I’d like to provide some context for the subsequent essay series. As a relatively unknown author on the brink of publishing a real pile of material (see the Overview page for this 7-part series), I feel I should at least tell about myself and my method upfront.
The essays in this series are concerned with how the monstrous, epic drama of our present-day reality is animated by subtle winds of power—namely life power (innate) and meme power (dependent on life power).
Mr. Trump, as a wealthy real estate mogul, known for his ostentatious tastes and relentlessly self-absorbed persona, embodies power as conventionally defined through the lens of American capitalism. He is now in one of the most powerful roles on the planet, too, as president of the United States. However, Trump is devoid of almost all of the characteristics of good leaders, as defined, enduringly, for thousands of years in cultures around the globe. He is sadly bereft of many developmental aspects of mature humans. I would argue that his intense hunger for external approval is a byproduct of his lack of personal power in capacities such as peacefulness, understanding, empathy and emotional security. Yet, Trump is an extremely sophisticated showman—and by provoking people’s latent fears, he has channeled Americans’ psychic power into extraordinary political power, with the 2016 presidential election representing a major political upset (with or without Russia’s aid). This makes Trump a vibrant jumping-off point for investigating the core nature—as well as the many facets—of power.
Each essay deals with the unfolding, interdependent effects of these powers on a different scale, proceeding from the personal/intimate to the social/institutional. This essay series aims to penetrate to the roots of power and the shaping of material conditions through memes and through minds. I also discuss what is happening to us—“us” being anyone who is impacted by the Trump phenomenon, especially but not exclusively Americans—on individual and collective psychological levels, as we are forced to confront and grapple with certain popular myths about ourselves, our nation, and our global civilization.
I attempt to show that the intrinsic root and source of power is our embodied consciousness—and to describe some effectual ways by which we may wield our often invisible yet immanent power. This power seems invisible in the sense that it is the subtle cause underlying action in reality—the “ghost in the machine,” so to speak. However, it is also invisible due to the ways in which we are taught in the modern, colonized era to not see it, to suppress and fear it, to avoid attempts to understand it, and thus to not channel it freely. The simple, subjective act of knowing the nature of our power—and learning to work with it—undermines the entire set of oppressive structures currently arranged to extract and consolidate as much value as possible from the diverse living strata of the Earth. Our culture is colonized by memes that reinforce patterns of oppression we’ve internalized in our psyches. Still, though the prevailing set of socioeconomic norms seems to absorb us, we possess the power to move within them—more than we may realize.
I want to speak clearly, if sometimes crisply, about the aspects of consciousness that have underpinned Donald Trump’s rise to political power. These pieces use Donald Trump as a point of focus and departure for a deeper analysis. As a media phenomenon and as a person, Trump represents a concentration, an intensification, of dangerous patterns which some of us may have otherwise continued to blithely ignore or dismiss as benign. Thus, Trump’s widespread presence in consciousness at this point is a catalyst for awareness: as our survival instincts bristle and flare, a heightened sensitivity to perception is activated. This blessedly allows the subtle roots animating the gross phenomena to be revealed and traced, when previously, tolerating the threat was an acceptable stance among those of relative privilege.
Amidst the bombast and bluster of a raging demon-god, it’s quite like witnessing a natural breeze rustle the curtain, allowing the true wizard of Oz—a mere insecure man—to be apprehended. And the “wizard” is merely a human magician with a fixation on appearing “big” and controlling others. As a simple person, and not a seething supernatural demigod—he can be worked with. Moreover, insofar as “Donald Trump” is a creation of our media, and our media is a manifestation of our collective consciousness, we can work through “Donald Trump” ourselves.I feel driven to “come out” as a writer at this time, as uncomfortable as this process is for me, because I believe I have some wisdom to share in this situation, based on how I’ve trained my mind to be resilient in the face of toxic cultural patterns. Unfortunately, I observe that a majority of us today (many more than I was willing to admit to myself, until recent confusion-amplifying events in the sociopolitical sphere) do not understand how our minds work, and how the world works, on subtle levels. Being subject to our fluctuating feelings and thoughts—like a cork bobbing on an ocean—without any broader, grounding, explanatory sense of the patterns and laws of reality (often, because we have never fiercely tested our own ossified beliefs), breeds suffering and violence. When the majority of people—or perhaps a simple minority of people who yet wield the majority of social and material capital—would destroy all life, born and unborn, in an unbending enforcement of their projected concepts, something is gravely imbalanced, and those with wisdom must assert themselves, for the sake of restoring basic sanity and systemic integrity.
Appalled and amazed, I witness the profoundly confused and agitated condition of my fellow Americans from the vantage point of a person who has, by contrast, experienced consistently increasing and deep self-actualization and “making sense of the world” since adolescence. Since my youth, I’ve honed a notable personal “powerfulness”—yet it is a vastly different kind of power than the kind President Trump wields. The power I’ve tapped has to do with an ever more skillful harnessing of the inherent life energy that passes through my body—through the application of ethics, wisdom, self-reflection, and dharma practice…whereas Trump, deprived of personal access to such power, obsessively seeks to control more and more external resources and people through an authoritarian, or “power over,” model, to satisfy the profound gap within him. Or, so goes my hypothesis.
Innate Power: Embracing change, embracing difference
Let me tell you about the source of power that I do know—and thus, can speak of, with some authority.
Since my early teen years, I have actively and deliberately developed my embodied consciousness. That means: I have invested considerable energy regularly, if not daily, in experimenting with and studying my evolving sense of what is true and real—making hypotheses about what is “true” and then proceeding to test my assumptions, fearlessly. In my particular journey of personhood, I have cycled through various identities. I’ve gone from a repressed poet to a cynical liberal activist, defining my self-expression only in terms of what I opposed. I’ve identified as a scientific rationalist, a leftist anarchist, an atheist, a radical environmental justice nag, a pragmatist, a constructivist, a cooperatives expert/organizer, a Buddhist, a permaculture and decolonization practitioner… Each of the foregoing identities or frameworks was useful for a time; each allowed me to predict and understand certain things about my reality. And then each fell away, partly or wholly, like a shed skin or autumn leaves, to be used as mulch in a more explanatory, more elegant, more inclusive articulation of the complex of patterns I find myself immersed in.Throughout this age-old process, I’ve grown to take my own convictions with a grain of salt. I’ve become aware of this pattern of “philosophical molting,” such that no matter how fervently I may believe something is true this instant, I always reserve an ounce of faith that “this, too” will eventually fall away. How/why? By encountering information or having experiences that do not conform to my existing framework. No one belief I have ever held, no matter how convinced I felt about it, could ever contain the full reality. Having a continual awareness that “this, too, isn’t the full picture” is one of the healthiest human qualities to cultivate, in my opinion. Even when experiencing extreme emotions or thoughts, a little part of me tends to remain in touch with impermanence, with witnessing it all as a process my consciousness is undergoing.
I’ve learned that this process of molting ideologies couldn’t be more natural: the arising and the passing away of thought forms. Eventually my body will perish, and then what will become of all those stored and carefully-constructed belief systems but to completely dissipate on the breeze? But then why attach ourselves to ideas at all? If we “can’t take it with us,” what is the proper function of this belief-development process?
To survive, of course! (It’s evolutionary, my dear Watson.) Concepts, handled by the mind, are emergent aspects of ancient natural cognitive processes: the same processes by which bees, crows, dogs—anything reproducing and sentient—can use generalized, encoded responses to stimuli to “make sense” of and intelligently navigate the world encompassing us. When our beliefs cease to serve our life process, it’s time to let them go and cultivate more advantageous ones.
How will we survive today and tomorrow, in a world immeasurably more complex, fraught, overwhelming, frustrating, enormously entangled, and ecologically devastated than anything our ancestors had to grapple with? In these essays, I would like to suggest that we can apply the same ancient built-in mechanisms that helped us persevere though past environmental challenges to “suss out” today’s path to sanity, well-being, and mutual benefit. Mind training systems (such as Buddhism, which is one I can personally vouch for) are a way to condition the patterns of one’s thoughts to better vet and test ideas, relinquish unhelpful ones, and cultivate more life-optimal ones. An actively trained mind responds to reality with greater integrity than an untrained (i.e., passively conditioned) mind.
Remaining aware of my thoughts’ impermanence and conditionality gives me a heightened immunity to “control by memes.” Thus, sometimes, even as dramatic and horribly dark thoughts are stalking my psyche, I am able to break through and even laugh at what I see my mind telling itself—recognizing the conditional nature of it all, and so not feeling obligated to act on my ego’s—temporary—threatening, harrowing machinations. I know now that the overblown doom-and-gloom Wizard of Oz is just a little man trying to look big—the ego within me. And this practice is how I have become internally resilient, able to resist emotionally-agitated thoughtforms and be at ease in the conditional nature of everything. If you were to ask me to kill or die for any one of my current beliefs, I’d look at you with a sustained, curious gaze, and respond, “No, I’d rather not.”To train the mind for resilience, it is of the utmost importance that people experience contrasting viewpoints and diverse cultures, and cultivate open, curious minds—willing to pick up, examine and set aside concepts at will (like the tools for survival that they are). What distinguishes me is only that I have made a path, habit, and practice out of repeatedly breaking the bubble of my particular unearned situation and its comforts. I have sought out contrasting experiences. I have thrown myself into situations I didn’t understand. I have chosen to do the opposite of what I believed was the right way to do things on more occasions than I can count. Even when my concepts about things have been obliterated—I’ve remained. And while there is surely pain to this process, I also experience a pervading peace in the space between assumptions, as well as an intrinsic bliss that comes with challenging my brain to embrace the world in its vastness—how it will always ever be beyond my ideas about it. Although unconventional, this path has been a rewarding one that pays regular dividends in insight. There’s one core and immutable premise that underpins this lifestyle: I trust that every experience, no matter how good or bad, teaches about reality—that reality is knowable and workable. To proceed on this deep-diving odyssey with me, I must encourage you to take this approach within yourself.
In the following pieces, I discuss the difference between beneficial, productive, or adaptive memes, and cancerous or otherwise maladapted memes (many of which prevail and are choking the planet of life, currently). However, before we can be confident in our judgments in discerning what differentiates healthful from malicious memes, we must mindfully practice just being with whatever comes up in our minds. Amidst the outrageous difficulties and tensions that this historic moment is surfacing, I invite you to just stay with your breath. Just notice how you feel. (You can’t change the world in an instant, but you can at least witness your breath, right?)
Take it all in. Take in information, take in various points of view, other people’s truths—if a contradiction is found, don’t reject one idea or the other, offhand. Reflect. Breathe. Marinade in the tensions, rather. Tolerate the cognitive-dissonant chords. What someone tells you is true for them, pretend is true for you—just as an experiment. Try their viewpoint on for size. (Ultimately, you needn’t accept their assumptions, but do you understand—can you relate—to why they’d arrive at the conclusions they have?) Set aside mental constraints. Let it be. Soften and relax. You might feel intense impulses or sensations. Watch them, and don’t react. Stay.
This is empathy.
The curious thing about including many points of view as true is that the mind doesn’t necessarily become noisier and more cacophonous (though it may feel that way for a spell). Gradually, an integration process happens—you note where subtle truths have alignment, and you arrange the tones into ever-more blissfully climactic harmonies. That’s the paradox: the more of others’ truths you include, the more spacious you become by being better able to let manifest phenomena just be without throwing up rigid walls of thought-resistance. You are able to joyfully abide more often in a peaceful space of mind—such that, as a yoga teacher once said to me, “when a situation comes up and you do need to use your thoughts, they are that much more skillful and potent.”
We must open to the world, now and every “now” we have the temporary privilege of tasting. The goal is to be able to work with the world as it is: to deny nothing, to weave all the voices of existence into a sense-making harmony. To work with the world as it is, one must learn to work with symphonies of voices—be both a profound appreciator and patron of the world’s “music,” and a skillful orchestral arranger and composer. The ultimate aim is that the world totally fits together with itself, like a symphony at peak performance, which includes you… The ultimate aim is flow, that you resist nothing as “not-you” or not-OK, that you engulf any phenomenon in caring understanding. It is then that we will be free to go beyond the constraints of today, and give life to our deepest dreams.I feel reactions in line with what you may feel in grappling with the costs and impacts of the condition of Trump’s presidency and the overall state of global economics and political power today—anger, stress, anxiety, worry, disgust, pain. However, on the whole, I also reside in an authentic peace that transcends the current scenario, a peace emerging from the sense that I feel understanding for what is happening and why, and I hold it in compassion. It is this eerie poise that sets me apart in a wide range of scenarios—stressful, extreme, or otherwise. It’s not that I think I have “all things figured out.” It’s that I think I know enough to be able to work with reality, in its varieties, successfully.
If you cannot confidently say about the world and your place in it, “I understand what is happening,” I hope you will continue reading. Sometimes I speak from the perspective of a millennial American Buddhist, sometimes as a long-time student of cooperative organizations and community organizing processes, sometimes with the raw, impassioned voice of a suffering artist. Whether you respond to my anger, to my love, to my hope, or whatever you see in the mirror of me: I hope what I write rings a bell of resonance within you.
Working with What Is
To recap, I am proposing that anything we can claim to have perceived or interpreted must be accepted as only a partial and conditional view on our mysterious, shared situation. There are some things I can claim insight to, and other things I cannot; aspects of power I can claim experience of, and aspects I cannot. No matter how much I “see” Donald Trump as a daily fixture of the news, and no matter how I interpret what I see about Trump’s personality, persona and actions—and no matter how emotively I may adhere to those interpretations—I still must accept that I cannot see Trump in his wholeness. I do not (and would not) claim to have a universal answer to the puzzle of our situation.
Rather, I am putting forth some incisive questions that I think may help “cut through” the miring confusion, and unlock as-yet unrealized potential in our current situation. One of the “angles,” or strategies, in my proffered toolkit is the appropriate application of anger.
Anger is one of the many voices or angles I employ in this series to “get at” what I feel I need to get at. And yet, these essays argue that the only way to liberation is through understanding and embracing our challenges at the human and humanistic levels—through having compassion for our human situation. This attitude may seem to be in tension with the language of enmity I at times employ. I’d like to address that now.
Expressing an urge to actively respond to a perceived threat, anger is an appropriate and important emotion to feel at this time. Without anger, we wouldn’t have the energy nor daring to act with the aim of reducing suffering or benefiting the world. I would never have had the fuel to generate these pieces—these many thousands of words—without anger. Indeed, I have been angry with the exploits and destruction attendant to global neo-capitalism since my early teens. Yet I attempt to direct my anger to the real roots of its cause—not at the particular people who represent and perpetuate it (as the people only change with time and circumstance), but at the cancerous pattern itself, which destroys even the supposedly “privileged” people in its wake. I attempt to use anger as a scythe, to slice away the lies and ruses, to sink the blade’s teeth through the protective meat and hit the bone. Unless we cut and starve off the real roots of our problems, they will only continue to regenerate and evolve—with higher and higher stakes.There are many spiritual traditions in which it is taught that anger only ever obscures the true, divine reality of the moment—that anger is a poison and it blocks authentic relating. In my spiritual tradition, involving a Vajrayana path of Buddhism, nothing—even anger—doesn’t belong in our human experience. Rather, one must learn to skillfully transmute anger as it arises so that it doesn’t result in unconscious, poisonous divisiveness, but instead actuates mirror-like wisdom. Mirror-like wisdom is the straightforward, unflinching showing of the way things are. In looking at the honest, frank reflection, many people may see things they would rather avoid seeing—and may react with fear, blame, rejection, aggression, etc. But if, instead, they use the opportunity of the reflection to further break through the barriers between themselves and the world, a new measure of understanding becomes possible. This is how mirror-like wisdom can spread enlightenment.
Although anger has the power to show us what is real through mirror-like wisdom, it is anything but spiritually “elevated”—anger is earthy. It deals with an urge to address the here and now. I am extremely concerned that we may lose touch with our ground, the real, in favor of the tantalizing distractions offered by fleeting illusions (ideas). There is a great seductive power to believing President Trump will fix everything.
There is seduction, as well, in reverting to militarism, nihilism, or fundamentalism in resistance to Trump. These frameworks are seductive precisely because they indulge and leverage our unconscious emotions in absorbing narratives promising an amazing future bounty… if only we’ll serve their ends now. Like candy dangled over a child’s head, the emotional appeals of these narratives fixate our minds and we follow dutifully like a zombie follows his hunger. They are an appeal to our cravings for an order that is tidier than today’s messy, struggle-filled reality. Is it any wonder escapist media and immersive video games (even, to wit, virtual reality) are exploding right now—just as we need to be paying more attention than ever to our common ecological context? Thus, the seductive narratives and not the much trickier realities dominate our minds and actions. Worse, in consumerist cultures like our own, people have been made especially vulnerable to seductive narratives. (It is worth examining, indeed, who would stand to profit off of your subscription to any of the aforementioned “isms”.) But weak minds will bear distorted fruits. Really: our disordered minds are what is causing a mess of reality, today.
It is THIS I hunger to “go beyond.” These pieces aim to penetrate through various seductions and illusions, and cut to the flesh of the radical alternatives rooted in the real—that raw, earthy, human, funky, NOW. In reality: humans and the planet are stressed beyond imagination. We are inundated with a raging hellstorm of competing ideas, flying about chaotically at an escalating speed and ferocity, terrifying meek mortals. To cut through the deafening noise of that storm, I quietly ask:
What is the nature of ideas?
What is the the nature of human mind-bodies (consciousnesses), on which ideas depend?
Where does power reside—in the ideas, or in the human mind-bodies?
Could we transform the way we relate to our ideas so as to better liberate human potential? That is, could we transform our relationship to ideas such that the fullness of human intelligence is more available to engage enhanced, participatory and harmonic forms of sense-making—and of world-making?I’ll admit there is one identity that has persisted, like a subtle thread, throughout the evolution of my belief systems. I am an activist still. I strongly desire that my actions in the world cause benefit to other beings. I have been perpetually engaged in an effort to refine the effectiveness of my efforts. I am showing up in this space with the sincere hope that what I present may penetrate to the roots—and no longer merely hack at the symptoms—of our difficulties.
Our difficulties existed before Trump became president, and will exist after he’s gone unless we collectively take right action and seize the day. If you are reading this because you are eager to apply emergent strategies to get at our root problems, and you’re willing to go beyond the standard framings—external and internal—to get the job done, then let us venture forth to those horizons.
The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha destroyed the very last and fiercest of his arising doubts, fears, and temptations by touching the earth and declaring, with a “lion’s roar,” that: as a being of the Earth he had every right to bear witness to ultimate truth and to become enlightened. My own power to speak aloud what I see to be true is so modeled—yet is very difficult for me, as I spent years being socially rewarded for my silence and dutifulness, and almost as many years being ostracized for pursuing a non-conforming direction and for insisting on investigating honestly “what’s real, here.” Pushing back against the tide of this conditioned behavior, I acknowledge that remaining silent supports the conditions for ignorant violence to continue spreading. This I cannot accept—and so I must speak. If there was a defiance in the Buddha’s “lion’s roar,” it was also pure and true. So may the voices I use—including my anger—be.
I have a right to tell you what I see, openly, freely, because I am a living being and my perspective is as valid as any. If you find something of merit in my mirror-like reflection: take it and use it.
And, just as a mirror can reflect light into concentrated beams, may any truth that rides these words annihilate dangerous memes by illuminating them with laser clarity.
May you cultivate a mental soil that bears wholesome fruits.