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".