Finding Nemo

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Invisible Energy That Connects Us All

As I've stated a few times on this blog, I'm pretty much a skeptic when it comes to mystical things.  But there is a theme that comes up often in Eastern religions that I find fascinating.  The theme is "connectedness."  A closely related theme is "balance" which I will get to later.  The idea of connectedness is that there some kind of mystical force or energy that binds all living things together.  In Taoism it is Qi.  In Hinduism the concept of Brahman implies an unknowable force that pervades, transcends, and encompasses the entire universe.  Karma and reincarnation imparts a profound respect (at least in theory) for all living things, because the ant you are about to crush could have been you once.  In Christianity the analog is simply not the same.  The idea of the soul is limited to mankind.  Your poor dog or cat is imparted no sacred meaning.

And even more interesting are the religions of "indigenous" peoples where sacredness is imparted to all things, even plants.  There is a nice myth (perhaps not quite true) of the noble savage, living in balance with his environment.  The indiginous religion, which says that all life must be respected, is a necessary result of the fact that life is so close to the edge.  Droughts, famine, or the movement of game could cause a group of individuals to starve and die.  Thus, belief and worship of the natural world was necessary in order to attempt to gain some small measure of control over those forces.

Kyetrak Glacier, north slope of Cho Oyo in Himalayas
Obviously today, we no longer need to be connected with nature and most of us are do not live in anything like a "natural environment."  For most Westerners, the idea that all living things might have some kind of sacred meaning seems very alien.  As a result, destruction of natural resources, extinction of animals, etc. is seen as "too bad" but not "sacrilege".  Yet the idea that humans may over-run this planet causing our eventual doom, is a theme that is coming up more and more often.  In movies like the "Matrix" machines decide that humans are a virus to the Earth and must be removed from the playing field.  In the more recent flick "Avatar" the conflict is drawn out starkly.  The West is represented by the destructive Corporation, and the Na'Vi represent the harmonious savages, who believe deeply in natural sacredness and concepts like the Qi.

Kilimanjaro.  Left: 1993.  Right: 2010.
The ideas of "Qi", Brahman, Karma, and natural sacredness do not have to be believed in a religious sense in order to see that the world is indeed very interconnected.  That much is becoming more clear every year.  As a traveler, I have seen the glaciers receding in New Zealand and the Himalaya, I have seen the snows of Kilimanjaro drying up, I have seen mile upon mile of bleached coral on the Not so Great Anymore Barrier Reef.  I kiteboard in LA, and after a heavy rain and I sometimes have to dodge piles of plastic garbage on the water so large that I'm surprised noone has claimed it for a new real estate development.  Global warming, pollution, the bleaching of coral reefs, and the unbelievably tragic but quite likely extinction of many large species like orangutans and polar bears show that the Earth's balance has already shifted negatively.  Avatar plays upon a growing hunger for many to find another way to live in balance with the world. So, if the new world is the cause of our problems, and does not have a philosophy to solve them, the natural place to look is our own past.

Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Events 1998 vs 2002
Just to be clear: I'm definitely not a bleeding heart liberal.  I grew up with conservative parents in a conservative region on a farm in Ohio, and one of the first lessons I learned was the necessity of killing animals for food.  I was just a 12 year old kid, and truly felt sorry for my chicken that I had raised myself.  It looked at me and flapped its wings frantically.  It was one of the hardest things I'd every done, as I swung the hatchet down on its neck.  But later I realized it was born and raised for that sole purpose.  And to be honest I really am not that interested in the politics involved with climate change.  The facts already speak for themselves, the politics will soon be irrelevant.

The Christmas Tree at Night
But yes, I do believe that there is an invisible "energy" that connects us all.  There are two forms of this energy.  The first is the subtle form that is spoke about in a movie like Avatar.  This is the recognition of the common aspects of all life.  How all things have the shared need to live, to grow, to consume and transform energy into new manifestations.  The chain of life, where that matter/energy goes from plant to animal and finally back to the oceans or earth, is just a series of different states of energy for the same matter.  So in that subtle sense, yes, I do believe that energy does connect all things.  This form is represented best by the Tree of Life, which is the symbol of both nature and of connectedness.

However, that form is being drowned out and displaced by a new and overwhelming form that is rushing over the globe much like a tsunami.  This new force is the combined output of our entire human race of 6.9 billion people.  The energy gets dispersed in many forms, including heat, atmospheric gas, waste products, and is put to use in clearing land and erecting fences.  Carbon dioxide gas gets trapped by the oceans, raising the pH to levels where coral cannot properly form hard shells.  One look from the space station of the earth at night shows how we've turned it into a veritable Christmas Tree of light.  We are using stupendous amounts of energy, releasing it in myriad negative forms all over the world.

I too yearn sometimes for that mythical savage existence, where I would live in a harmonious utopia, in balance with nature.  Yes I would miss my cocoa cappuccinos, but at least I wouldn't have to watch the earth groan under our weight anymore.  On a long trip like the one which I am about to embark, there is time to immerse yourself in nature more deeply.  I am most looking forward to Nepal and Mongolia for those reasons.  Having extended periods outside of large cities, living in rugged and wild places, makes you see things differently.  You see the beauty of the world up close and it is impossible to not be affected.  The earthquakes in Haiti or Japan were horrific, yet they were still "Far Away" and for most they were just a spectacle on TV.  The truth and horror of what people there really experienced is not truly processed.  The change to the Earth is the same.  It is happening on TV, and in news reports.  Its something that scientists worry about, not you.  Global warming isn't hanging out in your yoga class or drinking next to you at the bar.  Only when you get out and see a glacier retreating in person, when you see the melting streams, does it really hit home.  Only when you are in Sumatra, and visit the last refuge of the few wild remaining Orangutans and look in their intelligent eyes do you really understand their plight.  Only then does one realize these changes really are happening.  For me, its time to get re-connected.  The TV is off.  I've been back in LA for too long, I need to get back to nature while I still can.  It may not be around very long to enjoy.

The Tale of Iroh (a.k.a. why we all hate each other for no reason)

In a popular animated show I used to watch (NERD ALERT!!! sound alarms), there is a character called Iroh who plays the part of the bumbling old wise man.  There are many things I like about the show, from the lush traditional Japanese soundtrack, to the watercolor backgrounds, to the great intricate story-writing.  But one of the things I like most are the great nuggets of Eastern-flavored wisdom that often tumble out of Iroh.  He has a great story arc and background.

Uncle Iroh
Iroh was a head general of a huge army, intent on taking down a large enemy city.  He was the "Dragon of the West", a feared and terrible leader.  During the battle, his soldier son was killed.  Iroh was shaken so badly, he quit the battle and returned home in defeat and shame.  Later, he accompanies one of the main characters who views him as a broken old man.  But it turns out Iroh is the strongest character in the entire show.  His quiet manner belies a man who is still fierce in battle, but now that ability is tempered with wisdom.  Iroh realizes the war is a mistake, that it is not right for his country to subdue the others around it.  He finds that the other nations have good people as well, that they each bring a unique talent and culture to the world.  Together the different nations balance each other.  But there is an even deeper understanding that only Iroh can see.  The different nations themselves used to all be one people.  Each nation is just a different manifestation of the original tribe.  The differences that people have today are just the result of their isolation from each other.  Iroh dedicates the rest of his life to helping others, ending the war, and bringing the different nations back together.  Iroh exemplifies both the Spark in the beginning, and the Flow at the end.  Together, he is the one man in the show who has balance.

This little nugget of wisdom stuck with me as I noticed the parallels to traveling, and the problems the world faces today.  We are all the same people, we share the same DNA, we all have hopes and dreams.  Each different culture brings their own unique take on life.  But physical separation and "tribal" differences have put up barriers between us.  Tribes rally around their flags and fight for reasons that may not have merit.  The saddest example of this is the genocide in Rwanda, where people identified with either Hutu and Tutsi tribes.  Archaeological evidence shows that the two tribes shared the same language, culture, food, and even intermarried.  But the two tribes, with so much in common, instead fixated on the very small differences.  This is captured eloquently in a paper by Kolsto, and goes back to Freud's idea of the Narcissism of Little Differences, which has been gaining favor again recently.

To quote from Wikipedia, " ... in a loving relationship there can be a need to find, and even exaggerate, differences in order to preserve a feeling of separateness and self."  The newer theories are that this simple idea is exaggerated many-fold when it comes to tribes and countries, until two groups who are very similar end up at war.

We will never all gain the wisdom of Iroh, but as a traveler I try to keep his little nuggets in my mind as I come across new cultures.

The Lovely and Delicious Beers of the West

When the plane touched down in Singapore, I knew the routine awaiting me.  I had it dialed.  Push through crowd of hawkers at airport (hand on wallet), find taxi, negotiate price that doesn't rip me off, and get to hostel ASAP to dump off the monkey, aka the big backpack.  Only then could I truly take a deep breathe and relish the fact that I was traveling!!  Its always fun once the monkey's in bed to to dust off the map and start 'xploring.  The first order of business is a hard rule: sample the local grub and grab a cold brew.  And as I soon discovered, Singapore was just like all of Asia, and the non-Western world for that matter.  The food is always exciting, new, and interesting.  And the beer ........ is pretty much always the same old boring American style lager.

Its not for lack of trying.  I make it a point to try a local beer in every country I visit.  Perhaps the problem was that this is so much great fun in Europe, especially when one gets to Belgium and Germany.  But in Singapore, I'll be honest, the only reason I was looking forward to a new beer was not the taste, it was to admire the funky cool label of Tiger.  I mean, how many beers have a Tiger at a beach?  That's pretty awesome you crazy Singaporeans.

But why is it that microbrews haven't taken off everywhere else?  And then, it hit me.  Its partly because we got lucky, and partly because we are somewhat wealthy.

1) Luck and Fate.  Beer was "invented" in the Middle East and spread quickly through Europe by Germanic and Celtic tribes.  Of course, America was populated early on by European immigrants who brought all their favorite foods and drink.  So the West simply has a big head start historically on making good beer.
2) Wealth.  Microbrewing takes time and money.  Its a luxury hobby in that sense.  In a country like America with a relatively (for now) large middle class, many people can afford such a hobby.  Thus, with a fertile grassroots beer ecology, it was only a matter of time until we got the rich microbrew tapestry we enjoy today.