Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Going Deeper


Bits and pieces of information come to me through various channels, and I hold onto some of these shards of thought because they immediately speak truth to me. For most of them, I have no way to verify their truthfulness, no way of knowing whether or not what I am learning is actuality, but I have learned to trust my instincts, as well as judge whether a source is authentic or phony. I generally trust articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well the the news articles written to help laypeople understand what these studies have discovered. But once in a while, I will simply read a quote or hear a theory that makes me think, “of course that's right!”

One of these ideas that was passed onto me by someone several years ago is that there is a great store of shared human knowledge accessible to everyone through our own consciousness. In this store of knowledge lies all of the truth of humanity. Every time I hear the results of some carefully designed study which concludes, “and in conclusion, humans like to have sex and feel a sense of purpose; they love their families and are less healthy when they sit around doing not much.” I think to myself, um...isn't that obvious? But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, just a little insight, a well spoken thought, or a quote from a wise master opens up a whole new channel of awareness which makes me look at the way I had previously been thinking and go, “wow, I can't believe I didn't recognize this before! It's so incredibly clear that this is the truth!” In espousing such utterly clear and truthful statements, the “store of knowledge” theory goes, humans are tapping into this shared consciousness, pulling from it tidbits of information, and sharing them with the rest of us who haven't been able to tap into the same information, due mostly to business with the rest of life. When I hear people who are tapping into the greater consciousness speak, it makes me say, “oOOooooh...thats why.” Part of this theory includes the idea that the great thinkers and philosophers, mystics and spiritual leaders of human history became so great by finding a way to tap into this consciousness with more regularity that the average person. The reason they spoke with such wisdom and clarity is that they were pulling their information from a great store of truth, without the need the have to really even think about it themselves.
Recently, I have started to combine some of the knowledge and wisdom of this greater consciousness (brought to me in books and quotes, through the words of other humans) with the knowledge and wisdom that I am gaining first-hand through travel and interaction with humans of all stripes. It is being a challenging and fruitful mental and spriritual journey.

It is morning in Tallahassee, and I've just made myself a cup of tea. The quote on the tag of the teabag says, “May you have love, kindness and compassion for all living things.” Beautiful, simple, and to me, so completely obvious. That statement embodies the message that I would love for all of humanity to embrace. How to encourage this to happen is my mission. I have been struggling to come up with a plan.

I find myself quoting and striving to live by the principles of a book I read several years ago, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is a small book, but has made a major impression on the way I see things. The agreement which I find most useful is “Don't make assumptions.” Simply put, but very difficult in practice. This agreement, along with the others, makes immediate, subconscious sense to me in a way that makes me believe that these agreements are part of that vast store of human truth.

Though the book talks about using this agreement mostly in regards to social life and interactions with other people, I find myself using it about all “knowledge” that comes my way. By realizing that many of the beliefs I have held in the past were simply held because others told me, “that's the way it is,” or “that's human instinct,” I have freed myself of the need to abide by unsubstantiated principles. I am coming to recognize that TONS of the principles and knowledge that people use to guide their everyday lives are based purely on assumptions. Many of these assumptions have been passed down through generations, taught to children and grandchildren for so long that they seem like instinct, but are not. Most stereotypes are a perfect example.

Through education in psychology, I have learned that the “nature vs nurture” debate is far from conclusive. We don't really know exactly what human instinct is, and it is incredibly difficult to differentiate what is learned from what is innate. The point that is being established with greater strength every day is that the human brain is marvelously trainable. There really is very little that is built into our behaviors, thought patterns, and ways of living at birth, and most of how we act and what we do is determined by our environment, our training and our education. Now, this environment does start in the womb, and some very important human behaviors and characteristics can be tied to chemical influences inside of the mother, but once a child is born, the possibilities seem almost infinite. A few genetic factors can sway a person toward one behavior or another, but these are far from being deterministic. This means that we have the power to change the way our brains work, as individuals as well as whole societies, and indeed, even as a species. We can decide what we want our world to look like, how we want to think, who we want to be, and why. Our potential as a species is staggering.

A few quotes that I always took for granted, which I now realize have no basis other than common assumption:
“History is doomed to repeat itself.”
“Humans are selfish, and that's the motivation that makes capitalism work.”

These ideas have no basis in reality, they are simply created and supported in people's minds. The human species, because we are so changeable, is not tied to any particular destiny. We can teach each other and ourselves to believe what we want to believe, to act how we want to act, and to create a world the way we want it to be.

Thanks to a friend's prompting, I have begun reading some of the great philosophy of history. For thousands of years, humans with time on their hands have been attempting to answer some of the same questions I am now asking myself. It only makes sense that I should take into account their thoughts and conclusions, since they have influenced all of humanity. I started reading, Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus by Karl Jaspers. It is a very short, succinct summary of the lives and basic ideas of these 4 incredibly influential thinkers. In the first few pages, I encountered this quote from Socrates:

The untruth of the present state of affairs, regardless of whether the form of government is democratic, aristocratic or tyrannical, cannot be remedied by great political actions. No improvement is possible unless the individual is educated by educating himself, unless his hidden being is awakened to reality through an insight which is at the same time inner action, a knowledge which is at the same time virtue.

This quote embodies perhaps the greatest challenge of our times. Our political system is ineffective, impotent and paralyzed. Even war, a tremendous undertaking of great proportions, seems to make little difference in the long-term fate of our world. Education is critical, but even more important is instilling the desire to learn, the thirst for truth, inspiring that insight which prompts people to awaken to reality. The reality that, as my Dad's cousin Kathe says, we are one Earth, one people.

Conveniently, Socrates philosophy of continuously questioning until true knowledge or perplexity were reached fits perfectly with Ruiz's philosophy of never making assumptions. With these well-fitting ideas in hand, I am motivated to find a way to help people to change their thinking and find that spark within themselves to educate themselves about the reality of the human situation. Is it true that people will not know and care about the fate of our species unless they find in themselves the desire to know and care? Or is there something I can do to help them see that they are a part of something much greater than themselves already? I continue the search.

A few other tidbits of information that have stuck with me from the store of greater consciousness:

If you want to solve a problem, concentrate on it intensely, and then relax. Our most creative and productive solutions always come to us when our brain is relaxed, flexible, and at ease. This is why we often find ourselves with great ideas when we are on the verge of either falling asleep or waking up.

There is no way of life to which man cannot become accustomed. Even the most vile of evils can be taken for granted if we are taught, “this is the way it is, the way it has always been, the way it has to be.”  The reality is that there is no "way it has to be."  We have the power to make it what we want.

1/13/12 Tallahassee to Cross City, FL: 93 miles

My visit with Mike and Amelia in Tallahassee was perhaps the most relaxing visit I have had on the trip to date. It helps that they are both simply relaxed, comfortable people, at ease with themselves and their place in the world.
Amelia and I worked together for Naturalists At Large for a couple of years. We canoed rivers, hiked canyons, taught kids how to tell a pine tree from a granola bar, and hung out on the weekends with the same good people who we worked with. Amelia was originally the only person I knew I was going to visit between leaving Minnesota and arriving in Washington, DC. Thankfully, several others have filled in along the way. Still, it felt great to arrive at such a distant destination and rekindle some of the California culture that we all know and love.
Mike, Amelia and I ate some good pizza, filled their new apartment with second-hand furniture and dishware, and had a great sushi party on the night before I left. They both cooked for me, and I ate. Amelia and I did some wondering through the Florida History museum, ate at a great Vegetarian Soul Food restaurant, and ran some small errands. Mike and I had burritos while waiting for Amelia to arrive at the airport. It was nice to experience their calm, somewhat settled lifestyle amidst my go-go-go journey. They had such good energy!


Long days and good weather. In Tallahassee, I sent much of my little-used gear to North Carolina, and some of my warm clothes to Jacksonville, FL to pick up on the way back. I figured that south Florida will be warm, no matter what time of year it is. Normally, I'd be right, but upon leaving Tallahassee, I experienced the 2 coldest nights in Florida so far this year. Though it just barely dropped below freezing, I was cursing myself for sending away my bib-tights, which I had been using almost every day from St. Louis to New Orleans. Turns out, however, that I can make do with a lot less and still be just fine. I ended up riding with my Dickies on over my bike shorts for a couple of mornings, which was not uncomfortable or annoying in the slightest. Perhaps I'll abandon the bib-tights after all! I was smart enough to keep my gloves and balaclava, which came in handy. The last several days, the weather has been beautiful, and I even got my first slight sunburn of the winter today.

In the last few days of riding, I hit 2 long bike paths which used to be railroad tracks, and have been converted to bike paths through the Rails to Trails Conservency, with funding from the State of Florida. The first was the Nature Coast bike trail, and the second was the 46 mile Withlacoochee trail. This second trail runs through a series of small towns in central Florida, crossing lakes and forests, with restrooms and water stops at regular intervals. Florida's biking infrastructure continues to impress me, in stark contrast to the bike-unfriendliness of many of the drivers here. I was nearly run off the road earlier tonight while riding through some road construction that had closed the road down to one narrow lane in which cars were having trouble getting past me. Most of the time, this is no issue due to wide, smooth shoulders on all the highways.

I finally saw my first Orange groves today, and was able to pick up some good oranges off the side of the road, where they had fallen from trucks, but were still in fine condition. I also enjoyed seeing abandoned, old orange groves, with twisted, rotting trees covered in vines and with tall weeds on all sides, but still producing TONS of oranges. I was tempted to wander into one of these clearly dilapidated plantations and fill my panniers, but I really don't need the extra weight.

Every biking day this past week has been over 70 miles, most approaching 100. I had a great tail-wind until I arrived in Lakeland, and today, the wind blew hard straight at my face. Thankfully, I got an early start this morning and managed to put in 92 miles anyway. In Lakeland, I stayed with couch-surfer Jim Wellman. Jim was in the Navy for 6 years, lived in Japan and San Diego, and spent lots of time on ships. He is an outdoor enthusiast as well, especially fond of fishing and boating, and we got along like brothers. He showed me some of the local sights, including a beautiful nature preserve where I saw my second wild alligator of the trip.

In Lakeland, I went to the dentist for the first time in 2 years, due to some tenderness I had been feeling above my upper molars. Turns out, those teeth are just fine, but I did have some deteriorating bone in another part of my mouth, so they brought me back that afternoon to scrape out some bacteria, inject some antibiotics, and give me some fancy mouthwash. I guess it was a good thing I went, because it sounds like I caught the problem in time to fix everything up without issue.

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