Plans – Part 1

By Terry Plotkin


I recently read an article on the BBC web site. Below is an excerpt:  A boat was sinking in the Baltic Sea on September 27, 1994. Many people died. Survival experts were astonished at the high death toll. It appears that many people drowned because they did nothing to save themselves. The report stated, “A number of people… seem to have been incapable of rational thought or behavior because of their fear. Others appeared petrified and could not be forced to move. Some panicking, apathetic and shocked people were beyond reach and did not react when other passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them.” John Leach, a military survival instructor who researches behavior in extreme environments at the University of Portsmouth, has found that in life-threatening situations, around 75% of people are so bewildered that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralyzed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. (The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: they freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.) “All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question,” says Leach. “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”


I suspect that the people on that boat were thinking about many things right before that boat began to sink, but there imminent demise was not one of them. That is understandable and normal. However, going through life refusing to face or even think about our mortality might prevent us from acting in a smart way when it shows itself. We spend our life looking away from death, pretending it isn’t there, believing it can’t happen to us. Strange that something this inevitable is avoided.


Under normal circumstances, most people adapt to the situations that are unanticipated. They change their plans because of bad weather, they look for a new place to live if they are being evicted, they change directions when the road is closed. But when they are suddenly faced with their own mortality they seize up. When we most need to be clear-headed and fast-acting, just the opposite occurs.

The truth is that life and death moments hover constantly around us. We just don’t think about it. Read the newspaper and witness what is going on daily: wars, random shootings, terrorist attacks, freak weather, Ebola, the obituary page. Take a drive down the road and observe how quickly disaster can strike. The other day while riding my bike down Main Street, a biker, just 10 yards in front of me, was struck by a car. I saw it coming as the driver was pulling into an angled parking spot and I could see she was paying no attention to anything but her destination. The bike rider got knocked over but was unhurt. Good thing or his plans would have been seriously changed. (The woman said, “That is why I don’t ride bikes, it’s too dangerous.” I hope she also considers not driving a car for the same reason.)


Meanwhile, in a seemingly stealth move that struck ever so slowly, my mother has become quite old and she often remarks in her decrepit state, “You don’t think it is going to happen to you, and then here it is.”


I like what the Boy Scouts say: Be Prepared.




A Native American Koan

By Terry Plotkin

Nearly 40 year ago I went to Washington D.C. for the final leg of The Longest Walk. This was a Native-American sponsored event. They had walked cross-country to the nation’s capitol to make a statement of their rights, build their movement, and ask for a redress of their grievances. Some hippies, with whom I had picked apples in Western Mass. were going, and they invited me to join. We arrived at the staging area for the last mile before their destination of the National Mall and the organizers had us line up as follows: Those who walked the whole trip would go first (this included several Buddhists who drummed the whole journey), then native people who had joined along the walk. That all made sense to me. People of color went behind them, and last came the white people. I was upset that the white people walked behind the black and brown people. I thought that since we all arrived at the end and were there to be supportive, we should all walk together and not segregate by race. I was making my argument to my friends who were unfazed by this set-up and joined at the back of the line, but I resisted.


Just then, at the moment of impasse, an older Native-American man with long gray hair tied back in a braid, appeared out of nowhere.  I had no idea what he was doing there since the native people were all at the front of the line by that point.  I didn’t have time to get nervous. Truth be told, I didn’t even feel like I belonged there. I had made the journey almost as an afterthought and anyway I had other business to attend to there. So when this dignified looking man took the time to speak with me I felt honored, albeit undeservedly so.  Nonetheless, I was struggling to find my way in my life, and when someone like him approached me, I gave it my full attention seeking, as I was, truth and direction.  He looked straight at me and said: “I am going to tell you a story. There is a valley.” He paused a moment and spanned the horizon with his arm, fingers spread.  “In that valley there is a tree.” Another pause. “That is all there is.” With that pronouncement, he walked away to his section of the line. I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with my issue of the segregated line or anything else for that matter. I stayed mad. I had no idea what he was talking about.


His “story” stayed with me all these years precisely because I didn’t get it. Yet the man seemed to me to have stature. If the same words had come from a stoned friend, of whom I had many back then, I wouldn’t have paid it any mind and would have forgotten it along with so many other things that were uttered. So it was a surprise when I was recently cross-country skiing in my favorite nearby woods, when the memory of the Native–American man and his simple story suddenly came back to me. It was a beautiful winter late-afternoon day. The hills were purple in the setting sun, the ground white, the bare trees varying shades of gray, save for the evergreens, and the gentlest snow was falling. Absolutely beautiful. But I was not enjoying it that much. I was in a foul mood, thinking about how people were always so busy and harried that they did not have time for each other or for nature. The reason the story of the tree in the valley being all there is popped into my brain at that moment was, just like 40 years ago, I was wasting a potentially sacred moment on intellectual ponderings of things I didn’t approve of. I finally understood what he was trying to convey.   My bad mood suddenly gone, I saw the woods in a fresh light, happy to be in it skiing.  I looked around me and composed a story: There is a snow-covered trail and a rock outcropping just ahead covered in gray ice. That is all there is.

The Worst Truth Ever

By Terry Plotkin

Nature, evolution, cosmic consciousness, technology, progress or something else I can’t put my finger on has brought us to the brink of having to do something that many of us don’t want to do, that is very difficult to do, and that is absolutely necessary that we do: Learn to get along. Families, tribes, and villages have known this for a very long time. A family whose members dislike each other live lives of strife. A tribe whose members can’t get along will find neither harmony, nor prosperity, nor peace. A nation that is in strife with another risks ruinous war.


That was the old days for good or ill. We have arrived at a new place. In the nuclear age it is – as Martin Luther King said – “non-violence or non-existence.” This has been true since Hiroshima. The world has shown some sense and restraint up to this point in not using the atrocious weapon, but we have not succeeded in putting the evil, unbelievably destructive genie back in its bottle either. It only takes one bad day, one evil person, one atomic weapon dropped in the wrong place at the wrong time to hurl the world towards catastrophe. World-wide massive collective action might be the only thing to stop it at that point. The weapons are becoming easier to make and the know-how is readily available, but still we cannot find the resolve to abandon them. This should demand our full attention, but it barely gets a mention, focused, as the media is, on the most trivial of things.


It does not end there.  Climate change has pushed the world to make a global decision about fossil fuels that pits cheap energy and greed against science and nature. While the battle for hearts and minds is being waged, progress towards a solution and world-wide agreement is painfully slow. While the world dithers, heat-trapping gases accelerate into the atmosphere. If we don’t all agree to stop using oil, gas, and coal soon then we will all get burned together.


There are other pressing issues that demand the world unite to solve: Diseases can easily spread across borders, drinkable water is disappearing, natural resources are depleted, species are going extinct, over-population is crippling our ability to cope, the air is bad, the oceans are becoming acidified, filled with garbage, and marine life is in steep decline. The point is, we cannot solve these and other problems unless the people and their governments come together and see the wisdom of acting as one for mutual survival. We have done it before: banning ozone depleting chemicals, whaling bans, nuclear test bans, and the United Nations. There are many other examples of people and nations coming to the aid of each other in times of need.


Relations between Christians and Muslims are not good. They don’t understand each other. Certainly not when it comes to the idea of how religion and free speech should be practiced. Add this to the fact that imperialism is all over this conflict, and, as is always the case, violence and repression are used as its tools. The Arab and Western worlds have to back off or risk World War 3.  This is a war we simply cannot have if we wish to have a planet worth living on. As a first step, I suggest to the West that if the Muslim world doesn’t want us to draw pictures and make fun of their prophet then we shouldn’t do it. Why? Because they asked us to, because they find it offensive, because we should be respectful of their beliefs. In return, we have the right to ask them to do everything in their power to stop the wild violence in God’s name. After that, we can turn to slaying the dragons of greed and conquest.


I was having breakfast recently with a friend who is looking to buy a home and is worried about the neighborhood and the kind of people there. I said no matter where you go, there are bound to be some people you don’t like and some you’ll want to avoid. It is the same at most workplaces and extended families. Wherever humans congregate there is likely to be some conflict. Yet we are stuck with each other, and we really have no alternative but to find a way to get on. She said, “That is the worst truth ever.”



It is painfully clear, even within our own land that we often fail to come together and find higher ground. Truth is, there are times when Americans can hardly stand each other, which prevents us from solving problems, and that is in just our own country. The nations of the world are still struggling mightily to think like one people. Yet, our state of development demands we rise to the occasion. We all know how to cooperate. I know it can be done, and I believe it will be done. The question is how much pain and suffering will we inflict on ourselves before we do it.

Everywhere But Here

By Terry Plotkin


It is almost maddening to watch in action: Drinking a glass of water, but not focus on swallowing. Driving a car, but not paying close attention to this important and dangerous job. Having to wait just a few seconds, and out comes the phone. Going through the day’s activities with a song, one that we may not like, that we may not have even chosen to listen to, that is totally unwelcome in our brain, and yet, there it sits repeating the same verses over and over again, as if we were locked in some deep meditation. The TV is on while we cook, and the radio while we visit.  And so the day goes. The shocking truth is that we seldom fully engage with the task at hand.  Our brain is only partially present in the actions that our bodies are taking. It is an epidemic that is so prevalent that it goes unnoticed.  My guess is that lack of attention is the leading cause of accidents, a suppresser of creative thought, a contributor to the alienation from ourselves, a blocker of insights, and a reason we turn away from nature and each other. It makes us jittery and anxious. There are products for sale that try to alleviate the symptoms, and others drawing us ever deeper into the morass of mind clutter. The solution – if there is one – must lie elsewhere.


Walking. I am teaching myself to walk. Preposterous! Absurd! A grown man knows how to walk! Do I do it consciously? Do I pay attention to my gait? Fifteen years of heel pain indicates not. Arch supports, ankle supports, expensive, rigid running shoes, cushioning for the sole, encasing my feet in all manner of technologies to improve performance and cut pain, all for naught.  Technology let me down. I stretched every day, more than once, but got at most temporary relief. A friend raised my consciousness about another way to approach the problem, and I made the switch, going barefoot as much as possible and wearing minimalist shoes when necessary. (Check out the book Born to Run if you want a great read and to learn about the topic.) All of it made sense to me, yet my feet still hurt. Just when I was thinking that this is the way it is, that I should accept my fate, that it is just bad genes, flat feet, old age, or a combination of everything, and that it will likely get worse as I get older, and with the prospects for later in life filled with pain and disability, I tried one more thing: Teach myself to walk in a way that doesn’t injure me.  The principle being that there must be something that I do on a regular basis that is at the root of the problem. I observed myself walking and quickly noticed that I take fairly big strides, heel striking as the foot lurches in front of the body. Then I bring the other leg forward and POW! POW! POW! Again and again, clomping onto my heels. When I ran, it was even more pronounced like a Frankenstein type stride, punishing not only my heels but my feet and knees and back. Ten thousand times a day, decade after decade. It is a wonder I can even stand up. The revelation almost feels foolish it is so obvious. I look around. I watch others walk. I talk to people. I do research on the internet. Someone tells me to walk like the hippie in the Scooby Doo cartoon. He doesn’t stride in front of his body. He steps under his body, rolls onto the balls of his feet where there is natural shock absorption, and pushes off. The heel hardly touches the ground. It makes sense to me and I try it, but I must retrain myself to move differently. I must walk consciously, paying attention to each step. Don’t let the mind wander: No chatter, no music buzzing in my ears, no spacing out, no fantasies. If I lose the focus, I must bring it back. Every day, every time I walk. Slowly, over a few months, with some messages thrown in for the leg muscles now used in new ways, and the pain slowly abates. At this point 90% better. Amazing. Call it the Zen of walking.


It is quiet in my house nowadays: Most of the time no TV, no music, no news. Just fold clothes, cook food, write, eat, stretch, clean, work. It is quiet in my car when I drive with no talk radio or songs to fill the empty space. I observe many things coming at me and me at them. There is much to be aware of and lots of small decisions to make.


It is true that it is never too late to change. Meanwhile, almost imperceptibly, slowly, slowly, quieter, ever quieter in my brain.