurd. It is inherent. And to act to see that other creatures survive, including saving our birds, is heroic. Therein lies our meaning: In the context of our biological, ecological, economic, and spiritual imperatives, we need to create a world in which most or all peoples and species can survive and live together relatively healthily and peacefully.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

As my philosophy professor, during my undergraduate years at Portland State University, suggested, the instinct of the survival of the species might in fact be the basis of human morality. I go a step further to suggest that recognizing other creatures’ instinct to survive as a species is just as important as recognizing our own need to survive as a species. We’re all Earthlings, so let’s extend the very secular Golden Rule to include other creatures, which is to say let’s have empathy not only for other human beings but also for other creatures on our planet (many of us do). We are arrogant to think our “ownership” of the land means that other creatures have no right to inhabit it. We humans created the once non-existent idea of property ownership, but plants and animals have no say about where the borders and property lines fell. This isn’t to say that property ownership is bad. Property ownership is natural, since most motile creatures on this planet are instinctually territorial, human property ownership being the formal extension of our territorial instincts.

great blue heron

great blue heron

As a longtime college English instructor, I copied and passed out a handout to my Intercultural Communications and Ancient Literature students that includes versions of the Golden Rule from sixteen different religions. The Golden Rule is, indeed, the first and most fundamental spiritual tenet, undergirding most if not all religions and spiritual systems and deriving, not from some external supernatural source, but from our own sense of one another’s vulnerability, imperative to exist, and longing for peace, fullness, and comfort. It is our highest empathic and compassionate means of relating to each other and to other creatures. The Golden Rule is an expression of our recognition that all creatures on Earth desire to survive, even thrive, on our shared planet. It is a universal, a sense we all have, or should have, in common. Live and let live.

gulls and moon

gulls and moon

I’m not advocating communism or any other system that doesn’t recognize Nature or human nature. I’m not advocating a Bacchanalian return to Nature, nor am I promoting anarchism or nihilism. Nature is very orderly, with territories, pecking orders, social structures, rites and rituals, symbiosis and mutualism, and, lest we forget, the food chain and its many fragile links. I’m simply advocating a heightened consciousness of and approach to our killing, exploitation of resources, destruction of habitat, mindless consumption, and ignorance of other creatures who might inadvertently be destroyed in the process of our exploitation and consumption, and I do so for the sake of the survival of our species and relative peace on Earth. It’s a matter of consciousness, empathy, intention, and, yes, action. True, we cannot achieve the ultimate ideal of a paradise in which there is no suffering or death, because, of course, we have to kill in order to eat and we all have to die in order for others to live, but we can lean toward some balance that enables most or all of our species to survive our otherwise careless destructiveness. If we believe in the human will and the ultimate good, then we are obliged to lean—heavily, at this late date—toward some sort of healthy balance between humans, other creatures, and Habitat Earth.

kildeer eggs

kildeer eggs

It’s impossible not to kill and eat plants and animals in order to survive. Life eats life. But we need to do it the way that some early peoples did, with respect, humanity, and even a kind of grief for being caught in the web of life in which we Earthlings must kill each other in order to survive. Many religions and tribal beliefs, in fact, are founded on this idea. Many rituals include sacrifices of animals emblematic of our taking of life to survive. Suddenly the taking of a life has the symbolic weight it deserves. But such rites don’t require that we believe in some obscure supernatural being—just that we treat all life with the respect that we seek for ourselves.

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

least sandpipers hunkering down in footprints

While there will always be those who set out to destroy others and the environment, we humans will always be most attracted to the brightest light, that of Aristotle’s “ultimate good.” As long as we can conceive of the light of goodness, we will always be drawn to it. Goodness shines its light on badness and shows it for what it is. Every clear-eyed, responsible, relatively intelligent human being knows this. Even dogs can learn the difference between good and bad. It’s when we know what good is and we choose to do bad anyway that amounts to the worst crime. Conversely, when we’re tempted to do bad and do good instead, we know we make the best choice, we confirm our belief in the human will, and we acknowledge our humanity.

mallard couple

mallard couple

I know there’s a degree of circularity in this logic, but it’s the best we can do without reconstructing the illusory authority of a colossal supernatural being, which, indeed, also involves a kind of circular logic (we exist; therefore there must be a God or gods to have created us). Ultimately, we must find our meaning and purpose in the context of our Earthly existence, in grooming the health of our planet and its many species.

peregrine falcon

peregrine falcon

Surprisingly, I’ve talked to relatively wise, intelligent, productive people who’ve told me they don’t believe in the human will. Some people can imagine a better world, or a better outcome for their efforts, but they say they’re helpless to achieve it. I, for one, believe in the human will. Not to believe in the human will is to suggest that nothing that came about on this planet came about as the result of human intention, and so much of what’s come about has come about in the last 120 years. 120 years of evolution and tumultuous change didn’t occur accidentally. If there’s one ideal that humans should believe in, it’s the human will. If we don’t believe in the human will, the belief that we can choose and create a better world, we may as well embrace the idea that there’s nothing that drives us but our basic animal instincts, that our bicameral brains and cortexes are for naught, that civilization is an illusion, and that the birds are doomed to perish, which is to suggest that this ever more complex world that we seem to be creating is nothing more than billiard balls ricocheting off each other, off the “bumpers” of the laws of nature into the bumpers of our idle constructions, physical and abstract.

red-necked grebes

red-necked grebes

Let’s face it, if we are conscious and have free will, then we are not innocent, unlike birds and other animals, who kill to eat and protect their young out of instinct (or so the theory goes). In fact, it would follow that the more conscious we are, the more responsible we are for our actions in the world, the less innocent—that is, the more guilty—we are for doing nothing to counter our own actions or the actions of others. How we live with our guilt, our remorse, I can’t claim I have no idea, because I too am as guilty as the next human being. I have killed—and killed for no good reason or without a second thought.

rufous hummingbird

rufous hummingbird

Some readers will argue it’s obvious that we humans are more important than birds and other animals because we’re more intelligent (according to our own standards and measures), we create and evolve technology, we have reason, language, religions, philosophies, countries, cities, governments, corporations, communication and transportation systems, schools, libraries, weather stations, and we’ve leashed the power of the wind, the wheel, metallurgy, plumbing, electricity, flight, space travel, and the atom. We may consider these characteristics and developments as indicative of how much more valuable we are than birds and other creatures, but our abilities and institutions are valuable only in our own eyes and according to our own value systems—intrinsically. There’s no great cosmic judge out there saying, “Wow, your technology is a clear sign of your goodness in the universe,” or “The high values to which you pay lip service are indeed the highest values in the universe.” They’re only valuable to us humans, not to other species, which have only been maimed, sickened, and killed off by our presence and our technologies. Certainly the pig wasn’t too thrilled about the invention of the sty, nor the horse the bit. The fact that humans can be viewed as more evolutionarily complex or sophisticated, or that we humans appear to have freedom of choice and can take responsibility for our actions—might make for good arguments, but complexity, sophistication, and freedom of choice are nevertheless human, species-centric values.

scrub jay

scrub jay

We can view ourselves as valuable and important only to the extent that we conceive and act on the highest universal values, ideals, and visions for the majority of people and species on our planet. This is what I think of when I think of Positive Existentialism. We can measure our goodness only within the context of our actions on Earth. War may occasionally be the only choice as far as we can see, but war is never good. We can’t say, “We’re a great people because we destroyed a country or a people and won the war.” Millions of people may be starving and dying due to disease on our planet, yet we are no better as people just because we’re not the victims. At minimum, we each—most of us—need to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, we need to contribute positively, in some small way at least, to creating Paradise on Earth.

shorebird flock

shorebird flock

We must choose to create Paradise of Earth. We must act on our choice to create Paradise on Earth. To do anything else is to succumb to apathy, inaction—or self-serving action—that is, to remain blind to, and even hate, Nature—a great sadness, indeed.

song sparrow

song sparrow

Animals, including birds, have every bit as much right to survive, to live, as we do. Just because we’re human doesn’t mean that other species don’t have a right to exist. Just because other creatures lack the technology we possess to kill them doesn’t mean we have the right to kill them meaninglessly or accidentally. This seems to be the attitude of humans for the most part: We think that just because we’re human we have the right to destroy other life and wildlife habitat (which amounts to the same thing). This mindset is not a sign of intelligence, but of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, and sheepishness. It’s like a man stranded on a desert isle who cuts down the one and only tree that produces coconuts and upon which a parrot perches to keep him company and who cuts that tree down to make a raft to reach yet another desert isle with no palm or parrot on it. It doesn’t make sense to destroy this planet thinking we can simply go in search of and destroy another planet elsewhere. This is not a test we can fail.

spotted towhee

spotted towhee

Birds have been around since long before our hairy ape ancestors ever clambered down out of their trees and walked out onto the grasslands to scavenge lion-killed wildebeests. Birds may have evolved from dinosaurs, but I wonder what kind of dinosaur humans evolved from?

winter wren

winter wren

I take seriously the canary in the mine argument. The frogs, in the early 1980s and on, were the canaries in the mine when, due to human-made air pollution, holes opened up in the ozone layer and countless frogs died or were born deformed and dysfunctional. I’d like to suggest that, if we let bird species continue to go extinct (let alone cause them to go extinct) along with the pollinating bees, then we’re not too far behind them with our own demise (Endangered Species International lists 25 species of birds whom we humans have caused to go extinct since 1900). We are foolish to count our blessings when we think, “At least it’s not me dying due to global warming!” This is arrogant, short-range denial. And how stupid can we be to think we can simply move to another planet once we destroy this one! Or even to live under glass domes in order to survive the harsh climate and geological conditions that we helped create outside those domes. Are we so important as to deserve hell?

wood duck,male

wood duck

Beautiful, beautiful birds! What creatures besides birds lay eggs, sing, and fly? Insects lay eggs, and many fly, but none sing like birds (a few verge on melodious, such as the cicada). What other creatures display more brilliant and varied colors than birds (except butterflies and fish—other Earthlings whose species are endangered)? But even these criteria derive from a human aesthetic that values incomparable song, swift, soaring, and acrobatic flight, and dazzling plumage.

bald eagle

bald eagle

My favorite kinds of birds are the little ones that visit our house in the woods—the sparrows, finches, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, wrens, and warblers that typically dwell in forests, marshes, and meadows—the most apparently helpless, most childlike birds (except for those ubiquitous English sparrows, who, like the cockroaches, seem to be one of Earth’s ultimate survivors), the birds that for the most part seem not to eat human refuse. Many don’t eat the birdseed I put out for them because they’re not seed-eating birds or because they have an innate distrust of anything touched or created by human hands. They eat bugs—or seeds not supplied by the feeder. While I can’t really establish a relationship with an individual small bird the way I can with a crow, raven, or parrot, they’re always nearby, keeping me company while I work or entertaining me visually around the feeder, in the alder above, and in amongst the salal and rhododendrons at ground level. These birds are my personal canaries in the mine. Every year I participate in the Audubon annual bird count just to help make sure the numbers are still up and that none of the usual suspects have disappeared. The loneliness I’d feel without birds would be excruciating. I’m not sure I could go on living on a planet in which we humans have destroyed all the birds, where birds are merely the subject of ancient myths to which we hark with dreamy eyes and nostalgic literature, such as the beautiful passenger pigeon.

stellar jay

stellar jay

If we can’t save the birds and all or most of life on this Earth from which we were also born, then how important and valuable can we be? Having the ability to destroy life might make us feel powerful, but it hardly makes us “good.”

fox sparrow

fox sparrow

Hatred, destruction, and negligence of Earth are not family values. Letting one species of bird become extinct due to human causes is a failure of so-called human civilization. If the definition of civilization doesn’t extend to include other species, then either the definition needs to be reworked or the word needs to be thrown out of the lexicon altogether.

heron rookery

heron rookery

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Eagles and Angels (Americana poem)

The Eagles come goose-stepping
around the corner of Second and Main,
drilling the wet-eyed perspectives
of moms and dads with near military
machine work, hardly rippling a shirt
or smudging a collar as a band of Angels,
leaning in on tattooed shoulders,
rumble through in hairy procession
around the corner opposite, at First

and Main, their scars and eye patches
stating there’s nothing left to lose. The Eagles
come to a simultaneous heel-digging halt
in front of Marvin’s Drug and Fountain
as the Angels clutch and brake,
squeaking rubber and leather, to stop
face to face with the scouts and kill
their engines in leering disarray.

Grandmas and grandpas
hold their cherry soda breath.
The mouths of boys and girls
hang open. One last baby gurgles
before all fall hushed. Eagles
waver in their stations, the sky
weighs a ton on every shoulder.
A gas cap glints in the heat.

Legless veteran town drunk Jake
arm-hops through stock-still legs,
passing a dog with one eye raised,
stops before the cracked black jacket
and python beard of the hog boss, calls out,
“Are you the one they call The Snake?”
The hog boss chaws and spits,
fires a look down his dreadlocked beard.
“Mary over at Morgansville says Hi.”

Snake motions with his one good eye.
The Angels kick-start their Harleys,
drop them into gear, then roll
unwavering through the Eagle ranks,
never once brushing sleeve with handlebar
as the scouts resume their march down Main.
The thunder rises in pitch as the Angels
stretch their arms and hair out of town.

All heads turn in search of Jake
who’s returned to hold up the bar.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

More Dangerous Thoughts

I’ve heard from a number of readers about my first post, “Dangerous Thoughts.” Those who commented seemed to have read my purpose in that piece. Others, however, who called or met with me to discuss “Dangerous Thoughts” directly, had issues or suggestions.

First, I’d like to say that, while I do occasionally have the dangerous thoughts I describe in that first post, such thoughts do not dominate my mental activity, nor do they altogether limit my actions, although I have to admit that, because my world view is not the most popular on the planet, I’m sometimes reluctant to share it (yet here I am, exposing my antithetical thoughts in public via Wrenzai Insight Journal).

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2102

Fear (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2012)

I’d decided that while I feel certain that most people, particularly aspiring writers, have such potentially limiting dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t assume that they do. Nor did I feel I could exploit others’ dangerous thoughts in order to offer helpful tips on the subject. Thus, I chose to use my own creeping doubts and slippery ivory-tower views as my example. I really didn’t feel I was exposing my deepest, darkest secrets in doing so. I didn’t reveal any murders or breaches of national security. Still, I’ve found such insecurities to be universal. I can say this because I’ve taught writing for over twenty years and seen these creeping doubts in many of the struggling writers who have attended my classes or participated in my writing retreats.

I can live with my dangerous thought confessions, as I believe them to be as common as dreams.

Benevolence (Italy, 2011)

Benevolence (India, 2011)

But I found that several who responded took what I wrote literally, as a reflection of my dominant way of thought. And while I knew I was taking that risk, taking that risk has been worth it. One reader commented humorously, thanking me for revealing her own thoughts, which suggests I succeeded in my effort to show that such writing insecurities are universal.

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, December 2012

All-seeing Eye (San Francisco, February 2012)

But all this self-reflexivity falls short of my intent here. One close respondent was concerned that I was just as sadly limited by my state of mind as he has always suspected I am. Of course, because his insight into my inner state and into the extent of my experience in these matters is limited, I had to reassure him that, as I say above, the dangerous thoughts I describe in my earlier post do not represent my dominant mode of thinking as I approach the various problems, challenges, and desires of my life. Once I’d clarified this point for him, he reminded me of his own personal approach: Visualizing what you want to do paves the way to doing it.

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy, 2011)

Picture the Mind (Tivoli, Italy 2009)

I have always been one to visualize an outcome, then move in the direction of that outcome in order to make it real. Visualization is as common as leaves, and the idea has been developed in books (see Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization, for one). But the art is not so much in making visualizations real, but in taming the monkeys so they don’t get in the way of the visualization—or in the way of the realization of that visualization. Many people feel troubled by self-doubt, worthlessness, cultural marginalization, and historical oppression, or they lack support, belief, or material resources.

If a we think that a black man, fresh off death row, found innocent after twenty years of a crime for which he was wrongly convicted, can wake up on the first morning of his release and visualize all he wants to do that day and actually make it all real and that that man can do that as readily as someone who has had years of practice and success in building competence and self-confidence along the way—then we are out of touch with reality. There’s no comparison. The “ex-con” is going to have one hell of a time making it in the world, even if he never committed a crime in his life (in Texas, one out of seven on death row has been found to have been wrongly convicted). The thoughts that are likely to dominate this man’s mind might sound like this: “True, I’ve been proven innocent, I’ve been spared execution by state injection, but having spent twenty years on the Row, aren’t I still an ex-con? Aren’t I worthless for having been treated as worthless for twenty years?” It’s hard for a man to remember his self-worth, social viability, and democratic equality when for twenty years the great and powerful Wizard of the State has treated him as worthless. This man has a monkey in his mind the size of the Empire State Building to stare down and put to bed.

Compassion (Delhi, India, 2011)

Compassion (Delhi, India, February 2011)

It’s seems rather simplistic to say that all we have to do is get up in the morning and visualize what we intend to do and, voila, it’s as good as done. It’s simply not that simple for some people. They have complexes, blockages, and negative scripts running through the sound processing centers of their minds, and these complexes, blockages, and negative scripts are none other than those aforementioned monkeys playing havoc with our minds, eclipsing our best thoughts and undermining our best actions.

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Bereft (Ocean Shores, Washington)

Another close respondent reminded me of the Four Agreements. The idea is that if we focus on, and strive to live by, these Four Agreements, the monkeys will have no space in our minds to make a ruckus. They’ll give up and go obediently to bed as the saintly Four Agreements rise to conduct catechism on the mind’s thoughts. Here are the Four Agreements:

Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret (from ToltecSpirit.com).

I find the Four Agreements to be rock solid—true, valid, and potent. They’re hard to argue with. But what both Visualization and the Four Agreements don’t take into account is the chaos, sturm und drang, and compost of creativity that must be present in the writer’s life in order for the writer to produce the new and unexpected, the universally felt or experienced. For example, how can the mystery writer describe a murder without imagining the act, in detail, in advance of writing? Many ideas for art and literature have arrived on the crest of a primal wave of passion, such as when a woman imagines murdering her husband then writes a novel about it instead. How can scriptwriters and movie-makers create such violent films without visualizing the violence before hand? There’s a wildness that must be groomed, a dangerous but realistic and productive wildness that provides fodder for depictions of the worst, as well as the best, of what it is to be human. Strict visualization of monetary outcomes and purist actualization of a few agreements may make the mind too square or narrow to allow for wild expressions of beauty and meaning. Artists—even scientists, I’d suggest—can’t afford to be too strict of thought.

Wrath (Olympia, Washington)

Wrath (Olympia, Washington, June 2011)

While Visualization and the Four Agreements are excellent thinking tools with which to become more productive, successful, or enlightened, if we occupy our minds too much of the time with strict principles, we may become rigid in our thinking, which, in turn, may leave little room for chaos, compost, creativity, and growth.

Confiding (Ocean Shores)

Confiding (Ocean Shores, June 2011)

Dangerous Thoughts

Sometimes in the morning, when I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, as I’m listening to music, watching the birds at the feeder through the window, having my way with words, drinking a cup of coffee, I suddenly feel warm and fuzzy all over. I’m enveloped in a glow of satisfaction and completion. And I realize I’m feeling about as good as I can feel in a day, without introducing sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or chocolate) to artificially boost or even induce the sensation. In other words, for a moment, I’m happy.

Aglow (photos by Rick, Italy 2013)

Aglow (photos by Rick, Italy 2013)

But other times I feel downright irritable, with my wife, with my work, with my stressed-out body, with how hard it is to write. It’s then that I catch myself at my worst, when the monkeys in my mind are making havoc with my mental tranquility, not to mention with my work and relationships. I’m having dangerous thoughts. No, not thoughts as fatal as committing suicide or turning to serious drinking or running away for good (and at such a late date!)—but dangerous thoughts. I’m beating myself up with synaptic kicks and punches—and any one else in there who gets in my mind’s way. And I realize that I have these dangerous thoughts more often than just during these isolated funks. I have them more often than I like to think I have them.

Dangerous Thoughts

Dangerous Thoughts

Here they come! They come like demons out of hell. I’m afraid I don’t have anything meaningful or interesting to share. I’m afraid no one wants to read my writing. Do I think I’m some sort of authority? Who the hell do I think I am anyway, thinking I can be a writer—let alone a successful one? I may not be guilty of having actual violent thoughts, nor even hateful thoughts, since hate is so imbued in violence anyway, but judgmental thoughts, yes, and perhaps even cruel or malicious thoughts. Am I splitting hairs here? While I may not allow myself to indulge freely in self-loathing, I certainly work hard (yet fail) to suppress self-doubt. And while I brag that I’m not superstitious, I catch myself at “creeping superstition,” the sensation that, maybe, just maybe, the circumstances are lining up in my favor, that someone out there is looking upon me favorably when in fact there’s no evidence to support such a thought. Wishful thinking turns to hope which becomes a real possibility for a moment, when in fact I haven’t even lifted a finger or clicked a key. Creeping superstition. Dangerous thoughts.

Monster Shop

Monster Shop

Then there’s the arrogance, the secret vanities, those feelings of superiority I swing about me like a cudgel in my mind—that my philosophy is the ultimate view, the answer to the world’s problems—that I’m the enlightened one. If only they’d just look they’d finally see themselves for what they are and clean up their act—then they’d thank me for my wisdom! I even have a vanity about not being vain!

Enlightenment

Enlightenment

But aren’t I baring my soft underbelly here, lowering my neck for the sword’s blow, making a show of weakness? Won’t these self-admissions gain me doubt, disrespect, even derision? Good question! But I keep on trudging down the shadowy path where, nevertheless, I continue to catch glimpses of light. I believe in truth. I believe in courage.

Mouth of Truth

Mouth of Truth

So I catch myself at these dangerous thoughts. I suddenly hear the monkeys rough-housing in my cranium. I feel them tumbling and thumping against the inner walls of my skull. Now what? After all, what will I have left to think about if not these holier-than-thou, self-fulfillingly prophetic negative thoughts? Won’t an unbearably weighty silence suddenly fall like a clap of thunder on the vast cavern of my mind? And, hey, what does a peaceful, kind, loving, generous, positive, productive, considerate, thoughtful thought look like, anyway?

Skull in Hand

Skull in Hand

In yoga, the sanskrit word ahimsa, meaning “non-violence,” refers not only to one’s deeds and words but also to one’s thoughts. The dangerous thoughts I list above are no less mental acts of violence than greed, envy, and covetousness are mental acts of violence. But I’m not sharing these seedy secrets in order to bring world peace; I’m sharing them to bring peace—and freedom—to myself. That’s where it starts—with the self. I try to open spaces of time to observe my thoughts, especially those naughty, incorrigible monkeys rattling the bars of my tight little cage, and simply watch them till they settle down and go to sleep. To self-doubt I reply that while I can’t prove I can write successfully, neither can I prove I can’t. The self-doubt monkey yawns, lies down, and falls asleep. To arrogance, I ask myself how I like living in an ivory tower. Lonely up here? Monkey Superior stretches, lies down, and takes a long nap.

I am not my thoughts. I may have my thoughts—my thoughts may be mine when I have them—but they’re really just little word noises that blow like autumn leaves through the small dark vacuum of an otherwise vast and well-lit self. In mind, I can remain silent; silence is healthier than we think. Or in thought, I can be creative. I can look at the possibilities. I can solve problems. I can appreciate. I can analyze (if for the right reasons—that is, not to compare, but to understand). Or I can observe my thoughts and put the monkeys to bed so I wake up in the morning already glowing with happiness.

Happy Boar

Happy Boar