The continuing journey

[This is the latest post in my Wayfinding series. It’s also published in the Pages section. It’s N0. 19]

Yes. Surviving through great adversity.

That may be the thing that has kept me on this path, kept me practicing the various mindfulness techniques and meditations that have come my way through the years.

Though I suppose my life is not really filled with “great adversity” as compared with much of what people go through in life, the emotional challenges that PTSD and daily life in family, school and community relationships sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. The therapy and associated practices I mentioned previously were a great help in working through the depression and anxiety that I faced.

I found journaling to be a great tool, especially combined with meditation and done in a meditative way. I had always done some kind of journaling since my college years, so it was natural. I took a very structured approach to it for a while, setting up several tracks and trying to follow each one on a near-daily basis, and that was helpful to clarify things. Eventually, I relaxed that approach and my journaling became sort of a loose, random approach. I’d write about whatever was going on in different areas of life in different notebooks, though that’s made it hard to go back and pull up a consistent narrative!

As a practice though, it seemed helpful to just write whatever came up as a means of getting it clear in my mind at the time. I didn’t do it with any intention of using it later, just working through things.

I also was engaged in a lot of discussion with my mother during those years of therapy and after. Though it was something I didn’t think of as practice at the time, in retrospect those discussion were, in fact, a deep and helpful process.

My mother was a deep and profoundly spiritual Christian, somewhat unconventional in much of her beliefs, but I think very true to the real meaning of Christ’s teachings as I understand them. She had long been skeptical of my Buddhist practices, and she never gave up on hoping that I’d “accept Jesus”— though I had been baptized at seven — but I think she eventually came to realize that my practices were good for me and made me the better person she hoped I would be. She told a friend later in life that she and I were the closest spiritually of the family.

Talking to her about all these spiritual things made me subject my ideas and practices to careful consideration and present them in non-dogmatic ways.

A poem that she shared with me in 1997, “Drench your soul,” seems to express her best response to our discussions. (I will share that poem in a separate Page here.)

Another practice, Grofian (holotropic) breath work, was also helpful to me as I worked through the deepest years of my depression. I went to a workshop in conjunction with training for hospice volunteering, and it was a powerful, slightly scary, deep opening kind of experience.

It is not something you can do on your own, but with an experienced guide, it’s a way to get through blockages and find release for pent up negative emotional energy. I suppose its a different experience for everyone, but in my notes following the session, I wrote, “Cycling through grief, release, understanding, deep gratitude, joy, laughter, bliss, ironic laughter and tears of happiness.”

The message from it all for me was, “I’m gonna make it! I can let go!”

Another parallel and amplifying practice for me during this time was also associated with the hospice training. We had several sessions over a few years of attentional skills training with Michael Lipson, whose approach to meditation comes from non-Buddhist sources, but it is very helpful.

During this same time, we began holding sesshin one weekend a year in Statesboro. Helping to organize and conduct these was also a practice in itself. We even held a few meditation sessions in the loft of my wife’s pottery workshop. Being responsible for others’ meditative practice is instructive and helped deepen my practice.

I began the Zen group in Statesboro with a few Sundays at the Unitarian Church, and a small group grew up around the meetings. Eventually, we began meeting monthly at a friend’s house outside of Stateboro, and it was a great group experience.

Somewhere in 2001, I began to do a phone dokosan — dharma teaching/mentorship by phone — with my teacher, Miki. He’s actually Roshi Michael Elliston, head of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, but we always called him Miki. It was often profound and usually helped me get back on track when my practice would start to slide for one reason or another… I think it was most helpful in answering the questions that occasionally arose, like “Why am I doing this?” He was, and I imagine still is, very good at bringing those theoretical Zen questions to bear on the real life difficulties of maintaining a practice.

On March 28, 2001, Miki ordained me as his disciple. It was at one of the Statesboro sessions and was very emotional and inspiring for me. It was really my formal decision or declaration that I was planning to stick with this Zen path.

I showed my mother a photo of me as I bowed and Miki placed the little rakusu around my neck, and she shuddered slightly! I just laughed, and she was actually okay with it after a moment, but it showed me that she never really could accept the whole thing. It’s all just too foreign to her, I suppose.

My friend Claire and I conducted a sesshin at the Atlanta center, but I never did much more as an actual disciple. Things didn’t continue for many years at the Statesboro center. The illness of one of the people who hosted the sesshins made it difficult, so most of the formal things there ended.

Later, controversy in the Atlanta center, most of which I was not part of and don’t remember much about, caused them to split into two groups. I attended a few sesshins in North Georgia organized by Red Clay Sangha, and they have continued to expand their activities over the past several years.

Events and developments in my life have made it hard for me to attend sesshin in the past several years, but it was a very helpful element of my practice that I may at some time resume when my responsibilities at home allow it.

Another important vector in my Buddhist practice was developing what I called “School is Zen.” That’s the next chapter in this story.

18. Therapy…

[This is the beginning of the entry in the Pages section titled 18. Therapy and the Wall, about my continuing Zen practice and beginning therapy, a visit to the Vietnam Wall and writing about my Vietnam experiences.]

The long journey that led me to take vows as a Buddhist at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in 1993 had taught me a lot, but the depression at the heart of my emotional/mental state seemed pretty resistant to the meditation and the vows and anything else I was doing.


I was moody and angry, and I wasn’t easy to get along with for my wife and kids. I think the meditation helped me feel better about things, but it didn’t really seem to be helping how I interacted with my family. I think I yelled at my middle school students a lot, as well!


It somewhat seems like it should have been a no-brainer for me to figure out what was going on, considering the traumatic nature of my whole Vietnam experience, which I’ve written about extensively on my other blog, A War Journal, though I’ve only briefly mentioned it in this narrative. That experience and the recent death of my father were both still unresolved for me, but it took me awhile to realize how all that was eating away at me and making it hard for me to relate to life and other people.


I though I had packed it all away in some locked trunk in the depths of my mind.


Eventually, things just got intolerable I suppose, and my wife began to push me to do something, get therapy, take drugs — anything to make it better. We argued a lot, and I always felt that I didn’t know what it was that was wrong.
I went on anti-depressants, which I didn’t really like, and which maybe helped some, but they didn’t seem to fix things either. It was a constant struggle for all of us.


Somewhere in there, my wife’s father, Dr. Pisacano, suggested that therapy would be a good option. I’m not really sure how long it took me to act on that suggestion, given the resistance that I had to letting go of control.
But at some point, I gave in. I had my first session of therapy with Susan in October of 1997. According to my journal, which Susan recommended I resume seriously, I felt better right away, just for having made the decision to start.


It was a long and arduous path, because I had really buried a lot in the past 25-plus years. I was in therapy, at varying levels of frequency, for about five years.

[To read the entire entry, just go to the Page listed in the left-hand column as 18. Therapy and The Wall.]

My way-finding

The Pages section of this blog ( which show up as the numbered titles in the left panel) is mostly the narrative of my way-finding… the process, halting and flawed as it was, by which I came to finally find my way to acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings as the best fit for some kind of guidance for my very crazy life. This is a work in progress, and I’m about to begin work on the next chapter in the story, so I’m looking back over what I’ve written so far.

The story attempts to explain how someone with a very Baptist background – my grandfather and great grandfather were both Baptist ministers – came to be an avowed Buddhist. Along the way, I relate some of the crazier bits of my life journey and throw in some ideas about what a Buddhist meditation practice looks like.

Reading back over it I came across this section that gives something of the flavor of the narrative. I’ve been trying to be brutally honest and gain some perspective on the whole thing for myself… which I suppose is the actual reason for doing it in the first place:

I thought at the time that I was truly trying to make things work, but the perspective of the years, the experience on the cushion and in life since, have taught me the truth: I was completely consumed by, not just my passion, but by my addiction to self. I think that I must have convinced myself, – and thought I convinced others – using all the deep thinking and fancy words that I had come to rely on, that I was open and kind and compassionate and deeply concerned about deeply important things… and such bullshit on and on as I can hardly even bear to go back and read in my journal!

But the truth is, I was just very self-absorbed and ego-driven, very blind to the truths about myself, very alienated from life and other human beings, extremely ignorant about the causes of my own suffering and the degree to which I was inflicting suffering on all those around me.

In short, I was where most people are before allowing a little light in, but with an extra added dose of over-intellectualized self-righteousness!

I wish I could say that my arrival in Eugene – know locally as The Green Hole – precipitated a sea change in my attitudes and behaviors and I began a serious quest for Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it took a while longer before light began to dawn in my life.

Acceptance

What is the real point of a meditation practice? What is the purpose of any kind of activity intended to develop insight, liberation, enlightenment or just deeper understanding of life?

There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are “spiritual paths” or practice methodologies. But I’m trying to push through to some essentials, some underlying basics, some answer that is pragmatic and practical and doesn’t depend on path or method. My recent experience with things falling apart in my life–and how I dealt with that–have me thinking that a very basic thing that my efforts have done for me is to help me be prepared when things come crashing down.

After some years of varied meditation practice and other efforts at grappling with big questions, including working with a teacher on a regular basis, I have realized that there’s not some kind of ultimate goal, some kind of flashing magic experience that will open doors of understanding so deep that nothing disturbs me. It’s just a matter of relying on the experiences and teachings that have accumulated over these years to help me know how to deal with what comes up, whatever that is.

What this most recent crash, this falling apart, has shown me is that acceptance is the key element.

About a week into the crash, which left me alone with my thoughts, memories, tears and depression every day, I tried to sort out why, exactly, I felt so crazy. What I came up with more or less guided me through the next weeks of that ordeal, and though it wasn’t a whole lot of help in making it less painful, it did help me navigate it, survive it, and be open to resolving the issues that led to the crash when that became a possibility.

I learned a lot through it all, and I hope I can share some of that in this venue. The key realization of the breakthrough that helped me find a way forward–which in the beginning seemed like an impossibility–were understanding why I felt so crazy. I realized that most of my agony was because I was resisting and angry about the whole situation.

I was resisting what was happening because I didn’t want it to be happening, and I didn’t want to feel any of the feelings I was going through. And I was angry that it was happening and out of my control. Nothing I could do could make me feel any better about the situation.

It seemed as if I was just going to be sad and hopeless and pathetic for the rest of my life because I had become dependent on others for my emotional stability.

On that breakthrough evening, I realized that the only way to move on was to stop resisting. As much as I hated the thought of “giving up” on things getting better, I realized that I needed to move to–at least begin the movement toward–accepting that this was my life and that I was responsible for my own mental/emotional health and sanity. I had already moved past being angry at anyone else, but as I wrote in my journal that night, I needed to “truly get over being angry” and stop thinking that someone was gonna fix it.

What my Zen practice and other meditation gave me at this point was the understanding that I could embrace this sadness and pain and nauseating depression as just another emotional state no better nor worse than any other. Suddenly all those years of sitting on the cushion, walking and chanting and reading about how it’s all the same snapped into clear relief. Could I really accept that notion?

Well, I didn’t really want to. I wanted to think that if my suffering was big enough, I would be pitied, and it would stop. But I realized that I just needed to be the Zen I had tried to be all these years, to be in it fully and accept that maybe it just takes this much pain to push me through to that state of enlightened mind that could accept what is, “the present moment,” as the teachers say.

Not that suddenly it was all better. Far from it. I spent quite a few weeks more of up and down and “railing against God,” as the Christians say. My depression was still strong most of the time, and I was lost in hog wallows of self-pity a lot of the time. But things never got so bad I couldn’t function, and eventually I began to find a tolerable level of emotional calm.

In addition, I began to have some realizations that advanced my practice itself, as I bit by bit began to understand how to apply that notion of acceptance to what was going on in my life. I began to see that what had happened could be understood as a really big lesson in impermanence, that idea of anicca /emptiness/ shunyatta that I had studied and professed to be pursuing understanding of for all these years. A really big lesson. And the pain as energy for penetrating to the insight of what it means to say that it’s all impermanent.


I had to plow through a whole lot of guilt, self-blame, self-loathing and the deep sense that I just deserved the pain I was getting. Instant karma.

I began to really relate to the old Elmore James song that I had long loved, “Musta Done Somebody Wrong.” I’ve always loved the blues, and now they began to take on new meaning for me. Robert Johnson’s line about “like consumption, killing me by degrees,” was a favorite when I played guitar out on the front porch. But I was slowly working my way through it. As I look at my journal entries, I see gradual progress in understanding.

My actual sitting practice had somewhat declined in intensity over the past few years (that’s another story), but I began to sit daily and seriously again during this incident. In the beginning, I was using sitting as an escape from depression and loneliness. At some point, I had a breakthrough about that as well.

A few weeks into the period of despair, I began re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, which I had read many years ago and appreciated. Her analysis and advice was very helpful, and as I began to seriously meditate again, I realized that my approach to meditation was flawed.
I realized that, rather than using meditation as a distraction from the depression and pain, I needed to embrace the pain as a positive thing because it’s pushing me to get serious on the cushion. And to just sit and seriously be with the sitting as what this is all about. In my journal, I articulated it this way:

“…Approach the meditation as what I need to be doing, not as a distraction or escape from the pain and discomfort of the situation, and seeing that why all the other things—TV, music, even reading—just kinda make me feel sick and I don’t want to do them, is because I need to do the sitting and they are just a distraction from that.”

(Journal, June 7, 2021)

This realization opened me up to vast possibilities of increased understanding, compassion and tenderness.

No hope, no fear [repost]

[I’m reposting this because it’s very relevant to what I’ve been going through recently, and I may address it in the next few posts. I’ve recently been re-reading When Things Fall Apart, and it’s been very helpful.]

Hope.

We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction.

Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

No Escape

[This was originally a separate post, but I’m combining the two here for simplicity.]

In the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, and the presentations on those teachings that we have from his student Pema Chodron, one of the great themes is that an essential element in walking the ‘spiritual’ path, the path of radical compassion, radical acceptance, as it has come down to us through the centuries from those who have followed and interpreted the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, is that there is no escape.

The first noble truth of classical Buddhist teachings is “Life is suffering.” Though this idea is widely misunderstood by most of the Western translators and interpreters of the Buddha’s teachings – the sense of the original is better translated as “All clinging to life involves or creates suffering” – it is essentially just an observation about the reality of human experience: we can’t escape these feelings of dissatisfaction, this sense of lack that permeates our lives.

This is the “hopelessness” that Pema holds out as a positive thing, much to the dismay and confusion of most of us. The reactions I get to suggestions that hope is not something to cling to range from shock to outright anger:

What? Give up hope? Never! Hope is all we have! Never give up! Believe in the ultimate wonderfulness that we can achieve and never stop hoping for better, more, never abandon the quest for perfection.

That may be overstated, but it catches up much of what passes for wisdom in popular self-help psychology. And it sells. For some, it seems to work, at least temporarily. But it misses some really profound understandings of our human situation.

What we tend to do when things get tough, when things aren’t going the way we should like them to, is look for some escape from this unpleasantness. Much of what fills the world today, materiality, activity, religion, philosophy – any realm really – is nothing but some highly refined and developed effort to escape from reality, to fill that void with something.

We seek sensual and intellectual pleasures to escape that gnawing sense of dread, and we find all manner of sophisticated means to avoid the pain that comes from too much reality.

But in the end, there is no escape.

Whatever we do, it always ends. There’s always something happening that we wish would go away, or something we wish would happen that just won’t. And when we get something we want, we know that it could be lost in a heartbeat.

This is the truth of life that the Buddhist teachers speak of as “impermanence” or “emptiness”. The Buddhist path involves, at heart, being willing to bang into that truth over and over again until it comes clear to one that this is the nature of our life. “Sampajanna” is the Sanskrit term, which means something like ‘constant and thorough understanding of the truth of impermanence.’ Everything changes. It’s an obvious truth that we spend most of our energy denying.

It is this sense of no escape that is intended in the teachings of hopelessness, in the idea that our only salvation lies in giving up hope. Radical acceptance. Coming to terms with reality.

There’s nothing wrong with the hope that lets us undertake a new journey toward a goal that is clearly and simply a way to get beyond some thing in one’s life, or in society at large, that is problematic. When you see a problem, you address that problem in clear-eyed ways, and the ‘hope’ needed there is simply to see that yes, it is possible that I can do this. It’s not some unrealistic goal, and there aren’t insurmountable obstacles to realizing it. It’s possible. That’s a positive, human kind of hope.

It is when hope is used as an escape from the reality of our lives that it becomes a block to development of contentment and joy. It is when hope becomes an unrealistic quest for lasting, permanent security and grounding that it leads us down a dead end road.

Impermanence is a fact of life. It is as unavoidable as death itself. Finding any kind of contentment in this life necessarily involves acceptance of that truth, else we go from disappointment to disappointment, careening along leaving a trail of disasters, and never find peace.

Rebirth…

Well, here I am, jumping back into the blog after… well, several years. It’s been a minute, as the guys at the jail said.

And a lot of water has rolled under that proverbial bridge in these past few years, both in my life and in the world. We’ve gone through more than a year of the pandemic and all that it has wrought. The End of Trump and the insanity his followers have visited on the nation has rocked our world in ways never imagined. Georgia has elected two Democratic senators and is likely to see more movement in that direction. Big changes!

My own life has gone through upheavals of similar magnitude, as I saw the collapse of a longtime relationship–which nearly tore my family apart–and the beginning of a new relationship and a new life, and the birth of a child who is now three years old. And now, in recent weeks, the dissolution of that new relationship is putting me through changes, driving me to find new sources of meaning and clarity in my life. All of this and more.

Yes, all of this is giving me a lot to think about, a lot to write about, a lot to take onto my cushion at the end of the day. As the original purpose of this site was to present my learnings along the mostly Buddhist path–or the non-path–of a search for understanding and enlightenment, all this recent development in the world and in my life should give me a lot to write about.

I hope it will be interesting and even helpful to someone who may chance on these ramblings. I suppose I’m writing it primarily to clarify the learnings I’m gleaning from this field of broken dreams. But I will make every effort, as is the writer’s job, to assess what might be meaningful and interesting to others and make that my focus.

I will also address some of what is going on in the world and bring the perspective of my years of observation, study, meditation–and just generally experiencing the consequences of barreling along through life without a whole lot of forethought. Maybe something I’ve learned will be of some interest or benefit to someone! I’ll also continue with the story of my way-finding, or how I came to be on this peculiar, Buddhist-Inspired path. That’s in the Pages.

Hope to hear from you!

Semi-permeable architecture?

This is from Aeon, a really great online magazine.

Traditional buildings are designed to provide protection against a savage world, with us safe on one side and our waste on the other. Architects have long relied on ‘hard’ materials such as masonry, aluminium and glass, specifically chosen to prevent the outside environment from getting in. Impermeability was, and is, a driving goal.

It is time to rethink that approach. Our current built environment squanders too much fresh water and other vital resources, and tips too many poisonous substances into our surroundings. To develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world, we need to allow chemical exchanges that take place within our living spaces, and between the inside and the outside. We need to embrace permeability.

Until the rise of modernity, a certain amount of the outside world always leaked into our living spaces, entering through crumbling brickwork, broken seals and open windows and doors. However, with the rapid growth of industrial cities in the mid-19th century, pollution, overcrowding and disease posed new external threats. The remedy was to exert tighter control over our habitats, with the result that buildings became true barriers.

Today’s building ‘envelopes’ seal off our living and working spaces to a degree previously unencountered. In many offices, it is no longer possible to open windows manually to let in a breeze. Automated air-conditioning systems (often answering only to sensors and software) blast summer heat out into scorching walkways, amplifying the urban heat-island effect and contributing to heat-related health risks. Such buildings ignore the metabolism that is the dynamic scaffolding of living systems.

During the 1970s, the ecologists John and Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney founded the New Alchemy Institute – now the Green Center on Cape Cod in Massachusetts – to reconceive building spaces as part of a self-sustaining human ecosystem. Such spaces would not be hermetically sealed, but rather open to the flow of natural elements. The research institute experimented with integrating a range of sustainable systems, such as solar power, organic agriculture, aquaculture and bio-shelter design, which went hand in hand with the permeability of these living spaces. Their results pointed a promising way forward.

Incorporating permeability into architecture begins with a building’s composition. In the past 20 years, engineers have developed organic construction materials that have various degrees of permeability. Mycotecture – architectural building blocks that are formed from the fibrous material of fungal roots – are as strong as concrete and as insulating as fibreglass. BioMASON bricks are built by microorganisms; they do not need firing and are as strong as traditional masonry. Bioplastics are produced by bacteria using biogas from landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Since they are not derived from petroleum, bioplastics have lower carbon footprints. Like wood, they are ‘farmed’ into existence.

Riddled with spaces, these ‘soft’ materials allow a whole different set of geometries, structural properties and effects than are possible with traditional construction. David Benjamin’s Hy-Fi tower, constructed from mycelium (mushroom) bricks, offers a hint of the vast potentials. Yet even when modern builders use the new organic materials, they generally treat them so that they present ‘hard’ interfaces to the environment.

Fully embracing permeability opens up broad ecological and environmental possibilities. Semi-permeable ceramics in particular can be treated to provide binding surfaces for biofilms, large coordinated colonies of bacteria or other microorganisms. Biofilms can be grown to have semiconductor properties, akin to solar cells or computer circuits. When treated with manganese, biofilms can become filters that regulate the flow of air and water into a building.

Builders are starting to explore the possibilities of strategically placing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ interfaces within a structure to regulate the delivery of resources and organic responses to these inputs. For example, the BIQ House in Hamburg has a façade of thin-walled tanks filled with microalgae. The algae harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide, and produce biomass that can be used to generate electricity. The translucent, living tanks also regulate the building temperature by absorbing more sunshine as the biomass increases. In this case, the glass of the tanks is impermeable to water but lets in sunlight – a different kind of permeability, which is critical for the organic exchanges within the façade.

The Living Architecture (LIAR) project, funded by the European Union among others, is a fruitful effort to create showcases of semi-permeable design. For instance, the project aims to transform bathrooms, kitchens and commercial spaces into environmentally sensitive, productive sites. Wall sections in the rooms are replaced with bioreactors, self-contained microbial systems. One type of bioreactor is a fuel cell that houses anaerobic bacteria to produce electricity and clean water. Another is an algae photobioreactor that produces biomass for fuel or food. The third type is a synthetic bioreactor that can make alcohol or other plant-based materials.

Bioreactor walls are strong enough that they can form interior partitions, but they are also active, functional parts of life inside the building. They can recycle detergents from domestic wastewater, produce fertilisers for the garden, and synthesise new, biodegradable detergents – just from grey water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. Future bioreactors could also generate bioluminescent lighting, produce nutrient-rich food supplements, and remove problematic oestrogen-mimic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from drinking water. In commercial spaces, living walls could recycle water, fertilise green roofs, and purify air to make building interiors healthier and more like natural environments.

The LIAR project is still in a prototype phase. Quantitative inputs and outputs have not yet been formally established. But project leaders expect to see integrated bioreactor wall systems in real homes within the next 10 years.

Hard, inert interfaces are unlikely to become obsolete any time soon. The real impact of living architecture will be to introduce a new palette of structural and functional systems that change how we think about sustainability and resource management within the built environment. In particular, the LIAR project raises the possibility of a new, active relationship with natural processes.

We could develop new ways to speak with the living world physically, biologically, mechanically and even electrically. Breaking down the barrier between inside and outside will allow us to choreograph a flow of vital resources such as water and minerals. The end result will be a kind of artificial metabolism for our homes, commercial spaces and cities – a long-overdue realisation of a more ethical and symbiotic relationship between the built and the natural worlds.Aeon counter – do not remove

Rachel Armstrong

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Using Trump

Trump has become a trope.

Many groups have taken our intense emotional reaction to the Trumpian antics and begun to use them to further their own agendas — and some very diverse agendas they are, including both right and left on the American political spectrum.

This blog post by Caitlin Johnstone, the Australian writer I’ve been reading recently, lays it all out. I’m not sure she’s spot-on about everything, but she certainly does give us food for thought…

Caitlin Johnstone’s Fascism Came to America