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.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Fat Head", "Supersize Me", Nutrition and Counterarguments

I recently watched this video called "Fat Head" on youtube. It's basically one long counter-argument by a certain Tom Naughton to the well known documentary "Supersize Me" by Morgan Spurlock. It seems to advertise a high-fat, low-carb paleo diet, or at least something close to that. I recently switched to a high-carb, low fat, somewhat-80/10/10-ish diet (though not so extreme by far). I thus have a lot of interest in the matter, so let me break down my view of the movie and its points:

  • There is no obesity epidemic
I'm absolutely not sure about this. I also don't find it very relevant when it comes to my own life. I don't want to be obese, regardless of how many obese people there are. I don't want to carry around all that extra weight, I want to look good and be healthy and energetic. I don't really need to think that there is a huge global crisis just to find out that health, energy and good looks are excellent goals to strive for. Apart from that, I do think it's pretty much a given that we have got a lot heavier during the last half century; I'm just not quite sure if I'd call it an epidemic, though.

In the movie, they also claim that the numbers for the BMI got changed just so more people would be labeled "obese". Yeah, I don't know about that. But I think that the BMI is only a very blunt instrument. It also wasn't even intended as a health indicator by its inventor, and it doesn't take a few factors into account that really, really do matter, such as gender and muscularity.
  • McDonald's is not to blame for the obesity epidemic
As the movie puts it, "If you eat 5000 calories per day, you'll get fat no matter what." I couldn't agree more. Spurlock put on a diet that was bound to make him fat and sick, and then blamed it on fast-food. The problem is, he would have got fat and sick just as much if he had eaten high-quality beef steaks and fatty sauces at the cost of $ 50,- per meal. It's not the fast food per se, it's food of high caloric density and fast carbs.

I also agree on the other point: "Nobody forces you to eat at McDonald's". Not a lot to add here, really. If McDonald's is the sole provider of children's playgrounds in some areas, then it's not Mickey D who is to blame but the government that should provide them. Suing a company for selling food everyone knows is unhealthy (at least if you overdo it) is simply ridiculous.
  • Spurlock faked his data
I am, in fact, pretty convinced that this one is true. He wanted to make a point which was partly valid, and he wanted to make a convincing and entertaining movie, so he exaggerated some stuff. I'm fairly certain, without having done the maths myself, that Spurlock didn't get 5000 calories per day from 3 McDonald's meals. There's a reason why Spurlock refused to publish his food log. Still doesn't make fast food the best dietary choice, though.
  • Fat is not related to heart-disease (i.e., the lipid hypothesis is wrong)
Well, as long as the overwhelming majority of doctors disagree and tell me that the two are, indeed, very much related, I think I'll go with that, thanks a lot.
  • Our ancestors ate nothing but meat, so it must be good for us
Yeah, admittedly I exaggerated a bit there myself. The claim is that our hunterer/gatherer ancestors, before we invented agriculture, ate lots of meat (and some fruits and vegs), so our biology is obviously adapted to this and it must be good. There are lots of issues with evolutionary arguments on principle, and in this specific case, there also seems to be a huge pile of missing data. While it is true that longevity declined and bone-structure got worse after the agricultural revolution, this might in part be due to people living together in larger groups, thus spreading diseases, to replacing fruits/vegs with grains, and to several kinds of changes in social structure.

In short, we don't know how much meat they actually ate, the fruits they ate were certainly different from our modern fruits (which are much higher in sugar, for one), and it doesn't follow that "old is always good". After all, we do live longer, work less, and are probably in better health than people a few hundred thousand years ago. (And every single point in that sentence is debatable itself, so there you go...)

Executive Summary

To sum it up, I still think that a largely plant-based diet is good for me, that fast-food is pretty bad, and that the so-called "paleo diet" is a fad. But I'm also happy that someone put in the effort to debunk some of the glaring idiocies of "Supersize Me".

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Evolutionary Argument For Veganism

Lately, I have become addicted to the videos of a certain young lady named Kerry McCarpet. She's witty, eloquent, and I just love that British accent of hers - I could watch this video of hers over and over, just to hear her utter the phrase "betwixt the hand and the gob" again and again.

I also agree with a lot of what she says, even though I'd probably be much more cautious in some respects. Her mind is more speculative than mine. I think this is a good thing - it makes for inspiring and lively videos. At the very least, she does what many vegans sadly don't do - she explains her reasons for believing the way she does.

However, let's focus on the one negative thing I found, shall we?

Here, and at a few other places, she presents an argument for high-carbohydrate/low-fat veganism: Evolution shows you what we should eat; our body runs on sugar, our blood cells seem modeled on chlorophyl to some extent. Therefore, we should eat a high-carb vegan diet.

(Personally, I think the chlorophyl argument has a chemist weeping somewhere, but that's just an aside.)

There is a general problem with arguments from evolution. When you try to argue that one specific trait is good, it is of course tempting to say that this trait has survived for so long, so it has to be good - right?

Well - no, sadly. When you do that, you will always end up going in circles.

See, the theory of evolution was invented to explain how we (and all the other species) ended up where we are. But that doesn't tell you anything about whether one specific trait is "good" (i.e., well-adapted) or not. After all, (the theory of) evolution necessarily has to explain the bad along with the good - or to put it differently: In evolution, there is no such thing as good or bad.

The theory of evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive.

We evolved to love sugar and salt, and this is reflected in our taste buds. And we evolved to have a strong sense of empathy, which we may judge as a good thing. But we also evolved to be primates with a rather nasty habit of dropping bombs on each other, and we evolved to have an overweight brain that lets us to fancy stuff like cooking our food, and making hamburgers. We cannot predict, from a merely evolutionary standpoint, which ones of those traits will still be around in a million years.

If you were in possession of a time machine (or a supernatural gift of foresight), and you were to peek into the far future to tell us how this whole game of natural selection actually turned out, that would be something entirely different. Then you could tell us whether red hair will prevail (it doesn't look like it will, to my utter dismay), or whether we will become more peaceful (again, not the obvious winner... *sigh*). But as things are, evolution cannot be used to argue for or against any one lifestyle. It is entirely possible that only the most territorial and aggressive will survive. There may be lots of other arguments against this, but evolution alone just can't tell you.

I suspect that, at its heart, this is really a vitalist argument. It sees evolution not as a blind process guarded by natural laws, but as an intentional agent. It is extremely tempting to fall into this trap - I think even Dawkins once remarked that it is almost impossible to talk about evolution while avoiding it - so this is not a damning accusation at all. It's totally understandable.

After all, the situation is extremely frustrating. We're still left with a guessing game when it comes to something so fundamental as our choice of food. We just don't know enough about nutrition to give definitive answers to the most rudimentary questions.

Personally, I'm going for a "part-time vegan" style, and while I might change this in he future, I'm fairly certain about one basic principle: I will never submit to one philosophy of nutrition to the absolute exclusion of all others. There will always be some meat in my diet - probably very, very little -, some fish, some oil, some cooked and some raw foods - and probably lots and lots of fruits and veggies. But even this diet, which I consider the most rational choice I am currently capable of, is based on guesswork, word of mouth, and personal experience.

Friday, May 16, 2014


When I first saw this video on facebook, my initial reaction was a slight feeling of discomfort. I don't usually think in terms of guilt and forgiveness, and the concept has become somewhat alien to me. Next came the realization that I have no idea what christians actually mean when they talk about "forgiveness".

I know the term appears in the bible, I know the usual dictums associated with it -- "forgive 70 x 7 times" etc. -- but I am not aware of any actual definition. I'm fairly certain that I have never heard one at school (it was a catholic school), or at the christian communities of my youth.

Wouldn't you suppose that a faith community that has been in business for 2000 years, would have come up with some useful definition of one of their most dear, most basic terms, somewhere around the year 100 or so? Wouldn't you think that his was the first thing they tell you, when they're approaching you on the street?

Man, where the heck are those missionaries, every time I actually have a serious question to ask?

The other issue is that I'm not really certain I can approve of the concept in general, even when we accept that there just is no clear-cut definition. Those folks holding up those signs, protesting in a somewhat obtrusive manner that they will forgive those who trespassed against them? Yeah sure, I respect their motives. Been there, done that.  Now it's time to follow through with your claims. For the rest of your lives. Honestly, I wish you the best... but I have my doubts.

And that's not meant to be a strike against those people there in that video. It's meant to be a skeptical note about the whole concept.

Forgiveness presupposes guilt. It builds on the concept that someone wronged you, and instead of lashing back, you... well, what? You don't just forget what has happened. Maybe you humbly accept that you might have done the same destructive thing under the same circumstances. But... no, that's not quite it. Maybe it means to accept that the other person did something wrong, stupid, and destructive, and just move on. No. Not quite right, again.

What the heck IS forgiveness?

All I can really say is that it sounds to me a lot like you're putting yourself on a pedestal. Like you're being a bit BETTER than that other person. Like you're the hero of your own victimhood.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but... it seems to me as if forgiveness were a self-refuting concept. Once you have forgiven, you should be able to just move on. But as long as you feel that there is something to forgive, you can never hope to do that. You'll be forever bound to that incidence by your need to be better.

In my experience, I have found that I am only free of the pain of someone wronging me once I have realized that

  1. I survived it.
  2. The damage is tolerable, after all.
  3. It won't happen again.
  4. I might probably act in the same way under the same circumstances, or
  5. At least I can understand their motives in some way.

In other words, it's about self-preservation first, and empathy second.

That means that there are some things that I will probably never "forgive", such as if someone killed my girlfriend, and that there are some things that I might choose to tolerate, rather than "forgive".

Overall, I think that this is a more healthy and balanced approach than the demand that a person be able to "forgive everything", be it with our without god's help. If not for any other reason, simply because it encompasses a larger spectrum of possible ways to deal with things.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Prostitution as a Metaphor

There is a subtle but very important distinction between being exploited, and being complicit and compliant in that exploitation.

It matters to me because, over the years, I've seen so many people - young people, specifically - who seem to be oh so highly motivated to work unpaid overtime, on top of earning ghastly wages to start with, in some vague hope of a minimal raise in pay or a chance - somewhere out there, far away in their lives - to finally get a piece of the cake. People who seem to have embraced the system of their exploitation with all of their bodies, hearts and minds.

To me, prostitution was always a handy shortcut description for that kind of behaviour. After all, isn't that what a prostitute does - act as if s/he likes what s/he's doing for his/her customers? Put on a show of wellbeing, maybe even ecstasy?

As it turns out, this is untrue on at least two levels.

Firstly, in my very rare encounters with prostitutes, they didn't exactly put on a big show for me. It was all very matter-of-fact. Maybe that's different if you pay for high-end sex services, but at the level I was able to afford at the time, this was clearly not part of the game.

The other problem is the assumption that sex workers get exploited in some metaphysically different, probably a more frightening way, than the rest of us. While that is surely the case whenever violence is involved (and that may, sadly, be all too often), it is not inherent in prostitution itself.

Of course, one may also interject that there is a certain moral judgment involved in this. And I most certainly agree. The way I'm using the term prostitution here, in definitely contains an accusation of dishonesty.

What I'm driving at is that there is a dilemma: On one hand, if I accuse our average pencil pusher of prostituting him/herself, everybody knows instantly what I'm aiming at. On the other hand, prostitution in the literal sense, as it happens every day in real life, is a wildly different thing than this metaphoric meaning of the word implies.

So, I see two solutions: One, we stop using the word prostitution in the literal sense altogether, and start using the more neutral term sex work instead. Two, we find a new word for the metaphorical sense.

If you agree and tend to favour the latter solution, it would be nice if you could tell me the word of your choosing.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What did the Corinthians actually believe?

I'm in the process of reading up on Paulus of Tarsus again. Don't worry, I'm not getting converted, I'm just studying the thing.

I happened upon a question I can't find any answer to. Here it is:

1 Cor 15, 12f:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.
So, if some Corinthians believed there to be no resurrection - how did they make sense of the christian gospel? Do we have any information on what they actually believed? Reading 1 Cor, it seems to me like a horrid mess of inconsistent beliefs anyway, but apart from that - did they believe they would just not die, and thus there was no need for resurrection? (A belief soon doomed to fail...) Did they just not think straight? What was going on there?