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!


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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.