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LIVING FOREVER:
IS IT REALLY WORTH THE TIME?
By Neil Hoffman

We're born, we suffer - and we die. 
-Mikhail Gorbachev

On the last day in the life of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that nation's last president was being interviewed by a US television anchorman.

Asked to sum up how he felt, Gorbachev related the Russian parable about a man who became obsessed with finding the true meaning of life. He gave up his family and his career to wander the world in search of the ultimate answer.

After 40 years, the man -- now nearing the end of his own life -- found the guru at the top of a Himalayan peak who, he had been told, knew everything.

"What is the true meaning of life?" the fellow asked the withered wise man. "I have spent my entire adult life in search of this answer."

"You have come to the right place," said the guru. "The true meaning of life is:
we're born, we suffer and we die."

Until recently, no one could question the guru's accuracy. And the part of his answer, relating to being born and suffering in life, is still unquestioned.

According to some medical researchers and their devotees, however, the part about dying may soon be obsolete. The Human Genome Project recently announced that all the genes which make up a living human being have been mapped. And Dr. Francis Collins, who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, offered his opinion that within 30 years science
will identify all the genes involved in the aging process.

In Italy, laboratory mice were genetically engineered to be born deficient in p66shc, the protein that instructs a cell to self-destruct when it has sustained excessive damage from free radicals (molecules which the body produces as it metabolizes). The good news: without p66she, the mice have life spans averaging 30 percent longer than their fellow mice. The bad news: p66she helps cells defend against cancer. Eliminating it is probably not a good idea for humans.

So far, in fact, the only cells which are known to be potentially immortal are cancer cells. Problem is, they eventually kill their hosts by reproducing and eliminating the productive cells that an organism needs to survive. The cancer cells are good at two things: keep themselves alive a long time and reproducing.
But this is a self-defeating trait, because an organism such as a human being is a complex of many different types of cells, which have specialized functions vital to the life of the organism. The cancer cells eventually overwhelm the useful ones, and that's that.

Researchers are working on other avenues that may lead to immortality. Telomeres
are decorative strands of DNA that exist at the end of chromosomes. Whenever a cell divides, some of the telomere is lost. When the telomere is about all gone, the cell stops dividing and dies. But the enzyme telomerase adds an extra telomere each time the strand is snipped. Result: the cell stays the same length and does not stop dividing.

Scientific American magazine has called telomerase the potential "elixir of youth."

Some human tissues such as reproductive cells can divide indefinitely and also contain telomerase. But the telomerase gene in an embryo is inactivated after birth.

Reactivating it could replenish lost cells. For example, someone who is blind because of tissue damage could regain his or her sight.

So one day in the relatively near future, at least some humans may have the chance to extend their lifespans by replacing or re-growing old cells. The brain has a limited capacity, which is why if you're over 50 you are starting to forget things you learned yesterday but can remember your tenth birthday party in full detail. As in a computer, the brain has only so much data storage space.

When that runs low, new information tends to be lost.

Of course, computer technology may solve that. Electronic, and ultimately biological, memory chips may be developed which can increase the brain's storage capacity to accommodate hundreds of years of experience and knowledge. By then, it probably will be routine to replace an immortal human's original brain with a new one, retaining only the information and memories that are still relevant after centuries of use.

The question is, do we want to live forever? The people who called themselves Transhumans do. Natasha Vita-More, a 60-year-old former stringer for The Hollywood Reporter (and former girlfriend of film director Volker Schlondorff) says of death, "I have no tolerance for it, not time for it. It just makes me angry." Natasha lives in Marina del Rey, California, with her 46-year-old husband and fellow Transhumanist, Max More.

How does Natasha think we'll get to the stage of being posthuman and immortal?
She thinks it will be a natural process, developing from our current early transhuman stage to mid-transhuman, where we'll be interfacing more and more with machine aids and prosthetics, and then to posthuman, where our world outlook will have changed entirely.

Of course, the practical consequences of anything approaching immortality, or even greatly increased lifespans for most humans, are troubling. An already overpopulated world without death would lead to the worst nightmares of the neo-Malthusians who think that we are going to deplete the earth's resources and starve to death as it is. Then again, if people become posthuman and immortal, we may no longer feel the ancient biological imperative to procreate. The birth rate may drop to zero. So eventually, we'll have a world where everyone is centuries old.

Will that doom creativity and all real progress? If we create a world where no one dies, gets sick or lacks comforts, will we in effect become zombies, culturally speaking the "Living Dead?"

Or will we have the time to develop the resources and skills necessary for true space exploration, finding earth-like worlds orbiting other stars and founding new human colonies which can breed new humans?

Those of us who have been around for several decades have seen the world turn over several times. Maybe that was just the prologue, however, to the real adventure which lies ahead.

As the little girl asks in the Internet commercial, "Are you ready?"

Neil Hoffman is a Los Angeles-based writer. He can be reached via email at neilhoff@pacbell.net.



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THE SECT OF THE GOLDEN PELLETS:
AN AMERICAN CULT CLASSIC
By Robert Schnitzer

Cults have been in the news this century. More than 900 members of the doomsday cult Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God committed mass suicide in Uganda last week; the founders of NXIVM have been arrested for turning wealthy women into sex slaves; and the Chinese government continues its persecution of Falun Gong, by far the most popular spiritual movement in China, with an estimated 70 to 100 million adherents. China calls it an "evil cult" and so far has arrested hundreds of thousands of followers, tortured many to death and stripped tens of thousands of their jobs, homes, schools and pensions.

In the United States, a growing number of Americans (and Chinese-Americans) are joining Falun Gong, a modern blend of Buddhist and Taoist traditions, qigong and a worldview mixing elements of the supernatural and science fiction. They participate in their communities, contribute to society at all levels, and don't believe in suicide or doomsday scenarios.

Yet the Gospel Communications Network and their Apologetics Index has issued an alert; and Berkeley, California-based psychologist and cult deprogrammer Margaret Singer, PhD warned that Falun Gong was a dangerous cult.

All this has prompted me to ask, "What are 'cults' and who belongs to them?"

Applying Dr. Singer's own published criteria, this vital organ made a wholly unexpected discovery: a secret society in America today so vast and widespread, you will be shocked to learn how many people with whom you live and work are practicing members and adherents. Many of us, too, are unwitting participants. It's called the Sect of the Golden Pellets, and it meets each of Dr. Singer's 5 criteria.

Criterion #1:
Keep the person unaware of what is going on and how she or he is being changed one step at a time.

Lorraine (not her real name), a single mother living in a Denver suburb, is an unwitting follower of the Golden Pellets. The U.S. government encourages Lorraine's practice, but would never call it a cult. The program focuses her consciousness trance-like on the accumulation of golden pellets, which her culture on every level promotes as the key to eternal happiness. The more golden pellets, the happier the individual. Through the media (both fictional and reality-based), Lorraine has been conditioned to accept that some followers, including the government itself, have committed theft and murder in order to accumulate these pellets.

In addition, through a gradual process, the pellets today are no longer made of gold, and over the past ten years or so, there really aren't many "pellets" at all; they have all but been replaced by electronic numbers on a phosphorescent screen. But for practitioners like Lorraine, it is a distinction without a difference.

Criterion #2:
Control the person's social and/or physical environment; especially time.

A jarring alarm awakens Lorraine each morning before dawn. She immediately begins to study her daily teachings by staring into the screen displaying the ongoing exchange of pellets from around the world. Her progress that day will be determined by her ability to predict how many pellets will be exchanged and by whom, so she studies dozens of historical analyses of past pellet performance.

It has taken Lorraine a long time to master these cryptic reports.

She dresses, eats breakfast and drinks her coffee -- always with eyes glued to the non-stop sequence of numbers on the screens, which are available in every room of her dwelling. Like everyone else in the Golden Pellets, Lorraine has pledged her allegiance to a particular pellet exchange temple and so dons a regulation uniform approved by the organization.

Criterion #3:
Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person.

While listening to the pellet report in her car, Lorraine drops off her 4-year-old daughter at a day care center. To accumulate the most pellets, she must be willing to detach herself from raising her daughter during most of their life together. At first her daughter objected, but after thousands of hours of concentrated persuasion through repeated suggestion by Golden Pellet members on her own phosphorescent screen - and projected directly onto her retina - she has learned to care only for her mother's golden pellets and what can be bartered with them.

Even at this early age, she fully has become a follower of the Golden Pellets. 

Criterion #4:
Manipulate a system of rewards and punishments so as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person's former social identity.

Lorraine's practice rewards a certain body shape with more pellets, so she stops at a local body center for a physical work-out to change her original appearance. Like all the other adherents of the cult, Lorraine engages in her regimen mesmerized by more of the endless stream of numbers on strategically placed monitors and to music that celebrates pellet-bought sensory stimulation.

At a pre-designated time, Lorraine joins countless other Golden Pellet adherents worldwide and reports to one of several temples in her area. She quickly takes her position in a cubicle where more of the same cryptic numbers are delivered to her. For the remainder of her day, she stares trance-like at these numbers and risks the pellets she owns - or those entrusted to her by other followers - on her predictive abilities.

Throughout the day, she and millions like her pay particular attention to the occasional pronouncements by demi-masters from various other pellet temples who provide insight and guidance from their unique perspective.

Criterion #5:
Put forth a closed system of logic and authoritarian structure that permits no feedback and modification except by leadership approval or executive order.

But it's when Master Green speaks, Lorraine and all other practitioners immediately stop what they are doing and listen intently. For Master Green is the spiritual leader of the Golden Pellets and whatever he says will surely impact each listener's progress. He will tell them to what extent their golden pellets must be tithed and whether he is considering an increase or decrease in the future. When he is finished, his followers speak endlessly of what he said - dissecting his every nuance - and how his words will affect the future exchange of golden pellets.

At the End of the Day
Lorraine believes her happiness and sense of security is determined by how successfully she predicted the millions of pellets exchanged in the world and how many she has been able to accumulate. She will judge others on the same basis and inculcate in her daughter these same values when choosing a husband. She will tithe to her Master until death, tolerate the degradation of her air and water if so mandated by the sect, sanction the murder by her temple of those opposed to its beliefs - and even permit the blood sacrifice of her young (as in armed conflict between nations), if so required.

Some may consider Lorraine no more than a common stockbroker; but Master Green and other highly placed initiates know her for what she has become: a member in good standing of the Sect off the Golden Pellets.

Robert Schnitzer pays tribute to the late author Hermann Hesse, and especially his novel "The Glass Bead Game, for his inspiration in preparing this article.



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A SUMMER OF COMPASSION
By Robert Schnitzer

The shelves may be lined today with organic baby food, hemp baby clothes and strollers equipped with more safety features than a nuclear reactor. But just beneath the rocks, in the shadows, under the radar - men and women are abducting more and more innocent children and young adults who are never found. Simply put, we are in the midst of a terrible epidemic of missing persons.

The problem of missing children and young adults in America is staggering. It goes far beyond the occasional milk carton photo and weekly segment on America's Most Wanted. Every year more than 100,000 new children are classified as missing in the United States. And that does not include those missing over the age of 18, or those missing in countries other than the U.S.

As life on earth moves toward a new age of spiritual enlightenment, how did we allow this abomination to fester and grow right under our noses? And what can be done to stop it?

To affect the kind of change that will prevent such crimes before they are committed, we must begin such work both in the outside world and within our individual and collective beings.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the public is becoming more and more aware of the scope of organized human trafficking.  It’s taking place on a global scale, and services ordinary men frequenting massage parlors as well as the elite of government, finance, the military and the media who purchase children for sexual gratification, body organs and, say some, human sacrifice to some perverse deity.

Slowly but surely the white-hats of the criminal justice system are focusing their attention of this scourge, creating new laws, tightening old ones, exposing the perpetrators and increasing the penalties for those engaged in this billion-dollar dark industry.  As citizens, we must support those white hats with emails of support and contributing to the election campaigns of those who promise to take down the criminals engaged in these God-awful practices.

Does technology have a remedial role to play?  Reluctantly, some welcome increased video surveillance in public spaces, and microchips embedded under the skin linked to GPS satellites. Still others call on the media to run more stories on the missing. The problem with these and other fixes is that they all address the problem after the victims have been abducted.

On a deeply personal level, there may also be much we can do.  Many believe prayers for the sick and dying often produce measurable benefits for patients. So, too, our collective higher consciousness can go far to manifest a world safer for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

The first step is acceptance of this scourge upon humanity. Next, we must visualize a world where the tormented and nefarious individuals seek and receive love and balance before embarking on their evil deeds. Invite the spirits of those missing into our hearts and include them in our meditations, prayers and ceremonies.

We value compassion and recognize how essential this trait is to higher consciousness. Can there be an easier path to compassion than by opening our hearts to those families living in pain and sorrow from the disappearance of a loved one? Donate time and money to organizations assisting families bereft of loved ones. Honor those feelings of compassion awakened by the tragic tales of the missing young adults of both sexes who once walked among us,

Let us together apply that compassion to our personal and collective spiritual practices.

Yes, the epidemic of missing and exploited children and young adults is dwarfed by the millions of children starving every day. More are victims of war and natural disaster. Yet it is said that from an enlightened state of higher consciousness, the world is perfect and exactly as it should be. My guess is that those blessed with compassion - and practicing compassion - help make it so.

Robert Schnitzer is a writer, media executive, motion picture producer-director and social impact fund manager.



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BOOK REVIEW



OF LIONS, TIN MEN AND SO MUCH MORE
By Robert Schnitzer

Art can change our lives and our culture only when it is experienced, not discussed and analyzed. So when Darren John Main's exegesis about the 1939 MGM film classic "The Wizard of Oz" came across our desk, we were skeptical. After all, wasn't author L. Frank Baum's brilliant symbolism and allegory sufficient to appreciate the hidden meaning behind the story?

And what can possibly be added by armchair critics to director Victor Fleming's unforgettable mise en scène, and producer Mervyn LeRoy's cinematic masterpiece?

Well, dear friends, quite a bit. Mr. Main's book entitled "Spiritual Journeys along the Yellow Brick Road" draws from his rich background as a yoga and meditation instructor and uses the "Wizard of Oz" story and characters as an inspiration for his essays on personal and planetary transformation. Author Main writes in a style that is both refreshing and insightful.

Here now are but a few of our favorite passages culled from Darren Main's book, published by Findhorn Press.

Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?
-The Scarecrow

The development of the intellect is a noble pursuit, to be sure, but it is only the first step in using the brain for the advancement of the soul. There have been men and women throughout history who have had superior intellect but were lacking in common sense and wisdom. They had the know-how to accomplish many great things, but they failed to see the simplicity of universal spiritual laws.

The raising of awareness is our next step in the development of our intellect. The learning phase we experience when we get off our posts can be likened to the laying of an egg. The potential for life is there, but that potential may end in an omelet if the next phase, raising awareness, is not cultivated. The raising of awareness can be likened to the incubation period in which the mind begins to mature and cultivate the freethinking that was gained earlier.

To raise awareness is not easy. It means being conscious and present to everything - from the small stuff like breathing to the big stuff like the environmental breakdown that threatens out planet. It means looking squarely at many of the uncomfortable things that would be easier to sweep under the rug. It means embracing the whole of life rather than denying the parts that are awkward and uncomfortable.

Living a conscious and aware life means walking head first into the present moment and viewing, without judgment, what it is that lies before you. This consciousness is not easy because it demands we own our experience and not push the responsibility off onto someone else. It asks us to acknowledge our mistakes, but it also gives us the opportunity to learn from them so that we can grow and evolve, turning our mistakes into lessons...

* * * * * * *

It's empty. The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart.
-Tin Man

The Tin Man represents the heart - the home of love and, in love's absence, fear. Love is the essence of who we are. As much as this sounds like a cliché, it is so very true. Love is our ultimate reality and when we are not experiencing love or one of its many branches - such as joy, happiness, contentment and serenity - we have forgotten the essence of who we are and where our values lie.

Fear is the baseline emotion from which all other negative emotions spring. Hatred, apathy, anger and jealousy are all expressions of fear. Fear comes solely from the belief that our live is limited or lacking in some way. The journey of the Tin Man then is to discover that he is indeed capable of feeling love, and that love is not something that shines on him from without, but rather radiates from deep within him...

Grief is one of the most dreaded of human emotions. We do everything we can to avoid facing death. Yet we die each moment only to be reborn in the next. Change is the nature of Spirit's self-expression. Its shifting forms are not Spirit itself, but rather Spirit seeking to express itself in new ways. Spirit doesn't exist in time and space any more than an artist exists within his or her canvas. But Spirit's gentle mark is left on the canvas of the physical universe with each brush stroke.

My best friend Michael always says, "No man can get into the same river twice." This is the essence of the Tin Man's grief. This is the cause of his breaking heart. It is the attachment to form that causes our pain and reminds us of our true capacity to love. Were it not for grief, we would be content to believe we were a shallow pond rather than a great ocean.

Grief is often thought of as a negative emotion because of the intense pain associated with it. This is a confusion that is understandable but unfortunate. Negative emotions always involve a shutting down of the heart - be they anger, rage, jealousy or whatever. When we feel these emotions, our hearts are in the process of closing. That is not to say there is something wrong with feeling negative emotions, but not working through them in a timely manner makes for layers of rust.

Grief is a heart opening. It is a surrender of the way we thought things were and an opening up to the greater truth behind them. It is a lifting up of our hearts. When we experience grief, our heart is growing in its capacity to love, and with that growth come growing pains. Much like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes on Christmas morning, our hearts expand when we experience loss.

The growth of our heart happens as we say goodbye to impermanence and say hello to the eternal nature that exists within all beings. Human love is wonderful, but it is limited because it is conditional. It is based on shared experiences, physical forms, and ideas about what things should look like. When we experience a loss in one of these human forms, not only is the love we shared still present, but it often grows because it is no longer limited by a set form.

# # #

Robert Schnitzer is a writer, media executive, motion picture producer-director and social impact fund manager. Excerpts are from "Spiritual Journeys along the Yellow Brick Road" by Darren John Main. Published by Findhorn Press.