28 January 2011

Theory and practice of meditation IV

This is an appendix to what was intended as a triplet of posts on the Theory and Practice of Meditation: I, II, III. The first was my own theory of what meditation is, how to do it in general, and why it might work; the second was a recipe of my primary meditation technique; the third was a recipe of my alternate regular meditation technique. I have tried many others, and I will describe in this post some of the features of these alternate techniques to illustrate the spectrum of available possibilities. None of these techniques is revolutionary, but some are quite far from the mainstream available from practitioners in most American zip codes.

1. A tarot tree of life meditation.

This is very similar to the style described in III, where I visualize pool ball size numbered spheres in a Kabbalah tree of life configuration. For spheres, I substitute tarot trumps. This was my most common meditation for a couple of years. I used (for nodes 1-10): Hermit, Judgment, Temperance, Strength, Magician, Fool, High Priestess, Chariot, Star, and Devil. I still have a poster board in my den with the tree and these ten images on it, but I have not used this meditation in almost a year.

2. My rock 'em sock 'em tree of life meditation.

This one also is very similar to the style described in III, and I believe it is my own invention. The objects of visualization are National Football League jerseys in the color of the sephiroth with the number of the breath on the jersey, exactly as a professional football player would wear. For example, sephiroth five is traditionally red, so for breath 5, 15, 25, 35, etc, I visualize a red San Francisco 49'ers jersey with this number. When I was a child I was a devoted fan of televised NFL games so it is very easy for me to close my eyes and see these images. This is a principle which may have many other applications. If you have difficulty visualizing, it may be helpful to visualize something that you imagined often as a child, when your powers of imagination had not yet been dulled by participating in the demanding and often cruel realities of life.

3. Zen.

I was a member of a Zen temple for almost a year. Zen meditation the way we did it also was breath based, with a priority on postural rigor and staring at nothing but a blank wall and thinking about nothing but breath. Sessions were long and supervised. The supervisor came around and whacked everybody two times on the top of their trapezius muscles, left and right, with a stick. (The last part was technically optional but very few people opted out.)

4. My golf course meditation and memory theater.

When I first moved to New Orleans I played golf all the time, on one course, 18 holes and par of 72. This is another breath based meditation. For each breath I visualize one of the 72 regulation strokes on that golf course. The first breath is the first tee shot on the first hole, and I then just move sequentially through 72 imagined regulation shots, ending with a final putt on the 18th hole for the 72nd breath. I have also done a number of experiments using this as a memory theater for a method of loci memorization regimen. This is a technique of memorization which is older than history--some of the oldest recorded feats of memorization are based upon this technique, where one associates each unique item in a list of memory targets to a unique physical location in space. I can get up to 72 items linked to unique locations on this golf course in my memory. This is how I memorized the 72 word name of God in Hebrew, the Shemhamphorasch.

5. Shemhamphorasch meditation.

This is another breath based meditation. Each of the 72 breaths corresponds to one of the 72 word names of God. According to modern Kabbalah researchers such as Gershem Scholem and Aryeh Kaplan, meditation upon the Shemhamphorasch was one of the most valued meditation techniques of the medieval Kabbalists by which they attained their deepest and most ecstatic states. I haven't found it of any such special value, but I was quite gratified when I had succeeded in memorizing the 72 triplets of Hebrew letters.

6. Transcendental meditation.

This was the first technique I learned. I learned it long ago when I was a freshman in college after paying $60 to the local Maharishi Yogi franchise. It was the only meditation technique I knew for many years when I would meditate for a few months, quit meditating for a couple years, meditate again for a few months, quit again over and over. It involves concentrating on an inner spoken mantra. They did not teach me anything about breath control for $60, although they might have gotten to that quickly if I had bought one of the following courses they were eager to sell me. I still occasionally do Transcendental meditation, but when I do it now I make an inner spoken mantra one time for one breath; this works much better than not anchoring it to the breath for me.

7. Time regression meditation.

This one can be a little bit bizarre. It is described in Aleister Crowley's Magick Without Tears, and he explains it in the context of accessing our previous incarnations. I do not go that far. What you do is start in the present, that would be 2011. Then you breathe slow and, for each breath, you visualize something in your past--a home, a job, a lover, whatever--that you can get a decent internal visual representation on, one breath and one image for each year. I never go back before my birth year, and I usually stop around puberty.

One thing which can be accessed by this method is feelings toward faith or family or country, which may have been pure and innocent long ago. For example, if you once had a very strong faith in God which has since waned, you can do this meditation and anchor your psyche back to that time and say an old prayer that you have not said in many years. I find this can have very interesting effects. That girl who broke your heart when you were 22? This is a way that you can again experience those feelings you had for her before that happened if you are so inclined.

None of these are techniques which I regularly do or which I consider important, but I thought I would put them down here just to give a little more variety and to provide suggestions for others to invent and explore for themselves.

One last thing. There was a buzz this week (at Hacker News and at the New York Times) about recent lab results showing neurological changes in meditators eight weeks after starting from scratch. I am very skeptical about this work. Brain maps are as confusing as anything; sometimes I think our current map of human brain function is about as accurate as those 17th century maps of North America that had a large river running from Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay. The latest reported result directly contradicts my own experience, which is that the first twelve weeks or so of a new meditation regimen produces little to no effect. I do not think a person can dabble in meditating, as one can dabble in wine-tasting or table tennis or horseback riding. The canonical brain imaging studies of meditators at the University of Wisconsin used subjects who had already logged 10 000 hours of practice. My own results from meditation at week thirteen or week fourteen were nothing like the results that I obtained last week.

23 January 2011

The Gloria tapes

In 1965 a patient ("Gloria") participated in a teaching film with three world-renowned psychotherapists: Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Fritz Perls. She was a young divorced mother and volunteered her problems with parenting and dating to the scrutiny of these three fellows and their three psychotherapy techniques: Client-centered Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, and Gestalt Therapy. The film Three Approaches to Psychotherapy has been shown to thousands of psychology students. I don't know what the copyright status is, but last week I watched all three of the thirty minute experiments on youtube.

The lesson is intended at the most superficial level, as nobody expects anything transformational to be possible in one thirty-minute session. Nevertheless, the film is informative. I have all of these fellows in my library and have studied them off and on for many years. This was the first time I had seen any of them in action and it was really great to have them working with one common patient.

Rogers is the one who I have had the least regard for. He is best known for a method of working with patients, not for any specific ideology of mental function or malfunction. He said the most important factor in a successful patient outcome is the nature of the relationship formed between patient and therapist. An oft-quoted quip is that it is "the relationship that heals." And his recipe for the therapist to form this healing relationship is to treat the patient with unconditional positive regard. The patient may suffer from guilt; the patient may judge their self harshly, but for the therapy to work the therapist would best consider their task to defuse all guilt and all negative self-judgment present in the patient's thought and action.

Considering where psychotherapy as an art was when Rogers began his work in the middle of the twentieth century, I can sort of see how this could have been a refreshing and useful tack. In 2011 this looks to be less useful to me. This is an attitude which may have been a big component in the self-esteem fashion that was so prevalent in the generation after Rogers. Optimism and Up With People and all that certainly has a place, but if the patient is so great, then what are they hiring a psychotherapist for? Rogers' method has a logical contradiction at its heart. These are ideas I had before watching the Gloria tapes, and there was nothing in Rogers' interview with Gloria which changed my mind.

Ellis is really the star of these tapes, and mainstream psychotherapy today in the United States really is the product of Ellis (on the psychology side) and his peer Aaron Beck (on the psychiatry side). Beck used almost exactly the same ideas, and he referred to his technique as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I am sure the doctors of Psychology and Psychiatry have all their arcane small differences, but in my limited understanding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy are identical. If I woke up with a mental health problem tomorrow requiring professional help, I would look for one of these guys.

In the Gloria tape Ellis does his straight Rational Emotive Therapy schtick, but it looks to me like it is a little much for her. He is trying to ram a lot of information into his thirty minute allotment, and he is talking fast, and I had a hard time following it all. Since I have read his books and knew all this stuff, I can only imagine what it must have been like for the poor patient trying to keep up with the guy. At a couple of points in the tape, it is obvious that he is a little stressed at why this seems to be taking so long; that is poor practical psychotherapy despite the sound theoretical underpinnings. In the session summary after, Ellis states that he was sorry that he tried to do so much and that it probably would have been more helpful to Gloria if he had tried to do less.

This is exactly the dimension in which Perls managed to work effectively in spite of the thirty minute limitation and in spite of his having an inferior therapy theory. Although Gestalt Psychotherapy was once one of the most promising techniques, it has largely fallen into disfavor amongst professionals. I do not know why that is, because my experiences with it have included a number of important personal discoveries for myself about myself. (See here for example.) One distinct disadvantage it has is the quality of the written source material. Beck and Ellis wrote fabulous books, and I have yet to find one excellent book on Gestalt therapy.

(The best Beck book. The best Ellis book.)

With Gloria, Perls sticks to very simple questions and observations. The only thing which I can distinctly recall from all three of the tapes is an observation that Perls makes. Gloria says she is afraid, and Fritz says to her: "you say you feel afraid, and yet you are smiling. Do you know why that is? People who are afraid usually do not smile."

Yet it just so happens to be true that people who are afraid (especially women who are afraid) often do smile. Do you know why that is? I would love to know why that is. I am pretty sure Fritz was aware that women who are afraid often do, inexplicably, smile. If Gloria left her interview with Fritz and thought long and hard about that excellent question, I would bet she got a great deal out of that thirty minute interview.

18 January 2011

Meditations on first philosophy

Meditations on first philosophy is the title of the first book ever written in contemporary western Philosophy, according to the university course I took. It was written by Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, who began with the premise that he wanted to find true factual indubitable knowledge and that the way to find this was to begin by doubting everything, and retaining only what could be defended by rigorous logic. So by these meditations he reasoned to such respected elements as "I think, therefore I am." This short book continues to be relied on hundreds of years later and modern (especially French) philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida all explicitly acknowledge the importance of Descartes' achievement.

I am occupied with a similar project. This was not entirely a conscious choice or any sort of Cartesian magnum opus. In the past five years I have slowly realized that almost nothing I think or do is too trivial to closely examine, and I am now of the attitude that I am willing to examine anything and everything, taking absolutely nothing for granted.

The first major recent instance changed my note taking practice. This happened in 2005 and was entirely accidental. I found myself in a seminar that did not absorb my entire attention, and to entertain myself I experimented with notation methods. It is no understatement to say that I learned how to take notes all over again as if for the first time in my life, which is a little odd considering I was over forty years old at the time. By the end of the seminar, I still was not engaged in it very attentively, but everybody else in the seminar felt they had to have a copy of my notes. One of my fellow attendees referred to them as the Golden notes. I later learned that a similar system was employed by Michel Foucault, which he referred to as hypomnemata.

The second big event concerned my vocabulary. In 2006 I thought I had almost as much vocabulary as I was ever going to need, that this was a basic skill like tying one's shoes or riding a bicycle that you learn once and don't worry about it after. In retrospect, that was obviously a silly attitude, but it was not until I took a vocabulary test which I thought I had aced and found out I had not aced it that I realized this. Details are here.

It was the third of my discoveries which shook me to Cartesian doubting level. This was months in the making, and thanks to my hypomnemata I have exact records of its genesis and development. On the 31 March 2010 I became self-employed, and one of the first tasks I embarked upon was an overhaul of my diet and workout practices. I took advantage of the freedom to ignore the clock, eat when hungry, and sleep when tired. Things seemed great in the beginning and actually for several months when I noticed that I had lost quite a few pounds. I bought a scale and weighed myself and was surprised at how little I weighed. It was actually a little bit alarming.

This was in late September. I began weighing myself daily. Within a couple of weeks I concluded that eating when hungry was not consistent with the level of working out I was doing, that I had to eat breakfast immediately upon waking and continue to feed myself as soon as possible in order to maintain weight. After a couple of months (and gaining weight very slowly) I did the numbers. It was a revelation. Here are the constraints:

Eight hours sleep per night.
Three meals per day.
Ninety minutes workout per day.
Five hours to fully digest dinner before laying down to sleep.

To my amazement this sums up (including to the minute how much time is required to prepare and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner) to 24 hours within 2%; i. e. there is virtually no slack time in my schedule at all. After six months and nine days of thinking I was indulging myself in complete freedom, on the 10th of November 2010 I discovered that the simple mechanics of running my organism in its proper operational fashion requires rigid adherence to a fixed daily schedule. Up at 6:00 A. M. every single day without fail. Directly to the kitchen to ingest my breakfast. After four hours digestion, directly into workout with no delay. After workout, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume lunch. After four hours digestion, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume dinner. Five hours after dinner, directly to bed to sleep for eight hours. I am self-employed and I have no boss.

Ha! My body is the most rigid task master I have ever known. A fact which I could have, should have known my entire life but it took me six months of being unemployed or self-employed (however you prefer to frame it) to figure it out. And so now I am wondering what else is ripe for making over, and I am inclined to consider anything--speaking, reading, walking, standing, sitting, listening. Even breathing.

13 January 2011

Life as literature

This is the title of a book by Alexander Nehamas. He is a philosophy professor and his book is a study of some of the writings of Nietzsche, with a theme that literary criticism is a handy set of tools to examine all of human life. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is not too big. The simile is a little off though, and it works much better in the other direction. A novel can put you inside the mind of another (fictional) person in a way that no psychological monograph ever can. Walter Kauffman presented this idea in his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy in a short discussion of Tolstoy and Napoleon and Tolstoy's character Natasha. If the ghost of Napoleon were brought to modern earth and set down in the library with a dozen of his biographies, he would read them from beginning to end and say, smugly, "Ah! My secret is safe." If the ghost of the person who inspired Tolstoy's character were brought to modern earth (assuming there was a single person who inspired Tolstoy's invention) and set down in the library with War and Peace, she would erupt in tears and cry, "Oh my God! They knew!"

A number of psychologists have put this idea to work. Carl Jung famously asked the question "what myth am I living by?" In his case it turned out to be the Tower of Babel and he occupied himself in his retirement using stones to build a house and a tower and monuments and other things. It was his childhood occupation--building models out of small stones; and in his old age he assumed it as a calling. His student Joseph Campbell went further with the idea and liked to describe us as beings who tell stories, that we are little more than the stories which we tell. This is a similar small error to the one Nehamas makes. The stories are important, but we contain the stories; it is not the stories which contain us.

Without going overboard, I endorse the value of story telling. Not long ago I did some work with the career manual "What color is your parachute?" This is one of the most popular books for people in job transition such as myself. A large fraction of the book is devoted to introspection for the person in transition to make choices which are consistent with who they are. The tool is story telling. The author poses question prompts and the stories which the reader provides are supposed to be clues for making good career choices. I went through this part of the book very quickly, because I had independently done a very similar task a couple years ago, and I still had my worksheets handy near the top of the ugly stack of papers on my desk.

The version I used was by Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox: Your Mythic Journey. This is only 129 pages, but I easily used all my spare time in three weeks working through the exercises and I gave up before I had finished them all. The authors ask the reader a sequence of simple questions:

Who was your first hero?

What was your first well-done job you took pride in?

What was your heaven ideal?

And villains and disappointments and hell etc.

I don't have the actual worksheets any longer. I cooked them down to their essence and they are now five dense pages, dated 17 February 2008. They are amongst the most valuable, sensible, and unambiguous notes I own. To me, they make a compelling story. I really doubt anybody else would find them interesting. They are a part of my life, but I do not consider my life to be literature.

08 January 2011

Invoking Abraham Lincoln

On the 20th of December I performed an invocation of Saturn in celebration of the Winter Solstice. It was similar in form to the rituals I recently performed for the Autumn Equinox and for the Summer Solstice. On the 20th we had a full moon, and with a potential spectacular added twist: a total lunar eclipse.

I found out about the eclipse a week ahead of time; I was planning on doing a solstice ritual, but the eclipse finding fixed the date and time of my ritual for the evening of the 20th. I did a couple of other preparations ahead of time. The first was finding and sighting the actual planet Saturn in the sky. I thought I saw it just before dawn a couple days ahead of time, but I was not positive so I loaded the fourmilab sky map to make sure. The next morning before dawn I knew exactly where to look and confirmed it was so, only a few degrees separated from the much brighter Venus. It was a little confusing because at this time of year the ecliptic is maximally oblique to straight east west across the sky, which is what confused me the morning before. I had not expected to see Saturn almost due north of Venus.

The other preparation I did was a selection for a character for the invocation. For the sake of simplicity I shall call him Abraham Lincoln. The man I chose was not actually Abraham Lincoln, but in the pantheon of common cultural characters this is a close comparison. He was a very wise man who I had the good fortune to work with closely when I was younger, and he even had a small physical resemblance to the picture of Lincoln which has come down to us.

Saturn is a complex and not completely benevolent spirit--in the Greek mythology he consumed his own children. In the Mantegna Tarocci he is depicted with a grim reaper's scythe, killing and eating small children. Tradition associates Saturn with black magic, and in Peter Carroll's essay on magic in eight colors he describes the greatest utility of black magic as "avoidance of premature death". Abraham Lincoln was murdered long before he had lived out his natural span, and sadly, my real life character also succumbed to a similarly unfortunate fate.

So, with the time of the eclipse, a sighting of Saturn, and an invocation subject and script prepared, I was ready for my ritual on the 20th of December. I fasted all day until after completing the ritual in the evening. I performed a number of meditations. I donned all black clothing. I did a short Gestalt two chair exercise, in which I expressed gratitude to the real man whose spirit I would shortly be invoking. I read aloud the Ciceros' path number 16, the Hierophant, which included some great stuff:

"in order to hear what is taught, you must listen with the ears of the heart. Be still and listen. The teacher is within you, he is a part of you. Know that the voice within was, is, and always will be your initiator." (They did not write this part, but copied it from the Book of Enoch.)

I played the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" quite loud on my stereo. And then I read my invocation of (sort of) Abraham Lincoln. Then after, I finally ate some food and I drank a lot of wine and I waited for the total lunar eclipse to show up. Alas, the total lunar eclipse was eclipsed by total cloud cover--so then I drank a lot more wine and my Winter Solstice celebration was all over with.

03 January 2011

Dream works

My experience with using dreams for psychotherapy is lengthy and inefficient with a couple of bright spots. The idea is that we have a subconscious mind in the first place (a hypothetical and unproven premise); and that secondly the material presented to us in our dreaming state of consciousness, which we happen to retain upon waking, provides us with a glimpse into the dynamics of processes ongoing in our subconscious mind. This second idea is hypothetical, unproven, and even dubious. Nevertheless from Sigmund Freud to Carl Jung to many modern practitioners dream analysis has had a huge appeal.

I once participated in a two day workshop with this lady, which was unforgettable. She was in her eighties at the time and filled the entire room (about twenty of us) with a buzz of her energy. One thing which she told us, which I may never forget as long as I live: it is always some one thing.

By "it" she meant an originating trauma for an ongoing neurosis, and she meant that it was always one from a very short list:

Someone was killed.

Someone was a killer.

Someone was raped.

Someone was a rapist.

Someone was a drunk or a gambler and squandered all the family's money.


This is a truism to some but not all workers. She may be overly influenced by her own experience as a Frenchwoman who lived through the German occupation. There was a bizarre tone to her voice when she described the experience of some French women and some German soldiers.

After all of the anxious people with trauma had taken their turn on the hot seat, she invited lighter topics. She inquired about dreams. I was not doing any intense dream work at the time, but I did happen to recall what I was dreaming just before waking that morning. I volunteered my dream. It was a low-gravity, spiderman, jungle gym thing. Typical for me, and even mundane, but it survived into my waking consciousness, so I offered it up. We talked for about thirty minutes. She asked about my family. She speculated, and suggested hypothetical connections between my dream content and my real world psychological life. It was entertaining (ultimately my main motivation for attending T groups is that I find them endlessly entertaining), but as far as insightful psychology goes, it seemed useless.

Then the workshop was over with (or so I thought) a little bit later, and that was it. Very interesting, but merely a diversion to spice up my otherwise dull weekend. A couple of days later I once again had the nightmare. Many people have these. One particular scenario which haunts too many of our nights which involves a tortuous inescapable problem which seems to go on forever and can even wreck a night's sleep. Running after something you cannot ever catch; trapped by a hideous monster or frightful animal--snakes, spiders, whatnot; falling; being shot or stabbed. We could make a very long list.

Mine is packing. Trying to get everything into a suitcase or a backpack. I have had this nightmare my entire life, and it once had the power to ruin me for an entire following day. I would sometimes wake up not rested, aching, nauseous, or dizzy. This time was different, though. I woke up from the nightmare, and I suddenly had an insight to the moment when that nightmare image entered my life. That was an Aha! And Eureka! moment for me. The nightmare has not gone away, and it remains as disturbing in the moment as it ever was. It does not make me physically ill any longer; it has lost that power over me I had previously given to it. My attitude now is more like "oh yeah, there is that one again."

This may be entirely coincidental, but I attributed my resourcefulness in resolving my nightmare to my attendance in the workshop. I thought I had acquired some dream interpretation power by attention to the French lady, or perhaps through psychic osmosis from being in her presence for the two days. Our discussion of my low gravity spiderman jungle gym dream seemed nonsensical at the time, but I may have gotten just a little tiny something from that discussion to empower me to resolve the nightmare. Or, perhaps the timing was merely a coincidence. It is an oddly pleasant puzzle I expect to never solve.

I have another one. This is not as bad as the packing one, but it is a close second in both power and in frequency. Lost in a labyrinth. I know exactly where I want to go, but each of the innumerable paths I choose to take is just a tiny bit off. A few months after meeting the French lady, she was back off to France, but I took another workshop with one of her students. I told her about the work with the French lady, and the resolution of the packing nightmare. This pleased the student greatly. I asked her if she wanted to have a go at the labyrinth nightmare. Oh yes.

We worked on that sucker for about two hours. The group leader was engaged heavy, and everybody in the workshop was enthralled. It was the most energy I ever put into a hot seat spot in my life. The outcome was empty. I felt I learned nothing. I learned nothing about the labyrinth. And the nightmare continued to bug the hell out of me for several years after.

Then after several intervening years I read Carl Jung's dream Seminar. This is a formidable work. Jung's writing is very detailed and poorly organized and it is definitely not for everybody. Most of the book seems like utter crap, but there were a couple noteworthy details. The first is that Packing is one of the first dreams and Labyrinth comes right after it. The second is what seems to be an offhand comment by Jung: patients often experience their parents' nightmares. I read that comment, and immediately my labyrinth was unveiled: packing is actually my Mom's, and the labyrinth is actually my Dad's.

One of these days I suppose I will discover my own.


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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.