Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Life Not As We Know It

Back in the July 7th edition of the NY Times an article appeared called Scientists Urge A Search For Life Not As We know It by Carl Zimmer. A report published by the National Research Council explained that scientists are looking around the planetary system, and even on our own planet, for “weird life.” Surely, they surmise, there must be life forms that can function in bodies and environments totally different then our own.

I can safely say that I’ve encountered weird life. It’s no big secret. They’re on the news every night. The activities of these weird life forms appear as headlines screaming at us from tabloids and televisions. And as we listen, shaking our heads in disbelief, we’re hard pressed to understand how some of these creatures think and how they reach the decisions they make and how they do the things they do. They certainly have to be aliens because their actions defy human reason, logic, and compassion.

Even rats can exhibit more human kindness than humans. This is revealed in an article from July 10th entitled Rat To Rat, Kindness Takes Hold. Researchers trained rats to pull levers to supply food to other rats. The experiment was started with three rats in adjacent cages trained to be providers of food, and they were never rewarded for their behavior by the researchers. After a time one of the rats was replaced and the behavior was learned by the new rat from the remaining two. Eventually all the original rats were replaced, but the training to be providers was transmitted to the new guys on the block.

As human beings, harassed by the forces of the kaliyuga, we are being untrained in kindness, especially toward those not of our own tribe and species. Instead, we are being reconditioned to be unkind, greedy and totally self centered. Why is it that rats can learn to cooperate and help one another, but not the life forms who inhabit the White House or the board rooms of big corporations?

Another article, from July 24 entitled Smart Curious Ticklish, Rats, explains that rats and human beings have a lot in common. Rats, like human parents, like to tickle their little ones. Rats, like many humans, are “sociable, curious, and love to be touched.” When threatened with a shock, and the shock doesn’t come, rats, like some humans, are observed to breathe a sign of relief. And yes, they even anticipate enjoying sex, (as one researcher says “it’s not simply instinctual for them”). And get this - rats can distinguish between good and bad sex. (How the researchers have figured this out one may never know.) Another thing: “”One study showed that rats accustomed to good times tend to be optimists, while those reared in unstable conditions become pessimists.” Rats are also very adaptable. Rats raised in the lab and then released into the wild did just fine. And one final observation - rats, unlike humans, don’t lie. Really. That’s because they immediately express their likes and dislikes through their bodies and actions.

But getting back to the article from the first paragraph, this search is nothing new. For thousands of years, sages have been in search For Life Not As We Know It. And the good news is that it’s available without having to search on other planets. Another way to put it would be “A Search For Intelligence Not As We Know It.” We all have seen where the usual type of “intelligence” can lead us. The living entities who thrive everywhere – in the earth, water, fire; on all planets and in different shapes and sizes – all use their specific types of intelligence to gain control over their environments as much as possible, and desperately try to emerge as the lords of all they survey. They squabble, they claw, they growl, they roar, they bite, they gouge, they shriek, they swarm, they sting; all to protect their territories or their mates.

For the most part, humans use their intelligence in the same ways animals use theirs. It comes down to four propensities: we all eat, sleep, mate, and defend. And often enough it seems many animals have an edge over us on one or more counts. It’s a jungle whether the creatures are running on four legs or driving on four wheels. So the trick is to search for an Intelligence Not As We Know It, but rather the sublime, Transcendent Intelligence; the Supreme Intelligence; the All Knowing Intelligence, by whose grace we can extract ourselves from the multiple layers of material bondage which entangle us. The National Research Council’s report concludes that it would be a shame to encounter intelligent life and fail to recognize it..

“Now listen to the knowledge of yoga whereby one works without fruitive result. When you act by such intelligence you can free yourself from the bondage of works.” Bhagavad Gita 2:39

“I am never manifest to the foolish and unintelligent. For them I am covered by My internal potency, and therefore they do not know that I am unborn and infallible.” Bhagavad Gita 7:25

“One who is transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything. He is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” Bhagavad Gita 18:54

Friday, September 14, 2007

London Bridge Is Falling Down, My Fair Lady

Don’t we just delight in books and movies wherein destruction wreaks havoc in one form or other, be it by nuclear bombs, disease, twisters, volcanic eruptions, giant creatures or alien invaders. If you do, then you’ll love The World Without Us, authored by Alan Weisman. Reviewed by Janet Maslin in The Arts section of the August 13th NYT, the book is a “what if” account of what would happen to the world if mankind would suddenly disappear.

How long would our cities and achievements last without us around to maintain them? Early on, Weisman describes the disintegration of an ordinary house - damage by water, by wind, by birds and animals. How everything rots and crumbles - the walls, the floors, the windows, the pipes, the roof. It’ll take about 500 years for it all to break down. It looks like he goes through the same thing with New York City (he thinks streets would collapse into the cavernous subway system in as quickly as 20 years).

The book, of course, is also about what we’ve done to the world. How much time would it take for the earth to replenish itself without our constant tampering? What will happen to the vast mounds of garbage we’ve dumped into the ocean, including all that plastic? The air we’ve polluted? The climate? The various species we’ve brought to near extinction? The war zones and nuclear reactors?

Weisman, however, does not touch upon accounts of ancient times which reveal cultures that understood the earth’s natural rhythms. The earth was perceived as a living entity. The wind, the fire, the rivers, the oceans are all personified. All to be honored since, as agents of the Supreme Lord, they supply our needs

Weisman, a veteran journalist, traveled around the world to interview people and check out various sites first hand. His research seems pretty thorough. The World Without Us is sprinkled with all sorts of tidbits of facts and figures. But the thing is, with or without human manipulation, this material world is constantly changing. The book’s most important theme, however, should give us pause. What are we humans struggling so hard to achieve? Why have our appetites run amok, leaving the environment in such turmoil? Is it preventable? What type of legacy will we leave for future generations?

I leave you with a story: Once there was a sage who lived by the banks of the Ganges River. The sage spent much of his time in meditation and he understood the difference between that which is ‘sat’ (eternal) and that which is ‘asat’ (temporary). Now he was destined to live until all the hairs on his body fell off. He is described as a ‘hairy’ sage. And only a single hair fell off during a life time of Brahma (which is millions upon millions of years). So this sage was going to live for an awfully long time. One day he was asked, “Why don’t you build yourself a nice home?” The sage replied, “Why should I bother? I’m only here temporarily.”

“Physical nature is known to be endlessly mutable. The universe is the cosmic form of the Lord, and I (Krishna) am that Lord represented as the Supersoul, dwelling in the heart of every embodied being.” Bhagavad Gita 8:4

“In charge of the various necessities of life, the demigods, being satisfied by the performance of yajna (sacrifice), supply all necessities to man. But he who enjoys these gifts without offering them to the demigods in return is certainly a thief.” Bhagavad Gita 3:12

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Summertime Blues Or The Winter Of Our Discontent

It’s Summer: Isn’t Anyone at Work by Lisa Belkin (NYT - August 9th) chronicles the author’s struggles to interview people and to write an article about the lack of motivation to do any work during the sweltering summer heat. During the summer more people seek diversions through online games or they call in sick on hot days. Another obstacle to getting anything done is that the youngsters are on summer break and the adults have to spend more time in tending to them and organizing activities for them.

But do you think people would take longer breaks or vacations? No way. They’re afraid to take anything too long because their boss might realize that they are not indispensable, or they might miss something important. So people are at the office more, and they might pretend to be busy, but they actually do less work.

It’s either a juggling act or a melt down. We’ve been juggling like there’s no tomorrow and our limbs are getting weak and we’ll soon conk out like some old junker that’s been on the road much too long. Actually, in the article, there’s an illustration of a guy with an ice cream cone as a dunce cap and it looks like his face (or his entire being) is slowly melting, forming a puddle on the floor. Is this the new everyman? People are just stressed to the max. I keep hearing that people want to retire early, that they can’t take it much longer. As a matter of fact, I'm hoping I can finish this piece before I melt away myself. But it’s no use. They say there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

“The nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” Bhagavad Gita 2:14