Monday, August 31, 2015

Nitpicking Star Trek

For some reason, nitpicking is way more fun when it comes to Star Trek, compared to any other franchise. Just to clarify, I love most of Star Trek *), and none of the following will be breaking news to the involved trekkist, but I just have to get the following few picks off my chest:

1.) The holodeck


Not mentioning all the questionable physics of the thing - why was the holodeck not banned after the first few thousand fatal malfunctions? I mean, obviously they resolved the dilemma of the week in each episode, but Picard and Janeway were the top of the crop, the best of the best, so it is safe to assume that most of starfleet must have been wiped out by some variation on Prof. Moriarty or 11001001, not to mention all the safety-off and alien-intruder-caused malfunctions. There must also be an extremely addictive quality to the thing, as well as all kinds of exploits for ill-meaning humans. I mean, if they have those things on their starships, I'm sure they have them in malls and even their homes. Imagine a few thousands Xenomorphs from a casual Ridley Scott simulation program escaping into downtown L.A., or just a few thousand people ending up in a simulation that makes them think this happened, and then beams them back into real life, phasers akimbo.

It would be interesting, by the way, to explore the legal and ethical limits of the holodeck. Would otherwise illegal sex be allowed - e.g., interspecies sex, or sex with a simulation of a grown-up body, but the A.I.-simulated mind of a human minor, or the other way around? What about racially motivated genocide? How about abusing a holodeck character à la the Doctor to drive someone insane? I'm sure some of this has been done in some fanfic, but finding it might prove tedious, and in general, the aseptic tone of the franchise sadly prohibits trodding down those muddy paths.

2.) What's with the hairdo?


It seems to me that many female protagonists on Star Trek have quite elaborate hairdo. Basically, the rule seems to be: If they are female, and they have long hair, then it's always wrapped around their head like something created by a Sikh hairdresser with artistic ambitions. It must be woefully impractical in a job that frequently involves battle, operating heavy machinery, and other physically challenging tasks. I don't remember ever having seen a male protagonist with long hair - probably justified, in-universe, by Star Fleet Regulations - okay Worf does have them. Well, maybe there's an exception for Klingons - after all, they were allowed to evolve their foreheads in rather interesting ways in just a century. By the way, one interesting exception would be B'Elana Torres, who has short hair and still manages to look weird due to her Rubber Alien Forehead. Maybe all this is just born of some secret fetish of Gene Roddenberry?

3.) The measure of a life form


This is holodeck-related, too, but it's another perspective on the same issue.

There is an episode in which they debate whether Mr Data is a Thing or a Being, and another one in which we discover that the holodeck can produce a personality that arguably must be more intelligent than Mr Data. Now, the holodeck is part of the ship's computer. But nobody in the whole gorram series ever has any qualms about shutting down a starship, or initiating the self-destruct series because of it. If they worry about it, it's only because they're losing a precious asset or because of their sentimental clinging to some "captain's responsibility". In short, Star Trek's definition of "intelligent life-form" simply means translates to being able to walk on two legs. So long, transhumanism, and thanks for all the Bald Going. I wonder if Romero zombies would count as an intelligent species, by the way.

On a slightly more serious note, I think the holodeck was one of those flashes of genius that gave the writers seemingly endless possibilities, so this is exactly where we get to witness the limitations of genre, format, and TV economics at play. Some things just don't fit in with the light-hearted entertainment format that is Star Trek, and some things would need way more space than a 45 minute episode.



Of course, the list of possible nitpicks is long and endless (aliens don't have last names, technobabble, time paradoxes, etc. etc.), but this here is just for our amusement, and 3 is always a good number, so this is where it ends.





*) To the exception of Deep Space Nine, which never appealed to me, some of the movies. Well, and the Abrams movies are forbidden by global consent of all intelligent species, so they don't count.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Dream Symbols

For almost 20 years now, I have kept a dream journal. Somewhat sporadically, and I lost it all about halfway through, but I guess I can rightfully claim to have more of an overview of my dreams than most people I know.

For much of that time, I tried to decipher them, to find some kind of meaning, symbolism or the like, inside them. I even kept lists of "symbols" to be able to do a little bit of statistics on them.

Ultimately, what I came up with was precious little. Nothing, really, that I wouldn't have come up simply by looking over my journal once in a while.

For quite a few years, I kept dreaming about elevators that failed in all kinds of dangerous ways. I also dreamed a lot about public transport crafts. Invariably, those drove around the whole town in all the wrong directions, and I never reached my goal. This was a time when I was rather insecure and pretty depressed, so it made sense.

I dreamed a few times about an ex girlfriend, where the breakup had been rather dramatic. Understandable.

And a few years later, at a new job that made me the most money I had ever earned, I dreamed about very big and respectable houses, such as museums and the like.

When I was out of a job or concerned about my professional future, I tended to dream about my very first profession (as a bookseller).

I had the usual dreams about flying, which were fun, and very few, but rather intense, nightmares.

A few times, I dreamed about uncanny twins, and it seemed to coincide with upcoming big decisions.

People from my past and present show up in my dreams, of course, and there seem to be certain (very odd) rules.  For example, I never dream about my current girlfriend, I often find myself with an anonymous "group of friends", etc.

And that's about it. It's not an awful lot, certainly no prophecies or clairvoyance. No out-of-body experience or astral projection. In all those years, despite some efforts, I had exactly one lucid dream, and one that was somewhat semi-lucid. I was never able to find any "special" meaning. My dreams never told me anything I didn't already know. They never offer any guidance or insight or spiritual experience.

So, my conclusion is that there is nothing to dream symbols, and there is nothing supernatural going on in dreams. Dreams can be fun, they're certainly interesting, but they have no meaning.

Most probably, they are just a way for the brain to reorganize its internals.

It's a bit sad, perhaps, but that's how it is.

Simple Mindfulness

Interesting - just to imagine how it would feel to be completely conscious, evokes a state of intense bliss, as if inner worlds were opening up and unfolding to the mind.

Sounds like weird wacko NLP, but it's just what happened this morning.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Enlightenment

I distinctly remember the moment. It must have been 8 years ago, and I can still remember the subway station and the escalator I was riding.

I was deeply into buddhism and self-improvement back then, and I was trying to meditate or at least working on my mindfulness every second I could spare.

That moment on that escalator, I was enlightened.

Of course, a few moments later, the experience was over. I tried to get back into it, but to no avail. On the other hand, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that this was actually it, the real thing. It had lasted a little longer than those experiences usually used to, and it had felt as if it actually were to last this time.

There is a certain humor in buddhist books when they talk about enlightenment experiences, a kind of humor I tended to enjoy, and which I still think provides a certain safeguard against fundamentalist idiocy. They talk about how nibbana is not a state of being, and how reifying it is itself a block on the road to nibbana. They revel in the paradox, and that's fine and very appealing.

But still, I did believe that enlightenment was a real possibility in some way, a goal to be reached at some point.

Looking back, I think that this is a huge problem, but nog quite in the way the buddhists say. It is a problem because, from what I have read in the meantime, and from what I see in the world and in my own life, I gather that enlightenment is just not possible. Our brains just don't seem to be wired in a way that would allow them to overcome their own illusory self. The oh-so-bad discoursive monkey mind will always kick back in.

Looking back on what you might call my "spiritual journey" (blargh), I think that this change of mind has proved to be a good thing. Very good indeed. Now I judge my mindfulness - and boy, do I judge it! - based on whether it is useful to myself, my life, and probably the lives of people around me.

I think that this is way more down to earth, realistic and mature. It certainly has me use less of the jargon, even in my internal monologue (I always tried to avoid it in public anyway). Less attachment to enlightenment. It was an act of letting go, disentanglement, un-identification, de-attachment.

It has me pretend less, see more of how things actually are. And that's ultimately what enlightenment is about, isn't it?

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Pulpit

I don't have the impression that I'm exceptionally preachy. However, let me put on the robes, climb the pulpit and give you a bit of the good old fire and brimstone for once.

You ready? Here it comes.

Don't try and suppress the ego. It won't work. In fact, it is self-refutatory in the most entertaining way. Suppression is a function of the ego, so suppressing the ego amounts to inflating it.

Don't dwell on the ego either. It won't work. Indulgence will only inflate it.

Instead, walk the middle path. Try and let go of things that are not needed, but don't put yourself down if you don't succeed. There will still be time to try again later.

Mu.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Spiritual Breathing

I have recently taken up the practice of "spiritual breathing", which is a terribly misleading and ... duh... well, "spiritual" name for a very simple exercise: You just imagine that you are breathing through various parts of your body. If you can do a lotus position, that might be helpful. (I can't.) If you have learned to be somewhat meditative to start with, that might help, too. (I can, for some values of "can".)

Traditionally, of course, you will imagine breathing through where your chakras are supposed to be. So, you direct your breath through your stomach, on the front or back, imagine air flowing in when you breathe in, and vice versa. Not that I haven't tried breathing through my hands, of course.

Not believing in any kind of chakras, qi, nadis, or the like, I find it surprising -- in an utterly good way, mind you! -- how incredibly good it feels. I mean, truly good, as in: utterly amazing.

Yeah, they call it visualisation for a reason, babe.

As far as one can describe those things, it feels a bit like a very, very low current flowing through the respective area. Like that part being activated, and yet relaxed at the same time. It has a somewhat sexual tone to it, but only very slightly so... like a vaguely erotic thought you might have throughout the day, perhaps about someone you're not quite supposed to be quite so erotic about.  It's exciting, but it doesn't exactly get the heart pumping -- quite the opposite, actually... Oh boy, this is hard to explain. Just give it a try, if you truly want to know.

A lot has been said about the Kundalini experience, Kundalini awakening and the Kundalini syndrome. Specifically the latter. Well, people are always hungry for excitement, and the thought of a dangerous spriritual force that might ruin your life is definitely way more exciting than any calm abode can ever claim to be.

But is it true?

I mean, as somebody who -- occasionally -- does a lot of tantric breathing and meditation exercises, I should really like to know if I'm headed for trouble. Spiritual breathing is supposed to cause a kundalini awakening, so I might well be.

Yeah. I'm inclined to rather think that I can sleep in peace.

When you read up on experiences in meditation, you can easily find all sorts of fancyful narrations: People see colors, images of gurus and devas and all other kinds of imagery, as part of their meditative practice. Strangely, though, those experiences seem to only ever occur in traditions that incorporate an element of visualisation. I don't think I have ever heard a lot about eerie visions from anyone who only practiced mindfulness meditation.

Isn't this interesting?

I mean, wouldn't it make sense, for someone who totally expects to have visions of their guru, that they actually do get those visions when they enter into a state of trance? In what area of life would a placebo work better than in the purely mental activity of meditation?

I have heard a few times that long-term practitioners (or, indeed, victims) of mind-stopping techniques, such as ex-members of some cults, often suffer from lingering after-effects, akin to drug flashbacks. They will suddenly stop right in the middle of the street, on their way to the store or whatever, because the "meditative state" suddenly kicks back in. Would you say that there is anything mystical to that? I wouldn't.

They practiced to attain that state for years, in some cases for many hours each day. They formed a habit.

The same would make sense for any sort of mental activity -- I mean, I guess there is a world of difference between a cult with a totalitarian leader, and an actual buddhist monastery, as witnessed by the fact that the latter have managed to perfectly integrate with society for several millennia. So I guess there is just more conscious control of the individual there. Probably, pure vipassana is just less of an MK-Ultra type mind-control thing than incessant chanting. A perpetual state of meditative bliss certainly is on the list of goals for a buddhist, though. Once you have it, can you simply switch it off at will? I don't know, and since the assumption always is that nobody would want to do that, the books never tell you about it. Or possibly, this is because nobody has ever really experienced enlightenment. Oh dear.

A lot of guesswork there. I know. It's sad to see how little we actually know. It does make for some interesting speculation though.

Here is the moment you have been waiting for.

I have two very rough and preliminary hypotheses for you.

The first is that, when you focus on one specific part of your body with some intensity, calmness, and no judgment, you probably do something very subtle to your nervous system, your muscles, and your blood vessels -- and that is all that you do (apart from forming a habit which is probably beneficial). I might imagine that you get just a little more blood flowing there, that your muscles in that area tense just a tiny little bit, and that you are a bit overwhelmed by sensations you're not used to focus on. Maybe one part of it is actually just confusion.

This means that you don't employ any subtle energies, you don't invite demons or angels or the spiritual Kundalini snake, or any other metaphysical force. You just engage in a very simple, albeit ludicrously unresearched physiological and psychological activity. The same you do when you take part in a, say, sportive event. (And, frankly, if mind and body are so interconnected, why do spiritual leaders in general have so very little to say about those? How is an activity that necessarily involves focusing on any one specific part of your body any less "spiritual" than all the fancy visualisations of tantra?)

It is also a very pleasurable activity. I suggest that that's all there is, and that the reasons people have for warning you against it are completely unrelated to what actually happens.

The second hypothesis is that your mind is a creature of habit. If you engage in the same mental activity, over and over again, you cannot simply switch it off the moment you decide you don't like it any more. This, however, is not necessarily a huge danger. It only becomes dangerous if you have engaged -- or were forced to engage -- in something like chanting for long periods of time.

I recently read an interesting sentence in a blog: "Medi[t]ation is a process or activity designed to reduce irrelevant thoughts by enhancing internalized attention."  There are two very important words here: "reduce", and "irrelevant". What they say is not that meditation shall STOP ALL thoughts. No, it is only supposed to REDUCE them, and it should only reduce a certain part of your thoughts, namely those that cause trouble.

I think that this is more important than any truism about buddhism, enlightenment, tantra, or meditation in general that you will ever hear. It means that things are not clear-cut, but messy, in flux, and subject to your interpretation. It means that you will never know for sure if you have reached the elusive state of enlightenment, or whether any such state actually exists.

Personally, I think that this is more wise than any great teaching on how to meditate in the right way or what nondualism is or what great achievement this or that guru has realized.



Friday, March 20, 2015

"But god believes in you", or Chakras are Still Objective even if They don't Exist!

I came upon a piece of writing detailing how your chakras still exist even if you don't believe in them, how an imbalance in the force... ahem, in your "energy field" is responsible for everything from relationship troubles to physical exhaustion, and how chakras "channel information" into the human system.

I won't even try and guess whether the author has any clue as to the definition of "information". I just think it's fascinating how promoters of new-agey east-asian energy systems will use exactly the same misguided arguments as christian apologists. You don't have to believe in god, he still believes in you! I wonder if they see the fallacy in their brothers' apologetics, if they don't see it in their own.

Ironically, one of the symptoms of such an imbalance is "finding it impossible to believe in anything". So an energetic misalignment might be responsible for your inability to believe in its own existence. Sure, sure.

More importantly, though, I am open to the idea that visualizing your "energy body" extending from you might be a good exercise. It might sharpen your senses, give you a somewhat elevated feeling, and all in all just be a fun little mind-game to play. If it doesn't do anything else, at least it may help you focus on your real physical body, and relate to it in a somewhat more loving way, and train your imagination a bit.

I am willing to believe that, when you feel overwhelmed by outside influences, "the simple exercise of pulling in our energy fields closer to our bodies can mitigate some of these negative feelings and sensations" - albeit not for the reason the new age proponents propose. It's just an exercise in shifting your focus.
I might even be titillated into accepting something somewhat akin to an actual belief -- let's call it "acting as if you believed", which I think I have already talked about on this blog.

But, once you claim that the chakras are actual entities that exist independent of your imagination, you had better provide the evidence for that. If you don't, you're just producing woo-woo, adding more misinformation, and speculation which you have not identified as such, to a world that truly has enough of this already.