The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Friday, 29 September 2023

Polls Apart

Recently I saw a poll about a referendum coming up in Australia soon. The referendum will ask Australians to state “Yes” or “No” to an amendment to the Australian Constitution. This blogpiece is not about this referendum. Rather it is about the differing perspectives of older generations versus that of younger people.

The poll I saw indicated that for those aged 18 – 34 years, over 60% of them will vote “yes” in the coming referendum. The percentage of those in the 55+ age group who will vote “yes” was significantly less - below 25%.1

This poll is like many I have looked at in recent years: for example, in many countries, polls asking people about climate change and the state of the world’s environment show a similar gulf between the perceptions and understandings of young people and those of older generations.2

These polls are indicative of older generations making decisions that younger generations will bear the consequences of, even though younger generations wish for different outcomes.

It has long been this way. I recall when I was a member of the young generation that I was often at odds with older generations. Many popular songs during this time bemoaned exactly this point.

But, has it always been this way?

Not many, and very few from within older generations, ask such a question. One who has been courageous enough to ask this question, privately and publicly, is the Canadian social critic, writer, and educator, Stephen Jenkinson.

Jenkinson’s book, Come of Age,3 seeks to delve into the genesis, and ongoing perpetuation, of why it is that in westernised cultures ‘the proliferation of old people has not meant the proliferation of elders.’ He asks this highly important question in the midst of a Time of Trouble. The gulf between young people and older generations is a glaring sign of troubled times.

Furthermore, as this gulf exists, we might ask: whose job is it to mend the rift? Young people? Older generations? Someone else? No-one?

If the burden of responsibility lies anywhere, the answer is probably – Everyone!

Given that older generations have lived much longer than young people, and supposedly have a great deal more experience to draw upon, then it is reasonable to suggest that older generations must take a large share of this responsibility. However, that assertion comes with a large measure of caution.

What experience, we can ask? Crucially, to have simply experienced something does not imply that something has been learned. Moreover, the attainment of wisdom does not necessarily come with advanced chronological age, and an accumulation of experiences.

It is as if older generations (in westernised cultures,) upon reaching “retirement” age have run-off and are playing hooky, neglecting their responsibility not only to younger generations, but also to the soul of the world. This truant behaviour cannot simply be blamed upon any particular individual. It is the cumulative effect of centuries of the individualising and mechanising venture of westernised culture.

Older generations arrive at “retirement” with a culturally ingrained expectation that now is the time for either playtime or (sadly for many) the time of being put out to pasture.4 Truancy for many arises naturally, and uncritically, from such expectations.

If wisdom, and the attendant elderhood function of older generations, is largely lacking in westernised cultures, it is little wonder that young people are not coming to older people for guidance, assistance, or even hints, about how to navigate the troubled times we are in.

Yet, the possibility of true elderhood endures. In westernised cultures the elderhood function has become lost, displaced, or (as some might argue) stolen. Stolen, not only from those who might have become elders, but from young people too.

In the final chapter of his book Stephen Jenkinson focusses our attention upon this. For Jenkinson, elderhood cannot simply be ascribed to someone, nor can it be obtained through a short-term workshop or learning platform.

Jenkinson describes it as a conjuring act. And, as we know, magicians spend years and years mastering their craft. Here is how Jenkinson invokes the elderhood function.

‘The ones who conjure elders are not the ones who are seeking out their own elderhood. The ones who conjure elders are the ones who seek out an elder’s heartbroken willingness to testify for the sake of a better day, who corroborate that sorrow, who are willing to be wrong about older people and their truancy. My plan, such as it is, is that young people begin to awaken to the understanding that it is their search for elders – sometimes grievance-driven, sometimes tried – that conjures elderhood in a troubled time.’5

To answer the earlier question about responsibility then, we can say: young people in their searching have a responsibility, and older people in their willingness to be found have a responsibility.

If young people are to conjure up the elderhood function, then those who would be elders must be courageous enough to come out of retirement, stop revisiting their childhood playtime and begin an honest, respectful, and open dialogue with younger people.

Older generations must stop playing truant.

Then, the poles might not be so far apart.


1. I am purposely not quoting exact percentages. Polling is a statistical method that, based on a sample, provides us with an estimate of the views of the total population. This inevitably means that there are margins of error (formulated as standard deviations) and these in turn can be assigned a confidence level (or degree of confidence.) Hence, I can say say “more than” or “below” with confidence that the true percentage is in that range.

2. For example, an US poll asking whether climate change needed to be addressed now or in the next few years showed an almost 20% gap between the responses of those aged 18 – 29 years and those aged 65+.

3. Stephen Jenkinson, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.

4. I am indebted to Bill Plotkin for the terms Pasture and Playtime. In his book, Nature and the Human Soul (New World Library, Novato, California, 2008) he laments the time of “retirement” as bringing on, for most older people, one or other of these two possibilities. He contrasts these options with the more eco-centric stage of The Master in the Grove of Elders.

5. Jenkinson, Op cit., p381

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Planning to Not Know

When working in community development or on an environmental or social justice campaign hours can be spent in analysing the situation, planning strategies and tactics, and preparing to undertake various actions. Whole weekends can be spent in workshops, and seemingly endless meetings can be held.

What if such planning meetings, workshops, and strategizing were to be dispensed with? What if, instead, activists spent the same amount of time in silent meditative retreats? What if, instead of looking outward towards the objectives of the campaigns, time was spent looking inward? What if time was spent settling the busy monkey mind that we carry around with us day to day, and enabled our heart-mind (citta1) to make its presence more known?

Such a suggestion may not be as unproductive, or as wasteful of time, as may be imagined.

If there is to be any transformation of the state of the world, then that transformation must be both internal and external. It must be personal, and it must be collective and social. Indeed, a healthy transformation cannot be one without the other. A bird must have both wings to fly.

Yet, a huge proportion of the time spent in campaigns is directed outward. Time is spent analysing who is doing what, and when. Consideration is given to asking who are “our” opponents and who are “our” allies? The mechanics of the situation are defined. Facts, figures, and data are researched and presented.

It is all about what is “out there.”

What if we were to spend time asking what is “in here”? What is our deep heart telling us? On the surface we might be thinking that our heart tells us ‘I am angry (because this or that is happening to our planet, or to this group of people).’

However, our hearts carry much deeper feelings and emotions. Yet, when we get caught up in the externalities of campaigning, we lose access to our deep hearts.

Not Knowing

To open to our deep heart means letting go of what we know and what we think we know. It also means letting go of the craving to control outcomes. Together, this requires foregoing any certainty. It also obliges us to relinquish notions of right and wrong, of good and evil.

Resting in silent, mindful meditation allows the awareness of the inter-beingness of all things to arise. In this state of deep awareness the dualism that we project outward onto the world begins to dissolve. In silence our clinging mind starts to let go of certainty and knowingness.

Gandhi’s Example

In 1930 the Indian Congress Party and the independence movement generally, was in disarray and one of its leaders, Mohandas Gandhi did not know what to do. The esteemed poet Rabindranath Tagore visited Gandhi at his ashram on the Sabarmati River. Tagore asked Gandhi what should be done, and Gandhi answered saying, ‘I do not see any light coming out of the darkness.’2

But Gandhi was not about to give up. However, instead of making plans, Gandhi spent time alone and in silence in his ashram for many weeks. He told fellow ashram members, ‘I’m just waiting. I’m waiting for the call. I know that I will hear the inner voice.’

He did hear that inner voice. The result of Gandhi’s silent waiting is now considered to be one of history’s outstanding examples of nonviolent resistance – the Salt March.3

Gandhi’s example is not an isolated case. Certainly not for those working from within a spiritual tradition. In recent years the practice of vision quests have made an impact upon westernised activists and others seeking a better world. The practice, of course, is well-known within indigenous societies. This practice has yet to become widespread within movements seeking a transformed society. If and when it does so, we may see a radically different approach to social transformation.

Vision quests involve days, sometimes weeks, of solitary and mindful praxis. A participant must let go of preconceived notions of their place in the world, and even of who they are.

When this not-knowing mind-set is invoked a much deeper, and more encompassing, knowing is released.

What if activist movements incorporated these practices within their campaigns more often? What if activists dropped the notions of certainty and control over outcomes?

What if environmental and social justice movements took up a bearing of not-knowing?

Would it work?

I don’t know.


1. Citta is a Pali word often translated as heart-mind. Citta makes no distinction between the mind and the heart, the inter-connection is so great that there is no division.

2. Cited in Donald Rothberg, The Engaged Spiritual Life, Beacon Press, Boston, 2006.

3. The Salt March was a nonviolent march of almost 400 km from Gandhi’s ashram to Dandi (on the west coast of India) where Gandhi made salt (in defiance of the British colonialist “salt laws”). The march took 24 days and helped spur Indians to mass civil disobedience and was instrumental in the eventual dismantling of British colonial rule over India.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Lotus and the Cross - Overlaps

There are estimated to be well over 4,000 religions, faith groups, and denominations in the world. Can they all be right, correct, and/or true? Similarly, can they all be wrong, incorrect, and/or untrue?

If you were inclined to test these two questions, by “trying out” each of the religions then, if you lived to be in your 70s say, you would need to check out more than one a week. As that is not possible, then how do you and I decide which religion to choose, including the option of no religion?

Such decision making would suggest that the religion we opt for is less a matter of pure choice, and more one of: the religion we are born into, our cultural heritage, the environment, our upbringing and education, the period in history into which we are born, our country of birth, and our friendships, inter alia.

And that in turn makes it unwise and unhelpful to claim that the religion I adhere to is the only correct one.

However, the fact that well over 80% of the world’s people belong to one or another of these 4,000 suggests that some sort of spirituality is core to the human condition. Furthermore, a large section of the 16% or so of the world’s population who are unaffiliated to any religion are not necessarily non-spiritual.

If there is a spiritual element to the human condition, and if religion is one way of expressing that, then there are likely to be similarities and overlaps in the beliefs and values of these religions.

That being the case, it would be helpful to seek out and acknowledge these similarities and overlaps. With so much polarisation, discord, and distrust in the world, discovering the common humanity in our religious beliefs must surely be healing.

I recently read The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha by Ravi Zacharias. I was highly disappointed, as, far from attempting to seek such healing and the overlaps between Christianity and Buddhism, this book was a blatant and baseless attack upon Buddhism. Early in the book, Zacharias asserts that ‘Jesus and the Buddha cannot both be right’ (see my introduction above) and that they are ‘diametrically opposed beliefs.’ Thus, Zacharias has immediately set up antagonism where harmony and shared humanity could have been explored.

Hence, what follows is an attempt by this author to make amends and to offer some overlaps between Buddhism and Christianity.1

Sowing Karma

If someone has heard anything of Buddhism, then one of the likely concepts they will have heard of is karma. This is the idea that one’s present is shaped by one’s past. Some have referred to this as “fate,” although that is an extremely limited understanding of karma.

The concept of karma predates Buddhism and was well known in India at the time of Buddha’s birth. Buddha elaborated upon the concept. Literally translated, the term means action, and recognises that our actions support or undermine our habits, thoughts, and behaviours and thus point to what habits, thoughts, and behaviours we will display in the future.

This concept is remarkably similar to the advice Paul makes to the Galatians when he notes that ‘Whatever a man (sic) soweth, that shall he also reap.’ Here, Paul is unquestionably suggesting that the habits, thoughts, and behaviours we embody today will become the habits, thoughts, and behaviours we experience in the future. Paul was reiterating the writer of the Old Testament Book of Job who noted that ‘they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.’ Thus, the concept is well publicised within the Bible and Christianity.

The two – karma and sowing/reaping – are similar.

Greed and Desire

Zacharias claims that Buddha ‘unshackled (people) from desire’ implying that there was nothing inherently problematic with desire.

Indeed not, and this assertion is a gross misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings on desire. Buddha did not advise against desire, but did note that craving for desire is harmful. Buddhism does not reject nor deny desire but does recognise healthy and unhealthy desire. The Pali word Tanha is used to describe the unhealthy aspect of desire and means to desire more than is attained.

Effectively, this could be summarised by the word greed.

Greed is warned against within Christianity, with the writer of the Gospel of Luke proclaiming, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.’

There is much overlap between the Buddhist notion of Tanha and the Christian notion of Greed.

Personification of Evil

One of the well-known stories about Jesus is that of his being tempted by the Devil during his solitary 40 days and 40 nights in the Judaean Desert. Jesus resists each temptation, and the Devil departs, enabling Jesus to begin his evangelism.

Similarly, Buddha meditated for seven weeks beneath a Bodhi tree and during that time was tempted on numerous occasions by Mara, a similar (but not synonymous) personification of Evil as that of the Devil.

Like Jesus did with the Devil, Buddha resisted Mara, and famously responded to Mara’s challenging of Buddha’s right to resist and to sit calmly amidst temptation, by simply touching the Earth with his right hand. At this, as with the Devil in Jesus’ case, Mara vanished.

Both Buddhism and Christianity have a personification of Evil that can be resisted.

A Dissimilarity

The above three examples show clear cases of overlap between the thought (theology?) of Christianity and Buddhism. There is one area of dissimilarity that should be mentioned. Sadly, it is an area of dissimilarity that Zacharias fails to recognise which leads him into a dubious argument between his characters of Jesus and Buddha.

Zacharias has Buddha claiming that ‘I was concerned with one fundamental matter – Truth.’

This was not Buddha’s primary concern, and there is no evidence for him claiming this. Buddha was primarily concerned with the existence of suffering, and how suffering2 could be dealt with. Indeed, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are all about the existence of suffering, its causes, that there is a remedy, and what makes up that remedy.

However, this dissimilarity does not invalidate the contention that there are a number of overlaps between Christian thought and Buddhist thought.

If we are to obtain harmony and cooperation in the world, then we should be acknowledging and celebrating these overlaps, not seeking to find areas of disagreement or dispute.


1. The writer of this blog is familiar with both Christianity and Buddhism. I was brought up within the Presbyterian and Anglican church systems and in my late teens and early 20s was a member of a fundamental Christian church. At that time I attended a Bible School for approximately two years. Whilst at University I was exposed to Zen Buddhist thought. Since the early 1990s I have studied Buddhist thought and practice, as well as maintaining a regular meditation practice. As well as these two religious groundings I have a good understanding of atheist concepts also, often referring to myself as an atheist from my late 20s onwards. 

2. Suffering is an insufficient, and poor, translation of the original Pali word, dukkha. The Pali term dukkha might more fully be translated as: unease, discomfort, pain, unhappiness, as well as suffering. Hence, dukkha has a much wider meaning than does our modern understanding of suffering.

Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Who Will Weave The Fabric Together Again?

When we look around the world with open eyes, ears, and hearts, we witness many instances of social injustice, environmental destruction, or acts of oppression. Witnessing these can give rise to anger on one hand or despair (and withdrawal) on the other.

If we experience the hand of anger, then, without a mindful approach, this can be expressed through sarcasm, rage, or (at the extreme end) hatred towards the person(s) we perceive as inflicting the injustice or destruction.

When this happens, it becomes easy to take the next step into the story of Evil, or at least, Bad.

Reciting the story of Evil and labelling some as Good, some as Bad, is a rabbit hole that gets deeper and deeper, with no way back to the surface. Yet, sadly, many social justice, or environmental activists, end up falling into this rabbit hole.

Confronting injustice or degradation with rage or hatred, however, is a dead-end. It gets us nowhere. Furthermore, it only serves to reinforce the very story from which the injustice or degradation arose initially – the story of Separation.

The story of Separation is a very old one. It tells us that we (humans) are separate from nature and separate from each other. According to this story we exist in an Us and Them world. Naturally, as the story goes, Us are made up of Goodies and it is Us that must bring the perpetrators of injustice – Them Baddies – to account. In doing so, the words of the story tell us we are justified in voicing our anger in vitriol, words of shame, and the pointing of fingers.

Yet, it is this very separation from which the injustices and environmental damages arise.

We cannot repair this separation by further separating ourselves. Sarcasm, boo-ing, vitriol, rage, and hatred will not weave the torn fabric back together again.

So, whose role is it to weave the fabric back together?

Surely, if those of us seeking a better society or world are unwilling to do so, we cannot expect those who do not recognise the fabric as torn to do so. As Dr Seuss so eloquently put it, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!’

If we want a better world, then we have to recognise that we must do something different. The old story of Us and Them, Good and Evil, must be thrown away and replaced with a new story.

Anger Still Arises

Of course, anger will still arise within us. Anger is, after all, a human emotion just like those of joy, happiness, sadness, awe, sorrow, or delight. Just like these emotions, anger arises within us as a response to our perception of what is happening in and around us.

Attempting to suppress anger is pointless, and most likely ineffectual, possibly even detrimental to our mental health.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, recommends us to ‘take good care of (anger).’ He further advises: ‘When you get angry … please don’t pretend you are not angry. Don’t pretend that you don’t suffer.’1

This is key – our suffering. We suffer when we see children abused. We suffer when we watch a forest being bulldozed and the birds and animals of the forest made homeless. We suffer when we watch on the news of one country invading another.

If we take care of our anger, and we approach our suffering with mindfulness, then we are reminded of our common humanity and our connection with all life on this planet.

Recognising and working with our anger and suffering is a long, arduous journey. Yet it is one we must take if we are to weave the fabric back together again. We cannot expect to heal our suffering by inflicting suffering upon someone else.

When we undertake this journey we can invite others, even those perpetrating injustice and environmental destruction, to join us. There is no guarantee that they will accept the invitation, However, they just might.

If a different story than the one of Separation is to be told, and enacted, then if it is not those of us seeking a better world to tell it, then who will it be?


1. Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Riverhead Books, New York, 2002.

Tuesday, 29 August 2023

Malaise of Modern Life

Recently I listened to, and overheard, a couple of conversations that got me thinking about the malaise (bad ease from Old French = mal (bad) + aise (ease)) of modern life.

One conversation involved one person telling another that they had 75,000 air points, and that they could use these to “escape from here for a while.” The other person made some suggestions of locations to escape to.

The second conversation was around a dinner table in which one person began a new turn in the conversation with a statement something like, ‘this place has very little art or culture. You have to go to Sydney to get good experiences.’ A couple of those around the table took up this refrain, agreeing with the first person.

When I thought about these two conversations, I found some sadness within me. In each case, those speaking were expressing a dissatisfaction with where they are. They wanted to escape here and obtain a good experience somewhere else.

Surely, such thinking displays a malaise with life.

Why should this be? What is it about our everyday life, or where abouts on this planet we are, that induces this malaise?

Over the centuries, philosophers, psychologists, spiritual teachers, and others have attempted to answer these, and similar, questions. Meantime, others have attempted to exploit and promote this malaise.

In 1967 the French philosopher, filmmaker, and founding member of the Situationists International, Guy Debord published his classic treatise The Society of the Spectacle.1 The article is a series of 221 short aphorisms critiquing the spectacle that modern life had become.

Debord’s first aphorism summed up the basic reason for modern life’s malaise. ‘In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’

Simply put, Debord’s argument is that instead of being active participants in life, humans were becoming mere observers. Debord contends that this process by which we become less participants (and more spectators) leads to inauthenticity, so much so that our ability to think critically is impaired. Thus, we become incapable of even recognising this de-humanisation of life.

It is little wonder that Debord made this claim, when during the forty years prior to Debord’s article, a number of thinkers were actively promoting this shift towards humans as simply spectators, observers, and consumers.

One of the leading proponents was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and known as the father of public relations. In the early part of the 20th century, Bernays and his cohorts utilised the ideas of his uncle (Freud) and set out to turn Americans into consumers. One of Bernays’ business partners, Paul Mazur, insisted that, ‘People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s (sic) desires must overshadow his needs.’2

Bernays went on to become a leading light of this propaganda,3 first coming to prominence by manipulating women to take up smoking.

As Guy Debord so well articulated, Bernays and others of the new public relations ilk, managed to severely undercut the sense of participation in life and replace it with a spectatorship.

Almost a hundred years after Bernays, and more than fifty years after Debord, conversations seeking escape and a desire for good experiences are commonplace.

The malaise of modern life has set in, has become commonplace, and we hardly even question it.

But, this malaise, or dissatisfaction is not new. Bernays, in using the ideas of his uncle, only manipulated it and encouraged it.

Overcoming Malaise

Two thousand five hundred years ago the Buddha recognised malaise. In fact, the existence of malaise is the core of the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In English, the First Noble Truth is often translated as ‘There is suffering.’

Suffering however, is an insufficient, and obscuring, term. The Pali language (the language of early Buddhism) uses the term dukkha which more completely suggests not only suffering, but also unease, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, discomfort, unpleasant, or pain. With respect to the title of this blog it could be translated as malaise.

It is worth unpacking the concept of dukkha a little further. Imagine you are eating something that you really really like (e.g., ice cream, chocolate, or whatever is your food of choice.) Now imagine eating more of it, then even more. In fact, keep on eating it. No matter how much you enjoy that food, there will come a time when you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t want to eat anymore. You may even feel sick just looking at the ice cream, chocolate, or whatever. This is dukkha at work.

And that too is dukkha in our modern life.

We are dissatisfied and uncomfortable with where we are and what we are doing. We want to escape. We want to experience something else, somewhere else.

Buddha, however, did not just identify dukkha, he also went on to explain (2nd Nobel Truth) its causes: aversion and craving. We hear both of these in the conversations. We hear the aversion in wanting to escape. We hear craving in the desire for good experiences.

Furthermore, in the 3rd Noble Truth, Buddha noted that it was possible to overcome dukkha and to let go of aversion and craving. His 4th Noble Truth outlined the path towards letting go, via what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

This blog will not describe the eight aspects of this path (there are many ways to find out about them), except to note that each of them are related towards one’s inner journey, rather than focussed outwards.

Hence, the malaise of modern life begins with our aversion for the here and now and our inner experience, and with our craving for experiences elsewhere and outside of ourselves.

We need not succumb to being cast as simple spectators, observers, or consumers.


1. French edition published by Buchet-Castel in 1967. The English edition was published in 1970 by Black & Red.

2. Cited in Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instict, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.

3. The word propaganda was transformed by Bernays into public relations. He wrote: ‘When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. And "propaganda" got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try and find some other words, so we found the word "counsellor of public relations".

Thursday, 24 August 2023

The Sorcerer's Apprentice - A Technological Reading

Two hundred years ago Europe was in thrall to the fascinating discoveries of science and the possibilities of new technologies. For many at the time, this seemed to be an era in which nature had finally been conquered and humanity could enjoy the riches and comforts of progress.

Yet then, as now, there were those who questioned this thinking. As ever, it was the story-tellers, novelists, and poets who first attempted to warn of potential disastrous consequences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example, was published in the early 1800s.

In this blog I wish to consider a 1797 poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,1 the great German poet, novelist, scientist, and philosopher. Many readers may not know of the poem, but likely will be familiar with one of the segments of the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia based on Goethe’s poem - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In that segment the cartoon character Mickey Mouse is cast in the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Allegorically, the poem can be read as a warning that we mess around with the mysteries of the world at our peril. Furthermore, when we create time-saving, comfort-inducing technologies, things can rapidly get out of control.2

Let us proceed through excerpts from Goethe’s poem (in italics) with an interpretation of this possible allegorical meaning. Not all of the poem is quoted here, only selected excerpts. The full poem comprises 98 lines, made up of 7 stanzas of 8 lines each, interspersed by 7 indented stanzas of 6 lines each.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

That old sorcerer has vanished

And for once has gone away!

Spirits called by him, now banished,

My commands shall soon obey.

These first four lines of the poem tell us that the wisdom of the ages (that old sorcerer) is no longer with us, and along with that, the mysteries are now banished. In wisdom’s place we humans will command nature to obey.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,

Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Long my orders you have heeded,

By my wishes now I've bound you.

The third stanza tells us that we will take our technologies (old broomstick), expand them and bind them to our whim.

See him, toward the shore he's racing

There, he's at the stream already,

Back like lightning he is chasing,

Pouring water fast and steady.

And look, in stanza 5, it is working. Look how wealthy and mighty we are becoming. Our GDP (pouring water) is rising, we are growing fast on the back of our genius.

    Stop now, hear me!

    Ample measure

    Of your treasure

    We have gotten!

    Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.

    Master's word I have forgotten!

But wait! What is this? The sixth indented stanza warns: climate catastrophe, pandemics, and social decay. We have had ample measure and have overshot our carrying capacity. Sadly, we have forgotten wisdom (Master’s word) and do not know how to stop this.

Ever new the torrents

That by him are fed,

Ah, a hundred currents

Pour upon my head!

It’s all happening so quick. Collapse is getting quicker and quicker, more and more (a hundred currents).

Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!

Shall the entire house go under?

Over threshold over portal

Streams of water rush and thunder.

By the ninth stanza we are in danger of total collapse (shall the entire house go under?)

    Can I never, Broom, appease you?

    I will seize you,

    Hold and whack you,

    And your ancient wood

    I'll sever,

    With a whetted axe I'll crack you.

Hang on! We’ll get out of this. We’ll create new technologies (a whetted axe) with which to save us.

What a good blow, truly!

There, he's split, I see.

Hope now rises newly,

And my breathing's free.

Hooray! Hope is rising in the eleventh stanza. We’ll get out of this and breathe free.

    Woe betide me!

    Both halves scurry

    In a hurry,

    Rise like towers

    There beside me.

    Help me, help, eternal powers!

Oh no! It has all gotten worse. Technology now taunts us. Hope has soured and become hopium.

Off they run, till wet and wetter

Hall and steps immersed are lying.

What a flood that naught can fetter!

Lord and master, hear me crying!

We’ve reached, and surpassed, tipping points and planetary boundaries. No matter what we do, things will collapse (what a flood that naught can fetter!). Perhaps too late, we cry for wisdom (Lord and master).

In Goethe’s poem the master sorcerer does return and with an appropriate spell relieves the apprentice of the calamity. The Sorcerer commands the broom:

    "To the lonely

    Corner, broom!

    Hear your doom.

    As a spirit

    When he wills, your master only

    Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

When Goethe wrote this poem I am sure he was not thinking of climate catastrophe or impending collapse of environmental and social systems. However, he was clearly cautioning humankind to not tamper with things we do not have the Master Sorcerer’s wisdom to understand. For when we do so, we unleash consequences that are beyond our ability to reign in. Furthermore, our attempts to do so, by utilising the thinking used in creating the situation, tend only to worsen and exacerbate our predicament.

Fortunately for the Apprentice the Sorcerer returned before it was too late. Can we too expect a return of wisdom? The signs are not good.


1. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in sourced 23 August 2023

2. I first became aware of this possible interpretation/reading in: Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2017.