Chronic Pain Fells Many Yet Lacks Clear Cause


The article as it originally appeared.

CHRONIC pain, in the absence of any discernible physical cause, is the most common reason for lost workdays in this country, yet doctors remain unsure about what causes the complaint, how to treat it, or even if exists.

What do you do when the scans, blood tests and exams indicate nothing wrong, but the patient is incapacitated?

“Its a terrible dilemma,” said Dr. Kathleen Foley, director of the pain service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Pain is what people say it is. And if you start with the concept that you should believe the patient, then how can you say it is real or unreal, and how do you prove it?”

Frustrated by the skyrocketing number of patients receiving disability payments, most often for lower back complaints, and huge jury awards for “pain and suffering” that no scientist can measure, researchers are striving to understand the genesis of chronic pain and how to treat it. Many are concluding that chronic pain often results from a cycle of physical and emotional factors that feed on each other: a person with transient pain decides he or she has a pain problem; believing pain is a problem causes a physical response that produces more pain.

Some of the nation’s most prominent pain specialists believe that medical and legal practices actually help set the chronic-pain cycle in motion. The barrage of scans and exotic therapies that doctors prescribe for pain convinces healthy people that they have a serious condition. Prolonged sick leaves and lawsuits that drag on for years allow patients to get out of shape, which only makes pain worse. These doctors criticize the legal system for awarding damages for pain without insisting that claimants be properly treated with physical and psychological therapy.

While pain experts unanimously recoil at the notion that large numbers of patients are faking pain for profit, they agree that the psyche frequently converts trivial discomfort or a minor injury into a debilitating, lifelong medical condition. Although a fraction of chronic-pain patients are found to have worn joints or a tendon that is clearly inflamed, the majority have no specific problem that can be found on tests or exams.

“All the evidence suggests that for most people chronic pain is a stress-related disorder, just like ulcers,” said Dr. John Loeser, director of the pain clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The difference with pain is that we don’t know where to put the tube to look.”

Although there are no overall statistics about chronic pain, scientists have compiled extensive data about the current epidemic of lower back pain, the most common type of chronic pain that leads to disability. In recent years, more than 2 percent of all adults reported being unable to work because of this condition, and the cost of their health care plus the compensation they received totaled well over $50 billion annually.

Five percent of all visits to doctors are now for back pain, said Dr. Loeser. “And the numbers keep going up and up and up.”

The United States has many more people disabled by lower back pain than any other nation in the world, Dr. Loeser said, and surveys of old medical records show that chronic back pain was a rare diagnosis before World War II. Recent studies have failed to link chronic pain to physical injury or X-ray findings, but they have found that it correlates with such factors as job satisfaction, depression and the resolution of lawsuits.

Lacking a good understanding of what causes chronic pain or a good yardstick to measure it, doctors, lawyers and juries are forced to make largely arbitrary decisions about which patient will benefit from an injection of anesthetic into the spine, which claimants deserve large jury awards, and which employees should be granted disability payments.

“The disability system asks doctors to certify that someone has too much pain to work, but we have no mystical power to determine that,” Dr. Loeser said. “You can’t take an X-ray and see pain; you can’t see it on a biopsy. All you have is a patient’s statement that he hurts. Judgments are made, but I don’t know if they are right or wrong. I do know that they are not based on medical science.” ‘Chronic Pain in Litigation’

Neurologists say that they are being called upon to resolve a barrage of legal disputes but that litigation frequently clouds diagnosis and interferes with medical care.

In a study published recently in The American Journal of Pain Management, Dr. Michael Weintraub examined 210 people with chronic pain who were involved in litigation. He found evidence that 63 percent of the patients had pain that was emotional rather than physical in origin. For example, a person with lower back pain might describe a leg going numb, even though all the nerves that leave the spine in the lower back supply only a small portion of the leg.

Dr. Weintraub believes that many patients become subconsciously attached to the discomfort since it brings with it financial gain. He has proposed that “chronic pain in litigation” should be treated as a distinct syndrome since patients in this category do not get better with treatment.

“Lawyers have talked about all this pain and suffering as if it exists, but it has never been substantiated medically,” said Dr. Weintraub, who is a clinical professor of neurology at New York Medical College. “We have to look at why we in the United States are indiscriminately compensating subjective pain and suffering.”

But lawyers say the arbitrary decisions about whom to compensate can go against suffering patients as well. Although patients with chronic pain can sometimes shop around until they find a doctor who will certify that they are disabled, the Social Security Administration officially requires “medical signs or laboratory findings” of a physical ailment to qualify for disability payments.

David Koplow, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, said: “There are people with pain which everyone believes is real and affecting the person’s ability to work. But if the medical community can’t identify a cause there is no good mechanism for dealing with it, and these people are routinely denied benefits.” A Metaphor for Suffering

Chronic pain is a term used to cover a wide variety of conditions, including headaches, back pain, repetitive stress disorder of the hands and jaw pain. In some cases, such as cancer, the pain can be linked to an abnormal bone scan and in others, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a doctor can pinpoint the source of the pain since the patient has all the predicted signs and symptoms of inflammation of a particular nerve, tendon or bone. But in many patients the discomfort and associated complaints like numbness do not follow the lines of any anatomic structure.

Pain specialists say chronic pain presents a thorny problem, in part because doctors insist on classifying illness as either physical or psychiatric. When addressing the problem of chronic pain rigorous neuroscientists begin to sound like the Dalai Lama.

“There’s an enormously false division between the mind and the body, the psychological and the physical,” Dr. Foley said. “I believe that when a person tells you there is pain, they are telling you there is discomfort. But it may not be a physical pain; it may be a metaphor for anxiety or depression or spiritual suffering. We use ‘pain’ for physical and emotional distress, and sometimes people don’t make the distinction very well.”

Experts say that most chronic pain begins with a minor injury or accident, a pulled muscle, for example, that may indeed cause some temporary distress but should in no way lead to a lifetime of confinement and medical travail. But before the tissues have healed, the pain somehow takes on a life of its own. Patients come to think of themselves as having a pain problem, and new research shows that the very thought of pain can become a self-fulfilling notion. The Pathology of Pain

Using patients with chronic lower back pain or jaw pain as volunteers, Dr. Dennis Turk, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, placed electrodes over the afflicted body part and asked the patients to talk about their pain. As they spoke, the level of electrical activity in the muscles underneath the electrodes rose to as much as seven times normal.

“That tells you that just thinking can effect your physiology and your pain,” Dr. Turk said, noting that the electrical activity may indicate muscle spasm, which can be painful.

Although the vast majority of chronic-pain patients, including an estimated 99 percent of those with back pain, have no discernible physical abnormality, they routinely undertake dozens of tests costing tens of thousands of dollars to make sure that nothing is wrong. And, since the average chronic-pain patient has had symptoms for seven years, the search is often repeated over and over.

Even when abnormalities are discovered, specialists say they are not sure whether the findings are related to the pain. Many people older than 45 have some arthritic changes on spinal X-rays, and on M.R.I. scans 25 percent of adults have ruptured disks, but the vast majority report no pain.

“We often go through agonizing searches trying to find a cause for chronic pain, to try to medicalize it,” Dr. Foley said. “And if we do, we feel it is justified. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We have seen people with very bad scans who are in no discomfort, and people with clear scans who are in agony.”

After the tests, failed attempts at treatment cost tens of thousands of dollars more and vary from physical therapy to narcotics to acupuncture, surgery or chiropractic.

In fact, some experts think all the testing and treatment actually helps create chronic problems. “What I’m going to say will offend many people,” Dr. Loeser said. “In spite of the fact that we do back surgery two to five times more frequently than any other industrialized nation, we have more people disabled by back pain. And I think you might argue that the reason is too much health care.”

He said many doctors insist that patients with a first episode of back pain get an M.R.I. of the spine before allowing the two to three months it takes for a sprain to heal. They tell patients they may have a ruptured disk, even though this is very rare. They prescribe a month of bed rest despite numerous studies pointing to the benefits of resuming normal activities quickly. Patients leave convinced they have a serious problem, and the chronic pain cycle begins.

In deference to new data suggesting that many cases of chronic pain are not primarily physical in origin, pain specialists are now ordering fewer tests and invasive therapies, and they are insisting that chronic-pain patients undergo both physical and psychological treatment that may include family therapy and job counseling. Mere Discomfort or Agony

In a recent study published in the journal Spine, Dr. Stanley Bigos of the University of Washington followed hundreds of workers at an airplane factory to see what led to disability claims. The researchers studied the physical demands of each job, individual medical histories, and the worker’s age, job satisfaction and job performance. At the study’s close the only two factors that predicted whether a worker would claim disability were job dissatisfaction and a negative rating by a supervisor.

Doctors now believe that the different ways in which people experience pain may well determine whether a given episode results in fleeting discomfort or years of agony. For example, Dr. Turk said, a football player caught up in the excitement of a game might not even notice a deep gash until returning to the sidelines, while a bored assembly-line worker might rush to a hospital witha minor cut.

Doctors say that even back patients whose pain started with a large emotional component end up with a need for physical treatment, since often their back muscles are weak because they spent years in bed. Likewise, those whose pain may have started with a large physical component have to understand that it may be sustained by depression or by detesting a job.

Noting that the longer pain persists the more resistant it becomes to any treatment, Dr. Weintraub urges a quicker resolution to legal disputes.

He said that people who have clear-cut injuries should be compensated immediately. To determine how to handle those without a discernible cause for their complaints, he suggests a scientific study to determine just how the fact of being in litigation influences pain. He suggests that all patients in the study be awarded a quick settlement of $25,000, so long as they agree to participate in follow-up exams for the next few years to determine if the pain wanes when the prospect of profit has passed.

Dr. Loeser said that patients with back pain should return to work as soon as possible, perhaps initially to a job that requires less physical activity. He said that when people stay out work for months, they begin to think of themselves as disabled.

He also believes that before even being considered for disability payments patients should be required to undergo comprehensive pain treatment to see if their discomfort can be controlled.

“A patient who has had a stroke does not apply for disability until he has undergone rehabilitation,” he said, “and the same standard should be applied to chronic-pain patients.”

More butter, more joy

February 25, 2019 (

Just look at this chart.

Countries with more butter have happier citizens. On the vertical axis of this graph is the self-reported levels of life satisfaction in countries worldwide. On the horizontal axis is the per capita supply of butter.

Countries like Haiti, Cameroon, Malawi and Madagascar have 0-3.5 ounces of butter per person and report low life satisfaction.

The reverse is true for countries like Iceland, Canada and Australia, which score high in both categories, enjoying more than 2.2 pounds of butter per person and reporting sky-high levels of happiness.
This chart is an unofficial release by Our World in Data and while the link is clear, the meaning is more slippery.

Is it correlation or causation?

Facebook commenter noted: “They also have more money, fresher air, smaller population.”

Another theory? Countries with less butter are less happy because all their butter is used for buttering politicians, comments Souvik Nath.

Of course, there are outliers in the data: Shout out to Salvadorans make do with less than 3.5oz of butter per year, yet report life satisfaction between 6 and 7 out of 10. Despite getting their hands on less than 2lbs of butter per year, Mexicans score near the top of the league when it comes to happiness.

In search of ET: Fear of what’s out there causes big split among space scientists

Photo of Peter Fimrite

A cosmic rift has opened between Bay Area astronomers and a splinter group of San Francisco stargazers who are hell-bent on contacting space aliens, hang the consequences.

The schism pits the traditionalists, who believe humans should only look and listen for extraterrestrials to avoid tipping off evil aliens, against a rebel faction that wants to broadcast messages to intelligent beings, assuming they are altruistic.

The battle is so heated that one prominent scientist quit the Mountain View group known as SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, to form METI, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

“Are there intelligent beings out there? We don’t know, but the only way we can find out is if we look,” said Douglas Vakoch, who founded METI International in San Francisco after the SETI board voted in 2014 against beaming messages into space.

“We’ve always assumed the extraterrestrials were looking for us,” Vakoch said. But “what if their position is, ‘No, you are the ones who are new to this game. You send us a signal first.’”

SETI has been searching for radio signals or some other sign of life beyond Earth from its Mountain View headquarters for 35 years, but with nothing to show for its effort, Vakoch and other restless alien hunters are insisting on a more active search, including employing radar and laser technology to beam more powerful multidirectional messages into space.

The problem, many SETI astronomers warn, is that, instead of an intergalactic kumbaya, intelligent extraterrestrials might very well be more inclined to enslave Earthlings and mercilessly plunder and destroy Earth.

Those who adhere to this dark theory imagine humanity as a childlike form of life lost in an Amazonian jungle crawling with skulking predators, said Andrew Fraknoi, a SETI Institute board member.

Andrew Fraknoi visits with his students during a break at San Francisco State University’s downtown campus.

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

“We wonder whether the galaxy that we are in is maybe a dark forest, where it is dangerous to scream because there are creatures out there unhappy with new life forms,” said Fraknoi, an astronomer who will be teaching a course in April called Aliens in Science and Science Fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute. “With every strong signal we send out, we advertise our presence, and you don’t want to advertise your presence in a dark forest.”

The clash represents the first major division in the traditionally tight-knit community of astronomers, astrophysicists, philosophers, psychologists and science fiction writers who are convinced intelligent beings are out there somewhere.

Vakoch and his supporters, including some astronomers at SETI, call the dark forest analogy silly. Any predatory civilization would probably have detected us by now simply by analyzing our atmosphere, they reason. Humans, Vakoch said, have been using radar, which can purportedly be detected 70 light-years away, since World War II. Television and radio signals would long ago have signaled our presence to malevolent space ruffians, he said.

Unconcerned about an invasion of intergalactic invertebrates who are out for our heads, Vakoch adapted a transmitter and used a Norwegian observatory in late 2017 to send a message 12.4 light-years away to Luyten’s Star, a red dwarf with a large planet in the constellation Canis Minor.

He spent years developing the message, combining mathematics and the fundamentals of language that he believes even a blind alien could understand. It was the first of what Vakoch hopes will be many signals sent by his group.

Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence President Douglas Vakoch discusses a binary representation of the periodic table of elements, which his group hopes to transmit into space.

Photo: Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle

“Our goal is to say we are interested in making contact,” Vakoch said. “We may have to target hundreds and thousands and maybe millions of stars before we find anything. I view this as a reflection of the natural growth of SETI.”

There is little doubt in the minds of the stalwarts at both SETI and METI that some form of intelligent life exists out there.

There have been planets like Earth for billions of years, Fraknoi said, and that means some civilizations in the universe may have been tinkering with robotics and artificial intelligence before our solar system was even a twinkle in God’s eye.

The sun is, after all, only 4.6 billion years old. The Milky Way Galaxy, one of about 2 trillion galaxies visible through telescopes, has been around for 13.5 billion years. It is now believed that at least half of the stars in the Milky Way have planets.

Fraknoi speculates that civilizations that have existed in other solar systems for billions of years could be a self-replicating mix of the biological and the mechanical. It’s possible, he said, that such a mix could travel through space for thousands of years and still be alive to tell about it when the trip is over.

That would be a handy trick for humanity because, using Earth’s current technology, it would take 80,000 years for an astronaut to reach the closest star, Alpha Centauri, a little more than four light-years away. The vast majority of the other 200 billion stars in the Milky Way are 100 light-years or more away from Earth.

Even if aliens receive Vakoch’s electronic message 12.4 light-years away and immediately reply, we won’t know for about 25 years, assuming the communique is sent at the speed of light.

The Owens Valley Radio Observatory in Bishop (Inyo County) scans outer space for signs of life.

Photo: Barcroft Media 2017

That’s the point, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who supports Vakoch’s work. Given the enormous distances, he said, we may never find intelligent life if we don’t get out there and look for it.

“This notion that you have to be cryptic doesn’t make sense to me,” Shostak said. “We have not examined very much of the sky. You don’t want to cripple technology in the future by saying, ‘No transmissions into the sky because there might be nasty aliens out there.’ That’s just paranoia. Paranoia is not a good long-term policy.”

The seeds of the current debate were planted in 1974 when a team led by Frank Drake, a Cornell University astrophysicist who was later on the faculty at UC Santa Cruz, sent a digital message describing Earth and its life-forms from Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory to a distant star cluster.

Several astronomers expressed concerns at the time, but they were largely ignored.

The issue began to move to the forefront in 1989 when scientists involved in SETI published a declaration of principles, including protocols on how humankind should handle a confirmed detection of intelligent extraterrestrials. No reply should be sent, the document said, until there had been international consultation on what we would say and how we would say it.

A committee of the International Academy of Astronautics released a second set of protocols in the 1990s, urging consultations with world leaders before anyone broadcasts a powerful message into space that is likely to be detectable by alien life. Stephen Hawking, the famous scientist, was among those who warned against messaging on grounds that aliens “may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”

Vakoch and Shostak were adamantly opposed to any rules that would prevent such messaging, describing it as akin to a violation of their freedom of speech. Vakoch formed METI after a vote in 2014 by the SETI Institute board rejecting his plans to broadcast messages.

Michael Michaud, an author and onetime director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology who helped write the protocols, holds out hope that the two sides will eventually reach a compromise.

He and other astronautics experts have proposed an inclusive consultative process to approve or reject powerful signals — those that could be detected dozens or hundreds of light years away — before Earth’s coordinates are beamed out to potential interstellar fly swatters.

“Human history is littered with examples of societies disrupted by direct contact with others, even when it was led by idealistic missionaries,” said Michaud, who has written extensively about the subject. “Ignore the Hollywood scenario of reptilian aliens landing on Earth’s surface to conquer our planet. They would not need to use futuristic weapons; the correct pesticide would do.”

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @pfimrite

Photo of Peter Fimrite
Peter Fimrite

Peter Fimrite is The Chronicle’s lead science reporter, covering environmental, atmospheric and ecosystem science. His beat includes earthquake research, marine biology, wildfire science, nuclear testing, archaeology, wildlife and scientific exploration of land and sea. He also writes about the cannabis industry, outdoor adventure, Native American issues and the culture of the West. A former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, he has traveled extensively and covered a wide variety of issues during his career, including the Beijing Olympics, Hurricane Katrina, illegal American tourism in Cuba and a 40-day cross country car trip commemorating the history of automobile travel in America.

Choruses from “The Rock” by T.S. Eliot


The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,

The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

О perpetual revolution of configured stars,

О perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

О world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Shelley on poets

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets, who is regarded by some as among the finest lyric and philosophical poets in the English language, and one of the most influential. Wikipedia

Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress

By Maria Popova (


“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.

A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.


Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.

Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAs in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.

If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1956 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…

The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngA man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.


Illustration from Henry Hikes to Fitchburg — a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy.

One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngTo one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.

Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIn my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.


Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngHerein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.

Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMen do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.

To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAll men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.

A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.

Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayerthe myth of productivityknowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.

Book: “The Secret Doctrine”

The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy, a book originally published as two volumes in 1888 written by Helena Blavatsky. The first volume is named Cosmogenesis, the second Anthropogenesis. It was an influential example of the revival of interest in esoteric and occult ideas in the modern age, in particular because of its claim to reconcile ancient eastern wisdom with modern science.

Blavatsky claimed that its contents had been revealed to her by ‘mahatmas‘ who had retained knowledge of humanity’s spiritual history, knowledge that it was now possible, in part, to reveal.[not verified in body]

Volume one (Cosmogenesis)

The first part of the book explains the origin and evolution of the universe itself, in terms derived from the Hindu concept of cyclical development. The world and everything in it is said to alternate between periods of activity (manvantaras) and periods of passivity (pralayas). Each manvantara lasts many millions of years and consists of a number of Yugas, in accordance with Hindu cosmology.

Blavatsky attempted to demonstrate that the discoveries of “materialist” science had been anticipated in the writings of ancient sages and that materialism would be proven wrong.

Cosmic evolution: Items of cosmogony

In this recapitulation of The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky gave a summary of the central points of her system of cosmogony.[1] These central points are as follows:

  1. The first item reiterates Blavatsky’s position that The Secret Doctrine represents the “accumulated Wisdom of the Ages”, a system of thought that “is the uninterrupted record covering thousands of generations of Seers whose respective experiences were made to test and to verify the traditions passed orally by one early race to another, of the teachings of higher and exalted beings, who watched over the childhood of Humanity.”
  2. The second item reiterates the first fundamental proposition (see above), calling the one principle “the fundamental law in that system [of cosmogony]”. Here Blavatsky says of this principle that it is “the One homogeneous divine Substance-Principle, the one radical cause. … It is called “Substance-Principle,” for it becomes “substance” on the plane of the manifested Universe, an illusion, while it remains a “principle” in the beginningless and endless abstract, visible and invisible Space. It is the omnipresent Reality: impersonal, because it contains all and everything. Its impersonality is the fundamental conception of the System. It is latent in every atom in the Universe, and is the Universe itself.”
  3. The third item reiterates the second fundamental proposition (see above), impressing once again that “The Universe is the periodical manifestation of this unknown Absolute Essence.”, while also touching upon the complex Sanskrit ideas of Parabrahmam and Mulaprakriti. This item presents the idea that the One unconditioned and absolute principle is covered over by its veil, Mulaprakriti, that the spiritual essence is forever covered by the material essence.
  4. The fourth item is the common eastern idea of Maya. Blavatsky states that the entire universe is called illusion because everything in it is temporary, i.e. has a beginning and an end, and is therefore unreal in comparison to the eternal changelessness of the One Principle.
  5. The fifth item reiterates the third fundamental proposition (see above), stating that everything in the universe is conscious, in its own way and on its own plane of perception. Because of this, the Occult Philosophy states that there are no unconscious or blind laws of Nature, that all is governed by consciousness and consciousnesses.
  6. The sixth item gives a core idea of theosophical philosophy, that “as above, so below”. This is known as the “law of correspondences”, its basic premise being that everything in the universe is worked and manifested from within outwards, or from the higher to the lower, and that thus the lower, the microcosm, is the copy of the higher, the macrocosm. Just as a human being experiences every action as preceded by an internal impulse of thought, emotion or will, so too the manifested universe is preceded by impulses from divine thought, feeling and will. This item gives rise to the notion of an “almost endless series of hierarchies of sentient beings”, which itself becomes a central idea of many theosophists. The law of correspondences also becomes central to the methodology of many theosophists, as they look for analogous correspondence between various aspects of reality, for instance: the correspondence between the seasons of Earth and the process of a single human life, through birth, growth, adulthood and then decline and death.

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Māori people

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Māori (/ˈmri/; Māori pronunciation: [ˈmaːɔɾi] (About this soundlisten)[6]) are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Māori originated with settlers from eastern Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages some time between 1250 and 1300.[7][8] Over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers developed a unique culture, with their own language, a rich mythology, and distinctive crafts and performing arts. Early Māori formed tribal groups based on eastern Polynesian social customs and organisation. Horticulture flourished using plants they introduced; later, a prominent warrior culture emerged.[4]The arrival of Europeans to New Zealand, starting in the 17th century, brought enormous changes to the Māori way of life. Māori people gradually adopted many aspects of Western society and culture. Initial relations between Māori and Europeans were largely amicable, and with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the two cultures coexisted as part of a new British colony. Rising tensions over disputed land sales led to conflict in the 1860s. Social upheaval, decades of conflict and epidemics of introduced disease took a devastating toll on the Māori population, which fell dramatically. By the start of the 20th century, the Māori population had begun to recover, and efforts have been made to increase their standing in wider New Zealand society and achieve social justice. Traditional Māori culture has thereby enjoyed a significant revival, which was further bolstered by a Māori protest movement that emerged in the 1960s.In the 2013 census, there were approximately 600,000 people in New Zealand identifying as Māori, making up roughly 15 percent of the national population. They are the second-largest ethnic group in New Zealand, after European New Zealanders (“Pākehā“). In addition, more than 140,000 Māori live in Australia. The Māori language is spoken to some extent by about a fifth of all Māori, representing 3 per cent of the total population. Māori are active in all spheres of New Zealand culture and society, with independent representation in areas such as media, politics and sport.Disproportionate numbers of Māori face significant economic and social obstacles, and generally have lower life expectancies and incomes compared with other New Zealand ethnic groups. They suffer higher levels of crime, health problems, and educational under-achievement. A number of socioeconomic initiatives have been instigated with the aim of “closing the gap” between Māori and other New Zealanders. Political and economic redress for historical grievances is also ongoing (see Treaty of Waitangi claims and settlements).

Etymology:  In the Māori language, the word māori means “normal”, “natural” or “ordinary”. In legends and oral traditions, the word distinguished ordinary mortal human beings—tāngata māori—from deities and spirits (wairua).[9][i] Likewise, wai māori denotes “fresh water”, as opposed to salt water. There are cognate words in most Polynesian languages,[10] all deriving from Proto-Polynesian *ma(a)qoli, which has the reconstructed meaning “true, real, genuine”.[11][12]The spelling of “Māori” with or without the macron is inconsistent in general-interest English-language media in New Zealand,[13] although some newspapers and websites have adopted the standard Māori-language spelling (i.e., with macrons).[14][15]Naming and self-naming:  Early visitors from Europe to New Zealand generally referred to the indigenous inhabitants as “New Zealanders” or as “natives”.[16] The Māori used the term Māori to describe themselves in a pan-tribal sense.[ii] Māori people often use the term tangata whenua (literally, “people of the land”) to identify in a way that expresses their relationship with a particular area of land; a tribe may be the tangata whenua in one area, but not in another.[17] The term can also refer to the Māori people as a whole in relation to New Zealand (Aotearoa) as a whole.The Māori Purposes Act of 1947 required the use of the term “Māori” rather than “Native” in official usage. The Department of Native Affairs was renamed as the Department of Māori Affairs; since 1992 it has been known as Te Puni Kōkiri, or the Ministry for Māori Development.[18] Before 1974, the government required documented ancestry to determine the legal definition of “a Māori person”. For example, bloodlines or percentage of Māori ancestry was used to determine whether a person should enroll on the general electoral roll or the separate Māori roll. In 1947, the authorities determined that a man who was five-eighths Māori had improperly voted in the general parliamentary electorate of Raglan.[19]The Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1974 changed the definition, allowing individuals to self-identify as to their cultural identity. In matters involving financial benefits provided by the government to people of Māori ethnicity—scholarships, for example, or Waitangi Tribunal settlements—authorities generally require some documentation of ancestry or continuing cultural connection (such as acceptance by others as being of the people) but no minimum “blood” requirement exists as determined by the government.[20][iii]

Haka performed during US Defense Secretary's visit to New Zealand (1).jpg
A group of Māori performing a haka
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