John Gray’s Attitude of Contemplative Gratitude

John Gray’s Attitude of Contemplative Gratitude

Reblogged from “how to save the world” by Dave Pollard

… until you really see


John Gray’s Straw Dogs was (and is) the most important book I’ve ever read. I read it at exactly the right time in my life, and it liberated me from the erroneous belief that our civilization culture could or should be saved, and from the erroneous belief that I have, or anyone has, the capacity to ‘save the world’.

John’s new book The Silence of Animals, billed as a continuation of the thinking of Straw Dogs, is to my mind nothing of the sort. It is a rambling and disjointed series of thoughts on the nature of the human animal. John presents us with miniature portraits of some of the people whose ideas and writings on this subject have appealed to him, and summaries of their ideas, and left us to decide which images in this gallery are worth our attention.

For the benefit of collapsniks reading this review, I should clarify that John does not use the term ‘civilization’ the way we do — to define our collapsing, globalized, devastating modern culture. He uses the term to mean the opposite of barbarism, and he believes that humans and their societies are at once civilized (peaceful, respectful) and barbaric (violent, cruel and destructive). He is nevertheless clearly a believer that our culture is in the process of collapse, though he doesn’t dwell on it in this book, probably because he doesn’t think it can be helped. Such is the nature of civilizations, he would have us believe, and of humans.

If you read The Silence of Animals you may be impressed by different parts of it than I was. This review will focus on the six parts of the book’s gallery of ideas that particularly resonated with me. [If you want a more objective and thorough review of the book, Liverpudlian Gerry has an excellent one].

1. The Myths of Humanism: From Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress:

Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd; the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistable force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and its opinion.

Conrad, and John Gray, seem to believe our behaviour and much of our identity is a facade built behind the protection of our culture, that obliterates our real personality, if we have one at all. We live, John says, within three humanist myths: the myth of human uniqueness and transcendence (that we are uniquely rational creatures), the myth of human importance (that our minds reflect the order of the cosmos), and the myth of human progress (that history is a story of advance, with rationality generally increasing over time). But in reviewing the ghastly history of violence and suffering of the 20th century, he muses that “progress in civilization seems possible only in interludes when history is idling”. What are we without our culture?, he asks, and What delusion makes us believe we can be anything other than mostly barbaric?

2. Life’s Meaninglessness: “Natural selection is a process of drift. Evolution has no endpoint or direction, so if the development of society is an evolutionary process it is going nowhere.” This was the idea of Stephen J Gould’s in his book Full House that so rocked my worldview. Life is a random walk, yet we humans desperately pursue some meaning to our lives to the point that, as John writes,

… when truth is at odds with meaning, it is meaning that wins. Why is meaning so important? Why do humans need a reason to live? Is it because they could not endure life if they did not believe it had hidden significance? Or does the demand for meaning come from attaching too much sense to language — from thinking that our lives are books we have not yet learnt to read?

My sense is that our search for purpose and meaning in our lives is a learned behaviour, one that seems more urgent and important as our time becomes scarcer and our struggles more intense (i.e. as we “grow up” in this culture). I can remember being five years old and feeling more alive than I have felt since, but I cannot recall any need for meaning in what I did then. Life was joyful, amazing, full of discovery and fun and aha moments, and that was enough.

3. The Nature of Human Struggle: John writes:

[Freud’s Stoic worldview was] that there is something wrong with the human animal. Health may the natural condition for other species, but in humans it is sickness that is normal. To be chronically unwell is part of what it means to be human… Every culture has its own versions of therapy…. [Freud, like Schopenhauer, believed] it is not the conscious mind that shapes human life. Beneath what we imagine are our choices, it is the unconscious will that rules us…

[Freud believed] the world is an arena of unending struggle [but instead of] merging the self with some cosmic order [he counseled] a way of life based on accepting continuous unrest… [and asserted] that there is no true self [so] looking for your true self invites unending disappointment.

This is indeed a bleak view of our lot in life. I can accept that there is a constant struggle between what our genes and bodies want for their good (our “unconscious will”) and the desires of our culture for us to do its bidding to ensure its continuance (Conrad’s “every thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd”). But I can’t accept Freud’s, or John Gray’s, belief that this struggle means we are doomed to be an unhappy and unwell life. Perhaps that’s because I was blessed with a childhood that was mostly trauma-free, so my case of civilization disease is less severe and overwhelming than most. And I’m perplexed that John seems to conflate the search for happiness, the search for self-realization or self-actualization, and the search to discover and be one’s true self. To me, the first of these is probably futile but perfectly understandable, the second is absurd and self-defeating, and the third is worthy and at least partially attainable.

4. Escape from Language: Citing Fritz Mauthner, against scientism:

The need for peace seduces the human mind into seeing the mirage of a resting-place in the desert of its striving for knowledge; the scholars believe in their linguistic roots. At all times and in all places, the science of a particular time is the expression of the poor human spirit’s wistful desire for rest. Only critique — wherever it is still alive in even poorer heads — may not rest, for it cannot rest. It must rudely awaken science, remove its illusion of an oasis, and drive it further along the hot, deadly, and possibly aimless desert paths.

Atheism, according to Mauthner, in John’s words

… does not mean giving up belief in god. It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that — like the god of the negative theologians — escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching scepticism… a godless mysticism.

Dawkins and the believers in scientism would be appalled at this assertion, but it makes enormous sense to me. I think the idea that language is a vehicle for our cultural imprisonment is an intriguing one, one that is worthy of further, silent reflection. As is the idea of “godless mysticism”, which reviewer Richard Holloway summarizes as “an attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have”, and about which John says (with I think remarkable ambiguity)

Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.

5. Being Animal: Citing JA Baker in The Peregrine:

This is now a different place from what it was two hours ago. There is no mysterious essence we can call a ‘place’. Place is change. It’s motion is killed by the mind, and preserved in the amber of memory… The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.

John explains that Baker’s book is

… a record of the author’s struggle to see the landscape in which he pursued [a falcon, over a period of years] through the eyes of the bird itself. He followed the peregrine not in order to observe it, but in an attempt to escape the point of view of a human observer… by deanthropomorphizing himself, seeing the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able at times to be something other than he had been.

As a lifelong lover and studier of birds, biophilia and biomimicry, I am naturally intrigued by this approach to ‘godless mysticism’. I once wrote that if I had the opportunity to change places with a bird, even though it would mean a much-shortened life, I would do so in a heartbeat. I was immediately astonished at myself for having written it, and with my absolute confidence of its truth for me. My pursuit of ‘presence’ may be futile, but I am sufficiently intrigued by Baker’s story to explore whether the path to presence, that wondrous state of simultaneous relaxation and awareness, might be found, for me, in the pretence of being avian, imagining that possibility with all my heart. I recently described presence as “what is left behind when what you think is ‘you’, leaves”. I sense that that is what Baker found.

6. Contemplation: The second approach to godless mysticism John describes is contemplation, which he seems to describe as a combination of gratitude and a particular type of silence — the silence of animals:

Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. The human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while othjer creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves; other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming…

The distance between human and animal silence is a consequence of the use of language [though] it is not that other creatures lack language… Philosophers will say that humans can never be silent because the mind is made of words. For these half-witted logicians, silence is no more than a word… If you turn outside yourself — to the birds and animals and the quickly-changing places where they live — you may hear something beyond words…

The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The ‘perilous zones’ [as Beckett calls the moments of true being and presence] are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been…

Contemplation… aims not to change the world, or to understand it, but merely to let it be… The wilful opening of the mind to the senses is a prelude to events that cannot be made to happen… Contemplation of this kind involves nullifying the self.

Perhaps. I am nervous when an admirer of Stoics begins to gush. But I have known such moments, and live to experience more of them. That is not a ‘purpose’, it is a yearning, a desire to know, to remember, who I think I was and am beneath this acculturated, disconnected, unconscious shell of identity that is definitely not-me.

.  .  .  .  .

I have lived a charmed life. I am, compared to most humans on this dreadfully crowded, suffering and desolated planet, relatively free of trauma. I am affluent, and retired from the tyranny of ‘work’. I live in a place that, at least at this time, is peaceful. I am, compared to most, quite knowledgeable of history and prehistory, geography, philosophy, different cultures and sciences, and have been blessed with relatively strong critical and creative abilities. I am therefore immensely grateful to be able to pursue, in my own skeptical and erratic way, an “attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have”, when almost all others are trapped in the frenzy of survival and the anguish and the pain of civilization disease that is their lifelong lot. Their burden, but not their fault. I am I think the world’s most blessed agnostic.

My desire to pursue that path, despite its unlikelihood of success and its long and winding and perplexing roads, is, I think, a wish to honour the rare privilege and good fortune I was born with and have been given, to express my gratitude by doing something with these gifts. Not to save the world, nor to proclaim any truth. Just to be able to lay a trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in case others may find my discoveries useful in their own lonely journeys. That’s what this ironically named blog, this chronicle of civilization’s collapse, has become, I think.

I thank John for this strange book that has reminded me of that, and which has suggested a few other ‘aimless’ but intriguing paths I might yet choose to explore.

~ Dave Pollard

Reblogged from “how to save the world” by Dave Pollard


The Meaning of Life

Comedy icon Charlie Chaplin
Charles Chaplin, one of my favorite philosophers
[updated 10-13-2012]
What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning. Desire is the theme of all life. It’s what makes a rose want to be a rose…Charles Chaplin, “Limelight”

What is the meaning of life ?

What is the purpose of life?”

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Why do we ask these questions?

What human desire or urge are we seeking to fulfill?

But wait–what do we mean by “meaning”, and what purpose do we have for asking about our purpose?

In the universe of matter and energy, structures give rise to properties; structures and properties give rise to functions; and structures, properties, and functions give rise to capabilities. Each of these things can in turn feed back into the things it arises from, creating dynamically entangled networks of cause and effect.  Perhaps the meaning and purpose of life are defined or revealed by form or function.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin

For billions of years before any life appeared on earth, the universe underwent a process of evolution (or what in the case of inanimate physics is often called self-assembly or self-organization) driven by the intrinsic structures, properties, and functions of space, matter, energy, and time.

Any particular case of structure that arises through mechanical self-organization can also be broken down again. In fact, it appears that each individual, localized structure that forms in the universe–atoms, molecules,  stars, galaxies, etc.–almost certainly shall be broken down eventually. And yet despite this, it also appears that the overall amount of structure and complexity created by self-organization and evolution has continued to progressively increase for billions of years.

As intelligent and imaginative creatures we may look back at all of this progressive self-organization and evolution and imagine that the purpose of matter and energy is to produce progressive overall organization and complexity within the universe; and the purpose of life is to continue and extend that trajectory of evolution into ever-greater forms of complexity and diversity.

Universe expansion timeline (image via WikiMedia)

Viewed retrospectively we can impute the purpose of creating progressive organization and complexity to the role that each individual thing plays in that overall progress. But we probably should admit that the word purpose had no meaning until that word was created by us. Human beings created that word and endowed it with a meaning of our own choosing for its utility to us.

As far as we know, the province of meaning and purpose is confined to the human consciousness or at least to living things with similar cognitive abilities.  When we ask “What is the meaning and the purpose of life?” we are currently limited to asking this question of ourselves, individually and/or collectively, and it is up to us to answer.

Is this anthropomorphizing the idea of purpose? Yes and no. Purpose carries a certain connotation we can’t quite shake: intentionality or design. The purpose of a typewriter is to print words on paper–that’s what its intended for– but it can also function as a doorstop or boat anchor. Function, on the other hand, can be said to be purely objective. There is no anthropomorphism in saying the function of the universe is to create progressive complexity and diversity and, eventually, biological life.  We can clearly see this function in 20-20 hindsight. There may be functions that escape our notice, but those which we notice can be cataloged empirically. So at present we can only ascribe the notion of purpose and meaning to conscious beings.

“You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. The significance of you will remain forever a mystery to you, but you may assume you are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to the highest advantage of others.”
-R. Buckminster Fuller

There are many who consider the evolution of the universe to be purposeless, unintentional, and accidental; yet there are many others who consider the possibility of our particular universe being a “happy accident” to be nil. Back in the 1980’s MIT did a computer simulation that computed the odds of life evolving by chance to be roughly equivalent to the odds of a tornado hitting a junkyard and accidentally creating a fully functional Boeing 747.   However,  scenarios that include multiple cycles of universe expansion and contraction, or scenarios that include multiple concurrent universes (multiverse or M-theory and Membrane cosmology scenarios, for example), suggest that the evolution of a universe such as ours is not only mathematically possible but it could actually be inevitable. Nevertheless, in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, I’ll remain agnostic. That question will not be answered here.

For the present, at least, meaning and purpose will be attributable only to conscious beings. That isn’t strictly anthropomorphic, because we can include animals other than humans as well as other possible intelligent beings unknown to us.

With the eventual evolution of life, living things acquire an additional aspect of function that might be called capability. Some capabilities confer reproductive or other survival advantages. The functions of flagella and cilia confer the capability of motility. Because the capability of motility confers survival advantages, motility becomes the implicit purpose of flagella and cilia. In the same way, the implicit purpose of a fin or a leg is mobility, the purpose of a mouth is to ingest food, and the purpose of a gill or a lung is to absorb oxygen. But are any of those things in some way more purposeful than the light mechanically emitted by a star or the rotation of a galaxy? It depends on the point of view. Who knows what purposes the cell may have for wiggling its flagellum?

(Structure of a typical bacterial cell)

When  is function promoted to the status of a purpose in our eyes?  I don’t exactly know–but it happens in some network or nodule of neurons within the human brain. Perhaps its when the cause and effect become obvious and consistent enough to one or more observers. Then we begin to think of a thing’s most common, customary, and characteristic function as its purpose.

Eventually, with progressively increasing cognitive capabilities, more and more thoughts, meanings, intentions, and purposes arise in the minds of more and more people. The things that people think, say, do, or make may then be considered to happen according to an intentional and explicit human purpose –despite the fact that many (if not most) results of human thought and action are unintended and unanticipated.

Much (if not most) human thought and activity is instinctive, reflexive, conditioned, unconsciously motivated or manipulated. Presumably, the implicit “purpose” of instinctive behavior is to confer survival advantages. But we only define that cause-and-effect relationship as a “purpose” after the fact, in retrospect, when we abstract it and consider it consciously in the context of our ideas about evolution and natural selection.

Like purpose, meaning is really a matter of associations– association of cause and effect, association of one pattern with another, association of a word or symbol with a concept, a memory, or a perception, etc.

However, if our cognitive capabilities continue to evolve without catastrophic interruption, we will continue to find greater and greater meaning in more and more things and to imagine, discover, and pursue greater and greater purposes for ourselves. As life evolves, so will meanings and purposes evolve. Thus a fundamental proto-purpose of human life is to understand, enhance and promote evolution–the progressive organization, complexity, diversity, and capability of the  biosphere.

Like a sprouting seed or fractal pattern, the proto-pupose of increasing complexity and capability will unfold and elaborate into new meanings and purposes without end. In the case of human beings, in our evolving capability for higher meaning and purpose, a primary focus should be the investigation and development of our most unique features and strengths–chief among these being our cognitive, technical, and social abilities.

If our broad purpose is to increase overall capability and utility (the greatest good) for the biosphere, by consciously promoting evolution in every way possible, how should we act? What kind of lifestyles and social institutions should we favor?

Information systems, quantum mechanics, molecular biochemistry, cognitive neuroscience, deep ecology, fractal geometry…the first generation to grow up with such mental tools is alive today. What can this add to a quest at least as old as the anatomically modern human brain, the question of the meanings and purposes of life? How can these new tools and capabilities help us to amplify the evolution of our culture and the evolution of the biosphere?

Human culture has always evolved more rapidly than our anatomy. But even the rapid progress of our culture has begun to fall behind the pace of changes and challenges we now face in our crowded societies and  our ravaged environment. Rather than rising to meet these challenges our social institutions show signs of actually breaking down and becoming less effective. Increasing competition over land, water, food, and other resources is likely to favor increasingly authoritarian institutions. While technology offers solutions to resource problems in theory, in practice it also favors greater stratification of wealth and power. If recent trends continue we may be faced with a future of highly authoritarian corporate neofeudalism (privatized governance).

Faced with such prospects, some of us should be choosing to explore the boundaries of the brain’s ability to examine and extend itself and to accelerate the evolution of culture with the same kind of intensity and effort that it takes for the military occupation of the Middle East or sending a spacecraft to the Moon.

Its time for groups of our most highly-developed and progressive people to start acting more like macro-organisms. This is analogous to the era when communities of single-celled organisms began to coalesce into multi-celled plants and animals that could reproduce true-to-kind.

We all know things we don’t know how to express in words. When we try, they often sound like cliches and tautologies. But sometimes  progress comes through persistent interaction with a friend, a partner, or a colleague. Sometimes two heads or three heads are better than one. Sometimes people who spend a lot of time together develop special kinds of connections. If we live or work together long enough and closely enough we may begin to establish what I call human broadband connections. This may evolve further as we keep house, interact with nature, travel, solve problems, share adventures, meet challenges and survive crises together, until we can finish each others sentences. We are beginning to realize that such intimacy can gradually change the chemistry and structure of the nervous system and allow for progressively increasing inter-personal communication bandwidth and synchronization. One example is menstrual synchrony.

Some might consider it to be an interpersonal spiritual connection, but it is a natural phenomenon that I would call bio-cognitive development (bio-cognitive = body + brain) and psycho-neuro-synchronization.

Bio-cognitive development partners are two or more peers engaging in an in-person practice that focuses not on learning facts but developing and practicing bio-cognitive skills such as high-bandwidth psycho-neuro-synchronization.  As psycho-physiological intimacy and coordination increases over time, the bandwidth and synchronization of the bio-cognitive communication increase.  Some of the coordinating feedback channels are:



.Voice modulation, body language , airborne chemicals, and physical contact all stimulate the release of a wide array of neurotransmitters and other hormones throughout the body. These change the states of neural networks, nerves, and tissues throughout the body. That much is established fact.

Actual neural connection patterns in the brain

My additional hypothesis is that all these channels of communication can gradually come into greater synchronization between people. Its similar to the way higher data throughput is achieved between nodes in a communication network as they each synchronize to the same timing, states, and protocols. The rate at which this happens between people and the degree to which it happens depends on the innate psycho-physiological characteristics of the participants as well as their acquired proficiencies.  When well developed, interpersonal bio-cognitive communication bandwidth may change as much as the difference between a 300 baud asynchronous modem connection and a 10-gigabit broadband connection.

The importance of shared activity to developing bio-cognitive intimacy and high communication bandwidth can’t be over-emphasized. Important activities include, but aren’t limited to: singing and dancing, eating and drinking (especially alcohol), domestic housekeeping (especially kitchen work), manual labor (gardening/farm work, carpentry, etc.), professional work, artistic collaboration, dialog/debate, sports and recreation (camping is great), traveling, and adventure. Sharing risks and crises is especially effective for promoting empathy and trust. The more time participants spend together the better. Sharing living quarters and workplaces is especially effective, within the limits of intimacy fatigue. And of course if these things are done mindfully, with the intention of developing high-bandwidth intimacy, and with appropriate methods and skills, excellent results are possible. I have achieved such intimacy with several individuals and small groups who lived and worked together.

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

As my friend Natural Lefty points out, on some level this is common sense and I am merely stating a truism of social psychology: people who hang together synchronize their language, culture, and behavior to some extent. This can have survival advantages but it can also have negative consequences such as excessive conformity or “group-think”. It can promote cooperation or it can lead to intra-group or inter-group conflicts. Even members of a well-organized wolf pack may attack each other savagely. So the devil is in the details–what are the actual empirical effects of cognitive synchronization and development  in practice, on the ground. What effects prove positive and what effects lead to negative consequences. The process of distinguishing between the positive and negative results, maximizing one and minimizing the other, can be thought of as a process of quality control and continuous improvement.

To achieve continuous improvement and positive quality control, we should systematize and instrument our intentional community of self-study and self-development. We should consciously formalize our group dynamics in a context of systems science and rigorous experimental design. Process transcends objectives, but measurable objectives  provide important feedback for process improvement.

The prerequisites for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization of groups are motivation, opportunity, and  resources. It is important that various conditions and tools are provided.

One way to provide conditions for bio-cognitive group development is  to establish venues for the kinds of activities mentioned above, in which those activities can be offered to the public and simultaneously shared by a residential staff group. Another approach is to establish intentional communities.  These can be urban or rural.

In addition to the shared activities mentioned above, some of the possible tools and techniques for bio-cognitive development and psycho-neuro-synchronization include:

These and many other tools can be used for increasing adult brain plasticity and promoting emotional and physiological states that enhance learning, memory, and neural network integration. Conducted in groups they can also promote  psycho-neuro-synchronization and bio-cognitive group intimacy.

All this provides a matrix for accelerated cultural and cognitive evolution that is independent of gross  brain anatomy. (Lets face it, we aren’t getting bigger brains any time soon.)  Nonetheless, there is good reason to hope that radical self-knowledge, bio-cognitive development,  neuro-physiological practice, and psycho-neuro-synchronization may all work together to promote developmental changes in the brain’s micro-structure and its operational patterns. We can try to examine and consciously modify various aspects of our irrationality, automaticity, implicit associations, cognitive biases, etc. With all these tools and techniques we may have a shot at developing a kind of persistent group consciousness capable of hosting perceptions and representations of reality and establishing behavioral innovations and capabilities well beyond the confines of the mainstream culture and language.

This just might help us keep each other alive a few decades longer.

Conclusion Pending

Of course survival, evolution, self-development, and progress are sensible objectives–but do they constitute a purpose for life? What is the purpose of the universe other than assembling itself? Who knows? The thing is, whether the universe has further purpose(s) or not, human beings have brains that let us (perhaps require us) to imagine and choose purpose(s) for ourselves.

The epicureans advise that we eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die. This particular expression is actually a conflation of two biblical sayings: Ecclesiastes viii. 15 (AV) “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry”, and Isaiah xxii. 13 (AV) “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” (

Solomon, the wisest of the wise, advises us to be moderate in our good works, for anything else is vanity. But above all else, perhaps, he advises us to pursue the desires or our hearts and to be merry. And what makes most of us merry? The fullest possible development and expression of our gifts and our relations with one another and with the world. This is sometimes likened to blossoming, and its symbol is often the rose.

Utilitarians also advise that we seek the greatest good for the greatest number.

If you need more purpose and meaning than this, go discover it or invent it, and please copy me.

Poor Richard

(1:32 The biological basis of human nature.

Randal_A._Koene heads the organization (, co-founded with Dr. Suzanne Gildert), which is the outreach and roadmapping organization for action towards Advancing Substrate-Independent Minds (ASIM). Dr. Koene is a neuroscientist and neuroengineer, and he directs the Halcyon SIM (substrate-independent minds) and BCI (brain-computer interfaces) divisions, as…

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