Our Eleven American Nations

I was quite startled to learn that our Constitution has a stated aim to protect the “opulent minority.”   I was impressed when I studied our system of government for my citizenship exam.  Now I realized that I didn’t understand the system’s history or implications.

I started with Robert Dahl’s excellent How Democratic is the American Constitution?  Daniel Lazare’s The Frozen Republic opened my eyes wider.   Then I read Colin Woodard’s enormously helpful America Nations – A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America.

Woodard began his career in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union was collapsing.  He noticed that the boundaries of Hungary, Poland and other nations bore little or no relation to the ethnic and cultural realities.  Groups within those countries had always been rivals and people across borders shared a culture and long history.

That got Woodard thinking about cultural rivalry within our nation.  The South versus the North, the coasts vs the heartland, those grossly simplified divisions don’t explain the reality.  Cultures that came from England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and so on were significantly different and those cultures remain powerfully alive.

Our values and the behavior they motivate are much more those of eleven distinct people than of fifty States, or of an homogenous population with shared values.

Eleven American Nations

What are the implications?

The Constitution’s first words are “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union.”  Coming in the recent past from very different cultures with very different values, many of the delegates did not want union but to be left alone.  Those who wanted union had very different ideas about its form.  The great majority of the population was not consulted, certainly not those whose land had recently been invaded.

The Constitution that resulted from all the necessary compromises results in an ongoing contest between only two major parties.

My conclusion before I read Woodard’s research was that since the Republican Party has been taken over by a tiny minority of the most wealthy Americans in alliance with fundamentalist Christians and anarchists, “something-other-than-progressives” must take over the other Party.  But that would result in even more extreme gridlock.

The Democratic Party must not shift to the far left to balance a Republican Party that is moving further and further to the far right.  It must find a position that accommodates the diverse values of a majority of people across all our eleven nations.

Our world is constantly changing, so our policies and programs must, too.  Sometimes a conservative brake on changes will be best, other times major changes will have grown urgently necessary.  And the priorities of neither major party will permanently align with those of any of our eleven nations.

Some of us wage war on “invasive species”, plants, insects, fish, rodents, mammals, any form of life that “does not belong here.”  Some of us reject people who arrived recently and “don’t belong.”  But as the world inevitably changes, life forms inevitably move.

Recent linguistic research indicates that the first people in North America did not come directly from Siberia across the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago.  People from Siberia had been living in Beringia for around 85,000 years.  When the ice melted and their habitat was flooded 12,000 years ago, some came here.  Others went back to Siberia where they perhaps no longer “belonged”.

Those who came here formed into tribes, some peaceful, some making war on each other.  We think of those Native Americans as being decimated by “the white man” as if a single invasive species destroyed them.  In fact, it was a variety of new species, eleven major ones, that set up an entirely new form of government which excluded them.

What we need to do now is figure out how we can use that system of government to better represent the people of the eleven nations who we speak of collectively as “Americans.”

We are not alone in facing this challenge and we have had governments that better represented us all in the past.  We can have such a government again.  We’re in a much better position than, for example, Nepal.  Politicians there continue to wrangle without visible progress over what structure of government could represent all Nepalis, not just the Brahmin elite.

Nepal’s politicians cannot even start to learn how to govern until they choose a structure.  Ours could start governing effectively right now.  We must make them do so.

Protecting the Opulent Against the Majority

A few days ago, billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote that the way progressives are starting to treat the super rich reminds him of how the Nazis treated the Jews.  Soon after his letter was published in multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, he had to apologize for his politically incorrect phrasing.   He would have done better to quote James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” and author of the Bill of Rights.

When the Federal Convention of 1787 turned to the question “whether the republican form shall be the basis of our government,” Madison pointed out: “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.  An agrarian law would soon take place.” 

The implication, he continued, is:  “If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation.  Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other.  They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”  (emphasis added)

A widely held belief has developed that the US Constitution offers protection for all minorities.  That was not its intent.  Madison’s much more limited aim was to protect the wealthy minority.  Whether or not we like the result, we should recognize that our Constitution is working as intended.

How does it work?  A republic is where power is held by elected representatives whose actions are bound by a Constitution.  People in a republic vote for candidates who promise changes they like.  The risk is that a small majority could make changes with unacceptable negative impact on the rest of the population.  That’s why a Constitution is necessary, to prevent such changes by defining ‘unacceptable.’

I’m thinking about this because I’m reading Noam Chomsky.  His diagnosis of why our government acts as it does, regardless which party is in power, feels spot on.  He shows example after example of actions by our government that benefit the opulent minority and work against the interests of the majority here and throughout the world.

But Chomsky’s proposed solution is misguided.  His central beliefs are that power corrupts and capitalism concentrates wealth, which, based on long first-hand experience and close study of history, are truths I hold to be self-evident.  The question is, would his solution, anarcho-syndicalism, be better?  Could it even work?

Anarcho-syndicalists are socialist libertarians.  Like capitalist libertarians who enjoy President Reagan’s signature joke: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help'” they oppose central power.  The difference is anarcho-syndicalists say the inevitable concentration of wealth by capitalism exploits the majority.

Attractive increases in freedom are promised by both kinds of libertarians.  In real life, however, the system does not scale.  A libertarian (i.e., unregulated) society cannot protect shared resources or universal needs: local societies often manage local resources (e.g., forests) sustainably but resources managed by non-locals are polluted and/or depleted.  And small societies cannot retain freedom: they cannot defend themselves against more powerful exploiters.

It is true that a fundamental problem for large scale enterprises is that central planning cannot work: there’s too much change to comprehend at the center.  An ingenious programmer I once hired was directed to model how many tractors Soviet factories should plan to build.  He tried combinations of many, many factors without success before at last seeing how to produce results that pleased the planners.  How?  By plugging the number of tractors that were going to be built, anyway.

Big businesses fail for the same reason – they lose contact with changes in their market.

Another problem is many things that start small seem destined to grow big but central planners too often fail to identify which are worth the investment.  Small societies with property managed at the local level would make better choices but they lack the necessary resources.  Today’s semiconductor and internet infrastructure, medical technology and etc required enormous investment.

So history tells us that democracies with a constitution tend to be better for people than autocracies, that market-based economies tend to deliver better results than centrally planned ones, and that capitalism seems essential to generate disruptive technology and deploy it on a large scale.

Speaking in Parliament in 1947, not so long after he lost the election following WW2, Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The same looks to be true of capitalism in the economic sphere and nation states in the sphere of sovereign entities.  They do all tend to concentrate power and wealth but the alternatives are worse.

So, “if these observations be just,” how can the non-opulent minorities who make up the majority get protection?  Curtailing the inevitable abuses of power is achieved by incremental legislative changes that adapt Constitutional definitions to changes in society.

Because the fundamental structure of the system results in the wealth and power of the opulent minority always nudging the law’s evolution in their favor, other minorities must speak more loudly.

It is healthy that voices are now speaking loudly enough about too-high and rising inequality to be heard by Perkins and others.  It indicates that our system is working as it should.

The Practice of Transformation

First, some background to the epiphany (an experience of sudden and striking realization).  Twenty-odd years ago I joined Dun and Bradstreet’s advanced services division as Director of Program Management.  I was not the only one unfamiliar with what that job might be.  When my business cards came, they identified me as Director of Program Manglement.

There is no better way in such a situation than Steve Jobs’ approach: “When you don’t know where to start, start somewhere.”  I did what needed doing for a complex new service that was being developed in New York and tested and rolled out in country-specific variants all across Europe, then used that experience to establish a methodical software development process.

The first step in the process is a Vision Statement.  Its purpose is to imagine and articulate “how great it will be when.”  Because our mission was to develop and deploy “advanced services”, we had to imagine new ways our customers could do their work to get better results.

Vision Statements imagined people using radically new software to do business in new ways with far more effective results.  We illustrated how pieces of the software might look and got feedback from innovative customers to identify the best ideas.

Then came the Scope Statement.  That’s where, based on our image of “how great it will be when,” we defined what the first software version would and would not do.  Scope transformed an ultimate vision into something we could actually do.  That became the basis for the Project Plan.

So, the Vision Statement harnesses intuition: the Scope Statement employs the intellect.  The Vision Statement is expansive: the Scope Statement is restrictive — that’s where you discipline yourself to say, “No, we don’t have to do that piece yet.”

By the time I took over as General Manager of that division then went on to establish D&B’s global “Technology Strategy, Architecture and Frameworks” I’d realized the same method of harnessing intuition disciplined by intellect was applicable to transformational business strategy.

No transformation is possible if you have no vision of “how great it will be.”  At best you will find only quicker, cheaper ways of doing the same things you always did.

Now the epiphany:  a couple of days ago, I realized Tibetan Buddhism is built on the same foundation.

In a long traditional set of rituals I practice every morning, supplemented by study and reflection later in the day, I imagine becoming deities that flawlessly manifest behavior I want to perfect.  The only difference from business Visions is instead of imagining freedom from business limitations, I imagine freedom from emotional and conceptual habits.

In the same way as Vision Statements include illustrative stories, Tibetan Buddhist texts include tales about exemplary beings.

But unlike the process for product and business transformation, Tibetan Buddhism requires no Scope Statement.  New products and services or business strategies take substantial time and investment which makes rigorous scope management of a stepwise transition essential.

Tibetan Buddhist practice is more like bug-fixing.  All features exist, they’re just buggy.  Because they’re so buggy, it’s hard to imagine all the defects gone, so we visualize deities that reveal in purified form what we cannot see even though it is already there.

How to proceed when there are so many bugs?  The proven method in the business world is “continuous improvement.”  One of its early leaders, W. Edwards Deming, was instrumental in Japan’s mastery of manufacturing.  They summarize his teaching that errors are opportunities for learning to generate improvements as “every defect a treasure”.

Continuous improvement is an unremitting process of noticing defects, rigorously identifying their root causes, and incrementally eliminating those factors.

Tibetan Buddhism is a continuous improvement practice.  My teacher says two to four hours of formal practice every day is necessary for transformation.  Some change seems to be taking place since I upped my own practice to two hours.  But it’s the same as in business, my aim must be to stay alert throughout the day, notice every defect, identify why it happened, and steadfastly uproot its cause.

I was lucky in my business life to get transformative teachings at Harvard Business School and elsewhere.  I am lucky now to get transformative Tibetan Buddhist teachings.  And I’m blessed above all by my parents’ teaching, “I don’t know, let’s work to find out.”

Epiphanies result, if at all, from long hard work whose aim may not even seem to be discovery.  They are surprising because arriving at the realization is unexpected.  The realization itself, however, is immediately recognized to be obvious truth.

It’s not surprising that both transformational Tibetan Buddhism and transformational business strategy use envisioning integrated with continuous improvement.  My surprised feeling was because I hadn’t noticed that before.  It’s lucky that what I learned in business was such good preparation for what I’m doing now.

Doma: My Greatest Gift

Supplementary essay: “Please tell us about a gift, given or received, that was particularly meaningful to you. What was the gift, and why was it meaningful? (150 words max)” Doma & Niran after SLC Graduation

Doma wrote:

Birthday gifts, Christmas surprises and other presents are not what I am thinking of.  My greatest gift is the education my mother gave me.

My mother had no schooling and was married at fifteen.  My father abused her and soon left us.  Since then mom struggled to support us by working as a hotel maid. Somehow, she managed to keep me in a good school.

For Class 11 and 12 mom wanted me to go to Budhanilkantha School (BNKS) because it is one of the best. I was scared because most of its students are from rich families.  What I learned in that world is there is no limit to the future I can create.

My mother’s gift allows me to make a future so much better than her own life:  it has made me what I am, and what I can dream of to become. What an amazing gift!


Comments by Martin:

I wrote the following comments when Doma was admitted by Randolph College, the first of five excellent colleges.  I explain her decision to accept Hampshire College’s offer on the Doma Ghale page.

The picture is from when Doma graduated from Amrit School in what we call High School sophomore year.  Doma and her mom, Niran, are dressed in Tibetan style because Norkyel, her first education sponsor, had just honored them for Doma’s graduation in the “First Division with Distinction”.

We were thrilled then by what Doma had achieved, which Niran sacrificed so much to make possible.  Our hopes for Doma’s future were high.   Would she be accepted at Budhanilkantha School for Junior and Senior years?

Two years later, our hopes are again high.  Will Doma be able to come to the US for a college education?

There are some differences this time.  Doma is not afraid as she was about Budhanilkantha: she is excited about the far more different world here.  And for Niran, no sacrifice is possible to make US college affordable: one year at a good US college costs the same as two houses where she lives.

Doma may succeed and be accepted but we might fail to establish enough funding.  Nonetheless, I said, Doma and I will, in different aspects of the process, try our utmost.  And we did.

Doma has been accepted with enthusiasm by Randolph College.  Their academic scholarships range from $6K – $20K.  They granted Doma the maximum and will consider her for their Presidential Scholarship which covers all tuition costs.  The gap will be $26K annually if Doma does not get the Presidential Scholarship, $13K if she does, plus her travel and incidental expenses.

Randolph College is a fine institution where Doma would thrive.  She has also applied to 15 other colleges, some of which have substantially larger endowments than Randolph.  One of them could even cover all her costs including two fully paid trips home each year.

But so many factors go into admission decisions: there is no way to predict what choices Doma may have, or their net cost.  What we do know is I would not be able to provide all $30K-ish a Randolph education may cost.

I mention this because if Doma does need more financial aid than I can provide, I will invite everyone to help.  I would establish a dedicated bank account for Doma’s education, set up a Paypal link or equivalent to facilitate donations, and provide accounting and other updates.

April 2014 Update:  Details about the dedicated bank account and a Paypal link to donate to it are now on the Doma Ghale page.   There is also a Paypal link to donate to it on the Donate page.   Details about financial aid, donations and expenses are on the Accounting page.  Other updates are on the News page.

Doma: One Woman to Converse With

Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about? (250 word limit)


I want to talk with poet and novelist Parijat, whose real name was Bishnu Kumari Waiba. My principal at Amrit School is a low-caste Tamang woman like me who established that school thirty years ago when only high-caste men started schools. She is Parijat’s younger sister.

Parijat’s mother died when she was very young. She was raised by her strict father and grandparents. She said, “I did not get any inspiration from my home and I had to cheat my family to be as I am today.” I want to ask her who did inspire her and how did she develop the courage to overcome family opposition?

Born in Darjeeling in 1937, she came to Kathmandu when she was 17 and earned a BA degree.  She had fallen ill when she was 13, became paralyzed when she was 26, and my principal supported her after that. She says Parijat’s physical weakness never dampened her spirit. How did Parijat do that?

Parijat rebelled against anything that diminished women’s freedom. She wrote to change how people think, she started a women’s literature movement, and she supported many other social causes. Nepal still is among the most unfair societies for women. What would she say I should do now?

Most of all I want to ask Parijat what it was like in those days when the authoritarian regime of the king was at its height. Nepali society still presents obstacles to people like me.  I could learn so much by talking with Parijat.

About Doma

DomaI promised to write more about Doma, the Nepali girl for whose USA college applications so many of you gave such helpful advice. She submitted the last of 16 applications a couple of days ago and just got her first acceptance!

Doma has amazed me in the six years I have been her education sponsor. Her low-caste, very poor background is a great handicap in Nepal, especially for females. She has made extraordinary progress and will go far beyond what she has already achieved.

I met Doma’s mother, Niran, at the Kathmandu hotel where I began visiting in 2003. She had been working there since soon after her husband brought her from her village in the high hills. It was an arranged marriage and she was only 15 when Doma was born. She had no schooling, spoke only Tamang tribal language, and her husband soon abandoned her. The only job she could get was as a hotel maid. She learned Nepali and the hotel owner, Norkyel, helped her get a divorce. Her first few years were extremely difficult, especially because although she earned barely enough for necessities, she was determined to give Doma a good education. Remarriage is not an option for a Nepali woman with a child.

I chatted with Niran each time I visited because by then she had taught herself English. She also speaks Hindi and was learning Tibetan from a book left by a guest. When Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006, the Maoists began unionizing. I was friendly with Norkyel and he told me he had been giving Niran extra money for Doma’s schooling but he must stop. His staff was unionized now, so he must treat everyone the same. He asked if I would like to take over.

My wife had met Niran and was also attracted by her intelligence, humor and good work so I took over and began getting to know Doma. She was very shy. Tamang are close to the low end of the caste structure, her mom had only ever worked as a maid and Doma expected her future would be the same. I told her she could do better and must try because her mother had made great sacrifices to get her an education.

Doma did try, she slowly gained confidence, and her exam results improved. From her usual place in the middle, she reached 6th place, then 3rd. She said she could never do better because the top two students were wealthy and had tutors. The next year she came 2nd. That made a decisive difference. She had succeeded to a degree she hadn’t believed possible. Now she knew she might surprise herself still more.

Doma was 2nd again in 10th grade then transferred to a new school. Norkyel took her to several of the best ones, including Budhanilkantha (BNKS), the traditional choice of Nepal’s kings. Math was her strongest subject but she preferred arts and did not want to go to BNKS because they teach only science. We told her she should try. At last she told me: “I realized I am not a child now, so I should not be stubborn. Everybody says I should do this. Probably they are right.” She did try, and she was accepted.

How would she get on with high-caste kids from wealthy families who live in a way she had never imagined? It took a lot of courage at first, but she did fine. The only problem, she said, was her friends always had to pay for her when they went out from school. The school didn’t let kids out very often so it wasn’t a big problem.

Doma’s 10th grade results had been 85% in English and in the mid-90% range for math and science. In Junior year, she was 10th in her class of 40 with a mix of As and Bs despite having to navigate a very new environment. Then she grew over-confident and greatly over-committed to extracurricular activities. She was also sick during her final exams.

In Senior year, Doma led many cultural programs and did much volunteer work for school clubs. She was also selected for the annual ‘Quanta’ competition at City Montessori School, Lucknow, India. While taking part in the math competition, she led students from other countries in Nepali dance performance.

What Doma discovered about herself and her potential in two intensive years at BNKS is great preparation to overcome challenges she will meet in college and later.

Doma’s Math SAT 2 result is 730. Her spoken English is excellent but even the best Nepali schools do not provide good training in written English. Her best results so far are 89 for TOEFL, 490 for reading SAT and 410 for writing. While we wait for more admission decisions, she will continue to improve her written English and track her progress with more TOEFL tests.

In college, Doma will learn how to succeed with her dream. The Vice-Principal at her school before BNKS told me, “Doma is relentless. If she doesn’t understand something she will keep coming back with questions, more and more questions until she’s certain she does understand.” Her aspiration is to build a business in Nepal to provide good jobs for people like her and good services for customers. Nepal has very weak infrastructure in government, law and utilities. Doma believes that building a business will enable her to make the greatest contribution to transform her country.

Doma choreographed this dance shortly before she graduated from Budhanilkantha. It is, she told me: “Like Sherpa but not exactly. It’s a dance for people who live high in the mountains.” Sherpas and Doma’s Tamang people both came from Tibet long ago. Doma is the shorter of the two girls in red tops who enter from the left. She then dances in the center.

Over the next few weeks I will post some essays Doma wrote as part of her college applications. I’m so lucky to have found someone who is so worthwhile to help.

College for Doma

I`m in Kathmandu helping Doma apply for college next Fall.  I`ve been supporting her education for six years and will tell you her heart-warming life story another time.  Right now, I`m looking for feedback on 15 colleges where I think she should apply.

Doma`s strongest subject is Math – she got 750s in SAT practice classes – she`s almost equally strong in Physics, her comprehension and fluency in English are excellent, she considers her greatest strength to be creativity and she was a popular and effective leader in High School.  Her exam results got her into the school attended by the children of Nepal`s kings.

Doma`s goal is to build a great business in Nepal and she wants to prepare by studying in a US college. It`s an ambitious and important aspiration, especially for a woman.  Nepal is a very poor country where women are greatly disadvantaged: It ranks 121st of 136 nations in gender equality.

I asked Doma: “What must change so Nepalis can make a good future?”  “Better government and successful Nepalis in other countries coming back to build businesses.”  “Maybe you should work in government?  “Other people must do that.  I want to do business.”  So the criteria for colleges where Doma should apply are:

  • Good business program, ideally with a focus for entrepreneurs
  • Diverse majors for other students from whom Doma can learn
  • Preferably within 300 miles of Brunswick, Maine where I live
  • Residential campus
  • Offers sufficient needs- and merit-based financial aid for international students

The most attractive choices look to be Hampshire College, Providence College, Randolph College and NYU Abu Dhabi.  Hampshire was great for my son who is similar to Doma in important ways, it has a program for entrepreneurs and is networked with UMass and three other colleges.  Randolph looks almost equally good but is in Lynchburg, VA.  It`s on my list because, like Hampshire, I have a friend there.  Both colleges are enthusiastic about Doma.  Another friend`s brother teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi and it offers extremely generous financial aid.   Providence has strong business and other schools, offers generous financial aid and its Dominican culture should suit Doma`s Buddhist values.

Not many colleges offer financial aid to international students and among them, only a few offer need-based aid, which Doma will need as well as merit-based aid because her mother can provide none. If Doma is accepted at Hampshire with the maximum aid it has given any international student, the net cost will be $20K plus travel and incidentals, the high end of what may be affordable.  That maximum is 185% of their average grant.  I estimated the maximum for other colleges using a lower multiple, 100% for Providence because their average is so high and 150% for Randolph and most others.  That makes the estimated net $12K for Providence and Randolph.  It could be zero for NYU Abu Dhabi.

The next most appealing set is Elmira College, Fairfield University, Hartwick College, Quinnipiac University and Ramapo College.  All look to have good business schools and diverse other majors, all are within 300 miles of my home, the first four could offer enough aid to bring the net below $10K, Ramapo`s should be below $20K and it`s a popular choice for students from Doma`s High School.

College of St. Rose, New England College, Saint Michael`s College and Albright College are all popular choices for business majors and all offer a range of other majors, but they are less appealing because they have less capacity for financial aid.  Saint Michael`s may be too Catholic. Cornell University offers generous financial aid to international students but its only business major is Hotel Management.  That may be fine because tourism is an important part of Nepal`s economy but it is restrictive.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute grants enormous aid to international students and it has a range of business majors, however its chief focus is engineering, which is one of Doma`s interests but has limited applicability in Nepal.

Those 15 colleges range widely in selectivity but Doma`s potential Math SAT result is substantially above the high end of the requirement for all except Cornell (she should be way above their minimum).  She has done better than required by 9 colleges on SAT Reading and should also do for 5 others.  The requirement for Hampshire, Cornell and WPI is probably beyond her reach within the next two months and the SAT Writing minimum may be out of reach for almost all 15 as it likely is for most students whose native language is not English.  I expect Doma`s TOEFL (English proficiency) result to count for more and, based on her conversational skill, I expect her result will be high.

Do you or your friends know any of the colleges where I don`t have contacts, are there others we should consider, should I change the selection criteria, do you have other feedback?

Identity, Independence and Kindness

Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees.  He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass.  He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination.  That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.

Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines.  On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity.  He thinks that would be very scary.

Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood.  “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy“It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want.  It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”

Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there.  He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME.  He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish.  Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.

In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind.   Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable.  We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.

A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb.  That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment.  Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.

Believing we are part of a group is also a problem.  If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek.  The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught.  I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.

Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion.  A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said:  “What I realized is important is my values.  People I’m close to have the same values.  My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close.  Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.”  But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels.  Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.

The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland.  Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge.  As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.   My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics.   A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.

Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel.  The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established.  No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world  even though there can be no such place of safety.  It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.

China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in.  The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria.  As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories.  Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture.  The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported.  The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.

We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense.  By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations.  We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are.   Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful.  The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.

There are two Tibetan words for independence.  “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence.  “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual.  Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean.   Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual.  Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island.  Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.

Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions.  Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended.  We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.

So many ideas.  We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable.  We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not.   But it can’t work.  How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?

One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way:  “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute.  The good news is there is nowhere to land.”  Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash.  His fear of crashing distracted us.

That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live.  We are creating our own fear.

We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.

Earthquakes, Jewels and Zombies

Last night’s earthquake (September 2011) was the strongest in Nepal since 1934.   The epicenter between eastern Nepal and Sikkim was 6.8 on the Richter scale.  I barely felt it.

As G and I came out of a tea shop into light rain, I felt momentarily as if I was a little drunk.  The ground felt a little bit unstable but it passed so quickly it didn’t really register.  A little later, the street filled with people clapping, shouting and cheerfully jostling all across the road.  Was there a huge wedding?   Surely it couldn’t be part of today’s ceremonial offerings to continue getting blessings from their tools by those who work with metal even though that now includes taxi drivers, kitchen workers and many others?  G asked.  There had been an earthquake and people thought there could be another one.

This morning’s newspaper says there was almost no physical damage but more than 60 people were hurt jumping out of buildings and three were killed when the very old brick wall round the British Embassy collapsed.  This was not the “massive earthquake” D’s teacher said is necessary (but far from sufficient) for Kathmandu to get a better than third world road, water supply, sewer, electrical grid and other infrastructure.

G and I walked today in another area where it’s likely no Westerner ever went before.  There’s no temple or historical site, just very poor villages that you get to via an hour-long walk through the “jungle”.

We stopped at a tea shop where locals gather.  The proprietor was excited to find an American in his shop.  He said: “America is the richest country in the world”  then proposed to sell me a jewel that he took from a naga, a snake deity that lives in rivers.  They produce one jewel from their body during their incalculably long life.  They use it to hunt for food at night because it casts intense light 21 feet in every direction.  You can keep it if you can take such a jewel when the naga is not looking, the man tells G, but if the naga sees you, it will bite and you will die instantly.  It will not be after one minute or one second, it will be instantaneous.  That’s why such jewels are so rare.

The man said he would show it to me if I would like to buy it but it would cost eighty thousand million rupees.  That’s a little over one billion dollars.  G said I did not have so much money in my pocket today.  The man said in that case he could not show us the jewel.  G told him he had read about these jewels but never imagined he would have the good fortune to meet someone who possessed one.  The tea the man’s wife prepared was exceptionally tasty but it had no magical properties as far as I can tell.

On the way back G said when he was studying philosophy and reading Socrates “and it was the time when I must decide who I am, I realized I am a citizen of the world”.  He also realized he could not say he is a devotee of any religion.  His wife, however, is Hindu.  She knows that while not everyone is Hindu, those who are not are either Muslim or Christian and since her husband is not Muslim or Christian, he must be Hindu.  That means he must do what a Hindu man should do.

Yesterday was a day when all Hindu men must get their hair cut.  G forgot.  Last night Mrs G was very concerned because she believes dead men will now start to follow him around.   G does not want her to be distressed, so he will get his hair cut this evening.  She is afraid that will not be effective because today is the wrong day.  G says she will relax after a couple of days when she sees no dead men following him .

Observations from Kathmandu

First observations from Kathmandu, September 2011:  “I typed this into Notepad for when I could get wifi access.  Extreme lack of electricity really is a problem.  The official explanation for 18 hours a day of load shedding made no sense.  Now I’m amazed at my naivete.  There’s a 200% customs duty on imports which means an imported generator brings twice its value to the government, i.e., the politicians.  Also, since they have a monopoly on fuel imports, they make money on every liter of generator fuel.  The politicians have powerful incentives to minimize the supply of electricity, therefore they do.

The Kathmandu real estate bubble has deflated because banks are not lending.  Everyone imagines lower land prices to be a temporary problem but Nepal’s economy depends on tourism, which is much lower this season, and remittances from family overseas.  There is almost no industry and none of the infrastructure, physical or cultural, that industry requires. There’s no fundamental reason for Kathmandu to be a large city.  It became the center because it’s at the crossroad for China/India trade.  Not much of that these days.  Villagers moved here en masse when the Maoist guerrillas made rural life too dangerous.  Now they don’t want to go back to village life.  They survive for now in what feels like the pre-recession US economy, i.e., one not based on anything real.

G. and I continue to talk about small scale businesses we could try to kickstart so villagers in the hills around Kathmandu could support themselves but we no longer believe it makes sense.  It just goes against our nature to give up.  The bright spot we found yesterday is villagers in the hills above Buddhanalikantha do not need to sell their land.  They are doing quite well selling illegal home-brew down in the city.   Because the rainy season isn’t quite over, it’s very humid.  Hill walking is pretty tiring in these conditions so we often stop for tea which provides opportunities for chatting, a double benefit.

Many of the few tourists this year have always-on iPad-type devices but the internet is usually off for lack of electricity.  It’s a dramatic illustration of the need for infrastructure and why the libertarian ideal is not viable.”

Some questions in response: “The corruption answer makes sense but I’m still surprised.  I suppose not having an immediate assumption of corruption is part of growing up in a culture where corruption is supposedly policed.  From your descriptions of Nepali politics it doesn’t seem like it’s possible for Nepal to succeed; do you think there’d be a way to arrange things so there was more benefit in their politicians doing what was good for the people they supposedly represent?  Something where the politicians could still benefit (they’d have to, or they’d never go for the policy changes.)

If Kathmandu has no real reason to be a city, and can’t seem to support being a city, does it follow that it will eventually have to stop being a city, or will there being a dense collection of people mean enough jobs that people will be able to stay?”

My response to the questions: “I haven’t yet figured out a system of carrots to incent politicians to do what is good for the people.  The stick, however, is a vigorous and independent judiciary determined to stamp out corruption, which Nepal does not have.  Politicians need to fear consequences of abusing their position.

I also haven’t yet figured out Kathmandu’s future.  D.’s social studies teacher told the class it would take another massive earthquake to make sufficient change possible.  He is almost certainly correct.  I don’t see how else it would be possible to establish the infrastructure necessary for a viable city.”