2014 Astrology

Monthly Archives: December 2012

On Prisons in America

by Enceno Macy

Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing

He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1965

In a 1982 speech in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sister Anne Montgomery, a legend in the U.S. peace movement, gently proposed that some of us need to go to prison and offer our lives to stop the killings, abolish nuclear weapons, and save the planet.

Today other courageous souls propose yet another reason to go to prison: to crash the system of mass incarceration built on plea bargaining. For such crusaders, prisons are a wake-up call not so much to their inmates as to the society that builds them. Sadly, it’s a wake-up call going unheard.

Sister Anne’s noble suggestion spotlights one of the oldest and least recognized functions of prison. Since before the time of Socrates and Aristotle, prison, death, and banishment have been used by those in power to silence the voices of dissent, criticism, protest, common sense, and often wisdom. From its earliest days, the United States vigorously employed its prisons and police to control public opinion. Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a Vermont congressman was jailed for accusing the Adams administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” (After serving his sentence he returned to his seat in Congress.)

During the First World War, the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 sent offenders to prison for up to 20 years for “speaking disloyally” or voicing any doubt about U.S. involvement in the war. Twenty years after those laws were repealed, the U.S. stripped citizens of their property and businesses and imprisoned them in crude “relocation centers” for the crime of looking Japanese, while conscientious objectors who refused military service were confined in “Civilian Public Service” camps. And just last month, presidential candidate Jill Stein was arrested for providing supplies to protesters blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Holding captives in custody has been common practice for thousands of years, and the U.S. from birth adopted the practice with gusto. An obvious example is the taking of prisoners in war; official statistics compiled at the end of the Civil War show a total of 340,000 prisoners held by both sides. The most pervasive use for prisons, however, is to maintain or enforce social order, to remove from so-called polite society both its critics and its failures. Whether as open slavery or forced labor, whether for punishment or exploitation, whether called relocation centers or Civilian Public Service camps, America has practiced them all. And common to them all has been a universal “out of sight, out of mind” public attitude that prevents oversight or reform.

This is hardly surprising, since our belovéd country began its existence as a prison colony. What is not taught in the average history class is how many early Americans came to this country as prisoners. Britain indulged in international prisoner trade for more than 150 years, between 1717 and 1775, transporting more than 50,000 convicts to America. Many of us are direct descendants of convicted criminals. These were early vagrants uprooted by the industrial revolution who thieved and schemed to stay alive and keep abreast of a fast-growing society full of others just like themselves.

In keeping with its origins, colonial America had more jails than public schools or hospitals, and almost as many as churches and taverns. Most early Americans were poor immigrants who, in sometimes-justified stereotypical fashion, became unruly or less than civil in social situations. By the late 1600s, the basis of our current class system had formed, from the all-powerful masters, i.e., the rich and their next in command, the overseers who ruled over the commoners (third-class citizens). The fourth class comprised servants and convicts, only slightly better than the very lowest, those immersed in perpetual slavery.

Emancipation of slaves after the Civil War in many cases simply shifted blacks from slave quarters to chain gang, as prisons became the de facto means to prevent their integration into white society. From that time to this, prisons have served as a reservoir of racism in America.

“The more laws and order are made prominent,” wrote Lao-tzu nearly 3,000 years ago, “the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

Inevitably, just as perpetual war became a source of corporate profit, a prison industry arose and thrived on a nation’s lust to punish and silence perceived threats. Out of the Great Depression grew a greater and greater use of imprisonment, along with an altered attitude about prisoners and convicted felons. From 1925 to 1939, the nation’s rate of incarceration climbed from 79 to 137 per 100,000 residents, correlating directly with the increased percentage of blacks who were being imprisoned. Social attitudes were changing as cities grew and the poor and jobless migrated to urban areas in hopes of employment, a majority of them being of African descent.

At the front end of the industrial revolution, it was easier to warehouse the unfortunate and disgruntled than to keep constant surveillance on potential offenders, not to mention the increase in crime as the desperate turned to any avenues that might provide food for themselves and their families. Adding more crimes, like Prohibition laws, added yet more to the exploding prison population.

During World War II, prison populations decreased, but with the subsequent Cold War, prison warehousing became much more common. When you warehouse convicts and force them into involuntary servitude while depriving them of meaningful work, recreation or mental exercise, resistance will eventually occur. The more convicts you put together, the greater the number who may be willing to rebel.

New York’s Attica Correctional Facility was home to the bloodiest rebellion in U.S. prison history, resulting in the deaths of 43 people (all but one killed during the police action to re-take control) in 1971. And in 1980, 33 deaths were reported during a riot in New Mexico’s State Penitentiary. These violent disturbances were fueled by appalling overcrowding, terrible prison conditions and staff abuse. The result was massive funding for prison programs, especially for prisoner control.

In 1974, the nation’s incarceration rate began to increase at an unprecedented rate, rising within ten years from about 162 to 318 inmates per 100,000 people. By 1995 it had doubled again. At this rate, criminologist Elliott Currie suggested at the time, by 2005 our incarcerated population would double yet again and our national rate of imprisonment would reach 12 times the rate of any other country in the advanced industrial world. Currie wondered whether we might feel “that something was terribly wrong with our society if we had to resort to the confinement of such a large part of our population, especially since we would still suffer far and away the worst levels of serious criminal violence in the developed world.”

Currie’s attitude was mirrored in a 1997 survey that found a “vast majority” of Californians would rather spend money on programs to prevent youth violence than on further incarceration. Four out of five Californians said that our biggest priority should be to “invest in ways to prevent kids from taking wrong turns and ending up in gangs or violence.” Instead, the budget for California’s prison system steadily increased from about three percent of the state’s general fund in 1980 to 11.2 percent for the 2012 fiscal year. Meanwhile, funding for higher education dropped from ten percent of the general fund 30 years ago to 6.6 percent, according to the California Department of Finance.

“How can we afford to spend more on prisons than on higher education in our increasingly competitive, knowledge-based world?” asks Les Leopold.

The real question is not how, but why $7,748 billion of the 2010 U.S. budget was spent on federal correctional activities (doubled from the 2000 budget), while only $3,631 billion went to research and general education (a 17 percent increase from 2000). In that same ten-year period, what also doubled was the amount a student had to pay for a four-year-degree at a state college; by 2010 it cost the average student $55,502 in tuition and fees, board and dorm charges for a four-year degree. Fifty-three percent of students needed loans that would cover barely half of the total cost. With interest rates and the median income around $32,000 a year, it would take many years for the average college graduate to make a dent in such a debt.

Instead of at least equaling the 100 percent increase in prison funding during that period, education and research aid rose less than a quarter of the prison increase. It is therefore more financially sensible to become a correctional officer straight out of high school than to spend four years going in debt to get a college degree.

The huge gap between education and prison funding is the direct result of political exploitation of the drug epidemic to convince the public that the cure is to incarcerate more offenders for lesser offenses for longer periods of time. The “war on drugs” is responsible for extreme increases in the prison population since the 1970s. About 50 percent of people in federal prisons and 20 percent of state prisoners are there for drug-related crimes. The number would be much higher if we included associated crimes committed in pursuit of acquiring drugs and paying drug debts.

Similarly, political scare tactics — “tough on crime” campaigns — brought tougher laws against both violent and property crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws. Most criminologists agree that there is little relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment, but the massive funding involved makes it extremely difficult to reverse incarceration rates. Corrections now being a multi-billion-dollar industry, many companies have intense interest in perpetuating and expanding this cash cow:

– The prison-building industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy, raking in profits with little oversight over the safety or integrity of their constructions or locations.

– Many states have outsourced prison administration totally to private prison companies, which make obscene profits by providing as little care as they can get away with, paying personnel minimum wages, feeding inmates condemned or outdated food, providing no rehabilitative services at all, and fostering an atmosphere of unrestrained brutality.

– Both private and state-run prisons have outsourced medical care to appallingly incompetent, unregulated companies that profit greatly by charging the state for substandard, often nonexistent health care.

– Similarly, and also with no oversight, predatory companies and prison administrators enter into kickback arrangements whereby both the companies and the prisons charge prisoners and their families exorbitant rates for phone service, vending machine products, clothing and “company store” commissary items for which inmates have no other source.

– Many prisons in America make huge profits by paying pennies on the dollar to inmates who are forced to work long hours producing goods for sale, but who never see a single penny, as all their pay is ostensibly dedicated to their upkeep; they are in effect and in truth, slave labor.

Common to all state, federal and private prisons is the lack of funds allocated toward rehabilitation and other deterrents to criminal activity. In fact, the opposite is true: prisons and prison policies are geared toward further increases in incarceration and recidivism rates, because that’s where the profits are.

Take a typical prisoner. We’ll call him Jim. He is a 33-year-old eight-time drug offender serving a five-year sentence for his first distribution charge. Previous charges were a variety of small-time, petty thefts, possession of minimal amounts of methamphetamine, and burglary. In and out of county jail and two stints in prison, he has never stayed out of lock-up long enough to establish any kind of positive rhythm to his life. The few times he tried to stay sober, he was turned away from even the most menial jobs. He was fired from a fast-food dispensary after two weeks for poor performance; he was fired from his only other real job for attendance issues and suspicion of stealing.

Jim grew up in a lower-class neighborhood with an absent mother and an abusive drunk for a father. His role models were his drug-dealing brother and the rough-and-tumble crowd that he tagged along with in the streets. After he failed eighth grade for lack of attendance, his brother’s buddies taught him to steal and con to finance his growing marijuana habit. At age 14 he drank too much at a party where a woman twice his age stuck a needle in his arm and gave him his first shot of meth. Two weeks later he was a full-blown addict. After his first stint in juvie and a beating by his father, Jim packed his few things and moved to the streets.

Since he was 15, Jim has spent a total of only 18 months as a free man. He has attempted drug treatments, but after his third try with no follow-up support, he relapsed again and gave up. Now, with multiple felonies, an ex-girlfriend refusing him visits with a child she claims is his, and all his bridges burned, he looks ahead into a bleak, futuristic void. Reflecting now on his many mistakes, in his heart he truly wants to start a new, productive, meaningful life. But he has no job skills, no resumé, and very few options for employment upon his release. Few if any landlords will rent to him because of his felony record. Also, he has never functioned in society as a sober, responsible adult and has no idea how to do so. Jim needs help.

But his state provides no real rehabilitation services. The few treatment programs available do not adequately reconfigure a person’s way of thinking or teach real job skills. They emphasize how bad a drug lifestyle is, which he already knew, and after telling him not to use drugs anymore, send him back on the street with a few phone numbers for charity housing. They do not teach Jim how to function in normal society, how to interact with people who have no experience with the lifestyle he came from and cannot identify with what he is going through or the fact that he is re-learning how to live.

In 1867, two prominent reformers, Enoch C. Wines and Theodore Dwight, reported to the New York State legislature, “There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline.” They recommended that reformation of offenders should be the primary aim of imprisonment. It’s 146 years later, and their voices are still unheard. The few rehabilitation programs available in some states have dwindled to almost none, as they are the first to fall to budget cuts and political “tough on crime” campaigns. How then can we expect someone like Jim to change when the system has little or no interest in helping him integrate into the world? What chance does he have?

Other countries have attempted to give people like Jim a sense of worth and equal standing in society. Amazingly, when they are treated less like animals and accorded basic respect and dignity, offenders act less like criminals and become productive, valued members of the community. A $252 million, 75-acre facility for 252 inmates in Norway offers such an approach to incarceration, with a resulting 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to some 60 percent in the U.S.:

Halden, Norway’s second largest prison, … embodies the guiding principles of the country’s penal system: that repressive prisons do not work and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. … “We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.”

….The cells rival well-appointed college dorm rooms, with their flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges. Designers chose long vertical windows for the rooms because they let in more sunlight. There are no bars. Every 10 to 12 cells share a living room and kitchen. With their stainless-steel countertops, wraparound sofas and birch-colored coffee tables, they resemble Ikea showrooms.

Halden’s greatest asset, though, may be the strong relationship between staff and inmates. …There’s plenty of enthusiasm for transforming lives. “None of us were forced to work here. We chose to,” says Charlott-Renee Sandvik Clasen, a music teacher in the prison and a member of Halden’s security-guard chorus. “Our goal is to give all the prisoners — we call them our pupils — a meaningful life inside these walls.” It’s warmth like that, not the expensive television sets, that will likely have the most lasting impact.

-From Time Magazine, Norway Builds the World’s Most Humane Prison

A meaningful life. What a concept! What a contrast to America’s race to strip people of their rights and warehouse them in brutal, comfortless compounds with no access to rehabilitative programs, no hope of improving themselves or learning how to live outside the wire.

Both the statistics and the realities of America’s prisons are an urgent message going unheard as the profits roll in, and like the banks, the prison industry becomes too big to fail.

If no other statistics can make you sit up and listen, consider this: more than 90 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons are there because they pleaded guilty — often to crimes they didn’t commit — in order to avoid a trial and a threatened harsher sentence. 

Listen, I am NOT making this up! Ninety-four percent of state prisoners and a staggering 97 percent of federal prisoners accepted plea bargains instead of going to trial. What this means is that more than 90 percent of our entire criminal justice system is no more than a mass production prison-filling scam: prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and judges openly conspire to incarcerate people wholesale, without regard for their right to trial or even the pretense of presumed innocence.

It also means that if even a fraction of people currently being coerced into plea bargains were to refuse and assert their right to trial, the entire court system would collapse:

From the point of view of American University law professor Angela J. Davis … the system of mass industrial incarceration is entirely dependent on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised their constitutional rights, then there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the flood tide of litigation.

-From Truthout, Widespread Use of Plea Bargains Plays Major Role in Mass Incarceration

Without anyone noticing, legislators loyal to corporate donors eagerly criminalize more and more activities to fill the concrete compounds spreading throughout the land. Just as eagerly, the gullible public spouts manufactured rage at the notion of “rewarding” criminals in “country club” prisons replete with luxuries like health care and showers.

Nowhere man, please listen! First of all, something you do legally today may be declared a crime tomorrow — or just as possible, you will be coerced into pleading guilty to a crime you didn’t commit — and you’ll find yourself here, behind the wire. Second, the so-called country club prisons are only for white-collar, white-skinned corporate criminals who strip-mine continents, poison the seas, alter the planet’s climate, and steal trillions of dollars: the bigger the crime, the easier the time. And third, you forget that the rest of us enduring the brunt of official sadism in America’s prisons will some day get out.

If you do not care what happens to us inside the wire, why should we care what happens to you out there?


Lyrics to Nowhere Man

Songwriters: John Lennon and Paul McCartney

He’s a real nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody.
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, please listen,
You don’t know what you’re missing,
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.
He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Nowhere Man can you see me at all?
Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, don’t worry,
Take your time, don’t hurry,
Leave it all ’till somebody else
Lends you a hand.
He’s a real Nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody.


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Distinguishing Higher Mind from Fantasy

By Nikki Pison, PhD, LMHC

“Trust your heart”… “Follow your intuition”… “Do what feels right”

I am embarrassed to admit that I have fallen prey to both giving and taking this kind of cliché advice. Don’t get me wrong, the sentiments are worthy. There is definitely a time and a place for listening to your inner voice. Still, there are unexpected pitfalls to following your intuition that should be explored to help avoid catastrophic decision-making. Here is the crux of the problem: We often subvert our truly knowing selves to what we want in the immediate moment. We experience particularly strong inclinations that can easily be confused for intuition. Instead of making a thorough investigation of where these impulses come from, we become vulnerable to selfish and childish yearnings and seek to immediately gratify ourselves. The subterfuges of our unconscious can mislead us into complacency when we should act, or risky self-sabotage when we should think more and act less.  

Because of our desire to manifest fantasies that are neither possible nor good for us, we get sucked into relationships that do not serve us, stay with incompatible partners too long, and forego hard work because we imagine that our genius is just about to be discovered. We may fall into the trap of believing that everything will all just magically work out, because it feels like it should. This can lead to an avoidance of taking necessary risks or making important decisions. Learning to trust not just your intuition, but your higher mind is a critical skill for making sure that you are the primary actor in your life, and that life is not just something that happens to you.

Do Not Follow Your Heart

There, I said it. I’m guessing nobody ever told you that before.

The heart is a very rudimentary entity, both literally and metaphorically. The physical design of the organ in our chest functions very well to steadily supply blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Although we may appreciate its life-sustaining singularity of purpose, it is not very good at much else. In the metaphoric sense, the heart has a more encompassing purpose. It represents our deepest, most fundamental need for attachment and connection. Unfortunately, that functionality is similarly limited. The need for overlap and intersection with others is so strong that it is likely to confuse our sensibilities and lead us to sustain dissatisfying relationships. We are likely to defer our own best interest to maintain even a faulty connection. Our hearts are not very good at discerning trustworthiness, judging how likely someone is to change, or convincing us to work through issues with a partner who is triggering a reaction in us.

The good and bad news for us is that, like every other organ, the heart is actually controlled in the mind. We feel someone shaking our hand because the nerves in our skin are connected to pathways in the brain that are responsible for that sensation. You may feel pain in your knee, but you are actually experiencing it in your brain. Similarly, you may feel that urgency in the pit of your stomach nudging you to try something new, but it is actually your brain manufacturing the chemicals that cause that gastric churning. The good news is that the brain is an incredibly sophisticated piece of equipment. What it is really good at is finding patterns. This capability is the reason you can read sentences even when letters are missing or transposed. The problem is that the advanced pattern recognition tendencies of the brain also make it prone to certain types of errors. Research shows that the mind’s tendency to “fill in” missing information leads us to see things that are not there, remember things with a high degree of inaccuracy, and can even lead to creating entirely false memories.

We also ignore incredibly obvious information when we are paying attention to something else. A study out of Harvard asked participants to watch a video of people playing basketball and count how many times the ball was passed between players. The researchers found that while participants were engaged in that counting activity, they were completely unaware of an actor in a gorilla suit walking back and forth across the screen. Our minds block out what it considers non-essential, even when it is as blatant as a gorilla. Humans are very unreliable witnesses because our memories are largely shaped by what we have been told happened and by our expectations and assumptions. The bad news is that because the heart is really in the mind, the heart is similarly fallible. We see what we want to see. We feel what we expect to feel or what our emotional histories have taught us to feel rather than what the reality of the situation requires. This is why couples have different accounts of the same argument and why it is so easy to injure someone without ever intending it. The smallest slight feels much more intense to one who has experienced a thousand previous cuts.

So why, exactly, should we trust ourselves? Why, indeed, should we listen to ourselves or anyone else for that matter? Despite the common perceptual errors we make, in general our brains are very good at making correct decisions. We balance our bodies and objects all day long, but only really think about our coordination when we trip on a step or drop something. At those times, we insist we are clumsy, although our balance has functioned in countless ways for hours on end with no errors. Unfortunately for us, our brains have developed to pay more attention to failure than success. We recall the times that have caused us pain because they are more emotionally salient, and paying attention to what may hurt us contributes to our survival in an evolutionary sense. While this feature of the brain was designed for attending to critical incidents that can enhance our survival, it gets applied to all aspects of our functioning, because the brain is, above all else, a pattern recognition device. As a result, all of the times we change lanes at the grocery store and then get stuck behind someone counting coupons becomes solidified in our mind. It is not as emotionally important to us to recall the countless times we switch lanes while driving and successfully move along faster. Instead, we only recall when we change lanes and get stuck in traffic.

The same principle applies to when we make other more meaningful decisions in our lives. It is much scarier and more painful to change course and find ourselves in the wrong lane. Because of this, many of us stay put, succumbing to the fear that the second we take action, the universe will swoop in and cause a coupon cutter to emerge in front of us. We experience the negative more strongly, and this gives the illusion that we are failing more than we are and that taking action is riskier than it actually is. We hang on to these small failures, which overshadow all of the countless good choices and sound judgments that we make every day, and we are likely to say, “This ALWAYS happens to me.” This is not realistic, given the small proportion of failure we actually experience, but we recall it emotionally as if it is a fundamental truth of the universe that speaks to our intrinsic worth. Ironically, the mechanism in the brain that promotes our survival by keeping us alert to danger and negative aspects of our environment is also the aspect that can cause the most disturbance in our sense of self.

The pitfalls that most frequently undermine the quality of our experience are something I like to call the three “F-Words” of our thinking behavior:

F-Word # 1: Feelings

Feelings are not facts, but they sure feel true and we sure treat them like they are true. One of the most troubling errors we make is that we are prone to see our negative impressions as the whole truth. We mistake the sense we have that things always go wrong, that we always get stuck in the wrong lane, as a fundamental truth of the universe. By regularly mistaking our feelings for facts, if we feel incompetent or unlovable, that becomes an inarguable truth in our minds that cannot be remedied by any amount of evidence. This basic cognitive error, or mistake in processing information, factors significantly in why many people end up with significant emotional problems. Hampered by our baggage about who we are and what we deserve, often shaped by childhood messages or other old emotional wounds, we listen to our feelings instead of trusting the reality before us. This can lead to an extraordinarily biased self-appraisal that is geared toward negative interpretations and to dissatisfying or naïve life choices.

F-Word # 2: Fantasies

No, we’re not talking fishnets here, people. Fantasies refer to our overzealous brain processing anytime we manufacture illusions in order to attempt to meet deep emotional needs. Our brain not only leads us to negatively skewed interpretations of our success-to-failure ratios, but then bolsters our failing self-worth by generating imaginary successes. Whereas we may cling to the negative as a way to justify not taking appropriate and needed actions in our lives, we can also invent fantasies to justify taking inappropriate actions. Because we have been brainwashed in this culture to “do what feels right” we can use that logic to rationalize all kinds of deleterious choices. For instance, what if it feels right to me, but hurts my partner or my children? What if it feels right to me, but puts me into a bad financial position? What if I am really, truly gratified, even if it is only temporarily, by something that is inherently bad for me or those around me?

One part of becoming an adult is letting go of immature fantasies. My friends who are musicians in their forties and fifties play music out of the sheer joy that activity still holds for them, not because they have illusions about becoming rock icons. Similarly, if you can make a living doing what you love, more power to you. If you have a stable job and a family to support, though, it might be unwise to “follow your heart” and quit your job, spurred on by the fantasy that you will support yourself weaving potholders, even if you really, really, really like potholders.

We do the same things with relationships. The dearth of successful long-term committed relationships can be partially explained by many who succumb to the fantasy that they would not have the current struggles with a new partner. Little do they realize that the seductive fiction of starting over with someone new is often a disguise for avoiding conflict, and that true intimacy arises from resolving conflict with a trusted partner. They are likely to be doomed to re-create and re-experience the same romantic drama and trauma over and over again until they are willing to sit with themselves and work through their issues with one partner who accepts them. That is a terrifying concept, and it is much more appealing and immediately satisfying to think of starting over fresh with someone who has never seen you at your worst.

Alternately, many people have the opposite problem and stay with incompatible partners long past when it is beneficial to anyone involved. They experience the intense fear that changing lanes in their love life will cause a roadblock to appear ahead, or even worse, will leave them all alone forever. They settle for mediocre attachment because they either A) believe the fantasy that their partner will change or B) believe the fantasy that if they change something and take a risk that they will be doomed to failure and loneliness. The same forces are at work with other important life decisions when action is taken without regard to consequence, or when fear immobilizes someone who desperately needs to act. Which brings us to our final “F” word:

F-Word # 3: Fear

Has anyone ever told you that you have a fear of success? What poppycock! I had a classmate in eighth grade who was not a stellar student. He was repeating a grade for the third time. I used to be baffled by his behavior when we would take a test in class. He would fold his arms and sit back in his chair, not even looking at or attempting to take the test for the entire period. Now I understand that it was less painful to him to get a zero than to try to take the test and get half the answers wrong. If we try and fail, like the lane changer, this emotional experience can be almost unbearable. If we never try at all, however, we are in control of our failure. It is predictable and we can always say, “Well, I didn’t really try.” I have come to realize that none of us are really afraid of success; we are afraid of trying and failing.

If we try and succeed, well that is almost as bad as trying and failing, because with success comes added work, added responsibility, and added pressure to succeed again. Therefore, we do fear success in the sense that it may be even more overwhelming than failure, because success opens you up for more opportunities for failure in the future. Many attempts at self-sabotage can be viewed in this light. Holding the belief that eventually I will screw it up, I might as well do it right now. Then I’m in control of destroying the good things that are happening to me rather than having to have the painful experience of having those things taken away from me when I inevitably mess up. The destructive fantasy in this picture is “Failure always happens to me.” This is not an actual fact, but is a remnant shaped by our attention to the negative that informs how we feel about things going wrong in our life, since it is the things that do not work out that are the most present in our minds and the most easily recalled when we are trying to make decisions about the future.

The three “F-Words” in our thinking can be restrictive at best or dangerously self-destructive at worst. Distinguishing how to handle and divert these impulses is the task of the Higher Mind.

So, what exactly is the Higher Mind? The Higher Mind is greater than the fleeting instincts, impressions, and fantasies that we often self-indulgently label our “intuition.” At one end of the spectrum, we are seduced by childish longings and make terrible decisions that may fulfill our needs in the moment but do not ultimately help us. At the other end of the spectrum, we pay so much attention to negative fantasies of what might happen that we become too paralyzed by fear of failure to take actions and participate fully in our own lives. We can battle these natural, but unhelpful, functions of our brain by attending to our Higher Mind. The Higher Mind is perfectly neutral. It is not burdened with painful emotional resonance, fear, or a dangerous drive toward wish-fulfillment. It is not a feature of the brain, but rather a process of thoughtful soul-searching that can lead to knowing what to do. The Higher Mind tells us not to do what feels right in the moment, but to do what actually is right.

There is no current scientific formula for achieving Higher Mind, but there are many useful strategies. Here are three that I have found personally useful:

  1. Consult

We are incredibly biased by our past experiences. Situations which baffle us are often plainly solvable from the outside. The only way to battle the distortions and cognitive errors of the mind is to consult with others. Our secret wishes and negative distortions become veritable monstrosities if we do not take advantage of the universal mirror that we have in others. Consulting with those we trust unfailingly reflects back to us those things we can’t see for ourselves. Be careful who you select to trust with your inner process. Try not to fall into the trap of conversing with someone who may very well be close to your heart, but who has their own agenda for your behavior. It is generally not safe to reveal your inner process to someone whom you have experienced as judgmental or critical.

  1. Listen for Truth

When you are speaking with others, listen to the words that are used, and listen for when something “rings with truth.” This is your brain’s way of telling you that it has detected a pattern that may not be conscious, but that resonates with some aspect of your personal truth. Listen for words that come up frequently. Some might argue that this is not a “coincidence” but some kind of universal or divine intervention. Another way to look at this is that this is evidence that your Higher Mind is picking up on a pattern that you can’t consciously detect. Since the majority of brain processing and functioning is unconscious, you can develop the trust that your brain is actually more aware of things than you have given it credit for.

You can also listen to your body. Certain emotional responses feel the same in the body. Fear and sexual arousal can cause similar physiological reactions, for instance, which can lead to unfortunate misinterpretations. Anxiety and excitement are also confusing. We often spend so much time avoiding anxiety that we don’t listen to what it is trying to tell us and we miss opportunities to let it help guide our behavior. Anxiety is the brain’s way of telling us that it has recognized a pattern. There is good anxiety and bad anxiety. Good anxiety lets us know that something important is happening and that we need to pay attention and possibly take action. Bad anxiety occurs when we are dwelling on negative stuff that has already happened, or negative stuff that has not happened yet and will likely never happen, or when we are doing something we really have no business doing. We need to learn to tolerate the good anxiety if we hope to ever make meaningful changes in our lives because it is almost impossible to be really productive without having some good anxiety pushing us forward. However, we also need to listen to when our bodies tell us that we are in the wrong place or wrong situation, even if it is only in our minds, and that we need to change some behavior, even if it is only thinking behavior that needs to change. If we are wracked with the bad type of anxiety, we are probably thinking wrong.

Now, many could argue that thinking is not a behavior because we can’t see and measure it. This perspective becomes less persuasive as technologies for measuring brain activity become more advanced, and researchers are able to track the places in the brain where thinking goes wrong. Evidence is also accruing for the idea that we have much more control over our thinking than we usually believe, and that changing our own thinking behavior holds the key to changing our emotional experience of the world.

  1. Do the Next Right Thing

When all else fails, it is hard to go wrong by doing the next right thing. How do we know what is the next right thing? Often we can figure it out by figuring out what it is NOT. The next right thing is not giving in to whatever immediate compulsion overtakes us, whether it’s eating a sleeve of cookies or picking up the phone to dial an ex. It is not turning on the TV instead of conversing with a spouse or reading to a child. It is not rushing through a conversation with someone who really wants your attention because you have other priorities. It is not rushing out to buy more, drink more, or do more. Doing nothing is often the next right thing.

The Next Right Thing has no drama. It is not dazzling or riveting and not all that sexy… at first. It is creating space for pure, uneventful connection with others, or lingering over a cup of coffee for uneventful reflection alone. Sometimes doing the dishes or sleeping on a problem is the next right thing. Often, an apology or just reaching out to support someone else is right. It can be picking up a piece of garbage that is not even yours, or spending an extra five minutes with someone who needs you (you really can spare that five minutes, I know you can). The non-events of our lives fill up 99% of our time, so paying close attention to how we are spending that time is critical for developing the patience and the stamina for higher-minded living. We are rewarded by a sense of mastery, a sense that life is not always so urgent, that what happens in every moment is precious.


In that peace and absence of drama, beautiful priceless relationships unfold, including a deeply trusting relationship with ourselves. Now, I’m not one of those people who will tell you that you need to love yourself before you can let someone else love you. To the contrary, we are truly lovable to ourselves when we find genuine connectedness with others, when we let others in and make space for their foibles, when we show them ours and they show us theirs. That can’t ever transpire until we trust others, listen to them, and do the right things in our lives and relationships.  And then, trust me, the right thing can be very, very sexy indeed.



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Spirit Bear Listening

By Bev Dulis

I didn’t start the year — or even the summer — thinking about bears. It’s been a year of big, hard changes for me, and I’ve been learning that my heart is the one voice I need to listen to. While focusing attention on my heart, I have been surprised to hear other voices as well. Some of those have been bears’.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

This summer I suddenly found myself needing to go look for Spirit Bears, a rare type of black bear with a white coat, found only on the northern coast of British Columbia. The internet quickly set me straight on where these bears live, and helped me reserve the last available bunk on a sailboat traveling through their territory, the last motel rooms in two key stopover points, and a seat on the final ferry run of the season that would connect me with the charter boat.

Okay, I got it — one of those Meant-To-Be trips. I later found out that most of my fellow travelers had reserved two years in advance, and that the skipper and his partner had debated whether they would even book my cramped bunk that trip. It seemed the bears were in charge, adding me to this trip.

I would spend a week cruising toward a potential — not guaranteed — sighting. The usual words describing the Spirit Bear, in addition to rare, are “shy” and “elusive”.

Spirit Bears live in a small area on the west coast of Canada that encompasses the largest stretch of coastal temperate rainforest left in the world. The islands and rugged coast go by the name Great Bear Rainforest. The waters and land there are full of life: shellfish, halibut, seaweed, salmon coming home to spawn and die; seals, porpoises, humpback whales, sea lions; bald eagles, sea birds, water birds and gulls; on land — native peoples, black, white and grizzly bears, wolves, river otters, deer; and on the water — Canadian fishing boats and those traveling to and from Alaska, a few ecotourism boats, BC and Alaska ferries, and immense seasonal cruise ships.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

It’s a lush ecosystem, on land and in the water, and a busy marine highway.

I chose the slow route north over a quick flight — a ferry to Vancouver Island, followed by a long drive. The last part of my approach was a 13-hour trip on a small BC ferry nicknamed the Shoebox, running part way up the coast. I shared the Shoebox run with a handful of tourists and a large number of Canadian First Nations people.

The purser addressed me by name at one point, and told me I only had to show my passport once getting off, instead of the usual three times. I was distinctive as the only American woman traveling solo.

I spent time chatting with Michael, the harbor master at Bella Bella, who explained this excess bureaucracy in northern ferry travel. A few years back, the BC ferry Queen of the North failed to make a sharp turn on a normal run, smacked into a rock, and sank within two hours. The Gitga’at peoples north of Bella Bella came out in small boats, at night in bad weather, and saved all but two of the passengers and crew. Human error was blamed for the accident and regulations had proliferated afterwards.

Michael also introduced me to the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline project that would run from Alberta and end at Kitimat, up a long inlet from the bear islands I was heading for. 

At Kitimat, the crude oil would be loaded onto supertankers to thread their way east-west — not the usual north-south passage — in any weather and seas, through the tightly clustered islands that make up the Great Bear Rainforest. The oil would fetch a higher price in Asia. Huge tankers would run right beside the wreck of the local ferry, which is still leaking fuel, and right beside the rock that sank it. One small mistake could easily release millions of barrels of caustic tar sands oil, mixed with solvents to help it flow through the pipeline. A single accident would cause untold damage to the pristine wild coast, and all the human and animal life that depends on its well-being to survive.

Finally, Michael gestured to a small cluster of Heiltsuk salmon boats waiting to unload at the processing plant, as we pulled in to dock at Bella Bella. The Heiltsuk people, like all the native peoples of the Inside Passage, depend on the sea for their food, their income, and their transportation. None of them like the tanker project.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

The next morning I boarded a sailboat headed north to bear country. There were 11 of us, mostly Canadian with a smattering of other nationalities. We had all come long distances hoping to see a Spirit Bear, understanding we might have come a long way for nothing. The streams might be too dry for salmon, the numbers and timing of salmon returning to spawn are never predictable, and the Spirit Bears are the least predictable of all. But in some way we had all heard the bears call, and we came.

Maybe it was the magic of the place, or the high ratio of other large mammals to humans. As our group traveled through the islands, I was amazed to develop an ear for different species having distinct pitches — the low hum of the humpback whales, and a slightly higher pitch for the sea wolves we never saw. Grizzlies had a middle pitch signaling their presence, and black bear came through higher yet.

At the top of the scale, Spirit Bears sang with the voice of a mezzo soprano alternating with a clear crystal ping. As we approached the small island where we hoped to see Spirit Bears, the high voices grew excited, chattering like The Chipmunks. The white bears were very pleased our group was coming to see them.

I had the usual human expectation that my trip was about me — seeing the bears would heal me and change me. At the very least I would be struck with awe by the experience. While all of that certainly happened, it seemed the bears had called us because they wanted us to come, for their sake.

In the morning we went ashore in full rain gear and knee-high rubber boots. The rains had started the night before, which was good news for the salmon runs. We carried thermoses of hot drinks and plastic covers for our cameras.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

As we were dropping down the trail toward a creek we came upon a white bear in the water right in front of us. He was moving slowly upstream, watching for salmon. An older male with a gimpy leg, he was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen — dripping wet from the rain and the stream, his coat ivory-colored with an overlay of orange from the crown of his head down past his shoulders.

Our bear moved slowly but steadily, like a furry all-terrain vehicle, as he climbed over and under, and traveled down, huge logs that crisscrossed the stream. He mounted large rocks in the water, to look for salmon sitting still in pools — much like a circus bear perching on a ball. He plunged at top speed on a fish — and missed. He picked a dying salmon from the water and chewed on it a while.

He eventually crossed a log in the distance and disappeared. After getting our breath back, with lots of excited human chatter, we settled in to wait, hoping that wouldn’t be our only sighting of the trip.

Our bear returned after a bit, working his way back down the stream. He cut into the woods as he got closer to us, then came back out on the bank beside a partly eaten fish. He settled down less than 25 feet away, directly in front of us, and made repeated eye contact while he delicately ate the rest of the fish. Like a house cat, he cleaned flesh off organs he then spat out. When there was nothing left to eat, he headed back into the woods for a nap. Hours later he came back out for one last look at us, then made his way downstream and out of sight. I had a clear knowing we’d see him again the next day.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

Over the next couple of days we spent more time with our first bear, and met one or two other Spirit Bears and several black bears — big, glorious bears pouncing on salmon with huge splashes, and carrying them off into the brush to eat them. They reappeared with paws and muzzles smeared with blood, ready to grab the next fish.

I heard a clear bear request to act as a spotter, since we spent most of our time on a platform high above the stream. I could point out salmon, but not how deep the pool was or how easy it would be for the fish to swim away, or whether a bear could stay invisible until the final lunge. I was useless as a fishing aide, understanding none of the key bear concerns, and they didn’t ask again.

The bears took salad breaks of skunk cabbage, and dug in the mud to return with blackened faces. They shook off rain and stream water like huge dogs. We watched them, photographed them, and videoed them, for hours. One came within 10 feet of us, on the same side of the stream, constantly glancing at us. Our guide gently encouraged him to keep moving. Another pooped right in front of us, totally relaxed and trusting. Sometimes there were other human groups nearby. The bears repeatedly cut away from the stream into the brush and forest in front of them, to reappear in the clear on the bank in front of us.

The bears not only trusted us, they liked us.

Eventually the last bear moved out of sight downstream, we were out of time, and we had to leave. Back on the boat I kept saying, “The bears liked us!” A European woman on the boat suggested in halting English that was because we showed them respect.

Photo by Bev Dulis.

Respect is a key factor, for sure. The oil companies don’t respect the bears, or the whales, or the native peoples.

Listening is another key. Listening and respect go together, whether we’re listening to our own hearts, or people we care about, or people and beings a little further afield — like Spirit Bears in the Great Bear Rainforest. I heard the bears call me, and I came. Much of what I heard from the bears I don’t pretend to understand, and that’s just fine. But I kept listening, without trying to force a translation, or some human meaning, onto what was coming through. Listening, allowing, giving them space, being with them in total awe and delight — maybe that’s what really mattered. Maybe that’s why the bears liked us.

To learn more about the Great Bear Rainforest and the threats facing it, visit www.pacificwild.org or www.sierraclub.bc.ca.

Photo by Bev Dulis.


About the author
Before this trip, Bev Dulis had no special relationship with bears. The one time she got close to a cub up a tree, bleating for its mama, she high-tailed it out of there. Bev has contributed several underwater photos to Planet Waves, but creaky joints are causing her to rethink northern scuba diving. Shooting in downpours in the rainforest is her way of transitioning to dry photography.

www.waterworksdesign.net and www.bdulisphotography.com


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Libran Listening

By Suzana Da Costa

Just as Libra bridges the gap between discerning Virgo and all-or-nothing Scorpio, it’s through listening that we refine and define ourselves into a truer, more authentic version of who we are. Libra, the midpoint of the zodiac, enables us to bridge the integrity of who we are as individuals to the outside world and what is beyond our control, just as listening provides access to the information that we need to help us to navigate in our lives.

This process of navigation can be exacting and difficult to achieve, and relates in many ways to the decision-making process that ticks within each of us when we express our own Libran qualities. Nobody knows better than a Libra that everything we choose in our lives rests on the fulcrum point of a decision, and every decision holds the opportunity to transform. No matter how small the issue may be, Librans know that it will either affirm who they are and what they stand for by re-enforcing what they know, feel and believe to be true…or not.

It’s no wonder so many of us are happy to let others make decisions for us and run around with our hands over our ears: listening requires great strength of character. To listen is to open yourself up to what is outside of your current paradigm, to be vulnerable and willing to be susceptible to what is outside of your known self, your identity.

However, if we can uphold the higher octaves of expression offered to us by Venus (Libra’s ruler) and Saturn (Libra’s exaltation), then we’re granted the ability to listen and relate to the world around us deeply and gracefully, much like a tree that ‘listens’ to the wind by bowing yet remaining steady.

It’s through the influence of Venus that we’re provided with the desire to, as well as the capacity for, relating, just as it’s through listening that we accommodate others. This is something that Libra is naturally attracted to, and one of the reasons why this is the sign of the diplomat, counselor and mediator — in the act of listening to another person, we’re privileged with the gift of holding and integrating a piece of that other person, that other individual. Here is where a crucial decision is made in our relation to others and the world outside us.

If we choose to accept what is offered, we’ve made a connection and supported it, deepening the partner end of the spectrum because we’ve made room within ourselves for another person’s truth. However, it’s clear that there will be a challenge here, especially if what is offered challenges our own truth. How willing are we to adjust and make space, or how willing are we to resist and hold our ground?

The very clear presence or lack of Saturn operating in an individual identifies those Librans who are rooted and secure in themselves and those who are not. Without Saturn’s influence, too much accommodation is allowed; a person will change his mind on a dime and follow anyone who tells him or her something that they want to hear. Without solid grounding of themselves, they’ll happily give themselves away, providing no resistance to what the person (or the world) before them proposes. This allows them to escape the responsibility of deciding and also allows them the luxury of being lazy (a shadow trait contributed by Venus).

Without the grounding influence of Saturn on Libra’s airy nature, we don’t have the integrity required for a deep connection with others and ourselves, and because of this we’re denied the opportunity to connect with others and to allow their influence to transform us. By not accepting the gravity and weight Saturn lends us, we’re too buoyant to delve deeper and life continues to deliver what we already know. Our current paradigm never shifts and we just wind up being surrounded by empty chatter.

However, for those individuals who are brave explorers and are up for the challenges of Saturn, the capacity for relating is strengthened and it becomes more focused and precise. There is no need to give oneself up for another if we can exercise control and balance in light of new information. If we can maintain a state of vigilant and open attention, hold a space without resistance that is solid, where we are still and steady in mind, body and soul, then true listening can occur.

In between resistance and acceptance is a fulcrum point that allows for two opposing points of expression, and that’s where Libra wants to live all the time. It’s in that precious slice of time when self-actualization has occurred and all the information inside and outside of us is balanced and in harmony. We feel secure and know what is true and false for us.

Unfortunately, nobody gets to experience this beautiful place for very long. If we really pay attention to the worlds inside and outside of ourselves, we know we’re dynamic and constantly changing, and that we live in a world that is also in constant motion. We’re required to process that information to survive and adapt.

Just like the motion of the scales that balances itself to find that fulcrum point, what makes Libra functional is not the end result of the weighing (stasis), but the dynamic give-and-take that is necessary to come to that point. It’s in that very act that we find a great vulnerability, for we are exposing ourselves to information that may change the course of our direction.

However frightening this may be, it’s as necessary for us in our process of self-definition and self-actualization as it is for the snake to shed its old skin. We need to leap across the unknown in order to achieve a new level of understanding and knowing.

In our willingness to listen, as well as our responsibility to exercise discrimination in what we accept, we call forth our own personal truth. This is what ultimately allows us to evolve and grow into more authentic versions of ourselves. It provides us with a space to define our deepest convictions, but also allows us to keep our hearts open to others; it’s what we use to lead us to our next adventure and what equips us to overcome the challenges we will encounter. Listening is what allows us to bridge the gap between between knowing and unknowing, truth and lies, rejection and acceptance; peace and war. It’s the bridge that connects us all.


About the author
Suzana Da Costa is an emerging healer, currently practicing astrology and massage
therapy in Montreal, Canada. She especially enjoys supporting others during periods of transition and change. She can be reached at suzana.heartstar@gmail.com for consults or writing requests.


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The Silence Between the Words

By Janey McCarthy

Listening — attentively, respectfully, and open-heartedly — establishes an honest connection with another in the present moment, when we choose to authentically express who we really are.

Me in a state of silent exclusive receptivity, listening. You in a place of sharing, speaking your gift of personal expression. As a species, we all long to be ‘heard’. Seen. Acknowledged. Valued for all that we uniquely are.

In the silence between our words, have we actually created an opportunity for much more than simply an exchange of ideas?

In these inaudible moments our nonverbal listening senses hear much more than is being said. We intuitively accumulate a myriad of impressions through touch, sight, sound, smell and taste, now consciously monitoring what form, quality and quantity of input will be selectively encoded and responded to.

We’ve all experienced this multi-dimensionality during interpersonal connections, and benefitted from the increased depth of conversational understanding we derive, similar to corresponding via email versus communicating in person.

Counterintuitively, this enhanced awareness of our own body’s responses and attunement to the outer world doesn’t make the experience more intense, uncomfortable or unwieldy. Instead, we feel more relaxed, centered, intertwined with “the other”, as if in some interlaced tandem dance movement.

Although the interactive speaking-listening cycle is perceived as an enormous air-time consumer, statistically it is our nonverbal exchange which repeatedly and more reliably gets “heard”.  According to researchers between 55 percent and 93 percent of performance and communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues.

What arises in these self-muted moments is a reunion with our true selves, as we expand our view beyond how we’re being received or relatively valued, to being fully engaged with all our senses, feelings and surroundings, prepared to listen to ourselves.

As individuals in a vast human collective we can feel so anonymous, unrecognized, disregarded, and starved for attention, often exacerbating how much we talk versus how well we listen…especially to our own inner voice.

So who’s not listening to whom?

All one needs to do is look at the voluminous number of blogs, spawned by an insatiable desire for individuals to attract collective attention, to be heard. I believe this unfulfilled need emanates from our projection of not listening to (or valuing) ourselves, sadly reflecting back to us a lack of personal self-worth. This has been especially true of women, who for centuries have been bought, sold and traded as possessions, re-enforcing the message of human devaluation, feeding this insecurity.

At this turbulent juncture in human evolution a pertinent question emerges:

Can we choose to do this for ourselves, to begin compassionately and actively listening to that unrelenting inner voice, imploring us to get what we need? To express who we really are? To trust our feelings, sensations, and intuitions, and ask for what we want, need, and desire?

We watch ourselves repeatedly (over)invest emotionally, physically, financially, intellectually, and spiritually, in relationships with others … because the human need and experience of deep, loving, connectedness brings meaningfulness, passion and purpose into our lives.

So then why are we not as masterful at the art of listening to ourselves? Especially since it appears we have already acquired this skill set when it comes to being in relationship with another. What personal beliefs might conflict with the instinctual desire to get our own needs met?

Belief systems are inherited and learned. Some are borne out of ancestral teachings, societal mores, or religious and national laws, often feeding our insecurities rather than anchoring our sense of self-worth. Historically, and currently, we observe populations as more easily controlled if they hold self-perceptions of being undervalued or made to feel disempowered, spiritually weakened, or denied the freedom to individuate.

So, what commonly held beliefs might habituate and reinforce our inability to ‘listen’ to our own inner voice?

  • It is ‘better to give (our attention to another) than to receive (attention from ourselves)’. Haven’t we been taught it is shameful to prioritize our own needs over others?
  • We don’t deserve to be happy. Weren’t we born with original sin? Hasn’t it been our historical collective path, to be-in-suffering, ever since we equated the archetype of The Martyr to being ‘almost’ divine?
  • It would be too demoralizing to ask for what we wanted only to discover how self-denying we can be to ourselves. Would we continue to ignore our needs in favor of others’ demands on us?
  • We don’t have the courage to listen to what we silently tell ourselves we need and then actually make the effort to invest in ourselves to get it. Can we trust ourselves to do what it takes to get our needs met? Will we dependably show up for ourselves as we do for others?

When will it be your time to decide to make this commitment to yourself? That you will no longer be a slave to your behavioral past, or a prisoner of someone else’s dream or dictate of what your future must become?

The act of listening to ourselves, and becoming personally responsible for getting our needs met, establishes a foundational platform of safety and trustworthiness, where our emotions find their voice. Only when we listen will we each stop struggling with ‘the other’ for prominence, dominance and control over our own lives, because we will have ceased struggling with ourselves.


About the author
1998 was a life-altering year for Janey C. McCarthy. She became a professional Jungian Karmic astrologer, after enjoying 25 years in IT, three in human resources and organizational development, and five in art education. Out of her new world emerged a passion to help clients bridge their spiritual and material worlds, listening to their own stories told through the ancient archetypal language of astrology and sacred geometry. Janey is originally from Philadelphia, though she has chosen to build her ‘nest’, for now, in the Baltimore area with her soul mate and two kitties.


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Culture of Conversation

By Calvin Hutcheon

America, theoretically, was built around conversation, the stuff of democracy, yet today we seem to be struggling when it comes to listening. These last four years have been characterized by partisan squabbling. Many times it looks as if the only thing that can be agreed upon is that there will be no agreement. Far too much energy is put into fighting along the party lines, as the push to keep Susan Rice from being appointed Secretary of State demonstrated.

Unfortunately, this has become normal. Conversation no longer characterizes the climate of American politics. Could this, in the end, be a problem that has less to do with stubborn individuals and more with a system that can’t adapt to the changing needs of the country?

While many want to have bipartisan conversation and many want to have a more collegial atmosphere, there are no longer the social guidelines or expectations in Washington that facilitated the camaraderie that were present only a few decades ago. No longer are there shared dinners between both Democrats and Republicans and no longer is there a serious effort to get to know colleagues across the ideological isle. There are fewer opportunities for interaction and there is no longer a culture of protocol in which to approach those not in your party. This normlessness naturally makes it difficult to function, but that’s not the only weight on the backs of senators.

They must reconcile traditional ideals with the expectations of today. This is no easy feat, partially because American values, such as freedom and self-determination, as well as representation in government, are open to interpretation and the whims of changing times. Expectations are imposed not only by voters, but by party guidelines and the influence of special interest groups along with lobbyists. While this stalemate has been bewailed by the media, there has been very little examination of what has caused it.

Institutions are slow to adapt. With change being fueled by advancing technology, governing bodies are struggling more and more to keep up. Normal is shifting so quickly, the political culture is struggling to remold itself. Congressional dysfunction is a symptom.

Alienation and division within politics and within American culture is a sign. While political bodies have always struggled to keep up with the movements of the times, the disconnect today is more pronounced and will continue to lag. As society, technology and attitudes continue to progress, institutions will fall further behind, not able to change quickly enough. Empires that cannot adapt shatter; institutions that cannot evolve split at the seams.

Social norms are the glue that holds a society together. They are the unspoken rules that shape the way we interact. As many old guidelines, such as slavery and sexism, have fallen out of fashion there is an opportunity to create new ones. Recognizing that we are subject to these unspoken rules could allow us to use them to our advantage, creating a more just and fluent society.

Right now, though, we are building a culture of anomie. Good examples of this attitude are: the movements to secede from the U.S., the Tea Party and the impeach Obama movement. At a time when conversation is desperately needed, by the looks of it, America is headed in the opposite direction.

Like the halls of Congress, my grandparents’ cul de sac faces many of the same challenges: difficulty fostering community and conversation. Though there have been some attempts to rectify this, such as the construction of small parks and a “community center,” they don’t appear to be working.

Planned communities are not meeting needs, either. Many of the people who live in these places are very busy, with both heads of household working. There is little time for socialization with their neighbors, let alone with their own families, yet there is the assumption that people will find the time to talk, be it over the garden fence, on the front porch, or in the parlors of neighbors.

This is unrealistic. Community is vital and I believe we must adapt so as to balance the obligations of work with the potential support of a neighborhood, but how can this be done?

Communities are unfortunately not built; they arise organically, from every conversation, discussion and interaction. So no matter how many parks are laid out, there will not be an underlying change without individuals conferencing with one another. However, the subdivision does offer an unusual opportunity: an equal playing field from which to create a community.

Uniform housing and unexceptionalism have, for the denizens of the cul de sac, created a classless pocket. There are very few dividing factors in these ironically communistic places. This lack of stratification, polarization, partisanship and generally strong emotions would make it an ideal nest for a young, earnest community.

Creating a culture of conversation is a balance, of course. It must arise organically, yet with goals in mind. The people in it must be motivated by each other (it helps when the group is fairly small — below 200 people — one of the reasons neighborhoods are ideal for its birth) and open and respectful of ideas put forward. This town hall meeting-style layout allows the best ideas to be heard and promoted, and the combined brain power of the group to be utilized. More dynamic solutions to local problems can be agreed upon in this fashion.

Occupy Wall Street has been a sterling example of this. The movement was a success, if only for a short time, not because it had uniform demands or a crystal clear goal, but because it didn’t. Zuccotti Park was a centerpiece of conversation. Ideas were floated and discussed, and issues brought up. No one claimed to have the solution, but the consensus was that together, we could find it, through listening to one another.

While the world may be confusing, with technology making interactions more distant; while our lives remain hectic and the whole current political climate may seem discouraging, one simple act can counteract that: talk with your neighbors, council with your friends. Have lunch under a tree and have a friendly discussion.

We can decide what is important to us. We can decide how to define our social guidelines. Why not make honest, down-to-earth listening a prominent feature in the future we are building? Slowly but surely, this mindset can permeate all walks of life. If a culture of conversation can become part of everyday life, it will, in turn, become part of everyday governance.

Take the first step. Listen to what your friends, family, co-workers and neighbors have to say. Create a culture of conversation within your own household, and within your own neighborhood. We have an amazing opportunity here, to create customs for good in our ever-changing world. We are the elements of change and the time is upon us.


About the author
Calvin Hutcheon is eighteen years old, and spent a lot of his youth abroad — living almost three years in the Indian sub-continent. In the past year or so he’s been traveling in the U.S., rediscovering his home country. While on Vashon Island, Washington, he founded the Insomniac Storytelling Society, a group that celebrates myth, magic, rhyme and improvisation.


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Listen to Your Heart

by Liliane Mavridara

“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.”
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?” the boy asked.
“Because wherever your heart is, that is where you will find your treasure.”
From “The Alchemist”, by Paulo Coelho

I was introduced to The Alchemist in my mid-twenties during a full moon celebration on a Greek island. It became my bible, a book I kept by my bedside for years as I started listening to my heart and its prompts, that many times seemed illogical, crazy and were asking me to do things I was not willing to.

I remember waking up one morning, soon after I had read the book for the first time, during my usual 7-day-a-week/17-hour-a-day workweek, not being able to move my neck: an “unexplainable” condition that had me wearing a neck cast and going through physical therapy for more than two months. This was the first wake-up call to something greater that was at play in my life, something I had forgotten over the years because it was not convenient to listen to.

Now, almost 17 years later, I’ve learned what it takes to listen and trust one’s heart, a process that initiates the Hero/Heroine’s journey. Going through such experiences builds character and courage, eventually setting the stage to lead by example and inspire others by what is possible. The challenge comes when listening to your heart requires you to go against others’ expectations and societal norms.

In my work with women’s empowerment, I have found that for many, even if they have a vision and want to make a difference, they get into situations (primarily in intimate relationships) where they either question or stop listening to their heart and the truth it holds. They fall into roles and societal expectations of who/what they should be as mothers, daughters, wives, executives, and over time listening becomes a nightmare.

This is primarily so because listening to their intuition may mean that they will make someone feel uncomfortable or disappointed, or that they may have to leave a job, a marriage, a familiar situation or location. However, the refusal to listen inwardly (whether conscious or not) does and will manifest in one way or another outwardly. It may be experienced as inner conflict and turmoil that leads to sleeplessness, depression, indifference, or physical symptoms like migraines or my “inexplicable” neck condition. Or, it may manifest as crises in relationships, marriage, or work. We are one person in all areas of our lives and when one area is not fulfilling or in harmony, i.e., the intimate relationship, very soon that sadness or emptiness will affect another area.

The more you listen, follow and explore where your longings lead you, the more you get to know about yourself and what stirs you up, what inspires you, what makes you grow and reach for more. There is an inherent freedom and expansiveness in how you think and feel when you start breaking away from what others say or do, and start listening to the voice within. Disharmony will fade away.

Furthermore, when you learn to fine-tune to that inner voice with courage and responsibility, you start listening to the “soul of the world”, as The Alchemist says. Your life and work become aligned with it and a sense of effortlessness and easy flow — feeling like you are exactly where you need to be or doing what you are supposed to be doing — become the norm of daily living. Even when there are challenges, you tend to navigate them with a sense of knowing and inner peace.

How do you listen? How do you learn to decipher the words, the sounds, the signs no matter how subtle they may be? How do you know it is your heart you are “listening” to and not your family?

Your heart talks to you through dreams, songs, words you overhear, images that draw your attention, synchronicities, answers to your prayers, instant deep knowing, flashes of ideas, and creative expression through any medium, from redecorating your office and adding flowers in every room to painting and writing poetry. It also communicates through the longing to learn a new skill, to visit a specific place, to change career or country.

Sometimes the messages are clear and other times more subtle, but the main barometer is by staying true to what feels joyful, beautiful and expansive. You have to learn how to stay silent long enough to hear and also how to get past what you think is logical and acceptable, and go for what makes you laugh, cry, fall in love, lose track of time, act crazy and feel like “a different person”.

This continuous gauging helps you learn how to discern and choose wisely your thoughts, words and actions. Listening then becomes a daily lifelong practice with everlasting benefits; a practice that once you are at ease with, you can no longer do without.


About the author
Liliane Mavridara is a published author, poet, inspirational speaker, esoteric astrologer and visionary mentor, passionate about inspiring women to follow their heart and embody their power and wisdom, so that they lead by example and make a difference in their own unique way. She synthesizes her European descent with an eclectic background and expertise in the areas of business, personal development, holistic health, spirituality and the creative arts, and travels extensively lecturing and teaching on the role of creativity and intimate relationships in Feminine Leadership. For more information please visit www.LilianeMavridara.com.


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