Archive for March, 2011

The Japan Quake, The Bug Out Bag, And Reality

Posted in Agathos, Self-Reliance, Stoicism with tags , , on March 15, 2011 by Joe Callahan

In the few days since the Japan quake and tsunami I’ve been interested to notice an increased number of hits on this blog. According to the handy WordPress tools, it was largely due to search terms that led them to my recent post about my bug-out bag. As a quick recap, a bug-out bag is a pack containing what you would need to survive for about 72 hours while you walk out of a very bad situation. I wrote about the BOB as it related to the role of self-reliance in being Agathos. Like most people I’ve been alternately fascinated and saddened by the news and images coming out of Japan. I suppose it is not surprising that people might suddenly start thinking more about how to deal with emergency and disaster. If you haven’t really given it thought it is unsettling to suddenly see that the planet may do something not in your best interests and in truly spectacular fashion. Packing a BOB may seem like a bigger priority this week.

The unhappy truth is that a bug-out bag probably wouldn’t have done squat to save most of those quake victims on the first day. As I considered the searches, and also a surge in discussion board posts on the BOB concept, I had to wonder how many might be looking at this backwards.

The Stoics teach us a couple of things that may be applicable here. The first is to practice the mental discipline of seeing things as they really are. We have to break down our impressions of an event and see them only for basic facts and not our emotional responses. Second, we have to learn to accept that there are many many things in the world that our outside of our control. Where we can show our greatest virtue as human beings is not in altering events beyond our control but in how we respond to those events.

If you look outside your window and you see a gigantic wall of water flinging boats and cars and flaming debris at you with massive force and traveling at hundreds of miles an hour you cannot change your circumstances. Most of those people were screwed. You have no control. You can only choose how you respond. I saw one piece of helicopter footage where the tsunami was barreling across farm fields towards a road. One poor individual was on that road in a car. Whoever it was drove like hell to get away. I have no idea if they made it since the news clip ended (I hope so but it didn’t look promising) but they chose how to respond. It wasn’t preparation it was response.

The late John Boyd created the OODA loop concept (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) and it is an excellent guide for 1) Seeing things as they are 2) Recognizing that the environment is fluid and potentially hostile 3) Choosing a response. It certainly applies in this case. Observe (Gigantic tidal wave from a nightmare), Orient (If I stay on this road I am dead), Decide (Either die or drive and probably still die), Decision (DRIVE). No prep kit can help you through that process.

So does that mean I suddenly think its worthless to have something like a BOB? Not at all. I just don’t think its good to have any illusions about the power of preparation.

In the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, Japan is still a disaster unfolding. Food, fuel and water shortages, housing problems, potential disease issues and radioactive contamination are going to be challenges for the people who still live. Those are the folks who might be glad to have a bug-out bag. If you are a survivor in one of those remote northern coastal towns you might be very happy to have the means to walk out of there on your own. Perhaps more to the point, if they still have a home intact they may be very very glad if they prepared to bug in. Despite having written about a bug out bag I also have food, water, med supplies, etc stored at home. Its pretty hard to maintain self-reliance when you are a refugee standing in line for everything needed to live.

As I stated in my previous post, I don’t do these things because I expect to survive Armageddon and the zombie apocalypse. I embrace these concepts primarily because self-reliance provides dignity to our lives. However, Japan is just another lesson that teaches us we don’t get to pick our disasters. We only get to pick how we respond.

Lessons In Mindfulness From Paintball In The Snow

Posted in Agathos, Philosophy on March 4, 2011 by Joe Callahan

Finn soldier 1939


I was in Vermont visiting friends and a group of us had the opportunity to try our hand at paintball.  As you probably know, paintball is the sport where you get to shoot at people, and be shot at, with compressed air guns that fire colorful balls that go splat.  I have always meant to give it a try but just never got around to it before.  Its pretty entertaining.

We also had the added fun of doing this out in the wintry woods on snowshoes.  It was a nice day just to be out on snowshoes even without the added benefit of blasting away at friends.  Thumping around in the snow with gun in hand was like a paintball version of the Finnish Winter War (except no hordes of Russian tanks……and no fatality……and we could go inside for tea when we wanted).

At one point I was out there in the woods and setting myself up to bushwhack some perfectly nice individual.  I was hunkered down behind cover and keeping an eye out through the trees to catch sight of whoever would approach.

That was all well and good but as a few minutes passed I was annoyed to note that my mind had wandered off.

Now to keep this all in perspective, its not like this was life and death and I wasn’t trying to practice super-ninja skills to qualify for some special ops unit.  I was just playing paintball with friends.  However, I did have an opportunity here to practice some basic awareness and focus.  So I once more tried to get my Jedi powers going and listen to the sounds of the forest and stay still and patient and…….I found myself thinking about calls I needed to make the following week.  After a few moments of irritation with myself I finally did manage to pay attention to what I was doing in the moment.  That was still too long.  Luckily for my sorry butt, this wasn’t Finland 1939.

I first encountered the idea of mindfulness as a college student (yes that long ago) when studying Asian religions.  I was first introduced to types of meditation practice around that time.  As time went on I also encountered a number of lessons on awareness via the martial arts.  This isn’t exactly new ground for me.  So why was I being such a flake as I sat there in the snow awaiting my victim?

I think there are probably two answers.  The first is that I have grown accustomed to maintaining mindfulness and focus in certain familiar situations.  Yes, I may do seated meditation (though with lapses to be sure).  Yes, I am accustomed to staying focused in the middle of some kung fu form.  However, I am not exposing myself to the practice of mindfulness in a wide enough range of situations and activities for that mindset to click naturally regardless of context.  That has some wide ranging implications.  Obviously it suggests that an unfamiliar and unexpected self-defense situation might throw me.  Happily I don’t get attacked much.  A more immediate problem is in terms of conduct.  If working to be Agathos (that being the point of my ramblings) is reflected in my behaviors then a certain vigilance is required.  Will the unfamiliar mean I do not have the proper answer at hand when I ask myself:  what is the most worthy action RIGHT NOW?

The second reason is likely the ADD-inducing multitasking freakshow barrage of stimuli that is plugged-in life.  Not to get all Luddite here but I can recall going to the library as a student with no cell phone, no laptop, nothing but books and a notepad.  I was unreachable and undisturbed for hours.  Even in working life the phone was a distraction but I still would have relatively vast stretches of time to focus on a project.  Is that possible now?  It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case for me anyway.  Somewhere along the way I’ve become distracted by too many demands for attention and various other shiny objects.  If I am being clear and seeing things as they are (as the Stoics teach) then I see that most of what draws my attention doesn’t deserve it.

Am I reading too much into a little bit of daydreaming while sitting around in the snow?  Possibly but I don’t think entirely.  Whatever routine, comfort or adult life sensory overload impacts my ability to be mindful and focused needs to be addressed.  It may be as simple as making sure I have utterly unplugged time in nature or in study.  It may be that I just need to get out of the house more and have more new experiences.

Maybe I’ll have to run around in the woods and shoot people more often.