Extraordinary Human Capacities

Stephen Wiltshire: The Human Camera

In this short excerpt from the film Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain, Wiltshire takes a helicopter journey over Rome and then draws a panoramic view of what he saw, entirely from memory.

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posted by ashley


Our Oceans Are Filled With Plastic: They Are Experiencing How Bad It Really Is

Five media artists, led by photographer Chris Jordan, are traveling to Midway to witness the catastrophic effect of our disposable culture on some of the world’s most beautiful and symbolic creatures. But even more, they are embarking on an introspective journey to confront a vitally relevant question: In this time of unprecedented global crisis, how can we move through grief, denial, despair and immobility into new territories of acceptance, possibility, and wise action?
~ The Midway Journey
Chris Jordan's wish "is to get out of [his] own way for long enough that the symbolic tragedy that is happening on Midway can speak for itself, on its own terms."

"This morning I took off early by bike with camera gear on my back, and explored an abandoned World War II runway littered with the decaying carcasses of albatrosses—virtually all of their bellies filled with plastic junk. Talking and reading about it from home was one thing, but seeing it here in person carries a much different feeling. I made my first photograph, and felt myself sink one increment into the profound story that this island has to tell." ~Chris Jordan

"According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife rangers, albatross bring almost five tons of plastic to Pihemanu/Midway every year. The ocean is permeated with plastic and, like dust floating in the air, it’s mostly invisible to us. Albatross concentrate this plastic junk in their bodies and deposit it on land when they die. A Hawaiian elder counseled us not to view the albatross or the islands as victims of plastic pollution. They have called this problem to them, she said, to deliver us a message. We are hit with this message every day. When can we say we’re receiving it?" ~Victoria Sloan Jordan

The Midway Journey Blog
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posted by ashley


Celebrating Mr. Clean, Celebrating Life's Force

In case you've been following the story of my dad's health, here's the exciting update. He was photographed on Tuesday (cat scan). Technology peered into his body to articulate the progress of his recovery. The image that came back invites deep celebration as he is clean with no signs of cancer in the picture!! Yippee!!! Sweeth breaths of relief!!! For more details, hop on The P Train. For my own learnings and reflections, keep reading!

Leading up to yesterday, I felt the intense anticipation, fear and anxiety so many people were holding about yesterday's doctor's appointment... How much significance it had... The messenger delivering the verdict of my dad's state of health... A defining moment when a specialist would read the results and share his prediction of the state of a man's life. Each time I would feel into this scenario, I was struck with confusion. That just doesn't make sense to me. Regardless of some person's expertise, how can another human being have so much power and control to define how alive a person experiences themselves to be? How did we as humans get to a place where we allow other people to discern for us the quality of our life, the amount of hope that we should or shouldn't have based on the data?

I have no idea what it's like to be in such an incredibly vulnerable place where there is some unknown aggressor attacking my body and I am forced to join a fight that I wasn't even aware was going on inside my very own skin. I can't begin to imagine what it's like to be a person who is told that I have cancer or some other life-threatening idea*. Should a day like that ever visit my life, I don't know how I'll respond.

Yesterday, however, being in this process with my dad, my family, people I love deeply and my own reactions, I learned some important lessons. I felt my dad's life force. I felt the strength and power of the human life force. The current of creation, vibrancy, beauty, yes!, generative movement forward, LIFE. As I try to articulate that now, I feel the pulsing vibrancy in my own being. Wow, that's magical... that we each have that, we each have access to something so sacred, so powerful, so uniquely our own and so universal to each of us.

I called my dad yesterday and extended an invitation to him that was something like this:
I invite you to take a moment before you get to the doctor's office to connect with your life force. There is a force inside of you that is so alive. I can hear it in your voice. I can feel it in your writing. I imagine I'd see it in your eyes if I were there with you. You have a life force that is vibrant inside of you and will be there when you walk into the doctor's office and will be there when you leave. I invite you to connect with that and stay connected with that, including whatever it is that the doctor shares with you. And no matter what anyone tells you, you are the only one that really knows what that life force feels like, how strong it is, how alive it is, how vibrantly it is moving through your body. No one can tell you about that... only you can connect with and know its presence and strength.
I thank the universe for the arrival of that message through me. For me, it is powerful and inspires me greatly. An invitation that I hope to really integrate into my own being and believing, further allowing me to share that vibrant radiance with myself, others and the world. What a gift that we each have!!

And then, after the doctor's appointment, when my dad shared the news with me.... sweet tears of relief, bubbling with excitement. His life force gets to shine on with the medical world's blessing of a clean cat scan. THANK YOU!!!

*As I was proofreading, I was shocked to read the word idea there as I didn't consciously use it. I meant to use some thing like a life-threatening disease or condition. But I'm struck. Are these life-threatening diagnosis ideas? There is concrete fact and data that there is something going on inside the body... but the notion that it is life-threatening... is that an idea? Our life is always threatened just by the nature of being alive... hmmmm....

photo source

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posted by ashley


Living with Radical Honesty

Living With Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton
Re-posted from Charity Focus
I learned that the primary cause of most human stress, the primary cause of most conflict between couples and the primary cause of most both psychological and physical illness is being trapped in your mind and removed from your experience. What keeps you trapped in your mind and removed from your experience is lying and we all lie […] all the time. We're taught systematically to lie, to pretend, to maintain a pretense because we're taught that who we are is our performance. Our schools teach us to lie, our parents teach us to lie. We're all suffering from mistaken identity.

We think that who we are is our reputation, what the teacher thinks of us, what kind of grades we make, what kind of job we have. We're constantly spinning our presentation of self, which is a constant process of lying and being trapped in the anticipation of imagining about what other people might think. Our actual identity is as a present tense noticing being. I'm someone sitting here talking on the telephone right now and you're sitting there talking on the telephone and writing or doing whatever you're doing. That's your current identity and this is my current identity and when you start identifying with your current present-tense identity you discover all kinds of things about life that you can't even see or notice when you're trapped in the spin doctoring machine of your mind. So radical honesty is about delivering yourself from that constant worrisome preoccupation of, "Oh my god. How am I doing? How am I doing? How am I doing? How am I doing?" Then you can pay attention to what's going on in your body and in the world and even pay attention to what's going on in your mind. […]

Just look at what you notice in front of you right now, your environment, wherever you are in an office or wherever it is. Noticing is an entirely different function than thinking and what we do all the time is that we confuse thinking with noticing. When we think something we act as though it has the same validity as something that we see. I've got a bumper sticker on my truck that says, "Don't believe everything you think." It's like your thinking just goes on and on and on and on.
--Brad Blanton, Center For Radical Honesty

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posted by ashley



Carrotmob Makes It Rain from carrotmob on Vimeo.
Carrotmob Website

What power do we have to create change with our everyday habits of spending money? What's possible when we organize together that isn't when we act on our own?

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posted by ashley


Stories of Tragedy and Hope

Today has been a powerful day of hearing people tell their stories and being touched in deep and raw places in my heart.

I don't have energy to share much more than the facts around who I've had the great fortune to learn from today.

This morning I heard Eva Schloss speak at my school. Eva is a Holocaust survivor and the step-sister of Anne Frank. You can hear her on NPR here. A bit from her website:
I was born in Vienna, Austria in 1929. As our family was Jewish, we immigrated to Belgium and eventually to Holland in 1938, shortly after Hitler annexed Austria. After the Germans invaded Holland in 1942, our family went into hiding. In May 1944, we were betrayed, captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The whole point of the process was the de-humanization of us. When we were liberated by the Russians and they shared their bread and water with us, I cried. That was a kind, human action.

Only my mother and I survived. My father and brother did not. My mother and I were liberated by the Russian army in January 1945 and evacuated eastward into Russia, as fighting was still going on to the west. In May 1945, we were repatriated to Amsterdam.
It was so powerful to hear her tell her story. Step by step, the places their family moved to and experiences they were faced with.

I was greatly influenced by hearing her story and I feel the same quality of learning that I had when I first heard a Holocaust survivor speak. Here is what I shared with the parents of students at my school:
I heard a Holocaust survivor speak when I was in first grade and it has had a lasting impression on me. It was very powerful for me to experience a live person who was telling a story about their life that was so far from anything I could imagine. I think it impacted deeply my ability to know that the stories I hear are not just stories, but real experiences (sometimes horrible) that happen to real human beings.
This evening I went and saw the documentary, “Prince among Slaves”. The true, little-known story of Abdul Rahman, an African prince who survived 40 years of enslavement in America before regaining his freedom and returning to his homeland. It was a powerful film that I recommend watching.
"Abdul Rahman survived the harsh ordeals of slavery through his love of family and his deep abiding faith," says co-executive producer Michael Wolfe." The film depicts a universal story of perseverance and hope. Abdul endured unimaginable indignities and faced immeasurable odds, yet managed to survive his long fall from royalty with character and integrity intact."

"I was immediately attracted to this story because of its powerful message," re-enactment director and supervisory producer Bill Duke says. "Too many people continue to be enslaved by poverty, drugs and bad decisions. But like Abdul Rahman, they can come out of it and regain their dignity and respect." Source
After the film there was a discussion with a 7th generation grandson of Prince Abdul Rahman, Mr. Artemus Gaye from Liberia. His message, like Eva's, was filled with the importance of sharing family stories and a reverence for life and hope.

There was time afterwards for discussion that was hosted by the Seeds of Compassion Youth Ambassadors. I was in a group with four others all of whom I'm guessing were under the age of 20. Three of them were first generation in America from Hong Kong, Iran and India. The forth person was 4th or 5th generation, her Japanese grandparents having been in internment camps.

I felt so honored to be in conversation with and learning from these youth as they shared their experiences with me, what it's like straddling multiple cultures... and so much more.

I'm so thankful for the many different humans on this planet and hope that in my lifetime I continue to learn the stories and experiences of what it's like to be you... whoever you are.

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posted by ashley


Gentle Breath of Being

…To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others…
— David Whyte

A beautiful New Year's wish from Mike. Thank you.

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posted by ashley


Visualizing the Number of Humans on the Planet

When I try to comprehend the facts of our world, I frequently feel baffled. The profoundness of living on this Earth with all of its diversity of life, land, inhabitants, people's lifestyles, values, habits, things that happen, things that don't happen, etc... It's incredible and so far beyond my ability to comprehend.

I was recently wondering :

What does the number of humans on the planet look like?

I realized I didn't have the capacity to conceptualize that answer. And so I sent my question to one of my new conceptualization gurus, Chris Jordan. I'd love to share with all of you his generous response in full.
Your question is interesting, because I just recently got to see a profound and moving demonstration of what 6 billion humans look like. It is called the Salt Monument, and it resides in the home of an extraordinary woman named Margot who lives alone in Boulder Colorado. She had an idea something like fifteen years ago to create a living monument containing the number of grains of salt equal to all of the members of the human race. After a long design process that included some engineering, she constructed a huge plexiglass cube in her living room, about seven feet in diameter, and mounted it diagonally onto a burly metal support structure. At the top is an opening into which salt can be poured, and at the bottom is a valve from which salt can be drained. Initially she filled the cube with a number of salt grains (carefully estimated with the use of accurate scales) equal to the then-population of the earth: 4.2 billion people (that was ten years ago). Then, every day, she adds salt at the top equal to the number of people born that day, and she removes salt from the bottom, equal to the number of people who died that day. The whole structure weighs more than a ton.

Along the side of the cube is a scale that shows the progress of time. At the very bottom there is a line that shows the world’s population back around the time of Jesus; it is something like one quart of salt, a few hundred thousand people or so on the whole earth (or maybe it was a few million, but a tiny fraction of today’s population in any event). Then the scale goes up toward the surface of the salt, showing the world’s population increase over time. A whole millennium goes by in between 500 million and 1 billion. Then two billion takes a few centuries. Three billion comes in one century. Four billion comes in a few decades. Five and six billion have come in the last ten years. The exponential growth of our population is astonishingly visible and incredibly frightening.

Every day Margot conducts an elaborate ceremony to mark the passing of 170,000 people, and the birth of 300,000 people. Even if someone dies completely alone and unknown, their passage will be honored by this ceremony— as has everyone who has died in the world in the last ten years. The 170,000 grains of salt taken from the bottom of the monument are dissolved into a large glass jar of water (it is about a teaspoon of salt). The jar stays there for several months, so all of the salt from that time period is dissolved in the jar. The jar then goes in a display cabinet along with the jars from other years. Inside the jar over years, the dissolved salt re-forms into arrays of big clear square crystals that look like miniature versions of the monument.

The salt that Margot adds every day to represent the 300,000 people born gets poured into the top; it is about two teaspoons if I remember correctly. It lands on the surface of the salt below, making a symmetrical cone over time. Each year she flattens the cone out and starts over, so you can see what the year-to-date births look like (a growing cone on the otherwise flat surface, about the size of a large plate of spaghetti when I saw it in October). The one-day old babies are represented at the very top, and the two week-olds are a bigger part of the pile below that, and the 3-month-olds are all in a layer below that, and so on, down to the bottom of the monument, where are the old people are. Each grain of salt will take one human lifetime to pass from the top to the bottom and out.

Around the room she has placed exhibits of different amounts of salt, for scale. There is a black dish with one grain of salt in it; it is the very small kind of salt, where one grain is almost as small as a piece of dust. There is another plate with ten grains, another with 100, another with 3000 (the number of Americans who died on 9/11— much less than the number of people who starved to death elsewhere in the world that same day); the number of people who die from AIDS every year, the number of people worldwide who commit suicide, die in auto accidents, and a few others. These exhibits were mostly about a teaspoon in size, but of course some of the piles where huge compared to one grain.

In juxtaposition, the cube in the middle of the room is astonishing, breathtaking, and incomprehensible. It contains 1900 pounds of salt, equal to the size of several refrigerators. I stood looking closely at it for the longest time, trying to imagine all of the grains of salt that were hidden from view inside the volume of the cube. If I looked very closely, I could make out individual grains of salt right up against the glass, but otherwise it was a sea of whiteness— even a few inches from my face I could not make out individual grains. The amount of grains of salt was far beyond my ability to grasp. I felt like I never even came close to getting my arms around it despite trying pretty hard in a meditative state for more than an hour. I wondered what the Monument would look like if the things inside were marbles instead of salt, and quickly realized that the cube would be something like a hundred yards in size.

Margot has not missed a day in ten years of doing the ceremony. Having lived in a monastic relationship with the Salt Monument for a decade, and holding the meaning of it in her consciousness every day with a spiritual commitment and intention, I believe that she is the person who understands the most of anyone on earth about the enormity of the human race. I wish I could arrange for the Dalai Lama to visit her and see the Monument— I think he would be deeply moved.

Shortly before we left, she brought up another perspective that blew my mind quite the rest of the way. She pointed to the tray that had one grain of salt in it, and said “Imagine that is the sun. In that scale, how far away is the nearest star?” We guessed the other side of the room, or maybe out in the garden. The answer was nine miles. And she said that otherwise, there is absolutely nothing, in all directions. And that is the nearest star; most of the other stars in our galaxy are much further away than that, by up to several magnitudes. We are truly a speck of dust in space.

Then she pointed to the cube, and said that our galaxy has more stars than there are grains of salt in the cube, by a factor of something like fifteen. That fucked me up further—and then she said that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are grains of salt in the cube, by the same factor again. It affirmed for me the incomprehensible scale of our universe, with magnitudes of incomprehensibility; and thus vividly illustrates the enormity of the Mystery. This lovely elegant woman in Boulder just totally kicked my ass.

I turned to her and said “you are trying to deflate my ego, aren’t you?” We had a good laugh. She is adorable, a beautiful and fascinating person. She opens her home to anyone who wants to attend the ceremony and talk with her. I highly recommend it.
And a bit later a second email arrived
Aw jeez, there's a website... Saltmonument.org
I enjoyed reading his description first, feeling as my mind tried to wrap itself around those words and images before entering into the, again, incredibly inspiring website.

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posted by ashley

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