Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mindchaotica: "The Tantric Territory"

What the word "tantra" means depends very much on who you are asking. It is used to describe sex-surrogacy and sexual therapies, healing modalities, couples counseling, a spiritual practice with sexual elements, a sexual practice with spiritual elements, an attitude of polyamory, a sexy massage technique, a series of rituals, a lifestyle of hedonism, a sexual-healing variation of BDSM, a transgression fetish, a euphemism for prostitution, many indian restaurants, a nightclub or two and even an energy drink … and that is just in the West.

I laughed hard at that intro. Haven't yet the rest of the article yet, but it does sound promising!
Ha! I just stepped on the scale again for the first time in 3 weeks, and I'm still below 90kg, despite a few slip-offs, burgers, and binges. Oh, and I've been experimenting with very slow, almost yoga-inspired exercises in my workouts. It's incredible how it works the muscles, while avoiding strain on the joints.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Structure Of Beliefs

Sorry if I am repeating myself here... slowly but surely, I lose control of my own blog; I'm not quite sure whether I wrote about this before.

I think it makes sense to see beliefs as being composed of two parts: there's an objective, factual part, and there's the subjective, emotional side.

When we talk about beliefs, and especially when we are trying to change them (i.e., do "self-help"), those two parts are really two radically different beasts. It is good practice to keep them apart as best you can; because different approaches are needed for each of them. Different questions make sense.

Let's use an example, one that might be straight out of an NLP textbook: "I am very bad with women."
For simplicity, I'll take on the role of the coachee here.

NLP tends to deny it, but there is, of course, an objective part here: There are other guys out there who get laid way more than me. It may well be that I never ever approach a woman, and if I do, I get rejected in the worst possible ways.

Those are facts. It makes no sense to deny them. When you watch me at a pub, you'll see me staring at 'em nervously, and you'll see them roll their eyes in disgust when I try to talk to them. Maybe I should take a shower once in a while or stop boozing myself into oblivion.

So, the question "Is this true?" makes sense for the objective part. Trying to wish it away will probably not get me anywhere. The power of positive thinking won't change it. Complicated NLP patterns will not turn me into a seductive superhero pickup artist over night. If I have not gotten laid in five years, the factual truth of not getting laid is out there, and no master NLP practitioner will be able to talk it into nonexistence. A shower might work wonders, though.

And then there is the other part. The subjective part. My emotional reactions. With regard to those, it makes little sense to ask whether they are "true" or not. Emotions just are. With regard to the emotional part of a belief, I think that there are two practices that make sense.

One practice arises out of the question, "Where do I want to put my focus?" There was this one woman, way back, who didn't completely ignore me. Maybe she even wanted my friendship. Heck, thinking about it, maybe I even find that she found me somewhat attractive. And there was that one night when she repeatedly talked about having to leave because she needed to get up early, but then she ended up staying till the next morning and calling in sick, just so she could spend more time with me... So it might feel good to remind myself of that from time to time. Next thing I know, I might realize that a random woman on the street keeps smiling at me. And over time, it may change my attitude, and ultimately, my beliefs.

The second one is the good old buddhist practice of empathy. Learning to be more empathic toward myself. Developing empathy towards my own feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy. Realizing, ever so slowly, that all other humans suffer from the same issue. Gaining more stability and "discomfort tolerance", to use a little buzzword.

Forget about that neighbour. He or she will never come around. (Actually, one time, a neighbour did appear at my doorstep and asked me for help with her maths. And yes, things did ensue. What can I say, we were young and lonely. But that was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One I wouldn't want to have missed, though.) And that miraculous language pattern will never do anything for you.

Nor are there any guarantees that my little ramblings here contain any value for you.

Maybe I should give you a punchline, for better entertainment value. Frankly, I don't have one right now.

A little social experiment (for fun and... well, fun)

  • Declare yourself a christian.
  • Declare yourself not only that, but specifically a manichaean, pre-Augustine, Origenic, Pelagian, nontrinitarian, neo-gnostic christian.
  • Decry all other forms of christianity as heresy.
  • While doing so, constantly bitch about how your beliefs are being denigrated and marginalized by the evil mainstream heretic christian churches. Claim that the cross is an offensive symbol of oppression, baptism is the cause of sin, the eucharist is the devil's invention, etc.

How's that for a somewhat belated new year's resolution?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Very, Very Brief Story Of Enlightenment

This is how I envision that it probably might have come to pass (*):

One rainy afternoon back in 525 (or so) b.c.e., a well-respected member of a well-respected family in ancient India sat down and admitted to himself that he was deeply dissatisfied with his life. He left the safe surroundings of his home, and he ventured to study with the foremost spiritual leaders of his time and place, to find lasting peace of mind.

Now, this man, who would later be called the buddha, was surely a clever fellow. Not only was he able to participate in, and master the techniques he learned, at an amazing speed - he also came to realize that they did not work. Not as advertised, anyway. They gave him peace, yes, and bliss, and deep mental states full of visions and tranquility - but all of this did not last. The blissful states lasted for minutes, probably hours at most, and then he was back to his old little self-loathing limited normal self.

So he sat down and had a long, intensive discussion with himself. It seemed that all those methods had one thing in common: They were incredibly complicated. And also, they were highly elitist, suitable only for the initiated, for the rich, for the True Believers; covered with layers upon layers of superstition and guru worship and... all the things that our clever young hero despised.

In short, they did not alleviate suffering. Like sex with someone you don't care about, they gave you a short kick, and left you with an emptiness even deeper than before.

But he also had an inkling that, hidden within all that superficial spiritual materialism, an incredibly valuable gem was to be found.

So, maybe, all he had to do was strip away the unnecessary. Much like a later genius would say - you only have to carve away the stone that hides the statue.

So he took all that those methods he learned had in common. The result was shockingly, and quite deceptively, simple: Sit down, breathe, focus on breathing. When thoughts arise, let them pass, and gently move your focus back to breathing.

And that was what he did. He sat down under the bo tree, snakes came and went, the veil of Maya was torn before his eyes, and he could see. Really see. And feel, and smell, and taste... his mind explored past lives and future possibilities, and he stopped being limited by his own ego.

In short, he had discovered the secret.

Soon after, an old man came along, and asked him what he was doing. And the buddha told him. The man started to meditate, and found some peace of mind. Not quite the kind of peace the buddha had, mind you - but then, the old man had never meditated in his whole life, so the practice would probably take some time with him.

At any rate, the man felt so much better that he started spreading the word. And others started to follow the newly enlightened being. As he started teaching, he also discovered that he had a way with words. With ever more people attending his lectures, ever more disciples listening intently, he was on a roll. As his disciples got into the habit of practice, they, too, experienced great states of peace and tranquility. Plus, they provided the buddha with food and drink and, even more importantly, veneration.

It seemed as if there was no stopping the newborn movement. Years passed, during which the disciples discussed the intricacies of their spiritual advancements, and - deeply rooted in the fecund soil of the buddha's teachings - the sprout of a new doctrine began to bloom. A king had announced his arrival. A king! Everyone was overwhelmed. The buddha, who was now used to having a certain effect on people, managed to keep his cool. After all, this was what was expected of him.

And yet, at around that time, a few nagging doubts clouded his enlightened mind. It had been two years since his adventure under the bo tree, and none of his pupils seemed to have been enlightened. Moreover, they began to quarrel and quibble and fight about minor points - how to sit, when to sit, what to eat - that really had nothing to do with his message.

Maybe he had been unscrupulous in his choice of words. Initially, he hadn't given it much thought. In his delighted state, it had seem like such a minor problem! What he had experienced had felt, to him, like what the scriptures described as moksha, bodhi, kensho, metanoia. So that was what he talked about. And now it was too late to stop. Within the new sprout of buddhism, already religiosity was claiming its place, suffocating the roots, poisoning the mind.

At a sunny afternoon, back in 505 (or so) b.c.e., two Venerable Disciples were sitting in the long grass. They were venerable indeed, Followers of the First Month, trustworthy and truly devoted to the cause. One of them was the Venerable Disanjali, with long hairs and a wild beard; the other, younger one, was the Venerable Assamphuti, blond and fair.

As they sat, Disanjali said: "Venerable Assamphuti, I am annoyed by the newest converts. They talk about enlightenment as if they were entitled to it. As if the practice was somehow an automatic machine, a vendor, selling enlightenment for a little practice. As if it was something that they could have, without putting in the hard work, as we do."

To this, Assamphuti sighed, and replied: "Venerable Disanjali, they are greedy and cheap. They also say that some of them should be enlightened by now. Some of them even say that The Master might be wrong."

Disanjali shook his long-haired head: "It saddens me deeply. We might have to expel some of them."

"Yes, we might. But then again... haven't you secretly been having similar thoughts, from time to time?" He looked up, and hastened to add: "Not that those thoughts should be taken seriously, of course."

"Of course not."

They were silent for a bit. Then Disanjali said: "Maybe we should ask The Master about it."

"Are you crazy?" Assamphuti exclaimed, and then instantly returned to his well-disciplined, calm voice, such as was suitable for a Venerable Disciple of the First Month. "You are essentially saying that The Master is wrong. That He might not be enlightened. That He might..."

"Lie to us?" That was the dark, solemn voice of the Very Venerable Disciple Attamuno, who had been secretly listening in. Blushing deeply, the two of them looked at him in astonishment. He sat down in the grass, dropping his long walking-stick to the ground, and said with a soft smile: "Oh you youngsters. You have it wrong, you know. I've been giving the thing a lot of thought, pondering night after night, sitting awake in the pale moonlight. The answer is there, right in front of your eyes, and yet you don't see it."

He made a long, artistic pause just to add to the thrill.

Then he continued: "We know that The Master cannot be wrong. He has proven it over and over. And yet, we also know that enlightenment doesn't come to us, regardless of how much we try. So, my friends, there is only one possible solution... "

Again, a long pause. This time, Assamphuti couldn't bear it, and urged him to speak on.

"Isn't it obvious? We are misunderstanding The Master. He's talking figuratively, He's talking in images and similes. He's expressing something that we, the unenlightened, are not able to understand."

He paused again. Only this time, it was not for effect. He fell into a grave, thoughtful silence.

"And what, my friend, might that be?" asked Disanjali then.

"Well, my Venerable Brother Disanjali. I don't understand it either. After all, I'm not enlightened. But I think that, in a way I'm not completely sure how to explain, and that I think is really an unsolvable riddle, enlightenment ultimately is not."

"What?" Both of his fellows exclaimed in unison, thinking the older monk had gone insane.

"It is, and yet it isn't. It's not here, not there. It's not a state. It is nothing that can be expressed in words. You cannot explain it to the unenlightened. Thus, when The Master speaks about enlightenment, he's talking from a perspective of enlightenment - a perspective we cannot hope to understand, unless we are, ourselves, enlightened. Which we are not. Which we cannot really 'be', because, as I said, it is not  a state."

The two of them sat in stunned silence, while Attamuno was slowly caressing a flower.

"You're right", said Disanjali after a while.

"Yes", said Assamphuti. "He's right."

And so it was. The new doctrine spread like a wildfire through the sangha, keeping a lot of followers in the group that might otherwise have turned away, binding the tightly-knit community even closer together, so that, even after the buddha died, they were able to move on. They prospered.

True, the wildfire also burned down a few remnants of self-esteem. But such was to be expected. It was only collateral damage. What mattered was the sangha, the dharma, the buddha, not some selfish concerns a few youngsters might have.

After all, the doctrine flourished, and it helped keep the peace in the land. Over time, it got a lot more intricate, convoluted, confusing. Ironically, that served even better to keep people in their place. Whenever somebody asked or had doubts, it was only because they were not there yet, hadn't read enough of the scriptures, had a few thousand more lives of suffering before they could reach... well, not reach, really... a state of non-state, the realization of form and emptiness... ach duh, you can't understand it anyway! Stop asking those stupid questions! You're such a child!

Patient teachers explaining the same points of Truth with high confidence, over and over again. Now and then, some teachers were not quite so patient. Some even slept with their students. That, however, was a totally different story, utterly different and unrelated indeed.

Coalitions arose: first with kings, then with tyrants. On the very top of that great mountain of confusion, a wonderful temple was built. Inside of it, priests developed increasingly complicated rituals, while peasants were plowing their fields, happily giving whatever they could to the priests for a chance of enlightenment only a few thousand reincarnations later. Children were starving, monks were meditating, priests were discussing important matters, such as whether women were able to reach enlightenment, or what was the karmic punishment for stealing from the temple. Lots of good was done in the name of the dharma. Lots of bad was done, too.

By and large, the world was at peace.

(*) very obvious historical inaccuracies and propositions inconsistent with intricacies of 2500 years' worth of interpretation and exegesis notwithstanding

A Chance Meeting

Yesterday, I ran into a girl I know from a coffee shop; a devout christian. We had a good talk, mostly about religion. We disagreed on many points, and agreed on some others. We parted, I think, both of us enriched and looking forward to our next encounter.

That's the way it should be.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Let's Turn It Into An Art Form!

It just dawned on me... in all my attempts at dealing with my own emotions, all the personal-development stuff I've tried, with whatever success... one thing was missing all that time.

Just look at it. Picture me dealing with some "difficult emotion", whatever it is.

The buddhist doctrine will tell me that it just "is what it is", and then to focus on my breath and meditate.

The NLPers will say that I have to break it down into its various sensory qualities, then create a new feeling from scratch, anchor that, yadda yadda yadda.

Tony Robbins will tell me I have not yet succeeded in making "feeling better" a MUST, that I should shift my pose and focus on the right things. Father Barron will want me to rejoin the catholic *cough*cult*cough* church, and Steven Pylarinos will make another video.

The psychoanalyst will try to find the root cause for a few years, the christian will find my lack of faith disturbing and tell me to pray nonetheless, Marshall Rosenberg will offer four stages (not three! not five!), the advaitin will say that there's nothing to learn anyway...

And they all have exactly one thing in common: They offer me one (or maybe two or three) recipes, based on a few ideological premises that are to be accepted. When you cut to the chase, there is One True Way, and by necessity the others are false, or at least not the best way.

There is a certain... fearful timidity to that approach. As if my inner life was like an ancient chinese vase about to fall and break into a thousand pieces!

Do you, my dear reader, share my impression that the best things in life generally tend to make you feel free, spontaneous and creative?

If so, why don't we start being creative about our own emotional development? There is this troubling feeling. I can yell at it to go away. I can consciously choose to identify with it. I can name it, externalize it, picture it as a color. I can breathe into it. I can dance around the room, or at least visualize myself doing so. I can try and add warmth to it, or else push it away and make it appear smaller and in black-and-white. I can focus on my breath. I can come up with a few fun affirmations...

I have all those things to try, and then some.

Doesn't that feel tremendously more empowering than sticking to one method devised by some clever guru? Even if that guru be the christ, or the buddha himself...

Let's reclaim our own relationship with ourselves! Let's turn our self-appreciation into an art form, our self-love into an eternal dance, a fire of passion, creativity, unabashed recklessness. Some things will make us feel divine for a short time, some things will help us in the long term, and some attempts will blow up in our face like a big old jack-in-the-box. Let's learn from our experiences, mistakes and successes, and let's share our insights.

I'm not a broken vase. I am my own art project.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why Rituals Matter

Practically every life coach and self-help guru will go on about rituals, and how important they are. As one popular example, watch the following Tony Robbins video:

(Note for clarity, added after my discussion with Brent Mosher in the comments section below: I do not endorse Tony Robbins; he's a self-help guru, and he keeps raising unrealistic and false hopes in his followers. However, I think he's right in this regard, and I believe in separating the wheat from the chaff, even with gurus.)

He's right, of course, and they all are: Rituals are good for you!

This posting is about what they don't tell you, perhaps because it's not trendy and not "positive" enough. Or, more probably, they simply don't know it. (*)

There is a well-documented psychological effect called decision fatigue. It describes how decisions are physically exhausting. The following quote from a NYT article (quoted in an excellent article aptly titled "Decision Fatigue: Why Willpower Isn’t Always Enough") explains it nicely:
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.
It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain...
(Highlights by me.)
And that is precisely why it makes sense to ritualize our tasks - especially those we don't like. Daily workout, I guess, is one of those for most of us. You get up in the morning and your brain and your whole body goes noooo, not again... I'm tired, I want ten more minutes in bed, it'll feel terrible... And that odd behaviour will continue day after day after day, even though you repeatedly have the experience of being more happy after the workout than before. But when you're used to doing your morning exercises every day at the same time for so long you don't even remember a time when you did not do them, it's much easier. It's one thing you don't have to think about.

Perhaps more importantly, if you know the dynamics of decision fatigue, it gets easier to handle those situations. It's not a question of guilt anymore, but a question of acquiring the skills. Instead of calling yourself a failure for not having enough willpower, now it's time to learn how to ritualize all the things you want to do on a regular basis.

And it gets even better!

'Cos you can apply the same principle on a much lower level, too.

I find that workout gets easier if I do the same set of exercises every time. Sure, every now and then I add an "extra", just to make it more interesting, but in general, I have my 10 or so moves that I do every day.

I hear similar stories from people who decided to go vegetarian. There is no question about ordering that rare steak. One more decision they don't have to take with every single meal.

Venturing into philosophical terrain, I find it plausible that our identity, the labels we attach to ourselves and then attach ourselves to, are yet another way to get rid of decisions. If that is so, my decision never to go 100% with any dietary philosophy has a severe drawback here, and I will rethink it in the next few days.

So, in case you were wondering why your grandma always insisted the dishes be done right after the meal, now you know - she was perfectly right. Sometimes, a lifetime of experience can make one a great psychologist.

What tasks can you think of right now that you would like to ritualize in this way?