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A Wet Blanket Mantra for Modernity: In Conversation with Gregory Pettys

Sometimes we meet people along the way who inspire new horizons of hope, even if their mantras are “abandon all hope of fruition.” These people often inhabit liminal spaces between worlds, acting to bridge divides with personalities and proclivities that invite heartfelt collaboration. 

Gregory Pettys is one of these people.  

I first met Greg over bowls of delicious rice gruel early one morning at Thai Plum Village. It was day three or four of the 2022 Holiday Retreat hosted at the sprawling Zen monastery situated amid central Thailand’s green valleys a few hours northeast of Bangkok.

Greg, left, with his daughter Surya and wife Ramphai at Thai Plum Village. Image courtesy of the author

Some months prior I had briefly visited Pun Pun Organic Farm, a pioneering eco-village in northern Thailand that Greg and his family have called home for much of the last decade. Asking eager questions about life on the land, I felt a sense of kinship and admiration for the earthbound path that Greg has been walking.  

At that time, this Digital Bodhisattva column had yet to arise, but it was spark-filled conversations like those with Greg, a community builder and alternative educator with sincere reservations about so-called high technology, that helped stoke the inquires pursued herein.  

Having forged a connection in the welcoming atmosphere of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma community, we remained connected and I continued to mull over the techno-skeptical seeds that Greg had planted in my mind. 

These were further watered when I began reading Greg’s excellent Substack publication “Hiraeth: Post-activism in the Anthropocene,” begun in late 2022. Offering well-crafted takes on regenerative life amid the tempest of modernity, Greg’s writing resonates with the same authenticity I felt at our initial meeting.

From gregorypettys.substack.com

Both a contemplative thinker and embodied do-er, Greg and I recently had the opportunity to speak on the phone about his views on life in the madness of our modern technosphere. Our conversation has been reconstructed below following secondary research. 

Comfortably numb

Greg began with an injunction to the felt texture of our technological moment from the perspective of the individual. 

He shared that it seems to him that modern technologies such as social media, life insurance, and air conditioning are putting us into increasingly strange bubbles of comfort and consistency. We have tried to program out all of life’s natural ruptures—those moments of shock and spontaneous pause that interrupt our predictable patterns. 

As a result, we have become much less capable of holding the paradoxes of troublesome experiences that resist definition. We retreat into safe echo chambers or drown our discomforts in a flurry of stimulating nonsense, afraid to meet reality on its own terms. 

Yet there is still a deep natural calling for the indeterminate mystery, for the fringes where excitement and danger cavort between sheets of awe. 

Speaking of those gaps where the messiness of life disintegrates our notions of control and stability into fertile possibilities for growth, Greg gestured with a grin to the pithy calligraphy on his pastel Plum Village t-shirt: “No Mud, No Lotus.”

A succinct distillation of searing wisdom from the Vimalakirti Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism, this was a popular phrase of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, whose masterful presence and teaching style arose from the sea of fire that engulfed his homeland during the Vietnam War.

A Lotus in a Sea of Fire, 2020. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper. © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2020. Image courtesy of the author

In discussing the relevance of this foundational Mahayana text to the present day, Dzongsar Kyentse Rinpoche notes that the sutra’s teaching points to an essential insight”

The lotus does not grow in clear water, it grows in muddy water. Likewise the Buddha-mind is never found in the clear mind, it is found in the muddy mind. . . . We almost always see volatile emotions as a negative, but we rarely have the outlook that these emotions are an important ingredient in the wisdom.

A longtime student of Kyentse Rinpoche, Greg has continued his appreciation for the t-shirt. If all of the cravings, confusions, and convictions that muddy our minds come as a function of embodied experience, then there is something entirely natural—even liberating—about being stuck in the mud. For it is only through the composting of these smelly states that real wisdom and embodied understanding of how to use that wisdom arises.

But in the limelight of modernity, even minor agitation is swept away with the flick of a thumb. Anesthetizing ourselves in blizzards of information, we obscure connection to the muddy messages of our bodies, failing to properly tend the seeds of insight trying to grow in our bones. 

Modernity and the Anthropocene

Greg defines the monolithic force of modernity as “what happened when we as a species made the conscious decision to separate ourselves from an intact symbiotic relationship with Earth.” Not a recent phenomenon, written evidence of this split can be traced back more than 3,000 years to both the Enuma Elish of Babylon and Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. These seminal mythologies of Western civilization—each illustrating the triumph of manmade order over natural chaos—have rippled throughout millennia with ample scholarship, indicating their significant influence within the Abrahamic religions that coalesced in the same region some thousand hundred years later. (Smith)

Depiction of the clash between Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, left, and god-king Marduk, right, from the creation epic Enuma Elish. From brittanica.com

All of this is to say that, in Gregs words, our fears of death and our will to dominate nature are part and parcel of cultures that have been drinking the modern Kool-Aid for a long time. Though rooted in the annals of Western antiquity, empires and enterprises have monocropped this view into nearly every nook and cranny of our fertile Earth, often resulting in the tragic loss of ancestral wisdom and embodied knowing of right relationship. 

This epoch of humanity-above-all-else has also been referred to in geological terms as the Anthropocene. A classification indicating the outsized environmental impact of human-centered activity at planetary scale, the Anthropocene has so-far been characterized by Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction event, as well as increasingly devastating natural disasters.    

Recognizing our interdependence with all life, it is not strange to engage with the natural world as a great sentient being. In fact, this view lies at the heart of our most resilient spiritual traditions. Whether it is the natural law of the Dharma or “original agreements” of native peoples across the globe, offerings of respect, rituals of gratitude, and behavioral commitments to compassionate reciprocity are time-honored practices for re-alignment of mind with planetary body.  

And oh, Greg lamented, do these minds need realignment with their bodies!

Rewilding the monkey mind 

Greg and I share a passion for the mytho-poetic, a view that blends appreciation for mythological teachings with creative expression and practical application. Drawing on interlocking matrices of human and more-than-human stories about the world and our place in it, Greg shared some of his experiences studying the mytho-poetic terrain with contemporary teacher Joshua Michael Schrei of the Emerald Podcast. 

Commenting on the perplexing state of embodiment in the modern technosphere, Schrei points to a troubling reality:

We have arrived at the total redefinition of what bodies even are. Bodies that have never actually learned a thing. Bodies that have no tissue bridge, no cellular bridge, no neural bridge, no hormonal bridge between what they learn on an abstract level and what they do in the world. Bodies that know all the factual information about a tree but cannot equate what they learned about trees from their AI tutor with the waving green being right outside their window. Global-scale technology-induced autism.

(Wise Innovation Project) 

This severing of quantitative information with embodied qualitative knowing is perhaps also a good framing of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Greg used the example of his hesitance to bring his young daughter to the zoo as an illustration of this point. Although he would like her to know the animal kingdom in all of its splendor and diversity, he is aware that zoos do not offer the opportunity to truly understand wildlife. 

Without the jungle, that frothing intelligent context in which tigers gradually evolved to become apex predators, the big cats one sees sprawled on concrete slabs in the zoo become mere objects of abstracted fascination for monkey minds much more concerned with romanticizing the wild than experiencing it.

Great feats of human ingenuity have been enacted to deliver these powerful beings into comfortable cages, but these attempts to contain the raw power of nature do not enact the principles of respect or reciprocity that are sorely needed in this age of human overreach. 

Greg takes a similar view on artificial intelligence. With AI we go straight into seeing a flaming intellectual deity—witnessing the rarest and most refined capacities of intelligence to manipulate information and create meaning. But these gifts of reason and engineering float unmoored from the bodies that originally housed them, crudely displayed on our screens for poking and prodding through grubby keyboards. There is no decades-long curation of artistic or coding skill to produce the things that DALL-E 3 or Copilot now spit out in a handful of seconds. 

Generated with Bing AI

This is intelligence for sure, but an entirely disembodied one, cut off from the organic realm it is designed to both imitate and transcend with computational mastery. This major amputation is not so much the fault of any individual or group, but rather the latest iteration of modernity’s unending drive to elevate humanity above the mud. 

As Schrei aptly points out: “Most AI researchers don’t even know how to make or tend a fire.” (Wise Innovation Project) Lacking embodied wisdom of fire, perhaps our most fundamental technology next to language itself, innovation streaks ahead of integration and the impact of bad decisions quickly mushroom out of control. 

Post-activism 

Inhabiting this disorientating terrain of light-speed progress, cracks begin to show in the fabric of our bullish commitment to more, more, more. Whether these occur in one shattering recognition of ecological collapse or a wave of inspiration glimpsed in the clouds, Greg shared that these are the moments of cross-pollination in which disintegration opens boundless opportunity for realignment. 

This view of emergent agency arising amid the process of unravelling is well articulated by Báyò Akómoláfé, a Nigerian-born author and celebrated post-humanist public intellectual:

Cracks are not pro this or pro that. Cracks are not partisan. Cracks are places of unspeakability. The crack is the heart of post-activism . . . the dis-arrangement of lines of continuity that produces exquisite possibilities for framing reality in different ways. The invitation is to shapeshift.

An inspirational framework animated in Greg’s writing, Akómoláfé’s “post-activism” presents both a provocation and praxis for would-be world-changers to reassess their role in perpetuating the feedback loop of opposer-opposed by feeling into the bardos in between.   

For all-too-often baked directly into the activist’s fiery drive toward justice are embers of self-centered righteousness stoked by a determined effort to extinguish every worldly fire. But without simultaneously cooling the inner hearth through practices of non-attachment, our best and brightest often burnout. 

In this regard, Greg often reminds himself to “abandon all hope of fruition.” While this may sound like a wet-blanket mantra, verbalizing it helps him to recalibrate his view outside of individual aspiration and back into the resonant field of working for the benefit of all beings. 

Recollecting this immense vow of the bodhisattva, one’s load is lightened by the task’s inconceivable nature, and awareness can once again dissolve into the simple power of doing our best with what is at hand.

References

Smith, George. 1876. The Chaldean account of Genesis. New York: Scribner, Armstrong

See more

AI and Buddhism (Siddhartha’s Intent)
An Invitation to Shapeshift: A Talmudo-Poetic Conversation on Post-Activism with Báyò Akómoláfé (Ayin Press)
Wise Innovation Project (Substack)
Hiraeth: Post-Activism in the Anthropocene (Substack)
A Lotus in a Sea of Fire”: A Post-Apocalyptic Future by Tuan Andrew Nguyen (On Art and Aesthetics)

Digital Bodhisattva (Facebook)
Digital Bodhisattva (Clubhouse)
Digital Bodhisattva Initiative (Linktree)
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
INEB (Twitter)

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