What I am Reading

I just finished reading The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David C Korten. It was recommended reading in Active Hope, and explores the concept of The Great Turning in much greater depth. This is an over-the-counter book, but I feel like it should come with some kind of warning – READ WITH CAUTION: This book could change your life. I am still absorbing the ideas and their implications, but I am going to attempt to share some of it with you.

The central idea is that we are at a critical time in human history which may be described by future generations as “The Great Unraveling” when out-of-control consumption overwhelmed the world’s resources and threatened the survival of the human population. However David Korten suggests that this time also has the potential to become “The Great Turning” if we can learn to live in partnership with each other and the earth. The main argument is

It is within our means, shape a positive outcome if we choose to embrace the resulting crisis as an opportunity to lift ourselves to a new level of species maturity and potential.

The concept of Empire features strongly as representing a dominator model for human interaction which is  based on power and control for the benefit of a few, in contrast to a partnership model which nurtures cooperation and expression for the benefit of all. The idea is to more away from Empire towards an Earth Community which is more inclusive and life sustaining.

The idea which stood out most to me was the map of the developmental pathway from the least mature to the most mature orders of human consciousness which is a basis for understanding how to build Earth Community and to understand what is going wrong now. This has five stages:

First Order: Magical Consciousness – like a yound child who experiences the world as subject to the whims of magical beings. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred.

Second Order: Imperial Consciousness – like an older child who can distinguish between real and imagined events, and understands that actions have consequences. Influences the behaviour of others for self interested purposes, but with little concept of loyalty, gratitude or justice.

Third Order: Socialized Consciousness: influenced by the norms of the group and able to feel empathy with others in their group, and act for the good of others within their reference group.

Fourth Order: Cultural Consciousness – The ability to recognise culture as a social construct and that there are many cultures outside of our own. There is a concern with justice for all people, not just ones own group.

Fifth Order: Spiritual Consciousness – an awakening to all creation as a complex multi-dimensional, interconnected whole.  It transcends the exclusiveness of group loyalties to embrace the whole.

The significance of this analysis is the premise that the past 5000 years or so of human history have been dominated by views and behaviours with reflect the Second Order, which Korten calls the Imperial Consciousness. He sees human history with is large scale wars, invasions and exploitation of people and resources as the acting out of an immature and selfish mentality.

The exercise before us then is to awaken to a broader appreciations of what it means to be human, which involves looking outside our own personal self interest, and the interests of our own family or social group, to appreciate the diversity of the peoples of the world, and the interconnectedness of life itself.

The construct of Empire as the dominant ideology is applied in detail to many of our human endeavours, turning conventional understandings of history, politics and religion on their heads in the search for a more humane and sustainable way of living. Although many of the ideas were not new to me, and many of the observations were similar to my own, I found the process of reading through the interpretation quite confronting. I am still thinking it through, integrating what makes sense to me.

My main hesitation about this analysis is the presentation of the levels of consciousness as a ladder on which we can place ourselves and others. Although the five types of consciousness described make a lot of sense to me, I feel reluctant to engage in labelling other people as being of an inferior consciousness. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that we all have the potential to act from each of the five levels of consciousness. It may be a slippery slope to label greed and ignorance as being wholly outside ourselves. It seems more helpful to identify the value systems influencing particular ideas and actions, rather than to brand people as the opposition in a ideological war of the enlightened against the ignorant.

Suffice it to say, if you are looking for something challenging to read that extends your thinking and challenges your world view, you will certainly find it here.


I have returned from a brief holiday in Melbourne and am trying to settle back into a routine. We were on the move so much on the holiday that it wasn’t viable to keep up the posts, apart from a few pictures that found their way onto Facebook. It was good to get away and be a “traveller” absorbed in the basics such as working out how to get to places, find food and drink, and locating our beds for the night.

Before I went away I had embarked on the task of learning more about a few issues that are of concern to me, such as climate change and the refugee situation in Australia. The experience of working on a polling booth handing out “how to vote cards” taught me that although I understand what I think is  important and why, I’m not able to explain my position well to others, particularly if they are coming at the issue from a different perspective. I couldn’t quote facts or direct people to resources that would explain the issues, and I wasn’t adept at parrying questions and deflecting jibes. It seemed like a good idea to get better informed.

What I quickly found is that while there is a lot of information available on these topics, its impossible for me to approach this as an intellectual exercise. Reading about threats to biodiversity and the risks of climate change is very confronting, and can be really discouraging. Engaging with the problems faced by refugees is also very troubling. Having seen the pendulum swing back towards a more conservative government in Australia, there is a feeling of discouragement and dismay amongst those involved in the environmental and social justice movements that can be overwhelming if you aren’t feeling strong yourself.

Rather than brave this onslaught of seriousness head on, I decided to take a side track and read something by Joanna Macy. Joanna is an author involved in the movements for peace, justice and ecology who approaches her activism from a Buddhist perspective. I had tried to read one of her books before, but abandoned the attempt because I wasn’t ready for it, and found it too heavy. This time around I came across a new book “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone which provided some encouragement that its possible to use a spiritual foundation to steady yourself while facing up to some of the big issues of our time.

In Active Hope, the authors acknowledge that we are facing major problems due to increasing human population and patterns of excessive consumption which are overwhelming the resources available to us. Rather than being overwhelmed by discouragement, the book encourages us to act to bring about what we hope for, even while the future is uncertain and we don’t know what is possible. “Active Hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.”

One aspect of the book that I found helpful was the Three Stories of Our Time. The first is Business As Usual, which assumes that there isn’t a problem with the way we live.  This includes the belief that economic growth can go on forever without any consequesnces. The second story, The Great Unraveling, points out the disasters that Business as Usual is leading us towards by ignoring and abusing the finite resources available to us. It tells a story of the collapse of ecological systems, changes to climate, and the potentially disastrous consequences. The third story is “held and embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse to let the second story have the last word”. The book is about how to get behind that third story and work towards a life sustaining civilisation.

This book was the right thing for me, because it acknowledges that we have a problem while offering a hopeful way to cope with the situation and be involved in working towards a positive outcome. Barraging people with frightening facts isn’t successful, because its just too much to take in. Most people, myself included, need a more positive picture that they can embrace that makes change seem not only necessary and possible, but desireable and meaningful.

P1060353I was in the tour bus at Werribee Zoo in Melbourne, driving through an open range area where the large animals roam. We could see other visitors staring in at us from the viewing area. The tour guide pointed to the human visitors and said “look, there’s another endangered species”. I don’t think he was joking. Jokes like that make me sad.

Its a weird feeling to be contemplating the future of humanity whilst going about my own form business as usual. I am enjoying the warm sunny days, knowing that it is not normally so hot this early in the Spring. Its hard to know what to think and how to respond. Yet it seems important to be open to what is going on around me, while at the same time remaining grounded and take care of myself through the process.

The next book on my reading list for people with multiple interests is Mash-Up!: How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier by Ian Sanders & David Sloly. Ian and David focus on how to develop a multi-faceted work life that takes advantage of multiple talents and interests. They contend that rather than diluting one’s abilities, being able to mix up a variety of skills provides an advantage in the contemporary workplace. This interests me because I have been exploring a number of possible avenues for earning an income and the possibility of a varied worklife is very appealing.

For Ian and David the key to success as a masher is to define your ‘personal unifier’ which describes the common denominator that runs through all your varied skills and interests. It that allows people to ‘get’ what is at the core of what you do. I haven’t come up with mine yet, but its probably going to relate to topics addressed in this blog, such as simplicity, intuition and decision-making, growth and spirituality.

Even when you are clear about your personal unifier, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to present yourself to a potential employer or client. Ian and David advise telling your story in a way that grabs attention, clearly communicates what you are offering, and provides the person you are talking to with a way to take the next step to using your service.

The great benefit of a mashed up life is the satisfaction of utilising different aspects of your skillset. People attracted to this lifestyle relish flexibility and the freedom to take advantage of the opportunities which arise. In fact, Mashed-Up recommends adopting an “unplan”,  an attitude which allows you to follow your instinct and go “where the water flows.”

The book is written in the language of the digital age. People are identified by their Twitter handle.  It has a Gen X feel that made me question whether as a young Baby Boomer I was too old to pursue a mashed up existence.

Fortunately I didn’t need to think about it for too long. People have been mashing it up for centuries, and there is no age limit on who can get involved. The digital age just makes it easier to link up with like-minded people and convey what you are up to. They way I see it, retirees are the ultimate mashers.  They often enjoy a freedom to explore their own interests and determine their own schedules that can be harder to come by in mid-life.

Retirement takes on new meaning when you are living a mashed up life. If you already love what you do, and the roles that you take on are flexible, there is less reason to announce an abrupt and final end to your working life. People with artistic and creative careers already know about this. The urge to paint or write doesn’t suddenly die at 60 or 65. If you are lucky enough to be retired with access to an annuity or pension, you are free to explore a mashed up existence that can include paid or voluntary work that is both interesting and rewarding.

I am not sure if I have retired early, or I am never going to retire. If I can construct a Mashed Up life with multiple income streams, I may never have to decide.

I read some wonderful books and blogs and thought I would share a few of the things that caught my attention this week.

I finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing in which she outlines the process adopted in her True Secret Writing workshops. Natalie Goldberg has been an long term zen meditation practitioner, and uses that foundation as a basis for her workshops. Having some experience in zen retreats, I could relate to her description of how she integrates writing practice with other forms of meditation. It got me thinking about taking my own writing more seriously, and treating writing as a practice to be sunk into, rather than a task to be ticked off.

One of my favourite posts this week was on Simple and Minimal blog by Regina Wong who writes from London England. The post is called What If Money Was No Object and contains a link to an audio recording by Alan Watts. He is talking about the advice he gave to students preparing to leave university and unsure of what to do. He asked the students to imagine what they would do if money was no object, and then pursue that. I found the audio very moving.  I have a book called The Way of Zen by Alan Watts on my bookshelf. He is someone whose opinion I value, and it meant a lot to me to hear him encouraging people to pursue the things that were important to them, rather than be limited by convention. I also enjoyed Regina’s reflections on her own life journey, and whether it would have been different if she had heard this advice earlier.

The Minimalists Blog has a link to quite a long talk on How Minimalism is Changing Entrepreneurship. It features some of the leading lights of minimalism, Joshua Becker, Joshua Fields Milburn, Ryan Nicodemus and Courtney Carver. I have all their blogs in my reader and it was nice to hear their voices and interactions. The talk is a good introduction to minimalism and gives a sense of these fascinating personalities.

For light relief there was an entertaining post on The Great Jollyhoombah blog.  In Mindfully Picking Up the Slack CJ shares his thinking on how to prepare for his wife Tammy’s return after a few days away. That was relevant to me as my two weeks of alone time were drawing to an end and I also needed to think about making home comfortable and welcoming. I did an online grocery order so that we were stocked up with essentials which seemed to hit the mark.

This weekend I am adjusting to having company at home which involves sharing and cooperating. Yes, they teach this on Sesame Street, but its a lesson we need to continue to learn. Much as I enjoyed my TV free fortnight, I need to let go of that for now and allow myself to enjoy the TV as a shared activity. I don’t want talk myself into thinking I can’t cope with the TV being on or I will make myself into a bedroom isolate or the grumpy TV police.

In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community of believers). I have just finished a book Singing for Freedom by a Tibetan buddhist nun, Ani Choying Drolma which provides another perspective on taking, and giving refuge.

Choying grew up amongst Tibetan exiles in Nepal. She was subjected to frequent beatings by her father who was consumed with anger, fueled by alcohol. She also witnessed first hand the beatings and verbal abuse dished out to her long-suffering mother, which made her reluctant to marry. At the age of 13 Ani has a realisation that she can take refuge from brutality be becoming a Buddhist nun. Once she is promised as a nun, she is no longer subjected to beatings, and after a few years is able to live in safety in the monastery.

From the protection of the revered position of nun, and with the guidance of her teacher, Ani is able to deal with her own anger and bring about improvements in her family situation, eventually becoming like a parent to her parents as the roles shift over time.

Ani is not a passive and submissive nun by any means. She has a beatiful singing voice and is able to earn money singing in concerts in the USA and Europe, and eventually reaches fame in her home country of Nepal. Ani sought out this work as a singer, not for fame, but in order to make money to build a school for young nuns. Eventually she is able to build a school which is a refuge from abuse and poverty for many young women whose life options are otherwise very limited.

We often think of the life of a nun as a life of restriction and denial, but Ani Choying Drolma turnes this perception on its head. For her, it is a life of independence and autonomy, that allows her  the freedom to pursue her own priorities. Having taken refuge as a girl, she builds a refuge for other young women suffering as she had done.

My favourite line in the book is spoken by her teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche when Ani is struggling with her anger at her father for his abuse. He says:

‘Think about this too. The lotus is born in the mud, but its flower is always white and clean. This is our greatest challenge: to live at the heart of the problem and not to be undermined by it. That is the joy of freedom.’

I am reading a book by Shirley MacLaine called “I’m Over all That” which was written quite recently in her 70s. It is a series of brief reflections on a variety of topics, quite similar to blog posts. Shirley has a reputation for being very open-minded, and she touches on her belief in past-lifes and extra-terrestiral visitors in her book. Although I don’t share those beliefs, I don’t think its crazy to think that way. A lot of belief systems have elements that outsiders find hard comprehend. I see our different beliefs about the nature of the universe as ways to comprehend the incomprehensible mystery of life. Mostly they are imperfect representations of the truth – they each capture some of the essence and miss some of the substance.

You can’t read Shirley MacLaine without reflecting on life and what it all means. I don’t tend to think in terms of reincarnation. Nor do I see myself as being put onto earth for a pre-ordained purpose, or think that life events happen for a pre-determined reason to teach us something specific. I guess this is because I don’t think in terms of a separate intelligence that is setting things up for us outside our own experience. I think more in terms of life as an evolving web of connections. I believe in karma, not in the sense that you will be punished in the future for what you do now, but in the sense that every event has an impact on what comes next. Rather than saying “everything happens for  a reason” I would say “everything happens because of a series of inter-related causes”. Each unfolding moment is a choice point that is going to reverberate into the future in one way or another. Our choices are important because the create the shape of the future.

Given that I don’t think I was put on earth “for a specific purpose” I need to find a way to make sense of my experience which can be a basis for decisions about the future. My equivalent of a life purpose, would be a life theme. Although I don’t feel like I have been given a specific life assignment by an external agency, it does seem that my life has reflected certain themes and challenges. Working through these themes has become my life’s work, because thats how my life has played out.

Shirley MacLaine would say that we have many lives, and each has its own lessons that we need to work through. This would be similar some traditional buddhist beliefs. I don’t know if the same soul returns to the world to accumulate learning through many lifetimes, and I am not sure if it matters. I am just going to concentrate on learning what I can from this lifetime. If we all do that, we add to the collective learning of humanity over time, whether it is transmitted spiritually or socially and culturally.

What I like about the idea of a life theme is that it allows me to focus on working with the theme, and to let go the feeling that I have to achieve everything in one lifetime. My life theme is to do with personal development, creativity, spirituality and meaning at a personal level. My gut feeling is that I will be happiest if I accept that, and focus my energies on fulfilling that theme.

My theme – my life – has not been about romantic relationships, marriage, and children. That has never been a focus for me. Every so often I get the idea that my life is not balanced because I haven’t ticked all the boxes. Occasional attempts to go out and find a partner have never worked out because they didn’t come from a deep need to have a partner, or an emerging connection with a real person. Maybe thats a similar story for some other people who are single.

I am going to give some thought as to how I can live out my life’s theme without being sidetracked into trying to fulfil idealised images of the perfectly rounded successful life. I want to focus on the lessons and challenges directly in front of me. Life is like a work of art to be crafted. In the process of creation, decisions have to be made. Many options will be rejected, or allowed to slip by, in order to preserve the beauty of the creation.

I have just finished You Can by Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too by Tammy Strobel. Tammy is the creator of the popular blog Rowdy Kittens.

In the book Tammy describes the process that she and her husband Logan went through when making the decision to simplify their lives. She talks about finding happiness through simple living, which in the case of Tammy and Logan involved buying and living in a tiny house on wheels. She describes the process of downsizing their belongings to fit in their very small home and the freedom which comes from having less stuff.

Also covered is the process of reclaiming work which becomes possible when debt is eliminated and expenses are significantly reduced. Tammy gradually shifted her career away from the finance industry into the welfare sector, then ultimately to being self employed as a writer and photographer.

I enjoyed the book for the description of the personal journey that Tammy and Logan went through as they gradually learned to want less, and live with less in a much smaller space. Although there is useful advice on how to simplify your life, the story is much more than that. Its the story of a marriage and how a couple can grow together as they construct the type of life that is meaningful for them. I find writing about simplicity richer and more meaningful when it includes the personal story as well as advice.

I find Tammy’s model of alternate ways of earning an income encouraging, as I am exploring my own work options. Keeping needs modest means greater flexibility when it comes to work. Although I live quite cheaply in many ways, I still have some spending habits and expectations that hark back to when I had a reliable full-time job. I need to earn more than I do now as my current position is not sustainable, but maybe I don’t need to earn as much as I am accustomed to earning. I felt encouraged that it is viable to explore some very different work options than what I was doing before.

In that vein, I have quit the gym. It was the last thing on my list of things I had committed to that I didn’t want to be doing. Having a gym membership direct debited from your bank account each fortnight is something you do when you have a steady job. I am glad I did it for a few months, as I feel much stronger, and I think I will be able to take on my own fitness plan for a while. I felt that I had to go three times a week to “get my money’s worth”, but in the humidity of the Sydney summer, that was becoming a strain. I need the freedom to listen to my middle-aging body and speed up or ease up accordingly. But more than that, I found myself saving my energy for the gym, rather than doing natural exercise like going for a walk. Or else I was too tired to work on my projects because I had pushed myself to go to the gym while my stamina was low.

When I got home from the quitting the gym, I began singing an old sunday school song:


I am H-A-P-P-Y

I know I am

I’m sure I am

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Since I am not prone to frequent bouts of spontaneous happy singing, I’ll take this as a sign I am on the right track.