29 December 2010

Magic and light

This is an anecdote about an experience I once had which impressed me, but which I have never known exactly what to make of. I always think about it at this time of year, near the solstice, when sunlight is at minimum, and shadow length is at maximum. It is related to a topic in academic philosophy, phenomenology, and I am sure that if I understood my Husserl and my Heidegger a bit better than I do, I could make a much more systematic presentation of it than I can here. With that disclaimer, here is the story.

Several years ago I had a hobby project of photographing cemeteries and old churches in New Orleans. I had taken a photography class and one of the tips which the teacher offered us was on the subject of outdoor photography: take your pictures within an hour of sunrise or sunset, the longer shadows at this time of day make the subject more complex and interesting. The way I scheduled my project was every Saturday and Sunday I would walk the streets of New Orleans at sunrise and at sunset and photograph the most interesting church scenes or cemetery scenes I encountered. There are a lot of neighborhoods that I constrained myself to the sunrise hour for consideration of personal safety; many of the most beautiful old churches there happen to be in the middle of impoverished gangster neighborhoods.

In the course of a few months I explored a large fraction of the city. Eventually I discovered a small old weathered church in the Bywater neighborhood at the intersection of Dauphine and Saint Ferdinand. By "weathered", I mean it needed paint and it needed some maintenance work on its yard which was overgrown by weeds. In the yard was a six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin surrounded by one-foot-tall statues of cherubs which were barely visible through the weeds. The moment I saw this particular church, I decided it was my best subject yet and perhaps ever. I shot all my film on this one building, went home, and decided that was where I was going to concentrate: I would shoot it at sunrise, at sunset, on fuji, on kodachrome, on black-and-white, on my tripod, until I had my most flawless shots of it. (This was before we all went digital.)

A couple of weekends later I got to the black-and-white session. I got up early on Sunday morning and returned directly to where I had just been the previous night at sunset. I spent about twenty minutes composing and shooting black-and-white shots from various angles and had shot about half the roll. After one shot I pulled my eye from the viewfinder and was struck by a vision: hundreds of lavender wildflowers appeared in the weeds before my eyes, and I felt like one of those characters in the cartoons who sees stars in front of their eyes after getting a whack on the head. They had bloomed at daybreak and were there all the time I was shooting, but I was thinking black and white and had totally ignored them up until that moment when they suddenly appeared to me, as if out of nowhere.

I quickly went home for color film, but by the time I returned the sun was too high for long shadows. I returned at sunset. I was late for work on Monday as I had to return to the church for a sunrise session. Then after work I went straight to the church for another sunset session. I was also late for work on Tuesday and Wednesday until I shot up all the film I had in stock. To assure myself it was not a hallucination, I compared all the shots after they were back from the lab and indeed it was true: I had somehow shot six rolls of film with no wildflowers, and just when I thought I was finished, hundreds of wildflowers took their seasonal light cue and bloomed in the midst of my subject.

To this day there are only two photographs on my living room wall. They are both photographs of the church, the statue of the Virgin, the barely visible cherubs in the weeds, and hundreds of small lavender wildflowers.

24 December 2010

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--

Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--

This is on page 249 of my collected poems of Emily Dickinson. The notes say she wrote it in 1868 and it was first published in 1945, which might be some kind of record for late blooming. This poem contains value for poets and writers. An excess of honesty can really mess you up.

In the last couple weeks I have listened to all eighteen of my Henry Rollins spoken word compact discs in chronological order, sometimes as many as three in one day. Henry could have been a great artist if he had taken Emily Dickinson's valuable advice to heart. Alas he did not, which makes listening to him something akin to an assault. I made some notes of some of the most tactless items in his work.

"I smile every time a pig gets greased."

"I don't want to be a father; I want to kill mine."

"Death from a bullet in the head is death from a natural cause."

Now Henry is posing as a punk here, and the posture is straight ahead without any slant. No pulling punches. This is, if you will please pardon the expression, not art. These are all ideas which can be expressed artistically, but they need to lubricated. These are not ideas which can be artistically expressed straight ahead with a punk pose.

Jimmy Ross told my old poets group a couple times that "if you write about your friends, pretty soon you will not have any friends." This is mostly true, but he left out one important detail. If you can dress it up like Emily Dickinson, you can say anything. Violence, sexual deviance, crime, addiction, corruption, or anything which is taboo in polite dinner conversation can work quite well in literature with proper care and respect.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--

19 December 2010

Theory and practice of meditation III

This is part 3 of 3; part 1 is theory of how it works and why you might like to do it; part 2 is an explanation of my short daily meditation practice. Today I will describe a longer meditation practice which I cannot always fit into a daily schedule. This one takes me about forty minutes.

Step one is to sit still in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Breathe slowly and count, one count for each breath to one hundred. For each breath, I visualize a sphere which looks like, or almost like a billiard ball, with the number of the breath inside the little white circle area (like on a standard billiard ball that is numbered one to eight.) The spheres alternate on a period of ten in color and in spatial position. This sequence is patterned after a common representation of the Kabbalah Tree of Life.

1, 11, 21, 31, &c are a white sphere on the crown of my head;
2, 12, 22, 32, &c are a gray sphere on my right shoulder;
3, 13, 23, 33, &c are a black sphere on my left shoulder;
4, 14, 24, &c are a blue sphere on my right elbow;
5, 15, 25, &c are a red sphere on my left elbow;
6, 16, 26 &c are a yellow sphere on my crotch;
7, 17, 27, &c are a green sphere on my right fingertips;
8, 18, 28, &c are an orange sphere on my left fingertips;
9, 19, 29, &c are a purple sphere between my knees;
10, 20, &c are a brown sphere between my feet.

I used to play a lot of billiards so visualizing billiard balls is quite easy for me. A million other things do cross my mind during this forty or so minutes of meditation, but I try and hold my attention as closely as possible to my breath and to the billiard ball images. After, I make a note of how many minutes (37 - 51 is the range in recent memory), if I lost count at any point (if I lose the count, I just guess where I was and start forward from there--this is an excellent marker for me on how well I am attending to the meditation), if I had a hiccup or a cough or a saliva swallow or a saliva drool (I prefer not to, and sometimes I will stop meditating if any of these occur.)

Sometimes I will try and extend this to an even longer meditation. About once a month I will go for 200 breaths, and about once a year I will go for 300. 300 breaths is the longest I have ever gone. If I am going for a long meditation, I always stop if I lose count or if I hiccup or if I drool or if anything is not perfect.

14 December 2010

The two chair exercise

I found out when I went googling for source material that this also is known as the empty chair exercise.

This is an excellent psychotherapy technique which does not require any supervision. It can be as short as fifteen minutes and requires very little--a quiet space and two chairs. The purpose is to clarify one's autobiography and troubling personal relations. Place two chairs opposite each other three to eight feet apart. Sit down in one chair. Speak in the first person for a few minutes, as the other person in the memory you are seeking some insight or clarity on.

You don't need to be precisely accurate or explicit about the troubling issue at this point. Just a couple items such as one would say in a social introduction: "I am so-and-so; from where about; do such-and-such for a living; married to whosit's, &c."

Switch chairs. Try and visualize the person of your inquiry sitting in the other chair. Make small talk, such as one would say in a social introduction, addressed to the subject of the exercise. Meditate for a couple of minutes on the situation. Try and imagine it as real as you possible can. Then, after a couple of minutes of the meditation, speak to the other chair calm and sincere about the issue which troubles you. If the issue troubles you greatly, go slowly.

Switch chairs again. Try and imagine how the other person would respond to your conversation if they were there. Speak the words as you imagine they would speak them, while imagining that you are there in the second chair, attending to them. Switch back and forth between the two viewpoints and the two chairs until the exercise naturally runs out of new things to imagine and to say. Practice empathy, and assume goodwill in the imagined presence and they are practicing empathy too, even if your real-life experience with the real person was that they had generally poor empathy skills.

That is all there is to it. My knowledge of the history of this technique is consistent with the information in the Psychology Today article I linked to above. It was invented by the therapist Fredrich (Fritz) Perls, who became a psychotherapist after a first career as a theater director. I have a couple of Acting texts which use a number of Perls' therapy techniques as drama exercises for aspiring and even professional actors, an example of cross disciplinary synergy for the textbooks.

I have a short document of applying this technique in my recent experience in this post. I briefly looked at the other nine of the Psychology Today's ten cool interventions and this is the only one that I can heartily endorse.

09 December 2010

Thrasymachus and Clamence

One situational ethics theme recurs through the history of philosophy. It is seen as early as Plato, The Republic, his character of Thrasymachus and as late as Camus, his novel The Fall, his character of Clamence. Perhaps you have observed such a character in your own real life; I sure have in mine.

Thrasymachus appears in The Republic to argue for a cynical loser's definition of justice: "justice is what is advantageous to the stronger", which echoes the Melian dialogue from Thucydides:"the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must" (although there the part is spoken by a cynical winner.) The modern Clamence is not undone by war, but the story is given that he abandons his ostensibly successful life after a road rage incident. (In 1956 when Camus published his novel they had road rage but they just did not have the name for it yet!)

Since these are fictional characters, the reader is left with freedom to try and untangle what would motivate these guys to adopt such contemptuous attitudes. All of this was brought into my field of thought by a seemingly random comment I read on an internet discussion board, by a seemingly random person. (I don't recall who wrote it and I cannot find the exact comment right now.) The person wrote (approximately): "Every time I have done or said something really stupid it was in a context where I was feeling contempt."

There is no way to explain why Thrasymachus, or anybody else, would feel contemptuous towards Socrates; it is one of the great mysteries of history how such a man of apparent good will could be tried and executed by his fellow citizens. There is also no way to explain why Clamence would appear to feel so much contempt toward apparently everybody. Maybe some day psychiatric genetecists will identify a gene structure which inclines people towards contemptuousness.

My own theory is that it is a sick combination of laziness and attention seeking. It is so difficult to win someone's love, and in comparison it is very easy to earn someone's hatred. Nietzsche was impotent to get us to love him, but had superpowers for earning our hatred. It is isomorphic to Milton's description of Satan: better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.

04 December 2010

Man Versus Man and Man Versus Himself

When I took my first fiction writing course many years ago, on the first day our teacher explained the three basic plot lines: 1.) man versus man; 2.) man versus nature; 3.) man versus himself. Every story requires the creation, development, and resolution of a conflict. The story in my post today is how I became a fan of the Oakland Raiders and the Oakland Athletics and the Golden State Warriors and gradually grew out of that into something else. I became a fan of these teams by birth. My birthplace was Oakland. These were the teams that were always on the television; on the occasions I got to a ballgame these were the home town teams to root for.

It is an altered state of consciousness to be enraptured by a group of athletes on the playing field or on the television set. For a couple of hours it is possible to submerge one's identity as an individual into the group identity of the hundreds of thousands who identify with the greatness of the team or the greatness of the stars of the team--Ken Stabler, Reggie Jackson, or Rick Barry. This is not what sports is about to me any more. The turning point in my story was when I moved to New Orleans, and was immersed in a very different culture and experience. There was only one team in that town, the New Orleans Saints, and that one team did not win very often.

My initial reaction was that the experience of watching the games and cheering for the team was a ridiculous waste of time. Gradually I discovered something new, that the post-game talk radio was far more entertaining after the Saints lost than it was when the Saints won. People would call up the hosts--first there was Hap Glaudi; then after Hap died it was Buddy Diliberto; now Buddy is passed on and it is Bobby Hebert--and the callers would moan on and on half-drunkenly about all the years they have supported the team and all the years they had owned season tickets and the team never wins. And how many more years is this going to continue?

That is a rhetorical question, as the host of the radio show is not God and he cannot foretell the future. Also in retrospect it is clear to see that it would continue until February of 2010 when the team finally won the championship at long last after 44 years of failing, and often failing in the most spectacular heart-wrenching fashion possible. The pity and the pathos and the passion on all those years of post-game talk radio was as real as anything I have ever seen or heard. Those folks were deeply submerged into an altered state of identity with their team, and what it created was a story. This is what sports is to me now: a bunch of stories.

With all of the attention and with all of the money, sports in our culture present compelling and ongoing stories. This is why my interest has survived the passing of my previous idolizing of the heroes of my youth. And right now there is no story in the world which has captured me as much as the story of Michael Vick. This past Thursday he had another great performance; this time it was against my new hometown team, so I got a detailed update on the Michael Vick story. It was astonishing to me how generous the accolades were.

This story includes some ugly morality. Michael Vick is now the world's most celebrated dog-killer. (To be accurate, he is celebrated for running with and throwing a football, not killing dogs.) But he has served his prison sentence. He is making restitution and showing contrition. He is following all the directions which the public relations professionals of the league and of the team have set for him. Some people want to know: is it fake? What is really going on inside Michael Vick's head and heart here? Has this monster been truly rehabilitated, or is he conning us all by going through all these formalities to make all the profit dollars he is going to get for himself by behaving in this manner?

The only person who knows the answer to this question is Vick, and the only way you could know the answer would be to be him. So this question is ultimately stupid. Just about everybody would like to be in his pay grade, but nobody (possibly including himself) wants to be Michael Vick. This example is the purest major modern sports figure who is nobody's hero. At least nobody who has an ounce of common sense would look to him as a hero. In this case there is nothing here but the story. In spite of the ugly baggage, many of us are fascinated by the Michael Vick story. It has man versus man (Julius Peppers and Ray Lewis and all those guys are out to crush his limbs and smash his brain), but really it is man versus himself.

29 November 2010

Theory and practice of meditation II

This post is the second of three parts on meditation, theory and practice, which I began with Part I on Nov. 9. Part III is to follow; this post will be a description of the shorter one of my two regular meditation routines. It is adapted from a self-hypnosis relaxation script I obtained from the book Mind-Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis, by Ernest Rossi and David Cheek. I call my variation the homunculus meditation. The name is taken from a neuroscience figure, a homunculus, which is made by inflating anatomical parts in proportion to the amount of the somatic sensory cortex which are involved in our sense of touch for the particular anatomical part.

The script is very simple. You sit quietly in a relaxing posture and invite yourself to sequentially relax different portions of your body. There are thousands and thousands of terms which pertain to various anatomical structures, so you cannot name them all in one single meditation (or self-hypnosis) session. The ones I routinely use are (in order): eyes, optic nerves, visual cortex, cerebral cortex, limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, median nerves, fingertips, (back up to) limbic lobes, hindbrain, throat, spine, sciatic nerves, toe tips, foot soles, ankles, calves, ankles, shins, ankles, fibulas, knees, hamstrings, knees, quadriceps, knees, femurs, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, shoulders, elbows, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, elbows, wrists, thumbs, index fingers, middle fingers, ring fingers, little fingers, wrists, fingertips, wrists, elbows, shoulders, seventh cervical vertebrae, nipples, seventh thoracic vertebrae, navel, lumbars, anus, testicles, glans, testicles, anus, lumbars, navel, seventh thoracic vertebrae, nipples, seventh cervical vertebrae, spine, throat, tongue, palate, gums, lips, nostrils, nasal cavities, sinuses, eyes, temples, ears, eustachian tubes, ears, temples, eyes, forehead.

On average this takes about twenty minutes to work all the way down and back up through these features of my anatomy. There are three additional important details:

1.) In the Rossi-Cheek recipe they instruct us to instruct ourselves "Relax eyes, &c." There is an old philosophical conundrum here regarding who is talking to who when we are talking to ourselves. When you sink a long basket and you say to yourself "Good shot!", who is talking to who there? There is some implicit dissociative model like perhaps Freud's--and perhaps it is your superego talking to your ego, or something similar to that. Anyway, what I do instead of commanding myself to relax, is to invite myself to relax. I substitute "I may relax my eyes, &c." for the literal instruction provided in the Rossi-Cheek recipe.

2.) A few of these invitations are repeated, sometimes over and over. Roughly, I devote the proportion of the session along the proportions in the homunculus diagram, hence my name of homunculus meditation. I invite my fingers and my lips and my tongue to relax far more than I invite any other portion of my anatomy to do so.

3.) The other weighting is toward the eyes and ears; a large fraction of our brain is allocated to the processing of visual and audio sense information. By concentrating on the parts of the body that involve the largest brain fractions, the given twenty minutes (or whatever) of meditation can have the largest total brain footprint! That is one theory.

I have been using this meditation (or one close to it) on a nearly daily basis since 1997, since I first read Rossi and Cheek's book. I will be using it for the foreseeable future.

24 November 2010

From the Human Potential Movement Trick Bag

Suppose you have a room filled with people who do not know each other and you are going to teach them some material which requires close cooperation and clear communication. How do you begin? How do you spark a connection between these people?

An exercise that I have seen used a few times is simple and takes only a few minutes. First, pair them off; have them introduce their self to the person sitting in the next chair if they have not already done so. Second, have them write a very short autobiography--no less than six and no more than ten high and low points in their life story, focused upon the question of what events were influential in development of the person they are today. Third, partners share one high point and one low point. This can all be done in as little as ten minutes.

If the worst thing that ever happened to you was confinement and torture as a war prisoner, this might be excessively traumatic to relive with a complete stranger. You probably do not want to go overboard. You do not have to share the lowest (or highest) points in the autobiography, but it is necessary to share something. It is like a scientific fact that the process of connecting with other people requires the sharing of some intimate fact.

This group exercise was popularized by the folks involved in the Human Potential Movement, from that society of creativity and anarchy that was California in the 1960's. You can find out more details about this and many similar exercises in the short book by Sam Keen, Your Mythic Journey. This exercise is on page 69 of that book. The book is short, but if you do all the exercises in the book you can easily use up a month of free time. Sam Keen is practically the poster boy for the Human Potential Movement, having been an editor for Psychology Today magazine for many years.

I have performed my own variation on this theme, and achieved a result that was surprising to me. The first step was a construction of four idealized selves: Craig the poet, Craig the philosopher, Craig the psychologist, and Craig the theologian. (An example of this construction may be seen in the recent items that I have written on my blog here, which have alternating labels of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics.) These are hobbies. The closest thing I have to any formal training in these fields is some college course work. I have never received a paycheck for any of my activities.

After making a few notes mixing fact and fantasy, I examined my factual autobiography and extracted five high points and five low points--events in my real life which were influential in the development of the four idealized individuals. This is a good bit of data, and it took more than a couple of hours to get it all down on paper. Four selves and forty events. There was a very small amount of overlap where one event might have shown up on two or even three of the time lines. Now, here is the surprise. I went back and compared it to my real one time line autobiography, and almost none of these forty events are on there. The best thing that ever happened to me? Gone. The worst thing that ever happened to me? Vanished. For the more than the couple of hours it took me to do this exercise, those events did not even exist for all practical purposes.

19 November 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-III

This is the last of three posts on the nature of the first philosophy I obtained with my college education, inspired by the hoopla over the anniversary of John Lennon. Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

John Lennon was the one man who had more influence over the people of my generation than any other. This was first because of his great music, about which nothing needs to be added. This was second because of his message we took to heart, "All you need is love", &c. Third was the auto-destruct of his band, the falsity of his message, and the meaning that could be constructed from this triple whammy.

Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can. Obviously we can do this. Forager people without a permanent residence do not have possessions. At the most they have gear, which they have to carry with them almost everywhere they go. That is not too hard to imagine, or even to try out as an experiment if one is so inclined. It is possible to go even further: imagine being a gorilla or a chimpanzee or raccoon or a crow or a butterfly. Imagination is powerful stuff. Nevertheless, as a call to action, "Imagine" is no longer an inspiration to me. Imagine if everybody in the world thought like the action figure in John Lennon's anthem; I imagine that would be a pretty dull world in comparison to this messy real one that we have got.

So I conclude the message is false, even though it is a campfire singalong song that ranks up there with Kum Ba Ya.

The last thing we have is the example of his actions--the destruction of his band, the influence of his wife, the relative less quality of the post-Beatles work, and the bare naked revelations of his painful psychotherapy. The destruction of the band is a natural maneuver. I imagine it would be exhausting to be a Beatle for ten years. Good for him that he found other things he was happier doing.

Blaming Yoko for the destruction of the band and the work quality decline is popular, and it is a waste of time. For the curious, we have the psychotherapy revelations--John's mother abandoned him at age five and Yoko mothered him so we can all gawk at it if we want, but really I would rather not. It is useful to us observers as a textbook example of unsound psychotherapy. In real life I once had a friend who was fascinated with the conversations which he had with his therapist, and another far-less fascinated friend who informed him rather harshly that his conversations were sabotaging his therapy so as to render it completely ineffective.

The principle is this: what is discussed in the analysis room stays in the analysis room. Your family and friends do not need to hear about it. Your family and friends do not want to hear about it. And if you go on and on about it you are turning your therapy into performance art, which is not what your health insurance risk pool is paying for. I am sure there are many exceptions to this psychotherapy principle. I doubt that John Lennon's was one of them.

It is disappointing to read in the New York Times about anybody who is forty years old and they are making a big deal out of what happened to them when they were five years old by people who are now long dead. One time I was at a T group with a confrontational paradigm (Landmark Education Forum) and the group leader discussed a similar hypothetical case and concluded with a shout:

"Congratulations! A dead person is running your life!"

And it is very disappointing when this dude you are reading about in the New York Times is the most influential single man for your entire generation of peers. I guess that John and Yoko would have a hard time imagining that.

14 November 2010

A coincidence in my literary life

In October of 2002 I experienced a spooky coincidence that I can recall as if it happened yesterday. It concerned a woman, a poem, two poets, and a spree killer.

The woman is named Kim and in October of 2002 she was a waitress in my favorite sports bar. I had a regular poetry night downtown which started at 9:00 P.M. Between the end of my work and the beginning of my poetry I had a couple hours to kill, so every Tuesday night I went to this place and got a cheeseburger and a couple of beers and polished up my poem for the reading later in the night. After a few months of this routine, one of the waitresses asks me about my poems that I am always working on. We talked about poetry for a few minutes and I asked her "would you like me to write you a poem?"

She replied with an enthusiastic, "Yes!" So I got to work on it the next day. And I spent nearly all of Saturday and Sunday writing it and rewriting it and then illustrating it. There were five stanzas, five pages, five illustrations. One of the lines was:

There are no negroes in my tarot deck except maybe Death and the Devil

This page had on it my own drawing of the Devil card. Unknown to me at the time of my writing my poem for my suddenly favorite waitress, the Death card was going to be on the front cover of Time and Newsweek magazine in four days. The second of October 2002 was the day that John Allen Muhammad left a Death card at the scene of one of his murders. By Tuesday this news was all over the place. This is the central coincidence in my tale, but it is not the only one.

There were also two poets who had coincidental connections to my poem. I used a trope which is not uncommon but which I learned from a friend of mine, Dennis Tyler, where all five stanzas had very slight variation in their final line. The final line of each stanza went like:

She is X and I do not know her name

(X=laughing, crying, dying, &c. Sort of a true fact as I still did not know the woman's last name.)

On the day when I wrote this Dennis had been absent from our shows for many months, but on that Tuesday he showed up. It was a pleasant surprise when he walked into the venue shortly before it was my turn to get up onto the stage.

The other (small) coincidence was the hostess of the show that night was a person whom I had never met and never heard of, named Eve. The biblical Eve also was a character in my poem. All of this put me into an excited state when I was going up there onto the stage. I can still remember talking to the audience, before I read my poem, about all these strange coincidences that I had stumbled into. It was the first time I ever read before that audience that I had a total grip on them all and I had not even begun to read yet. Then I read and it went swell. It was something of a transformation of my relationship to that entire group of people. Before, I was almost like an interloper; and after, I really belonged in that group.

Later I was explaining to a friend of mine the story of the episode, how I actually lost almost all of my stage fright in one minute and it was a complete accident. She insisted it was not an accident, there are no accidents. Her preferred explanation was something on the order of there was a cosmic force injecting the Death card into the human world and me and Muhammad were on the same channel. What happened was quite weird enough without cosmic forces channeling into me and this other guy across the country on the same day.

09 November 2010

Theory and practice of meditation I

On the third of October Luke Grecki posted a writeup of his experience with vipassana meditation on LessWrong which received a large amount of interest and comments. I posted some spontaneous comments myself, but after giving it some thought I have decided to write a little more systematically on the topic.

There will be three parts: one theory and one each on descriptions of the two techniques in my current practice.

I have been meditating daily for over thirteen years and did it sporadically for fifteen years or so prior to that. My menu of tried protocols is wide: vipassana, zen, transcendental, Gurdjieff self-remembering, Jung active-imagination, Erickson self-hypnosis, Loyola spiritual exercises, and probably a couple others I have totally forgotten about. The common thread through all of these techniques is mental health benefit, or spiritual benefit, or stress relief through calming mental processes. It is a purging of obsession and compulsion and anxiety and worry. Don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda the way to become a sorcerer is to learn to make one's mind perfectly still. (Castaneda's regimen may be the only one that I have heard about that I have not tried--I have seen people under the influence of deliriants and that is definitely not for me.)

There is modern scientific research in support of this, most notably in the work of the psychologist Albert Ellis and the psychiatrist Aaron Beck. Their therapy techniques are based upon the idea that our problems of mental life are twofold: first there are the human stressors which plague all of us to one extent or another--family problems, relationship problems, money problems, diseases--what Zorba called the full catastrophe; second there is the stuff which we tell ourselves on top of these typical and normal human stressors.

"This always happens to me."

"Nobody loves me."

"I am a freak; I am a loser; &c."

We could make a very long list. Ellis and Beck say you may be unable to eliminate the family problems and whatnot at the source of your grief, but you surely can quit telling yourself the exaggerated and goofy crap you pile up on top of it. Their experience (and a large amount of subsequent clinical experience) is that modifying the self-descriptions will benefit mental health. This can involve work, and sometimes a lot of it. This is the scientific research behind the psychobabble in the self-help books regarding being a friend to your self.

Meditation provides the ancient path towards quieting these activities of our minds which can be such a burden. There are two basic techniques: a technique of concentration and a technique of emptying. In the technique of concentration you focus your awareness as completely as possible on one stimulus. It can be listening to a mantra as in the example of the hare krishnas or the transcendental meditation. It can be staring at a mandala or a crystal ball or a blue vase or a saucer of ink. It can be saying a rosary. In the technique of emptying you focus your awareness as completely as possible on the minimum possible field of concentration; this is usually the breath. You simply follow only your breathing as purely as possible for a period of a few minutes. A hybrid of the two is use of the minimum possible sense stimulus, the mantra Aum.

In this attention to nothing, or attention to as little as possible, time and space is provided for the mental burdens of anxiety and such to run their course and escape from our attention center. This is the process by which meditation leads to better mental health. This apparently is not the intent the innovators who developed these procedures were going for, however. They were aiming at something much more profound.

If you participate in meditation practice for a very long time (like, thousands and thousands of hours), you may have an opportunity to attain a state of being where you are connected link-pow-one-with-the-universe. Samadhi. You attain Samadhi, and presumably you never again need care about all the girls thinking you are too short.

04 November 2010

Group psychotherapy at a WalMart price-point

On the 28th of August I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps". I already made one (metaphysics) post out of my notes on the conference. This was much easier than making a psychology post. I am reminded of an Irish proverb about a guy who is asked if he would like some water in his whiskey and replies, "When I drinks water, I drinks water, and when I drinks whiskey, I drinks whiskey."

Psychology is formally atheistic, you see. They have professional standards and practice boards and ethics norms and there is no evidence for God so what could any psychology committee conceivably do with such an idea? So there is a category error and logic fallacy for the psychologists involved in making such a conference. There were a couple interesting comments sprinkled through the psychology part of the conference, but mostly it was futile struggle.

The single most interesting point in this regard to me was in a conversation during a break with a stranger. We were discussing one of the points which the theology professor discussed in the morning presentation: Joel Osteen's Lakeview Church. The wikipedia page says this is the largest church in the country. Their current facility used to be the sports arena that the Houston Rockets basketball team played in before the new and improved and larger Toyota Center. Osteen is also a television star with his own shows and is an author of best-selling books.

The theology professor sees all this as a point of ridicule. Osteen's religion could be described as Christianity stripped of all theological complications. If Catholocism is a fancy French pastry, Osteen's religion is a Hostess twinkie. Osteen does not go into the twisted labyrinths of original sin, the trinity, Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Job, the Parable of ten talents, gnashing of teeth, nothing that would require years of detailed study and careful contemplation to get to the bottom of it. The theology professor sees a religion devoid of content. Joel Osteen sees himself as promoting a religion devoid of confusing and unnecessary detail. God is good. The world is beautiful. Do not trouble yourself and be grateful and be happy.

It turns out the stranger I met and spoke with during the conference break was a member of the Lakewood Church. We had a short but animated discussion of the theology professor's ridicule and my opinion on the matter. The stranger was a psychotherapist. (The conference organizers provided Texas Continuing Education credit which the state licensing board requires therapists to accrue to maintain their practice license--almost everybody at the conference was a professional therapist.) I used a metaphor which my psychotherapist partner liked greatly. I said, "if they sold group psychotherapy in a carton in the pharmacy section at WalMart, it would bear a strong resemblence to what goes on at Joel Osteen's Lakeview Church".

I did not explain, but I feel fairly certain he knew exactly what I was talking about. What would go into this hypothetical carton of group psychotherapy they might sell in the pharmacy section of WalMart?

1.) Your psycho quality of life and your mental health hygeine are mainly influenced by the quality of your relationships.

2.) Be thankful for your friends and relatives and express this to them.

3.) Be generous to your friends and relatives.

4.) Ask your friends and relatives for help when you need it--they will usually be glad to help you and sorry when they cannot.

5.) That is about it. If you have more energy for mental health hygeine maintenence you can fill in with Golden Rule and Ten Commandments and meditation (or prayer).

$19.95 at WalMart or the Lakeview Church and totally free here on my blog!

30 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-II

On the 10th of October I wrote the first of three posts describing some of the influential figures in my own coming of age. That is here. I was inspired by all the hoopla over the John Lennon anniversary, as he may well be the single most influential figure in the coming of age of many of the people who I personally know. My last post in a couple of weeks will be on the Beatle, but first I am going to veer off into the world of the the books of James Joyce.

James Joyce was the greatest Irish, if not the greatest European, if not even perhaps the greatest earthly writer of the twentieth century. If you classify Castaneda as non-fiction, he was the fiction writer we devoted the most energy to when I was in college. There were three books: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a short novel about the coming of age of a writer who we all assume is a thinly-disguised James Joyce. The hero is raised in the Catholic church; his teachers are trying to recruit him into the priesthood; the main event in the book is his loss of faith in God. My student pals were largely atheists who had formative experiences rebelling against their parents' religion. Joyce's description of the experience is personal to him and it was personal to many of us. In particular I have a memory of a Grateful Dead fan (this band was big in Berkeley in 1980) explaining to me, very seriously, that the Stephen of Saint Stephen (this was one of their most popular songs) was Joyce's Stephen Daedulus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. People can take the most ridiculous things seriously.

(As an aside I read the Annotated Grateful Dead entry on Saint Stephen. There are a lot of people taking ridiculous things seriously on that page, but nothing about James Joyce. In any case the original Saint Stephen predated Joyce but over a thousand years.)

The second book by Joyce which we all at least tried to read is Ulysses. This is a long and complicated novel in stream-of-consciousness style which is nearly impossible to pick up and read continuously in comfort the first time. If I recall correctly, the first time I tried I made it to around page 100 and gave up for months. It is a fairly grueling initiation rite to get all the way through it and we were all proud when we had. The promised obscenity near the end of the novel was not worth the effort. I am skeptical that the people who banned the book on grounds of obscenity ever sat down and read the first few hundred pages to get to the so-called dirty parts in natural sequence and, having finally gotten there, then suffered from violated sensitivity.

My classmates and I spent hours discussing this book. I am not sure any of us understood it. Years later I discovered a magic formula for reading this book easily, which I presented in an earlier post.

The third book by Joyce which nobody got far into is Finnegans Wake. On the Wikipedia page this book is described as unreadable. It is done in an unusual style which could be described as stream-of-dream-consciousness. Anybody who succeeded in reading it in Berkeley in 1980 would have been credited with divine power. It is a pity I did not know my magic formula for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake back then; it would have been interesting to see what a reputation for possessing supernatural power would have equated to in real world reward.

25 October 2010

Luck coincidence fate and fiction

On my post of 15 of October there was an odd coincidence. I had an anecdote about the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. It turns out Mandelbrot died on the 14 of October and the news was in the papers on the 16 of October, so I was writing about Mandelbrot as the world was awaiting the news of his passing. I also posted this on the LessWrong group web log, as you can see here. At least 22 of the people there read my article and gave it a positive vote and around 10 people commented on it, but nobody mentioned the coincidence about Mandelbrot being in the post. It may be weird to nobody else but it sure felt weird to me when I looked at the New York Times front page on the 16 of October and there was Mandelbrot's obituary and I was just posting about the fellow yesterday.

There is a vast literature on the whole topic of low probability events that we observe all the time. Why do people believe weird things? Apparently human reasoning about probability is naturally terrible. Leo Tolstoy might have thought my holy guardian angel guided me to the usage of the Mandelbrot example on that day. The man obviously had a horrible grasp on what is a possibility if you judge by the plot of his great novel War and Peace.

There is luck. There is coincidence. And then there is that is completely impossible to observe in a billion trillion human lifetimes, which is what Tolstoy writes about in that book. Just off the top of my head:

1.) Andre and Anatole in the same surgeon's tent at the same time at Borodino where 30 000 Russian soldiers were fatally wounded.

2.) Andre being evacuated to the Rostov's house in Moscow, then being among the ten randomly chosen to evacuate further to one of the Rostov's country houses.

3.) Nikolai foraging around Smolensk and happening upon Maria's country house at the exact precise hour her serfs were carrying out their rebellion.

Apparently you have to have the genius of Tolstoy to make stuff like this up. The probabilities here are like 30 000 to 1, 100 000 to 1, and 100 000 000 000 000 to 1. This isn't impossibly unlikely. It is fiction.

20 October 2010

How to learn Kabbalah easy and fast

I have been a student of Kabbalah for approximately ten years. My favorite authors are Gershem Scholem and Aryeh Kaplan; I own a number of their books. Some of them are challenging. Those two fellows, in particular, show that it is easy for a gifted scholar to spend an entire career studying the various topics within this vast subject area.

If you know nothing about Kabbalah and are curious, I have good news for you. It is easy to sit down and learn enough to converse intelligently with just about any adept. You may be able to do so after you spend ten minutes reading this post.

The central ideas in Kabbalah are summarized on a diagram called the Tree of Life. It has ten nodes and twenty-two line segments connecting various pairs of nodes. The ten nodes are named (in English, in order): crown, wisdom, understanding, mercy, strength, beauty, victory, glory, foundation, kingdom. These are ten common words, but they are not ordinary words. They are extraordinary words.

You can prove this to yourself in five minutes. Look up these ten words in a Biblical Concordance. You will immediately see that these are ten of the most prominent words in the good book. And you may have all of the information you will need to quickly teach yourself most of the important lessons in all of Kabbalah for you.

One qualification is needed; you must first have a basic Jewish or Christian education. There are tens of millions of such fully qualified people in the United States. If you went to church and Sunday school for a period of a few years, you have all the background needed.

Assuming you fulfill this small prerequisite, here is my recipe for teaching yourself Kabbalah easy and fast. To be more exact, what you will be teaching yourself are the most salient points of Kabbalah that apply to your own life. Take the ten concordance entries for crown, wisdom, &c. For each entry, look at the dozens of scripture verses listed and see what stands out for you. Verses you recognize, stories you recognize, books that are your personal favorite. It would take a long time to examine every entry, but it may take a very short time for you to gather an important and personal connection for each of the ten words. When you have finished this, you are done. You are a Kabbalist. You may not be an adept, but you may have a better Kabbalah education than Madonna. For sure you will have as good a Kabbalah education as Britney Spears.

I will finish with an example. The most often recited passage in the entire Bible from the compiling of the book through all recorded history and onward through all conceivable human life going forward is the Lord's prayer from the book of Matthew. The last line goes like this:

"Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever."

Kingdom is node 10 on the Tree of Life. Glory is node 8. Power (strength) is node 5. Thirty percent of your work is now done for you. When I said this is easy and fast, I meant this is easy and fast.

15 October 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics III

(Part 3 of 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)

Distribution of performance across the sample and the replacement-level player

The second biggest fallacy among baseball personnel managers, according to Bill James, is they do not understand how ability is distributed amongst professional baseball players. He defines the concept of replacement level player, and insists the vast majority of the fellows working in the Major Leagues are easily, quickly, replaceable. His reasoning is simple.

If you have a random selection of humans and measure nearly any measurable trait--height, weight, speed, strength, reflex time--the frequency plot will be the familiar bell shape Gaussian curve. People playing baseball professionally are an extreme non-random sample. 98% of the left-hand portion of the curve is gone, because none of those people have the physical requirements to get employment playing baseball. The resulting distribution is a truncated Gaussian distribution, with few at the highest levels, and the vast majority of participants of nearly indistinguishable quality. When performance is creamed at stage after stage after stage, little league to high school to college to minor leagues to the majors, almost all the remaining players are excellent and interchangeable.

If you are managing a corporation and you only hire candidates with golden resumes you have a truncated Gaussian distribution of talent. If in your evaluation process you shove those people into a Gaussian distribution, Bill James says you are doing it totally wrong. Another common mistake is that managers think there is something magical about "major league" talent, that some guys have it (as Thomas Wolfe referred to the "right stuff") and some do not, and they mislabel players who could help them win baseball games as not having it, due to the circumstantial variations of where the players have found themselves employed up until now. Organizations that hire top talent and pay high salaries have far more options than they generally presume. Nearly every single person working for your company is easily replaceable.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about Benoit Mandelbrot and his early preoccupation with financial market data. His questioner thought finance was a fuzzy science and hard scientific data really ought to be much more attractive to his scientific temperament. Mandelbrot explained that the great feature of studying financial data was that there was so much of it, and it was thus endlessly fascinating. Many statisticians have a similar fondness for baseball statistics. It is reliably recorded, unambiguous in definition, and there is so much of it. Many subtle statistics results are best explained in the context of baseball statistics, and there may be unknown statistical theorems sitting in the archives waiting to be extracted by clever statisticians. The wikipedia page on Stein's paradox (first published by Charles Stein in 1956) has a reference to a well-known (well-known to baseball statisticians, anyway) article from the May 1977 issue of Scientific American using baseball statistics to illustrate Stein's paradox.

After my article was nearly finished, I stumbled upon this "news" in the New York Times Sports section:

Sniffing .300, Hitters Hunker Down on Last Chances. (Here they are presenting research from a couple of economists from U. Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. The academic publication is here.)

The preceding should be of interest to anybody who is interested in the subjects of human achievement, psychometry and baseball statistics. My own interest is narrower and the lesson I personally draw is a hybrid from the sequence of lessons here. I have an ambitious scope for the company I am building. Ten thousand hours is close to the limit I am choosing for myself as the point when I will write off these lessons and losses (if they be) and go back to rejoin the American corporation employment market.

10 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-I

The google John Lennon logo inspired me to write something about Lennon and James Joyce and so much other stuff that I had to break it up into three parts. This post is about my initiation into the practice of philosophy. Coffee shop philosophy, not academic philosophy.

When I arrived in college they quickly corrected my whack notion that Ayn Rand was an authoritative philosopher. There were four essential texts that every Berkeley coffee shop philosopher was required to study in 1980. I list them in descending priority order.

Text 1 - The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

It is hard to communicate how dominating this book was in that particular zeitgeist. Ten short years earlier, Berkeley had been the center of the earthly intellectual universe; this may as well have been a hundred years ago. Hippies and love had degenerated into street people and poverty and a culture of beggars. These folks were nostalgic for something that never existed but for a few weeks back in 1967. There were a few professional academics who looked to make a permanent home there. Most of us were passing through and we really got Camus' message about the absurdity of earthly existence.

Suicide is the really the only meaningful philosophical question. Indeed. It was an explosive idea and when you are twenty it makes you feel special and especially alive to grab onto that. In retrospect I don't think many of us appreciated how sad Camus was, that Clemence in The Fall is such a pathetic instance of a literary hero. I certainly did not appreciate it then and I hope that I can do so now with clear hindsight.

Text 2 - The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.

Watts' book was the introduction to Buddhist and eastern philosophy for many of us. His ideas may not have aged well. They are not timeless as Buddhism. Most of us dabbled in meditation, did some zazen at the Berkeley Zen Center, and it was definitely a healthier route to altered states of consciousness than the available and alluring conventional ones of alcohol, cannabis, and LSD.

Pacifica radio was always playing excerpts from its library of recorded Watts lectures, and these were (and remain) delightful. One of Watts' most memorable descriptions of his work was when he said "I am not a teacher; I am an entertainer." It is not completely honest, in the same sense as Rush Limbaugh saying "I am not a politician; I am an entertainer", because the sad fact is that many gullible folks did look to Watts for religious instruction. The way of The Way of Zen is a consistent, reliable, and radically unconventional (from my point of view) perspective on the universe, our lives, ourselves, and our relations with others. I am wearing out my second copy of The Way of Zen, and it is nearly always great fun for me to read it.

Text 3 - Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche

There were two things that captivated us in Nietzsche. The first was his vainglorious atheism. Even today I am often struck by young people discovering that it is a quite normal option to be happy and virtuous and adapted to society and deny all religious belief. What we call an atheistic crisis may really be two crises--crisis one is when you realize there is no evidence for this God hypothesis and everything you were taught is largely fictional; crisis two comes later when you realize there are two worlds here. The believers and the unbelievers and there often is no visible marker as to which world you are in at any given moment. So much of our experience involves us interacting with people who we can not understand.

The other thing which captivated us was his life story as the lone tortured genius who was unread in his lifetime, but achieved an immortal greatness when people who were not even born when he died popularized his works. We were all lone tortured geniuses, you see, with an arrogance that eventually our brilliant written works would survive us as an immortal testimony to the madness of our time. Folly worthy of Erasmus, no doubt.

Text 4 - The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda.

This was before the debunking of Castaneda's anthropological credentials, about which I still have not made up my mind. This book, which was advertised as Castaneda's ethnography thesis for his degree, may be a work of fiction. If it is a work of fiction, it is still a fine book; and if Castaneda was not a fine man, he was still a fine writer.

The thing which all these books had in common was an appeal to our individualism. The truth is out there, X-files style, and we have to be ever vigilant and skeptical when we explore the intellectual landscape. I got a nifty diploma there, but this lesson was the most valuable thing I found at Berkeley.

Then something happened which seemed to blow up the society that me and my friends made for ourselves. Douglas Hofstadter published Godel, Escher, Bach and the tension between the math-science-engineering geeks and the humanities students erupted into something like warfare. We seemed to lose the ability to sit in the coffee shop and talk to each other about our bigger ideas.

05 October 2010

Thrice told tales

After a little research and consultation with a few peers, I have decided to place into suspended animation, and I may soon permanently retire a storytelling rule which I have observed for years: limit a story to three tellings.

It is a fuzzy memory at this point how I came upon this rule, but I do know there were a couple key observations of other story tellers which led me to conclude that it had value. The first storyteller was a man who participated with me in a number of Gestalt group psychotherapy workshops. This was in the late 1990's and early 2000's. The workshops were led by an experienced Gestalt therapist and they would be eight hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday and a dozen or so people would show up and everybody would take a turn in the hot seat. If you have never done this I highly recommend trying it at least once. It is always entertaining and can be very educational.

This one fellow told the same story repeatedly. It was about an automobile accident in the desert in the southwestern United States, a fatality in his family, and an Indian witness who subsequently became a spiritual familiar to him. The first time he told this story, it was riveting; it was one of the most compelling stories I had ever heard. Every subsequent telling was flatter and flatter. Then one day I was watching Oliver Stone's movie, The Doors, and the opening scene of the movie was the same one I had seen in the Gestalt psychotherapy workshops until I was sick of it. Surely there was more than one fatal automobile accident in the southwestern United States witnessed by an Indian who made an otherworldly impression on one of the people in the crash; still the first idea that came to my mind when I saw Stone's movie was that my Gestalt group psychotherapy pal had made most of it up.

The second storyteller who was influential in my formulation of my rule about retiring all stories after three tellings was a woman who briefly came to some of the poetry shows I was involved in during the 2000's. This was a loose association of 30-40 poets and every week we would gather at an open mic and fifteen or so people would read their stuff. We had almost no restrictions, so there would always be a musician or two; sometimes dancers, or stand-up comics, or storytellers. This woman had a one-character drama about her experiences as a stripper. She was rehearsing for this dramatic arts event where they had a couple dozen short plays in one space and people would bounce around and see seven or eight of them before the night was over. So we saw her for the four weeks before her performance that she was practicing for; she did the exact same number for ten minutes for four straight weeks. We never saw her before that, and we never saw her again after that. The first time I saw it, I thought it was great. Times two through four were about as good as a re-run of Gilligan's Island that you saw ten times when you were a kid.

This is almost no evidence upon which to base so severe a rule as limiting every story to three tellings. I am sure there must have been other observations that contributed along the way, but in examining my rule these were the most obvious contributing pieces. In discussing this with others, I have heard support for the rule (or something similar) from people who described a goofy family member who told the same stupid story every Thanksgiving and Christmas for thirty years and they had heard it sixty times, but I have not had any personal experience along that line.

I took a class from the Houston Police Department shortly after I moved here. It was three hours a week for fifteen weeks and very interesting. One of the most interesting presentations was by a detective giving interrogation tips. He said you always have the person repeat the story several times. If they are telling you the truth, it changes subtly from telling to telling and hangs together. If they are lying, it is repetitious; it is practiced; the exact same phraseology occurs over and over; no new and consistent details get added the second and third and fourth and fifth times they tell it to you.

There is a nagging suspicion in my mind that part of my rule was motivated by a paranoia that too many of my stories have a component of bad faith to them and I fear being found out. Although my iron clad rule of telling no story more than three times is in suspended animation and I may retire it forever, I think the notion of not repeating a false story three times is gold.

One of the other people I discussed this with told me something very interesting. She does a lot of stage story telling and she said that there is a strange interaction between our memories of our life and our memories of stories we tell about our life. The memory researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have studied memory malleability and conclude a rather odd fact: most of what we remember is not the original event, but our most recent memory of the original event. My storytelling friend says that in looking at old documentation on her stories she has found that her memories have shifted in the direction of her vibrant stories, and there are some things in her life which she will now not use as story material for fear of polluting the memory.

In the Schoepenhauer's fate post I made a couple weeks ago I told a story that was formerly retired. The story about how I took my first job out of college is now back in my repertoire. Everybody I have ever told that story to seemed to enjoy it; it now seems silly to have censored myself so needlessly for so long.

30 September 2010

Were they raving loons?

On the 28th of August I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps". The bulk of the morning was a presentation by William Parsons, a professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. Part of his discussion was on the subject of the states of consciousness experienced by our foremost religious teachers, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at the time of their personal conversion experiences. He said they were in highly altered states of consciousness; "they were almost raving loons."

This is not the first time I have seen this correlation amongs the most popular religions. In The Perennial Philosophy, for example, Aldous Huxley considers the mysticism of the most important participants in the various faiths precisely what is most perennial about them. The prototype for academic objective examination of these theological technicalities is William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James was most impressed by the testimony of mystical experience, including those of his contemporaries, such as Richard Bucke. I admire James' book greatly, but feel it has been supplanted as the chief source on altered states by the work of Charles Tart, particularly his books Transpersonal Psychologies and Altered States of Consciousness.

My copy of Altered States of Consciousness has the most delightful blurb on the front cover: "The book to read if you're doing anything with meditation, dope, hypnosis, dreams, subjective exploration of any kind." --The Last Whole Earth Catalog. The blurb just about covers the entire depth that I will be able to explore regarding consciousness and altered states of consciousness in one blog post. It is a universe, and nearly entirely unexplored. I sometimes liken our map of human consciousness to those maps of North America from the seventeenth century where they had a river running from Lake Michigan to the San Francisco Bay. What we do not even know that we do not know is probably just about everything.

Having covered in ridiculous brevity what I think about altered states of consciousness, let us look at a few important cases.

I. Moses

Moses' conversion experience is recorded in the book of Exodus. He had a visitation from Yahweh, or a vision or a hallucination of the same, in the form of a burning bush. There are no historical or archaeological records of this. I assume that there was a real human event which is the origin of this story. And my most likely explanation includes a person we might as well call Moses in an altered state of consciousness. This is hardly a deduction. I am a fan of Charles Peirce and his process of abduction, or reasoning to the most likely explanation.

II. Buddha

Buddha's conversion experience is documented at great length in Buddhist texts, although the standards of peer review in ancient India are not quite as rigorous as modern science. In his case, lengthy meditations and mortifications (such as fasting) were involved over the course of years in his pursuit of enlightenment. He is reported to have experienced a vision of every single thing that had occurred in his experience over the course of several eons of different incarnations. Since Buddha was born into royalty, the documentation of his adventures is as substantial as for any of our subjects. They may even be more reliable. The idea that he would abandon his wife and just-born child to go off on religious quest is suspicious. Nevertheless, I have no problem concluding that a highly altered state of consciousness was involved in Buddha's conversion experience and the beginning of the tradition of Buddhism.

III. Jesus

Jesus' conversion experience is described in the gospels as also occurring on retreat. He went out into the desert to pray and to fast and there had a vision of Satan and three temptations. This marks the beginning of his career as a full-time preacher and prophet and healer. I enjoyed Martin Scorsese's take on this in his film The Last Temptation of Christ. Unlike many artists who have depicted Jesus, Scorsese (and his actor William Defoe) make no compromises on their interpretation of the culture and the people to make them familiar to the audience. This Jesus is an extremely foreign guy living in an extremely foreign culture. This world is so foreign one gets the impression the default mode of many was more altered states of consciousness than unaltered states of consciousness. Scorsese and Defoe's Jesus is hallucinating in the first frames of the film.

IV. Paul

Paul's conversion experience is described in the book of Acts as an interruption in his daily affairs as a soldier. He was traveling, on horseback, and had an overwhelming vision of sight and sound that left him incapacitated and blind for a period of days. The book of Acts says the soldiers on patrol with him heard the sounds but did not see the visions. There is a literature describing Paul as an epileptic and his conversion experience as an epileptic seizure. He was a Jew, but there are no reports of him performing extensive meditative or devotional acts which would be preparatory to proper trance preparation. I do not know what to make of all this, although by any description hallucinations of this magnitude are an altered state of consciousness.

V. Mohammed

Mohammed was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira for weeks when he received his vision of the angel Gabriel. This is closely parallel to the cases of Jesus and Buddha. An individual with a devotional bent and long meditations and presumably an altered state of consciousness at the time of his conversion experience.

Could you say they were raving loons? I would not, but the coincidence of altered states of consciousness and religious innovation seems fairly conclusive, at least from what we know of our most popular religions. The odd man out in this story is Paul, who unlike the others, was not searching at the time of his spiritual emergency. Perhaps this gives motivation for the people who argue for the epilepsy explanation.

25 September 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics II

(This is part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here. Part 3 to follow.)

Today we examine learning curves and estimated time for mastery. To continue with the Lisp example, assuming you want to master Lisp, how much of your time should you plan to allocate for the task? K. Anders Ericson is the author of the relevant research findings. At a crude level of approximation, something like that takes ten thousand hours. This is a result I was first exposed to many years ago in the context of Buddhist meditation, in an Esalen conference presented by Helen Palmer (mostly known for her work on the Eneagram). She reported that to become skilled at Zen meditation requires ten thousand hours of practice. In the University of Wisconsin brain imaging meditation study , the subjects were Tibetan monks who had all logged a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice. The ten thousand hours of practice requirement was also reported popularly by Malcom Gladwell in his best-selling book Outliers. Another take on this: Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. Ten thousand hours of 40-hour-weeks is five years, not ten; the number is imprecise, but the idea is consistent that ambitious projects take a daunting amount of time.

One of my dance teachers was fond of reminding me that practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice can make you perfect. For most of us even that is an exaggeration. I think we can reliably predict that ten thousand hours of very good practice will make you very good if you first possess an average amount of raw aptitude.

Baseball players display the 10 000 hour rule, or something very close to it, in their development. This is quantified in their statistics, and codified in the language of "rookie mistake". When you are the new guy, that is nearly always an acceptable excuse for the errors we all inevitably make in the beginning. One of the more popular verses in the I Ching is hexagram three "Difficulty at the beginning".

20 September 2010

Schopenhauer's fate

Schopenhauer had unusual views on mysticism which may be best revealed in an essay, from his book Parerga and Pralipomena, entitled "Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness in the Fate of the Individual" (starts on page 201 of my copy, Volume I, Oxford U. Press, reissued in 2000). It relies on aging and hindsight. It is not contradicted by my own experience.

To simplify, it goes something like this. In middle age we look back on choices we made in youth on which we deliberated very little: what girl to fall in love with, which profession to pursue, and so forth. These casual choices then turn out to have influences upon us for many years afterward. The people who we develop into are formed strongly as we grow into roles which began by the most remote chances. This can be described as fate, or fortune, or providence, for good or ill. Schopenhauer viewed this as the genesis of many of our religious impulses.

Perhaps a personal story could serve to illustrate. When I was a senior in college about to graduate, I had no idea what I wanted to do. During my freshman year, two thirds of the people I met informed me they planned to go to medical school and become doctors. I did know I did not want to be like two thirds of the people I met, so the one thing I did know was I did not want to be a doctor. Other than that I had no plan. I majored in Physics because I liked it the most and I considered it a flexible undergraduate base for whatever vague future notion I could ponder. Two months before graduation my future was nothing but vague notions and I watched my classmates appear wearing coats and ties and scheduling job interviews.

One day by chance I was walking by the campus placement center and decided to go in. I was wearing sandals and cutoffs, my hair was down to my shoulders, and I may not have shaven in two or three days. I introduced myself at the front desk and asked for information. It turned out there was an oil company recruiter looking for physics majors and he was sitting there in a room by himself. I had no resume or transcript or anything. The receptionist took me to meet him and we talked for a half-hour.

Later I did some coat-and-tie interviews with a few other corporate recruiters at the placement center with my paperwork and interview practice. And shortly after that I took the job with the oil company from the first accidental interview. I ended up working with them for over twenty-five years. This is precisely the type thing which Schopenhauer would describe as "apparent deliberateness in the fate of the individual". It was as if I had a guardian angel with me walking on the campus guiding me into the placement office at precisely the correct moment to be seized there, then.

This idea is not unique to Schopenhauer, although his treatment of it is the best I have read. There is an Internet podcast fellow, My Personal Rabbi (Rabbi Dubov), who illustrates a very similar point in an accessible manner. In his view, our personal struggles--whatever they may be: illness, relationship conflict, debt, overeating, drinking, smoking--are like an assignment from the Universe. We are here with the purpose of working to solve these problems on behalf of all of God's creatures. One time I described this to a physicist friend of mine and he rolled his eyes he was so incredulous at me raising this idea to his attention. It is a foundational idea in Kabbalah. Sorrow is a signal from the Cosmos that we have missed the mark and need to correct. The Stoics described this as temperance.

We can also find it Jungian Psychoanalysis. Carl Jung wrote in several places the proverb "our neurosis is our best friend". By which he simply meant that our subconscious should be attended to; down inside ourselves we have perfect knowledge of what we most need to work on. As Schopenhauer described it, this is all a speculation. At least it is speculation for all that we know so far.

15 September 2010

How to quickly read a thick novel by Joyce or Tolstoy

There are many speed reading techniques, but most are notoriously inadequate for dealing with challenging material. Two of the most daunting works for literature students are War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, and Ulysses, by James Joyce. I have a method for each which worked for me. These methods may be applied to other challenging works.

I. The Tolstoy method.

The trick to getting through War and Peace as quickly as possible is to recognize that the minor characters, like Denisov and Dolohov, do not need to be attended to at all in the first pass. There are dozens of these characters. They have names which are unfamiliar to English and American people. If you try and keep track of them all you can get bogged down deep. There are only five characters you have to pay close attention to: Natasha Rostov, Pierre Bezuhov, Andre Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, and Maria Bolkonsky. When the action involves one of these five, read close. When the action moves elsewhere, skim.

Also there are two long passages in the book you can skip entirely. The passage in the middle of the book between Natasha's betrayal and Napoleon's invasion of Russia is long and of little importance to most readers. The epilogue is the same. Although these are of little importance to most readers, that does not mean they were not important to Tolstoy. They clearly were.

After you get through the book with this negligence, you may decide to revisit the book and investigate the parts you missed. This is well worth doing. I have read War and Peace so many times that I have lost count of the exact number. I love this book. Denisov and Dolohov are both marvelously drawn characters. The action after Natasha's betrayal is essential to appreciate that she is rooted in the earth of the steppes, in spite of her family's royalty. It is all great stuff, but many readers find it much too much to swallow it all in one gulp.

II. The Joyce method.

The key to getting through Joyce with no experience is to view him as a cross between a novelist and a bard. He was trained on poetry, poetry which was meant to be read aloud. His sentences which twist your mind inside out when read silently have a completely different effect on you when they enter through your eardrums. The sound of his sentences can be delightful, and this is still true even when you are not entirely clear exactly what you just heard. On Bloomsday in Dublin they read the book out loud for hours in packed rooms.

So to get through Ulysses fast, open to page one and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silently. You will make faster progress than if you had started reading silently on page one. You will not get far. Put the book down. The next day pick it up where you left off and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silent. Alternate. After about ten or twenty cycles, you should be able to read the book nearly as efficiently as any other book. His style takes getting used to. I have also used this method successfully with Finnegans Wake, which many people have described to me as completely unreadable. I like Ulysses, but I do not love it. I am almost indifferent whether to keep my copy. I will read War and Peace again and again.

(Yes I know that is Natasha Rostova and Maria Bolkonskaya.)

10 September 2010

Invoking Mary Poppins

For the Autumn Equinox, I am planning a ritual celebration which follows the same format I used for the Summer Solstice. There will be prayers, meditations, a pathworking, &c. This time I am going for an invocation of Venus energy, or you maybe could say I am invoking Mary Poppins.

Neither is exactly correct. The energy I am trying to invoke into my life belonged to a person I knew when I was a child that I had the opportunity to spend much time with. She is much older than I (if she is still alive) and thousands of miles away and I have not seen her in over twenty years; I will almost certainly never see her again, so for all my practical purposes she is now only in my own mind. If you were so inclined, you could describe her as an occupant of my astral realm. My skeptical friends do not believe in any such thing as an astral realm.

The strict scientific facts are not relevant. I could use more of her positive qualities in the conduct of my own life, so I am going to devote a couple hours on the Autumn equinox to formally invoking her nature into my living room. The formula I use comes from the book Prime Chaos by Phil Hine.

, , , three distinct parts . . .

In the first, the deeds of the figure are given, spoken in the third person. In the second, the qualities of the figure are given, spoken in the second person. In the third, the powers of the figure are given, spoken in the first person.

So, say I am invoking Mary Poppins. (The actual name is different, but the deeds and the qualities and powers differ only in degree, not in kind.) The invocation portion of the script will go something like: "she is Mary Poppins, who teaches that great manners and great fun belong together; you are Mary Poppins, beautiful and talented and whimsical and energetic and magical; I am Mary Poppins, possessing the power to keep a tidy house filled with happy people."

Confidently declaring these three sentences is the central event in the ritual. All of the other elements of the ritual are merely priming of the energy in the environment to permit this idea to anchor into my subconscious. There will be music: soundtracks to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I will read aloud William Blake's To the Evening Star. I will read aloud the pathworking number fourteen (the daleth path, the Empress path) from Garden of Pomegranates. Some of the paths in that book are poor, but the Empress one is splendid. On the equinox ritual day, that will be my fourth or fifth run through that pathworking. I have already done it a couple of times for preparation.

A strange thing about their empress path is it contains almost the entirety of Saint Paul's lesson on love from I Corinthians 13. A pagan ritual recipe book seems an odd place to find this, but it shows up in all sorts of odd places. The title of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a tribute to Paul's metaphor of seeing into a glass darkly from verse 12 of that chapter, and looking into dark mirrors is about the oldest scrying technique that we know of, so we see a common thread running through the two traditions.

There are a few other details already planned, such as I will be wearing green clothes, my green alexandrite ring, and illuminating the room with a green light bulb. And I am thinking of other things in my lead-in time to the equinox, but not a large quantity of additional details; there are only a couple weeks remaining before Autumn (on the calendar) is here. Since I live in Houston, there are several more weeks of summer weather to enjoy.

05 September 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics I

This is the first in a series of three posts on the topic of human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics. In the process of writing, it outgrew single-post size.

Human ambition for achievement in modest measure gives meaning to our lives, unless one is an existentialist pessimist like Schopenhauer who taught that life with all its suffering and cruelty simply should not be. Psychologists study our achievements under a number of different descriptions--testing for IQ, motivation, creativity, others. As part of my current career transition, I have been examining my own goals closely, and have recently read a fair amount on these topics which are variable in their evidence.

A useful collection of numerical data on the subject of human performance is the collection of Major League Baseball player performance statistics--the batting averages, number home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage--of the many thousands of participants in the hundred years since detailed statistical records have been kept and studied by the players, journalists, and fans of the sport. The advantage of examining issues like these from the angle of Major League Baseball player performance statistics is the enormous sample size of accurately measured and archived data.

The current senior authority in this field is Bill James, who now works for the Boston Red Sox; for the first twenty-five years of his activity as a baseball statistician James was not employed by any of the teams. It took him a long time to find a hearing for his views on the inside of the industry, although the fans started buying his books as soon as he began writing them.

In one of the early editions of his Baseball Abstract, James discussed the biggest fallacies that managers and executives held regarding the achievements of baseball players. He was adamant about the most obvious misunderstood fact of player performance: it is sharply peaked at age 27 and decreases rapidly, so rapidly that only the very best players were still useful at the age of 35. He was able to observe only one executive that seemed to intuit this--a man whose sole management strategy was to trade everybody over the age of 30 for the best available player under the age of 30 he could acquire.

There is a fair amount of more formal academic research on this issue. It is described in the literature as the field of Age and Achievement. The dean of the psychologists studying Age and Achievement is Dean Simonton. A decent overview of their findings is here. This is a meta-study of hundreds of individual studies. Many fields and many metrics are sampled. There is one repeated finding. Performance starts low at a young age and steadily increases along a curve which bears a resemblance to a Gaussian bell-shaped curve, peaks, and then declines. The decline is not as rapid as the rise (it is not a symmetric bell shape; it is steeply inclining from the left to the peak and gently declining form the peak to the right), but it is inevitably seen everywhere. The age of peak achievement varies, depending on the field. Baseball players peak at 27 (the curves from the psychology publications look exactly like the curve published by Bill James in his Abstract), business executives peak at 60, and physicists peak at age 35. Shakespearian actors peak late and rock stars peak early. These are statistical results and individual outliers abound. You, the individual physicist, may not be over the hill at 40, but this is the way to bet.

My hometown major league baseball franchise, the Houston Astros, recently had this empirical law verified for themselves in real time, and the hard way. They invested the bulk of their payroll budget on three players: Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Lance Berkman. All three were over the age of 30, i.e., definitely into their decline phase. When their performance declined more rapidly than expected, the team lost many more games than they were planning for. They had a contending team's payroll and big plans, but now Tejada and Berkman are gone and they are rebuilding. In an attempt to cut losses, they traded their (prime-age) star pitcher for young players.

A recent post on Hacker News, Silicon Valley's Dark Secret: It's all about Age, generated 120 comments of heated discussion about institutional age discrimination and the unappreciated value of experience. The consensus view expressed there is young programmers have to advance into management or become unemployable near age 50.

It could perhaps be viewed as a biological ecosystem. We are in an ecosystem. The ecosystem selects for fitness. What is sometimes misunderstood is the ecosystem does not select for absolute fitness, but for fitness specific to a niche. If the available niches in this "ecosystem" are for 40 years-old brains, and there aren't any niches for 50 years-old brains, then some fully fit brains (in an absolute sense) are going to be out of employment opportunities. Faced with a system like this, the job seeker may have to be clever at finding ever narrower niches to squeeze into.

One of the moderators at Hacker News, Paul Graham, is a software venture capitalist. He is accused in the thread of unconcealed age discrimination--that he will not invest in entrepreneurs over 38, and claiming that nobody over 25 will ever learn Lisp. If you are a forty-year-old physicist and you want to learn Lisp and get venture capital funding for your business plan--well, good luck with that!

31 August 2010

Aristotle on friendship and Plato on love

Examining almost any philosophy subject begins with either Aristotle or Plato. Aristotle tells us there are three types of friends. First there are friends with benefits. Aristotle did not mean the modern usage--those would fall into category two. Friends with benefits are people who help you move, let you borrow their truck, sell you their childrens' fund-raising candy bars. You do me a favor. I'll do you a favor. That is Aristotle's meaning of friend, benefits.

Secondly there are friends with whom you share pleasures. Friends you go to coffee with. Drink beers. Dance. &c. Friends, pleasure. Your modern friend with benefits would be a friend, pleasure.

Aristotle's third and highest form of friendship is based upon virtue. The rare person is such a fine example of a human being and your relationship with them is such that they inspire you to be your best.

Many, if not most, misunderstandings between friends begin with category errors. One or the other folks involved in the friendship thinks it is of Aristotle type I, when it really is type II. Aristotle's definitive discussion of friendship is in the Eudemian Ethics, Book VII.

Phaedrus is my favorite dialog on the subject of love and lust. It is not a simple subject. There are three features which Plato points out that are unforgettable. The first is his description of love as a form of divine madness, the person's soul being captured by the god Eros. He has a delightful term, sophrosone, which can be conceived of as a clarity of mind attained on return to full sanity after an excursion into the world of madness. He draws a parallel to the poet's state of inspiration from his muse. It is very similar to the world of Rumi:

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside!

The second unforgettable point in Phaedrus is the analogy of the chariot driver and two horses: one well-behaved and the other almost out of control. The horse which is almost wild must be reined in to the point where the rider pulling on the bit has the poor beast cut and bleeding on the inside of its mouth and sometimes pulled to the ground. These first two Platonic love aspects are both appropriate to love and lust. This is not the case for our last lesson from Plato.

Plato's third unforgettable lesson on love is a comparison of love to divine rapture. He writes that the closest we come on this earth to experience of the realm of the gods is when we look into the eyes of the person we are passionately in love with, alone together.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.