I know you look at others, but I can’t fully know what you see. I know others are looking at you, but I don’t really know who it is they’re seeing. Suddenly you’re no longer familiar. You’re no longer a known entity that I need not bother being curious about. In fact, you’re quite a mystery. And I’m a little unnerved. Who are you? I want you. Accommodating the third opens up an erotic expanse where eros needn’t worry about wilting. In that expanse, we can be deeply moved by our partner’s otherness, and soon thereafter deeply aroused. I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice. As such, it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we’re planning to spend fifty years with one soul—and we want a happy jubilee—it may be wiser to review our contract at various junctures. Just how accommodating each couple may be to the third varies. But at least a nod is more apt to sustain desire with our one and only over the long haul—and perhaps even to create a new “art of loving” for the twenty-first century couple.
Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.
So while ecstatic states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter. In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.
At least as far back as the French Enlightenment and Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am), we’ve relied on our rational selves—what psychologists call our “egos”—to run the whole show. It’s a Maslow’s hammer kind of reaction. Every issue we encounter, we try to solve by thinking. And we know it’s not working. Even a quick glance at today’s dire mental health statistics—the one in four Americans now on psychiatric medicines; the escalating rate of suicide for everyone from ages ten to seventy-eight—shows how critically overtaxed our mental processing is these days. We may have come to the end of our psychological tether. It might be time to rethink all that thinking.
Rather than treating our psychology like the unquestioned operating system (or OS) of our entire lives, we can repurpose it to function more like a user interface (or UI)—that easy-to-use dashboard that sits atop all the other, more complex programs. By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.
In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that coevolution—when two different species come together, often without knowing it, to advance each other’s self-interest—also extends to humans and intoxicating plants. In return for helping mind-altering plants propagate and outcompete other species, these same plants have evolved even greater psychoactive properties for us to enjoy. “Plants,” Pollan explained in a recent essay, “evolved to gratify our desires. . . . [In return], we give them more habitat and we carry their genes around the world. This is what I mean by the ‘botany of desire.’ Our desire . . . for intoxication, for changes in consciousness, [is] a powerful force in natural history.”
A lot of people have been pointing out that the modern world is in crisis. I don’t know if I agree with the most pessimistic of those assessments, but I do know it takes significant cognitive flexibility to solve complex problems.
“Look,” Potter once explained, “I know the dark secret. I know my options. I can sit on a cushion and meditate for two hours and maybe I get a glimpse of something interesting—and maybe it lasts two seconds—but I put on a wingsuit and leap off a cliff and it’s instantaneous: Whammo, there I am, in an alternate universe that lasts for hours.”
Psychedelics overwhelm the senses with data, throwing so much information at us per second that paying attention to anything else becomes impossible. And for action and adventure athletes seeking flow, risk serves this same function. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning,” Samuel Johnson once remarked, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
… considering all the recent advances in brain science and wearable sensors, meditation was pretty low-tech. So Siegel decided to build better tools, birthing the field that has come to be called “enlightenment engineering.”
Don’t become a Bliss Junkie.
It seems that no one can know the Truth; one can only be the Truth. But in order to be the Truth, the person who seeks the truth needs to die. In fact, it is only the seeker that obscures the sought.
Everyone that you have ever met and will ever meet in any existence is actually you looking out through different eyes.
In one moment, all seeking dropped away and has never returned. From that moment on, I not only lost interest in reading, but in meditation as well.
I had just became comfortable with calling myself an introvert when I discovered Steve Silberman’s book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. What started as an article on the increasing frequency of autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley evolved into a comprehensive investigation that became his book. I wonder if I might have been identified as autistic as a child. I shared the traits: literal thinking, shortness of expression, dysfunction in processing social information, problems with affection, anti-authoritarianism, bookishness, self-soothing behaviors, unusual sensory interests. The label might have fit, at times. Many of us have these traits to some degree — that is why autism is understood as a spectrum, fitting more or less. It is often said, if you meet once person with autism then you have met once person with autism. Still, labels are sometimes useful, e.g., getting special provisions for a child’s education. If I were to pick a label, I would choose “neurodiverse” over “autistic.” I prefer the positive connotation.
Autism is misunderstood, says Silberman. Leo Kanner is the scientist who coined the term, autism, from the Greek word for self, autos, “because they seemed happiest in isolation.” Kanner is a villain in NeuroTribes for blaming parents about their children’s condition, and for failing to acknowledge Hans Asperger’s original and more positive research. Asperger believed that success in science and art required a “dash of autism.” Silberman tells the story of Temple Grandin, an accomplished scientist and one of the first adults to publicly identify as autistic. She might have been institutionalized as a young person. She credits mentors who believed in her and helped liberate her creative gifts. Silberman tells more stories of other brilliant scientists with autism, Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac. Not everyone with autism is a genius, but many are high functioning, endowed with unique insight and cognitive abilities.
Casting autism as one type of neurodiversity puts the subject in a new light. I share Silberman’s positive view that autism and other disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD may represent natural variations in the human genome, often useful for adapting to the complexity of life.
What the hell happened in the USA in 2016? I gaped at the anger that kicked liberals in the teeth on election night. Take that f’ers. Confused, I made an effort to better understand the right. I asked questions with an open mind. What I got was disturbing: “the Koran orders Muslims to kill us”, “climate change is just weather.” What bothered me most was the cold anger, now thawing under a Trump star. Just as I was about to slink back into my echo chamber I came across an important book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A Berkeley liberal, Hochschild spent five years in arch-conservative Louisiana, bayou country, listening to what the other side had to say.
“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” My background has some similarities with the Louisianans, coming from a large, low-income, Christian family. It is my memory, and Hochschild observes, that the people are kinder and more generous than their politics and theology. That said, I share little with the Louisianans today, having raised a small family on a dual income, being an atheist. The differences explain things. For example, I consider it my job as a citizen to pay taxes and help others. Louisianans hate taxes, but not for lack of caring of course. They tithe through the church so taxes seems redundant. Unfortunately the church does not scale to solving a global problem like the environment.
The environment is the key paradox of the book. Hochschild returns to it in every chapter. Louisiana is the most polluted state and yet it is also the strongest against environmental regulation of corporations. Across the states, those with higher exposure to pollution are more likely to be strong Republicans. How can this be? Certainly, less regulation leads to more jobs but toxic exposure is destroying their land and families. Short term risk can be rational but it seems to me that Louisianans are getting numb to the damage. They are not alone. Many people need a hard shake to see that green jobs also put food on the table.
Education is part of the difference. Education qualifies people for jobs, yes, but it is not just about university degrees. It is also about knowing how to find and analyze information. Fox News can be a source of information but it should not be the only one. The collapse of traditional journalism has left a vacuum of authority. People fail to check the source of their news. It is a festering pot for ignorance. Hochschild calls it a deep story, a psychology of resentment about being left behind. Liberal insults about rednecks and white trash cut deeply. Self-sufficient and gritty to the core, they do not whine like liberals. Still they do not recognize themselves. They are strangers in their own land, a Biblical reference to alienation. This is what happened in the USA in 2016.
It is important to figure this all out, to prevent spillover into Canada and beyond, to disarm the anger before it escalates into hate and violence and war. We must meet anger with open-mindedness, good information, and loving-kindness. Strangers in Their Own Land is a worthy book in this campaign.
“The one and only truth of any person lies like a black hole at their very core, and everything else — everything else — is just rubbish and debris that covers the hole.” Enlightenment is truth-realization — the self is false. “Your moments of blackest despair are really your most honest moments; your most lucid moments.” Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing by Jed McKenna is one heck of a book. McKenna is enlightened, he tells us, and most people are not. It is a cocky claim, but his clear thinking and effective dispatching of the usual spiritual trappings suggest a person with first-hand experience.
Damnedest is set in an ashram in Iowa where McKenna is a spiritual instructor of sorts, though he is quick to disclaim any special mystical status. “Think for yourself and figure out what’s true.” Dialogue with students provides a light narrative around his philosophy. Life is a dream, says McKenna. The core of this delusion is a belief in self and all the ensuing dualities including right and wrong. Happiness is a good dream, suffering a bad one. It is neither desirable or important to become enlightened unless you are one of those rare few in a hundred million who insist on truth.
McKenna advises a form of truth seeking called spiritual autolysis. “Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what’s true.” Write your own metaphysics, question everything till you hit bedrock. Done. I agree that there is no constant self, no soul. There is no final world of pure forms, no essence. Change is at the heart of our universe and human nature. I disagree with his oversimplified notion of truth. “All beliefs. All concepts. All thoughts. Yes, they’re all false; all bullshit. … If you’re going for truth, you’re not taking any of them with you.” What about scientific truth? All bullshit? McKenna might be surprised to learn the consistency between the laws of physics and his views. Take the second law of thermodynamics — everything falls apart. It is an empirical truth, a predictable dynamic in space-time, quite useful for understanding the big picture and our little lives. What about existential truth? Yes, I might die tonight, but probably not. Meaning is fleeting and beautiful. There is truth and beauty.
Enlightenment is both difficult and liberating. It can take years to fully sink in. It changes everything. For McKenna it is the end of the human drama. He jokes that he has become a vampire, a post-human. I think enlightenment is more common than McKenna knows. Life inevitably forces the realization upon us, and many choose to embrace it, to become more fully human.
It took me weeks before I felt ready to write a review of The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida. I had to think it through. You see, I am no stranger to writing about masculinity. In the nineties I worked as a group counsellor for men who were violent in their relationship. I wrote the agency’s counsellor’s manual. You can be sure it was politically correct, both well-informed and limited by its feminist perspective. One of the reasons I left that job was that after four years I felt a part of me was lying. Overall I think women benefited from the counselling given to their men. I am not so sure about the fate of the men. In the decades since, I have watched young women make wonderful advances in equality and power in society. I have witnessed young men flounder, fearing the violent legacy, lacking an alternative vision. Masculinity needs a reboot. Still, there is reason to be cautious.
Deida makes his most valuable point right up front. Masculinity and femininity are not locked to body parts. The yin and yang of gender play out in many complex ways in straight and gay relationships. There is no right configuration. More often than not, though, males assume the masculine identity, and females the feminine. He acknowledges that some couples have a more balanced relationship, something he calls “neutralized”, almost holding his nose. He is right that sexual polarity is a source of energy. Put another way, polarized sex roles are an incompleteness, a drama, an illusion, energetic, but only sustainable for period, finally demanding resolution and truth. I prefer truth over drama.
A happily married man for decades, I learned a couple of relationship truths I should have learned sooner. The feminine tests the masculine. Call it nagging if you must, it only challenges sloppy masculinity. Learn to love her for it, she will not change. Men need to rise to it. She looks to you for leadership, and can relax into the feminine more easily when you provide it.
The feminine is a source of energy for men. We are taught to feel ashamed of our attraction to women. Enjoy the energy, with all women. In truth, that yin polarity is available in everything, a constant source of energy.
It is important for men to define their current mission — something outside the comfort zone, and something realistic. Stop making excuses. Men should challenge each other’s mediocrity. It is through a mission that the masculine finds expression and satisfaction.
I am rounding the edges of some of Deida’s language. He is more titillating. “Press your belly into her. Smile. Scream and then her lick her face. Do whatever it takes to crack the shell of her closure ….” Okay. There are some places he goes I just cannot follow. He talks about ravishing her. He says not to take her “no” seriously. He tries to distinguish this from loveless pornography and rape but I am not convinced. As I read the book, the vicious rape stories in India were surfacing on the news. I also read a story reporting a rape a minute right here in North America. Sorry Deida, no means no.
I do not write reviews of books I do not like. Deida has important things to say. I look forward to discovering more and better books, reinventing masculinity energetically and respectfully for men and women.
The Universe Within by Neil Turok is the 2012 Massey Lectures. I have read several histories of physics and perhaps did not need to read another one, but Turok speaks with a profound wisdom. A theoretical physicist, he has worked with Stephen Hawking, Paul Steinhardt and other brilliant minds to develop our understanding of the early universe. He is currently Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo Canada. He has a deep political consciousness and is dedicated to connecting abstract ideas with everyday people and young minds.
Turok makes many thoughtful reflections. I highlight three of them here. First, the problem of information overload in the modern digital world is not a new one but Turok stopped me with this observation:
In the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, Isaac Newton’s personal library consists of a few hundred books occupying a single bookcase. This was quite enough to allow him to found modern physics and mathematical science. A short walk away, in the main University Library, Charles Darwin’s personal library is also preserved. His entire collection of books occupies a ten-metre stretch of shelving. Again, for one of the most profound and original thinkers in the history of science, it is a minuscule collection.
Maybe the internet with its millions of books of data is required for the rest of our average brains. More likely, digital technology and the internet simply allow too much text to exist. A little curation goes a long way to intelligence.
Second, I was glad to find a heavyweight physicist who shares my skepticism of the multiverse theory. Put simply, the multiverse concept proposes a universe for each possible outcome in space-time. Cast a six-side die and each outcome occurs in a different universe. The multiverse is proposed to resolve certain logical problems arising from quantum mechanics. It was delightfully rendered in the fictional work The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter. I am skeptical about it as a serious idea. As Turok says:
It is hard to imagine a less elegant or convincing explanation of our own beautiful world than to invent a near-infinite number of unobservable worlds and to say that, for some reason we cannot understand or quantify, ours was “chosen” to exist from among them.
Finally, I am grateful to Turok for giving the new atheists a kick in the ass. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have caused me to re-evaluate my vague agnosticm, even to acknowledge that I am an atheist, at least on weekdays. I maintain objections to their smugness. In The God Delusion, Dawkins opens by describing his profound wonder at the vastness of the universe. The same feeling has been shared in religious terms by Sagan, Einstein, Hawking and other scientists. When these scientists talk about God they are doing so in a poetic sense. The God Delusion, says Dawkins, is not an attack on their God. No, his attack is not on the poetic thinkers but on the literalists, those who think in fairy tales rather than in good solid physics. You can make a bold claim — God is a delusion — only if you exclude all good thinking on the subject and only focus on a straw man.
I was also disappointed by Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing. The book promises to take on the deep philosophical question, why is there something rather than nothing? I learned fresh ideas about the distribution of energy in the universe; fascinating, but not informative about the primary question. I get his argument, the sum of energy in the universe has been accounted for so there is no need to invoke a creator. Fine, don’t invoke a creator. But why is there something rather than nothing? As Turok says, “The rhetoric is impressive but the arguments are shallow.” If you are looking for a modest and reflective take on the subject, I recommend Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. Turok makes another recommendation which I have added to my reading list:
In comparing Krauss’s and Dawkins’s arguments with the care and respectfulness of those presented by Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, all the way back in the eighteenth century, one can’t help feeling the debate has gone backwards. Hume presents his skepticism through a dialogue which allows opposing views to be forcefully expressed, but which humbly reaches no definitive conclusion. After all, that is his main point: we do not know whether God exists.
Of late I have wondered if the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not the peak of human intellect. Neil Turok is an equal for our own day.
I met Moses’s eyes, and I recognized there a certain righteous anger, an infuriation at the foolishness of mankind, which had informed my own, younger soul. I had always had a distrust of the advancement, willy-nilly, of civilization, for it seemed to me an unstable edifice which must one day collapse about the foolish heads of its makers; and this Modern State business seemed about the most extreme folly, short of actual War, I had heard in a while!
Baxter does a brilliant job persuading us, by the time the novel is done, of the potential triumph of the mind …
I could see — suffused in every wisp of gas, in every stray atom — meaning and structure. There was a purpose to the orientation of each atom, the direction of its spin, and the linkages between it and its neighbors. It was as if the universe, the whole of it, had become a sort of Library, to store the collective wisdom of this ancient variant of Humanity; every scrap of matter, down to the last stray wisp, was evidently catalogued and exploited … Just as Nebogipfel had predicted as the final goal of Intelligence!
Wheat is sugar. Dessert. That’s what I’m taking away from Wheat Belly by William Davis.
Wheat is not what it used to be. The first wild wheat to be cultivated was einkorn with 14 chromosomes. Soon after einkorn naturally bred to produce emmer with 28 chromosomes. A few thousand years ago, emmer mated to produce Triticum tauschii, with 42 chromosomes. This sort of breeding between grasses was a relatively rare event. Relatively recently, humans started tinkering with the genetic structure of wheat, breeding it for higher yield and for resistance to disease and drought and heat. Modern strains cannot even survive without chemical support. There are now thousands of offsprings that are thousands of genes apart from the original einkorn.
Modern wheat can do all sorts of baking gymastics that einkorn could not do. Pastries, cakes, you name it. Wheat is yummy just like a Mars bar. A hit of wheat has a higher blood sugar response than white sugar. Besides fattening the belly, the insulin response causes a drop in blood sugar and a two-hour cycle of hunger. Wheat causes hunger. It is a vicious addictive cycle. It explains the carb addiction I have struggled with for years. Indeed, reducing my wheat consumption has helped me kick my habitual snacking. Carbs are not the worst of it. Wheat is about 10-15% protein, about 80% of which is gluten. For some people, gluten causes celiac disease, potentially a very serious immune response. Many people avoid gluten these days but the remaining proteins are also problematic, causing allergic and anaphylactic responses.
Davis recommends a complete elimination of wheat from one’s diet. This may be the right choice for some people, especially if they are suffering from obesity or the many other symptoms he documents in detail. My personal response is more moderate. I accept that wheat is essentially dessert, and I will handle it as such, not as a part of a healthy diet but as an occasional treat.