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Friday, 30 December 2016

We Are the 99%

Some very smart people in our species have postured that we have entered the Age of the Anthropocene, coining a new geologic era in earth's history, marked by unprecedented human impact to our beautiful Earth.

While the human species has made incredible technological advances, it has performed great blunders along the way - ecological destruction, disintegration of our health and community, and hegemony of power, to name a few.
A <a href="">2013 art installation</a> at Edge Hill University near Liverpool, England, by <a href="">Robyn Woolston</a> included this mock sign, "Welcome to the Fabulous Anthropocene Era" (<a href="">enlarge</a>). The Anthropocene is a name some scientists have proposed for this era in which humans have become a dominant influence on the environment.
Photo "courtesy" of the NY Times
I can see the collective past generations of the human race turning in their graves, yelling "hey, look how we lived!" and "we are the 99%."

It is humbling to think that the modern era we live in has encompassed a fraction of 1% of our species existence. We take our present for granted, and naively believe that the way we live now is how it's always been.

History is a wonderful teacher, and we can't forget the past lessons from the more than 99% of our own history. After all, we have the same biological hard wiring as those ancestors of the past 99%. I'm not saying to go back to our hunter gatherer days. But some things about us never do change, and should not be compromised.

The good news is we don't need to look that far into the past for good advice.

99% Biology

Michael Pollan, an author on everything food, and one of my personal idols, says to eat what your grandparents ate, or what traditional cultures ate. The more I've personally researched food, the more I have confirmed this mantra.

For example, humans are not biologically adapted to eating unfermented soy (soy sauce and miso are fermented, tofu is coagulated). Yet many products made from this are flooding our marketplace in recent decades, along with conflicting science about its health value. The answer lies in our grandparents' generation: noone back then ever consumed unfermented soy products (edamame was a rarely indulged exception).

In other news on the health front, there is now conflicting science about hand sanitizers. Research is starting to show they can weaken our bodies by killing the good microorganisms on our skin, of which there reside 1,000+ species. Hand sanitizers are certainly useful in some situations but should not be overused.

It's pretty daunting to fathom how much bacteria is inside and on us - studies have provided a vast range of estimates, from 100 billion up to 50 trillion cells. By contrast, our bodies are made up of around 30 trillion cells. No matter how you look at it, these statistics make our fear of bacteria seem utterly irrational.

Bacteria are our allies. Fermented foods nourish our gut with beneficial bacteria. There is even research saying that beards contain beneficial bacteria that prevent its owners from getting sick.

Personally, I love germs, I say bring them on. I camped almost all summer, and lived isolated in the forest for one month in a "germy" environment, showering by jumping into lakes, and sleeping through some very cold nights. I haven't gotten sick this year and feel stronger than ever. It is arguable that I lived more like the past 99%.
I love getting a little dirty
99% Awake

One of the greatest achievements in our less than 1% slice of human history, is the screen. The advent of TVs, cell phones and virtual reality have given us the ability to escape our physical realities. We have been given a window through which a superficial world of infinite entertainment beckons us.

Elon Musk has brought attention to the fact that in the coming decades, virtual reality could so mimic real life that we may no longer distinguish which reality is the real one. Just imagine a dream life of living on a beach. Nice life, right? Now what if I told you you could achieve this dream from your living room couch? Welcome to the Matrix.

The evidence is already apparent in our young generation. Everywhere, they can be seen tuned in to their alternate reality through their screens. As a result, they are losing touch with the one that matters. Their attention spans, empathy, and physical health are all diminishing. Their values are shifting towards individualism and fame through social media.

Here, lessons from the past 99% are paramount.

Humans of our past lived in nature, connected with the land and the trees, tending to it and deriving their sustenance from it, building community and strong relationships around their shared struggle. Today's native and tribal populations are continuing examples of this connection.
The cure for all our ills lie in our tents
Again, I'm not saying that we all need to return to live in the forest. But perhaps we need to reconnect with reality by spending more time in nature. No amount of screen time can match the healing power of nature.

However, in our addicted society, screens join a host of other substances and habits that serve to dull and depress our minds, such as gambling and alcohol, to name a few. What we need is the opposite - to activate our minds and stimulate the imagination.

Again, our past 99% contains such lessons.

Visionary plants have been a part of indigenous cultures for centuries. Plants such as peyote, eboga, San Pedro and ayahuasca, which have psychedelic effects, are used in rites of passage for children and adults. They take the user on an internal journey, or a "trip", in which they experience hallucinations which transform their minds. In fact, our brains contain neuron receptors for DMT, the chemical present in ayahuasca. This can't be a coincidence.
No explanation needed
Today, studies are showing that responsible doses of the psychedelics magic mushrooms and LSD (acid) can cure addiction, depression and PTSD. From personal experience, these substances have helped me feel love, created healing, and activated my mind. At the end of these "trips" I hear music in my head, and feel more creative. I've become a better person for these experiences.

These are only a handful of lessons that our ancestors of the past 99% can offer. And for the last time, this doesn't mean we should all go back to being farmers or hunter-gatherers.

But in a rapidly modernizing society, changing faster than our bodies can adapt to, we must not forget lessons of the past, and be mindful of the need to find a balance between modern amenities and past traditional and cultural ways of life, particularly regarding the food and medicine we put into our bodies, and our brains.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Wilderness of Opinions

Earlier this year I read an amazing article on the human nature of climate change denial. The article focuses on our attachment to our identity, which defines who we are, what we do, and what we believe in.

Deniers of climate change encompass a surprisingly diverse group of people, from uneducated to highly successful. But they all share the common thread of living a lifestyle heavily tied to fossil fuels, developing their identities around it. Climate change, though maybe rational in their minds, challenges, no, attacks their identities so fervently, it sends them into defensive mode, triggering denial.
Hitchhiking - a great way to reduce carbon footprint and make human connections
This speaks to the overall lack of effort towards reducing our carbon footprint, especially at an individual level. We avoid simple efforts such as driving and flying less because these habits have become ingrained in our identities.

And clinging to our identities is at the core behind a lot of stubbornness, inaction, and refusal to change.

There has been a recent growing awareness about the meat industry's unparalleled impact on the environment. The documentary Cowspiracy is unique in that it exposes how environmental non-profits avoid advocating reduction in meat consumption for fear of alienating its subscribers.

People who eat meat may be able to rationalize this information, but they feel so attacked by it that they would rather ignore it completely. They can accept taking shorter showers, as water consumption doesn't strongly define their identity and, if they do this, they can go on with their lives with their identities intact, ego unbruised. But this provides a false sense of accomplishment, as the relative impact is much lower.
When you work closer with the animals you eat, you learn compassion and respect for them
Beyond environmental issues, identity is at the core of many social issues such as Trump hate, homophobia and racism. At a personal level, identity plays a vital role in our sanity. Lack of identity can result from lack of community or unresolved existential questions.

My own questions of identity stem from culture clash and generational gaps. My upbringing on traditional Chinese family values within a North American individualistic culture has fostered identity confusion, triggering a search for who I am that continues to this day. During this search, my identity has shapeshifted and flowed, like the roots of a tree. My pilgrimage has recently taken me back where it started - my home in Ontario. Many of my friends and family here, by contrast, have formed and set their identities, like concrete. Unfortunately, the roots of a tree can crack and split concrete. Over the past few years, my own budding roots have cracked the concrete forms around me, creating a divided reaction.

Some view me with shock and disapproval. They become defensive when confronted by practical information that I offer. For example, everyone acknowledges the food waste dilemma, and I posture that dumpster diving makes sense no matter how you look at it. But some people would rather call it disgusting despite my assurance that a lot of food I recover is in fine condition.

At the same time, I am also vulnerable to experiencing disbelief when I encounter people with completely opposite identities to mine. As long as I don't allow judgment to creep in, I can forgive myself. Judgment is the slippery slope towards contempt and ignorance.

On the other hand, some view me with wonder and inspiration. Some see the identity I've carved for myself and use it, like a mirror, for inner-reflection. It's for this positive impact that I do what I do and write what I write.

For better or for worse, I'm typically not the kind of person some people surround themselves with, so my presence in their lives is almost like a wild card; I don't reinforce their identity - I challenge it. With this awareness, my own challenge is to never get too caught up with labels such as hippie and outcast, but to use my "differentness" to encourage open and engaging dialogue, to foster understanding and respect, not contempt and division.
Don't let this guy give hippies a bad name
A wise person at a Vipassana meditation course told me that, concerning any subjective topic, there exists a "wilderness of opinions", and sometimes to force one's opinion upon others is just "creating imaginary problems." In other words, it's usually better to accept someone for their differences, rather than trying to get them to conform to your liking.

In this vein, I think I've learned to not cling to my identity, so that I can welcome conflicting ideas and accept people how they are. My hope is that others can do the same for me, and that we can work towards understanding and respect.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Walking A Line Between Two Worlds

As 2016 wraps up, I reflect upon an intense year of new experiences, new friendships as well as difficult relationships. With each adventure completed I feel like I'm graduating another test and advancing in the school of life. It's a bit unexpected then that, as the year concludes, I've been feeling inexorably stuck, or floating.
Me trying on the waiter hat in Lake Louise
I'm floating between two worlds. The world which I emerged from - populated by 9-to-5-ers - and the world outside of the matrix. I'm talking about a world filled with people that chose a different path - the hippies and nomads, the musicians and artists, spiritual warriors and nature protectors. We'll call this group the free spirits. These two societies co mingle in the same cities and streets, but navigate their daily lives hardly aware of eachother's existence, as if they were in separate worlds.
Me living in the forest for a month

Me trying the cherry picker life
On the heels of the US election, most of us have learned a harsh realization about being caught in two worlds - that we live in a comfortable "bubble" of familiar people and places, but the reality is we are surrounded by people who think differently than us - a lot differently. Think about it - nearly half of all people you encounter on a street in America voted Trump. It really makes you question people. But do we have the right to judge Trump voters?

Studies have proven that, in our individual quests to minimize the chaos around us, our brains label and reduce everyone down to simple categories and characteristics. This is the mechanism behind stereotyping and extremist labelling. Unfortunately, this mechanism fails because there is a remarkable amount of diversity in every group of people. While stereotypes can represent partial truth, we forgo the work of filtering beyond that partial truth when we judge people. And you cannot judge anyone when you have only the partial truth.

In the Trump dilemma we come face to face with the universal truth that noone really has the right to judge anyone unless having walked in their shoes.

The free spirits are as misunderstood as the Trump voter group; they're just more easily ignored. I find myself in the rare situation of having traded in 6 years of the 9-to-5 lifestyle to bum around with the free spirits in the past few years. I feel like I've immersed myself enough in both worlds, and have walked enough in the shoes of both societies, to offer some objective insights and comparisons.
Me in full free spirit mode
Free spirits get the extremism label outcast or weird. People judge them for living life differently than everybody else, and are thus deemed irresponsible, unrealistic, and sometimes selfish. This is, of course, only a partial truth.

What is true is that most free spirits lose themselves before they find themselves, but are only labeled as lost. Sure, many stay lost, but this is universally true of any society. Many of the free spirits I've met are stable and empowered, surviving in and changing the system from within, not just chaining themselves to trees and doing psychedelics in the forest. They count among the most wise and inspiring people I've ever met. They may not have the fancy degrees, well paid jobs or RRSPs to prove it. But they also don't have regrets.

Meanwhile the free spirits judge the 9-to-5-ers for being materialistic and conformists in a corrupt and unsustainable system. This is again a partial truth. Like any other society there are those who fit in, there are pretenders, and there are those lost and stuck in the system and don't know how to get out of it.

So where do I belong?

Once you go down the rabbit hole, it's hard to get out of it. I was lost in that world for awhile but I'm slowly finding myself. In the free spirit world, I have embarked on unforgettable adventures, encountered healing forces, expanded my consciousness, and found love and support from amazingly inspiring people.
The rabbit hole is filled with wonders, such as this beautiful cedar, in the backwoods of Vancouver Island.
Because of my past 9-to-5 life, it can be hard to identify with some hardcore free spirits, but it is certainly harder now to identify with 9-to-5-ers because, while free spirits share the struggle to navigate within the larger society, the opposite is not true. Consequently, I am still floating between the two worlds - but I'm proud to be paddling my way to solid middle ground.

Moving forward I hope I can change the system from within, and find grounding and stability again. But, in order to accomplish this, I need patience, not just from myself but from those around me, especially in the 9-to-5 world who still see me as lost.

PS. I apologize if anyone was offended by labels such as 9-to-5ers and hippies. I am aware of my hipocrisy in using these terms in the very same article where I condemn use of such terms
PPS. Hippie comes with negative connotations in today's society, but I think it's time for a redifinition. I'm a hippie and proud of it!