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2017 Fundraiser

2017 September 25
by Ian Welsh

I am raising funds for 2017. The more I raise, the more I’ll write.


There is one goal this, year, in stages.

For some time I’ve felt that it’s a problem that fundamental articles I’ve written, over many years, aren’t available for reference. Even long term readers may not remember them well, or be able to find them, and new readers have no easy, good place to start to understand a world view that is foreign to most.

A lot of pieces I write are just responses to the moment, but many of them are attempts to explain fundamental issues that people are confused on. Why beliefs matter; why ideology is important; how the unemployment rate is used to crush wages; how the international trade and finance system is intended to keep radical governments from succeeding; what money actually does and what money measures and so on.

So, the goal this year is to put together a collection of such articles, with commentary on each piece: why it was written, what is meant to be learned from it, what else to read.  I will do one every three weeks or so, and at the end put them into one documents, available to all, and linked prominently from the front page.

Goal thresholds are as follows:

  • $6,000—12 articles with commentary, an introduction and concluding remarks.
  • $7,000—2 more articles.
  • $8,000—2 more articles.
  • $9,000—A new article on how to design a stable, fair, kind & prosperous government
  • $10,000 – A new article on how to evaluate personal risk in the events to come.

As always, please don’t give if your personal situation is precarious with respect to food, housing or medical care.


Note: bitcoin, litecoin and ethereum wallets are listed at the bottom of the donation page.

How to Think

2017 September 24
by Ian Welsh

If there is something this blog is about, it’s how to think. There’s an entire category, but it’s most of what I write about.

Thinking well isn’t about always being right, because you can’t be. It is about having models of the world that are:

  • Right often enough
  • When wrong, fail with the least harm possible and ideally with benefit.

Models are never true, they are always abstractions from the truth. Most of our models of the world are not reasoned, they are emotional and experiential. Science is a special form of experiential. The world turns out to be a very odd place indeed: It is not intuitive that there is action at a distance, that there is no transmitting medium (ether) in space, that gravity warps time and space, or that observation changes the results of quantum experiments.

There are two sets of knowledge, overlapping: knowledge of the external world and knowledge of humans and our society.

Society creates reality: The fastest way to get dead, from stone age hunter gatherers to today, is through your fellow humans beings, whether by violence or neglect. We are deeply attuned to the fact that ostracism equals death, and we will do almost anything to stay in with our group, whoever that group is. If that means believing patent nonsense, if that involves kowtowing to cruel leaders, if that involves becoming cruel and deranged ourselves, we will do it.

We will believe what we need to believe to stay with the group we identify with, to identify with the group that supports us, and be damned the consequences to anyone outside the group–or, indeed, anyone inside the groups. Norms will be maintained.

None of this is to deny change in norms over time, but only if those norms move towards greater kindness and greater truth, is changing of norms beneficial.

And only if successful regimes fail with least harm, and ideally beneficial side effects, are their claims to be better to be entirely believed.

The decision-making humans of our society almost all run a particular set of beliefs best called neoliberalism, a particularly harmful strain of capitalism. They believe in it, because they have benefited from it, and because everyone around them believes in it. If you don’t believe in it, you don’t get into power, with rare exceptions.

This set of beliefs has led to catastrophe after catastrophe, starting with the Russian transition from Communism, including the financial collapse and austerity, and certainly including ignoring the last chance to limit climate change to acceptable levels.

Because capitalism is fundamentally based on greed and selfishness, and because its metaphysics says that price is equal to value and should be used to guide behaviour, it is failing damagingly–despite however much it has otherwise accomplished.

It is not that these failures were not predicted by many, they were. But they were not accepted as failures and no action was taken to prevent them because to accept and act, in too many errors, was to make oneself unfit for power.

Not of the group. Unclean. Unclean.

Not serious.

World models have consequences. How people think has consequences. Our tribal nature and ability to identify with virtually anything has consequences.

Because our power over the natural world has increased so much, errors and characteristics which were adaptive during most of our evolution are now catastrophically dangerous. Extinction level dangerous. Not just for us, but for all too many other species with whom we share the globe, many of whom are more than capable of immense levels of suffering.

So how we think, matters. And figuring out how to think better, not just for a few, but for the many, matters.

And because feeling is most of thinking, this means figuring out how to feel better, more accurately, and more kindly, as well.

More on this soon. In the meantime, read this model of the role of reason and emotion.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

A Note on Kulturkampf and the German Elections

2017 September 23
by Mandos


I haven’t written much about tomorrow’s German elections because from an immediate geopolitical standpoint, they don’t necessarily mean that much. Merkel will remain in power most likely, although the coalition math may not work out so easily or comfortably, with the worst case scenario being a return to elections. The constellation of parties that form the coalition are likely to be ones even more hostile to Greece and to reform in favour of southern European economies. This is partly because Merkel’s party itself has done its utmost to project the idea into the German consciousness that the problem with southern economies is not liquidity but rather corruption and inflexible employment laws (keep in mind that German employment law is itself much, much less flexible than that of any developed English-speaking country, as far as I know).

One remarkable feature of this election is the very likely entry of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD; “Alternative for Germany”) party into the German parliament. This will be the first time in a long time that an openly national-exclusionary party will be represented in the Bundestag, and it is very likely a result of the same forces that kept Merkel in power. Remember that most non-German commentators were thinking of Merkel’s refugee stopgap (it was never a genuine, willing opening regardless of propaganda — but rather a way to deal with an emergency that European treaties had not foreseen) as political suicide, because most non-German commentators don’t read German and have less familiarity with German political culture than they do the far more legible (to anglophones) French political culture, for example.

In reality, Merkel’s choices in the refugee crisis cemented her popularity with a large portion of the German electorate while deeply alienating another portion, roughly corresponding to the old West/East divide that a lot of Germans like to pretend has been magically overcome. Overall, Merkel is seen as having made a difficult decision to deal with the immediate situation caused largely by the collapse of Syria, and then to make a series of complex, morally complicated decisions to stem the flow with minimal direct use of German or EU-based force, such as the Turkey deal and the more recent Libya deal. Especially in the time of Donald Trump, Merkel revealed qualities that a lot of the German electorate values — being capable of making “Solomonic” decisions that preserve key German interests, most importantly the external trade surplus and internal banking stability, while even managing to help a few people and keeping German hands at least cosmetically clean.

As for the alienated portion of the population (link in German), some of whom are now willing to vote for a party that more than hints that it wants to take back German regret for the Holocaust (via carefully chosen code words of course), they presently confirm what we know about present-day right-wing populism, and are therefore more “legible” to analysis along the lines of other countries than the rest of the German political spectrum. For one thing, they are largely not in relative terms poor or unemployed, although they may feel more precarious than before. The German SPD, another social-democratic European party in crisis, attempted to run a traditional campaign based on redistribution and better social services and does not appear to have made much headway against the AfD, because AfD voters are not concerned about this. Rather, they are focused on the belief that they would be even better off if there weren’t any refugees, and they largely belong to the part of the population that expects to have control over the racial and cultural composition of their neighbourhood and has a deep-seated emotional preference for homogeneity, which they justify post hoc.

Assuming poll results are true, one challenge for the stability German society with regards to forces like the AfD will be to find a way to politically cordon off this persistent segment of voters from most forms of political influence, a challenge assisted by Germany’s proportional representation system, as well as to deal with the real challenges of immigrant economic integration posted by recent and on-going geopolitical events. That, of course, in addition to the upcoming difficulty in squaring the circle of a trade surplus inside the Eurozone without fiscal transfers, which is a whole other story and will rear its ugly head doubtless in the next and future Bundestag mandates.

Review of Descarte’s Error, by Antonio Damasio

2017 September 22

This book is a bit long in the tooth now, having been published in ’95. The role it suggests for emotion in the use of reason is, in generalities, no longer controversial. But it was a landmark book for me, when I read it, and it’s still relevant and worth reading.

There’s been a LOT of work around how reason and emotion work together, or don’t. One popular model is “thinking fast and thinking slow,” with emotion as primary in the first, and reason the second.

There’s truth to this, but it’s only a partial truth. In complicated situations, reason does not work alone and can’t.

The human mind is limited, it simply cannot hold a lot of information at one time. Working memory holds about seven bits of information. Some people have a little more, some a little less, and there’s some variation on how much can be held based on the complexity of what is held.

Impressive memory tricks are mostly a result of clumping information into meaningful bits. One strategy for memorizing numbers is to do them as times, for example, making each bit longer.

Logic can work in two ways: sequentially and in parallel. In parallel it can only work up to the limit of working memory. Sequentially we can work through logical chains, but long chains run up against the working memory limitation in their own way–after a time, we don’t really remember the chain.

Humans, for all that we pat ourselves on the back a lot, are fundamentally stupid. It’s just that most other animals are terrible, and those who might be about as good as us or even better are, in some ways, handicapped otherwise, in terms of hands, and/or language, and/or lifespan (octopi), and so on.

Damasio notes that the realm of pure reason is very limited. Most decisions are not obvious. One example he gives is of a patient who has lost the ability to feel emotions trying to decide when his next appointment should be.  It’s not obvious, and he can’t do it, he can spend hours trying to decide.

This same patient, however, in a potential motor vehicle accident where there is an obvious solution, has no problem. Because he feels no emotions, he does the right thing and it’s no big deal for him.

Emotions are really body-states. You feel all emotions in your body. If you don’t, you don’t feel an emotion. (Meditation will show this to you experientially, if you wish.)

We remember emotions and we re-create them as necessary. (Remember the last time you hugged someone you love, feel the emotion. To enhance it, stand and physically mimic hugging them.)

We assign these emotions even to very subtle things, like logical propositions and thoughts on subjects.

When a problem is too hard to deal with using pure reason, when it’s not important enough to subject to pure reason, or when there is no time for pure reason (because logical thinking is, indeed, SLOW), we refer to our feelings, and we go with the one that feels best (or least worst).

Thinking is rarely divided into “pure reasoning” (slow) or “pure feeling” (fast), most complicated decisions use both.

More to the point, most hard decisions are hard because they aren’t clear: There isn’t an obvious logical choice.  They’re close calls, and, in such decisions, we will go with the decision that feels best.

So pure reason is rare, slow, and usually only used for decisions that are, actually, clear cut.

This has a lot of implications, but the one I want to end with is this: Your emotional map of reality is most of your intelligence and if your emotional map of reality (or any decision space within reality) is not accurate, you’re going to make a lot of bad decisions.

This, though Damasio does not go into it, is where ideology and identity come into things. Through those two methods (and anyone who doesn’t think they have an ideology is a fool), we build emotional maps we then layer on top of reason. If our identities or ideologies are screwed, we make bad decisions.

This is an important book to read. Even if all details are not accurate, it is a necessary antidote to a lot of foolishness about how thinking and decision-making actually works.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government

2017 September 21
by Ian Welsh

(Back to the top, this one was fundamental and needs some more time.)

So, we have had a right-wing coup in Brazil. In Venezuela, the left still controls the Presidency, but has lost control of parliament. In Argentina, the right has won the election.

I have been asked how to stop right-wing reversals.

First, it’s worth noting that these three cases are somewhat different. Brazil is a coup in all but name. Venezuela saw massive deliberate fouling of the economy by internal right-wing forces. The situation in Argentina was the closest to fair; a reversal of electoral fortunes.

Still there are lessons to be learned from their experiences:

It’s Not You, It’s China (or, the World System)

All three left-wing movements in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina were associated with rising commodity prices. When those commodity prices collapsed, it was only natural for their fortunes to reverse. They are in power when the economy goes bad, now people want them out. The populace is willing to be complicit in actions that get them out, which are dubious.

Don’t Run Your Economy on Resources

Yes, okay, this is easier said than done. It is hard to bootstrap into something else if you’re a non-core economy. Heck, even many core economies are losing their manufacturing bases and while finance can “work,” it’s a shit way to run your economy. So are “services.” We’ll discuss this in more depth below. But the bottom line is this: You have to develop (or have plans to develop) your economy into a mixed economy, so that it can survive during the inevitable downturns, and, thus, so that your movement can survive them.

People expect you to be able to maintain prosperity. Given the world order as it stands, that may be like asking you to swim with a hundred pound weight strapped to your back, but you still have to do it.

Your First Act Must Be a Media Law

Break them up. Take them over. Whichever. Ignore the screams about media freedom from the usual suspects in the West, this is a case of “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” In all three countries, the media conglomerates remained in the control of oligarchs (update: to be clear Venezuela did eventually expropriate them, but only after many years), and in all three cases, the majority of the media remained relentlessly hostile to the left.

This is just as true in countries like Britain, Canada, or the US as it is in Argentina, Venezuela, or Brazil, by the way. There is a reason why the post-war liberal regimes put strict media controls in place–including size limits–and there is a reason why those limits were removed by the neoliberal regimes that replaced them.

You can win “against the media” for a time, but if you leave it in the hands of your enemies, they will eventually use it to bury you.

Take Control of the Banking Sector

The banking sector creates money. Money determines what people can and cannot do. This is the control mechanism for the economy in any state which runs on markets. You must control it. If you control it, you can use it to strangle your domestic enemies. If you do not, your enemies will use it to strangle you.

This is a great problem. The world economy has been designed so that countries need to trade, and they need foreign money. So, you can take control of your banking sector, but you can’t control England’s, or America’s, or the payment system (this is what killed Argentina), and thus you cannot tell creditors to go fuck themselves. You need foreign money for necessities.

It is also problematic because the people who know how to run the market economy are not your people. You have get rid of the people who ran it before, so who is going to run it now?

Who Is Your Administrative Class?

You must have a class of people available to run the state and those chunks of the economy over which you are taking control (whether formally or informally). You must know who those people are. FDR reached into academia for many of his people; he pulled from the social gospel folks (who were used to administering large organizations), and he found a lot of fellow class traitors (for example, JFK’s father, whom he used to run the SEC–Kennedy knew all the tricks and was able to tamp down Wall Street’s BS).

Post-FDR, one of the reasons why factory line supervisors were made ineligible for union membership was so that union members couldn’t be used as easily to take over organizations–even the lowest level supervisors were no longer union members.

There are always people who know the business and believe the way it is being run is bullshit. But you have to know who they are, both as a class and individually. There are certainly people who can run TV stations and newspapers who are left-wing, but you’ve got to know who they are. There are heterodox economists and people who have worked in the finance industry who are class traitors and just itching for a chance to put the boots to the assholes they worked for. Again, you must know who they are.

Take Control of Distribution and Utilities

Yeah, sorry, but no one said this would be easy. In Venezuela, you had the economic elite deliberately worsening shortages. Huge stocks of consumer goods buried and hidden.

These people have power. They are your enemies. They will use their power against you. They will not “play fair.”

In Egypt, under the Brotherhood, the deep state did things like cause electricity outages and blame it on the Brotherhood. Of course, the same bureaucrats as always were running the electrical system.

Again, this comes back to control: You have to take control and you have to have competent people you can trust who can do so. Do you know who they are?

Reduce Your Vulnerability to the World Trade System

The world system as it stands now is designed so that no nation can stand alone: They cannot make and grow everything they need. This was not always the case. In the past, many nations went out of their way to be self-sufficent. It was Keynes’ position, by the way, that nations should produce all their day-to-day necessities themselves, wherever possible, and import only what they could not produce and luxuries–but to strive not to need anything they couldn’t make.

This has been economic and political orthodoxy at various points.

But it isn’t now. You’re in hock to various foreigners for a lot of money, denominated in their currency. You probably can’t feed your own nation. You can’t make what you need (toilet paper, famously, in Venezuela’s case) and you can’t buy it without foreign currency. But the foreign financial system is not friendly to you if you’re genuinely left-wing, and the world trade system is set up to make it illegal to do what is required to produce goods domestically.

You’ll need subsidies or tariffs to make new domestic industries viable, and that’s illegal thanks to a web of trade deals meant to make you unable to control your own economy.

Venezuela tried to increase farming, but failed, precisely because the price of oil went through the roof and foreign food was cheaper than domestic. The classic response would be tariffs, but the kinds of tariffs sufficient to work would not be tolerated by the world trade system.

It’s hard to overstate how huge a problem this is. It goes back to the commodity issue. Maybe you have enough foreign cash for now, but you won’t always, and you must have it. This vulnerability must be reduced, generally.

No one has managed this in the neoliberal era, not completely, and huge amounts of geopolitics are run based on this. Russia has its oil prices drop, so it moves to selling military goods to make up the difference, for example, and its Syrian intervention is, in large part, a venue to show off how well its weapons work.

Workarounds have been tried: Cooperation with other left-wing nations is the standard one. Venezuela with Cuba, and so on. But this is the “south” trading with the “south.” The stuff they really need, generally, none of them actually produce. If they do they either don’t produce enough, or they don’t really, i.e. it’s produced by some multinational with no loyalty.

So then you try to appropriate the multinational, but that runs you into all sorts of problems from getting replacement parts for the machines, to the experts to run what you’ve expropriated, to effective embargoes, (even if not declared as such).

Nonetheless, this is a problem which must be solved. A full description of how to bootstrap an economy is beyond the scope of this article, and I’m not sure I have a full kit, but I will say this: There are a huge number of highly-skilled first world workers, from the Ph.D.-level down to machinists who are unemployed or underemployed. They want to work. They hate their own system. You can bring these people in, give them new lives, and at least have the necessary expertise.

I know many extremely qualified pharma professionals who would love a chance to set generic factories and create new drugs without the pressure for palliatives they receive from their drug company employers (or ex-employers), as just one example.

This bootstrapping is a challenge which appeals to a lot of the very best and brightest.

Be Satisfied with What You Can Grow and Make

If your elites or population insist on fresh summer vegetables in winter, you’re done. What you can produce, you must have a taste for. This is especially true for elites. If they must have the latest Mercedes, a vacation in Paris, and a home in London, you’re screwed because to have those things they must have foreign currency.

When Korea was industrializing they had huge campaigns to not smoke foreign cigarettes: It was considered unpatriotic.

You need what foreign currency you have to stay earmarked for capital goods, and you need your elites to be local elites, not global elites. If your elites consider themselves global, you will never be able to create the necessary self-sufficiency to buck the world system.

Obey the Laws of Purges

Let’s not dance around. Your first steps will be breaking the power of current economic and political elites who are not willing to convincingly join you–or at least let you rule without trying to sabotage you.

You must do this all at once. When it happens, it has to happen to everyone it is going to happen to. This is Machiavelli’s dictum, and he was right. After it has happened, those who weren’t broken know they’re safe as long as they don’t get in your way.

If the breaking keeps going on and on, everyone who still has something to lose (and still, thus, has power) lives in fear. They must destroy you before you destroy them.

Let’s give a concrete example. Assume Obama was really a left-winger. He gets into power in 2009, and he really wants to change things. He needs to take out the financial elite: Wall Street and the Big Banks.

They’ve handed him the opportunity. Here’s part of how he does it: He declares all banks involved in the sub-prime fraud racket (all of the big ones and most of the small ones) conspiracies under RICO.

He then says that all the individual executives’ money are proceeds from crime and confiscates it. (This is 100 percent legal under laws as they exist). He charges them, and they are forced to use public defenders.

They are now powerless. This is the second law of purges: Anyone you damage, you must destroy utterly. If you take away half their power, and leave them half, they will hate you forever and use their remaining power to destroy you.

Leave them whole, or destroy them. The financial executives would have been destroyed, and win or lose in the courts, the next five to ten years of their lives would be consumed by personal legal nightmares.

Again, this is a Machiavellian dictum.

All of this will make many readers uneasy. It seems “mean.”

Get out of the game. You aren’t fit for it. This is all mean. Millions of people die every year and millions more are ruined by the current system. If you’re in this game to win it, rather than feel good about yourself, you will have to play real power politics by the actual rules of the game.

Too many left-wingers try to play by what they think the rules are. “We have a fair election every X years and the losers accept the result and don’t sabotage the winner (or start a coup).”

Those aren’t the real rules. If the right is really losing, they will cheat and cheat massively. They will think nothing of running death squads, making a deal with the US to support guerrillas, and so on.

You directly threaten their wealth and power if you are a real left-winger. Even if all you want is a 50s style social democracy with racial and gender equality, that would destroy almost all of what they have. They remember what FDR did to them, even if you don’t. They remember all the lost power and fortunes.

It is not possible to have a fair, egalitarian, prosperous society, and have very rich and powerful elites. It cannot be done. Brandeis was exactly right when he said you can have democracy or great wealth in the hands of a few, but you can’t have both.

Either you’re willing to do what it takes, including the ugly bits, or you aren’t. There are sometimes local exceptions, places where a lot of the ugly isn’t needed, but there aren’t a lot of those places left in the world. This isn’t the post-war era and even then, in the South (as opposed to Scandinavia), actual egalitarian, developed economies mostly weren’t allowed. You can ask Central and South America about that.

Most left-wing movements get into power without having properly thought out what they’ll do once in power and without a realistic understanding of the deep lack of belief in democratic norms by their right-wing opponents.

Break your enemy’s power. If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs.

And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them.

Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing.

You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few.

So, know the odds are against you and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Meditation, Cultivation, and Spirituality Books (Part One)

2017 September 21

I’ve been meditating, on and off, for about 14 years. Only in the last three years or so did I start to get much in the way of results from it.

Meditation and cultivation practices do things. They have real effects on people, especially if done diligently and well. Certain practices, done wrong, can mess you up, in much the same way that physical exercise, done wrong, can injure you–sometimes permanently.

One of my friends described to me the time he ran a meditation class for yoga teachers in a major American city. My friend is fat, over 250 pounds, and the yoga teachers were the elite: fit, supple, glowing with health. As they came into the room, and looked at him, he could see what was going through their minds.

He said, “All the time you have spent perfecting your bodies, I have spent perfecting my mind. Let us begin.”

(The body and the mind aren’t really two things, but hey…)

This became so long I’ve split it into two parts. I’ll link Part Two when it is published, most likely Friday.

All that said, let’s start.

The Essence of Enlightenment, James Swartz

Judging by how dog-eared this book is, it’s probably my most read cultivation book. This is the clearest explanation of one type of enlightenment I’ve ever read.

Swartz belongs to the Jnani-Yoga style of cultivation, specifically Indian Vedanta. This is a knowledge based method, where the cultivator uses reason to understand the reality of experience, eventually arriving at witness-consciousness: You view the world and yourself as something you’re just watching.

This is an accurate portrayal of how the human mind, or rather body, on close introspection, actually works.  The feeling of making choices is illusionary, and when you look at the body, thoughts, emotions, or other sense objects, you find that none of them are you (alternatively, they all are, but that’s not what this book is about).

We aren’t trained to think that way; it is not intuitive, and Jnani Yoga and Vedanta are good antidotes: They are logical arguments which help to stop the mind from screaming “bullshit” (as many readers probably are).

This book, while brilliant, is limited in certain ways. Swartz has little time for meditation as commonly understood, other than the close examination of arguments he prescribes Karma Yoga, which is doing things without worrying about the results. While Karma Yoga definitely works for some people, and is a good attitude for anyone on the cultivation path, meditation can be useful for many people.

Another problem is that Swartz expects people to be “qualified,” which means detached and basically psychologically healthy. Most people coming to cultivation aren’t as healthy as Swartz requires for success; people come because they’re hurting.

The third “issue” is that Swartz’s enlightenment, witnessing consciousness, isn’t quite the only kind. There’s another, where one becomes “that in which everything exists and from which everything came,” and there are different interpretations than “witness,” such as Buddhist “no self.” (And blah, blah, other forms that are too complicated and tedious to go into here.)

Still, I recommend this book very highly. It may be the first clean look at where you’re trying to go you read. And, having dealt with Swartz a bit, he’s a good guy, who is genuinely trying to help.

The Mindful Geek, Michael Taft

Some people need their meditation instructions served atheistically with a side of science. If that’s you, Taft has you covered. This falls into the general class of books that explain how meditate and add scientific studies about meditation either working, or studies about the brain which support the mental models on which meditation is based.

Taft is an instructor who works primarily in the tradition of Shinzen Young, who has a very detailed and complicated system of primarily Vipassana (investigatory) meditation. Modern mindfulness, to use Shinzen’s own term. Shinzen and Taft are both the real thing, in my opinion. They’ve put in the work over decades.

This book includes quite a few different styles of meditation, but it’s primarily about noting meditation. You introspect, you examine something, you attach a word or phrase to it, you move on. I came to this style late, but it’s very effective and there are people it’s taken, essentially, all the way. (I find it boring, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.) It has a very Theravada Buddhist feel to it, though Taft’s background is mostly Zen and Hindu.

And you don’t have to believe a thing about God, spirit, souls, or anything else. It’s all completely materialistic.

A good first book or a good book for those with some experience looking for other types of meditation than what they started off with.

Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood

So, Ramakrishna was a famous Hindu Holy man, a Bhakti (devotional, ecstatic worshipper) of Kali. His main disciple, Vivekananda, was the first person to introduce Hindu spirituality, including a form of meditation, to the modern West.

This book isn’t useful if you’re looking for instruction. It doesn’t include much on how to meditate, and most of it is firmly in the theistic camp: For Ramakrishna, God exists, gods existed, he saw them regularly, and talked to them and so on. This is, for atheists, a full on crazy.

But Ramakrishna was a seeker, he wanted to experience every type of Awakening. He did have the full non-dual realization (and that’s much of what Vivekananda spread to the West), but he spent time worshipping as Muslim, a Christian, and seeking out experiences of a variety of Hindu Gods.

Firmly on the “right hand” side, he was celibate, lived in a temple and didn’t like tantric practices (no sexual practices here, no sitting on corpses in graveyards, etc.).

Right, so with all that, why read it?

Partly for Bhakti-style cultivation: Intense love for a divine figure or guru, works. It really, really works. That sort of absorption in one thing unifies the mind very well and heals it of a lot of its psychological issues too.

This is the sort of practice which leads to “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Pouring everything into the love of your god, to get the final liberation, you have to transcend the God. Ramakrishna had to “wield the sword of non-discriminatory knowledge” and “kill” Kali to get there. Then, having done so, he hung out with Kali a bunch more, because, hey, why not?

A lot of people on the theistic path get stuck just short of the big realization because having a personal, loving relation with God (or Guru standing in for God) is really, really nice and they don’t want to give God up.

But this book is also, well, lovely. Ramakrishna is lovely and touching. The world he lives in, of Gods and spirits and, well, magic, is lovely. The stories are great. They’re of people who live lives that most of us in the West can barely conceive, full of gods and devotion. Most see this as craziness.

I’ve read this book a bunch of times, and loved it each time.

Joy On Demand, Chade-Meng Tan

When Tan wrote his book he worked for Google. His title, printed on his business card, was “A Jolly Good Fellow, Which Nobody Can Deny.”

So there’s that.

This is a meditation manual. It’s one of the better ones I’ve read. The fact about meditation is that it can often be a shit show: There comes a point where garbage you’ve suppressed (or not) starts coming up, and it sucks. And in certain practices there can be a lot of pain and suffering.

A lot of meditators stall out when they hit this point, they quit. Meditation is so often sold as being wonderful that people can’t handle when it turns to crap.

The best antidote for that, other than truthfulness, is emphasizing joy and bliss and happiness in meditating. The right types of meditation really are wonderful experiences AND having that wonderfulness as a base from which to work will make everything else so much easier–including some of the unavoidable crap that comes up.

Tang’s manual is oriented towards getting you that base, to making meditation enjoyable as quickly as possible.

This is an excellent way to start meditating and if your practice has stalled out, it’s an excellent way to restart it. The enterprise of reducing or ending suffering shouldn’t be some sort of grim death march.

Tang has an odd sense of humour, which all readers may not like. But the book is an enjoyable, easy read, with enough explanations of technique, theory (so you know why you’re doing it and stick with it), and stories to keep you going.


I’ll have a number more books next time, and some theoretical explanations of what you’re doing and why. In the meantime, if you want a first book, Taft’s or Tang’s will do you well. If you want to know why you’re bothering, read Swartz’s “Essence of Enlightenment,” and if you want to visit a wild and crazy–but wonderful–world, read about Ramakrishna and his disciples.

If none of these work for you, I’ll have at least two more books suitable to starting to meditate in Part Two, along with various other, scrumptious reads.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Obama’s Just the Enemy and Always Was

2017 September 18
by Ian Welsh

One of the most amusing things about the 07/08 primary season was how often Obama praised Reagan and how few people took him seriously. Obama thought Reagan was great and said so repeatedly.

“He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like, you know, with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s, and government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people just tapped into — he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

What’s important about this is that Obama agrees with Reagan about what was wrong with America.

He also felt, correctly, that Reagan was a transformative President, but Obama wasn’t one, because what Obama did was follow Bush: He enhanced the security state, cracked down further on civil liberties, deported more people, ran TARP and the bailout, and so on. Obama was the person who institutionalized Bush, not a President who turned in a different direction.

Fundamentally, Obama agreed with Republicans on a lot of key issues, he just didn’t always want to do as much (no more tax cuts). Even Obamacare was a Republican plan, something Republicans have forgotten.

None of this is to say Obama did no good things; of course he did, but overall he was disastrous.

A lot of people, however, want to say that isn’t what was in his heart. For them, I offer this:

Barack Obama rang Conservative headquarters on election night with a mistaken but reassuring message for Theresa May because Labour insiders had told him the party was expecting to lose seats, according to a new book about the election.

Shortly before the exit poll, which sent shockwaves through both party headquarters, the former US president contacted a friend in Tory central office with the soothing news that Labour was expecting to see the Conservatives increase their majority.

It’s really impossible to overstate how evil the Tories have been. These are people who literally have been taking wheelchairs away from cripples. They’ve tripled the deficit, de-funded health care and generally acted as cruelly as possible.

A particularly egregious example is the following.

The thing is, if you follow the British news, you know this is what Tory policies are designed to do: Shove the most vulnerable people off any support. Examples are legion, and for every case that makes the media, one knows there are many, many more.

This is cruelty by design. The Tories tripled the debt largely because of tax cuts, austerity, and bail outs for rich people, and then they tried to make some of it up on the backside by hurting the most vulnerable people; people who were not responsible for the financial crisis and have not benefited from the tax cuts.

This is what Obama is okay with–this is what he prefers to a social democrat like Corbyn.

Obama’s just an evil man. He has always been an evil man. He has spent his time since office hobknobbing with billionaires and getting rich off the very people he helped bail out as president, and whom he refused to prosecute despite their clear crimes.

He’s just a bad man. He was never left-wing in any sense, and he’d rather see vast amounts of cruelty than see any sort of social democrat anywhere near power.

Again, for the dull, this does not mean he is not better than, John McCain, say. It just means that he’s still evil, still a bad man, still someone whose hatred of the left is so strong he’d rather see cripples losing their wheelchairs than have the left win.

The enemy.

For America, or the world, to improve we need to start electing people who are, on balance, good, not evil.

We simply cannot expect to routinely elect evil people and have good results come from it.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Review, Impro, by Keith Johnstone

2017 September 17
by Ian Welsh

The subtitle is “Improvisation and the Theatre,” but this is a book for far more than people involved in theatre, and one of the most profound I have read.

Johnstone started as a teacher, and specialized in “problem children,” whom he found to be the most imaginative and bright students, rather than those students who are simply compliant with teacher.

I have two favorite anecdotes from this book. The first is that when teaching drama students, Johnstone would sit on the floor, while the students were in chairs. He would tell them that if they didn’t achieve the abilities the class was teaching it was his fault, not theirs, because he was the teacher.

By the end of his introductory spiel, they would all be off the chairs, sitting on the floor with him, because they didn’t want to be “over” someone treating them as he was.

Johnstone would try and make students feel completely safe, and he found that as people learned not to censor themselves three layers would emerge.

The first was sexual: Often wildly, inappropriately sexual.

The second was a deep fear of God (remember he was teaching more than 50 years ago now) and of Hell, combined with anger and hatred.

The third and final layer was a deep tenderness.

(This is fairly similar to my experiences with meditation. Human nature, stripped of fear and desperate desire, appears to be essentially love. Most people never strip off enough to experience more than brief flashes of this, however.)

Johnstone has a long disquisition on status which is fascinating and useful far beyond the theatre. His analysis that higher status people own more space than lower status people, and that servants own no space, is brilliant.  His breaking down of conversational domination opened up whole vistas of understanding how people talk in real life.

But this is my favourite quote from the book:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed ‘mad’ when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask – that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn’t try to impose my reality on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people – it was as if she was a body language expert. She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.

Reality isn’t, mostly. That’s not  to say there aren’t real things, and objects and so on, most of it is filtered so heavily that we never see the world minus huge amounts of connotation and framing we picked up from other people and pass on, too often rather like a virus. A great deal of what passes for us as wrong, escalating to mad, is really just people who refuse to live in our particular reality. (Other madness is, of course, far more serious.)

There’s a vast amount of information here, of course, on how to do improvisational theatre and my theatre friends tell me it’s great, even foundational. The most important points are to always accept prompts (don’t shut down what your impro mate is doing, but run with it) and to not try to be too clever, because too clever doesn’t flow from whatever was given to you and the audience won’t buy it or get it.

But this book is one I keep coming back to because so much of it is about what it means to be human, how to retain our imagination, and how not to drown in social conditioning. It’s a fundamental book, one which deals with the deepest issues and illuminates them. Recommended for everyone.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.