Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, by Sam Harris. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Harris covers highlights of his own inner journey and what we currently know about the nature of consciousness, concluding with comments on evaluating gurus, investigating NDEs, and drug use as a possible path toward enlightenment. Meditation practice can be helpful to everyone as a means of reducing the personal suffering brought about by constant distraction, and needn’t have any religious component. Harris’ dedication to exploring the self, his considerable experience attending meditation retreats–a total of two years, including some three-month periods–plus his background as a neuroscientist give the book an unusual and authentic flavor. Definitely worth pondering.
This past week has seen not one but two climate change actions in Denver, both organized by 350.org. The first was to meet the train filled with people heading on to New York for the People’s Climate March September 21. We gathered in front of Union Station for speeches and singing, then went around to the back and watched the train come in at the platform. Several dozen climate activists got off and joined the rally, adding to the enthusiasm. I was able to hand out flyers and talk to some people about veganism. It was great to see so many others (about 250) who are as concerned as I am about climate change.
Then Sunday, at the same time that the People’s Climate March was going on in NYC, a group gathered in Denver on the west steps of the capitol. Keith and I were pleasantly surprised to see more vegans there than we expected, several with additional signs, to amplify our presence. Each group represented there could have someone give a brief speech, so I took a turn standing front and center. I explained that over half of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock agriculture, and urged the crowd to “make a difference every day with your fork.” The group applauded; overall, I felt more support for the vegan message here than I previously had among environmental activists. In fact, the lead speaker of the event commented, “You vegans are well organized.” After the speeches, the group marched in front of the capitol and down the 16th Street Mall downtown, chanting, waving signs and engaging passersby.
Two days later, I was hiking in the high country when the fall color was at its peak at 10,000 ft. Continue reading
I was proud to take part in the Day of Action yesterday in Boulder to urge Whole Foods to stop selling rabbit meat. Rabbits are the third most popular companion animal; would Whole Foods start selling dog meat if some customers asked for it? I learned that, although Whole Foods does not permit cosmetic testing on rabbits for products sold in their Whole Body section, they slaughter the very same breed of rabbits for their meat department! “Pets are not food!” was heard across the country. Margo DeMello, president of the House Rabbit Society, has written a well-reasoned article on the issue. See these great photos taken at some of the 44 protest events nationwide at WF stores.
Keith and I received an e-mail from Micah Parkin, the leader of the Colorado chapter of 350.org, asking for people to submit stories about local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We submitted our story, which has now been published in their blog, and which we reprint below, with hyperlinks added.
Keith wrote: “My wife and I got solar panels in our backyard, thus generating all of our own electricity, some years ago; and we also massively insulated our house, cutting our heating requirements by nearly 2/3. We also ride our bikes on errands; before we retired, Keith rode the bus and Kate rode her bicycle to work. But the most effective single local action we’ve undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to go vegan. According to an article in WorldWatch magazine, over half of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock agriculture (“Livestock and Climate Change,” November/December 2009). We also encourage others to go vegan. We’ve started a local meetup group, “Denver Vegans” (DenverVegans.org), which helps everyone from people who are just interested in cutting back their consumption of animal products to fully committed vegans. This is about as local as you can get — you can fight climate change three times a day just with your fork.”
Keith Akers & Kate Lawrence
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, by Dan Harris. It Books (Harper Collins), 2014.
Here’s an unusual combination: an account of meditation and mindfulness practice combined with anecdotes of famous people, told from the viewpoint of someone who has met and interviewed them. Harris co-anchored Nightline and Good Morning America, was mentored by the likes of Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, and has filed stories from exotic places around the world. The two aspects–inward practice and outward celebrity–provide a good balance; I found it irresistible! Regarding mindfulness practice, I have undertaken several silent Buddhist retreats much like the one Harris describes in detail, so I was right there “with” him. (The Japanese Zen sesshin-style retreats I sat are actually even more demanding than the Vipassana retreat Harris chose; for example, having to eat meals while sitting on the floor and engaging in a very structured ceremony of serving, bowing, chanting, and cleaning one’s own dishes.) Stripped of off-putting metaphysics, mindfulness techniques have been used widely and successfully in hospitals and other therapeutic settings.
This practical, useful book delivers on what it promises: to help stressed-out people from all walks of life do what the subtitle says.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of a still-amazing book, Living the Good Life, by Scott and Helen Nearing. The Nearings left city life in 1932 to homestead rural land in (first) Vermont and (later) Maine. They felt they had discovered the “good life,” and wrote several books both to describe how they lived and to encourage others toward greater simplicity and authenticity. They have been called “the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement” and no doubt inspired many young people in the 1960s and 1970s. When I came to their books later, I was impressed that they were vegetarians and carried on their farming completely without the use of animals. Would that the 21st century homesteading movement would do likewise!
The Nearings’ books overflow with sincerity, compassion, and common sense. Here are examples:
“Ideas of ‘making money’ or ‘getting rich’ have given people a perverted view of economic principles. The object of economic effort is not money, but livelihood. Money cannot feed, clothe, or shelter. Money is a medium of exchange,–a means of securing the items that make up livelihood. It is the necessaries and decencies that are important, not the money which may be exchanged for them. And money must be paid for, like anything else . . .” Continue reading
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Perennial, 2012.
Kingsolver explores a fictional scenario in which monarch butterflies’ migratory behavior is so disturbed by climate change that they overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico. The butterflies turn up en masse in a small town, attracting a prominent scientist and his students to set up a lab and study them, and changing life dramatically for the townspeople. Through her story Kingsolver educates readers about the seriousness of climate change, shows how it disproportionately affects the poor, and unsparingly skewers the media who refuse to tell the truth about it. Trying to make sense of it all are sympathetic characters struggling to make ends meet, navigate their family relationships, and find fulfillment where choices are limited.
Kingsolver has aligned her considerable narrative skill with her passion for the environment to deliver a novel whose thought-provoking issues will continue to engage readers long after the last page is read.
The Ogallala Road; A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair. Viking, 2014.
I was delighted to discover this exceptional memoir about how powerfully our loved ones shape our lives, be those loved ones family members, lovers, or the land we call home. Here the prairie landscapes of western Kansas come alive in exquisite beauty, along with an unsettling concern for the future: the huge Ogallala aquifer beneath them is being pumped out at an alarmingly unsustainable rate to irrigate crops that could never be grown there otherwise. It’s not a case of outside developers coming in to exploit the land’s resources, as happened in Appalachia, for example. On the prairie the long-time residents who love it the most are responsible, whether they fully realize it or not, for robbing their descendants, and many species of indigenous wildlife, of a future there.
As I read I was reminded of another skillful and moving book I loved about the prairie ecosystem: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon. But Julene Bair has the advantage of having grown up on the land she describes, telling the story as only a native can do. She went away for some years, then returned to the farm with a young son to raise. She develops an environmental awareness that puts her at odds with the locals. Later on, her family must decide what to do with their land after the patriarch dies, his son is ready to retire, and none of the younger generation wants to farm.
Bair combines the sensibility of a poet with an activist’s command of the facts, but neither side runs away with the narrative. The prairie is not just a place on the map to her, but inhabits her mind and heart, allowing her to persuade readers to care more deeply.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. HarperCollins, 2009.
This is the engrossing true story of a bright young boy in Malawi, idled because his family is too poor to pay the required fees to send him to school. He finds old textbooks at the village library that explain how to generate electricity, and with astonishing determination collects the necessary parts. At age 14, he completes a functioning windmill generator. His desire to bring electricity to his family and village persists despite much discouragement, lack of resources, and taunting by friends and relatives who think he’s crazy. If this weren’t enough, the country endures a terrible famine at that time (2002), due to government corruption as much as lack of rain. William’s account of the famine as someone who experienced it is more moving than any account by outsiders could ever be.
Finally his talent is recognized, and he is invited to give a TED talk when he can barely speak English. By the time the book was published in 2009, he was a student at Dartmouth.
This book is for anyone looking for an inspirational story of what can be achieved with persistence and dedication, even without support. It also shows the transformative power of a local public library. My book club loved it.
While tabling on behalf of Denver Vegans at the city of Denver’s Earth Day Fair, I had several chances to increase the effectiveness of my outreach by talking with people who influence many others. A friend had told me that 50PlusPrime, the TV News Magazine for Baby Boomers, was in town looking for stories on boomer generation people involved in community service, and would I be interested in talking to them? I would.
It turned out that the program’s president and founder is a vegan himself! So he was glad to film a segment on that topic. He and a cameraman came to the Earth Day Fair, interviewed me on camera and showed our vegan literature table. The program will not air until this fall, in limited markets, but will be available for viewing online after air date.
I also mentioned that I would like to encourage boomer-age viewers not to give up on personal goals or dreams they’d had in their youth, out of a fear that maybe now they were too old to achieve them. I’d wanted to be a published author since my youth, but put that on the back burner as I gave my attention to other worthwhile projects. I picked up that dream in my late 50s, and wrote my book The Practical Peacemaker: How Simple Living Makes Peace Possible. It was picked up by New York publisher Lantern Books, published just after my 60th birthday, and launched with an author event at the Tattered Cover Bookstore. I was filmed talking about this for a separate segment of 50PlusPrime. Continue reading