Things Are Not As They Seem

By Scott London — June 7, 2011

Huston SmithSome years ago, I had the good fortune to spend time with Huston Smith, the distinguished philosopher of religion. Over a period of two months, we met for a series of interviews covering fascinating subjects like the troubled relationship between science and spirituality, the rise of fundamentalism, the common threads at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions, and some of the surprising insights about human consciousness coming out of psychedelic research. The interviews aired on public radio stations nationwide a while back, and I’m now editing them for print.

Huston Smith has had a profound influence on me. He introduced to me the idea that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He refers to it as the “primordial tradition” or “perennial philosophy.”

I had encountered the idea of the perennial philosophy from Aldous Huxley (his book by that name is one I keep at my bedside), but I never realized the extent to which people of various mystical traditions shared a common vision. I found that deeply thought-provoking, and more than a little inspiring.

This outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, Smith says, with a single notable exception: the modern West. Our contemporary Western worldview differs from what might otherwise be called “the human unanimity,” as he calls it, because of an unfortunate “misreading” of science.

In several of his books, he shows how science presumes to be the authoritative way of establishing truth, yet ultimately reveals only partial truths. Strictly speaking, Smith says, a scientific worldview is a contradiction in terms since the world science deals with is one limited to space, time, matter/energy, and mathematics. “Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen.”

The triumphs of modern science have blinded us to the fact that it is an inherently restricted form of knowing, that what can be measured empirically is not exhaustive of reality, that there are other higher domains that can be apprehended only through contemplation, intuition, and inner experience.

According to Smith, this latter idea stands at the center of all the great wisdom traditions, from Taoism to Vedanta, Zen to Sufism, Neoplatonism to Confucianism. The primordial tradition views reality as hierarchically ordered, consisting of at least three realms: earth, human, and celestial, correlated with body, mind, and spirit.

This suggests, in effect, that 1) things are not as they seem, 2) that the other-than-the-seeing represents infinitely “more,” 3) that this more cannot be known in ordinary ways, 4) that it can, however, be known in ways appropriate to it, 5) that these appropriate ways require cultivation, and 6) that they require tools or practices. (For more on this last point, please see my post on Spiritual Practice.)

Smith has helped me recognize that the best hope for Western culture is not to go back to some idealized past, but to retrieve a more expanded and timeless view of reality, to recover a lost dimension of human understanding. In his words, we need “to reknit the rich coherence of a fully human consciousness which the cramped and aggressive rationality of modernity has bruised so badly.”

For more on Huston Smith, please see my review of his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind

Living Cities

By Scott London — May 16, 2011

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, a city that is often ranked as one of the most pleasant and liveable places in the world. When I moved to the U.S. in my mid-20s, I was surprised to discover that the American city was a place of distress and decay. People seemed desperate to get out of their cities and into suburbs.

One survey I read showed that, given a choice, 9 out of 10 Americans would prefer to live outside the city.

It struck me as odd that in the world’s most powerful nation — a marvel of technological progress, industrial ingenuity, and economic strength — cities had become infested with crime, homelessness, and pollution.

So I began to look at urban areas elsewhere in the world to understand what makes a great living city. I talked with visionary architects and urban planners. And I studied some of the key features of thriving cities and towns.

I share some of what I learned in a recent six-part documentary series that aired earlier this year on the Discovery Channel. I’m one of a number of talking heads on the program discussing the essential characteristics of a “living city.” Here are some highlights from the series: Living Cities.

Stay tuned for more on the subject in the weeks and months ahead.

Burning Man Photography

By Scott London — April 20, 2011

Burning Man 2010

One of my most rewarding creative projects has been photographing the Burning Man festival each year, something I’ve been doing since 2004. Over the years, I’ve built up a rather extensive portfolio of images from the event. Some of them appear in a new book, in several recent magazine spreads, and as part of an upcoming exhibit at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

Rachel Bowditch’s book On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man, recently published by the University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books, includes several of my photos from the festival. Bowditch is a theater director, performer, and longtime Burning Man participant who teaches at Arizona State University.

In the book, she makes the case that Burning Man can be seen as a contemporary galaxy of happenings, a revival of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a site for rehearsals of utopia, and a secular pilgrimage. As the festival continues to grow, she says, it’s likely to create new paradigms for performance, installation art, community, and invented rituals that bridge ancient traditions to the twenty-first century.

A recent issue of the French magazine Folie Douce (published in both French and English) features ten of my photographs, along with an essay, on Burning Man. The festival is described as “an artistic utopia that is more than a little out there.” The text is a bit goofy, and not entirely accurate, but I was very happy with the selection and layout of the photos.

I also have two images from Burning Man in a recent issue of Vanity Fair and a double-spread in a forthcoming issue of Marie Claire. Other magazines featuring photos from the event include Elle Décor and Aïshti. In addition, my photos are included in a new 2011 calendar and commemorative photo book, recently published by the Burning Man organization. For more information, visit the Burning Man Marketplace.

You’ll find my image “Lovers” on the cover of the Summer 2010 issue of Common Ground. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with the magazine. The editors featured about a dozen of my photos in a retrospective from Burning Man 2009 last fall, as well as a portrait of Burning Man founder Larry Harvey in the Summer 2009 issue.

I’m excited to have a number of my photographs included in a special exhibition called “Living” opening next month at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen. More details on the museum’s website:

Finally, if you haven’t seen Creative Holly’s wonderful color blog, you’re in for a treat. Holly is a graphic designer with a great eye for color. For a recent post, she asked me to pick out five of my favorite shades of Burning Man and to say a few words about each one. I sampled the colors from some of my more popular Burning Man images. It was an honor and a kick to be a part of her project.

Creative Holly Color

Update, July 5, 2011:

My photo of the fabulous Jesster Canucklehead appears on the cover of Common Ground magazine this month. The summer issue features a preview of Burning Man 2011, along with a lovely photoessay from Ales Prikryl.

You can view the complete issue online at:

More than a dozen of my photos also appear in the current issue of The Outlook Magazine, China’s leading culture and lifestyle publication. You won’t be able to glean much from the article unless you happen to read Chinese, but you can always enjoy the photos. Go to:

Educating For Democracy

By Scott London — April 11, 2011

Does it make sense for higher education to be talking about questions of citizenship and democracy at a time when many colleges and universities are grappling with more pressing issues, such as soaring tuition rates, underpaid faculty, and steep budget cuts?

Some months ago, I put this question to a handful of academic leaders. In light of all the talk about community outreach, service learning, and civic engagement on our campuses, it seemed to me like a worthwhile line of inquiry.

I spoke with Thomas Ehrlich (a senior scholar the the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University), George Mehaffy (vice president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and director of their American Democracy Project), Beverly Hogan (president of Tougaloo College), Martín Carcasson (professor of communications and director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation), and David Mathews (president of the Kettering Foundation, as well as former president of the University of Alabama).

What I learned surprised me. At a time when many colleges and universities are cutting back and shifting their priorities to presumably more pressing demands, a growing number of institutions are working to build and strengthen democracy from the ground up. As they explained to me, these schools are going beyond conventional definitions of civic engagement — civics courses, leadership development, service-learning programs, community-based research, etc. — by actually working directly with communities on hands-on, collaborative problem-solving. Students themselves are usually a key part of the equation.

As part of my research for a study on innovative academic centers, I also interviewed several educators who are doing this kind of community-building work, including Alberto Olivas (director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges in Phoenix, Arizona), Larkin Dudley (assistant professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Center for Public Administration and Policy), and Joni Doherty (director of the New England Center for Civic Life at Franklin Pierce University).

With production help from Amy Lee, Derek Barker and others at the Kettering Foundation, my roundtable discussion and excerpts from the interviews have now been edited into a 30-minute program. You can listen to it here (link below). The show will be made available to public radio stations around the country in coming weeks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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The Power of Informal Networks

By Scott London — March 26, 2011

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

These words by anthropologist Margaret Mead are famous for good reason. They capture an essential truth about social change: it begins in the most unassuming contexts — in small groups of people who share a common passion, who come together after work, on weekends, or over lunch, and who devote their talents and energies to bringing about change.

I recently wrapped up a year-long research project for the Harwood Institute where I studied these informal networks at some depth. I looked at citizen groups in four communities across the country to learn how they come into being, the nature of their conversations, how they change and evolve over time, and the outcomes, both tangible and intangible, of their activities.

What I learned was both heartening and humbling — heartening because I found that informal circles can be powerful agents of change, just as Margaret Mead observed, and humbling because the dynamics of small groups challenge our conventional way of thinking about change.

I found that the purposes of informal groups were usually quite modest — to compare notes, share information, and explore ideas. But when they came together with passion and a sense of common purpose, they were able to do magnificent things.

A crucial finding of the study was that unlike formal organizations, informal networks are not instruments of action, at least not in the traditional sense. They serve a more basic function. They provide spaces for learning, sources of affirmation and support, and contexts for the emergence of new ideas and possibilities for action.

When groups that have been meeting informally are ready to mobilize and take action, they either adopt a formal structure or they take their ideas and plans back into existing organizations to make something happen.

In their efforts to create change, many groups rush too quickly to formalize their activities. While launching a new program or organization can give them an air of legitimacy, access to resources, and other tangible benefits, it can also choke off the innovation and creativity needed to really make a difference.

What people need in order to be effective are informal settings where they can find each other, share ideas, and discover common ground. They need spaces where they can receive support and be acknowledged as public actors. And they need contexts for imagining and acting from an awakened sense of possibility.

The trouble, of course, is there aren’t a lot of venues in public life where people can do that in an open and authentic way. All too often, community processes are organized around issues to be confronted and problems to be solved, not possibilities that can be lived into.

The research suggests that it’s time to engage in a different conversation, one about what we aspire to, what we imagine, and what we can create together. Strategizing about how to make change happen is important, but the conversations have to be rooted in something more basic — the animating purpose of the work.

Informal groups provide settings where people can openly explore that and connect with others who are treading the same path and working toward similar ends.

“Truthfulness, honor, is not something that springs ablaze of itself,” the poet Adrienne Rich once observed. “It has to be created between people.” The same might be said about work carried out on behalf of the common good. The impulse to innovate, to build, and to renew our communities does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be kindled through meaningful interactions and mutual discovery.

Please contact me for more information about the informal networks study or a copy of the report.

A Peace Prize for Julian Assange?

By Scott London — March 22, 2011

In late January, a few days before the nomination deadline for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, I was contacted by an AFP reporter asking if I had any idea who might be nominated this year. I told him I’d heard a few rumors and seen some buzz online about a few potential nominees. But none of them seemed especially noteworthy, I said. By way of speculation, I added that a nomination for Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, seemed likely.

When the story appeared a few days later I was quoted in it, saying that if Assange were to get the prize, it wouldn’t be the first time a whistleblower had been honored. Even so, I said, “the notion that his actions have in some way promoted ‘fraternity among nations’ (to invoke the famous line in Alfred Nobel’s will) would be far-fetched, if not altogether inaccurate. It might be truer to say that he has undermined that fraternity by creating a culture of anxiety and suspicion in international affairs, especially between countries in volatile regions like the Middle East.”

The story appeared in a few places here and there. (See “Nobel Peace Prize nomination for WikiLeaks founder?”) Then, some days later, news broke that Snorre Valen, a young member of the Norwegian parliament, had officially nominated Assange for the 2011 award. Suddenly news outlets the world over jumped on the story, saying that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were now officially in the running for the world’s most prestigious prize.

My line in the AFP story about WikiLeaks “undermining” fraternity among nations by stirring up anxiety and suspicion suddenly generated lots of attention. I must confess that it was more than a little strange to see my name cited in newspapers like the Financial Times and journals like Foreign Policy appearing to come out against Julian Assange, someone I happen to respect and admire.

What was perhaps most unsettling was how quickly WikiLeaks supporters tracked me down and unleashed verbal assaults via e-mail. I was taken to task for being in favor of censorship and state secrets, for failing to support freedom of information, and for being on the side of those who wish to attack and silence Julian Assange. Of course, none of those things are true, but never mind. It seems you can’t be too careful about what you say in the press or online, because not only is it on the record for the rest of time, but people may quote it whenever they wish, in or out of context.

Death Valley

By Scott London — March 1, 2011

I’m back from a short trip to Death Valley, a favorite getaway, a place I love to go to quiet the nerves and tame the ego. The place has that effect because it makes you feel inconsequential, helpless, and out of place. It also happens to be a place of spellbinding beauty. Here are a handful of photos from the trip.

Death Valley Road

In some parts of Death Valley, you feel as if you have the whole place all to yourself.

Zabriski Point in Death Valley

The play of sun and shadow at Zabriski Point is mesmerizing.

Palms at Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is an otherworldy oasis in the heart of Death Valley.

Badwater Under Stormy Skies

Badwater was bone dry this year.

Racetrack Playa

One of the curious moving rocks at Racetrack Playa.

Eureka Sand Dunes

It was my first time at the Eureka Sand Dunes, a magnificent place where time seems to stand still.


Here I am climbing one of the Eureka dunes. (Photo by D.H.)

Turning Outward

By Scott London — February 11, 2011

A few years ago, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant conducted an interesting survey of nonprofit organizations to understand what makes them successful. Unlike for-profit organizations, which measure their success according to the bottom line, nonprofits judge their effectiveness based largely on social impact. What can we learn from high-impact nonprofits?

Over the course of four years, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant looked at 12 organizations: Second Harvest, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, City Year, Environmental Defense, The Exploratorium, Habitat for Humanity, the Heritage Foundation, National Council of La Raza, Self-Help, Share Our Strength, Teach for America, and YouthBuild USA. Collectively, these nonprofits have influenced corporations to adopt sustainable business practices and mobilized citizens to act on a wide range of issues, including hunger, education reform, and the environment.

The authors found that becoming a high-impact nonprofit wasn’t simply a matter of building a successful organization and then scaling it up site by site. Rather, it was by working with and through organizations and individuals outside themselves that they were able to achieve real impact. Creating change and lasting impact could not be done just by focusing within, in other words. To have real impact, organizations had to turn outward.

In practical terms, this suggests that the best nonprofits are able to mobilize various sectors of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to become a “force for good.” Greatness, by this standard, is measured by how well an organization is able to work outside its own boundaries and focus its energies on catalyzing large-scale change.

The book is well-written and makes for fascinating reading. I have a fuller review of it here:

Remembering Irwin Abrams

By Scott London — December 31, 2010

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams passed away a few days before Christmas. He was a longtime professor of history at Antioch College, a pioneer in the field of peace research, and a global authority on the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also my grandfather.

We worked together on many projects over the years, including a couple of books, and I learned much of what I know about scholarly research and historical analysis from him. But his influence goes far deeper.

When I was a kid, he instilled in me a great love of knowledge — first through stories, and later through ideas. He was always presenting me with books and newspaper clippings, introducing me to his favorite students (and there were many), and sending me off on unexpected research assignments.

Growing up as I did in Sweden, he used to enlist my help translating articles from Swedish and Norwegian. I eventually became his far-flung research assistant. Before I was out of my teens, he had me running off to do interviews for his various projects.

Irwin AbramsI remember one occasion when he had me travel to meet the late daughter of Carl Von Ossietzky, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. She spoke Swedish but little or no English, so I was perfect for the job, he said. The interview carried on late into the day. She made me soup, served me cookies and tea, and later, as I was readying to leave, took out an old shoebox and showed me an item wrapped in terry cloth. I opened it to find her father’s gleaming Nobel Peace Prize medal. It was an impressive 23-carat gold piece weighing almost half a pound, with Gustav Vigeland’s beautiful engraving of three men locked in an embrace. It was assignments like these that nurtured my passion for journalism.

My grandfather loved to travel, to eat, to sing, and to tell jokes. He used to dance with his arms raised above his head, like Zorba the Greek. He spoke several languages, most of them quite badly, but always with a carefree exuberance. He was never a showman, but he loved a celebration and was happiest when in the midst of family and friends.

There was nothing in the world he cherished more than my grandmother, Freda. They were married 60 years. I used to love watching them beam at each other across a room, or across a big dinner table. He often told the story of how they met at a new year’s party on a train from Chicago to San Francisco in the months leading up to World War II. By the time they heard the stationmaster’s “bells and whistles” in Cheyenne, Wyoming, heralding the arrival of the new year, they were hearing bells and whistles of their own.

After she died in 1999, it was like a light in him had been extinguished. He spoke of her everyday, kept her artwork on his walls and her photos on the bedside table. Almost every time her name would come up, his voice would break.

He was always a special presence in my life, but perhaps especially after my grandmother died. During the last ten years, we were in touch almost every day, took on joint projects, and made trips together. Our conversations grew deeper, more rich and nuanced.

He came into his final years as I entered mid-life. There was a curious symmetry there, and I had much to learn from him about the transitions of life. His role shifted from grandfather to mentor, and finally to confidant.

When I saw him for the last time in mid-November, he still displayed his sparkling sense of humor. As usual, he seemed more interested in hearing about me than in talking about himself. Several times he would reach over and take my hand while we were talking, always very sweet and attentive.

Although he worked with a physical therapist several times a week, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair toward the end. He was quite frail and hunched over and though he wasn’t ill I sensed that time was running out. He died peacefully on December 16, a couple of months shy of his 97th birthday.

In the course of drafting an obituary, and also planning for the upcoming memorial service, I’ve been going back to his writings and correspondence. To my amazement, I discovered a letter addressed to me, written just days after I was born. “May I be the first to send you a letter welcoming you to this planet,” it begins. “There may be moments when you will regret your decision to dwell among us, but may I wish you a long residence here with few occasions for such regrets.”

My grandfather not only welcomed me into this world, he was always there to guide me along, especially during times of sorrow and regret (there have been more than a few). He had a long residence here on the planet, and he enriched many people’s lives. But few as deeply as mine.

Irwin Abrams

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 1966

Irwin Abrams With Freda and Irwin in Maine, 1976

Irwin AbramsWith Irwin in Oslo, 2002

Irwin Abrams With Irwin in Ohio, 2010

Readings and Recommendations

By Scott London — December 20, 2010

Scott London on TwitterThe world is getting freer, quantum physics is getting weirder, multitasking is a myth, Americans are full of doubt, and the Norwegians have it best. Here’s a sampling of interesting articles and other stuff on the web.

These links were culled from my Twitter feed. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

  • The long-term trend is clear — the world is becoming increasingly free and democratic. But there have been setbacks in recent years. Growing human rights abuses in places like Russia and China are perhaps especially worrisome. See Freedom House’s 2010 Freedom in the World Survey
  • American Grace, a new book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, documents a new and remarkable trend in America: the mass defection of young people away from organized religion. See American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
  • Quality work and multitasking are incompatible. People simply can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously. See E-Mail is Making You Stupid
  • In a provocative article in Fast Company magazine, Richard Watson cites two interesting studies. The first claims that we last, on average, three minutes at work before something interrupts us. The other suggests that constant disruption has a greater effect on IQ than smoking marijuana. See The Rise of Connectivity Addition
  • According to an interesting piece in the New York Times, unhappiness often comes as a result of letting our minds wander. While there’s no doubt that distraction can lead to discontent, it can also lead people to creative solutions, which might make them happier in the long term. See When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays by John Tierny
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger represents yesterdays California Dream, Richard Rodriguez observes in a terrific video interview with Sandip Roy. But tomorrow’s California Dream belongs to men like Steve Jobs and Sergey Brin. See Richard Rodriguez talks about California
  • Spiegel Online reports that some 47 percent of Americans no longer believe in the American Dream. See Is the American Dream Over?
  • For the eighth straight year, reports Time, Norway has topped the United Nations’ quality-of-life list in its annual Human Development Index. Oh, come on, Norway. The competition isn’t even fun anymore. See Norwegians Have It Better Than You
  • Quantum mechanics is getting weirder and weirder. Experiments show that “reality is truly in the eye of the beholder.” See After a Short Delay, Quantum Mechanics Becomes Even Weirder in ScienceNOW

Ice Lantern

By Scott London — December 9, 2010

As Oslo readies for the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony tomorrow, the city is full of luminaries. Most of them fall in the category of international celebrities, politicians and dignitaries of various kinds. But tonight I was taken in by a different kind of luminary, the sort that illuminates your path on a cold night.

My Norwegian friend had invited me over for dinner. He lives in a quiet hamlet on a peninsula a half-hour’s boat ride from downtown Oslo. As we came up to his house, his wife had put out candles to light our way. They were protected from the freezing winds by lanterns made entirely of ice.

The Creative Community

By Scott London — November 11, 2010

In this conversation with David Starkey, host of the Santa Barbara TV show “The Creative Community,” we talk about the Nobel Peace Prize, the art of interviewing, the state of journalism today, and a few other things. We also have a look at some of my photographs from Burning Man, the Salton Sea, and the recent Santa Barbara wildfires.

The Creative Community: Scott London from The Santa Barbara Channels.