Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Nagging Doubt

I do not believe in deities. I do not believe in spiritual energies like qi or mana, meridians, acupuncture. Neither do I believe in astrology, tarot, or the kabbalah (the one esoteric system I still hold dear, if simply for its incessant overflow of symbols and associations). Homeopathy? Duh. Don't get me started.

One can not believe what one does not believe. I don't think it's true, and it makes no sense to try and convince myself of it.

But, sometimes, there is this idea in my head that all the "energy exercises" that I perform almost daily - and which proved extremely worthwhile to me - might do a lot more for me if I just gave in to the belief that those "spiritual energies" actually exist.

I must admit that this is a very seductive possibility.

I can well imagine that there is indeed a very real foundation for that in the human brain. After all, religion didn't come from nothing. Feeling connected to the earth, the air, the universe as a whole - not only in a symbolic, psychological way, but as an actual reality - surely must be a tremendous experience.

It is quite ironic: I have the tools, now, to basically create those feelings "at will". Six, maybe seven years ago, I would most probably have attributed reality to them and gone on a wild, enthusiastic spiritual ride. But alas, then I didn't know how. Now that I have learned a few things, I could, but I won't do it.

It would be nice to have a little belief switch: Switch it on, believe in whatever wacky spiritual idea you like. Perform your exercises and have the most intense transcendental experiences. And then just switch it off again and go back to thinking critically.

And of course, in a way, drifting into the nondualistic, non-discursive depths of "Self", is a bit like that, only without any words that could describe those beliefs.

But ultimately, I think one just has to live with it. You can't get the placebo's full effect while knowing that it doesn't contain any active ingredients. Once you've pulled back the curtain and paid attention to the wee man there, there's no way to close the curtain. You can never unsee.

And of course, the upsides outweigh the disadvantages by far.

Why Do People Make Sex A Spiritual Endeavour?

This is a great, very thoughtful and thought-provoking 2009 article about why so many sex-positive "progressive" people like to associate sex with "spirituality". It's written from a skeptical perspective, so it instantly jibed well with me.

One thought from that article is that "spirituality" is pumped up with positive associations because it's a close neighbor to religion, and religion is, in our minds, still stereotypically "good". So if you move out of the "sex is sin" paradigm, and into a "sex is goooooood" state, then calling your sex spiritual makes the transition a lot easier. It alleviates your guilt, simple as that.

Personally, I would like to add that "sacred sex" or even just plain VERY VERY GOOD SEX has a lot to do with introspection, and "spiritual" practices are, of course, deeply introspective most of the time. So I guess it makes sense for many people to combine the two in order to achieve even better results, or simply because there is a huge shared area.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A (Very) Short Critique of Modern Spirituality

If we assume that "ego vs self" ("left-hemisphere vs right-hemisphere"; "duality vs nonduality"; etc.) is an apt description of "inner states", then I do not think that one of those two states should be preferred, is more mature, more developed, closer to enlightenment than the other. Both are part of my "true being", both are necessary.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ego and Self

One metaphysical approach to psychology that I particularly enjoy is the following:

There is ego, and there is self.

None is better or worse than the other, both just are. Ego is about setting boundaries, affirming yourself, being your own (wo)man, independent and strong. Self is about being connected, in tune with everything, at one with others and the universe as a whole, interdependent and without any need for boundaries, endless, loving, unconditional.

Most metaphysical "spiritual" systems seem to have some bias for self over ego. Modern western psychology, on the other hand, mostly doesn't.

(The problem is, I suspect, ultimately unavoidable: The sentence above - "both just are" - is itself an expression of self, not of ego. It's an expression of nonjudgment over judgment. Perfect balance seems impossible. So, the best we can do is be aware of the issue and not, as my usual motto goes, fall for our own b.s.)

Basically, what I think is that you just naturally go from one state to the other, and back again, several times every day or even every minute. It's fun to realize in what state you are, right now, and there are visualisations that can help invoke one state when you need it.

In fact, those visualisations are so obvious and unexciting that I hasten to name them. Strong roots that connect me to all the world? My crown chakra completely open to the whole of the universe? A strong, white, glowing like that surrounds me like a vigorous armor and protects me from outside influences? The knightly warrior, ready to strike?

I'm sure you catch my drift and can come up with your own images for the two states, if you so decide. It's a fun little exercise to evoke those states, perfect for a rainy day, and probably of some use in more serious contexts, too.

The most important bit here, though, is the realization that you do change your state over time. When you're completely disconnected from everything, wrapped up in anger and rage, you're in a state of ego. Now is probably not the time to go bargain for that raise. But you know that you will be in a different stage, a few minutes or maybe hours later. So you just have to wait, or if you're impatient, practice changing states.

Note that this is precisely the opposite of an "esoteric typology": These are not character types, but rather states or functions of the mind. This has nothing to do with being a "left-brainer" vs. a "right-brainer" (oh how I abhor that nonsense!), analytical brainiac vs creative artist. Even your most hard-headed businessman depends on his empathy, if only for acquiring new customers. I find those typologies extremely limiting, because they tend to see a human being as static, fixed, unable to change. When you feel that you're too analytical for your own good, or that you need to set up more and stronger boundaries, well, change it, focus on the aspect that you want more in your life! Just... don't forget that the other part is equally important and necessary for your wellbeing.

Well and of course, please, never forget that this is not "true". I guess we can show different states of mind with MRIs or CATs or something like that. But I highly doubt that "ego" and "self" can be shown in the brain. It's just a rough approximation of personal experiences that seems to work for many people.

I find this to be tremendously relieving.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Just a few thoughts that have been going through my head these days:

  • Is being introverted necessarily a contradiction to being extraverted, or can one switch from one to the other? If so, how?
  • Does the "hook-up culture" actually exists, as certain conservative folks, for example one Robert Barron, seem to propose? Why do I never get to witness a "hook-up" in real life?
  • If the hook-up culture is so terribly bad for you and makes teenagers end up in psychiatry after a few years, then how come the '68s were suspiciously unaffected?
  • I've read quite a few times now that there is a huge conservative backlash and sexual faithfulness is actually "in" these days. So what is true now?
  • If Jesus had chosen not to opt for monogamy (very much a possibility, since the concept was under heavy debate at the time) - would christians now argue in favour of polygamy? What might their arguments be? (Excellent topic for a speculative fiction story.)
  • Being able to deal with ambiguities as an indicator of maturity.
  • How is it that the BDSM folk know that you should know your tools and that misapplications can be dangerous - while many practitioners of yoga, meditation, NLP, christianity etc. seem to be utterly oblivious to the possibility of unwanted side-effects?
  • Metaphysical systems can always be translated into each other's language, and if you do so, the result is a third and possibly new system. (Christian NLP, NLP zen, Freudian NLP, Freudian tantra, zen scientology?)

Monday, September 17, 2012

It Happened So Fast... (A Word of Warning for Aspiring Meditationists)

When I got into buddhist meditation, I was in a major depression. Regular meditation practice helped me with that - it made me a lot calmer. And for quite a while, it was good. Very good, actually.

Now, most buddhist writers (and speakers) place a lot of emphasis on being here and now, not blindly following the fantasies, slowly disidentifying from the "monkey mind", the "mindless mind chatter".

So, ever so slowly, while becoming calmer, I also got more disengaged from some of my old thought patterns, some of my old feelings. That was good, because it was bad feelings and destructive thoughts that got me depressed in the first place.

But at some point, I realized that I had gotten more than I had bargained for. I had lost some of my desires. But did I actually WANT to lose them? Among those desires was my desire to write good literature (in my mother language, of course, don't you worry!). But I didn't realize that there might be a connection; I just assumed that it was one of those naturally occurring periods in which I didn't fancy writing so much. And writing had often been connected with intense suffering, so actually, that felt pretty good, too. So I had no motivation to change that, I assumed that it would just come back at some point (as it always had), and anyway since I didn't know what was going on, I had no way of changing it either.

A while later, I got into tantra. I learned how to create ecstatic feelings at will. And for quite a while, it was good. Very good, actually.

Now, tantra places a lot of emphasis on being here and now, not blindly following the fantasies, instead focusing on deep breaths and utterly slow motions.

That was good, because it made me feel happy, and there's rarely a guy out there who couldn't use some slowness and endurance in their sex.

But at some point, I felt my sexual desire floating away. Not that it felt bad - it was just weird, and slightly astounding. (Maybe I should tell you that I'm basically horniness incarnate. I cannot remember any time before that - after hitting puberty of course - when I didn't want sex. Not. One. Day. Seriously.) I thought it might just have to do with getting older and thus, less flooded with hormones. So there wasn't really a lot I could do about it, and as I said, it did feel really good in a way, so I let it go.

But a week ago, I got back into my old habit of keeping a dream diary, and then a few days later, I started reading a book on daydreams. Basically, it's about how they're a good thing, how they are necessary for any creative effort, for planning, for building a life.

Then it suddenly hit me: I have basically made a habit out of treating my daydreams with disrespect. I was always a rather introverted kind of guy, I enjoy having a conversation with myself in my own mind, I like building inner-world universes. If I don't treat my fantasies right, of course I don't get what I want! Of course I lose my creative spark.

So I'm rebuilding my daydreams now. I'm keeping a daydream diary along with the night-dream diary, and I consciously build up those sexual fantasies again.


Not that I'm blaming anyone, or whining around. I took this upon myself, and now I found another detail, and that is excellent. It's just one more part of my journey.

I just feel that those experiences need to be shared, so that, if you plan to delve into some form of meditative practice, you know that something like that can happen to you. It's not necessarily bad, either - just something to watch out for. If you feel that your fantasies are overwhelming, and they're giving you a hard time, then that's exactly what you want: some distance. If you're low on energy and in a constant mellow state.. probably not so much.

I think the bottom line is that meditation, tantra, etc. are all tools. Excellent tools. But they're not perfect,  they're not ends in themselves, and as with any tool, using them has a downside that one should be aware of.

And never never never never EVER let anyone tell you that your daydreams are a bad thing, filthy, sinful, or something to be avoided. (Of course, there is something to the buddhist perspective that you shouldn't identify with your thoughts, and of course, this is yet another tool that has other downsides that I'm not seeing yet... but... it's complicated. I'll say more about it once I actually know what I'm talking about.) I say honor your daydreams, treat them with respect, hone them, nurse them, water them like beautiful flowers. They deserve your best, and they will pay you back what you give them, interest and all.

My Project

In short, my "lifetime project" (as far as I'm willing to reveal that on a blog) is to find and salvage the good stuff from religions and "spiritual" teachings, while at the same time staying in touch with reality and keeping a sane, skeptical mind.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

When The Image Goes Wrong...

Autumn is here, folks! That magical time when a young man's fancy turns to nonsensical love lyrics. I gathered a few that I find particularly hilarious. It won't be the last time either, friends. Promise!


You're the cutest thing that I ever did see
I really love your peaches
Want to shake your tree
Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time
Ooh wee baby, I sure show you a good time

(Steve Miller Band, The Joker)

I sure love me my Mauuurrrice. Seriously, I do. And the "wolf whistle" gets me going like the next guy. But there is a little detail in there that makes me a bit doubtful as to Maurrice's hidden agenda... whether it be as a joker, smoker, poker, sinner, grinner, lover, biter, or, eventually, as a writer.

The question arises: What are we supposed to expect after that tree has been shaken? Does he honestly want us to picture her peaches falling off? Yuck. YUCK YUCK YUCK! To say the least. The very, very, VERY least.


Rock me, rock me, rock me, baby
Rock me out here on the floor
Rock me, rock me, rock me, baby
Rock me till I want no more
(Johnny Nash, Rock Me Baby)

Okay, Johnny, I dig that you want convulsions, quivering, tossing and tumbling. You want it here and now, and you want it to its very last, oh so exciting end. Well, isn't that what we all want?

But,  oh Johnny, why on earth do you insist on it taking place on the floor? As if that weren't bad enough, you have to have it take place out here (as opposed to, in there... wherever that may be)? You into flashing, or something? Filthy pervert!

Based on my limited experience with the oppositional, I mean opposite sex, I can tell you that this is probably not what she is looking for. Patience, my young padawan, is way more than a noun when it comes to sexual advances.

If you're too impatient to at least try and get her to a more comfortable and private place first, I must suspect that the experience might not be all so earth-shattering and world-rocking. At least not for her! Come on, you did promise her that you'll still be here with her when the night is through. I bet you can delay your pleasure for just a few more minutes!

In a world that don't know Romeo and Juliet
Boy meets girl and promises we can't forget
We are cast from Eden's gate with no regrets
Into the fire we cry
(Bon Jovi, I'd die for you)

That is just... wrong. To the point of cruel and unnecessary violence. First off, what on earth has knowledge of a classical stageplay got to do with anything? I don't assume that Jon was talking about carnal knowledge. The vision of our whole effing planet doing the wild thing to Mrs and Mr Montague's exposed orifices is just too disturbing.

And what's that business going on with that fire? If you're trying to stir it, then probably blowing would be a better idea than crying. Okay, that didn't come across the way I wanted it either. Huffing. I mean, panting. Puffing? Ah, f'get it. Or are you trying to kill the fire with your tears? Well, good luck with that, Jon.

The real fun part is the one about Eden's gate though. How does it make sense to cast someone from a gate? Are they still allowed to enter the garden, just as long as they don't use the gate?

(Sidenote: There was never any gate to the garden of Eden, or at least it's never mentioned in the bible. And god seems to have had precious little knowledge of military strategy. I guess he only learned that later, from Moses, or something. He placed two angels, both at the eastern side of the garden. It must have been ridiculously easy to sneak in behind their backs. Well, perhaps Adam and Eve didn't dare do that, what with god being omnipotent and all. But then, why place angels as guardians in the first place?)

As a little bonus, the chorus gives us the following gem:

I'd die for you
I'd cry for you
I'd do anything
I'd lie for you

Well, how is lying ever a good thing in a romantic relationship? Okay, maybe he's talking about lying down, which does make some sense, especially since he's already dead and probably exhausted from doing anything.

What really bugs me, though, Jon, seriously now...

After you died for her, on top of what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice, you are even prepared to drop a tear or two? Wooooow. Now that's what I call romantic!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Meditation? Meditations!

In the above article, to which I might come back again in a later posting because I believe that it contains a few very valid points, the author makes a claim about buddhist meditation: namely, that it is a highly unreliable tool and can even "exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people."

Now, I certainly think that this can be the case; most books and articles I read on the subject admit that there can be issues, and that people with severe mental problems should probably stay away from meditation. They then move on to state that those cases are extremely rare.

In my personal life, meditation has had a tremendously positive impact, so I cannot attest to anything else. But I sure understand, on an emotional as well as intellectual level, how feelings of losing one's self, of "unreality", might put some people in a lot of dismay. Personally, I always fancied meditation to be a rather safe method, for the simple reason that you have to put in quite a lot of time, that you have to practice on a very regular basis for an extended period, in order to actually achieve anything. It has its own safeguard built right into its core, so to speak.

But that is not entirely true.

The more I think of it, the more I conclude that meditation is not one thing, but many different things.

If you sit down to meditate, regardless of the method you employ, there will always be thoughts passing through your head. And some of those thoughts will be about the meditation you're just having. In other words, you do interpret your meditation while you meditate. In all practices I know, the goal is letting go of exactly those interpretations - but since this is basically a life-long journey, those thoughts, those interpretations, will be with you for quite a while. And, since you cannot easily have a clean cut between your thoughts and "what meditation really is", that wordless state, your thoughts are actually a part of your meditation. Your words shape your experience of wordlessness. And those words, of course, are themselves informed by your religion, ideology, worldview - especially if your meditation is an integral part of your religion.

If you sit down thinking that you're now enjoying the presence of Jesus, this is a whole different experience than if you sit down with the assumption that you slowly realize that your self is an illusion, which will eventually lead you to enlightenment.

So I posit that christian meditation is not just meditation with some added christian flavor, but a completely different affair than buddhist meditation. The same goes for every other "type" of meditation out there. They are all wildly different affairs.

And of course, this also implies that some of those interpretations are more wholesome than others. I guess that the types of meditation that get practiced in destructive cults tend to be of the not-quite-so-wholesome kind. A meditation engulfed in pressure and idolization of a leader... nah. Can't be all that good.

So, it's never really "just sitting". I think this is something to be aware of when you start a meditative practice.

This just in! Amazing stuff!

This is just mindblowing. Seriously. Go and read!

It's a guy describing how he found out that his neighbours were using his wireless lan. So instead of encrypting it or confronting them, he decided to have some fun... and hilarity ensued.

The best part is that he actually made it onto xkcd.

Monday, September 3, 2012

What's Wrong With Statistics (at least the ones you read in the news)

On the web or in newspapers, you can read excellent articles such as this. In it, you can read how the male brain is 10% larger on average, but the female brain has more connections. Men think more with the left side of the brain and are therefore more logical. But women have more nerve connections and a bigger corpus callosum (that's the part of the brain that connects the left and right halves), so they use both hemispheres of their brain more in-sync and are therefore better at intuition, communication... basically, women are better at everything that really matters, while men are good for the workforce, as cannon fodder, and for fixing your PC.

Well, the latter isn't even true anymore, now that the majority of 'puters are tablets that cannot be fixed if you don't have a contract with Apple(TM). D'uh.

Sounds about right, doesn't it?

Well... it doesn't. I often had this vague feeling that those claims were somehow wrong. Regardless of whether statistics were used to prove that men were superior (which is rarely the case nowadays) or (much, much more often!) that women are the epitome of goodness; or to show that immigrants are criminals; or that religious people live longer than atheists; or even when the statistics seemed to support my prejudices, showing that the roman catholic clergy are more prone to become child molesters than the rest of us. Something was... off.

Maybe it's just because I was brought up on the firm idea that stereotypes are bad, period. Or it's because I'm a Jewish Studies minor. At any rate, I tend to mistrust generalizations over large groups of people. The pharisees are hypocrites? Really? Every single last one of them did nothing all day except feigning learnedness and empathy, while really clinging to an absurd law and forcing it on others? None of them had families to support? None of them earned their living with hard work? They didn't build schools for the poor and unprivileged? Look up the facts and be surprised.

I'm getting off topic, yeah.

So, basically, I read all those statistical facts, had a hard time believing them, but never could I pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

Then, some fine day, I talked to a friend who knows her way around maths. I mentioned one of those suspicious statistics. One about men and women, probably. And, with a conspiratorial smile, after she had blown out the candle and looked around the room lest anyone should overhear what secrets she had to tell, she whispered the following words into my ear: "Standard deviation, my friend, standard deviation!"

This came as a huge revelation, which I am glad to pass on to you now.

Here's the deal:

Let's say you are trying to score a goal from the penalty spot. Let's also say that you're not exactly the greatest soccer player never to have roamed the field of the Allianz Arena. You shoot 10 times. 5 times, you shoot 10 meters to the left of the goal. The other 5 times, you shoot 10 meters to the right. Not counting those times when you didn't even manage to hit the ball.

So on average, you have hit the goal exactly 10 times. Right in the middle. That's a 100% success rate, right there.

And that's exactly what's wrong with the article quoted above. And that's exactly what's wrong with about 95% of all articles that quote statistics. They all tell you the average, but not the standard deviation. That's about as useful as telling you that the boiling point of water is 75.5°C.

It's not exactly relevant whether women have a, say, 10% larger corpus callosum on average, if the standard deviation is 2 times larger than that. It won't mean that any specific woman you meet will top any specific man in any one area with any reliability. It doesn't help us much to know that the female sexual partners of circumcised men run a slightly lower risk of cervical cancer (they don't, by the way). Not if sexual faithfulness, personal hygiene and the average time between sexual encounters are much more indicative factors.

So... don't believe me, I implore. But the next time you read your newspaper, look out for that standard deviation. I bet you won't find it.

By the way, the boiling point of water is 75.5°C, according to Wikipedia. At 8000 meters above sea level, of course.

Ah! Online again!

Being offline for a week while lying in bed with the flu is a devastating combination.

But I'm over it now.

Incredible how reliant one becomes.

As for actual content, I'm looking forward to writing my rant about statistics, so stay tuned...!