Dubious Science: The “Talking Killer Whale”

Scientists in France have taught a killer whale named Wikie to make sounds in mimicry of “hello” and “bye-bye” and other human syllables.

An authority is quoted as saying, “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture … The subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly.”

Um. So what?

This gimmick advancement in human-whale relations is supposed to support a hypothesis of social learning in mimicry among wild orca populations.

But really, it seems to me a silly trick, like making a parakeet wear bunny ears or something, just because we can. It reminds me of those disrespectful photoshopped images that goofify furry critters. You know what I’m talking about. People try to make mammals look cuter by morphing their muzzles into smiling lips. Usually with a sappy caption that no self-respecting nonhuman animal would ever “say.”

I mean, animals are brilliant on their own, without needing to jump through our stupid hoops. And they’re plenty beautiful without benefit of Photoshop.

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Photo by “JellyBean” via Flickr Creative Commons

I think of the book by esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal, titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and the answer seems to be: No.

Must we demean a noble species by teaching it to twist its vocalizing apparatus in a semi-successful attempt to sound like us? Is that a good use of research dollars? Surely the orca has its own intricate and elegant communications genius, of which the audible variety is only one method. (Echolocation, body language, telepathy?)

If you look up “threats to orca” you find lists like this: habitat loss, chemical pollution, loss of food supply due to hydroelectric dams and other human encroachment, etc. Not to mention being captured for marine mammal parks like the one where 14-year-old “Wikie” lives. 

I won’t lie, I was thrilled with Shamu the Killer Whale as a youngster visiting Sea World. The tricks! The jumps! The splash! But … haven’t we all grown up a bit since the 1980s?

The orca who learned to “speak” lives at MarineLand in Antibes, France, which has been the target of protests and investigations for mistreatment of the sea mammals.

“Bye-bye,” indeed.

Surely we are the ones who could stand to learn from our wild cousins. An apex predator like the orca: Does it kill more than it needs to fill its belly and care for its young? Or does it live in balance with its habitat, like every other creature on the planet with the exception of homo sapiens?

What a step for humankind it would be, if we humbled ourselves enough to consider the possibility of mimicry in the other direction.

Flowers in 2018

A friend posted a simple graphic soon after the start of 2018. If I remember right (I can’t find it just now) it showed two characters, one worried-faced and wringing hands, one kneeling in the dirt. The first gives a litany of worries about the new year familiar to anyone paying attention. So much going wrong.

The second says, still kneeling, hands in dirt: “I think the new year is going to bring flowers.”

First: “Why would you say that?”

Second: “Because I’m planting flowers.”

CIMG3806 (1024x768)Such a simple reminder of two basic facts:

a) Doing something helpful with your hands feels better than wringing them.

b) We all make the future with everyday small acts.

Every choice we make adds up to our personal consequences and our collective reality. It’s easy to slip into believing, in this aggrandizing age, that only the big mouthpiece and the viral video—the people who gain widespread attention—can possibly make a difference. But every single small thing adds up, and in fact there are no small things at all.

The energy of a kiss blown in love is no different from a kind word offered to another or a generous gift affecting hundreds of thousands. There’s no need for “scalable,” for “platform,” for “visibility,” not on the level of karmic consequence.

And for added perspective, remember, in the words of Paramahansa Yogananda:

Infinity is our Home. We are just sojourning awhile in the caravanserai* of the body. Those who are drunk with delusion have forgotten how to follow the trail that leads to God. But when in meditation the Divine gets hold of the prodigal child, there is no dallying anymore. Enter the portals of the New Year with new hope. Remember you are a child of God. It lies with you as to what you are going to be.

*I had to look this up. It refers to a roadside inn, especially along the Silk Road. Body as inn: I like it! (Similarly Rumi writes, “This being human is a guest house” and exhorts us to greet every joy and sorrow as a visitor.)

What shall we plant in 2018? The seeds of flowers, of justice, of awareness, of transformation?

Permit me another quote, from venerable author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died Monday:

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!’ ‘Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical…There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

Let’s plant the seeds of Le Guin’s brand of strength.

Dances of Universal Peace

On the first day of 2018, I joined a circle of lovely souls in sacred movement and song. A friend took me to the New Year’s Day Dances of Universal Peace meetup in my town, and though I knew only a few people there, I felt a marvelous kinship with everyone.

In Dances of Universal Peace  (aka “sufi dancing”), I learned, participants make the music themselves, taking beautiful, mystical pieces from many spiritual traditions. We sang (and clapped and stamped), while members of the group rotated duties on guitar, drum, shruti box, and piano.

Not a cell phone in sight. What nourishment for my analog self. A couple songs in, I felt positively incandescent. It seemed like the other participants were aglow as well.

In the intro to one of the first numbers, I learned that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas has a passage in which the disciples ask Jesus what is required of them. “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?”

Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate.” (A succinct mantra for someone who craves authenticity and alignment in 2018.)

Some of the dances were energizing, some mesmerizing. In the sweetest ones, like “May the Lady Bless and Keep You,” we offered each other a blessing through our words and motions. With winter-chapped hands clasped to each other’s, we sang into each other’s eyes.

At one point I started to cry from the intensity of it. The joy of holding space for such a living breathing thing as peace. And how rare it is to really behold someone else’s beauty, and shine one’s own soul fully.

 

Here’s a rousing one we did, singing to Govinde and Radhe (Krishna and his beloved, whom I blogged about earlier this year). The video is from elsewhere but captures the spirit of Dances of Universal Peace. Note the big smiles. I can testify that it is nearly impossible to keep a smile off your face while singing, spinning, and slapping hands.

Watching this, I’m already itching for the next meetup, which I’m told will be a “Zikr,” a meditative evening: slow movement, singing the names of God. Trancy. I’m so there.

This is definitely an energy I want to keep with me in 2018. It seems more important than ever to find ways to connect with each other and Spirit, and to nurture both body and soul.

How does that look for you? Are you trying anything new this year to increase your joy and resilience? I’d love to know what you’re doing to nourish your sweet spirit.

One Resolution

Twenty-four years ago, possibly to the day, I made this drawing in a sketchpad.

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Crayon drawing I made Dec. 30 or 31, 1994

The picture started from a doodle. I didn’t know I was drawing an alien and spaceship till they emerged.

I did know that I felt quite alien myself, and had all my life. As I went into 1994 (at 27 years old) I was trying to integrate this understanding of myself. I wrote “Hail Earthlings” as my greeting to the rest of the human race, closed the notebook and moved on.

Pre-social network days—and I’m not even sure I was on the Internet much in 1993—I didn’t realize how many others felt (and feel) this sense of being “other.”

In this connected age, we aliens have started to find each other. We’re getting bolder about showing up in all our freaky glory.

I think of the admonishment some of my religiously-brought-up friends often heard as they headed to school: “Remember who you are.” Meaning, behave yourselves, represent the family and the church, be shining examples of godliness, etc.

Well, now we are remembering who we are for real. And it isn’t about good behavior this time, but about authenticity.

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Any other weird kids want to come out and play?

It turns out that being authentic is actually the way to be “godly”—if you believe, as I do, that we are all born with spiritual gifts that yearn to be expressed. The only way to move closer to our Divine nature is to truly be ourselves, to align outward action with the truth of who we are on the inside.

What’s more, that’s the best way to participate in the healing of the world.

What a revelation. What a resolution.

Let’s not close the notebook on our weirdness. No more modulating what we do in a doomed quest to fit in.

“Let your freak flag fly.” That was the guidance given to a friend recently, the same friend I had counseled, “Just do you, and you’ll soar.”

So how about it: Want to “do you” in 2018?

Let that be the one resolution that you keep. Let 2018 be the year of freak-flag-flying and remembering… and healing the world through the authentic expression of our beautiful kaleidoscopic gifts.

Designing Life in Alignment

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Every year around Solstice time, we build a fire and burn what we’re ready to release, and welcome the return of the light. This year I released my rigidity, and my need to “do it all/do it perfectly/do it at the expense of what really matters.”

This tendency is in full force as I try to scratch my annual (unrealistic) itch to tie up loose ends before Dec. 31. And to plan a stellar New Year—I’m a sucker for a fresh start.

In that vein, I bought a new tool called a Passion Planner. I’m so excited about it that I couldn’t wait for 2018 to start, so I printed out some blank pages from the freebies on the website, and started planning the heck out of the last few days of 2017.

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I bought the eco-version, which is a reusable cover with an insert that can be switched out year to year. Two starter stickers were included.

Irony: I just posted about flowing and obeying internal nudges. I may be crazy, but I think I can integrate structure with flow, and this might be just the tool to do it.

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Opal goes to the petsitter.

So now I’m geeking out. I bought erasable ink pens, some stickers, and a roll of balloon-patterned Washi tape.

I’ve never used Washi tape in my life. I’m not the least bit crafty. I’m way better at writing than drawing. But I’ve started putting goofy little sketches in my planner pages, just for fun.

Now whenever I spend my early morning hour on my writing project, I’m rewarding myself with a sticker. Jennifer Louden blogged about celebrating our daily efforts, and these nerd-stickers help with that.

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Sticker!

 

I also love that the planner has space to write “Good Things That Happened” each week. I’m recording things like a heron sighting, a new client, a neighbor all happy showing me her progress after an injury.

Of course, a planner can’t advise me on the best time for a walk based on the weather and the body’s needs (or the dog’s wishes). It can’t plan for all the interruptions that pop up in life. It can’t magically make my ever-extending to-do list cross itself out.

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Holiday baking

What it can do is:

1. Help me minimize distractions and lower priorities, based on my higher commitments and plans. (A good question: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?)

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Love the “not-to-do” box.

2. Help me be more judicious in what I schedule, based on a realistic assessment of time. If I see how long something really takes, and block time, I realize that I can’t do the 10 million other things that crowd into my brain whenever I have appointment-free space.

In short, I have to choose. Choosing is always tricky.

Which brings me to no. 3:

3. Help me design my life based on my mission. This particular planner starts off with space to map the most important pledges. (OK it calls them “goals” but as I mentioned before, “pledge” or “commitment” works better for me.) It sets them up in a 3-month, 1-year, 3-year, and lifetime span. With these pledges literally at the forefront—they’re in the first few pages of the planner—I can align my daily choices more consciously.

Very exciting stuff.

But back to rigidity. I can get all tense about my lists and plans. Truly my left brain LOVES these tools. It loves to schedule every minute of my day with the intent of DOING IT ALL. In fact, my left brain reminds me of the greedy villain from every Saturday morning cartoon show of my childhood. After gaining enough power or whatever (in this case list check-offs), “Finally—I shall RULE the WORLD!”.

(I always wondered, why would anyone want to rule the world?)

It’s getting easier to talk back to my left brain, to bring it back into integration with my body and my higher Self (Soul). I can tell it, I know that you had this plan to go like gangbusters all day and check off a million things, so that tomorrow we can get up early and do it all over again, but what we really need today is some open time to rest and integrate. 

Left brain devalues dreamy-drifty time. So does society. But time to noodle is so critical to quality of life. And, it turns out to be absolutely key to my true work as a writer and energy worker.

That’s where internal listening comes in. The roadmap provided by my soul must align with the roadmap I’m unspooling in this planner.

My intention is not more constriction, but more spaciousness in my life, and the clarity gained from working my Passion Planner can help with that.

At the fire, on the flip side of my little wood round where I’d written “rigidity,” I wrote “passion.” On the other side of the card where I’d written my “do it all” refrain, I wrote “I commit to alignment.” These are the things I invoke for this next cycle.

What about you? What do you release, what do you invoke? And does a planner figure into your process? (What kind do you use, and how do you use it? I’m so curious!)

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Cat optional. (But look how imperious he is with his paw on that schedule!)

The Truth About Ease

I’ve been both attracted and repelled by an idea that’s gained traction in our culture: that whatever we are supposed to do should feel easy, as in ease-filled. There should be an ease about our choices, and if something is hard, it might not be the right thing for us.

I’ve always thought: What about the Civil Rights movement, and all the hard stuff people did to gain voting rights, to take their rightful place as full citizens? What about every social movement involving people making choices that revealed the truth and pressed for change? What if they’d espoused this philosophy of “ease”—where would our planet be now?

On the other hand, I love the idea of ease! I love the idea that our choices can fit us so thoroughly that our actions and expressions just flow.

Maybe that’s because it’s taken me so long to get over the notion that whatever’s easy for me must not be worth doing. Must not be a gift at all.

Earlier this year a much-admired community organizer stunned me by cluing me in to my impact. Apparently all the stuff I do that comes naturally—reading, thinking deeply, caring, listening, offering insight and concern, connecting people—has helped his organization in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

Here I thought I was just sitting there being thinky/feely, not really “doing” anything.

It’s so easy to discount our native gifts and think we should do more or be different. As Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz counseled a young writer asking how to find her audience: Do You.

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Photo by Walt Stoneburner, via Flickr Creative Commons

So I am learning to follow ease in that regard, and not think that I must work against the grain to offer something of value. After all, the very things that come easy for me might be the hardest things for someone else. Why not play to our strengths?

However, I don’t believe that nothing we attempt should ever be difficult, or that we’re “doing it wrong” if we run into difficulties. I know that writing a book is hard. I know that showing up and being vulnerable is hard. I know that holding people accountable is really damn hard.

Some of these things, at various times and for various people, might be the exact next right thing, no matter how hard. We can tell if they are by keying into a sense of rightness deep in the marrow of our bones.

My new barometer is less about ease and more about alignment. So if something seems hard but still feels right? That’s the direction I need to go.

Integrity

Integrity: noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.

“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.

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Ladakhi woman, photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons license

The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.

Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.

With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.

Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)

You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.

What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.

Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.

But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.

Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.

In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.

Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.

We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.

Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.

*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.