“The comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and unseen.” Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud may be as important to understanding media as, well, the seminal Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan. Comics are sequential art, with a 3200 year history. Simplicity of drawings in comics is deliberate. Readers can more easily project themselves onto the iconic characters. The psychological function of closure is discussed deeply in the context of comic panels, and how the reader fills in the gaps between panels with time and motion and events. “The comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and unseen.” Understanding Comics is an academic work, presented in the highly readable format of a graphic novel. Brilliant, a force in shaping my understanding of comics and media more generally.

“I didn’t really have a self at all.” Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas.

There is an emerging genre of books on neurodiversity, including everything from autism to genius and enlightenment. It should also include sociopathy. Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight is a fascinating read. M.E. Thomas describes her life a sociopath. Like other books on neurodiversity, it has the reader wondering how much they identify with the phenomenon and how much is just normal variation. Good questions.

I was fascinated with the passages on the sociopath’s lack of a sense of self. “First, I didn’t really have a self at all. I was like an Etch A Sketch, constantly shaking myself up and starting over.” I accept the statement, but I struggle to understand it. How can a sociopath have a weak sense of the self while also having a very strong self-interest? Thomas describes how she takes care of herself at the expense of others, and only look after others when she feels she own them. It sounds like a very robust sense of self.

And this passage:

Several things that I had come to believe were mirages, and when I inspected them closer they disappeared, leaving absolutely nothing. I quickly realized that, almost without exception, this was true about everything in my life. All of the stories I had recently been spinning about my life were illusions—gaps occupied by part of my brain to fill in a hole, the same way our brain will sometimes fill in gaps in an optical illusion. I had told myself that I was normal, perhaps just a little too smart, but that my feelings were genuine and typical of a young woman my age. Now I felt like I had woken up from a dream. Without actively spinning stories, I had no self. If I had been Buddhist on my path to seeking Nirvana, this lack of self would have been a huge breakthrough, but I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment at having achieved that state. Instead I felt the only way anyone can ever feel without a sense of self—free.

Is there any difference between a sociopath’s lack of a sense of self and Buddhist enlightenment? Is the Buddhist emphasis on compassion making up for something? I’m just throwing it out there. Personally, I think the dissolution of self may not be particular to sociopaths, but may be a step in human maturation for all people.

Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, by Esther Perel

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.


Stealing Fire, by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal

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.


Enlightenment: Behind the Scenes, by Marc Leavitt

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.


NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

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.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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.

Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing by Jed McKenna. Is enlightenment rare or common?

Spiritual Enlightenment“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.

Yin and yang play out in many complex ways in straight and gay relationships. “The Way of the Superior Man” by David Deida.

The Way Of The Superior ManIt 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.

Newton’s personal library of a few hundred books, quite enough to found physics. “The Universe Within” by Neil Turok.

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.