29 March 2011

Heard from passing renegades Geronimo is dead

On Monday March 21 I performed a ritual to celebrate the Spring Equinox and to invoke aspects of Mars into my living room. I used a recipe very similar to what I did for the three previous holidays, solstices and equinox. (Example here.)

The personality I chose to personify the energy of Mars was Jack LaLanne, the California fitness guru who recently passed on. This was a little different than the personalities I had chosen for the previous rituals, which were real people from my life who most closely personified the planetary / divine aspects. For Mars I had a perfect candidate person, but he is not so remote from my real life as the other three. This person is only twenty years older than I; he only lives a few hundred miles from me at this time; there is a chance I will be seeing him again on this earth, so my only connection to him is not in my own head. Instead of using his character for a ritual, it would probably be a better idea to get in touch with him and personally thank him for being such a positive influence on me. (Martin Seligman calls this a gratitude exercise and recommends it very highly as a mechanism for promoting good mental health.)

Before, I spoke metaphorically of invoking Mary Poppins, or invoking Abraham Lincoln. For this ritual I literally invoked Jack LaLanne. I used the ritual formula from Phil Hine's Prime Chaos.

Three 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.

My ritual preparations began a few days ahead when I looked at the fourmilab sky chart and located where Mars is right now. It is between Venus and the Sun early in the morning. For four consecutive days I got outside before sunrise to look at Mars. For four consecutive days all I saw was complete cloud cover. At least I made the attempt. I did see an amazing "great moon" full moon on Friday night, so I had to make do with that.

This was only a small disappointment. Mars energy is abundant in my world right now, and I do not feel any need to get any kind of a special boost from the Universe. This is in direct contrast to my previous Jupiter and Venus and Saturn rituals, where I really could use a boost and I went all out. On the previous occasions I fasted all day until after the ritual right after sunset. Last Monday I ate three half meals instead of fasting. In other ways, this was a ritual that I invested far less effort into than the other three.

I read aloud the Teth / Strength / 19th pathworking from the Ciceros' book. This is based upon the three guys in the furnace and Daniel in the lion's den from the book of Daniel. It includes the Canticle of Praise, Daniel 3:26ff. I looked up the passage in the King James Bible and it ain't in there! This was new to me as I did not realize the canon-apocrypha-Protestant-Catholic dispute extended to inside the book of Daniel. I also have a Catholic bible and looked it up and it is right there where it was cited to be. This is the prayer the three guys in the furnace say when they are just hanging there, not burning. I have no idea why the Protestants crossed it out.

In addition to this, I also performed a few other assorted prayers and meditations. Prior to doing the Jack LaLanne part, I dressed in nothing but a pair of red running shorts and a rhodolite ring. I constructed a small altar with a candle, a drawing I made based upon the Mantegna Tarocchi Mercurio, and a drawing I made based upon the Coleman-Smith-Rider-Waite Strength card. I used Mercury because this seemed the best place to fold it in, and I don't have much interest in setting aside a ritual day for a planet which is normally obscured in my zip code by human emitted light. Before the invocation I played David Bowie "Heroes". And after the invocation I played Elton John "Indian Sunset", and then I played the whole Bowie CD and the whole Elton John CD. My living room was illuminated by the candle and a red light bulb.

Unlike for the other rituals, I can post the exact script:

"He is Francois Henri LaLanne, inventor of American fitness center industry, doer of record 1033 pushups in 23 minutes at age 42, KGO TV star, owner of honors too numerous to enumerate. You are Francois Henri LaLanne, first fitness superhero, zesty lover of life and joie de vivre, enthusiastic optimist. I am Jack LaLanne, strong and vigorous and appealing!"

24 March 2011

How To Treat Stage Fright

Prior to experiencing my "miracle" cure for my stage fright, I suffered a severe case of it for many years. Stage fright is a common phobia, and some surveys place public speaking up with snakes and spiders as amongst the most common fears anybody suffers. In the course of my struggles I looked in many places for the answer. I diligently studied what appears to remain the authoritative book covering the topic. In this post I am going to summarize the conventional prescriptions, and offer a novel treatment which I learned about while attending a T group.

The wikipedia page on stage fright as it looks on the 24th of March 2011 looks good to me. The experts say prepare and rehearse. This is so trivial it may be of no help. It seems obvious if you are standing up in front of a group of people unprepared you should be fearful.

The jumping jacks and the deep breathing they suggest are good enough I suppose for mild cases that are going to pass anyway and these are activities which can accelerate eventuality coming to be. I actually tried all this stuff and found it to be useless.

They have a pill for it! I had read this in the New York Times a few years ago, but I was surprised to see all the documentation. Beta blockers will suppress the symptoms of social phobia so you can take the pill before you go on stage and it will all be a little easier. Apparently the drugs they were doing in the Last Waltz are just about the worst thing you can take for stage fright.

The trick I learned in my T group is this: shiver. Just relax your shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and give yourself a good long shiver. This is our most natural physical response to the emotional sense of fear and resisting it apparently makes it worse. If you give into the impulse and let yourself shiver as much as you feel like or even force yourself to shiver a little bit more than you feel like, this will disempower the hold your fear holds over you. The T group leader offered it as part of a litany:

"if you are sad, cry; if you are angry, shout; if you are happy, laugh; if you are afraid, shiver."

Sounds a little bit Zen and I would advise counting to ten before shouting when angry, but otherwise I think it works pretty good. My own experience with shivering before going onstage is that this is the only remedy I have ever found helpful for my own (previously) severe stage fright.

19 March 2011

Morris and Kuhn and Wittgentsein

From 6 March to 10 March, Errol Morris (documentary film director of Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, and others) published a five part sequence on the New York Times opinionator blog about Thomas Kuhn and many related topics. (Link.) It sucked up my attention for a good couple of hours and got me to thinking about many problems which may not be solvable.

The biggest issue is an ideal which is often termed absolute knowledge, but which most of us amateur philosophers just call: Reality. Kuhn famously wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that we ought to be skeptical whether any such thing will ever exist. The most relevant quotation:

"Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?" (p 170 in the second editition, U. Chicago Press, 1970).

Since I am only an amateur philosopher about 25% of the time, and my day job is as a physicist, it is impossible for me to run counter to the norms of my entire tribe and not say this question is ridiculous. Of course it helps. That is exactly what we do. We have a lot of things wrong; but it is less and less over time. Progress is unequivocal and together we proceed toward an ultimate "one, full, objective true account of nature" like an asymptote approaches its bounding line.

Kuhn is not here to defend himself, so to be honest I will point out here that it is a little abusive to pull a sentence out of its 200 pages of context and mock the author. Kuhn was highly educated in the science subjects which he wrote about, and there is definitely some subtle point in that book which may justify a close reading. I have not yet found it, but then again I have not yet read it very closely. I only read it one time for a class. One of the conclusions I have drawn from scanning the pages over the last few days is that I will put Kuhn's book on my short stack of books to be read closely and urgently. He has much material in there on Newton and Galileo and Dalton and these are very interesting topics, and the little I have read in the last few days looks great. I will be interested to see what I can make of this popular book.

Morris was a (failed) graduate student of Kuhn's, so his opinionator blog sequence was quite personal. He included a number of nuggets which added up to a fabulous stew pot full of stuff. Here are the highlights from my notes:

On the big question, Kuhn's from above on Reality, Morris doesn't tell us much. He replies with the cliche if you don't believe in reality go jump out a tenth floor window.

There are a couple of great personal anecdotes. The "theme" anecdote about Kuhn throwing an ashtray full of cigarette butts at Morris's head is entertaining. A much better one is the story about how he was arrested at a Vietnam protest and climbed out of the fourth-floor holding cell window and never got booked. He went back to the microfiche of the Princeton campus newspaper to find his name listed amongst the arrested students to document the gratifying fact he was on the right side during the war.

He has some fascinating information on the Pythagoreans:

1.) We know virtually nothing factual about the Pythagoreans. Our best single source is Iamblichus, who lived 800 years after. Whether Pythagorus was a scholar or more of a religious cult leader or something in between is not known.

2.) The Pythagorean Theorem was common knowledge to mathematicians in the Sumerian Civilization hundreds of years before Pythagorus.

3.) A (probably) legendary figure is Hippasus of Metapontum. Legend has it that he proved the irrationality of the square root of two and was executed by the Pythagoreans to punish him for this sacrilege.

As good as all this information is, I was puzzled as to how this detracted from Kuhn's thesis.

This is the first instance I have seen where the name Wittgenstein and the term "Gestalt flip" were located in the same paragraph. Wittgenstein wrote about the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations before it was commonly called a Gestalt-flip.

An old and favorite puzzle of mine. Morris makes much of the Kripke argument about naming with the example of the goldfish and he even shows a picture of a goldfish. Now the puzzle is this: goldfish are at the very least orange and often red; they are never yellow and they are certainly never golden. Why do they call them goldfish? I first asked my mom this when I was around seven years old and neither she nor anyone else has ever been able to answer this question for me.

There is a feature about progress which makes it ambiguous at times, and I cannot put my finger on it, but I can give a real life example of what I am writing about. Perhaps this is related to Kuhn's thesis; if I take anything like this from my careful reading of his book I will be much more sympathetic to his argument. I have a colleague who has an advanced degree in Astrophysics. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the S-P orbital transition spectral line in the sodium atom as it shows up on earth instruments arriving here from all over the universe of space and time. A very bright guy. Based on a number of casual (and admittedly sneaky) conversations I have managed to learn that he can look up in a clear sky and identify the Big Dipper and Orion and just about nothing else.

If you had a time travel machine and could assemble a dozen Sumerian priest-astronomers and put them together with a dozen modern members of the Astronomy faculties of Cambridge and Stanford and MIT, under a clear night sky, who do you think knows more facts they could list out in a ninety minute examination period about what is up there? I would bet a lot of money on those guys from Sumer.

Lastly, I have some data which might be useful to some. Kuhn's book is now $13.00 list price from the University of Chicago Press. My copy which I purchased in 1980 was three dollars. Roughly two price doublings in 30 years; you can put that in your spreadsheet if you are keeping a personal Consumer Price Indicator inflation index rate.

14 March 2011

Angle of safety

In February 2009 on the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner's birthday, Timothy Egan wrote a thoughtful tribute to Stegner on the New York Times Op-Ed page. He did not get any facts wrong, but he did not put his emphasis where I would have, although I have only read five of Stegner's books and only three of these were novels.

Stegner's greatest accomplishment was his versatility: first an award winning novelist; second a teacher with award winning novelist pupils (Kesey, McMurtry, &c); third a writer of terrific non-fiction with expertise in history and biography and ecology; and fourth an innovator in environmental politics. My own appreciation for Stegner is centered on two non-fiction books which were essential for my own education:

Beyond the hundredth meridian, and

Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs.

Egan complained that Stegner is under-appreciated, that even at his home at Stanford University nobody reads him any longer. This complaint is wrong, and perhaps even meaningless. The man's books are in print and his most-read novels have hundreds of five-star reviews on the Amazon web page. There is one lesson in Stegner's books which is not generally appreciated in my experience. That lesson is the environment in the western United States is very fragile and its organic evolution has left it incapable of supporting the number of people living on it. Many people in the eastern United States who have never spent much time in the west do not appreciate this fairly simple fact, regardless of what they have read or heard. If you have not spent enough time there, you may not be capable of appreciating it.

The hundredth meridian in Stegner's book refers to an approximate boundary across the Great Plains of the United States. To the east of this (curved) boundary rainfall will support agriculture, and to the west agriculture requires irrigation because the rain is too sparse. If you look at the google satellite map of the United States, the east is green and the west is brown; the line of demarcation is approximately 100 degrees west in longitude, the hundredth meridian.

The central character in the book is John Wesley Powell, a legendary giant of a man. Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and in spite of this handicap he commanded the first (white man) expedition to navigate the length of the Colorado River. In the vernacular, the man was a little nuts. He was also the first man to raise the issue of water allocation in the settlement of the western United States.

Near Moab, Utah, at the visitor's center to Canyonlands National Park they show a movie about Powell's expedition, and they have a replica of Powell's boats. The technology of rapid running water vessels has come a long way since the 1860's, and people now do this trip for fun. People also suffer accidental death doing these trips for fun with modern vessels. Some of Powell's men were killed by Indians, which is one hazard the current adventurer (and their life insurance underwriter) probably does not have to account for.

In around 1993 I learned firsthand about the fragility of the land in the west. There is a spectacular overlook of the canyons of Canyonlands at Dead Horse Point, at the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River. As you look away from the river confluence, you can still observe the tracks of seismic survey lines placed by oil exploration companies. Canyonlands was chartered in 1964, at which time seismic surveys were no longer permitted. Now a seismic survey line is a pretty benign environmental impact, but in Canyonlands you can see the remains of one for at least thirty years. On the gulf coast that is going to be invisible after a single growing season. East of the hundredth meridian, the environment is very forgiving. This is the sense in which living east of the hundredth meridian can blind one to the fragility of the environment, and this is the lesson which Stegner worked so hard to provide in his books.

The other thing about life in the West which Stegner expressed better than any I have seen is the human element of opportunism which is so prevalent. In American History class in high school they told us all about "Go west, young man", but they did not tell us this story with any of the detail and passion with which Stegner tells it. His father moved Stegner's family all over the western United States and Canada pursuing an assortment of half-brained schemes and investment scams. Stegner told the story of his father's life in a brutal New York Times Sunday Magazine story which I can no longer link to. The ending was unforgettable.

"He died friendless and penniless of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a fleabag hotel hundreds of miles from his last permanent address, after a lifetime of creating more environmental damage than he could undo if he had a second lifetime to devote to the task."

I have no doubt mangled that quote a little transcribing it from my memory, but that is the gist. I am saddened a little that such a great writer as Stegner did not more fully absorb Emily Dickinson's lesson to tell it slant.

09 March 2011

Kundalini rising

The physiological process involved in the rising of the Kundalini (natural nervous or even supernatural psychic energy) in devoted and persevering yogis has never been explained any place where I could understand it; it is a mystery. If you have the patience to examine any of the citations on that wikipedia page, perhaps it will make more sense to you. To me the single best resource is The Serpent Power by Arthur Avalon. This book was first published in 1919 when neurology was still a comparatively primitive science. Although it is the single best resource, it is not a good resource. One might describe it as the least terrible resource.

I have used this analogy on my blog once before, but it is so central to my current investigations that I am going to repeat it here. My amateur opinion is that the human nervous system remains an undiscovered country. I believe that our current maps of the human nervous system are little better than the 16th century maps of North America which had major rivers running from Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay. Perhaps the Kundalini has no more factual basis than the Seven Cities of Gold which a few of the Spanish Conquistadors died searching for. Bernard De Voto has a delightful passage in one of his books describing Coronodo's disappointment at finding nothing but adobe huts when arriving at his furthest destination in what is now New Mexico.

Instead of data, I offer anecdotes. My basic daily meditation regimen (described here) is a series of relaxation auto-suggestions focused upon my own anatomy. One of the most interesting effects of this meditation is seemingly spontaneous activation of reflex movements, such as the extensor digitorum reflex. Some hypnosis manuals consider the extensor digitorum refllex as the sine qua non of the state of hypnosis--a subject is considered hypnotized if and only if such an ideo motor response can be observed.

Many years ago I suffered a back injury playing tennis and was treated by doctors. It was confusing to me, and they were all more confident in the success of my treatment outcome than I was. I expressed some skepticism regarding the diagnosis and one of them said to me:

"Look. I have just given you a complete basic neurological examination. Your function is perfectly fine; in fact, considering your age, it is most excellent. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your spine. Do you want some Prozac?"

In this complete basic neurological examination he did test my extensor digitorum reflex. My experience in doing years of my self-hypnosis meditation leads me to believe that their catalog of reflexes is woefully incomplete. In my neurology textbook the word hypnosis is missing from the index. My psychology textbook is little better. (I have the 5th edition from 2000 so maybe this has improved.) There are five or six references to hypnosis. Gleitman says it is not understood, and he (they) speculates that perhaps the brain is secreting endorphins or similar poorly understood neurotransmitters and this is responsible for the phenomena that we observe in hypnotized subjects. There are also a couple of vague references to the placebo effect. Placebo is another word which is missing from the index in the neurology textbook.

This probably sounds critical of Kandel et al, but I do not intend that. The book is 1414 pages long and endlessly rewarding. When medical students study neurology, that is one of the books that they use. The subject is so large that they have to leave things out. Evidence-based medicine leaves out hypnosis because it seems impossible to collect reliable evidence. I once had a neurologist tell me, "I know nothing about hypnosis". Perhaps that was a dishonest conversation stopper to avoid a conversation he wanted to avoid, but if his teachers followed the Kandel book they left hypnosis out. This also is a mystery.

I own Gray's Anatomy, and the Anatomy Coloring Book in addition to Kandel; they contain more accessible information on the human nervous system. The best single document for me is done by an artist, however, not a doctor. It is Sacred Mirrors by Alex Gray. His representation of the human nervous system seems to be at exactly the right level of detail for my purposes, and the beauty of his presentation permits me to really appreciate the wonders of human anatomy. Some of his pictures are physically inaccurate. He has a beautiful picture of the psychic energy centers in the body. There is no scientific evidence for any such thing.

04 March 2011

The Kitchen Table

The kitchen table is an exercise which I learned from a woman who is the most skilled hypnotist I have ever seen close up. It is simple and takes very little time, but it does require a dedicated group of people. It is from the Gestalt Psychotherapy field, and very similar in dynamics to the Two Chair Exercise, which I previously went over. The working premise for its effect is that stress and neurosis are often sourced in things which happened long ago when we were less resourceful, and that exploring these event origins with the full array of resources which we now possess will permit us to process them in a healthier manner.

In the kitchen table the subject of the exercise revisits a typical meal in the home of their youth. It is one variant of a role playing exercise, and the role the subject plays is their self, at home, when young. The exercise also requires other players to play the roles of the significant others in the youthful home of the subject--his parents, siblings, &c. The subject specifies the cast in the preparation for the exercise. The subject also specifies a line or two or three for each of the other characters. They can be mundane, but they need to be appropriate to the characters. For example:

"That dress looks pretty".

"I wanted that piece of chicken."

"Do we really have to go to Uncle Drew's?"

The lines do not need to be memorized or professionally acted or voiced. You can even fit a guy in for mom in a pinch. All that is required is that the various characters speak only their lines, and it hardly matters if they speak them especially well. Then the characters sit around a table, just like it is time for a meal long ago and far away in the subject's past. They start speaking slow, distinct, and one at a time. Gradually they speak louder, faster, and overlapping one another. The physiology of what happens can be very strange, but I believe there is an avalanche in the subject's audio processing system; there is just far too much information entering their ears for them to keep up with. Although as the exercise begins they are consciously attempting to follow it all, soon they are overwhelmed by the sound stimulus. The result is (almost invariably) a profound hypnotic trance state.

I once took a poetry workshop with my poet-mentor Dave Brinks in New Orleans, where we did something quite similar as a writing experiment. He had two portable stereos set up on opposite ends of the room. On one he had Coltraine jazz, and on the other he had Bach Brandenberg Concerto. The poets sat in the middle and wrote poetry. Gradually as we wrote, he cranked up the volume on both the Coltraine box and on the Bach box. After about forty minutes, we took turns reading our stuff and giving feedback to one another. That was a worthy writing exercise similar in process. The results could hardly be compared to the kitchen table in the Gestalt psychotherapy room, which are more like abracadabra, presto, and SHAZAM!


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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.