Saturday, October 9, 2010

For those who go barefoot...

In considering the actions of the mind, it should never be forgotten, that its affections pass into each other like the tints of the rainbow: though we can easily distinguish them when they have assumed a decided colour, yet we can never determine where each hue begins…. Madness is almost undefinable. Right reason and insanity are merely the extreme terms of a series of mental action, which need not be very long. Sir Francis Palgrave, 1823
Keeping that point in mind--and refining it as Melville did when he scribbled at the back of his Shakespeare volume, "Madness is undefinable"--I want to say two words about accepting or refusing social conventions in relation to the topic of schizophrenia.

In an essay I mentioned the other day (here's an excerpt) written by Philip K. Dick, titled, "Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes," Dick begins by distinguishing between the social mind and the private mind (this is a loose summary--I'm using my terminology; not his). The private mind is able to exist for a time in childhood unconstrained by the demands of the social mind. I even get the impression PKD was updating or re-presenting the Edenic phase in his description of the private mind in its unpressured phase.

But then: usually around adolescence, the private mind begins feeling the pressure from social realities: Dick mentions the case of daydreaming about asking a pretty girl out--she may hardly know you exist, but you've spent hours and hours imagining every possible outcome of your asking her out. During the imagining phase, you're still in "private mind," but when you finally work up the courage and ask--and when she says, "No," then the private mind is forced to a reckoning.

The schizophrenic, says Dick, refuses--even at that moment--to take the presence of the social mind seriously. He more and more retreats, then, from the social world, hoping to avoid further confrontations with its hurtful realities. Eventually, of course, he loses. Reality is undeniable. And Dick says that it's this loss, rather than the supposed-floating-off-into-another-dimension, that forms the basis of schizophrenia. Dick's schizophrenic is simply one who has realized, through a courageous battle that ends with his own defeat, that the world happens to him.

The archetypal figure Dick describes may be imagined from his outline as someone who refuses to accept the pressures to conform--refuses all forms of discipline, refuses dress shirts, hair-cuts, sports, etc--until society finally refuses to put up with his refusals, and either jails or commits him (hence the diagnosis). That's where Dick turns to the "Book of Changes" (or I Ching) to show how a schizophrenic can cope with that "it happens" understanding of reality.

That's where I leave off from PKD's interesting essay, to wonder for myself: is accepting some of the pressures to conform, accepting some of the mores and dictates of civil society, a requirement for continued sanity? Or is it possible to stay sane even while refusing to incorporate the behaviors society is encouraging?

Asked again: is it useful to the Self to accept some of these constrains and disciplines, even recognizing them to be arbitrary? Does it, maybe, help us mature to another level of psychological development, or get closer to enlightenment, or something?--or is the presence of that notion indicative of a crushed spirit, or a zombie-like complicity in one's own destruction?

In finally accepting that I have to tuck my shirt in Monday-Friday, even though I hated it at the outset, have I lost an important part of my identity? Or should we be ready to make these kinds of compromises precisely because they're so superficial and ultimately meaningless?--and if the latter, how far should we be willing to bend?--to break, blow, burn... and be made new?

Bridge Analysis

Four novice monks approached the spot where they had been directed to visit by their teacher. It was quite a secluded spot, and required a significant effort to arrive. They came to the location their teacher described: they saw a bridge there--a finely constructed bridge that was the only visible way across a legendarily deep trench.

The monks stopped as they approached the bridge.

"Look at the glimmering materials used  in the construction--how wonderful," said one monk.

Said another, "I have studied architecture some myself, and the history of bridges in particular, but I have never seen such a wonder."

Another monk, less impressed but still cheerful, said, "It is a fine bridge, but certainly not altogether original--I have seen a similar construction at the Northern edge of our province over the Xu River."

The fourth monk, the monk most inclined to metaphysics, mused, "Indeed it is a beautiful structure--almost inevitable-looking. I wonder if we can imagine, any longer, a world without it."

The monks passed a number of hours in such conversation, admiring the bridge, dissecting its peculiarities, occasionally even criticizing some finer point of its design. The sun lowered in the sky. Finally, one of the monks suggested, "We'd better get back to the monastery; our teacher may be waiting up to question and supplement our powers of observation and analysis."

When the monks returned to the monastery, their teacher was sweeping a walk-way. When he first saw them, he stopped, put his hands on top of the broom-handle, rested his chin on his hands, and sighed. "The dutiful imbeciles," he muttered to himself.

Then he said aloud, cheerfully, even as he sublimated his disappointment: "Well timed, monks!--I was just about to start another discourse on the art of bridge construction; your journey has certainly prepared you to listen well!"

During the lecture that night, the novices asked their teacher many fine questions. They were well-informed, and demonstrated acute perception and a knack for critical thinking in their questions following the talk. Their teacher told them he was very pleased with their progress, and would suggest another journey some time next week. The novices were very excited at the prospect.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Post-Coffee Morning Meditation

I've been over-interested lately in the question of whether the Self is moved or changed by chemical influences in the brain. My "influences" of choice have been coffee and wine. Here's a relevant excerpt from a semi-formal dialog I had with a friend not long ago:
MC: ...i want to nudge you, even just slightly, towards my view of the brain as a tool, and the spirit as work, and *some* space between the identity of the two.

CP: I don't understand that view yet, but I'm willing to.

MC: well, this feels like a jump ahead, but if then it's at all possible to appeal to that view, i think i'm trying to separate the 'mind' from the 'brain' in order to keep the work of the mind from being diminished by the chemical 'aiding' of the brain.

CP: Go real slowly here with me: so, the brain can receive chemical aid (because it's physical?) while the mind is sort of super-chemical?--or is that too simply dualistic?

MC: i do believe that the mind is somewhere, super-chemical, in the space "after," while the brain is capable of existing, let's say, "supra-chemically" -- before.

CP: Okay I can work with our definitions now; I'm with you.
Today, when I reflect on that conversation, I want to go even slower. It seems to me that one way to resolve this problem of the brain/mind distinction would be simply to say that the brain is everything that takes place, chemically, in the organ known as the brain (and maybe in the spinal column) whereas the mind is everything that takes place, chemically, in the brain and spinal column and the entire rest of the body. Let me reiterate: this is just how I'm thinking today. But, today, I'm loathe to entertain the idea of some non-physical specter that has influence over the brain, without existing in the realm of physical reality. That seems like rubbish and superstition to me, and so I'm trying to resolve it.

So when I have a glass of coffee, understandably, my brain is moved from its "baseline" (is there a baseline?). But the question is whether my mind is moved by--or with--my brain in those caffeinated moments. I don't mean to make a zen riddle out of this; unfortunately it has to sound something like: Am "I" (mind?) able to watch "myself" (brain?) getting charged by caffeine, or do "I"-the-watcher (mind?) become caffeinated too? Is there no Self isolated from the effects of "the world?"

How and why did we reach this conclusion that there is a significant dualism?--that there is an experiencer, and then a reflective self? Perhaps we don't like the notion that a cup of coffee can alter our whole identity. But our preferences certainly have no bearing on truth. What other problems arise if I admit that my whole identity changes when I take LSD, drink coffee, or wine?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Show and Tell

Here's a zen-ditty-poem I wrote about year ago. It's not really a poem though. It's more like a mountain.

What Maya Is
The lord Buddha continued: "If any person were to say that the Buddha, in his teachings, has constantly referred to himself, to other selves, to living beings, or to a universal self, what do you think, would that person have understood my meaning?"
The Bodhisattva chooses illusion for the sake of others.
Enlightenment is a value-neutral state.
The fear of death and the fear of life are one.
She who fears living refuses to choose to let go of Maya.
There is no choice until one chooses what she thinks is death.
There is no death.
Only Bodhisattvas may speak.
The only subject of discourse is Maya.
There is no Maya.

Death exists and nothing dies.
There is nothing that lives.
Nothing lives but Bodhisattvas.
There are no Bodhisattvas.
There is no death.

Death comes only to Bodhisattvas.
No Bodhisattvas fear Death.
The Bodhisattva chooses others for the sake of illusion.
There is only illusion.
There are no others.
There are no Bodhisattvas.
There is only Separation.

Death is only a figure of speech.
In Maya, only figures of speech are real.
There is no separation. There is no separation.
Death and Maya and Separation are One.
The Bodhisattva who forgets the One experiences Death.

Separation only is in Being.
All Beings fear Death.
All Beings die.
Being is illusion.
Maya is not. Maya is not.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"These people believe in something they call 'God,' and consequently..."

I'm trying to think of a metaphor that captures the... remarkableness... of the... narrative perspective (?)... when NPR covers stories on religion. Take a listen to what I heard this morning on Morning Edition (it's only 4+ minutes):

The story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, on Bishop Long and the allegations of sex abuse, includes stuff like this:
"...his church holds 'sexual reorientation' seminars which are aimed at, quote 'curing' gay men and lesbians."
Here Hagerty sounds like (again, I'm searching for the right comparison)... like the narrator of a National Geographic special from the 1970s where a sophisticated white anthropologist tries to study, with rigorous lack of bias, a loin-cloth wearing tribe of dark people from Papua New Guinea. It's the same kind of condescending language that has had journalists over the past year writing things like, "...while just 55% of Americans correctly identify President Obama as a Christian." But Hagerty takes condescending pedantry to another level.

My favorite part in this clip is the way the disinterested Hagerty, maintaining the objective tone, reports,
Long's theology comes from a literal reading of the Bible, which condemns gay sex in several places. Butler [the expert professor enlisted by NPR] says unlike many white protestant churches, which have fierce debates about interpreting those passages, most black churches don't.
I love that. I'd like to be privy to those "fierce debates" in white churches: what are they debating? Is it really that difficult to "interpret" the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible? What happens if you read those as symbolic, non-literal passages? Am I to believe that "white churches" view the references to homosexuality in these passages as metaphors? For what?!

Anyway, I'm not interested in what the Bible says about homosexuality. I just get a kick out of NPR's affected tone of tolerance, its anthropological approach, in reporting on religious people.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Sings This?

Every. single. time. I try to talk to my wife about spirituality or "Oneness" or G-d or anything remotely like that, she checks out. And she does it the way an adult half-listeningly says to an over-inquisitive child, "Oh really?" without giving it a thought. So I know she's at least three levels ahead of me.

Her first book of poetry is coming out this December. Click here for the book page, with three poems underneath. And here's the author page (that's right: photo by Yours Truly). Look for it on pretty soon. Here's the front cover (matte finish):

Man I love lovin' her.

America Against Spiritual Discipline

About every Christmas for the past three years, I've talked to my sister-in-law about Yoga. She's studying to be a Yoga instructor, which involves taking so many hours of Yoga classes, and reading some classic texts in the Yoga tradition, and writing some responses, etc. She's a devotee of Shiva Rea, a popular teacher of Yoga loosely in the Hatha tradition. It's this "loosely" that fascinates me. Shiva Rea is pretty mainstream, very Western, very marketable. Check her out:

So anyway, this Christmas, my sister-in-law had recently attended a weekend workshop with Shiva Rea. She recounted hours of sitting in Lotus position, silent meditation, poses, etc. Then she excitedly mentioned that during one of the sessions, Shiva Rea instructed the class, "Now just dance around as wild and crazy as you will!--" and they did that for almost an hour! My sister-in-law loved this, but it really made me scratch my head.

What is Yoga? I've heard it called a science. I've heard lots of translations of the word "Yoga," but the most interesting might be "means" (as in, a "means" to an end). My understanding of Yoga is quite specific: it is a series of motions and poses, developed experientially, and maintained within a tradition, to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine. So I asked my sister-in-law, "Wait a minute: is that random dancing really Yoga?--or is it kind of just a break?" Because to me, Yoga is a specific series of motions and poses... to bring about union with the Self and the Infinite/Divine.

Do you see the problem here? See what I'm going to ask? Is Yoga arbitrary? Is it exercise? Or is it a very particular, time-tested, scientific way of manipulating the body and mind with the goal of experiencing oneness with everything?

If it's exercise, then dancing for an hour--or playing basketball, or fishing--might be considered Yoga. But the question I'd like to ask Shiva Rea is, "Are you teaching these new, non-traditional forms of Yoga, based on an experiential pedagogy?--that is, did you achieve enlightenment by incorporating dance into traditional Kundalini?--or are you just randomly providing Westerners with fun and slightly exotic exercise?" Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Or the other side of that question: what is the purpose of Yoga? Tellingly, even Wikipedia, that most democratic of sources, makes this distinction: here is Wikipedia's Yoga page; and here is Wikipedia's "Yoga as Exercise" page. (...the latter begins, "Yoga, in addition to its traditional role as a system for developing the highest wisdom in enlightenment, has also become established as, 1) a scientifically validated system of alternative healthcare, and, 2) as a widely practiced form of physical exercise.")

Here's what I'm afraid of: I'm afraid "the West" does this to sacred teaching traditions. I'm afraid the West is culturally unable to understand the end of spiritual discipline and practice. It's understandable in Yoga: if all it requires is 300+ hours of experience, a few 4-page papers, some reading (but no evidence of enlightenment), then any diligent, unenlightened person (Shiva Rea?) can become a certified teacher. Then, inevitably, the "science" becomes little more than a game of physical-telephone.

What if the same has become of Philosophy? Of Christianity? Of the Liberal Arts? Of Education? Have we accepted institutional certification as a substitute for authentic mastery?--is that wise? Do we care?

This strikes me as the problematic essence of protestantism: neglect practice, skip the discipline. Do whatever feels right. Fasting? No thanks. Secret Prayer? Leave off. Vegetarianism? No. Sacred chanting? Not for me.

Give us enlightenment, or salvation--but give it to us on the couch.