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Rene Magritte - The Explanation

Rene Magritte – The Explanation

So what’s your problem? Nothing too troubling I hope. As for me I’m delighted to report that after many years groping around in the dark I’ve finally had mine explained to me. My problem, (or at least the one I’m prepared to discuss here) is this: I don’t understand The Market.

I realised this by chance one day last week when I happened to be within range of a radio as on three separate occasions my problem, my lack of understanding, was defined by a variety of erudite experts who were obviously “in the know”. Surely this was no coincidence I thought as the mists cleared; there must be some underlying synchronicity at work here. Either that or a well-meaning higher power was prodding me into finally arriving at an understanding of my handicap.

Having thought about it for a few days I now realise that The Market that I don’t understand is actually any number of markets, maybe even all markets. Or maybe all markets are in reality one huge market, much too vast and complex for simple folk to understand. There you go you see, I’m feeling confused and inadequate already just thinking about the great big hugeness of The Market and the depths of my ignorance. However, just for now, and for the sake of simplicity the three markets that I’d like to isolate are these:

money-hording-executive3-300x2751) The Energy Market. I don’t understand how it can be that energy companies, gas suppliers for example, can continue to make such enormous profits for themselves and their shareholders while at the same time obliging the consumer to pay higher and higher prices. Surely if we are “all in this together”, as we’re so often led to believe this spirit would be better served if the energy companies passed a share of their profits on to the consumer in the form of lower prices? As things stand their position could easily be mistaken for simple, uncomplicated greed by an ignorant person like myself. But my confusion, as I’ve now come to see is simply down to my lack of understanding of The Market.

money-hording-executive3-300x2752) The Food Industry.  Specifically the market in meat. I don’t understand how it can be economically viable or beneficial to all those in the chain of supply and demand, from farmer to processor to retailer to consumer, for meat to be flown in to Europe from all corners of the globe, and then sold to me in a supermarket at half the price I would pay for locally sourced meat at the local butcher. Not being a butcher or a farmer, a meat trader, or even a supermarket employee I simply fail, from whatever angle I look at it, to see how this is fair, sustainable, or can be described in terms other than globalized profiteering. However, as I now realise, once again this is simply a case of me not understanding The Market.

money-hording-executive3-300x2753) The Banking Industry. Try as I might, and despite the bombardment of excuses and explanations we’re daily subjected to I can’t understand how it can be possible for such failed and failing institutions, bailed out worldwide by taxpayers to still be in a position to reward their decision makers with armfuls of extra cash on top of their already enormous salaries. I realise of course that I lack understanding of The Market, but it just doesn’t feel right, like when you notice that there’s an awful stink coming from somewhere and somehow you just know that there’s a dead rat under the floorboards.

At this point I suppose I should declare a bias. A few years ago, before the current financial crisis became publicly visible I actually met an investment banker at a small social gathering. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience. The urbane gentleman turned out to be one of the most seriously unpleasant people I’d ever come across, and I can assure you that I’ve led anything but a sheltered life. It’s safe to say that that particular banker left me with a poor opinion of his profession and the culture it spawns. But putting negative personal experiences to one side for now there’s obviously little doubt that it’s The Market that’s got me flummoxed here.

A Dangerous Thing

Clearly there are two sorts of people in the world: those who understand The Market, and those who don’t. So what’s to be done about my unfortunate ignorance? What can I do to get my head around the apparent absurdities and anomalies we constantly see? “Nothing”, is I suppose the answer that some would prefer to hear. Many people believe that there’s little to be gained by poking around under the surface of things, especially when it concerns our economic well-being, or interferes with the status quo, whilst others, the “insiders” seem less than thrilled at the prospect of The Market being obliged to expose itself for all to see. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, as my banking acquaintance might well have said, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and speaking for myself, now that my problem has finally been identified and I can breathe more easily the obvious response is to learn, learn, learn.

23-things-they-dont-tell-you-about-capitalism23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, a book by Cambridge professor of economics Ha-Joon Chang seems like a good place to start. By page one of chapter one: “There is no such thing as a free market”, I already feel that I’ve probably chosen the right guidebook, especially when Professor Chang states that 95 percent of economics is actually common sense deliberately made complicated. Made complicated by whom? By free market ideologists who have convinced us that all we need to do is to put our trust in The Market and get out of the way, according to the author, who goes on to insist that it is not necessary for us to have a grasp of all the technical details in order to understand what is going on in the world.

 Active Economic Citizenship

There’s more than one way to run capitalism Chang argues, and what we’ve seen over the last few years are the consequences of allowing free market capitalists, otherwise known as ‘neo-liberal economists’ free rein to develop their concepts about how the World – the World, not just The Market – should work. Understanding the key principles and basic facts puts us in a position to exercise, as he puts it, active economic citizenship, in order to demand the right courses of action from those we’ve voted in to make decisions on our behalf.

Rene Magritte - The Pleasure Principle

Rene Magritte – The Pleasure Principle

A Failed Ideology

Crucially he also confirms our suspicions that what happened to the world economy over the last few years was no accident but the result of a failed ideology that now wants nothing better than for us go back to sleep and allow it to carry on where it left off – organising and facilitating the upward redistribution of wealth – while we’re left wondering where all the money went.

Of course, this is as about as radical a tome as you’re going to get from someone with the author’s background – there’ll be no overthrow of the established order advocated here. But coming from a self-confessed capitalist this book seems to me like a blast of fresh air finally emerging from the pit. Given that his stated intention is to “equip the reader with an understanding of how capitalism really works and how it can be made to work better”, this is a genuinely courageous and illuminating book from someone who obviously cares about what happens next and wants to let us all in on the act.

To be continued…


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So I’m in my local library (in the Netherlands), one of my favourite places in the world, intending to take out Will Self’s latest novel The Butt. Instead I find myself  holding the book that’s right next to it on the shelf, Pub Walks in Underhill Country, written by someone I’ve never heard of whose name, Nat Segnit, sounds like an anagram. Because I’ve been in a “walking” frame of mind lately the title is immediately intriguing and seems a safe bet for further investigation. There’s an enthusiastic comment by Charlie (The Fast Show) Higson on the front cover, which is an interesting endorsement, and a likeably daft illustration that includes several pub signs, a couple of loitering hoodies, and a naked female rambler watching the sun set behind a country church. Of course I take it, leaving Will Self alone on the shelf, at least until my next visit.

 Between the Lines

Set in the Cotswolds and Malvern Hills the narrator Graham Underhill, local rambler, watercolourist, and real ale enthusiast guides us on a series of 15 walks in this, the latest in his series of self-published guidebooks. But unable to restrict himself to the particulars of the rambles his complicated private life, especially the comings and goings of his beautiful young wife Sunita, soon intrudes into the narrative. At first, as the reader you’re an eavesdropper, extracting clues from between the lines, gradually realising that little or nothing is as it seems on the surface. As the mists clear we see Graham’s predicament for what it is, even if he doesn’t.

A Sense of Loss

It’s an original and ingenious idea for what’s probably best described as a “comic” novel, but despite the early impression that nothing here is to be taken too seriously there’s a pervading sense of loss that runs throughout; the loss of love, of grown-up illusions, and the inexorable loss of environmental integrity. The narrator is also allowed occasional flashes of genuine, often quite moving insight into the human condition, as in this passage where he describes his feelings after a “wild swim”: “Nothing on God’s earth can compare to the feeling, emerging from a ‘wild dip’, that the very essence of you has been renewed, and to swim in the embrace of the quarry’s curving rockface, with the strata of schist and gneiss rising above you like a crystalline history of the universe, is to feel, for all the billion tiny needles in your blood, tantalisingly close to what it means to be alive.” Powerful stuff from a local council official!

Not Ironic

This book worked for me on so many different levels, but if I had to pick just three: It succeeds as a knowledgeable and convincing walking guide (the 15 walks are apparently all genuine), filled as all good guides should be with amusing insight and detail; as a brilliant character study of the pedantic but well-meaning narrator, part Wainwright, part Partridge, part Pete McCarthy; and it works as an often hilarious, sometimes painful, but nevertheless thoroughly believable glimpse of life in small-town England. I liked it a lot, for its delight in the power and playfulness of language, for its understated humour and the sense that life can be heartbreaking and funny at the same time, and because it’s not ironic, sarcastic, or bitter. Nobody is the butt of anyone’s joke here, unless of course in some cosmic sense we all are.

If you haven’t already discovered Pub Walks in Underhill Country my advice is to get hold of the book and enjoy it now while the original concept is still fresh. Sooner or later someone is going to make it into a trendy TV series, perhaps starring Steve Coogan, and all the lovely images generated by your imagination as you read it will be subsumed under someone else’s interpretation. I’m glad I found it when I did, and all in all I’m fairly sure that Will Self won’t have minded that I postponed taking out his book in favour of somebody else’s. Being something of a walker himself he might even have approved. I think he should read Pub Walks in Underhill Country too – it might even lighten his mood a bit on one of his blacker days.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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It’s a Buddhist cliché, if such a thing exists, to say that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. But lately, rather like waiting ages for a bus before three suddenly appear at once I’ve become aware of a number of such teachers, all of whom have been around for a long time, in plain view of those with a mind to hear what they have to say. Between them Huston Smith, William Tiller, and David R. Hawkins have written more than  thirty books, given thousands of talks and lectures, been interviewed and filmed hundreds of times, and yet in all the years I’ve spent studying, searching, and trying to understand spirituality, consciousness, and the nature of this reality I’d never heard of any of them until relatively recently. Suddenly, within the space of six months or so, their lifetimes of work have coincided with my own modest orbit, and amazingly their teachings not only make perfect sense to me, but seem like words I’ve been waiting all my life to hear.

So why has it taken me so long to tune in to knowledge that has been practically under my nose for decades? I can only conclude that until now I just haven’t been ready.

How bruising to the ego when the mountain you thought you’d scaled turns out to have been nothing but a hummock compared to what still lies ahead! But then it seems to me that that’s often how it works – just at the point when you think you’re finally getting some wisdom under your belt along comes a reminder that really all you’ve done so far is scratch the surface.

wood for the trees

by Russ Street

The Wood for the Trees

In my defence it’s true that these “three wise men” are all academics and intellectuals, inhabiting a world that I have little or no experience of. In other times their teachings would probably have been confined to a narrow circle of students and associates, eventually leaking out into the wider world many years later through the medium of some third-hand interpretation. But nowadays when information comes to us so readily it’s a simple matter to follow-up potential leads and unearth the knowledge you need in your search. The difficult part is seeing the wood for the trees. It takes time to develop an understanding of whether the information you’re being presented with genuinely resonates with you or is just another distraction. Until you have a clear sense of whether a particular truth is speaking directly to you it’s all too easy to be sidetracked into yet another blind alley.

 Benign Wizards

Of course if you’re looking for wise counsel it helps that all three have the appearance of benign but powerful wizards – the kind of grey eminences you’d want to have at your side when the Orcs are on the march. But to me they are all the more convincing and their insights more genuinely exciting because they don’t appear to be part of the New Age aristocracy, with its endless ebooks on how to “heal your life” and attract abundance. They’ve come up through the ranks as it were, and paid their dues within the conventional disciplines of science and academia. Each of them has followed his own particular discipline to its logical and inescapable conclusions and is therefore able to present his argument in a way that both encompasses current scientific and academic knowledge then boots it way beyond the boundaries of its habitual reactionary stance. The mainstream is unable to browbeat them into conformity because, in the same way that Fritjof Capra, James Lovelock, or Bruce Lipton speak the language of linear science in order to more thoroughly contradict and subvert it, there’s no need for the clichés of the self-help industry when dogma can more effectively be bamboozled using its own terminology.

Crossing Boundaries

Crossing Boundaries

Stretching the Boundaries

To me this feels like real, hard-won, possibly revolutionary knowledge being passed on. So it’s no surprise that the scientific/academic establishment has engaged with  these concepts in the same way it deals with all perception that expands the accepted boundaries – it ignores them. So be it. If history shows us anything it is that acceptance of new and revolutionary insight comes slowly, meeting increasing resistance from professional skeptics and those with vested interests until an inevitable tipping point comes.

As David R. Hawkins puts it: “Man’s dilemma – now and always – has been that he misidentifies his own intellectual artifacts as reality. But these artificial suppositions are merely the products of an arbitrary point of perception. The inadequacy of the answers we receive is a direct consequence of the limitations implicit in the viewpoints of the questioner. Slight errors in the formation of questions result in gross errors in the answers that follow.” 

And again: “Although we ascribe our actions to reason, man in fact operates primarily out of pattern recognition; the logical arrangement of data serves mainly to enhance a pattern-recognition system that then becomes “truth”. But nothing is ever “true,” except under certain circumstances, and then only from a particular viewpoint, characteristically unstated.”

Nell Irvin Painter, American historian and author of “The History of White People” put it more succinctly: “What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.”

 The Meaning

Years ago I bought a book called The Mysticism of Sound and Music by the Sufi writer, musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan. In my recollection it practically jumped out at me from the shelf in the bookshop, its title appealing both to my lifelong obsession with music and my growing interest in spiritual teachings at the time. I struggled through about half of the first chapter before I realized that none of what I was reading was making any sense. I tried skimming through it, picking out the parts that seemed to hold the most promise, but time and again my mind wandered off, unable to grasp the meaning of the slippery words on the pages. Eventually I gave up on it and the book found its way to the bottom of a pile in a corner where I never looked. About a year ago I rediscovered the book and started to read. This time I was gripped by what it was telling me. It’s no exaggeration to say that I read it as though it was a thriller, reluctant to put it down, and eager to return to it whenever I had the chance. So what had changed in the meantime? The words I was reading were exactly the same as those that I’d read years before. Clearly I’d needed the intervening time to bring my level of understanding to the point where I was ready to receive the knowledge the book held in readiness for me.

Someone once told me that growing older and learning as you did so was one of the few things in this world that made any sense. I remember at the time thinking it a cold comfort to know that life would only give up its secrets when you were past the age when you were best able to make use of them. I know better now.

In future posts I’ll try to explain why the collected works of these three men has had such an impact on me, and why I believe that everyone should at least have the chance to engage with them, then decide for themselves.

Huston Smith:  www.hustonsmith.net

William Tiller: www.tillerfoundation.com 

David R. Hawkins: Veritas Publishing 

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Current Reading:
Herbal Antibiotics

Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner

I ordered this book several weeks ago having recently had some personal experience with the apparent ineffectiveness of prescription antibiotics. I’d also been following the progress of a friend who had been taking various antibiotics on and off for almost a year, unsuccessfully attempting to rid herself of a bladder infection. As is often the way of these things I began hearing anecdotes about various acquaintances and others struggling with a range of viruses and infections and using prescription antibiotics that no longer seem to do the job they were designed for.

More recently there’s the news of the outbreak of an entirely new strain of drug resistant E Coli in northern Europe.  As of today, 3rd June, 18 people have died of the infection and more than 1500 have been infected. So I feel that this book comes as a timely addition to my library.

Having read the first chapter it’s not difficult to see why we’re facing a crisis in terms of the challenges posed by swiftly mutating, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But Herbal Antibiotics is no alarmist manifesto; rather it is a book full of tried and tested knowledge that offers a clear, pragmatic view of an alternative way forward in partnership with the natural world.

The book is a few years old now, published in 1999, and as I’m discovering, things move quickly in the world of drug-resistant bacteria. But the news on the website of The Foundation for Gaian Studies is that Stephen Harrod Buhner is currently working on a fully revised version of the book which should be available in the spring of 2012. In the meantime the current edition has more than enough information for study, and presents plenty of evidence that plant medicines can be remarkably effective against drug-resistant bacteria. Good news to pass on to those who are ready to hear it.

Stephen Harrod Buhner is a writer, poet, and lecturer on herbal medicine, and the author of over 15 books on the sacredness of plants, indigenous cultures, the environment, and the intelligence of Nature. He is also the author of Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life, described by bestselling author Herbie Brennan as “The most subversive book on writing I have ever encountered – and the most important.”

Ensouling Language is definitely the book that’s next on my reading list.

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