Podcast: WERK for Peace Founding Organizer Firas Nasr talks Peaceful Protesting

Introducing (maybe): a new platform for all the podcast lovers in here! Last week I had the honor of speaking...

How Technology Could (Maybe) Create a Nu World

Everything you wanted to know about my new work with NuMundo and studies in Media and Peacebuilding… and then...

It's Not about Being Good—It's about Being Bold

“It’s time to be bold, stand up, and share your art OUT LOUD.” Thus reads the event description for the...

Why I Don't Care about International Relations

accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought...

Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

At the edge of Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, in 6 am light The light falling through my windows at 6...
Culture, Peace
Podcast: WERK for Peace Founding Organizer Firas Nasr talks Peaceful Protesting
Central America, Culture, Peace
How Technology Could (Maybe) Create a Nu World
Poetry & Fiction
It's Not about Being Good—It's about Being Bold
Central America, Peace
Why I Don't Care about International Relations
Central America, Nature
Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

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Hi, my name is Toby Israel.

I like to call myself an incorrigible vagabond. (It hasn’t caught on…yet.) I search for dragons, searches, and cross-cultural understanding—and then I share those discoveries with you.

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Culture, Peace

Podcast: WERK for Peace Founding Organizer Firas Nasr talks Peaceful Protesting

Introducing (maybe): a new platform for all the podcast lovers in here!

Last week I had the honor of speaking with WERK for Peace founding organizer (and my good friend) Firas Nasr about peaceful protesting.

Since the movement started, I’ve been inspired by how WERK for Peace harnesses the power of dance to shift narratives, send a rainbow-hued message and empower the LGBTQ community in Washington DC and beyond. While the interview was ostensibly part of a University for Peace project on nonviolent resistance, Firas’ message is simply too good to share with only a few people.

“With the Mike Pence event, lots of people assume that our primary goal was to send Mike Pence a message. And lots of people ask me, you know, do you think Mike Pence heard you? Do you think you were effective? But for me, the goals are really centering the queer and trans community, and allowing us to celebrate our bodies, to celebrate our community, and to come together for a shared cause. And that’s I think why our events are so effective. I measure efficacy on whether or not the queer/trans community had fun, was safe, showed up… our protests are really about centering our bodies and our voices, our experiences, the marginalized individuals within our community, uplifting those voices and creating community through our events.” — Firas Nasr

WERK for Peace is a queer-based grassroots organization that uses dance to promote peace. It was founded in response to the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting in early 2016. Listen here:

“There’s a very clear underpinning as to why we use dance. Our bodies are ascribed political and social narratives, and so by moving our bodies we are actively shifting those political and social narratives. We’re redefining them, we’re reclaiming them, and we’re reclaiming our bodies in the process too. That is to me such a powerful means of both personal and social change happening at the same time. That encapsulates why dance is so powerful as a means for social change.” — Firas Nasr


Will podcasts become a regular menu item here? I’m not sure yet, but with this WERK for Peace spotlight I think I’m off to a good start! Watch my new Soundcloud page to see what’s next.

Continue reading
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How Technology Could (Maybe) Create a Nu World

Everything you wanted to know about my new work with NuMundo and studies in Media and Peacebuilding… and then some.

What will the internet age look like?

Will it result in a “pax technologica” independent of hegemonic power and military force? Or will it only deepen existing divides between different nationalities, ethnicities, and cultural groups, perpetuating conflicts and impeding understanding?

It is an exciting time to be thinking about these questions.

The choices we make now—as users, thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and consumers—could well direct the course of our technological future.

That is why I am passionate about the vision of NuMundo, a tech-forward company leading the way in “land-based online networks,” regenerative economies, and decentralized global tribalization. If those sound like a lot of strange terms, they are. But emerging organizations and businesses like NuMundo have the power to create and define the terms that will drive the future of technology and the social structures surrounding it.

NuMundo is a global, online network of “impact centers” with a focus on eco-restoration, education, empowerment, community living, and sustainable travel. It serves to link interested travelers, vacationers, and full-time escapees from The System with ecological, educational, and physical locations for stays, workshops, work-trades, and retreats.

I will argue that NuMundo (and other online-offline communities like it) solves the paradox of the “global tribe”—or at least has the potential to do so.

Rather than sacrificing individual and group identities for the dubious ideal of peace driven by homogeneity, it celebrates pluralism and cultivates close-knit, on-the-ground “tribal” communities. Rather than foregoing a global outlook in favor of insular “villages,” it encourages an inclusive and open-minded perspective through online resources, dialogue, and exchange across all borders.

NuMundo answers what I will call a “noble impulse” for connection, meaning, and peace; in so doing, it offers an alternative vision of “full spectrum media” that is earth-centered and regenerative, rather than transhumanist and exploitative. Defining media in as broad a manner as possible, I place this organization at the forefront of a promising trend toward “glocalization” bolstered (rather than hindered) by communications technologies.

“Minimalism: Just another thing rich people can buy?”

numundo, minimalism

Packing light. Helsinki, 2015.

Using media to promote anti-consumerism and counterculture lifestyles may seem incongruous, but networks like NuMundo are attempting to do just that. Leading propagandist Edward Bernays wrote, “This general principle, that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves, is as true of mass as of individual psychology.” While he and Freud believed these “repressed impulses” to be wholly negative—aggression, sexual deviance, violence—one could make a case for the existence of neutral or even noble human impulses, equally repressed, and equally driving consumer choices.

What of wildness? Intuition? Connection (to nature, self, and fellow humans)?

These impulses, too, are present in modern humans, and repressed as much as, if not more than violence by mainstream culture and conditioning. Some of the emerging media technologies of today could indeed satisfy our hidden impulses—just not in the way Freud or Bernays might have imagined.

Looking at a pattern of consumption, or more broadly a cultural habit, “The modern propagandist therefore sets to work to create circumstances which will modify that custom” to suit his ends (Bernays 55). That is, the processes of propaganda (and marketing) run deep beneath the surface. The elusive goal of altering cultural desires and values through media can create docile consumers, obedient citizens… or something else.

Taking propaganda as a neutral term, this could also describe the process of guiding a reluctant public to first recognize their disconnectedness from community and nature and then seek to reclaim such a connection.

Of course, at times the “selling of peace” is itself part of a broader trend of commodifying meaning that, for example, appropriates ancient practices and strips them of context. The Westernization of yoga, Madonna-ization of Kabbalah, and corporate “greenwashing” should well serve as cautionary tales. Nonetheless, if mainstream marketing can tap into consumers’ darkest repressed desires, then alternative models can play to their noblest ones. Success in this endeavor would undoubtedly have a net positive effect on global peacebuilding efforts.

We Have the Medium. Still Waiting on the Message.

editing, numundo, peace, technology

We could next consider what role these alternative media might play in building a new kind of peace.

The equation of Internet + Access = Peace is, most would agree, vastly oversimplified. It’s not only access to technology, but also how that technology is used that impacts social evolution. While that statement may seem self-evident, many appear tempted to label this new technological force as “good” or “evil.”

However, “It was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message” (McLuhan 7).

Communications technologies are the medium; how we use them will determine what meaning they ultimately have for human development.

Networks such as NuMundo seek to utilize new technologies in a focused and intentional manner, promoting ecological lifestyles, cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, and community-oriented systems. They do so by facilitating access to workshops on permaculture, natural building, indigenous wisdom, and traditional healing modalities. Furthermore, they enable “regular people” to discover “transformational experiences”—in the form of vacations, retreats, gatherings, or work trades—capable of permanently altering their worldview.

When we use “the machine” to promote sustainable travel, community empowerment, and ecological lifestyle, then the machine is…green.

If communications technologies ultimately serve to create a greener, more grounded, and more connected world, then we are a far cry from both the doomsday predictions and the transhumanist fantasies of many scholars and thinkers. “The “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan 8). We are currently embedded in the change being wrought by the introduction of the internet and associated technologies. Thus it follows that we cannot know yet what the characteristics of that “change of scale” will be. However, it appears likely that the participation of users will prove a strong determining factor.

Convergence & A Full-Spectrum World

costa rica, peace, numundo, yoga

Full-spectrum experience in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Convergence theory describes not only the convergence of media companies, but also consumers’ participation in and influence over media technologies. It is this “grassroots convergence” that applies to an analysis of NuMundo and similar digital communities.

Herein, “consumers are learning to use these different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control and to interact with other consumers” (Jenkins 18). Active and participatory internet users affect the form and function of media through their involvement.

What will they choose to do with the control of new media in their own hands?

Many are building tribes—some purely virtual, others avatars of more local groups. We will return to the topic of tribalization shortly. Other users, however, are building sophisticated digital networks of communication, growth, and resilience akin to those of the mycelium that run beneath the earth.

To follow the idea of convergence a step further, the concept of a “full spectrum world” takes on yet greater nuance when we extend our definition of “media” to concrete, physical experiences. If media, or communications technologies, are extensions of our own eyes, ears, mouths, hands, then the reverse could also be true.

By such a  definition, NuMundo’s unique blend of physical, grounded “impact centers” and the tech-savvy “digital nomads” visiting them are actually part of the media they use. In this instance, “media” does not only refer to the website, blog, search directory, photos, videos, and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts that constitute NuMundo’s online presence.

It also encompasses the physical locations, the food forests, the dirty hands, the organic farm-to-table meals and the face-to-face interactions that characterize users’ lived experience.

At the risk of following the concept too far, we are the message. And the message is one of peaceful community and regenerative practices.

Networks like NuMundo promote peace at multiple levels. Permaculture principles engender food security, community empowerment, and nature connection. Respect for indigenous wisdom cultivates cultural exchange, learning, and awareness. A culture of travel and “transformational experience” de-commodifies the modern lifestyle and reinstates human interaction at the fore of our value system.

Many people, when picturing the future of technology, may imagine a dystopia (or utopia, depending on who’s imagining) of chips implanted in brains and credit cards embedded in forearms. However, there are alternative models.

NuMundo is one of them.

And this vision centers on the fusion of the global village and the local tribe.

Tribalization: The Good, The Bad, and the Nu

numundo, finca morpho, beach, peace

Finca Morpho, one of NuMundo’s impact centers.

The word “tribe” has many connotations—some negative, as in the conflict that often arises from “us versus them” dynamics and identity politics, but others positive.

Alternative communities across the globe are reclaiming the term, taking it to mean something quite different from the conventional usage. NuMundo, for example, often refers to their community as “tribe.”

In recent discourse, the idea of the global village frequently appears in opposition to the local tribe. And looking at the echo chambers of social media, the proliferation of online hate groups, and the fragmentation of the online world, we are likely to wonder which it will be: tribal or global.

The NuMundo model, on the other hand, synthesizes these two dynamics in a manner only possible because of modern technologies. Few species have achieved such a feat; mycelium are one of them. Underground mycelium networks can stretch for thousands of miles, cropping up above the surface at intervals, yet remaining interconnected through adept communication systems. Likewise, NuMundo impact centers and community members span the globe, and their virtual ties are invisible to the naked eye. However, through strong networks of communication, they remain intricately bound to one another.

The NuMundo approach to applying advanced technologies to modern society has its roots in natural processes. We would do well to ground our technology use in such a way more often.

Taken in the NuMundo sense of the term, tribalization is an overwhelmingly positive development. Modern “conscious tribes” represent small, closely knit and interdependent groups of people who support one another and their environment. These groups have strong identities, but ones which incorporate a global perspective and a value system centered on non-violence—between humans, and toward the earth.

However, retribalization can undoubtedly become a damaging and even violent process, whereby we we project our negative qualities onto an outside “other,” thus reinforcing an “in group” identity while demonizing an “out group.” Such trends have certainly arisen in many alternative lifestyle movements. Think militant veganism, minimalism, and sustainability. Dogmatic adherents to any value system will often move beyond their own choices to attack those who do not share them.

The inherent dangers of tribalization are not to be overlooked or brushed off.

What’s Ahead?

Can the global village coexist with the local tribe, then?

NuMundo would say yes.

If there is such a thing as pax technologica, I hope it will follow the NuMundo template: Technology-supported empathy and interconnection will lead to a “decentralized peace”—independent of hegemonic or state powers. Retribalization will occur along non-national, non-ethnic lines; rather, global citizens will group into value-aligned, semi-location-independent communities.

Potential for peace notwithstanding, however, we will do well to take cautionary measures against the divisive implications of a retribalization process. As this shift takes place, we must ensure that it is not divisive, with “eco-warriors” hunkering down in one camp, facing off against the status quo and corporate machine in the other.

Most likely, the dynamics of future digital communities will be far more fluid than either of these scenarios, a bit less black and white.

There is no utopian outcome to the global tribe paradox, whereby technology leads to perfect peace amongst mankind and harmony with nature. Not even an army of mission-driven, eco-focused organizations could achieve that. Still, in turning our focus toward globally linked, locally rooted projects, we could learn a lot about building new models of non-violent living.

If technology is going to define the world that future generations inhabit, let’s hope it’s less “Brave New World” and more “NuMundo.”


References
Bernays, Edward (1928). Propaganda. Routledge. Chapter 4: The Psychology of Public Relations. pp. 47-61.
Blondel, Ylva Isabelle. (2003). Violent Conflict and Roles of the Media. Uppsala University report commissioned by Sida and UNESCO. pp. 1-37.
Jenkins, Henry. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York University Press. Introduction: Worship at the Alter of Convergence: A New Paradigm for Understanding Media Change, pp. 1-24.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Chapter 1: “The Medium is the Message” pp. 7-21 and Chapter 32: “Weapons: War of the Icons” pp. 338-345.
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Poetry & Fiction

It’s Not about Being Good—It’s about Being Bold

“It’s time to be bold, stand up, and share your art OUT LOUD.”

Thus reads the event description for the open mic night I’m organizing this week. Out Loud (En Voz Alta) is an opportunity for artists, performers, and secret creatives to take risks and share their art—out loud.

Here’s the thing. If I’m going to tell anyone else to be bold, I’d better start with myself.

That’s why, today, I made my first Facebook Live post (below). That’s why I’m beginning to share my songs with a wider audience than the monkeys outside my house (they think I’m pretty alright). That’s why I’ll be performing first this Thursday night.

I hope to set a tone for the evening. And the tone goes something like this:

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to fail, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to tell you it’s okay to suck, this is it.

If you were waiting for someone to promise that they’ll cheer you on regardless, this is it.

This isn’t a talent show.

An open mic night is an opportunity to stand up and take a risk. To share your art, your voice, your heart out loud.

If you were waiting for someone to give you permission to screw up, to be terrible, to fail—that’s happening right now.

So please, take the risk. Be bold.

I’ll be there cheering you on.

And so, here I am. Trying to make a point by singing… I didn’t sing much the first twenty-plus years of my life, because someone once told me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t. What a loss! We all carry around these incredible instruments all the time, we might as well use them, enjoy them. Who cares if they’re harsh or ugly or off key?

Then, in April of this year, I started to write songs.

Are they good songs? That’s not really the point.

I’m not trying to be famous. I’m trying to do something true.

And if someone reads this or sees me sing/perform/publish and decides to take their own risk, then it will be doubly worth it.

It’s easy to share the things we believe we’re good at. Harder to share when others (or our own brains) have told us we’re utter failures.

But the world doesn’t need more people who hide. It needs more artists. It needs not fearlessness, but boldness. It needs more people who will stand up and say,

“This is me. I don’t care if you like it. I don’t care if my hands shake. I have a voice, so I am going to use it. Because I am human.”

That’s why I’m here—organizing open mic nights, sharing my music with the big, scary internet. Not because I’ve overcome those deeply rooted insecurities, but because I’ve decided that this is more important. I believe art is meant to be shared. I do not believe life is always a talent show.

And, finally, it’s not enough for me to be bold; I want you to be bold too.

We have these amazing instruments—our voices, our hands, our bodies—that can sing, speak, write, play, and dance. Shouldn’t we use them?


Photo Credit: Halley McClure

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Central America, Peace

Why I Don’t Care about International Relations

[Our] accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future. — Wade Davis, Wayfinders

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After a challenging three weeks in an International Relations course, I realized something…

Wait. Let me rewind first. Three wekes ago, I wrote:

Anthropologist Wade Davis—and particularly his book on indigenous systems, quoted above—has left a deep impression on me in the past year.

He expresses, with compelling eloquence and abundant case studies, my own feelings about our modern status quo. In these first few weeks at UPeace, I have seen the Western paradigm for peacebuilding and conflict resolution repeatedly touted in assigned readings as the apex of human thought, with few voices raised in opposition. (Makau Mutua comes to mind.)

While traveling over the last three years, I have encountered countless well-intentioned people doing far less good than they had hoped.

I believe it comes down to arrogance.

The problem is that we think we know everything. We think our truth is the only truth—that our reality is Reality. We are self-centered enough to believe human development is linear (and concentrated in the “West”) and that anything that came before, or from outside, is irrelevant to our future as a species.

This narcissism holds repercussions far wider than the field of peace and conflict studies. It impacts economic systems, food production, development, immigration policy, and so much more. Even worse, it closes our minds to all the wisdom available to us within our own history, and it stunts our capacity for creative and critical thought.

Human innovation is limitless, but only if we are humble enough to apply it to the flaws in our own paradigm.

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the role individuals play—as agents of change, or as champions of a flawed system. It is individual arrogance that calls America the “Greatest Country on Earth” and believes it devoutly. It is individual arrogance that can watch a system of production far outpace the earth’s capacity for regeneration and call that progress. And it is human arrogance that promotes the universalization of broken structures in the name of peace, employing many kinds of violence to achieve it. I believe real progress will come from empowering individuals to think critically and tell new stories about peace.

This is why I’m drawn to movements like social permaculture, rewilding, and experiential learning. These proceed with humility and open minds, don’t assume they have all the answers, and look beyond a human-centered, modern Western paradigm for solutions.

I do not believe there is anything idealistic about such an approach; given the circumstances, it might be the most pragmatic yet.

international relations

You see, I wrote the above words from the perspective of a writer, a student of anthropology, and a poet with an enduring interest in indigenous wisdom. The readings in my recent course, on the other hand, offered answers mostly rooted in the rigid and ethnocentric tradition of International Relations.

In our final assignment, we were asked to, “Cite the theoretical frameworks and readings that have most influenced your thinking.”

Instead, I decided to be honest—and not to simply put words on the page for the sake of a grade.

I had to admit that those theories and readings had not influenced my thinking—not in a meaningful way.

They made me question the utility of any political system at all. They made me seriously consider becoming an anarchist. And they have made me wonder if perhaps my incorrigible optimism is not so well-founded.

With the utmost respect to the field of International Relations and those dedicated to it, I am not at the University for Peace to learn about Neorealists and Neoliberals.

I do not care about great powers, nor small ones.

I do not care if China will be the next hegemon, not really.

I do not care if my worldview would be classified as “Cosmopolitan” or “Neorealist.”

I believe in the potential for transformation at the micro level, and I direct all of my efforts in my work—in writing, facilitating, editing, and learning—toward that end. I believe that the actions and choices of individuals and communities have an increasingly global impact.

This impact does not care what experts on civil society say about it. This impact will go on impacting regardless of what I say about it.

I believe in the exceptional power of media to inspire, accelerate, and sustain that transformation. International Relations speaks of hybrid warfare. Perhaps we could also speak of hybrid media: Individual “influencers” with audiences numbering in the millions. Online forums that subvert the status quo and utilize new blockchain technology to circumvent established channels of communication (and power) entirely. Anonymous “actors” who sway the tide of public opinion.

A single policy change may touch millions of lives (for better or worse), but so can a single viral article.

So, what do we do with that power? I am refining my answer to that question day by day. This new media is a masterless force, and I hope I can have a tiny, tiny role in directing its course—by adding my own voice to the multitudes and advocating for tolerance, understanding, equality, love, and curiosity, and by supporting individuals to find their voices and harness their experience for positive change.

The theories and paradigms I have studied so far paint an excellently accurate picture of the “world as it is,” but I am more interested in the “world as it could be.”

It is critical that we see things as they are if we wish to shape them to a vision of how they could be—absolutely. Frameworks and theories are useful tools for organizing practice, innovating solutions. Yet, as Einstein (or, it may have been Mark Twain) famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

From where I sit, even new theories look suspiciously similar to old ones. Human-centric. Stubbornly rooted in a Western paradigm. Of limited relevance to the average human being.

The extraordinary young entrepreneurs I met in South Africa, in Kenya, in Zanzibar do not need our theories. Are they not already doing more than any of us to promote peace in their communities? The writers I have worked with for years, supporting them to share stories of trauma, of sexual abuse, of mental disorder, may or may not agree with Kant’s theories on peace, but they are practicing peace—and inspiring others to do the same.

The yoga students in my classes do not need theories of transformation to transform.

The lesson is in the practice.

None of this is to discount the value of large-scale institutions, nor the power of structural change. Indeed, transformation must occur at all levels—for instance, nations signing onto the Paris Agreement; big business investing in corporate responsibility; entrepreneurs pursuing eco-restorative initiatives and non-traditional models of growth; and individuals committing to drastic changes in lifestyle.

But while the knowledge I have gained in the past three weeks is undoubtedly valuable as such, my work is not there at the level of state actors and UN resolutions.

My work is not theoretical—or, I do not want it to be.

I find it impossible to understand how my actions, here at the most micro of levels, have any bearing on these expansive theories.

And that’s okay.

There are seven billion of us here on the planet, and more on the way. There is no shortage of shoes to fill.


Adapted from a (perhaps overly honest) final reflection paper for my recent course at UPEACE.

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Pure Light, Pure Life: A Costa Rica Snapshot

At the edge of Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, in 6 am light

The light falling through my windows at 6 am cleans the sleep from my eyes.

I study how it falls on the striped tablecloth, on the laundry hanging on the porch, on the dishes in the rack by the sink, now dry.

This light has weight. Depth. And levity.

As I walk through it to bring my compost to the pile at the edge of my yard, the light transforms the ordinary into magic. Last night’s rain glistens on blades of grass, hibiscus flowers, palm fronds. The air itself breathes, infused with life, illuminated.

The mossy track up the hill to the road could lead anywhere, in this light.

Portals could appear around the bend, elves could shimmy down the velvety rays, and I would not be surprised.

This 6 am, 7 am, 8 am clarity washes away the dark and the rain and the heaviness of the night before. It redeems the incessancy of the September rains. One could take flight in it; its very existence defies the gravity of the season, washes the soul, and lifts the spirit, suspending it in lush, velvet lucidity for the rest of the day.

And this 6 am tableau expands to touch all the senses. Birdsong rides upon the coattails of the light, insisting that all who hear it enter into the day. It is more effective than any alarm. Moths who stumbled inside at midnight, addled by electric bulbs, buzz now at the windows, anxious to rejoin the jungle. Close behind the birdsong sings the scent of dawn—wet earth and drip-drying branches—with the promise of a fresh beginning.

Amnesiac mornings, yesterday forgotten.

And within the light that trails the birdsong that carries the wet earth smell, a prescience of the daytime heat to come. Already, nighttime chill begins to dissolve. Cool tiles underfoot raise goosebumps, and the air is just brisk enough that one feels compelled to carry a sweater, which will be obsolete within hours.

Finally, the taste of 6 am light—because sunlight like this has flavour just as it has weight… dark green, a little bit dusty, rich and smooth on the tongue like homemade whipped cream. Or sweet and bright like ripe pineapple. Or tart and effervescent like good champagne.

It lingers. Leaves an impression.

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

Pure life, this light.

But I don’t think there is anything particularly rare about it. Surely you could find light like this—uplifting and exquisite and soft to the touch—anywhere. Not only in Costa Rica. Not only in the jungle.

I think, though I have no proof, that we can find this light whenever we open space to it. When we slow down our mornings to hear it, deepen our gaze to observe it, stick out our tongue to taste it…

Sunlight everywhere reaches out its fingertips, nudges the soul to take wing, offers prayers for a velvet, amnesiac morning.

Pure life—

Not a destination, but a way of beginning.

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On Growing Wings & The Value of Figuring It Out for Yourself

wings

I have the clearest memory of asking my father for help tying my shoes.

I was sitting on the bottom step of our unfinished basement—I must have been around four years old—trying to remember something about a rabbit and a hole. And there was my father, who already had all the knowledge I needed about shoelaces and rabbits; he could help me.

But instead he said, “You can tie your shoes yourself.”

And I did.

Maybe that memory is real. Maybe my mind constructed it out of dozens of memories like it. I don’t think it matters.

My parents pushed me to “tie my own shoes” throughout my childhood in countless ways, large and small. It’s one of the gifts for which I’m most grateful. Without a doubt there is a fine balance between holding a child’s hand and pushing them out into the world alone. I have no idea what that balance is—one of many reasons I’m not a parent.

As an adult, I’ve made a religion of self-sufficiency. Perhaps I’ve taken it to too much of an extreme, but that is what I have done. Solo travel, distance walks, one-way flights to countries where I know nobody, constant seeking for edges—my own, and the world’s…

Some people are adrenaline junkies. The Unknown gives me my high.

When I moved to Cape Town for the first time in early 2016, I didn’t know anyone there. I came with a name—a friend of a friend—and an address. When I found out that the house I’d already paid a deposit on was nowhere near the center of the city, I hitchhiked my way to climbing gyms, dance classes, and cozy cafes until I figured out the informal shared taxis.

Would it have been easier to have friends, family, or resources at my disposal, ready to give me rides, show me the ropes of a chaotic transport system, and introduce me to new friends? I’m sure it would have—but then, would I have learned as much?

I’m a firm believer that we grow fastest and fly farthest when we push ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. Experience has taught me a key paradox to traveling (and living) in a state of discovery: To thrive outside our comfort zone, we must trust, absolutely, that we can thrive outside our comfort zone. But to truly believe in our capacity for flight, we have to fly.

In essence:

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Now, there are a few key elements to this jumping-off-cliffs-and-growing-wings business…

First, that balance. We are none of us an island, as a wise writer once said, more or less. For every cliff we jump off alone, there may well be another to whom we say, “not today,” and third on which we find a companion to hold our hand on the way down. Balance.

Second, support. While my parents were teaching me to tie my own shoes, they were also giving me love and support every step of the way. I am blessed to know that my family and friends are always there, ready to cheer me on when I fly, or pick me up if I take any knocks on the way down. Family, friends, community—a support system, even if we never call on it, makes it so much easier to jump.

Third, will. You could argue that personality or background determine our ability to grow wings, and I would disagree with you. While stubbornness is my dominant personality trait, and I don’t like following directions, I have met so many others far more resourceful than I, of every possible personality type and cultural background. I don’t believe it is personality; it’s will. Tautological though it may sound, to figure it out for yourself, you have to want to figure it out for yourself.

To grow wings, you have to grow wings.

Easy?

Wrong question. It’s possible, and that’s really all we need to know.

Happy flying!


Many thanks to a good friend here in Costa Rica, whose conversation on this subject pushed me to articulate what exactly I think about it!

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trust
Adventure, Poetry & Fiction, Travel Advice

But Still: A Short Story on the Wisdom of Trust

“Trust no one,” the wise ones said.

Deep-lined faces, milk eyes clouded with all the memories of all the misfortunes of all the ages, they hummed with knowledge of the world’s evils and ills.

“But why?” the innocent ones asked.

Smooth smooth skin, crystal eyes free of such heavy knowing, they saw only beauty — believed in the bright spark glowing in all the souls of all the bodies of all the beings around them.

“Take heed,” the wise ones replied. “Once, we were like you, crystal eyes and silk skin and child hearts untouched by sorrow. But now, but now, but now, but now…” the fragments of harsh lessons learned echoed in that mournful “but now.

The innocent ones began to look around them with more caution.

The knife-edge teeth of the sharks — who had once been their friends and accomplices in underwater adventures — suddenly inspired fear. The midnight eyes of hawks and gulls — who had once delighted the children with their dramatic displays of flight — now reflected frightened stares.

The highest branches of the oldest trees — once safe refuges of friendship and warmth — revealed the word Danger writ into the grooves of their bark.

The knowing, the knowing, the knowing — it descended upon the children like a milky white shroud, swirling thoughts of evils and ills in once-clear minds, and soon it was they who echoed the mournful tales of the ancient wind and rocks around them:

But now, but now, but now.

Yet, not all the children bowed before the knowing and donned the severe cloud eyes of the wise ones.

No, there were the other ones too, and when the wise ones said Trust no one and the innocent ones asked But why, these last few held up a hand for quiet and called softly, “Wait.”

And some of the innocent ones stopped to listen.

The other ones continued, “Once, we were like you, crystal eyes and silk skin and child hearts untouched by sorrow. Now, our eyes, our backs, our hearts, too, carry all the memories of all the misfortunes of all the ages. Our skin, too, carries knowing in every pore.

Yes, the world will knock you down, cheat you, hurt you, lie to you and disappoint you. You will not be innocent forever; the wise ones speak true…”

And then, milk eyes creased in child heart smiles, and the other ones echoed the joyful melody of the waves and the sky and the mountains around them:

“… But still, but still, but still, but still —

the spark you see in all the souls of all the bodies of all the beings is there.

But still, but still, but still —

Trust anyway.”

trust


Originally published at Rebelle Society.

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toby, optimist, smile, vermont
Central America, Culture

How to be an Incorrigible Optimist, or, What I’m Doing in Costa Rica

“We are the crazy ones who choose to believe in peace,” he concluded.

One sliver in a blurred progression of notable speakers and presentations that overfilled my two-day orientation at UPeace (University for Peace) in El Rodeo, Costa Rica, his words stuck with me.

The volcanic mountains of San José rose in the hazy distance outside the window. Over 100 students from several dozen countries filled the seats beside me. Anyone pursuing a master’s degree in Peace Studies must be at least a tiny bit of an optimist.

I certainly am.

To trust, to believe, to hope—this is my daily act of rebellion in a world that tells us only to fear, to hate, and to doubt.

Our world is full of darkness. And it is full of light. I am an optimist not because I do not see the darkness (of course I do—who could ignore it?), but because I choose to always strive for its opposite.

The world is at war; I hope for peace.

Humans are cruel, petty, hateful, and foolish, but I believe—I know—they are more often kind, generous, loving, and wise.

No matter how many times I encounter the former, I continue to trust. This is not naïveté; it is optimism. Because my world—the world I want to live in—must deserve my faith.

peace, optimist, costa rica

How can we be incorrigible optimists in a world that is constantly turning on its head?

Simple.

We choose it.

We rebel against cynicism and decide to be optimists. There is no other way.

That’s what I’m doing here at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. Choosing to believe in peace.


More stories of discovery, peace and adventure in Costa Rica are on the way. What do you want to read about? Let me know and I’ll probably take your suggestion on board!

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stillness
Nomadism

If I Could Fly: Seeking Stillness in Movement

Vermont. Early August, 2017. Stillness.

It’s 1:04pm, and the August sun is hitting my laptop screen at just the right angle that I must squint to see what I write.

The bus rattles and sways on the two-lane Vermont highway. Pen and paper prove unusable.

I have music in my ears for a change, and it makes me think of caravan routes through the desert, the rolling gait of long-legged animals on sand, the scorching white heat of a cloudless sky at noon.

I look out the window to my left and witness another set of elements entirely—green mountains, gentle New England sky. Yet, the felt sense is the same. It is a tenuous impression I have tried and failed to describe so many times, I nearly believe it impossible.

It is the thing that calls me to move and whispers instructions to my intuition. It is the thing that taught me to dance, barefoot and alone. “Wanderlust” is an incomplete surrogate for the thing I mean.

I look outside again.

There is a story in the sky, like always; I could spend the whole ride watching the shapeshifting drama and chuckling to myself. Mountains undulate on the horizon, soft and green and melodic; I could spend the whole ride tapping out their rhythm against my thigh. Walls of trees enter and leave my sight, as varied yet indistinct as an ocean of faces in a crowded subway car. I could spend the whole ride absorbing their anonymous features.

I could spend the whole ride sitting here, doing nothing, too—and for someone who loves to do things that’s already remarkable.

Several weeks ago, I shared my favorite ways to pass a long train journey. Reading, writing, and snacking all featured on the list. So did “doing nothing.”

stillness

I wish I could remember the first time I experienced the peculiar, meditation-like (but not quite meditative) peace of being in motion, but I do remember the first time I wrote about it. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, frequently on endless bus rides through astonishing landscapes, I first tried to put words to an enigmatic sensation:

What are you looking for?
I am searching…
I am searching for—
I am searching because
it is only in movement
that I find stillness.
In running I am free;
In dancing I am liberated.
But if I could fly—
Ah if I could fly,
I would be truly
Boundless.

— “If I Could Fly,” 2013

********************************

I think it’s time to revisit this finding stillness in movement that has occupied my traveling thoughts for so long. I would like to try again to define the thing that calls me to move and calms me through action.

What is it about being in motion—in trains or on foot, by boat or in dance—that soothes my mind into a stillness I have never found in sitting meditation?

What is it about being in motion that, like an embodied lullaby, so entrances me—and, I suspect, many lovers of movement?

The answer is in the question.

Movement entrances. It occupies us—or at least it occupies me—so fully that there is absolutely no space for thoughts of elsewhere. Other times, other people, other places…these disappear in the all-pervading “this-ness” of moving. (Moving my body through space, or being moved through space, it hardly matters, so long as the coordinates change fast enough to pull my thoughts with them.)

Four years ago I started writing about the inner stillness that arises when all else is in flux. Years before that, I experienced the same outcome in yoga and ecstatic dance. Its hold on me hasn’t loosened. I think it’s safe to say that this magic stillness is my only addiction. A single taste has you seeking it again for the rest of your life.

A vagabond knows this. A dancer knows this. A meditator or a yogi knows this.

However you step outside the borders of your skin and embrace “this-ness,” you will never be satisfied to remain inside the lines again.

I hear two things more often than anything else:

“What are you looking for?”

and

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

But it’s not a “what.” It’s a who and a why and a how. It’s a voice that calls me to move and a sense of boundlessness that keeps me coming back. It is a way of moving through life and through space.

It is not a thing I can find and then be done with.

It is the searching that gives meaning and form to the sought.

And so we keep chasing shadows through the desert and melodies through the mountains. We keep seeking stillness in movement.

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path
Nomadism

As Long As You’re Moving, You’re On Your Path.

In this moment of deep transition, a few brief thoughts on “following our path,” and what that really means.

A well-intentioned friend recently cautioned me about falling too far from my path as I meander, in my peculiar way, through experience and discovery.

I had to laugh. Such words of caution beg the question.

If we do not believe there is One True Path, how can we fall from it?

pathKinetic Freedom

I am on my path.

It twists and curves riotously, joyously. It is sheer movement.

Angels dance on wingtips overhead, and devils on their tails below. They sing together of freedom.

I am not lost, my dear. Or, if I am, I do not wish to be found.

Because there is wilding here, on my path. There is witching, here on my path. There is wonder and meaning and laughter and growth—here on my path.

And on yours too, I have no doubt. I never claimed to walk the One True Path.

I know only a little about kinetic freedom, and it is enough to keep me spinning, spinning, spinning recklessly through parabolas and whorls—along this path that is unfailingly mine. Always changing. Always growing with me.

I choose it for myself.

No one is “falling” here. Only dancing.

As long as you’re dancing, you are on your path. As long as you’re moving, you are on your path. As long as you can read your footprints in the sand, you are on your path.

Choose it.


Next Stop: Costa Rica. Home for the next 12 months. Hasta luego!

 

Photo Credit: A Different Story

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