War & Peace – Review

Yesterday after a little under two months of heavy reading, I finally came to the end of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ll start off by saying, no the irony is not lost on me that I started reading this book during the beginnings of a war involving Russia which is one of the main players in this novel. In fact, I ended up thinking it quite fitting. It gave me insight into how Tolstoy may have viewed the conflict that is currently unfolding.

I had heard before reading War and Peace, that although it’s often referred to as a classic “novel,” Tolstoy himself did not describe it as such. I’d have to agree that this book is not what you would expect from a traditional work of fiction. A good portion of the book is a lengthy, honestly tedious and repetitive, account of Tolstoy’s opinion of past wars and historians’ descriptions and explanations of them. Another portion of the book is focused on the fictionalized account of the war itself. Perhaps if you are someone who likes to read about history, battle strategies, or the logistics of war, this would be of interest to you, but if you go into this book with the idea it will be like his other novel, Anna Karenina, you will be sorely disappointed.

Apart from these two seemingly disjointed portions in the work, it is about the interpersonal lives and inner dramas of some of the wealthiest families in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. These passages in the book were excellently written, gripping, and often even profoundly philosophical. I adored Pierre from the very beginning and continued to throughout the rest of my reading. Although the elaborate Russian names in Anna Karenina were difficult at times, I felt the lengthy list of characters in this book made it even harder to keep track of the important players.

While overall, I got a lot of enjoyment from this book, I felt the ending left a lot to be desired. I wish that the story had stuck with the lives of the characters rather than getting sidetracked so often by seemingly irrelevant details about generals, marching orders, battlefield layouts, and criticisms of historical accounts. Quite understandably, it felt like by the time Tolstoy got to the end of the nearly 1400 page book, he wrapped everything up with the characters rather hastily. Everything did get tied up in a nice bow with no storyline being neglected or unfinished, but it still felt unsatisfying and rushed in the end.

I was also rather irritated that the last 50 pages or so of the book which were once again just a long diatribe by Tolstoy, railing against the foolish or incompetent historians that recorded the events that took place in real life. Eventually he did come to some interesting philosophical points about cause and effect and free will.

I still believe that this book is worth reading, however I’m not quite as sure why it is lauded as one of the greatest books ever written. My final impression is of a work that had great bones, but gave a feeling of being a first draft rather than being carefully edited and compiled. I’m not sure whether or not there were editors at that time, whether Tolstoy had one, or whether or not he would have taken their advice had he had one. My suggestion would have been to scrap all of the superfluous text about the war maneuvers themselves and the author’s personal commentary on the war. At the very least he could have published that account in a separate work. I would have much preferred those pages have been dedicated to more fully delving into what I consider the main story, the lives of the fictional characters.

Beyond the Intellect

They gather like wolves on the boardwalk below. They’re howling for answers no wolf can know.

Mewithoutyou – Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume

I’ve been reading War & Peace these last few weeks. Pretty ironic considering the state of affairs in the world right now. Nonetheless, the passages I read last night were very insightful. One of my favorite characters, Pierre, is talking about God, religion, and spirituality with an old freemason. The conversation goes as follows:

He is attained not through reason, but through living.”

“I don’t understand,” said Pierre, dismayed at the doubts surging up inside of him. Put off by the vagueness and weakness of the freemason’s arguments, he felt the dread of unbelief. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why human reason cannot attain the knowledge you speak of.”

“The highest wisdom and truth is like unto the purest liquid which we try to absorb into ourselves,” he said. “Can I receive that pure liquid into an impure vessel and judge of its purity? Only through the inner purification of myself can I bring the liquid received within me to some degree of purity.”

While I still don’t believe in the Christian God or the Bible, and have a general distaste for this particular expression of spirituality, I do think these words have a certain truth to them. I may not be religious, but in recent years I have come to consider myself a spiritual person. Hidden inside the horrors of the churches that have cropped up around the world in various forms, is a poignant, important truth. I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that all forms of religion seem to share very similar threads. There is wisdom to be obtained there. I once held logic and intellect above all else, scoffing at the idea of faith. Now I think there is a place for both.

I used to believe that everything could be understood through science and reason. My experiences with psychedelics, more than anything else, have opened my mind to the idea that there are things our minds are just not capable of grasping. There are states and perspectives we cannot even conceive of. I’ve always been a curious person. As a child I had so many questions that seemed beyond answers. I contented myself on the idea that after I died, I could ask God. Then I would finally know everything and nothing would be a mystery to me. When I lost my faith, I also lost that comforting thought of finding answers one day. Now part of me thinks that far away hope might not be entirely off.

“You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.”

Will the new view I tentatively hold of death, I think it’s possible I may still have all the answers some day. When this fragmented consciousness disconnects from my mortal form, it will be submerged once again in the larger ocean of all that is. I want to believe that there is peace in that dissolution. That I will once again understand and remember all that I have forgotten in order to take part in this earthly existence. Yet, even this explanation isn’t exactly right. Part of me feels sure that whatever the real answers are, the full truth of reality is something that we simply cannot comprehend or conceptualize in the brains we are currently working with as humans. That is why no answer appears sufficient or correct, testable, or provable. There are no satisfactory answers that we can obtain in this life regarding those large existential questions of who am I, what is this, why am I here.

These questions and our endless, futile search for definitive answers to them have caused suffering throughout all of human history. We wrestle constantly with the gnawing ache to know things that cannot be known. This is were I believe that faith becomes a valuable asset to us. Faith can be twisted and used to manipulate the masses to bow to corrupt authorities, and for most of my life, this seemed like its sole purpose, to trick and take advantage of people. Now I find myself longing for a more abstract and vague faith. Not a faith in some supreme, all-knowing being. Not faith in the institutions of mankind. But a faith in the idea that there are things at work in the universe that I cannot comprehend.

This form of faith is a great comfort. It is a surrender. It is the acknowledgement that I do not understand, that I can never understand, and that that’s okay. I don’t have to keep struggling and suffering for these important answers. I won’t find them. I may not even be asking the right questions. There is such peace in trusting that everything is as it should be. That everything is going to be alright, even if you can’t fathom how. There is a reason, an explanation for all of this seemingly random chaos out there somewhere. We must accept that we are only working off of very limited, myopic understanding. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all we’ve got to go by and we have to keep going despite not having the full picture.

In this way, faith is a necessary part of life for all of us, it is a constant practice, whether you consider yourself religious/spiritual or not. Faith is that energy inside of us, that yearning, that momentum that keeps us going despite all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, the doubt. It’s scary to relinquish control in favor of faith, but it is what we all must do sooner or later. Logic, reason, knowledge, and intellect can only take us so far. Certainly use them and value them. They are essential, important, wonderful tools. But also know that it’s okay to let go and surrender to the unknown, the unknowable too. It’s going to be okay, even if we can’t understand how. Everything is as it should be.

Lessons From Mr. Micawber

One of the funniest characters in David Copperfield has got to be Mr. Wilkins Micawber. We first encounter Micawber as a somewhat landlord/roommate of the young Copperfield. We quickly learn that he is perpetually in debt that he has no hopes of paying back. He is constantly on the brink of utter disaster for himself, his wife, and their large, growing family. Micawber remains a primary character throughout the novel. He is a character in which I think we can all stand to learn a lot from while still being someone exaggerated and ridiculous in nature.

Part of what is so humorous about this man is that he seems to drastically jump from one condition to another suddenly. One moment he will be on the verge of suicide, the next, Copperfield will find him skipping along the road, whistling an upbeat tune. He writes these dramatic, superfluously worded letters that at first glance make you quite worried for the man. Then the next day he is the epitome of high hopes and lightheartedness.

Even though I find it exceedingly funny in the book, I actually admire this quality in Micawber. It might make him seem silly, but he is none the less likeable for this trait. He is a heartfelt and honest man. He is true to his feelings even if they oscillate rapidly from one extreme to another. And he is unashamed of expressing himself. This is something I’d like to be brave enough to practice in my own life.

I’ve noticed many times, that if I share a strong negative feeling with someone else through behavior or actual words, I feel very reluctant to let it go even when internally, the feeling has subsided. This is especially true if it’s a mood that has come and gone quickly. I’m almost embarrassed to contradict myself by getting over something that I proclaimed to be so passionate about. Perhaps I’m worried people will think me a hypocrite? Or maybe I fear them not taking my concerns seriously the next time? Or maybe I’m even afraid they’ll chuckle and laugh at me, as I do about Mr. Micawber? I don’t know the exact reason, but something within me resists dropping a grudge that I’ve just vented to someone else about or allowing myself to be happy if the day before I was presenting myself as irrevocably depressed.

Mr. Micawber has shown me that even though it does appear silly to be crying one moment and laughing the next, it is silly in the best way possible. I don’t disregard his sadness even if I highly suspect it won’t last long. And my laughter at his sudden recovery is not done in a mocking way, rather a delighted way, out of wonder and surprise. Micawber is an excellent role model for the slogan: It’s okay to feel your feelings. Even when they might not seem logical to someone else.

It’s truly a shame how often we, myself included, deny ourselves the happiness of the moment under the shadow of some larger problem looming over our lives. We get the thought stuck in our heads that “I’ll never be happy unless…” or “Once this happens or this stops happening, then I’ll finally be able to be happy.” With our eyes set on this imagined future happiness, we overlook or disregard the small opportunities for happiness we encounter every day. Micawber didn’t wait for his problems to go away or for his massive debts to be repaid to enjoy his life. He did so whenever he got the chance. I think we’d all benefit from trying to do the same.

An Open Heart Absorbs, A Closed Heart Rejects

The littlest inconveniences or imperfections that come before me in the evening hours are enough to bring me to my knees. I feel broken down, defeated, and exhausted. I have no emotional or mental strength left with which to help me cope with the most miniscule, commonplace hurdles in life. Last night, for instance, I was nearly brought to tears at the frustration of a home that cannot seem to remain clean for even an hour despite my seemingly constant maintenance. In my despair, the only thought that brought me any comfort was the idea of just burning the whole structure to the ground. If my home cannot be perfect, it cannot be.

Even though I realize in the moment how unreasonable I am being, even though I know the next morning all will seem manageable again, I can’t keep my heart above the swirling current of my despair. My saving grace these last few months has been my evening reading. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been quickly and hungrily devouring all the works of Charles Dickens. Currently I am near the end of David Copperfield. This one is definitely my favorite so far after A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t quite understand it, but the way this man writes is a balm for my soul.

With elegant simplicity he seems to reflect back to me my own suffering and at the same time help me find peace in it. Even more than that, his words help me pull my heart back into a state of openness and gratitude. There is such beauty and dignity in even the most unfortunate and wretched characters. Last night I came upon the phrase: “the fear of not being worthy to do what my torn and bleeding heart so longed to do, was the most frightening thing of all.” This touched me so deeply in exactly the most tender spot within my contorted heart that I burst into tears that did not stop flowing for the next several pages.

Somehow Dickens is able to cut to the quick of all my inner struggles and show me the beauty that resides even inside the most bitter of suffering. He reminds me that I am not alone in my feelings, that there are so many others throughout time that have felt what I feel. Not only that, but that these individuals have lived despite it all and found their place, their gratitude, and their peace.

But I am not only writing about my deep love of Dickens’ works, I am writing about the energetic shift that they are able to illicit in me. Nothing externally changes in the first few moments of quiet reading and self-reflection. My problems remain. Yet in an instant, the weight of the world is lifted and loving kindness towards myself and all of existence bursts forth and spills from my overflowing, open heart.

It’s a physical sensation, a true energetic metamorphosis. I literally feel my heart space grow warm and emanate good will, understanding, and true love. I’ve learned through this reoccurring, mesmerizing experience that the power to heal and persevere are mine to wield whenever I choose. It’s not always easy to make that choice, but the more often I am able to unclench my twisted heartstrings and let all the goodness I’ve been disregarding flow in, the more possible the choice seems to me.

Often I try to “logic” my way out of emotional states. But logic means nothing to emotion. We delude ourselves into thinking we must “fix” the problems we are despairing about before we can return to a sense of ease and wellbeing. The bad news is we will never be able to fix it. The external world’s problems are not what hold us down, it is our inclination to focus and obsess about those problems. Fix one, and surely we will find another. No, the true remedy is redirecting ourselves away from these ruminations and dissatisfactions. The good news is we don’t need to find a “reason” to do so. We just need to remember the feeling of our hearts opening. That’s enough to change everything.

Unlikely Lessons From Charles Dickens

Reading in the evening has become a very meditative and often insightful time of day for me. It has been a great joy and comfort to snuggle into a nest of pillows and blankets after a hearty meal with a warm cup of matcha tea and forget myself for a few hours before bed. Novels are a medium for self-surrender, an opportunity to lose yourself in the plot of another’s life. They are also a chance to gain fresh perspective once we reemerge to take up our own life once again.

Particularly for people like me who suffer from social anxiety, it is a good way to get a feel for the way others think, feel, and act. Observing the real people in my life or analyzing my own relationships has always felt a bit too close for me to understand objectively. It’s rather hard to learn from or concentrate on what someone is saying to you when your entire body is in a state of utter panic. Novels provide a safe cushion of distance and detachment that creates the perfect environment for personal growth and self-discovery.

Even when I think I’ve already learned a lesson many times before, there are always instances that present the essence of this knowledge in a new and penetrating way. For instance, one of the common themes that stands out to me in the works of Charles Dickens is the resilience and near stoicism of his characters. They encounter unbelievable hardships day after day, yet seem to be unmoved by them. They bravely face whatever fate lies before them with dignity and acceptance. Whether they be robbed of all their earthly possessions on a filthy street or arrested and sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit, never have they added to their suffering by lamenting the injustice of it all. It’s almost as if they move through the world with no expectations whatsoever. Whatever comes upon them in the course of their lives, they take it without complaint.

As a yogi, I am constantly confronted with the idea that we prolong and worsen our own suffering when we pile our own rejection and stubborn indignation on top of it. This truth that I’ve carried with me for years now felt all the more poignant when I experienced the living example of it in the form of Dicken’s colorful characters. Even thinking of it now, in David Copperfield, there is one character that is constantly in a state of depression or distress. They moan, “I am a lone, lorn, creature, and everything goes contrary to me.” They agonize over their belief that they just “feel things more” than everyone else. Despite a relatively decent existence compared to many of the characters, she suffers immensely. It is primarily her own perception of herself and said suffering that is the cause of it though.

Sadly enough, in spite of myself, I find that I tend to identify with this character. I get upset, then am upset and ashamed of being upset. I want to be comforted, then am embarrassed for needing constant comforting and being a burden on my loved ones, and the cycle continues from there. In contrast little David Copperfield himself is a shining example of how I would rather face the world and the difficulties that come with it. In addition to not resisting the unfortunate events of his life, David also does not blame himself for them. I’ve found that if I am not blaming the world for being against me or being unfair, I am blaming myself for being naive or foolish whenever something bad happens.

Because of these simple lessons and many others, I truly feel that reading these books has been healing for me. Although they are fictional, the truth behind them remains. We can gain a new perspective of ourselves and our situation through reading. We can also find powerful examples of how we might choose to be instead. When I see these characters accepting their lot in life, suffering, injustice, and all, I feel more capable of accepting my own life and all it entails. When I see these characters making “mistakes” that I would have torn myself apart for, I am able to view them with compassion and understanding. It fosters a willingness to forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know. Often the hardest hurdle to face with our problems is not knowing an alternative way to respond to them when they arise. Reading is the opportunity to find that alternative.

The Personal History of David Copperfield. by Dickens, Charles: (1849) |  Raptis Rare Books, ABAA/ ILAB

Great Expectations

I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Dickens recently. I’ve finished A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Now I am working my way through Oliver Twist. I have David Copperfield and Hard Times lined up after that. Reading these novels has been one of my favorite parts of the day for months now. After dinner, I have been curling up with a cup of tea, my fur children, and one of these books in my hygeekrog for at least an hour if not more each night.

I think that one of the reasons I find this new ritual so enchanting is the contrast between my warm, cozy, little nook and the lives being lived out on the pages in front of me. Even though they are works of fiction, somehow they make me appreciate my good fortune in life in a way I never really have before. There is a beautiful, simple dignity in the way the characters accept their fates and the circumstances they are placed in, no matter how unjust or painful. It makes me contemplate my self-righteous indignation at even the slightest inconveniences I face from day to day. How might I learn to let go and move with the events happening around me instead of against them? Characters being abruptly put in prison with no warrant or explanation make less of a fuss than I do when I’m cut off in traffic.

There are also other ineffable aspects of these novels that fill me with peace and curiosity. I think one thing is that they shine a light on our shared human experience that spans the length of time. No matter where you find yourself in history or in the world, we all must face quite similar hardships and injustices. Life is not about avoiding these things. It’s about how we face them. Dickens’ books are a reminder of the fortitude and resilience of all those that have come before us and survived and fought to improve society even in our species’ darkest moments.

I think one of the greatest lessons I have taken away from my evening reading is summed up perfectly in the title of one of these books: Great Expectations. While not meant in the way it is in the book, I have realized that I have great expectations. Not for wealth or social status, but for other people. I became rather disgusted and disenchanted with the entire human race quite early in life. I saw the incredible things that human beings are capable of and somehow came to seek out only this from my fellow creatures.

As children, we are raised to see only the best of human ability and achievement. We learn about soldiers sacrificing their lives for the freedom of their country. We hear about geniuses that have devoted their lives to advancing and/or healing society through new technology and medicine. We see the bravery, the resilience, the altruism first and foremost. Characters such as Hitler are painted as strange aberrations, rather than reoccurring figures or the other side of the coin of human nature. Therefore I think I absorbed the impression that human beings should all be more perfect, generous, and intelligent than anyone can truly be in reality.

This skewed perception led me to be let down a lot throughout my life. Ultimately it led to the pendulum swinging the other way entirely. I began to believe that human beings are all selfish, monstrous, and grotesque in our greed and disregard for others. It seems that now I only look for that hideous side of human nature in order to confirm what I now believe about our species. I take for granted the good I see in the world, because that’s just how it should be. Yet I still see every false step we take as a society as egregious and worthy of condemnation.

Charles Dickens’ works are a vacation away from that staunch, black and white thinking of mine. While the horrors of society are upfront and evident, Dickens shows that despite this suffering, this injustice, there is also deep love, selflessness, humor, and honor within us. Human beings are not the best creatures to ever live, nor are we the worst. We simply are. It’s okay to have high hopes for ourselves, those around us, and our society in general, but not to the extent that we lament any and everything that falls short of our great expectations. There is peace and contentment in taking what the world offers to you exactly as it is. Our ideals should be what guide us, not something seen as a guarantee. It’s okay to be proud and overjoyed by the small acts of kindness we encounter, precisely because they are not guaranteed. At the same time we cannot be shocked and disheartened by the opposite either. The complexity and mystery of life and those we share it with is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes life worth living.

Charles Dickens: Scourge Of Capitalists & Social Reformer - HistoryExtra

The Mind-Gut Connection

The Mind-Gut Connection featured in upcoming Lunchtime Learning Presentation

The more I learn about the human body and the world, the more obvious it becomes that every little supposedly insignificant thing matters and everything is inextricably connected. The bad news is there is no cheating your way to health or fitness or happiness. But the good news is, although it may seem harder, the tried and true methods of slowly achieving success are always available to us. If we treat both our bodies and our minds well and show them patience and compassion, health and happiness with inevitably follow. A lot of people will find this obvious and uninteresting, but I’ve never been one to base any of my opinions or actions on good faith alone, I usually require a more thorough knowledge of the mechanisms going on behind the scenes.

The emerging science of what’s going on backstage in our own bodies is truly stranger than fiction. Most of us know (although we don’t like to think about it) that our bodies contain lots of microscopic organisms in addition to our human cells. Our skin, our hair, our nails, our eyelashes, and of course our guts are teeming with strange little lifeforms, the majority of which are harmless. It may be a bit unsettling to consider, but the bacteria inhabiting our bodies are actually even more than harmless, they are helpful, even necessary for us to be healthy. Before reading The Mind-Gut Connection by Dr. Emeran Mayer, I thought my vague comprehension of that fact was sufficient. Gut microbes are good for us, case closed. Now I’m discovering that the role these little organisms play in our digestion, day to day life, decision making, and ever our personalities are far more complicated than I’d ever imagined.

Apart from all the implications this information sparks curiosity about in the scientific community, my philosophy centered mind goes straight for the larger existential questions we are now faced with. Who is really running the show? Are we this human form shown to the world, or are we actually the bacteria pulling the strings deep inside our guts? Perhaps we’re just the passive hosts without even realizing it. Or maybe it’s not even possible to make a clear distinction between the human and bacteria cells within us. For now it does appear as if we are one in the same.

Whatever we may be, Dr. Mayer’s book is an excellent example of the way looking deeper into the natural world leads only to more marvel and mystery. The complexity and intricacies of this existence are an endless source of fascination that I don’t think we’ll ever truly be able to decode. However, we have now learned at least a bit more about this magical little world within us. So here are a few of what I found to be the most interesting things laid out in this book:

Personality & Decision making

These bacteria in our digestive organs do a lot more than help us break down our food. They are also influencing our mood, disposition, and the decisions “we” make. We all know that our cells communicate and deliver signals and chemicals to the brain, but what I didn’t know was that these bacteria are doing the same. I was shocked to discover that our gut produces the majority of serotonin in our bodies, not the brain. This is one of the reasons we experience that familiar cozy, satisfied feeling after a good meal. This also explains the way our diet affects our mental health. It’s not just a placebo effect. Eating healthy, fibrous, fresh, unprocessed foods really does make us feel better all around.

One of the most incredible things I learned was from a study that showed transplanting the gut microbiome of one rat into the gut of another causes the latter rat to begin expressing a personality and behaviors more similar to the donor rat. For instance, a shy rat given the microbiome of an outgoing rat, will now begin to appear brave. It’s honestly a bit frustrating to realize what a big role the gut microbiome plays in our mental state. Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve faired so well without my paxil is because I’ve been drinking pro & pre-biotics every day since before I began weaning myself off the drug. It makes me wonder what kind of success, if any, I may have had in my battle with social anxiety if I had known this information before starting an SSRI.

Hunger, Satiety, & Weight

The microbes in our guts also have a big part to play when it comes to our appetite. They have a direct line to our brains with the capacity to influence our hunger signals. What I once thought was a definitive sign that my body needed more calories or nutrients, now may very well just mean that my gut bacteria need more fibrous matter and pre-biotics to snack on. These little buddies also have a hand in our sensitivity to our satiety signals, in other words our cue that we are full and want to stop eating. These bacteria are also responsible for how much of the food we eat is absorbed and stored in our bodies.

Just as in the other rat study I mentioned, the same effect can be observed regarding the physical weight of the rats. Give a skinny rat the microbiome of a heavy rat and it will begin to gain weight and vice versa. This is a stunning insight into just how little we actually comprehend about nutrition and how to influence our own body weight. There really is no “one size fits all” diet when it comes to weight loss or gain, and it’s got a lot more to it than just genetics.

The Best Diet for a Healthy Gut Microbiome

This book also gives suggestions about the best foods for us to eat if we want a gut microbiome that keeps us healthy and happy. The author particularly emphasizes that diets high in animal fat lead to a state of constant inflammation and physical and mental health complications. Not surprising. He also says that diets high in fibrous plant foods lead to more helpful strains of bacteria flourishing in our guts. Now it seems obvious to me that the extrapolation of that information points directly to a vegan diet. No animal fat, tons of plant foods. However, this author is clearly attached to his flesh foods, because based on anecdotal evidence of healthy tribal peoples who eat a mediterranean diet (basically vegan, plus fish) he decided to label that the best diet. He gives no explanation on how the fish part is necessary or beneficial. The actual data he provides seems to say the opposite. So I think it’s safe to say eliminating the last “bad gut” food, would be best, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, he goes on to say that even a drastic change in diet isn’t going to have a huge effect on the types of bacteria living in our guts. However, it will change the kinds of metabolites the bacteria we already have produce for our bodies and brains, which is nearly as good.


In summation, the information I’ve learned from this book has completely changed the way I view my body and even my mind. I fluctuate back and forth between being excited and terrified about this new knowledge and what it means. At the very least, this book shows just how important our physical health is when it comes to our mental health. The two are inextricably linked for better or worse. Really all we can do is work with the gut-microbiome we have. They are as unique and diverse as each individual they are house in. Treat them right, give them lots of healthy vegan foods to eat, and they will repay us in kind.

Mushroom Magic

For the last few days I have been reading a book called How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. It is a fascinating look at all the different ways that fungi have influenced and continue to influence humanity and the world around us throughout history. This book not only addresses the incredible research being done around psychedelic mushrooms, but also the incredible nature of our fungal friends in general. For instance, did you know that human beings are more closely related to fungi than we are to the plant kingdom? There are tons of intriguing tidbits of information like this sprinkled throughout this book between awe inspiring accounts of spiritual psychedelic experiences. Even if you have no interest in psychedelics, this book is still well worth a read for all of the other information and research it contains.

I haven’t even gotten halfway through this book yet myself, but already there are a few points that I’d like to discuss today. The first of which is the great comfort that simply reading this book has brought me. As you may know from reading my other posts, I am quite disturbed and troubled by the thought that soon the world as we know it will be coming to a rather abrupt and violent end due to the unsustainable nature of modern human civilization. For many years now I have despaired over the fact that we have already gone past the point of no return when it comes to the destruction of our environment. I’m not exactly sad due to the inevitable loss of human kind, rather by the greater loss of all the beautiful and complex lifeforms that share this wondrous planet with us. Michael Pollan’s book has given me hope that despite all humans have destroyed that life will continue on after our end.

Are you aware that humble oyster mushrooms have the ability to clean up oil spills? Apparently fungi, unlike most organisms, are able to consume and purify a lot of humans’ more toxic and problematic waste materials quite efficiently. A study was conducted where oyster mushroom spores were sprinkled on an oil spill. After some time had passed, the spores were able to consume the oil and cover the area in a blanket of squishy mushrooms. Most of us are aware that fungi are the organisms that break down dead or decaying matter, purifying waste and recycling it back into life once more. I was not aware that these miraculous beings were able to do the same with toxic man-made substances. However, according the Pollan’s book, fungi actually thrive even in the wake of human destruction and debris. Mushrooms are even able to break down plastics!

While I don’t expect humans will take advantage of the amazing potential of fungi before we all perish at our own hands, this new information still leaves me hopeful. I am filled with peace. Despite centuries of irrevocable human error, the fungi will protect this earth. They have preserved the endless cycle of life and death on our planet long before the arrival of humanity and will continue to do so long after we are gone. And for that I am so grateful.

7 Impressive Benefits of Oyster Mushrooms

Meditation on Death

Due to my morbid obsession with death and dying this past week, I started looking for some books to read in order to better cope with these grim ruminations. After a little searching, I came across a book that seems perfect for me. It’s called Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Face of Death by Joan Halifax. I haven’t gotten past the first few chapters yet, but it has already been a great comfort to me.

This book approaches the subject of death from a Buddhist perspective. It highlights the different ways that western and eastern cultures deal with death. It calls attention to the way the fear of death dominates western culture. We do our best to hide it away out of sight. We live most of our lives without ever thinking about the fact that we are all going to die some day. Avoidance seems to be a primary part our lives, especially in America.

The best part about this book is that it is written as a resource for everyone, in any stage of life. It can benefit teenagers, the elderly, caregivers, medical professionals, healthy people, and people that are terminally ill. This book reminds us that death is a natural part of life. It is something that has the potential to bring us all together. It is ultimately the great equalizer. It is a phase of life, a culmination of everything we have experienced here, a right of passage, a necessary darkness we will all pass through one day.

One of the ways I believe this book will help me is by preparing me to be there for my loved ones when they die. I still feel tremendously guilty about how little I was around my grandmother as she was slowly dying from cancer a few years ago. For the most part, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. I saw her when we went to my parent’s house on holidays. It was painful just to look at her, to be in that room with her. Even though it was actually the room I grew up in, my childhood bedroom. What a sad, beautiful mixture of things that have gone on within the walls of that room.

When I sat by her bedside those last few times I saw her, I felt paralyzed, petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to cry. I wanted to ask her so many questions. But instead I sat silently at her side, waiting for any opportunity to leave. I still wonder how she must have felt in her final days. Was she afraid? Did she resent us for not being there for her? Did she find peace? Did she have regrets? Were there things she wanted to tell us, but didn’t? Did we leave her feeling alone? Unloved? What is normal, what is acceptable to say or do around a death bed? Is anything? Does it even matter?

I think our society’s fear and avoidance of death leaves a lot of people to regret their incompetence when dealing with the passing of a loved one. When you avoid something all your life, how can you possibly be expected to handle it when it is in front of you? When it can no longer be avoided? When my other grandmother passes, when my parents pass, I want to be ready. I want to be everything I wished I could have been for my dad’s mom. I want to be brave enough and comfortable enough to discuss these difficult topics with them. I want to be prepared to give them everything that they need, even if they are unable to ask for it when the time comes.

Being with Dying provides exercises to help us work through our aversion and fear of death. The first meditation it suggests is to contemplate both the best and the worst case scenarios for your own death, in as much detail as possible. I want to have my grandmother and my mom do these exercises with me at some point. I want to know everything that I can do to make their deaths peaceful and comfortable and meaningful. However, even the thought of writing such a thing down seems terrifying to me. At the same time, that terror is quite fascinating. To confront this reality, the certainty of death, why is it so very painful? Why does my mind want to avoid even the thought of it at any cost? Do people in other cultures feel the same way? Or are they able to embrace this inevitability with grace and humble surrender?

I think my greatest fear surrounding death, is simply not knowing. It is the ultimate loss of control, a nosedive into a vast unknown. Perhaps it is less daunting if you believe in an afterlife of some kind. But it seems impossible that anyone could have total conviction as they are facing down their own end. There must always be some doubt, some uncertainty. It is not only not knowing what happens after we die, but not knowing when or how we will die that is frightening. I suppose a lot of people are also deeply afraid of death being painful. As someone who hasn’t experienced hardly any physical pain yet in my life, I find this hard to imagine well enough to be afraid of. Besides it always seems like pain can be escaped, even if that escape is death itself. However, that not knowing, that final surrender, will always be there.

I am looking forward to reading more of this book. I am hopeful that it will give me the tools I need to prepare myself for this stage of life, this end of life. Not only for myself but for those around me as well. Even if you think I’m nuts for believing the science that says soon the oceans will be dead along with all of us, I would still recommend this book. Regardless of when you imagine death will touch your life, the fact remains that it will, no matter who you are. It’s much easier to avert our eyes as long as possible, but if you are ready to face that fear head on and take the steps you need to in order to be prepared, Living with Dying seems like a great place to start.

Please make the wonderful effort to show up for your life, every moment, this moment – because it is perfect, just as it is.

Being with Dying
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Moral Ambiguity

I have been reading Les Miserables for the last few days. I am incredibly shocked that I never knew it was a book as well as a play until now. I was really missing out. Anyway, I have just finished the chapters detailing Jean Valjean’s (Monsieur Madeleine’s) inner turmoil regarding the right thing to do in the case of his mistaken identity. It is truly a very interesting philosophical question. On the one hand, it seems clearly “right” to clear up the misunderstanding and spare this stranger a fate he does not deserve on your account. However, should Monsieur Madeleine give himself up as Jean Valjean, would not even more people be made to suffer as a result? After all he has practically created his own society. All within that society benefit from his presence and guidance. Not least of which, Fantine, who should surely die without ever seeing her child again if he goes to Arras and interfere with the trial.

This section of Les Miserables really highlights the complexities of morality. The “right” thing to do in life is quite often unclear. I can see why Monsieur Madeleine wrestled with this problem as he did. I still don’t really know what I believe the truly moral decision would be. If it were me (myself being nowhere as upright and honorable as Monsieur Madeleine) I would have allowed the trail to go on. I would have felt terribly guilty, but I would have also felt guilty if I would have decided to leave my community and poor Fantine in order to save a stranger whom by a terrible twist of fate was mistaken for me. In some ways, both decisions are moral. And in other ways both are selfish and unfair.

I am very interested to see how Monsieur’s decision to go to Arras works out in the end. Will his conscious be pacified? Or will he suffer with the consequences wrought on M- sur M- and Fantine? This painful reflection of life’s more difficult moral questions is undoubtably one of the reasons Les Miserables has earned it’s place among the great works of history.

One would hope that merely the resolve to be “good” would be enough. Yet we see that even that does not nullify all of problems laid before us. Sometimes there is no “right” answer. Sometimes no matter what decision you make, someone will be made to suffer because of it. Even the decision not to act can result in grave consequences as in this case.

What a complex, confusing, and often cruel world we live in. There is something truly incredible about seeing that so perfectly reflected in a novel. To be able to hold these heavy problems in your hands. To see the inner struggles of another and know that we are not alone in our own. To have such strong concern and sympathy produced for a fictional character. The written word is an awe-inspiring thing.

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