Monthly Archives: April 2014

Newsletter – April 2014














“The aim of the mystic is to keep near to the idea of unity, and to find out where we unite.”

“…life is a puzzle of duality. The pairs of opposites keep us in an illusion and make us think, ‘This is this, and that is that’…”

“…it is not very important to distinguish between two opposites. What is most important is to recognize that One which is hiding behind it all…the idea of unity which comes through the synthesis of life, by seeing One in all things, in all beings.”



April Greetings, Dear Friends…

Old Father William spent this Easter weekend on a personal retreat, almost all of it in solitude. As my 76th birthday nears, I’ve discovered that my next stage of evolution depends on having very limited access to other human beings, no matter how beautiful they may be. While I’ve been moving into this space for some time (saying I became a monk who is the only member of his own monastery), I really had no idea until recently how essential removing myself from the company of others now is.

As best I can remember, this journey began 11 years ago when I retired from my very rewarding consulting career. While the monetary rewards were certainly more than I ever expected, my real ego addiction was to being an admired performer. I loved to be able to give my clients and audiences hope that there really could be a better world without their needing to give up their comfortable material lives. That was because I had no intention of giving up my comfortable material life, either.

In a real sense, I was a purveyor of desired illusions, and, as for most such purveyors, the remuneration and accolades were mind-numbingly deceptive. So much so that I enjoyed continuing to do this for almost forty years. And I do honestly believe I did much good for others and for myself over those four decades.

But then something began to change in me when I retired in 2001 at 63. There was no need to retire. I could still easily do my consulting with as much skill as ever (when one’s vocation is helping others make wise decisions, maturing helps one become even better at it). But my maturing also forced me to recognize the compromises I was making to satisfy my clients. These were very small compromises well within the boundaries of cultural ethics. But they were not within my emerging ideal for what a human being could become. So I stopped.

This was a confused stopping, and I certainly don’t want to make more of it than that. With me traveling so much, my lovely wife and partner, Donna, had our home to herself most of the time. After only three weeks of my retirement, she complained, “God, you’re always here!” She’d been used to having her space at home as I’d been used to having mine on the road. This was just the beginning of major adjustments we had to make in our living together. And we did.

Even so, this did not lead me into solitude. I was involved in our new Co-Housing community in Asheville, North Carolina, and then in the creation and founding of The Center for Third Age Leadership. Both of these involvements did keep me on the path to this solitude, although I had no idea at the time that was what was happening. In 2003 Donna and I moved to New Zealand, and in 2005 she became manager of Mana Retreat Centre. Mana is one of the truly “good” places I have come across in my life, and you can find out more about it here:

Donna became thoroughly involved in her new role, and I chose not to. At age 66 I really did understand I was a consultant, not a manager. With my clients I used to describe my role like that of Merlin, who drops in from time to time to help King Arthurs and Queen Elizabeths find better ways to run their kingdoms, but could never do the job of actually managing the enterprise. So I had nothing to do but spend my days alone in the beautiful home Mana provided for Donna.

At first I resisted my gift of solitude, joining our Coromandel Golf Club, volunteering at the library and using my extraverted self to begin friendships. But my body gave me the gift of an allergy to New Zealand’s sun called photo-dermatitis so I stopped golfing, and after a couple of years I pretty much withdrew from local connections. Now I stay mostly to myself. And this quiet solitude is letting me reflect in depth on who I have been and am becoming. What a gift this evolving solitude is!

My recurring reflections are like the proverbial scales falling from our eyes. It has been both painful and releasing to experience images of my ego-addicted past. The pain comes from realizing how self-centeredly thoughtless and unkind I have been, and the release comes in recognizing that is no longer who I am or want to be. More importantly, I now glimpse who I and We are –and how We can recognize, know and accept the beauty and unity of Our Selves.

This old Father William has been only begun to experience this unity at the end of 75 years. I have no doubt many have understood sooner, but I have no experience in this lifetime to speak to that. All I can offer is that aging and maturing (which mean having experience and reflecting upon it) are making all the difference for me, and what I hope to do in these Musings is encourage other elders to trust and relax into their maturity and experience.

As intellectual as my Musings may be, relaxing into our maturity and experience is of a different nature. Intellect wants to be in control. Maturity does not. My solitude has helped me understand Elder Ed’s (my friend and mentor who is now 96) suggestion of of RIP. By this he means “Relaxing Into Participation” with the Universe, Oneness, etc. (whatever you want to call it will do) which means surrendering the notion of being in control.

That’s a real stretch, isn’t it?

Haven’t you always sought ways to be in control? I have. And now I’m slowly giving them up and accepting that the human condition is not one of being in control. With Elder Ed’s help I’ve seen the truth and power in this acceptance, and, once our egos can also understand and accept this truth, they, too, are glad to give up the terrible burden of the polarized reality they’ve been carrying for so long. It is not pleasant to strive to be in control once you accept that’s impossible.

The benefits are simple, but like most very simple truths, cannot be understood until one has lived the experience, in this case truly surrendering our absurd attempts at control. This process of unlearning deeply imprinted patterns in our unconscious is no simple feat!

When you Relax Into Participation your unique Sources will speak to you; that is, guidance and understanding will come from levels unavailable to the controlling rational mind. We can only open to them by acknowledging we are not in control. This is what Elder Ed has gifted me with, and I hope to share that gift with you with this simple yet very difficult suggestion:

Whenever you’re caught in an EITHER/OR reality, try stepping back, taking a deep breath, Relaxing Into Participation and asking another level of Sources to help you transform the destructive EITHER/OR perception into a releasing BOTH/AND vision that enables you to embrace and flow with your life in that moment.

This may seem very difficult when you begin, but does it ever make life easier as you get the hang of it! Just to reiterate, remember it’s taken this old Father William the best part of 76 years to do this with some consistency for himself.

The articles that follow are examples of others’struggles and successes in achieving their own version of replacing the conflict of EITHER/OR with the synthesis of BOTH/AND. I hope you enjoy and profit from them as much as I have…


        – BOTH Feminine AND Masculine…


        – BOTH Simple AND Complex…


        – BOTH Liberal AND Conservative…


       – BOTH Innocent AND Guilty…


        – BOTH Young AND Old…


        – BOTH Creating AND Destroying…


       – BOTH Science AND Religion…

Much love, FW


MARK:  What surprised me most was the Musings and your increasing solitude. You are several years ahead of me in age and many years ahead in your quest for a more spiritual path, so perhaps you have learned something significant that I will come to understand as I get older. But for now what makes the days worthwhile for me are the relationships I have with other people. I can’t imagine being fulfilled by the solitude you describe.

FW:  The me of 60 and younger would be stunned by my delight in solitude now, but by 65 (when we moved to NZ) I was definitely on that path. My important relationships are now with family and a few friends like you, Ronn, etc., and I find Skype and email mostly enough for me there.  It is the solitude that has opened Elder Ed’s RIP/Sources to me resulting in my experiencing the reality of unity in apparent paradoxes instead of just the ‘intellectual conceptualization’ I’ve been so good at talking about for so long…

MARK:  I find this response really interesting. The circle of people I’m in contact with is basically made up of family and a few close friends. Except for work, that’s really all it’s ever been, at least all that ever mattered. And that’s what I have now. But I’m now wondering whether what you are describing as solitude and I’m feeling as a life full enough with interpersonal contact would objectively be described by an outside observer as essentially equal.  Just wondering.

FW:  I think you may be right about our lives being similar at this point. Unlike you and Pat, the difference I see is Donna works about 60 hours/week plus pursuing a many interests I don’t partake in, and I rarely go out except bi-weekly for my 3 hour volunteering at the local library which I do enjoy greatly. So I am definitely not cloistered; I just spend much more time by myself than in the presence of others, and my movement seems to be toward more, not less, ‘by-myself’ time…




I’m a feminist. Now what?

The brilliant Melissa Harris-Perry recently answered questions from Jezebel readers. Unsurprisingly, she had some great advice —from tips for young women starting out in academia to a list of must-read books that makes a nice companion to the black feminism syllabus she put together last year. But my favorite part was her response to a question about the current state of black feminism.

“For me, feminism is a question: what truths are missing here? The feminist thinker and organizer should always be asking this question. What are we missing? Who are we excluding? How is our analysis true, but still limited by missing truths? For me this means feminism creates a posture of intellectual humility and a willingness to question ourselves as much as we question systems of oppression. I am always distraught to encounter feminists who are utterly sure of themselves and never willing to admit to their own need to grow, expand and change. That strikes me as inherently anti-feminist.”

Her idea of feminism as “a critique, an approach, a lens and a guide for understanding”the world is very much like my own. Too often, it’s tempting to see feminism as a set of beliefs, a collection of more-or-less accepted ideas. But that’s so static–thinking of feminism as a lens allows for the possibility of constant movement toward truths and futures we can’t yet imagine.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.


RONN:  Honestly, I did not get what made the feminism article worth including – the point she made could be said for any of us at any time.

FW:  What made this so fascinating to me was that a person with a strong commitment to a point of view (whether that be feminism, conservatism, peace, equality, atheist, etc.) would publicly express concerns about ‘the shadow side’ of her position – and that is what both Maya and Melissa Harris-Perry are doing. We certainly don’t see that very frequently these days, and that’s what I’m trying to share here – we desperately need more of that humility and maturity no matter what our point of view.




 I like to practice voluntary simplicity.
It involves intentionally doing one thing at a time,
And making sure I am here for it.
I frequently feel pulled by my need to be somewhere else.
When I become aware of this, and slow myself down,
There really is no where I can be but here,
And I can be fully in this place, this moment…
Telling my mind and body to stay put with my daughter
Rather than answering the phone…

 A commitment to simplicity in the midst of the world
Is a delicate balancing act.
It keeps me mindful of what is important.
It adds to life an element of deepest freedom
Which so easily eludes us,
And provides many opportunities to discover that less
May actually be more.
Open, receptive,
We find balance and harmony right here,
All space folded into this place,
All moments folded into this moment.

The full excerpt from “Wherever You Go, There You Are”is here:




What would you do if you found yourself standing face to face with people bearing signs accusing you by name of killing babies and encouraging the shooting of American soldiers? Might you lose your cool? Might you get involved in an exchange that would ultimately lead to anger or descend into the shouting matches we’ve been seeing at so many Town Halls lately?

Not if you’re Joan Baez, who, in the 50th year of her career, continues to live according to unshakeable ideals of non-violence and compassion in ways that should inspire us all.

Last night, four Vietnam veterans protested Joan’s concert in Idaho Falls with signs reading: “JOAN BAEZ – SOLDIERS DON’T KILL BABIES, LIBERALS DO” and “JOAN BAEZ GAVE COMFORT & AID TO OUR ENEMY IN VIETNAM & ENCOURAGED THEM TO KILL AMERICANS!”

Joan was informed that the men were protesting her concert about an hour before it was due to begin and she immediately walked out onto the street to talk to them. When she approached, one of the first things they said was “We appreciate the work you did on civil rights and women’s rights.” They wanted to make that point clear.

She listened closely as they discussed their views. Primarily, they wanted to express the way they felt betrayed by anti-war protesters when they returned from combat. Joan assured them that she stood by them then and now. They had mixed reactions as she explained her actual positions and her support for all veterans, across the board.

At this point, Joan’s merchandise salesman, Jim Stewart, who was a Captain in the US Army during Vietnam, approached the group. Jim is one of the most kind-hearted people you could ever meet. He is not one to speak lightly of what he went through in Vietnam. He took Joan’s arm and said to these four men, “I stand by this lady 100%. She did the right thing then, and she stood by us when we got home. She even recorded a song at that time from which 100% of the proceeds went to us vets.”

Unbelievably, one of the four protesters began to question Jim in an accusatory fashion, pressing him for details about what division he was in and and where he served, as if, somehow, he were making it up. It brings tears to my eyes, as I write this, to remember Jim being questioned in this way. These protesters were there, theoretically, to lament the poor treatment of American soldiers and yet they belittled and questioned the service of a veteran because he did not agree with their views.

Jim played their game for a bit before seeing it for what it was and disengaging. Joan stood by his side and said, “Oh, he’s got the stories all right. But he doesn’t feel the need to talk about them.”

Ironically, a man on his way to the concert approached at this moment and, without really following all that had gone on, interjected, “Those who don’t realize that what they did in Vietnam was wrong are kind of SLOOOOOOW.” I watched Jim’s face as he heard that statement – literally getting it from both sides within less than a minute.

At this point I engaged in conversation with the man holding the sign accusing liberals, rather than soldiers, of killing babies. He said “I never killed any babies and I don’t believe in guilt by association.” I asked him how in the world he could justify holding a sign with Joan Baez’s name on it that basically implied she killed babies if he didn’t believe in guilt by association. He replied “It’s an analogy, you probably wouldn’t understand it!”

Uhhhh…. yeah.

Jim said he should destroy the sign and he then claimed we were trying to trample his Constitutional right to free speech. We replied that we weren’t questioning his right, by any means, but rather his sense of decency, considering that he was there having a conversation with Joan and she was clearly not a baby killer. Since his entire point was that guilt by association was wrong, it made sense to us. But he replied “I’m Pro-Life and I’m proud of this sign.” With those words, he held it higher.

As we discussed these things, one of them repeated, “Soldiers don’t kill babies.” I said that so many horrible things happen in war that it’s impossible to make such a blanket statement, especially when bombs get dropped from the sky, and I said it all comes down to the truth that “War is hell.”

I continued, saying, “And you all know that far better than me.”

They were surprised by this statement, as if shocked that anyone on the “other side” recognized what they’d been through. It seemed to render them speechless for a moment.

At this point, Joan’s continuing acceptance of their stories and her willingness to hear them out began to melt their anger. In a twist that seems hard to fathom, they then asked her to SIGN THEIR POSTERS! She replied that she would sign the back but not the front of “those horrible things.” Incredibly, the man with the baby-killing sign replied that he would take her name off the poster if she would sign it.

She did end up signing them, and also getting copies of her book for each of them, and offering tickets to the show, which they did not accept. She signed the back of the poster about her encouraging the killing of American soldiers – “All the very best to you, Joan Baez.”

When we got back inside the theatre, Joan broke down in tears. I said to her “You are so brave to face people like that.” She wasn’t crying about the way she had been treated, however, but about the way Jim Stewart had stood up for her. “Did you hear his voice shaking?” she said. “That was bravery…”

And she was right. Stepping back into the mire of Vietnam was not something he did lightly – he bore the literal denigration of his service by another veteran in order to defend her.

During the concert afterwards Joan dedicated a song to the protesters and said “You know, they just wanted to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard. I feel like I made four new friends tonight.”

She took the high road, as always. It wasn’t my name on those signs, yet I gave into anger. She never did. As we deal with tea parties and increasingly violent right wing protests it would do us all good to remember the example of non-violence and compassion that Ms Baez has exemplified for the 50-plus years of her career.

Her heroes are Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In my book, she’s right there with them, leading the timeless and essential march along the high road.

UPDATE: You may want to check out the version of “We Shall Overcome” that Joan recorded in her kitchen in June, with some lyrics in Farsi, in the hope of directly inspiring the people of Iran as they stand up for real democracy against real oppression. The link follows…




It’s a rewarding time to be a Leonard Cohen fan.

Not only does Cohen, who will turn 80 this year, seem to get better with age. Just two years ago, Sylvie Simmons published an admiring, comprehensive biography of the Canadian songwriter, “I’m Your Man.”Now comes “A Broken Hallelujah,”in which Liel Leibovitz, who teaches media and culture at New York University, takes readers on a deep dive through the cardinal spiritual themes that have informed Cohen’s work for six decades, from the standards “Suzanne”and “So Long, Marianne”to the edgy, late-career hits “First We Take Manhattan”and “Everybody Knows.”

Beginning with a riveting, cinematic account of Cohen’s appearance at the Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 —where the singer-songwriter calmed a nastily restive audience through the sheer transcendent force of his character —Leibovitz then loops back to 1930s Montreal, where Cohen was born into a prosperous family descended from some of the city’s most prominent Jewish figures. Although Leibovitz is careful not to overreach (“This is not a biography of Leonard Cohen,”he categorically declares in the book’s preface), he nonetheless revisits the most pivotal moments of Cohen’s life, first as a poet and a novelist, then as a musician: the influence of Canadian poets Irving Layton and A.M. Klein; his first ecstatic, then evangelical, experience hearing Bob Dylan; his sojourns on the Greek island of Hydra and in New York’s Chelsea Hotel; international tours that felt like wartime deployments (and sometimes were); his commitment to Rinzai Zen Buddhism; and a late-in-life creative and commercial resurgence that has been nothing less than triumphant. Throughout it all, Leibovitz writes, Cohen has been “a poet whose words, like the chants of Gregorian monks, seem designed to attract the attention of some higher power.”

Leibovitz chronicles that pursuit with insight, economy and graceful writing, vividly evoking Cohen’s restless early years in Montreal before smoothly moving him to Hydra, “the perfect disinterested atmosphere in which Cohen could find his preoccupation, the one theme that, with slight variations, would consume him throughout his career.”

That preoccupation was redemption. And for evidence one need look no further than “Hallelujah,”which Cohen recorded in 1984 and which has gone on to become one of the most overworked songs of all time (especially on movie soundtracks, in which a moratorium is long past due). Even while noting the “obscene”number of cover versions, Leibovitz locates “Hallelujah”within Cohen’s lifelong personal and professional enterprise: an inquiry into faith and spiritual selfhood grounded in the tenets of Judaism, tempered by Buddhist meditative practices and animated by Cohen’s own belief in the power of “art, love, friendship, kindness, music [and] sex.”

Speaking with Cohen’s friends and colleagues; mining the singer’s letters, notebooks and interviews; and drawing on scholarly commentary that ranges from Plato, Jewish liturgy and Old Testament theologians to Hannah Arendt, Manny Farber and John Milton, Leibovitz has produced a lively, erudite and affecting exegesis of Cohen’s work, both lyrically and as a creative process that has been notoriously painstaking, if not outright painful. Taking years to write songs by chipping away until only their essence remained; launching tours that sometimes ended in violence or alienation or both; grappling with depression; retreating to a monastery on Mount Baldy, where he spent five years becoming a Buddhist monk, Cohen has burned alternately hot and cold. At times, Leibovitz characterizes him as “paralyzed by what seemed to be a case of existential jitters.”At others, including that memorable performance at the Isle of Wight, he’s used his low, incantatory voice —between a growl and a whisper —to speak directly to his listeners’most tender and compassionate hearts.

A late bloomer (he didn’t record his first album until he was in his 30s), Cohen was destined to spend his share of time in the wilderness —including his disastrous collaboration with a hopped-up, gun-happy Phil Spector to make the album “Death of a Ladies’Man,”a sorry episode recounted here as a shudder-inducing blow-by-blow. It wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he became an indie-rock icon —the revered, sharply dressed tribal elder whose position was only further secured when, after losing all his money to an embezzling manager, he was forced to tour in the mid-2000s. Mirabile dictu, this most recent chapter of Cohen’s career has found him re-energized as an artist and newly at ease with the live audiences he historically kept in approach-avoidance limbo.

Leibovitz makes a convincing case that Cohen has claimed his rightful place within the prophetic tradition that inspired him all along. Leibovitz often compares the feeling of a Cohen concert to being in a house of worship. To the extent that Cohen’s mesmerizing murmur has become tantamount to the voice of God itself, it’s because as a singer, a songwriter and a seeker, he’s never been anything other than sincerely L. Cohen.

Hornaday is chief film critic of The Washington Post.





Dear Ms. Schlafly,

I’m a teenage girl who has been reading about you quite a bit in the news lately. It seems to me that you have absolutely no idea what women of my generation are all about. I can understand that because I often deal with older people who think that their generation is superior and my generation is the worst thing ever just because we’re different. Really though, I think since you want to be all up in the public eye, it would really do you a lot of good to understand things from the perspective of one of the young women who will be taking over this country soon.

I’ve been thinking about how I can explain what feminism means to my generation in a way you might not have thought of before. I wanted to try to work from something we have in common, and it’s been kind of hard to find something I have in common with you. Then, it came to me. I bet you wear a bra.

I was reading recently about a company called Yellowberry that was started by a young woman because she took her younger sister bra shopping and her sister didn’t like any of the choices. None of the bras fit her, and she felt the selections were too sexual. So she started a line of bras so that girls would have more options. As for myself, I shop at Victoria’s Secret. It’s not because I want to be sexy or have any grand delusions of looking like one of their models. I shop there because they have different styles of bras so I can find something I think is pretty that fits me. I don’t know where you shop for your bras, but I bet you have a favorite one. I bet you have that one bra that’s comfortable and goes with just about everything. I bet the last thing you were thinking about when you bought that bra was what a man would think about it.

Well, making choices in our lives as young women is kind of like finding that favorite bra. Not all of us are going to fit into the same kind and not all of us are going to find the same style attractive. We all deserve to have as many choices as possible, and as women, we shouldn’t be judging the choices made by other women. Choosing a bra is a very personal choice and is none of anyone else’s business. We should be, as women, looking for ways we can expand the choices both for ourselves and other women, just as Megan Grassell did when she started Yellowberry. Equality doesn’t mean women will all make the same choice. It means women will be treated the same no matter what choices they make.

This brings us to the idea you have that women shouldn’t have equal pay because it will make it more difficult for them to find husbands. What you’re doing is attempting to limit my choices, and I don’t appreciate that. Let’s get one thing straight here. When I’m thinking about what kind of career I want to have, it’s a lot like shopping for a bra. I want to find something that fits me and appeals to me, and I’m not thinking about pleasing a man. Anyone who wants to be my partner in life is going to have to truly respect me, appreciate me for who I am, and honor the choices I make.

What you’re doing, Ms. Schlafly, is contributing to something very disturbing I see happening with some of the teenage girls I know. At a time in their lives when they should be free, independent, and exploring and preparing for the possibilities they have in the future, many of them are worried about getting or keeping a boyfriend. There are young women my age who are extremely smart but they hide it because they get messages from women like you that if they are too smart or successful, boys won’t like them. They get messages from women like you that pleasing a man should be their number one goal. You’re contributing to making young women uncomfortable when they go bra shopping because they’ve learned to analyze every choice based on what other people will think instead of having the freedom and confidence to choose what’s best for them.

I’m going to continue the work my mother and my grandmothers started, the work you have fought so hard against. I’m going to work to help get the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratified in my lifetime. Once this is done, it’s going to take some time to undo a lot of the damage women like you have caused. It’s going to take time for society to evolve once women finally have the equality we deserve. But I believe that my daughters will look at history and see women like you the same way I see women who tried to prevent us from getting the right to vote. I believe that bra shopping is going to be a lot easier for my daughters than it is for girls today.

Sincerely, Madison Kimrey

Madison Kimrey is student, actress, aspiring writer and activist who fights for LGBT rights, humane treatment of animals, women’s rights and promotes youth activism and participation in democracy. Her FB page NC Youth Rock is here:

And her blog is here:






My first Burning Man was eight years ago. I arrived at the gate late on the second night with my then-girlfriend. We were ready for almost anything, but not for the manic clown-police at the entrance gate who, with a deft hand and an inch-wide white marker drew a giant ejaculating penis on our windshield and demanded (tongue-in-cheek) all our drugs.

My girlfriend left the gate in tears, but quickly recovered, falling in love with the scene and especially hula-hooping, which she’s done ever since.

I took the gate as a bit of social engineering, as if to say, “Welcome. Be audacious. Shine as weird as you want, but know that we can out-weird you, so don’t get too full of yourself. We’ve got you covered.”

I too fell in love with the scene, and have been back twice since, just last week with my 23-year-old daughter. I love the invitation to audacity but also the easy, reliable benevolence toward everyone, including me, a middle-aged duff, no longer as audacious as I once was.

Every time I’m back, that uplifting humbling line from the Beatle’s song “All You Need Is Love”comes back to me: “Nothing you can do that can’t be done.”Burning Man is crawling with talent and ingenuity. It’s a place to stand out in the midst of everyone else standing out, a place to both elevate and get over yourself, and in the process reflect on the tension between aspiring to be more than you are and being OK with what you are.

I know a bit about gate-keeping at freak gatherings. For seven years in my 20s I lived on the Farm, America’s largest and longest-lasting hippie commune. Burning Man is 60,000 freaks living together for about a week. The Farm was 1,400 people who planned to stay forever, and another 20,000 visitors a year streaming through our gate day and night, unscreened and unscheduled, staying a few days for free at what, in the ’70s, was something of a hippie mecca.

An elected elder of the Farm at the age of 23, I ran our gate often, meeting and managing whomever arrived. Most of the people came with great intentions and good vibes. Some were lots more trouble.

Running gate gave me lots of time to think about what it takes to invent an alternative bubble society within the larger society and how to handle the bubble’s semi-permeable membrane—a question that now, as an evolutionary philosophy and social psychology professor, still keeps me busy.

To create a new and distinct society you need dedicated focus and a degree of purity lest your vision of a new society get diluted. But to survive you need flexible interaction with the outside community. Getting the permeability right is the challenge: what to tolerate; what not to tolerate.

The semi-permeable membrane challenge runs deeper than creating a bubble society. It’s a core issue for all living systems, for example to the earliest life forms with their semi-permeable cell membrane walls, adaptively addressing life’s big give and take questions: what to join, what not to join, what to accept, what to reject, what to tolerate, what not to tolerate. Evolutionary biologist Terrence Deacon calls it the “paradox of individuality.”No creature is an island and yet a distinct individual can only survive as a separate being by interacting with the world outside.

Luck of the draw, this time my daughter and I weren’t met by cock-drawing clown police, but my daughter could have handled it. Many in her generation, the generation best represented at Burning Man, is used to a lot of cultural variability, and don’t harbor the purist, dogmatic visions of social change we disdainfully called “being High Brahman”on the Farm.

The Farm was more pragmatic than dogmatic. We didn’t tolerate free love, but we tolerated junk food and for similar pragmatic reasons. We had a lot of work to do and for the most part picked our priority battles with an eye to what would keep us going. Casual sex would cut into our work lives and create more drama than the commune could sustain. And hand-wringing over occasional bags of chips or sodas wasn’t our thing either. We had higher priorities, and chose carefully where to allocate our tolerances and intolerances.

In retrospect, I think our disdain for High Brahman hippies was our unsuccessful bulwark against the New Age puritanism that was already taking root in the 1970s—a moral absolutism that still dominates in Berkeley, where I now live. Moral absolutes, whether from the far right, the far left or far-out New Age, stunt human growth.

I’m astonished at how strong and resilient New Age puritanism remains here in Berkeley, and how many people, especially of my generation, have gotten good at turning up their High Brahman noses through absolutist spiritual correctness.

I call it “yintimidation.” The sweeping final-word pontifications of the self-proclaimed “yin” and “spiritual,” who counsel hypocritically that you shouldn’t be judgmental (a judgment) that negativity is bad (a negativity) and that you should be closed-minded to closed-mindedness and intolerant of intolerance.

As the hypocritically spiritual demonstrate, you can’t live by these principles. Instead, you just get good at ignoring the places where you’re judgmental, negative closed-minded or intolerant. The principles stunt growth by keeping us from life’s age-old questions about when to judge, be negative, be closed-minded and intolerant.

No doubt New Age spiritual puritanism is a reaction to prior puritanisms that pointed the opposite direction; for example, the self-glorifying zero-tolerance policies of the far right and far left. All moral absolutes, once they became culturally dominant, can and will be abused in the human race to outshine each other, boss each other around, and act like the pope.

I’m awestruck and humbled by how Burning Man culture extends hippie philosophy in a healthier direction, an alternative to the New Age puritanism that has become just another route to standard-issue human self-certainty.

Burning Man culture doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s much more self-effacing irony to it, that strange and wondrous balance between elevating and getting over oneself. It was folk art at its best, everyone gifted and talented at something, often something as majestic in its triviality as hula hooping, a celebration of the expansive possibilitiess of what a body can do.

Not only are there no corporate logos at Burning Man, there are no famous names, no founders or philosophical leaders. The bands, music and camps all have transient names, meaningful and playful, but not really important. Everyone shines and no one is blinded or overshadowed by the shiners’ light. Not only is there no commerce, there’s hardly any promotion of anything, no glad-handing, no ideogical campaigning, hippy, progressive or otherwise.

Will Burning Man save the world? Certainly not. Is it sustainable? Not year-round the way the Farm was for 14 years, with a community of 200 still living there today.

And not, perhaps, in the environmental sense. It’s energy intensive—all that driving and burning. Still, though my priority issue is climate change, I’m not a purist about it. While I don’t fly to vacations in far-flung lands because the carbon footprint of such trips is too large, I’ll burn a tank of gas to be part of the Burning Man circus. I’m glad I live just five hours from the best exotic culture-bang-for-the-carbon-footprint buck.

And as an annual mecca, Burning Man is sustainable. Its resilience stems from its low ideological aspirations. It has longer legs than the Occupy movement in part because it’s not tilting at the towering windmills of commerce, but also because it doesn’t aspire to ideological or spiritual purity and so has some built-in resilience—just like many people of my daughter’s generation.

As a mecca, Burning Man has got something substantial to offer. It reminds us of the vast possibilities available to humankind. I love its harmonious dissonance and its sweet cacophony that comes from the collision of life’s two opposing truths: 1) We are all one; and 2) just do your thing. The paradox of individuality lived large for a week in the Nevada desert.

Jeremy E. Sherman, a contributor to Psychology Today, is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making. Dr. Sherman holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary theory.






NOW CONTINUED FROM PART #3:“…just a reminder at the outset of this program of the many roles that human society has always looked for religious faith to provide, including some where modern science might alter our understandings and even our practices. Here’s what a Jewish rabbi, Rami Shapiro, said recently about religion:

   “At its best, religion is about personal freedom, social justice, compassion for all living things, and your relationship with God. At its worst, it’s about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.”

Given the recent actions at our United Methodist General Conference and North Texas Annual Conference, we would probably be hard-pressed to disagree with the rabbi.

I’m often kidded by my friends here at Northaven, (at least, I think they’re kidding) about my engineer’s love for charts that tell a story. Just so I won’t disappoint those friends, I’ve developed a couple of charts that help me visualize the critical relationships and processes of “cultural evolution”or what some term “collective learning”.

(Slide 26) This first chart pictures the relationship between the three piers of cultural foundations: Knowledge, Wisdom and Truth.

(Slide 27) Knowledge, in the lower left, is the intellectual home of modern science, where the Laws of Nature are examined and extended by the various scientific disciplines in a continuous process involving experiments, hypotheses, interpretations, theories and new understandings of how the universe works. It’s the basis for cultural growth in my view, and it’s a fast-changing world on the pier of Knowledge.

(Slide 28) The second pier is Wisdom, shown in the lower right, the intellectual home of religion, philosophy, history, theology, faith, and yes, even myths. Through its development of moral and ethical codes, its traditions, beliefs and values, Wisdom provides the fundamental grounding for people and societies.

(Slide 29) It is –and should be – slow-changing, using the fast-changing knowledge base, filtered through and interpreted by personal experience, including our emotions, skills, responsibilities, reflections and hopes.

(Slide 30) The third pier is Truth, or Ultimate Reality if you will. Truth deals with the “Big Questions”we’ve just discussed, including how the universe works, the meaning of human life, and the biggest question of all, the nature of God. By definition, Truth is unchanging, although our perception of Ultimate Reality changes over time as a result of increased Knowledge and Wisdom.

(Slide 31) All three of these piers are connected through our individual and collective minds and consciousness, a somewhat slippery slope itself, which is why we’ve dedicated three of these sessions to that topic.

(Slide 32) My second chart pictures the process of cultural change as impacted by both Science and Religion, arguably the two biggest influences for cultural evolution. I spent the last 10 years of my career with Mobil Oil responsible for leading cultural change in a large worldwide organization, and I know how difficult and time-consuming it can be. I also know that cultural change is possible, if given sufficient motivation for it and the patience to see it through. In engineering terms, this could be called a “flow diagram”, describing ways in which modern science & technology and religion & theology flow through both our Cultural Knowledge (what we know, what we think we know) and our Cultural Behavior (how we act, what we do).

(Slide 33) The first thing to note on this chart is the different time frames over which these impacts occur. Through a variety of means (such as language, oral traditions, music & songs, spiritual experiences, writings, moral philosophy and ethics) over the past 100,000 years or so, religions have helped shaped our cultures.

(Slide 34) They do this through religious teachings, rituals, and creeds, which in time become religious canons, followed by scholars’“higher criticism”, biblical revisions (think King James and RSV versions of our Bible), and enlightened consciousness, all leading to a view of Ultimate Reality.

(Slide 35) In sharp contrast, modern science and technology began in the relatively recent 16th century, using the tools of research, hypotheses, lab experiments, and new theories to enlarge our understanding of the Laws of Nature in many diverse scientific disciplines.

(Slide 36) Out of this process flow technology developments that change our world (such as the printing press, telescope, microscope, telephone, automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, computers and a great many more) and these change our views of – and our adaptation to – physical reality.

For the purposes of this program, a key question is whether Science and Religion complement or confront each other in our search for Truth. To begin seeing an answer to that question, we need to try and understand the time scales involved.

(Slide 37) The big picture is shown on this next chart, a cosmological timeline for the universe which goes back to the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, and to the formation of our sun, our Earth, and the solar system about 4 ½billion years ago. Some idea of the enormity of this timescale is suggested by the latest event shown here, the dinosaurs’extinction, which occurred 65 million years ago.

(Slide 38) Here’s another way to look at it, if instead of a 13.7 billion year scale we were using a 13-year scale:

   – The Earth formed 5 years ago;

   – Multi-celled organisms formed 7 months ago;

   – An asteroid killed the dinosaurs 3 weeks ago;

   – Hominids appeared 3 days ago;

   – Homo sapiens appeared 53 minutes ago;

   – Agriculture started 5 minutes ago;

   – Civilization started 3 minutes ago; and

   – Modern industrial societies have existed for 6 seconds.

The point here is that it’s very hard –maybe impossible –for our human minds to fully grasp what such a timescale means.

(Slide 39) Evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen J. Gould put it in a nutshell:

“An abstract intellectual understanding of deep time comes easily enough –I know how many zeroes to place after the 10 when I mean billions. Getting it into the gut is quite another matter.”

Having an appreciation of the timescale for humanity is difficult enough, but we need to do that if we’re to see those intersections of religion and science more clearly.

(Slide 40) These next few slides show some of the landmark times and events in our cultural history, which I’ll go through quickly, pausing only to make a point or two. As we look at this timeline, see what jumps out at you from the data, and we’ll discuss it in the Q&A shortly. To help it make more sense, I’ve highlighted the religious & cultural change events in yellow and the science & technology events in blue. It starts with the development of humans’symbolic language about 50,000 years ago and the use of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, probably the two key advances that start to differentiate us from other species. The Old Testament events shown here are thought to have occurred between 1,800 and 1,000 BCE, and the Hebrew Bible was canonized between 400-200 BCE, roughly the same time that Greek philosophers were laying the foundations for Western civilization. These are all religious or cultural change events. The first science event shown here was Ptolemy’s model of an earth-centered universe in 100 CE, which by the way, was the prevailing view of the universe for the next 1600 years.

(Slide 41) The New Testament was canonized in the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE. Muhammad received the word of God through the Angel Gabriel in the early 7th century, followed by the scientific advances of Islam’s Golden Age from 800-1100 CE. Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation against the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century and Copernicus’model of a sun-centered universe was published shortly thereafter. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of modern science, although that’s something of a misnomer. A great deal of 16th century knowledge about nature had been inherited from natural philosophers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and before that, from advancements made in Islam’s House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

(Slide 42) In the early 17th century, using his newly-developed telescope, Galileo confirmed and publically supported Copernicus’model of a sun-centered universe, and as a result, was placed under house arrest by the Roman Inquisition for the remainder of his life. In the late 17th Century, Isaac Newton determined the laws of gravity and established the foundations of classical physics. Almost two centuries later, in 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in which he laid the groundwork for modern views on evolution. In the early 20th century, a group of European physicists developed the experimental data and theoretical equations for quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein developed his special and general theories of relativity, including the most famous equation of them all, E = MC2. Shortly after that, astronomer Edwin Hubble showed the universe was expanding by measuring the red shift in light from distant stars.

(Slide 43) Nuclear fission was first demonstrated in 1942, leading to nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. Watson & Crick showed the structure of DNA in 1953, leading to a whole new understanding of how genetic evolution actually works, plus a host of new technology applications in genealogy, criminal identification and in medical treatments. In the early ‘60s, under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the Catholic Church attempted to modernize its teachings, its rituals and its relationships with the rest of the world. From 1990 until today, the Hubble Space Telescope has greatly enlarged our view of the universe, scientists at the CERN laboratory in Europe confirmed the existence of the “Higgs boson”just a few weeks ago, and the Mars rover “Curiosity”landed on the Red Planet just last month. You’ll hear more about these events in the rest of this program series.

(Slide 44, Blank) Let me share three of my observations from this timeline:

First, in humanity’s early years, religious and cultural developments were the main drivers of cultural change. Since the 16th century, and especially from the 18th century forward, science and technology advances have driven most cultural change;

Second, the scriptural canons of all three of the monotheistic world religions were set a millenia or more before the age of modern science began, obviously leading to questions about the inerrancy of some of those scriptures. In my research for this series, I sometimes wonder “What would St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas say and do if they had the scientific information we have now?”Of course, the larger question for our time is “What do we do with this information?”

My third observation is that the pace of cultural change is rapidly increasing, and we need to learn how to treat that change as an opportunity for growth and not as a threat to who we are and what we believe.

(Slide 45) Hopefully, that’s what this Northaven program on Science & Religion will help to accomplish. My next slide shows the program agenda and schedule, grouped into four color-coded modules. Next week, Ernie Stokely will start a 2-part presentation on the Origins of the Universe and of the Earth & Solar System, including the very earliest forms of life on Earth. Then I’ll present a 4-part series on Evolution, looking first at Biological Evolution and then at Cultural Evolution where religion and science have major impacts. John Wiley (a retired physicist from 1st UMC Richardson) will present the basics of Quantum Mechanics, emphasizing the many dimensions and characteristics of Light, followed by Bob Radford who will address the theological and philosophical implications of this theory. Mary Ellen Irving, Betsy Schenck and Bob Radford will spend the next three weeks discussing some of the recent advances and latest thinking about Neuroscience, the Brain, the Mind, and Consciousness. Finally, for our last session on December 2, we’ve engaged a noted lecturer on religion and spirituality as our guest speaker. Jeffrey Small will come to us from Atlanta to talk about “Rethinking God in the 21st Century: the Truth Behind Science and Religion”. That’s a presentation you don’t want to miss.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Tom, this program looks very secular. Where is the Word of God and the Holy Spirit in all this?”Good question and I’ll answer it this way. In my life, and probably for most of us, God doesn’t talk to us directly and, much as we might like it, we don’t have an “up close and personal”relationship with God. Most of us see God in the faces and voices of people around us, and we feel the Holy Spirit at work as we and our friends and neighbors try to help a needy world.

(Slide 46) Here’s how Bill Holmes said it at the end of his literary safari:

“Now, having completed the journey into what it means to have a ‘personal relationship’with God, our assignment couldn’t be more plain and, to be honest about it, ‘scary as hell.’This is our ‘Great Assignment’: To recognize each human face as the God Mask. Wherever we are found, whatever we are doing, we will be living our lives and prepared to die our deaths to shape the world around the love of God. We are that love on earth!”

Hopefully, in these presentations on science and religions, you will occasionally hear the Word of God and feel the Holy Spirit at work in the messages of the speakers and the follow-up Q&A.

(Slide 47, Blank) I look forward to seeing most of you back here for the next 12 weeks.  

Thank you.

(Tom’s interested in thoughts readers might have about this work, so if you do, please send him an email at








To subscribe email with “Subscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


To unsubscribe email with “Unsubscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


©Copyright 2002-2012, The Center for Third Age Leadership, except where indicated otherwise. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprint only with permission from copyright holder(s). All trademarks are property of their respective owners. All contents provided as is. No express or implied income claims made herein. This newsletter is available by subscription only. We neither use nor endorse the use of spam.

Please feel free to use excerpts from this newsletter as long as you give credit with a link to our page: Thank you!