An Sudden Awakening (in the streets of Bangkok)

At the end of my stay in Thailand, my friend and I had several days to spend in Bangkok before our flight to Canada departed. Being completely out of money and having done enough touristy things to last a lifetime, we were both on the lookout for things to do that didn’t consist of sweaty temple visits or long nights on Khao San Road, and I remembered that a friend of mine had told me about free meditation classes offered at a temple near the downtown. (I will omit the names of individuals and the temple for privacy).

This particular temple was in the midst of a sprawling monastic complex, with schools of Buddhism and meditation surrounded by many other buildings. I came early, and thankfully so, knowing that it would take me a while to find the exact location of the classes. It was already dark, and rain was spitting down, leaving the streets of Bangkok eerily empty, animated only by the mangy shadows of stray dogs. My mind was gripped by an eager anticipation. I had been meditating for many years, and had always done so completely on my own accord, without a teacher, and I suspected that the aid of a mentor would propel me directly into the state of enlightenment which I had only experienced indirectly up to this point. It was almost too perfect: learning Vipassana from monks in the temple, sheltered from a gloomy Bangkok night.

After some futile searching and the recognition that all signs were in Thai, I asked a security guard for directions, and he happily led me through the maze of institutional buildings and monk’s quarters to a small building adjunct to the main temple. When I entered through the door, I was surprised – there was almost no one inside. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a small secreterial desk to my left, and a room to my right. Inside were two monks, one in white, with white hair and a white beard, his back facing toward me, so I couldn’t see his face, and one with a shaved head and the traditional orange robe.

I stood still for a couple of minutes, unsure of what to do, but very relaxed. Finally, the monk in white turned around, and to my surprise, I noted that he was clearly not Thai. He approached me, and introduced himself, explaining that he was in fact Australian, and immediately diverged into the story of his life. He was a retired government worker, who had left Sydney and his (presumably divorced) wife and adult children to resume his calling as a monk. In 1984 he had ordained in Thailand, and remained as a monk for several years. Throughout the entirety of his familial life and career, he had felt monkhood and Thailand pulling him back, he explained. And now he was living on his savings, travelling, teaching, unsure of his future.

Next, he began talking about the precepts of Vipassana at a pace that no human could follow. A chaotic slew of mismatched and regurgitated stories and facts assaulted me, and I felt as if I was listening to the conversation from a distance, almost amused to a certain degree. But I listened, desperately seeking for any trace of the enlightenment I had hoped for. He explained that to reach the highest stage of enlightenment, monks had to give up all friends, family life, and pleasures, he explained different theories of morality and ethics, he explained the types of sins, and the paths to enlightenment. I could not follow, but assumed he was only lecturing me because it was what he liked to do, and that I would get proper instruction later on.

We waited for another 20 minutes, but no other students came. Stating that it was time to begin our lesson, he directed me to a room where I changed into a white robe-like outfit, consisting of a t-shirt and pants. Next, I followed him across the building.

“I’m very sorry,” he stated abruptly, “but this morning it seemed like there was some kind of dead animal in our room. I spent an hour looking for it, but just can’t find it. I hope you can excuse the smell.”

And in that moment, any sense of reality was lifted off of my shoulders to the ceiling of the building. I was in white clothes, at night, in Thailand, following a monk. We walked down an incredibly narrow set of stairs, one so tight that I almost had to get on all fours to make it into the room we were to enter. And this room lay in complete contrast with the rest of the building. It was rectangular, and lit by horrible neon lights. This room reeked of death, and was incredibly cold. Was this the room where I was to have my awakening?

We sat down on two ragged pillows, and he gave me a brief instruction in meditation, which, unfortunately, consisted of nothing that I had not already figured out myself. And after that instruction, he left the room, stating that he would return in 40 minutes. When the door closed, my mind was racing. Where had my instructor gone? How would I possibly be able to meditate in this frigid room with terrible lighting, an unfamiliar environment and the stench of an animal carcass? Was it possible to escape? The minutes passed quickly through this tumultuous reverie which by no means adhered to the rules of Vipassana meditation that I could review once again on the wall. I could not keep track of my thoughts and feelings, and I let them run wild, knowing that resistance was futile. The whole matter was amplified by the indifferent and almost mocking red blink of a security camera fixed on the wall right in front of me. Why was there a need for a camera in a monastery? I could not shake the sensation of being watched.

When he returned I hoped he could not tell how restless I was. He began his lecture on walking meditation, which I was to attempt next, but I had already figured out that he was a hopeless teacher and that I would gain much more enlightening insights from his personal life and the chain of events that brought him to this place at this point in time. He began to talk about the decisions that he had made, his government job, and his children. And when I looked into his eyes, I realized he was a product of his decisions, and that he was a man that had been completely defined by events that had occurred in his years, and the surroundings that he had been immersed him. I looked at him and I realized that he was utterly lost, awash in the sea of chance and circumstance. He had strayed to Thailand, but he needed help much more than I did – and I, in fact, was closer to the ultimate goal of enlightenment (or whatever they call it) than he was. I looked into his eyes and I saw a plea for help, I saw confusion and bitterness and a sobering helplessness. An intense fear gripped me, but I remained calm, because he was good, and he meant well, and after all, we were on the same journey.

And before I could even process what was happening, I let all the barriers I had superimposed to shield me from the harm society could impose on me fall, and I sat before him humbly, in full vulnerability. I answered his questions more honestly than I had ever spoken to anyone, and I told him of my true dreams for my life, devoid of the taint academic vanity had already cast on my ego. He understood me, and I could see that he almost envied the clarity with which I vowed to follow those dreams. And as I sat there, cross legged and fully vulnerable, he announced that he did not normally work this late, and that it was time for him to leave.

As the door closed I almost burst into tears, and feelings cascaded over me – I felt as if I had lost my only friend, I felt abandoned and dejected, almost crumpling under these feelings. I remained in the cellar for a couple of minutes in a display of politeness, but knew that I was not in a meditative state, so left shortly after. Outside, the Bangkok night spun around me, and I was disoriented and disillusioned. Almost immediately, the absurdity of the situation mounted my consciousness, but I could not find humour in it, as I normally can, and I merely felt afraid, afraid of the sense meaninglessness which was already threatening to creep in, and this was a meaninglessness which took me years to shed and I still battled every day. On the ultimate quest to find enlightenment, I had only found sin and an utterly misled and unwise monk, and this path had proven to be a cleverly disguised dead end. The cosmos laughed at me in its rigorous indifference, and the stars above felt colder and further away than ever. I sat by the river and watched the weeds that had been washed into the currents by a recent rainstorm, and three party cruises floated by slowly, with music echoing over the water and lights flashing. A stranger, uprooted and unknown, I felt more lost than ever before. I could see people on the boats, dancing and singing, rowdy and carefree, unburdened by this desperate existentialism which was torturing me.

However, in another unexpected turn of events, the usual grief, fear, and disdain for the philosophical bleakness of my existence which was to be perpetually plagued by indifference and meaninglessness did not set in. With my feet dangling over the river under the parapet of a large outdoor temple, suddenly, an immense feeling of relief washed over me. And it was this night that I experienced an epiphany, an enlightenment that was almost unparalleled throughout my life. In this moment, I shed all belief in organized religion. Why should I follow a set of guidelines that, without exception, glorified suffering and sacrifice? Why should I shed my satisfaction to don robes? Why should I sacrifice my contentness to follow the dicta of bleak pages? Why should I give up life’s pleasures – whether they be music, art, sex, family, or beauty? If religion was the quest for meaning, why should I give up the only things which had ever shed light on it for me? I did not want to sit cross-legged for the rest of my life, merely observing feelings and thoughts as if they were physical phenomena, practicing indifference to the highest degree, I wanted to partake in them as vivaciously and as ferociously as I could. I looked at the trees, swaying gently in wet unison. The sheer abundance of life that surrounded me shook me to the bone, and I could feel the antithesis of life and death, of prosperity and poverty, of truth and falsehood, of beauty and ugliness, of light and dark, of air and sea and of the earth and space which define our universe of duality and of opposite, a contrast which defines all consciousness and all existence, a wild cosmic dance that we are all invited to partake in if we only open our eyes.

For there is no room for gospels, or thick books, for traditions, for rites, for sacrifice and the glorification of suffering. We do not need to partake in rituals in dusty old temples, because each one of us is the keystone of faith, and true spirituality is immanent in everything around us, dead or alive.

And on that night, I was finally free from the chains of any religion, free from my days in Catholic school, free from my atheistic qualms, free from my dabbling in Buddhism, and free from any temptation offered by the doctrines falsely proclaimed as true and as eternal. Because there it was – truth – in its purest form – all around me, inevitable, unmistakable, and ultimate.

The Death of Daydreaming

My generation is the first to live in a world where we can distract ourselves for every waking second.

I have memories of being a child, sitting in my room, having read every book, played with every toy – perhaps it was a rainy day where I couldn’t go outside – and I was bored to tears. I remember that boredom, a ragged, raging feeling in the stomach that threatened to short-circuit the mind.  This boredom has now been eliminated.

There are few situations I can imagine where one is left merely in the presence of their own mind. In the German embassy, I remember, I sat without my things, due to security concerns. In high school, back in the day, one wasn’t allowed to be on their phone – but of course, one was listening attentively to the teacher. In the shower – one would think – but my roommate confessed recently that she plays music loudly to avoid having to be left alone with her own thoughts.

My generation is anxious due to the increasingly tight social control that we exert on ourselves. In an age of transparency and visibility, everything we do has the potential to be broadcast to millions of people – or even only one’s extended friend group. We are all pressured into forming that profile, the idealized version of ourself we promote to others. My generation is anxious, and anxiety is and always will be a product of the mind.

And therefore we distract ourselves – but this is not a conscious decision, as it is completely subconscious. Scientists have found that our brain has two different attention systems – one which is external, and one which is internal, and is activated when we are daydreaming. However, our mind is biased toward occupation, and this is why we all reach for our smartphones when we are not distracted by immediate social or environmental stimulus. What does this do to our brain? It is not known, and I am not a scientist, but to me, it is clear that my generation is increasingly uncomfortable with their own thoughts, and I fear that this will have repercussions on intellect and creativity.

To me, it seems it has become a nervous habit. This is not only due to discomfort with our own minds, but also due to heightened social anxiety – if we are not visibly preoccupied, does this mean we must make eye contact with others – or even engage with them? This is a terrifying thought to many people. In professional discourse, many are saying that the effects of this elimination of daydreaming will not be observable until the phenomenon is a couple of decades old, but I believe otherwise.

Terrifyingly, this is what the tech companies wish to achieve, and this is perfectly in adherence with the model of capitalism. “On-time” is the currency of applications in the internet, and the major companies such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook invest incredible sums of money into experts who know exactly how to maximize people’s screen time and stimulate those dopamine-rushes caused by satisfactory social media interactions. The lag that occurs before the notification appears when twitter users refresh their page? This is a technique borrowed from gambling, which causes anticipation and is resolved in a feeling of reward. Has anyone else noticed that Facebook now sends notifications for the most trivial things – things that no one cares to be notified about – and these notifications increase in volume when one is logged in. These are all clandestine techniques to steal our attention – the ultimate prize.

Similarly terrifying, it seems to me that the ethics of social media are virtually unexplored.

 

The Erosion of our Sense of Self: My Generation’s Transcendence of Planet Earth

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I am constantly wondering about the effects that technology has on us. This is unconquered terrain: apart from studies on cognitive ability of excessive users and children, there have been no major insights and research in science, largely because this revolution is still in the stages of its youth. Technology has infiltrated our lives like a virus: approaching from the fringes, and now, it is slowly finding its way into our body, becoming one with us, mimicking our functions.

Ultimately, technology is a tool – it is an extension of the body used to enhance our senses. In this definition, of course, I am not covering AI – but that’s a whole other story. But I am not overly interested in the useful aspects of technology and handheld devices, but more so the effect that they have on how we perceive ourselves. And this self-image is no longer constructed out of sensorial input of our own, and our reasonings about our interests, friends, and family – but our image, displaced carefully like charcuterie on a pixel plate is filtered through our consciousness of the hundreds of people that are exposed to the samples of ourselves we chose to expose to the world. And it is a positive correlation – the higher the social pressures (ie more followers, more attention), the more selective the material we chose to exhibit becomes. We have lost our complexities when people can quickly make a judgement on our character and social status merely by browsing our Instagram our Facebook page. We post pictures to make ourselves seem richer, kinder, smarter and more driven and ambitious. We strive to make our life seem full of adventure, spontaneity and amusement even when we are in the darkest of times. Who are we trying to impress? Where is this social pressure coming from – how can human beings create such a dismal collective environment? And somehow, through this explosion of variety, of heterogeneity, of thousands of diverging opinions and options and photos and videos, through a continuous stream of content that riddles our days and nights, lighting up the walls of our consciousness, we are becoming the same. Those who are different are alienated, and those who speak out about this problem are only attempting to be absorbed back into the beast of society. Why do the girls I surround myself with all try to look the same? I am aware of the fact that I live in an extreme case of this environment, but even those who feign to be different are on the same spectrum of social conformity.

Through technology, we are policing ourselves. We are all becoming protectors of the same collective agenda, and are drawing tighter the strings on the centre, the absolute. The instantaneity of communication is a vice grip on freedom, and ties us even tighter to the voluntary enslavement that is our constructed image.

Some may argue that connectivity in social media has led to an increased sense of self – but I would argue that there is a difference between our self-perception and our identity. Through the media, everyone is labelled, whether they are a “hipster,” a “feminist,” whether they are “popular” or “artsy” or “sporty.” The way we label and categorize ourselves is reductive and corrosive on our self-perception because there is simply no way that the complexity of a regular human being can be justified through these shallow labels. It is easy to construct a perceptible identity by amassing recognizable visual and textual clues in our accounts. This, in many ways, is destructive on the culture of youth. Because in social media, some thrive, while the majority are left behind, publicly isolated. And this is exacerbating regular social imbalances that have existed since the beginning of our culture as we know it today.

When we divert so much of our consciousness on to artificial and entirely constructed interfaces, we lose our sense of self and our sense of being. On the internet, you cannot simply “be” – you cannot simply exist. There is no sense of a passive existence where identity is defined by active social interaction. We are no longer conscious of this existence when we subject ourselves to this constant stream of stimulation. The danger is that this stimulation is, in essence, cognitively rewarding: our brains are programmed to respond positively to social interaction, learning, visual and mental stimulation, music, humour, etc. These are all things that technology has provided a steady steam of, and, when regarded in isolation, are ultimately positive. But what is the effect of this bombardment of information? We find ourselves searching for content in what is ultimately devoid of it. There is no humour in the trees, and as much as we wander the forest, there will never be a strong cognitive award as easily attainable as scrolling through our Facebook feed. This is further contributing to the disconnect that I have dedicated this blog, and, probably, my life to understanding. But when we are no longer conscious of our presence in the ‘here,’ and have diverted our attention to the constructed, and the artificial, one could argue that our presence begins to fade from the physical surface of the earth. I do not yet understand the metaphysical implications that come with the gradual disappearance of humanity from the ‘here’ and ‘now,’ but it does seem to be in accordance with the the general trend toward a disinterested attitude in nature and the nascent interest in the gradual departure from our planet. We are no longer beings of nature – we are beings of technology.

It took me a very long time to come to terms with my “educated” perception on the future of humanity. Before I went to university, I was always completely bound to the idea that we were one with nature, and that once we defied her, she would exert her wrath, and just like that, we would be finished. However, through my studies of humanities, I have developed a strange (and perhaps unjustifiable) belief in the pervasiveness of our institutions. It seems that we are destined to outgrow this planet. Our cultural, intellectual and material revolutions all seem to reflect the same trend towards eternal growth, progress and consumption that are so poignantly visible in the way we conduct our lives today. Humanity seems to be immortal – and perhaps soon, when we all exist in virtual reality, it will be. The glorification of science and its inherent dissection of natural principles seems to point to eternal progress – and the optimist within me wants to believe it. Soon, there will no longer be profit that can be made here, and we will have to outsource it, just like the colonial empires once did, and just like we are with the perpetual creation of markets nowadays. However, these beliefs I hold are irreconcilable with my environmental perspective, and it will take me a long time to construct a belief system that can accommodate these two views.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the elevation off of our home planet comes not only with our economy, but also with the gradual mental transcendence of the ‘here’ and ‘now’ that is already evident in youth culture today. Maybe we are unconsciously conditioning ourselves for our departure: if we do not know what we have, it will be easier to leave. When our values disproportionately shift to social interaction and cultural content, it is easy to leave everything else behind. It’s easy to see today. Farms are eating the forest. Cities are eating the farm. Industrial complexes sprawl over what were once the rolling hills, and the ocean is bleached through our waste, infiltrated by plastic particles from our clothes. We empty the seas of their fish, plow down habitats and wildflowers, drain the freshwater reservoirs, and poison the rivers. It rains acid and blows pollution. However, this perpetuity is irrelevant if it doesn’t trigger the receptors that are becoming more and more conditioned to novelty and instantaneous reward. Though large-scale environmental issues may “trend,” and amass unimaginable amounts of attention for a short period of time, they are quickly forgotten, and the exploitation may continue.

The loss of our sense of place is not merely metaphysical: it also occurs due to the standardizing and globalizing aspects of the media. Something occurring in Taiwan may be just as relevant as something occurring in our home country. I am not making a case for nationalism – but the human sense of place is being completely lost. When we exist in the “there,” we lose our connection with the “here.” And this leads to a complete severance from nature. Our home is in our heads, and the value we may have once received from exposure to the outdoors in non-existent. This predicament does not only have environmental consequences (though I do tend to stress those), but also has mental effects. We, the youth, are wandering the canyons of the internet, pilgrims of ideas, navigators of the stormy seas of politics, surveyors of the gorges of social justice, explorers of the unconquered swaths of internet culture. And through the transfer of our explorative efforts from the physical reality of our planet, and the transfer of values from tangible reality to our media personas, we further float away from the cradle where our ancestors were raised, where our instincts were programmed, and where our primal drives were inscribed. And maybe – maybe this is how it was meant to be – maybe it is time for our departure.

And hereby I will say goodbye on behalf of my generation –

 

-farewell, mother nature, we are leaving the Earth behind.

 

Admittedly Premature Concepts of “Truth” in the Age of Professionalism and Dissociation

Looking back on the path I have taken to the place I am today, I realize that I never once reached a major crossroad. As a child, my parents determined what I did – what sports I played, what school I attended, where we went on vacation, etc. In eleventh grade, I got to choose whether I wanted to go to private school or public school – and after twelfth grade I made the choice to leave my province to attend university elsewhere. But never once was there any doubt about whether I would attend high school, or university even. In many ways, I have led a life of predetermination and formula. Tomorrow I turn 20, and the past two decades have been a blur.

When I graduated high school, my father made the analogy that I had been on a bus – and now reached a terminal with many more buses which would lead me to a multiplicity of potential locations. And I chose to embark on the bus of higher learning. I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into my past two years of study. I pore over every reading, and hang on every word that comes out of my professors’ mouths. And usually it is enough – I am enthusiastic enough about Hellenic architectural dialectics and obscure French philosophy to ward off the nagging feeling that there is something more. And to me, always, this is what “truth” has been. A scholar of history at heart, I believe that the only thing we know is true is the collective accomplishment – whether oral, written, invented or constructed – of mankind. This is the only truth that cannot be discredited, whereas in parts, it can be criticized. And this truth I have pursued desperately and tirelessly. However, as I might have predicted, the more I search the further away it is, hidden in obscurities, paradoxical and self-destructive. Truth seems to be playing tricks on me, branching off and dissolving. Weeks pass by, and I realize I haven’t looked up from my books in hours. My body trembles under the exhaustion of continuous focus. Reality slips through my fingers while I give my all into something that is demonstratively futile and endless. And then, just for a second, once in a while, the sun illuminates my room in her orange fire, the bare branches of the trees on the street casting blue shadows on the walls. Or maybe a gentle silence sets into the trees around the bus station, where I sit in the grass in an exhausted stupor after a ten-hour day at work, and in an instant, I am wretchedly aware. In gentle nudges I am awakened, while moments of serenity quickly pass into gnawing realization.These are moments when I understand a parallel truth. This is a truth that is irrefutable and fundamental to me, a truth I have lived since I was a child. And this truth is as persistent as the perpetual downward trickle of water, ever-present, a nuanced reminder, but at the hardest of times a blatant cry in mind that seems to negate anything I’ve done.

And I realize that I am not cut out to succeed in the conventional way. I think too much, and I don’t value the right things. Money, clothes, items – they don’t mean anything to me. Nor do I want fame or recognition – whether professional or otherwise, and thereby I stand to fight Goliath with nothing but my bare hands. I ask myself how much I am sacrificing to be where I am – and the answer is only time. This notion of time tantalizes me: I can’t help but be wrapped up in the modern monetized concept of it. There is so much, but I never seem to have enough. As deadlines press on my conscious I am swept into what it means to be modern, and I am molded and pressed by society into the capitalist ideal. I am on a path that leads directly to an internship, then graduate school, and then finally, the highly-esteemed job in a firm. Seven years: gone instantaneously. What comes after that? What truths will I have uncovered? The realization that work does not necessarily lead to enlightenment was a tough one to make, and I realize that every waking minute I am facing a crossroad, and for the first time, a question that cannot necessarily be solved by conventional reasoning, or methodological study.

This primordial and dogged truth seems to be waiting just around the corner. How easy it would be – and I am surrounded by those who have willingly succumbed to its beckonings. But they exist like stars in a far-off gallery, glimmering only faintly when I am resolute enough to look. The more I learn, the less I know about myself, but simultaneously, I am more and more different from those around me. The self-awareness I am growing is painstaking and selfish and even worse, often can trap me in a superiority complex. I reject the beliefs of almost everyone around me while I can barely formulate my own. Soon I will exist in complete isolation – an enigma, an alien tumbling amidst office towers and Walmarts and the heaps of garbage floating silently in the sea.

History is written by those who did not succumb to any secondary truths; it is written by those who nobly pursued the cause of mankind, those who sought desperately the Urmotiv, those who sought to invent and define and understand through the means which we have created for ourselves. And only these records will survive and will be passed on to the reluctant 7th grade Shakespeare-readers or perhaps eager thesis students in genetic biology. Those who strayed are lost in the unquestionable absurdity of our existence, wiped off the record of the progressive mentality of our time. Inconsequentially tender and tenderly inconsequential, the Earth heaves in her magnificent indifference, and we are earthbound for the time being. As I grapple to escape illusion it is becoming increasingly clear that knowledge is a paradox, and that truth isn’t quite where I thought it would be when I committed to finding it.

 

The Tragic Disconnect

In observance of my generation, again and again I remark how truly disconnected we are. And how illogical this seems when the vast and intricate net technology has woven over our cities is taken into account. People, groups, companies and corporations are constantly connecting and disconnecting. We are packed like sardines into towering skyscrapers and subway cars and busy intersections. Cities have grown like never before, their boundaries truly without limit and the possibilities of the metropolis have become endless. No longer are we creatures of the ground; we occupy every stratum of the earth. These cities that we have built attract people from the far corners of the world, because they offer prosperities of economic and social quality, however they are organisms of mass pollution, injustice and hostility that comes in forms never before seen.

The question torments me – are we creatures of our culture, or are we creatures of nature? Where should our loyalty lie? It is true that urbanization accelerated and debatably even instigated our development into rational, intelligent and conscious beings. The social, economic and political infrastructure created in towns and cities provided a scaffolding without which progression would have been made impossible. They have equipped us with the tools which we needed to create an enlightened society. However, today, the opposite seems to be true. Our cities are dominated by corporations, targeted advertisement, crime, isolation, segregation and corporate architecture. The home, where we have carefully constructed our culture, which serves as our identity, has turned on us. Because what pervades today cannot be counted into our identity, unless a new one is nascent, being one of cruel bigotry, ignorance and mass complacency. With urbanization comes the question – are we truly meant to live in these mega-complexes?

Having spent a majority of my childhood outdoors, in tree tops and billowing cornfields and on stream beds and in the dappled shade of spruce forests on the seaside, scathed by the marine wind and tangled in Spanish moss, I feel a connection, or even a commitment to nature that is without parallel in nearly everyone my age. I think that this connection has given me a different vantage point from which I can observe the trivial occupations of my peers almost impartially. No one seems to care about the environment anymore. Our economy has trumped all, and environmentalism has been deemed unprofitable. And no, by environmentalism I do not mean the advocation of clean or alternative energies, of recycling, of reduced carbon emissions or bicycling to work. By environmentalism I mean a deep-rooted naturalism, the belief that our surroundings are to be protected because they provide for us, and an understanding for nature that is not taught, but learned first-hand. This naturalism is not one of religiosity, of new-ageism of anarchism or of leftist anti-capitalism (though the two all-too-often go hand in hand).

In our cities, we are raised in a concrete cage. We have built walls and tunnels and fences and causeways around us and can no longer move freely. Nature has become ornament, and its value is only understood commercially. In the wild, ethereal states of minute fragility create a whole that is resistant and fortified, while in the city, our slabs of rock and iron and steel come together to expose an unsettling tenuousness. As to the children of cities: they are raised orphans, with no knowledge of the ever-present undercurrent that pervades our existences. Adopted by the city, their loyalties are tied into the sidewalks and i-beams and the fragile roofs over their heads, and they are immediately exposed to a state of decay rather than one of growth. These children will always be wanderers, but never pilgrims or explorers. These children will seek security in material things, because they have never experienced true value. However, most unfortunately of all, these children will participate in the lifestyle of destruction that was held by so many of their parents without knowing it at all, because they only have a disconnected apprehension of what is at stake. And here we are – a generation that does not know how to distinguish one plant from another, one whose children cannot name vegetables, one that places its value on social status and interaction rather than anything meaningful, because it grew up in an environment where this meaning could never be experienced. Have we truly graduated to become an exclusively cultural entity, or do we still owe legitimate loyalty to our surroundings?

Our Groundless Commitment to an Oxymoron: “Sustainable Growth”

Growth. A pervasive undercurrent in our capitalist economy that is so omnipresent that it defines our society, our actions and even our thinking. Growth is the fragile foundation upon which our economy rests – the economy which supports our comfortable lives with televisions and hot water and food and electricity. One could argue that the idea of growth is a by-product emerging of the growing quasi-religious doctrine of progress that emerged with the ideals of the Enlightenment. And back then, there was room for it. Millions of hectares of arable land were sold and divided, and meanwhile we drilled for oil and mined for minerals and other valuable resources. The economy exploded and capitalism was heralded as the final solution for an even and just distribution of wealth, however as early as the late nineteenth century this notion began its demise (which can be seen in the writings of Marx and Lenin). When local markets were saturated, monopolies, trade tariffs and cartels formed, facetiously dividing the emerging areas amongst each other and aggressively assimilating the nascent (and extremely diverse) economies. Socialist politicians and economists dubbed this imperialist era the “highest stage” of capitalism, or in other words, the beginning of its end.

To anyone with a fully functioning bullshit meter and some basic logical reasoning skills, it should be very clear that the idea of continual growth is not only bankrupt, but also incompatible with the very simple and inescapable reality that is the fact that we live on a small planet with finite resources in a universe that is, to the extent of our knowledge and for the next little while, largely uninhabitable. There is no possibility of endlessly finding new resources or finding alternatives. And unfortunately, it seems that this is something which the last few generations, including mine, have consciously chosen to ignore. Is this because of a human incapability of looking past our relatively short life-span, or is this because deep down, we know that any sort of acknowledgement of the problem necessitates action? Actually, though those two factors definitely play a part, in my opinion, this is due to a much deeper issue: our commitment to our lifestyle, which, by extension, is our commitment to our capitalist economy. The idea of growth is so utterly pervasive that to most people, a society, or a marketplace or a country without ‘growth’ is utterly inconceivable. And this growth manifests itself in many ways, including increased profits, increased material culture, increased ___. But what else is growing? In the 1950s there were roughly 2.5 billion people in the world – now there are over 7 billion. And this surge in population has its origins in the scientific advances and other innovations which have made our lives so much more comfortable. David Attenborough makes an interesting statement (that we all certainly have thought about and that has its origins with Thomas Malthus) in his speech at the RSA in May of 2011. How many people are too many? And how can we ignore the fact that a smaller population would drastically reduce the strain on this planet’s ecosystems, farmland and other resources, not to mention the strain on our traditional and archaic economic models that are buckling under the burden of overpopulation? Though this is a controversial and even taboo topic, it is certainly of importance and I hope it will become one of mainstream and mature conversation in my lifetime. Though we are currently incapable of viewing our environment through anything but entirely self-centred eyes (whether other perception is valid is an entirely different topic), naturalists such as Attenborough will play an important role in future discussions, when we are ready to transcend our childish political and and biblical fears.

To me, our modern notion of “growth” and the despicable word”sustainability” are without question mutually exclusive. The two words added together have created a cruel oxymoron that is synonymous with our toxic idea of growth, and have created nothing but a general feel-good sentiment, an incentive for purchase, and, even worse, a label under which corporations can make immense profits with minimal environmental commitment, an act which has been dubbed ‘greenwashing,’ and can be seen anywhere from car companies to produce. Undoubtedly, this is because being ‘green’ is the new trend, and what could possibly be better for sales than trendiness? In this way, in a crass and ironic contradiction, companies can capitalize on a movement which has its roots in vehement rejection of the dogma capitalism is built on.

Call me a pessimist, but in many ways, our denial of the approaching crisis and of the incompatibility of our economic doctrine with the facts that constitute our resources on this planet show an extreme arrogance, ignorance, and even a form of intergenerational tyranny on our part. I am not a historian, nor a sociologist or an economist – yet I can distinguish ecological responsibility from ‘sustainable growth.’

Is There Hope in Thought?

At first glance, it must seem that we, the human civilization, simply no longer think. The evidence is everywhere. Blank and blasé stares into nothing in the subway. Eyes glued to the screen, a flicking thumb. Shopping, to fill the emptiness and not to fulfil our needs. Petty arguments, narrow-minded decisions, mass-media politics, narcissism, littering, hate-crimes. One could say we have lost our imagination. In a truly remarkable time, where it seems like everyone is empowered, we are blinded, and our minds are numbed. This universal ignorance, this complacency and this compromise has infected our society from the inside out, and it is suffering from a fever that is only growing worse. Where are the Hobbes, the Kants, the Kerouacs and the Camus of our generation?

Though I consider myself privileged by every means (I am able to attend university, feed and clothe myself, pursue some hobbies) I am utterly uninspired by everything society sends my way. My classes are dull, and even though I study at (one of) the best universities in Canada, I am extremely underwhelmed. And my biggest frustration is that this is not due to a lack of difficulty – it is due to the fact that university has been so privatized and engineered to spew out ideal citizens that will serve the needs of our cities, schools, governments and hospitals. I can’t even open the books that are the best-sellers. My peers are fearful, my teachers mediocre and the people around me exhibit a slave mentality that would have sent even Nietzsche himself into reverence.

Where have the thinkers gone? Where are the radical ideas, where is the poetry, the lust for life, the undying belief in betterment? Am I simply in the wrong place, or has humanity actually died?

Our denial of what is truly important has escalated to the point of ignorance, and I can no longer place the blame on individuals. How are we to know what is out there when we are raised in the concrete jungle of city high-rises, or in the sheltered suburban sprawl, where the streets twist and turn into themselves in mirror-image cardboard houses, where even the tree stuck into the ground on the front lawn looks identical to the neighbour’s? How are we to see the stars when we can no longer penetrate the orange dust-bowl glow that hovers over our reality? How are we to know the truth when we no longer are taught to see? How can we see the faults in our society when it indoctrinates us with its brevity and its momentary “truths”? How are we to grow when we fight every day for others to accept us, when what we strive to be is the average, to blend in, to be like everyone else? How are we supposed to understand our power when we have been taught nothing but obedience and complacency?

For me, these problems have their origin in the complete failure of a school system we have in Canada. I have attended 9 schools in three countries throughout my life, therefore I deem it appropriate to assume I have a somewhat wider perspective of what education can be. And in Canada, it is depressing, to say the least. I have little to no memory of my elementary school days, apart from the vast expanse of pavement that served as our playground, the dirty tile we sat on, the acrid smell of the gym and the distaste I cultivated for every single one of my teachers. Rebellion grew inside of me, beginning as a small seed, and growing into an almost permanent disposition of protest, absence, and a sense of superiority that had no ground in reality. For almost fifteen years, I refused my education in the most selfish way possible. What could these people teach me that I had not learned outdoors? To me, the lessons that mattered were the practical ones, the ones that I learned when I took a hard fall, when I had to solve a problem. I gained satisfaction from building things, teaching myself a language my sister and I had invented.

It wasn’t until I was seventeen years old that I started to develop an appreciation for formal education. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that this was not a fault on my part – it was the fault of the school system. Only one of the teachers that taught me was a teacher by choice – the rest out of necessity, since their initial plans for their careers had failed. The classrooms were decrepit. We were taught to be conformers, to be socially and politically correct and to accept everything that came our way as truth. There was no room for imagination, for creativity, and anyone that thought differently was assimilated into the oppressive and narrow model. Science was fiction, math was burdensome, english was underwhelming and everything was taught in the most dry manner. The yearning for truth, for knowledge was suppressed, but never even acknowledged. We were not taught to think, we were taught to memorize and to spew out. The subjects were dead and inanimate, I could hardly distinguish them from one another. My years in school blurred into a single dull sensation.

Why must we each ignite the spark manually, in an exasperated attempt for any kind of inspiration, when a match can simply be held to us, bursting into a wildfire that cannot be contained? It took me 18 years to wake up when it should have been an integral part of my education.

To think, it is to be different. And to be different is dangerous, because you are an outcast. How dare you divert your attention from what demands it? And I catch myself falling into complacency, sometimes even for days. When I think again, I feel that I have awakened from a long and arduous slumber. I am filled with fear – how long until I awake again? The constant bombardment of visual stimulation numbs me to the point where I sleepwalk through the majority of my life, wasting away the days of my youth that are starting to be numbered.