While living in Manhattan, I made a pledge to make the goods I need to live rather than buy them. I then spent a decade building an off-grid homestead in the New Mexico desert. I learned to make food, medicine, power, fuel, building materials, and domestic goods. Being a Maker revealed the impact of my decisions, a view I had never before been offered. Consumers don’t have to know how things are made or the real cost of their goods.
While building my homestead, I chose waste materials over new goods (their cost in energy and resources having already been paid) and I picked materials that were nearby. For building insulation, I used paper obtained a mile from my home, free of charge, from a recycling center that did not recycle the paper (they drove it to landfills in Mexico). This seemed a better option than straw bale: a material with a better carbon footprint (to produce), but that had to be shipped to me from Colorado. I decided on paper-crete for which I made a slurry out of paper.
As a Maker, I became aware that I was free to make choices that preserve life, a luxury not available to corporations that operate under a legal mandate to produce profit for shareholders in spite of the decision having a cost to life. What this idea brought into view is something important. I learned where meaning comes from, and I learned what value is. Now I know that Makers offer the world something corporations can’t: responsibility. This is the only thing of value.
My off-grid, New Mexico homestead is finished now. It is an autonomous zone, uncommodified, in a world in which everything is for sale. In its details are reminders of the life preserved in the process of creating it. Alternatively, the products made under the corporate model, money first and life last (if at all), get kicked to the curb soon after having been purchased; a sign that we know they lack value. On a subtle level, they remind us of the destruction of living systems that sustain life, our life. Compare them to handmade goods, treasured and handed down for generations.
Today, I wonder about the maturity of the Maker Movement. The fantastic, sticky explosion that follows the combining of Mentos with Cola might be a necessary entry point to capture the imagination of our children, and maybe we needed to slap batteries on LEDs backed by magnets to enjoy a creative moment of making light art. These tinkering’s could be necessary stages of growth for a generation learning that they can make anything, but then what? I like to consider what my heroes would say of our use of this time in which cheap, accessible, powerful technology is in easy reach. Would Buckminster Fuller enjoy the Mentos show? What would Carl Sagan say of the way we apply our understanding of robotics? Today, new generations are raised without barriers to creativity. Can we show them what value is so that they use their might to grow food and produce clean energy? Can we prepare them to create the social and ecological solutions we need to protect the vitality of the life of the earth? Or will they squander what has been passed on to them? It is up to us. Our kids can become Makers of purpose.
I could have built my homestead without having learned about value, but along the way, anchored in my pledge, I considered the world when I made choices about materials and techniques. This made problem solving infinitely more interesting. Consideration is the reason that what I learned is significant. Building a homestead was, for me, not just an act of strength and problem solving. It was contemplative.
The fact is that our heroes and mentors have always pointed us towards contemplative thought. It was Tesla who said, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries.” Einstein told us that, “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws, only the way of intuition which is helped by a feeling for the order laying behind the appearance.” Steve Jobs pointed out that, what we choose not to do is just as important as what we choose to do. How can we take the next step as Makers without learning to contemplate the world our ideas affect? Sadly our culture does not teach us how to consider the world, and it shows in what we produce. Our goods leave behind poison. Our use of resources is unsustainable. The best of our best ideas are sold, furthering industry rather than wellbeing, happiness, and the continuation of life on earth.
This past year, an organization founded in the tradition of such great houses of wisdom as the Library of Alexandria, the House of Wisdom of Baghdad, and the Platonic Academy of Florence, asked me to help make a new toolset for cultivating the wisdom needed to address the social and ecological needs of our time. I enthusiastically accepted.
Working with more than twenty others (activists, academics, writers, contemplatives, religious figures, artists, musicians, and scholars), “The Seven Pillars: Journey Toward Wisdom“, a multimedia e-book, was created. It provides an integrated media experience that contains imagery, original musical compositions, narration, meditation, video and graphical animation, and many multi-touch features. The e-book also contains the art of the surrealist painter Cecil Collins. Just as the process taught in Julia Cameron’s popular book, “The Artist’s Way,” guided us to living an artist’s life, “Journey Towards Wisdom” guides the discovery of how we may be purposeful and active in the world today. The project synthesizes knowledge from the past with new paradigms fitted for our time. It is a toolkit for Makers, imaginers, thinkers, feelers, scientists, engineers, visionaries, and philosophers. It is for you and those who come after you. We cannot afford to be without it.
Here are a couple of simple exercises to try out. Enjoy, and may you tap your inner genius for the benefit of all.
How to Discover Wisdom
- A pledge to consider these contemplative questions for a period of time, perhaps one day.
- Optional: note book and pen.
- An open mind.
- Desire to contribute to the making of a meaningful world.
- Slow down. Contemplation takes place at a different speed than the activities of daily life.
- Contemplation has the potential to enable the kind of epiphanies that will cause later generations to refer to you as genius.
Those who master contemplation regularly experience broader understanding and moments of realization. But, be aware that once you interrupt a realization or a flash of inspiration in order to write down the experience, you have moved from presence (where wisdom takes place) to representation (an echo). Your breath, the weather, and all living creatures exist in the present. You can identify presence by the fact that it is emergent. A rising or setting moon or sun, a breeze, a sound, the sensation on your skin felt by hot or cold, and your breath are all felt and experienced in the present. If you’ve burned yourself with a soldering iron or shocked yourself with a jolt of AC electricity, than you know that no memory will contain the intensity of the sensation that was felt at the time it occurred. Stay present, let what is emerging unfold. Significant thoughts and feelings don’t disappear from our memories. Write them down later.
1) What appears on the surface, as the ordinary activity of conversation, is in its depths a mysterious phenomenon of encounter.
In a given day we may have dozens of human encounters. It is easy to see them as uneventful, ordinary, even mundane. Remember what appears on the surface, as the ordinary activity of conversation is in its depths a mysterious phenomenon of encounter. Consider what Carl Sagan said, “We are the universe experiencing itself, that’s why we are here.” Every person you encounter is the living universe experiencing itself, as are you.
Listen and speak attentively, sympathetically, and with genuine curiosity in every encounter you have. Know that your interest changes what the other person does, says, and thinks and feels about the world.
Questions (end of day)
Did this shift in awareness change your role in person-to-person engagements? How? Did it change your experience of others? How? Did the contemplation invite something new to emerge? What? Did the experience relate to wisdom?
2) Wisdom is inherent in the place where we find ourselves.
Trying to stay present throughout the day, contemplate that wisdom is inherent in the place where we find ourselves. The cosmos, the earth beneath our feet, the breath of our lives, the biological systems of our bodies and its sensations, the matrix of culture and ecology we live in is continually informing us if only we look, listen, and feel. Consider this intelligence and try to notice how it emerges.
Notice if you sensed wisdom. Consider what was being shown to you. How may it shape your experience and your view of the world?
At the day’s end consider the conditions surrounding the experiences you had. Can you recall any patterns? Were you outside or indoors, calm or anxious? What was your breath doing? Mapping the context in which wisdom emerges helps us to develop skill for living wisely.
I don’t know the wisdom you will discover having used the template in “The Seven Pillars: Journey Toward Wisdom,” because real wisdom is different for each of us. It can’t be taught. It can only be pointed to and then discovered. But what I do know is that this wisdom is rooted in livingness and so whatever is produced and has been guided by our contact with wisdom will be meaningful, it will contain value. This world need not feel bleak. Its true nature is vibrancy. If we could consult Carl Sagan he would surely remind us of that! What stands between these outcomes is human action and the ability of the generations of Makers that follow us to access wisdom. It is time that we access it.