What Is Your Attention Worth?

A book that has changed the way I understand contemporary life is The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu. We all know that advertising is designed to motivate us to buy things, and over the years has become more and more clever at doing that, but I had never understood how it emerged and evolved over time.

He starts in the 19th century when newspapers discovered they could sell more copies by publishing scandalous and outrageous stories. Soon, publishing entrepreneurs also figured out that, instead of earning income by customers just paying for each printed copy, they could make more on selling space to advertisers to promote their sometimes dubious products.

            Aided by innovations in printing technology, the billboard soon appeared:

            Posters had been around since 1796. But no one had ever seen the likes of those that began to appear in Paris in the late 1860s, some of them seven-feet high, with beautiful, half-dressed women gamboling over fields of vibrant color…’Luminous, brilliant, even blinding,’ one journalist wrote…For despite being static, the Parisian posters evoked a sense of frantic energy…elements that made them nearly impossible to ignore.”[i]

            Wu takes through us through the boom in propaganda during World War 1, as nations used methods borrowed from advertising and adapted it on a mass scale; the Nazi Party capitalized on this to bewitch an entire nation.

            In the late 1920s, the technology of radio emerged. A toothpaste manufacturer, Pepsodent, was looking for a program that could attract a loyal following and boost their flagging product sales.  They created “Amos n’ Andy,” a radio sitcom that drew on all the racist stereotypes of African Americans to tell a light-hearted tale of two men making sense of everyday life in Harlem.  They hit gold:

The audiences, astounding at the time, are still impressive by today’s standards…by 1931, Amos n Andy is believed to have attracted 40 million listeners each and every evening – with some episodes reaching 50 million – this out of a population that was then 122 million….the equivalent of having today’s Super Bowl audiences each and every evening – and with just one advertiserHotels, restaurants and movie theaters would broadcast the show for their patrons. Fearing displacement, movie theaters advertised the installation of radios to broadcast “Amos n’ Andy” at 7 PM before the newsreels and features.[ii] Many people gathered around a radio in their living room — now advertising was in the center of family life.

Then came television. At first, many people dimmed the lights in their living room and refrained from talking to simulate being in a theater. And with every program, advertising was becoming more and more skillful with catchy songs and memorable slogans. I Love Lucy premiered in 1952 and, by 1953, “attracted an astonishing 71.3 percent of audiences, and as an average for an entire season, this figure remains unsurpassed.”[iii] The company that sponsored the show and benefitted from all this attention: Phillip Morris Tobacco, which contributed to our collective imagination in many ways, including the creation of the “Marlboro Man.”

The story continues decade after decade, with advertisers adapting quickly to social changes and technological innovations. Wu takes us through the arrival of personal computers, email, AOL (“You’ve got mail!”), Oprah, reality shows, Apple, the Web, Google, click-bait, Facebook, and all social media. As we know, the “attention merchants” are relentlessly coming up with new methods to get our attention, track us, and create complex algorithms to target us so they can sell us products and try to shape our political and social sentiments.

            Your attention is worth a lot to advertisers.  What’s it worth to you?

 The great psychologist and religious experience scholar William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” [iv]

I’m not a purist or a saint. I have fond memories of watching the television version of “Amos n’ Andy” as a kid, oblivious to the racial stereotyping it conveyed. My family loved “I Love Lucy,” and when I tried smoking cigarettes as a teenager, I bought Marlboros more than once, subconsciously hoping it would make me ride a bit taller in my saddle. I own four different Apple devices that I use every day, loving both the engineering quality and the brand identity of being “a creative.” I rely on Gmail and Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family, adding filters as I can figure them out, but knowing what they offer is free because of the economic value of analyzing and predicting what interests me.

All the more reason to commit ourselves to using attention to experience life as it really is, free from the reach of the “Attention Merchants.”

We can remember that each breath we take is not a commodity, but a divine gift.

We can look carefully at trees and pause to wonder how they’re always growing and responding to their environment without making a sound.

We can play with children as people have done long before the first ad or device was sold.

We can notice that our pets aren’t devoted to us because there’s profit to be made, but because we share genuine bonds of life.

We can sing, paint, write, sculpt, garden, cook, and build things as a way to experience and appreciate the gift of creativity we possess free of charge.

We can engage in spiritual, social and physical practices that allow our distractable mind to rest, and the deeper voice within to speak to us through sensations, intuitions, and feelings, instead of manipulated responses.

Our attention is our life. Let’s treat it with intelligence and care.


[i] The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Tim Wu, 2016, page 18-19

[ii] Wu, pages 90-91

[iii] Wu, page 123

[iv] Wu, dedication page

Image: Tree of Faith, La Casa de Maria

“Whole Lotta Umwelt Going On”

            When I first saw this cover of the New Yorker last September, I took a quick glance and simply thought, “…people in the summer thinking about food.” I opened the magazine and began looking for the cartoons.

            But a few days later, I looked at it again and started studying it with more care.

            At first, I assumed every being is imaging what they want to eat at this moment.  The toddler is thinking of ice cream. The woman at her computer is thinking of pizza.  The bird is hoping for a dropped donut.

            Then I noticed some people are already eating or drinking something but are wishing for something else.  The hot dog vendor is fantasizing about fresh vegetables.  The woman walking with what might be iced tea is wishing it was a martini. The guy selling ice cream is imagining the taste of a cold beer.

            And then I thought more about the animals in the scene.  I counted two birds, two dogs, a parade of ants, and a cat. Just like us humans, they’ve got an idea of what might make life a little better in the moment.  There are more than two dozen living beings depicted in the scene.  I liked the idea of us sharing similar moments of imaginative thought with our fellow creatures.

            Then this past June, I came across, “How Animals See Themselves” by Ed Yong.[i]  Yong notes how popular animal documentaries are these days, and says the following:

“But in the process, they have also shoved the square peg of animal life into the round hole of human narratives. When animals become easier to film, it is no longer enough to simply film them; they must have stories. They must struggle and overcome. They must have quests, conflicts, even character arcs. An elephant family searches for water amid a drought. A lonely sloth swims in search of a mate. A cheeky penguin steals rocks from a rival’s nest.

“Nature shows have always prized the dramatic: David Attenborough himself once told me, after filming a series on reptiles and amphibians, frogs “really don’t do very much until they breed, and snakes don’t do very much until they kill.” Such thinking has now become all-consuming, and nature’s dramas have become melodramas. The result is a subtle form of anthropomorphism, in which animals are of interest only if they satisfy familiar human tropes of violence, sex, companionship and perseverance. They’re worth viewing only when we’re secretly viewing a reflection of ourselves.

“We could, instead, try to view them through their own eyes. In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll noted that every animal exists in its own unique perceptual world — a smorgasbord of sights, smells, sounds and textures that it can sense but that other species might not. These stimuli defined what von Uexküll called the Umwelt — an animal’s bespoke sliver of reality. (In German, “welt” is “world” and “um” means “around.”) A tick’s Umwelt is limited to the touch of hair, the odor that emanates from skin and the heat of warm blood. A human’s Umwelt is far wider but doesn’t include the electric fields that sharks and platypuses are privy to, the infrared radiation that rattlesnakes and vampire bats track or the ultraviolet light that most sighted animals can see…

“… By thinking about our surroundings through other Umwelten, we gain fresh appreciation not just for our fellow creatures, but also for the world we share with them. Through the nose of an albatross, a flat ocean becomes a rolling odorscape, full of scented mountains and valleys that hint at the presence of food. To the whiskers of a seal, seemingly featureless water roils with turbulent currents left behind by swimming fish — invisible tracks that the seal can follow. To a bee, a plain yellow sunflower has an ultraviolet bull’s-eye at its center, and a distinctive electric field around its petals. To the sensitive eyes of an elephant hawk moth, the night isn’t black, but full of colors.”

I had never known how vastly different the perceptual worlds of other creatures are.

I’m looking again at the magazine cover. I like the idea that we share some similar perceptions and feelings with animals, whether it’s involves a donut, hot dog, or ice cream. And I love the idea that each one of our fellow species have all kinds of ways of experiencing the world that are far beyond my ability to conceive.  “There’s a whole lotta umwelt going on.”

And as I am using my senses and imagination to write this piece, I’m also keeping an eye on Sita, our almost-12-year-old Golden Retriever. She’s in the process of dying.  She has not eaten in 5 days and barely able to get up the few times a day she tries. There’s seems to be no pain at this point, and the vet cannot detect anything other than old age.  We keep doing things to keep her comfortable, tell her we love her, and just let her lie at our feet.  I’ve seen members of my own species go through “natural death,” and it feels similar.  I don’t know what thoughts she might be having, or if she’s remembering how good a bit of grilled meat that’s fallen off the bar-b-q tastes.  I’m grateful I can be at home with her most days, and that we have shared this unlikely miracle of life together.

Image: “Food for Thought,” Tom Weld, New Yorker, September 6, 2021


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/20/opinion/how-animals-see-themselves.html

Alert: Beware of Sneezing Sponges

Dear Reader,

Each week I try to offer an insight or story that I have found valuable, hoping it will be useful to you.  I’m not sure if this week’s piece qualifies.  But I am going to go ahead and share a few reflections on an article from the August 10 “Science” section of the New York Times:

“Sneeze by Sneeze, Sponges Fill the Seas With Their Mucus”

Here’s the key thought: The researchers came across sponges sneezing snot while working on a project investigating the role played by sponges in moving nutrients through a reef ecosystem.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know more, but I kept reading.  Apparently, the sponges absorb needed nutrients as the sea passes by, take what they need, and in a slow spasm, eject what they don’t want back into the ocean.  A variety of organisms find this “contribution” exactly what their dietician recommended.

Sounds like an exciting discovery. But such knowledge did not come easily: The work required Niklas Kornder, another marine ecologist at Amsterdam, to spend a lot of time with sponges. “I would spend entire days just looking at the surface of them; it was quite boring,” he recalled.

I’ve heard of monks who spend years in silent meditation, hoping for great insights.  I had never imagined scientists spending their days staring at the surface of sea sponges.  But as many contemplatives know, enlightenment can come in a flash and with time-lapse photography they documented the slow sneezing.

The sponge has been around for at least 600 million years. “It’s the most successful animal that I know of, because it’s so old, and it’s everywhere,” said Jasper de Goeij, a marine ecologist at the University of Amsterdam

This is impressive. I know as I get older, it’s harder for me to go all the places I used to.  I can’t imagine being 600 million years old and able to be “everywhere.” Hopefully there will be carbon-free min-buses with ramps.

“This could give us hints of how early life evolved from these squishy brainless things into these complex organisms building spaceships,” Dr. Ushijima said.

In recent years, I’ve done my share of genealogical research on Ancestry.com.  Beyond my traceable human ancestors, I have always felt some deep connection with certain creatures. For instance, I was mesmerized by the old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies as a kid and instinctively knew I had a deep kinship with Cheetah and all chimpanzees.  Growing up with dogs, I felt a personal bond with Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.  Loving to swim in the ocean, it was not hard to explain the sense of connection I felt with Flipper. But I never imagined I should include sneezing sponges in my lineage (although it explains why some Saturday mornings I feel like a “squishy brainless thing.”)  I doubt I have much to offer building spaceships. All I know is the next time I go to the beach I’m going to pack plenty of Kleenex.

Comments aside, isn’t the creativity and efficiency of the natural world amazing?

For the complete article, including time-lapse video of actual sponge sneezes, go to sea-sponges-sneezing.html

According to the article, “All three of these marine sponge species are probably sneezing right now. Credit…Benjamin Müller”

Old Haunts, New Rivers

            In late July, my wife and I traveled north to Sacramento to visit cousins, then on to the Oregon Coast to visit friends.  I was surprised with what perceptions arose in each place, and how the two impressions ended up blending together.

            I had lived in Sacramento in the mid-70s after college, trying my hand at selling real estate.  I made many friends, and grew to appreciate the river, the parks, the Victorian houses, and the neighborhood I lived near the Capitol.  I had not been back since. As we drove up the I-5, a lot of fond memories came back to me.  

We had booked a hotel in Rancho Cordova to be close to where we were going to meet for dinner.  As we came into the city and headed east on Highway 50, I was amazed at how much the city has sprawled and grown.  Logically, I knew the population had tripled since I had lived and worked there and there would be changes. But I was surprised at how out of place I felt.  

Memories kept coming as I thought of the people I knew back then and I wondered if I could trace them down.  But as I remembered each person, I realized I’d lost touch with them and that most of them, no doubt, had died.  It became clear that the life I had known was gone.

            The next day we headed north to Oregon.

Our friends’ home is on the banks of the Siletz River at a point where the river flows into the sea.  It’s a large, impressive river.  I realized that, growing up in southern California, I was familiar with seasonal creeks but no real rivers

Soon I was mesmerized as I sat quietly and watched the river flow.  I thought of our countless ancestors who have watched rivers over the centuries, and who sensed they were watching the unending movement of time. Day-to-day, we live as if our lives are stable. But days, months, and years pass, and we realize life has always been quietly moving all around us, and our lives are part of that constant movement and change.  

            The melancholy feeling of loss I had visiting Sacramento came back, but I saw it in a new light. I understood it was just another example of life’s river flowing.

            A verse from a 3-century old hymn began singing itself in my mind: “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”  The hymn is based on a song of Israel, Psalm 90, which is itself 2,500 years old.  That sense of being part of “an ever-flowing stream” is an ancient awareness.

            A new thought arose: my time in Sacramento may have passed long ago, but many new people have come into that community with most of their lives are in front of them.  New lives have replaced mine and all who are no longer there.  And this is good.

            I kept watching the Siletz River. I could look eastward and imagine, at the headwaters of every tributary, the water’s journey just beginning. Then I could look westward and see the waters finding their way to the sea. The waters will evaporate, form clouds, and bring rain, and the river will replenish itself.  And this is good.

            I’m grateful for what I have seen and what I can still see. And knowing what endures is not me but the river itself.

Top Image: Siletz River looking eastward; image below: the river as it merges with the sea. Photo credit: R. Ellsworth

Tasting the Magic Waters

            For more than a decade, I’ve been entranced by the great three-part medieval poem, Dante’s Divine Comedy.  There are many spiritual and psychological insights Dante shares in this work that speak to me. In this posting, I want to share his concept of two symbolic rivers we might sample in our life journey. The description occurs near the end of the second volume, Purgatorio.

By this point Dante’s been given a tour of hell (Inferno) and all its custom-made torments. It’s impressive to see how he imagines the bad guys “get what’s coming to them,” as they used to say in the Westerns.  But Inferno is not as meaningful to me as what follows.

In Purgatorio, he imagines hiking up a mountain to see how all kinds of people are completing their personal soul-work as they prepare for Paradiso.  (Does he – or anyone these days — really believe in a place like purgatory, you might ask? Don’t worry about it, dear reader; let’s just follow what he imagined.)

As he gets to the top of the mountain, he travels through an enchanted forest and, among other experiences, comes to two rivers.  He also encounters a guide, Mathilda.  The first river Mathilda leads him to is the Lethe, which was known in Greek mythology as the river of forgetfulness we pass through after we die.  Dante interprets it in a positive way:

“She plunged me, up to my throat, in the river

And, drawing me behind her, she now crossed

Light as a gondola, near the blessed shore, I heard

“Asperges me,” so sweetly sung that I

Cannot remember or, much less, describe it.” (Canto 31: 94-99)

“Asperges me” means “thou shalt sprinkle me.”  After guiding him across the river, she invites him to take a drink.   All the memories of the mistakes he’s made in life – the poor decisions, the times when he’s hurt someone else or disappointed himself – all are washed away in the Lethe. Think about your regrets in life – what would it feel like to have the painful memory of them disappear?

“The River Lethe,” John Flaxman, 1807

            After more encounters and reflections, he comes to the second river – one Dante created out of his own imagination — the Eunoe.  Matilda is joined by a group of guides and invites Dante and a fellow pilgrim to drink from it.  After he does, he says:

If, reader, I had ample space in which

To write, I’d sing – though incompletely – that

Sweet draft for which my thirst was limitless…(Canto 33: 136-138)

Where the effect of drinking from the Lethe was to allow him to forget all his failings, drinking from the Eunoe allows him to recall all the good deeds he’s done in life, both large and small.  (The word he created, eunoe, combines eu(new) – and noe(mind) – a new, fresh mind.)

The River Eunoë, John Flaxman, 1807

            Think about it. Sure, you’ve made mistakes in life. But you’ve also done many good things – small kindnesses, acts of love and duty, promises kept, hope given, and friendships honored. Imagine what it would be like towards the end of life to forget all the bad stuff you’ve done and remember all the good?

            From the first time I read about these two mythic rivers, I was entranced by imagining what such an experience would feel like.  In the years since, I’ve come to wonder if sometimes people actually experience something similar.

            My father outlived my mother by 19 years.  We knew they loved each other all the years they were married. But we also remember their life together was not free from the stresses and strains of many long-term relationships.  Yet in his last years, whenever dad reflected on their time together, all he talked about were the joys they’d shared — no mention of the hardships.  At first, I was tempted to kindly point out it wasn’t all milk and honey. But something told me to be quiet.  It was as if dad had dipped first into the Lethe, then the Eunoe, and the combination filled him with pure gratitude.

            Recently I visited a former parishioner who had decided to stop receiving life-prolonging treatments. She’d been through many challenges in her life, including years of concern for her children and the obstacles they faced. But, she told me, they were both doing well now and didn’t need her as they had before.  She was tired of the complications her body was having to endure every day and she wanted to be free.  When I came, she was going through a box of old family photos.  After I sat down, she showed me some of her favorites. Each memory had become a delight.  Before I left, I asked her if there was anything she’d like me to pray for. She told me, “Somebody said, If the only prayer we ever offer is thank you, that would be enough.  Just say how grateful I am.’

            Remembering our mistakes helps us to stay humble and keep learning how to do better. Focusing only on the good we’ve done may seem selfish.  But maybe, once in a while, we can close our eyes and imagine sampling those waters – tasting what it’s like to have our regrets washed away, then savoring a pint of gratitude for the good things we’ve done.  Maybe we shouldn’t wait until late in life to see what these magic waters can teach us. 

Painting: “Along the River Lethe,” Kyle Thomas

Status and Community: A Tale of Two Lives

            Dr. Charity Dean lived in our neighborhood before she became famous, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak this week as part of the annual “Lead Where You Stand” conference at Westmont College. I was familiar with her amazing career and legendary grit but, until Wednesday, had never heard about a personal challenge she faced.

Born and raised in a low-income family in rural Oregon, at age 7 she felt a call to become a physician and tropical disease specialist. After earning her medical degrees, she became a resident at Cottage Hospital here in Santa Barbara.  She was brilliant at analyzing data. But she also received invaluable training from Dr. Stephen Hosea who taught her the importance of looking beyond the data and test results to see each patient as a unique person. He also emphasized the importance of physically touching them before making a diagnosis, encouraging her to trust her “sixth sense” to discover what was going on; “I sense and feel things,” she told us.

She became the Public Health Officer for Santa Barbara County, which had traditionally been a largely bureaucratic position.  But she didn’t stay in her office or wait for patients to be brought to her. Instead, she went out to see them wherever they were — homeless shelters, farm worker sites, parks, anywhere.  She observed them, listened to their stories, always using touch as part of her interactions.  She soon gained a reputation as a fearless and formidable public servant who wasn’t afraid of upsetting other officials in serving the public good.

In the summer of 2019, her training and “sixth sense” told her COVID was coming.  She began a relentless struggle to alert and prepare others.  By April 2020, she was Co-chair of the California COVID-19 testing task force in Sacramento and serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She was featured on ABC News and 60 Minutes and is a central figure in Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

It was fascinating to hear an account of her professional ascent.  But I was impressed in another way when she talked about a personal issue.

Apparently, alcohol had been problematic for her. She did not drink daily, but when she did, she had a hard time stopping. She went to Oregon to visit her mother and asked about the family history.  She was told alcoholism had been pervasive, which she hadn’t know.  She returned home and decided she needed to go to an AA meeting.

When she walked in, she was surprised to see someone who knew her — one of her homeless patients.

“Hello, Dr. Dean,” he said. 

She became a regular.  A year later she received a pin marking her first “birthday” of sobriety.  As she came forward to receive it, the man who followed her was receiving his ten-year pin – another former homeless patient who was living with HIV and had become a friend and supporter.

            As a physician, she said it was humbling to go to that first meeting.  But she discovered everyone in the group had something to teach her about life.

            This brought to mind a story from my time at Hospice of Santa Barbara.

            HSB is a rare form of hospice – one which does not provide direct medical services, but instead offers psychological, social, and spiritual help to anyone facing a life-threatening illness or grieving the death of a loved one.  Thanks to a $40 million bequest we received and community support, we were able to have a staff of 30 skilled and compassionate professionals. Part of HSB’s charter is that all our services are free, with no reliance on government or insurance funding.  When I was there (2008-2013), we were serving hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds.

            One staff member told me the following story.

A wealthy woman had come for grief counseling. When the first session was completed, she took out her checkbook and asked how much the fee was.  The therapist told her HSB did not accept payment; if she wished she could make a donation when her therapy was completed. She was flustered and uncomfortable at the thought of not being able to pay for the services.  But she kept coming to her appointments.

            Our staff knew that, for many people, being in a group of others who had suffered a similar loss can be helpful.  Our therapist told this client that she had gotten to a point where being part of such a group would be a good next step.  The woman was very resistant — she didn’t think she’d have much in common with a group of ordinary people.

But she agreed to try it. Soon she became a dedicated member.

            When she completed her time with us, she told the therapist that she had never realized how much she had in common with other people.  Sharing this difficult journey with others, she said, was one of the best experiences of her life.

            We seem wired to create and maintain identities for ourselves that can make us think some people are “better’ than others. But in my experience, beneath the facades, we are all human beings trying to find our way in life. On that journey, humility, friendship, and community are priceless gifts.

What?? No WI-FI??

                      In my first college class, “Introduction to Psychology,” I was introduced to a popular concept of that era, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”:

                      The idea is simple. For human beings to become “self-actualized,” we first need to satisfy our basic needs. Each level going “up” assumes you’ve fulfilled the need that precedes it.  This can help explain why, for instance, it’s difficult to manage life if we’re experiencing hunger, trauma, or deprivation. It has a certain logic to it: what factors need to be in place for you to become your “best self”?[i]

                      Several years ago, I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker that suggested Maslow’s hierarchy needs to be updated. I couldn’t find the actual cartoon this week, but found a graphic that displays the cartoonist’s point[ii]:

                      What’s it like these days if your power is out?  Or your internet is down? Or your cellphone dies?

                      A few years ago, we were staying at a modest, funky hotel on Highway 1 south of Big Sur.  It was in a remote area where cell service was either spotty or nonexistent.  If you were a registered guest, you were given the WIFI password. But they had a policy of not giving the password to anyone who was just passing by because their small parking lot would become full of people stopping only to use their limited system.  I remember an anxious European couple coming into the tiny reception office and being told they would not be given the password since they were not registered guests.  They were aghast.  How does one travel without WIFI or cell service?

                      About the same time, I made a trip to New York to see some baseball games, music concerts and art exhibits. I was walking down a busy street in Manhattan when, out of habit, I checked to be sure my wallet was secure.  It was. But then it hit me — what would I do if I lost my iPhone? That was how I was communicating with my Airbnb hosts, hailing Uber rides, showing my tickets at events, finding my way through the city, checking on my flight details, and keeping in touch with my wife.  

                      Twenty years ago, I had a sabbatical to study how digital technology was beginning to reshape our lives.  My research included interviewing people in Silicon Valley and India and surveying a broad range of experts. I became acutely aware of how our lives and expectations were rapidly changing, often imperceptibly.[iii]

                      The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

When the first films were first made and shown, people could not believe images of real people could move across a flat surface.  Then came radio – voices traveling invisibly through the air for many miles – which seemed like another miracle. Black and white TV followed – now people speaking in real time could be seen in the privacy of our homes. Something better was always around the corner.  Color TV and The Wonderful World of Disney! Then VCRs — you can record The Wizard of Oz and watch it anytime you want! Then DVDs — you don’t have to rewind the movie when you’re done! Then unlimited channels with streaming content on the internet — including YouTube with 2 billion users, where you can watch some guy in his kitchen in Tennessee showing you how to unclog a drain in four minutes!  Each new stage truly seems like “magic.”

Then a few years later the miraculous device — the TV, the monitor, the laptop, the smartphone, the modem, or the router — is lying on a card table at a garage sale with a $5 price tag; when it doesn’t sell, it’s dropped off at an “E-waste” site.

                      In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari offers an overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present. He points that each time there is an “advance,” there is also some kind of loss. For instance, when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers they were highly attuned to their environment and lived entirely off what nature provided.  When they settled down to become farmers, they were able to create greater quantities of food but soon lost the subtle and detailed environmental knowledge that had taken their ancestors many generations to acquire.  When people moved from farms to cities, they lost the connection to the earth even more and, for many, the practical know-how of how to grow food, as well as create and fix things on their own.  We’ve now moved into the digital age and gained a whole new range of capabilities — but at what cost?  Are we more “self-actualized” or any wiser?

                      Cell phones, digital devices, the internet and WIFI have, in some ways, become as essential to modern life as food, water, warmth and rest. I appreciate all their beneficial uses.  But I’m concerned about how dependent we’ve become.

Featured image: Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, 1427


[i] There have been critiques of this concept, noting it’s very Western, male, and individualistic in its assumptions and completely ignores any spiritual dimensions.  But we’ll save that discussion for another day.

[ii] https://images.techhive.com/images/article/2014/11/wifi-maslow-100530169-large.idge.png

[iii] I published articles based on my research, including “Soul-Keeping in a Digital Age: The Role of Spiritual Practices and Traditions in a High-Tech World,’ which I presented at the “UNESCO Conference on Religious Pluralism” in Seattle in January 2005.  The paper is available at https://drjsbcom.files.wordpress.com/2021/01/soul-keeping-in-the-digital-age-1.pdf

Spiritual or Religious? A Guide for the Perplexed

“Are you religious?”

         “No, I’m spiritual.”

         Over recent decades, fewer and fewer Americans describe themselves as “religious.” Many say they are “spiritual.” What does this mean?

         I’ve been reflecting on those two words for 35 years.  I’m going to offer one way to understand the difference between them.

         “Religion” is a word that combines “re“ with “ligio.”  “Ligio” is the root for the word “ligament,” which means a binding.  So re-ligio means “bound again.” A religion binds someone to a set of beliefs, traditions, and practices. When I was a kid, every Friday the cafeteria served fish sticks. Why? Because Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday. If I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’ll only eat kosher food. If I’m a practicing Muslim, you can expect me to be praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.  

         “Spiritual” is very different. Let’s go back in time to appreciate its origins.

         In the Hebrew Scriptures, the common word for “spirit” is “ruah.” Here’s a famous passage:

         In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters.[i] Did you notice the footnote, (b)? The footnote says: “Orwhile the spirit of God orwhile a mighty wind.” Spirit is synonymous with wind and breath.

         The New Testament was written in Greek.  Just like Hebrew, the original word pneuma (as in pneumatic tire, pneumonia, etc.) can mean spirit, wind, breath. Here’s an example:

              The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.[ii]  The footnote for “wind” reads: “The same Greek word means both wind and spirit.”

         So “religion” implies a binding, a strong and secure connection.  “Spiritual” implies something more elusive and mysterious, but real. You can’t attach a ligament to the wind; a breeze can be felt but doesn’t bind you. 

         For centuries many people were bound to religious traditions.  But in the 60s, people started questioning authority.  Many began leaving such traditions altogether or picking and choosing which beliefs and practices they’d embrace and which they’d ignore.  A steady decline in membership and influence of religious communities began and continues – the ligaments became weak or were never developed.

         Being cut loose from such restrictive bonds can be exhilarating.  We can begin finding for ourselves what is true and authentic.

         As we’re searching, we may have moments when we sense there is something important beyond everyday reality. Maybe we come upon something in nature that fills us with wonder.  Maybe we are awe-struck as we look into the eyes of a newborn child. Maybe we sense something transcendent in a piece of music.  Maybe we go through a personal crisis and feel we’re being led by something beyond ourselves. Maybe we’re in recovery and find the value of a higher power.  Or, maybe we experiment with ancient Eastern techniques of inner exploration, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or Tai-chi and find an inner peace, strength, and serenity that we never experienced in one of those liga-mented institutions.

         We certainly don’t believe there is an old bearded white guy in the sky in charge of everything. But what about “… an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together,” as Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke Skywalker.[iii] This “Force” gives us courage, helps us do what is right, connects us to others and calls us to fight against forces of repression.

         If any of these experiences resonate, we might say we are “spiritual.” We sense something, believe something, feel something that is of great personal importance. And no external authority will control how we experience it or what it means.

         So much of this speaks to me personally.  I don’t believe in something just because someone tells me to. I am curious about every kind of journey people are on and learn new things whenever I can.  I’m fascinated by all things “spiritual.”

         And yet there’s something lost when we have no ligaments.

         Last spring, I was feeling discomfort in my right upper arm while doing yoga. One day, I was playing golf and noticed it was swelling dramatically and my arm was turning purple. I went to Urgent Care. They diagnosed it as a torn ligament, which leads to a swelling known as a “Popeye arm” along with contusions.  Apparently, we have two ligaments connecting shoulders to elbows, and one of mine had become disconnected.  They told me they couldn’t repair it and referred me to physical therapy to begin strengthening the surrounding muscles to compensate.

         A year later, I’m still doing the exercises and feeling fine. But I’ve learned what it’s like to be “de-ligamented.”

         I’ve been around congregations for many years.  Communities that worship and serve together week after week are like bodies that are consistently forming strong ligaments of connection. In a tragedy – a death, a disaster, an urgent social need — those bodies are ready to act decisively.  And they do.

         We can see this principle at work in the war in Ukraine.  After World War 2, NATO was formed, creating voluntary bonds of commitment between participating nations to defend each other against aggression. Some recent politicians wanted our country to be free from our NATO commitment. But we now see those ligaments in action as thirty nations quickly united to oppose Russian aggression.

         I rejoice in the freedom spirituality provides to find what is authentic. I can also sing the old hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds” when I see social bonds being used to inspire, strengthen and protect the human family.


[i] Genesis 1: 1-2, New Revised Standard Version

[ii] John 3:8, New Revised Standard Version

[iii] Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

Image: Fall Colors at Kebler Pass, Colorado USA.JPG; aspen groves are now understood to not be individual trees, but one unified biological entity.

Your Soul Is Like A Wild Animal

         When I reflect on the idea of having a “soul,” my mind first goes back to cartoons I watched as a kid.  Some character would get bonked on the head and fall over, and then a wispy image of that character would start floating up from the body with little wings and ascend into the sky.

         In college, I began to get the idea that a modern, scientific person should be skeptical of believing in anything that could not be measured, observed, and analyzed; the idea of human beings having souls was a superstition best left behind.

         Then I had my spiritually transforming experience when I was 22.  I suddenly sensed that there is something in us connected to a living reality beyond what we can see.  In the years that followed, I began to explore the many ways we can conceive of having this spiritual essence that we sometimes call “soul.”

         In 2009 I read A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by the academic-turned-spiritual-mentor Parker Palmer.  Early on, he says he will be using the word “soul.” He knows his academic friends will be dismissive about both the word and the concept.  But, he believes there is something within us that is best described with this word — a point of connection and wholeness that all spiritual traditions understand.  And, he says, he found a useful metaphor for it:

         “The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”[i]  He goes on to say that much of our culture keeps us distracted and so our soul withdraws. But in moments of quiet and inner attentiveness, our souls cautiously appear. In those moments, we realize who we really are and how miraculous the world is; in those moments, we often find guidance, assurance, and hope.

         I loved this idea.  If we are thrashing through the woods, wildlife flees from us and hides. But if we come to a cabin in the woods, sit on the porch and become still, the wildlife emerges, and we can observe it with reverence and wonder.

         Palmer says there is another quality of soul that is like a wild animal:

         Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.[ii]

         The soul is like a wild animal. It is shy.  But it also can endure great hardship.

         This certainly described what I have witnessed many times in my life. 

         When I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara, many people came to deal with a personal loss – maybe it had occurred just a few weeks before, maybe years ago. The loss had fractured their sense of meaning and trust.  Their soul had gone into hiding. But they hoped they could somehow make sense of life.  They would be given an appointment with one of our counselors.  The philosophy of our staff was based on a simple assumption: “We can’t fix you, but we can come alongside and journey with you as you find your way.”  The client would begin to experience this caring, skilled, and non-invasive companionship.  It could take weeks or months, but, in time, it was as if the person’s soul could finally come out of hiding and begin to find a way to accept what had happened while forming a new understanding of life.  As they found their way, you could see it in their eyes: there was light where there had been shadows. The soul had reemerged and brought with it a quiet wisdom about hard truths and an awareness of simple blessings.

         In my time at the La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, I would often use this metaphor when giving tours. There were no televisions or newspapers, and, fortunately, very limited Wi-Fi.  As we’d walk the 26 acres of oak groves and gardens, I would point out various places for contemplation they might want to visit during their stay.  As a guest, they would be free to wander the property, enjoy the delicious food, and rest as much as they needed.  “Our souls are like wild animals,” I would say.  “They are shy, like deer in the forest.  But when we are quiet, the deer come out.  Your soul will begin to sense this is a safe place to be.  Give it time, and your soul will come to you.”

         When people arrived, they would often be stressed, tired, and distracted.  At first, many would keep reaching for their cell phones, trying to find a spot with adequate reception, like a dowser looking for water. They were desperate to stay in touch with the busy world that had ensnared them.  But in time, that compulsion would fade. They’d rest, and wander, and explore, and discover whatever it was they needed.  As they were leaving a few days later, you could see the change in their eyes. They’d found their inner light, and with it came peace, clarity, and a renewed sense of purpose.

         Your soul is like a wild animal – shy, but capable of enduring times of great stress.  It is always choosing life instead of darkness. Honor it, care for it, listen to it.


[i] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, pg 58

[ii] Ibid, pg. 58

Photo Credit: Department of the Interior

Invitation to a Wake

This week I did something I’ve wanted to do all my life: take sailing lessons. I signed up at the local harbor for “Beginning Sailing 101.” It’s a three-day class and I’ve completed two days so far. My exam is next week.

            The course includes learning nautical terms – some of which are familiar, some not.  I soon noticed how much sailing jargon is part of our everyday language. 

            At one point the instructor was presenting ways to know if you are moving in the water if you seem to be standing still.  “You look at the boat’s wake,” he said. “If there are bubbles and ripples behind the boat, it means you are moving.”

            I looked over the stern (the back end!) of the boat for the wake. Sure enough, there were the bubbles and ripples.  I started thinking about the term “wake.”

            The first thing that came to mind was the Irish tradition of gathering after someone has died to remember and honor them.   We often associate that experience with heavy drinking of certain distilled liquids. But it was not immediately clear why we would use the word “wake” for such an event.

            Then it came to me — the person has left a “wake” in our lives – an influence or impact – and we instinctively want to gather to reflect on what that means.

            As I pondered this further, it occurred to me that the wake behind a moving boat may seem to dissipate as the boat continues sailing.  But it has made a real impact on the ocean itself, even if it seems small compared to the vastness of the sea. I began thinking about people whose “currents” of influence are still swirling in our lives. 

            My father came to mind. He died almost ten years ago, but every day some word or phrase of his comes to mind.  Most of them are not appropriate to publish in a dignified space such as this, but others can be shared.  For example, he employed a general handyman named Orville.  Orville could often find solutions to practical problems when the proper part was not available.  My dad delighted in his innovative ability, and, when faced with a puzzling problem, he’d say “Let’s see if we can ‘Put the Orville to it.’” Sometimes when I face a similar problem, I’ll think, “Maybe I can ‘Put the Orville to it’,” and it always makes me smile. But it’s more than just remembering the phrase – something about it causes me to reexperience a tangible sense of my dad’s spirit.   It’s one of the ripples of his wake.

            If I hear a jazz artist singing Gershwin’s “Summertime,” I’m taken back to times as a child when my mother would be singing it to herself at the piano as I was walked through the living room. She’s been gone 29 years, but when I hear “Summertime,” it’s different from a pleasant memory – it’s a moment when I feel she’s present again; it’s part of her “wake.”

            It can also be true with organizations.

            A few years ago, I was greeting a new neighbor. She asked where I’d worked. I mentioned Hospice of Santa Barbara. Her eyes widened.  “You worked there?  Your counselors saved my life after my husband died suddenly. I wouldn’t be standing here today without them.” What she expressed was not a simple fact – it was bringing to the surface a healing experience that was very much alive in her.

            Last fall I went to Los Angeles for one of the first post-COVID concerts.  An older woman sat next to me, and we began to talk. She told me she was from West Los Angeles. I told her I was from Santa Barbara.  “What did you do there?” she asked.  “I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center.”  She almost came up out of her seat.  “That’s one of the most important places in my life!” she said. “My 12-step group went there every year, and we loved it.  It’s an amazing place.”  I could see La Casa’s impact on her had not dissipated but was buoying her spirit even as we spoke.

            These moments aren’t just the retrieval of weightless, neutral thoughts from our past. They are times when we are truly feeling them again in body and soul.  Just as a boat’s wake continues to be present in the ocean long after it is visible, these are strong, visceral experiences that continue to eddy and swirl within us, rising into our awareness in unexpected moments.

            Are there times when such memories come to mind for you, drawing with them your body and soul as if you are still in their “wake?” 

            Finally, I thought about how all of us are “sailing” through our life every day and – know it or not – leaving a “wake” in the lives of those around us. What kind of wake is it?  Are we paying attention to the currents we are setting in motion with our words and actions?  Are we navigating skillfully so that those currents will benefit others, strangers in addition to loved ones? 

            Shipmates, I’ll confess reflecting on the word “wake” caused me to lose track of what the instructor was saying – good thing I wasn’t at the “helm.” But I’m grateful to be out on the sea, and to cherish all the people whose wakes are still with me.

“Sailing Accross the Atlantic,” Oceanpreneur