Psychology


I was hoping to polish off the anti-sage meditation posts with a final post, “OBLITERATION OF THE EGO THROUGH PAIN” but I’m afraid that new insights have revealed to me that I have been framing these apparent “anti-zen” endeavours inaccurately. Thanks to my teacher, I now understand these practices to be complimentary expressions of my meditation practice, expressed in everyday life, rather than compensatory ones. We talk a lot about taking one’s practice “off the mat” in yoga but sometimes it’s not obvious what that might look like; in my case, it was not what I expected and I didn’t recognize it at first. In psychology and cognitive science, they call it flow.

Who were you that I lived with, walked with? The brother, the friend? Strife and love, darkness and light–are they the workings of one mind, features of the same face? Oh my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining. – Terrence Malick

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OBLITERATION OF THE EGO THROUGH NEUROCHEMISTRY

Society6/Måsse Hjeltman

Love is the cheapest, richest high. It costs you absolutely nothing and the intensity of the high lasts for days, weeks, months. You might in fact, never come down.

Like any drug, the first time you experience the rush of infatuation or eros, you probably won’t know what the hell to do with it. You are completely insane, fucked out of your mind on a heady neurochemical cocktail of dopamine and oxytocin and god knows what else, and this can actually be stressful for a lot of people. They’re constantly distracted, unable to sleep or eat and may behave out of character. They lose any and all sense of perspective. The most minor event can trigger even more intense, soaring highs or, if negative, can balloon into ridiculously overwrought and soul crushing lows. Like a dazed teenager puking on the sidewalk after a first round of binge drinking, most people need to learn how to hold their eros. Like any intoxicant, some people will always have a low tolerance for the stuff while others will never be affected very powerfully; some will become completely addicted while others may actively dislike it; so on and so forth.

Society6/Heather Landis

I’ve been falling in love practically every week since I was a teen and I’ve always enjoyed it. I have always been quite cavalier with my heart and I don’t regret a single time I’ve loved deeply. And all I can say is, while being lovestruck affects everyone differently, it gets so much better with experience and meditation. Because you reach a point where you realize that you don’t have to do anything about eros other than to be with it. A crush is just a crush, lust is just lust, and when you have no attachments to any outcome, you can luxuriate in your free and wonderfully rich high without that kind of frenetic concern over how the relationship is going to play out. You can think your silly, lovesick thoughts and be amused by them instead of believing in them. You can sit back and let your brain light up with feel good neurons firing away, and marvel at the fact that all it took to get that sweet, sweet hit of rewarding dopamine was a simple image or thought of your object of affection.

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I was reading two articles about John Mackey (citations below), CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc. and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lululemon. Both are brands that appeal to a middle class idea of consumerist virtue, with each individual buying his or her way into a healthy, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable lifestyle of their own choosing. Both corporations are stock market superstars run by Ayn Rand happy executives. Both have developed a feel-good, team slash cult work corporate culture.

Whole Foods and Lululemon brought to you by... objectivism?

I find it more than a little amusing how people can be unhappy to learn that their shopping runs to LULU and WFM are supporting companies run by people who don’t subscribe to liberal, middle class, lefty values. (Recently, Lululemon’s Ayn Rand bags shocked a good number of customers and earlier, Mackey published an article in the Wall St Journal against public health care, causing a major backlash.) I mean, were people truly surprized? Did they think that these companies’ stocks had a meteoric rise because their execs were… what? Not really, really, really into capitalism and the free market?

Capitalism takes on many forms and what impresses me most about it, is its uncanny ability to appropriate any ideology, even those that seem anti-capitalist. There is something so efficient and flexible about this system when it comes to human psychology, how it has consistently demonstrated the ability to leech out all of the threat from something powerful, turn it on a dime and sell it at a markup two weeks later. The mistake is to think capitalism is about this human value or that human value. Wherever there is demand, and there will always be demand, capitalism will always be ready to sweep in to make a buck or two. Or trillions.

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It took a few weeks, but my hold on Jung’s Liber Novus aka The Red Book (TRB), finally wound its way through the public library system back to my branch.

I’ll begin with practicalities. TRB is a seriously weighty tome. I think it must weigh more than a newborn baby. It’s roughly the size of a large laptop, and three times as thick. Being someone who reads on the go with a preference for light, slip in my purse novels, this was quite a demanding read, logistically. The large size however, does afford very detailed and beautiful reproductions of Jung’s original illuminated texts. You can even sometimes see the original pencil work made before being filled in with ink. One understands why such a size was chosen; TRB is replete with gorgeous artwork and it is simply a pleasure to pore over Jung’s caligraphic hand and his intricate illustrations.

The text itself is fascinating, and offers an intimate window into Jung’s “confrontation with the unconscious” after his falling out with Freud. One can see immediately, why he may have had reservations in sharing TRB given his scientific background and, on a more impersonal level, the drive for psychiatry – a fledgling practice at the time – to align itself with the legitimacy and biopower of medicine. Jung basically describes various journeys into psychological landscapes and records his observations of and conversations with beings he encounters along the way; one can imagine how this could weaken his credibility as a scientist.

In style, the writing is most like Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos which were published as an appendix to his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It has a reverential, pseudo religious, mythical tone throughout and one is vaguely reminded of Milton or Blake.

I would not recommend TRB for anyone seeking an understanding of Jung’s theories or for readers who do not have a basic understanding of them. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his layman’s publication, Man and His Symbols, as well as secondary texts by Edinger or Louise von Franz, would be more suitable for introductory purposes. TRB is better for readers seeking to deepend their understanding of the development of Jung’s thought, or who are interested in the process of active imagination. You can see quite clearly how Jung is capable of extremely vivid imagery that is partly self directed, and partly not, and that these are not really hallucinogenic visions. For OTO readers, this might be one way to develop content for one’s magickal diary.

Personally, I have practised active imagination since my teens, before I ever learned of Jung’s work. I have found it to be incredibly fruitful and illuminating, but, as with reading tarot, this practice requires a high degree of discernment lest one project messages or ideas or images from the ego and attribute these to the Self or anything other than the grasping of the ego. Certainly, looking back, I would imagine that a strong vipassana practice would go a long way in abetting such tendencies.

p.s. You may have noticed the removal of this blog’s previous post, What is Community? I felt it was too long, unwieldly and not well thought out. Also, in light of the recent blow up in the Anusara Yoga community, I would prefer to refrain from any kind of commentary on yoga communities at this time.

My tastes in art have always veered into the dark corners of the human psyche. I love tales that are perverse, gory, blasphemous, wicked, cerebral. My favourite film director at the moment is Catherine Breillat whose film A Ma Soeur! was banned in Ontario. Before that, it was Peter Greenaway, whose arguably most popular film, The Cook The Thief His Wife Her Lover, features a sadistic lout of a man whose actions lead to a spectacular revenge scene that involves cannibalism. In high school, I was a fangirl for stories like Ballard’s Crash and Battaile’s Story of the Eye. All these texts always seemed to me, to capture some truth about humanity and modernity that I wasn’t getting from mainstream society.

Another story I liked in high school was Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. It’s been a long time since I read it so my memory has probably coloured the main character with personal projections, but as I recall him, the Underground Man, he’s a miserable, vicious little guy. If there was ever a great example of self imposed suffering, Underground Man is it. His entire being is composed of defiance, of refusal, of a two year old’s first angry NO! and his perception is wholly based upon this ontological position of negation. What I loved about this character is how simultaneously petty and principled he is. He spends pages obsessing over a non-event (some guy brushes his shoulder in the street while walking the other way) and nursing this self perceived slight into a festering personal affront that he’s going to somehow avenge by finding the same guy and doing the same thing to him. Yes, he spends pages going on about how he’s gonna… bump the dude’s shoulder. It’s hilarious, right, but also deadly serious in its vindictiveness, a real vindictiveness that causes people to perpetuate cycles of affliction.

The thing is, the Underground Man is clearly driving himself crazy but his craziness is so familiar. Who hasn’t rebelled for the sake of rebellion? Who hasn’t found themselves unable to figure out what to do, except for knowing  that you’re not going to do that? And frankly, how many of us, when faced between the “right” choice* and the “wrong” choice, have done exactly the wrong thing, even as you’re harming yourself – and really fucking enjoyed it? And I mean, enjoyed being wrong to the hilt, lost in sensory damage, empty calories and carcinogens, pure meaningless distraction and arrogance, burning bridges, just doing it and doing it and doing it until you’re sick all over yourself. What a wonderfully twisted bunch we can be.

My first reaction to imagining a world without self deception was that we would lose all this rich art full of suffering and perversions and kinks. Which I don’t think is really possible. Not in an age of modernity anyway. Although who knows, maybe this whole capitalist-democratic-modern paradigm is in the final paroxysms of dying? I digress. So I started tracing that thought about losing self deception further and I think what bothered me was what bothered the Underground Man, that is, losing the ability and the desire to make the wrong choice. Without that, people would somehow become inhuman. That choice is such a precious thing, really. It’s a crossroads we stand at everyday – to act as a whole being and to treat others and ourselves as whole beings, or, to just not bother or, in more extreme situations to actively inflict harm and to like it. I mean, if there wasn’t an element of liking it, of really savouring the NO, why bother? What’s the point?

I spend a fair amount of time around self destructive people. I have a lot of patience for individuals expressing misogyny, racism, criminality and suchlike, esp if I can find that egalitarian one on one dyadic connection I’ve written about earlier on this blog. And at the end of the day, I see myself in these maladjusted people as much as anyone else I come into contact with. Or to be more precise, I see the potential for it. Why I have turned out the way I have is really beyond me. I may have put a lot of conscious effort into the whole process to becoming, but I must admit that ultimately, I haven’t a clue how it all works. All I know is that everyday, I stand at this crossroads with everyone else. And over and over again, we make choices.

*I am conflating for brevity’s sake, two “right” choices. The first “rightness” being choices that are constructed along modern, mechanistic, biopolitical lines (e.g. Radiohead’s Fitter Happier) and the second being the “rightness” of moral behaviours.

Just finished reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, a layman’s book about neurology and decision making. It’s basically all head, meaning there is very little discussion about the role physiological processes play in perception and cognition, but nevertheless, an interesting and easily digestible read about how we make decisions and the role of emotions in judgment. I liked how he emphasized how emotions can be an integral part of good decision making e.g. allowing you to factor in what’s more salient to you, even if you are unconscious of something. (Personally, I’ve always liked how Jung placed emotions on the rational access of the four functions with thinking, because emotions can be very reasonable, much more so than logic at times.)



Another conclusion Lehrer drew that was basically the main take-away of the book, was that you arrive at better decision making the more aware you are of your decision making processes. Sounds like this and mindfulness meditation are on the same page to me.

So, how can astrology help out in this aspect? You might be able to find your decision making tendencies by examining your natal chart. Now there’s no easy formula to do this, so I’ll give you some examples. I think you will need to take multiple placements into consideration – especially the moon, Mercury and the rest of the first seven planets as well as strong/weak elements or modalities. You might have read some books about Mercury (symbolizing the mind) and how an afflicted or combust Mercury signifies problems with the mind, but in my experience, that is complete garbage and I’ve never seen a correlation. Which brings me to my first example.

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Whenever you engage long enough in any practice that involves working with metaphor, you’ll eventually run up against your models of reality, and run up against them hard. With divination, and its emphasis on cause and effect, that happens fairly quickly.

One thing that vipassana meditation has made very clear to me is that our models of reality will always be inadequate. You can never pin down reality. Metaphor is like a living bridge that helps us to move within the chasm that lies in between our incomplete models and representations of reality with a mysterious living reality. Metaphor is what allows us to experience the excitement and discomfort of holding the tension between things like fate vs free will, spirit vs matter, body vs mind, magical thinking where the world is imbued with meaning vs a meaningless, chaotic universe.

There are two dangers with metaphor. The first is forgetting that metaphor is a metaphor. It’s not reality. It’s not the mystery that it’s directing you toward (and in doing so, perhaps taking you farther away). It’s not a mere prop for your superstitions. The second is forgetting that metaphor is not separate from the matrix of reality. It is not a shifting pomo layer of floating signifiers detached from the signified. Metaphor is not just an image, just a turn of phrase, just a gesture. If metaphor was only mere pictures, mere words, mere movements, it would not be able to contain the power and energy that it does. This is more or less the paradox that we work with when it comes to metaphor: it is not and is not not reality.

My sangha teacher is opposed to magical thinking. I am opposed to any static, stable version of reality that claims to have settled the paradox of metaphor.

Interesting post from Dreamspeak about metaphor

A different, much older take on this paradox from this blog: The Virgo Posts

Today, I went to hear Dr. James Orbinski speak on a panel about genocide, war and conflict with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish and LGen. The Hon. Roméo Dallaire. One of the questions moderator Carol Off asked was how Dr. Orbinski felt treating the wounded who may have been killers or genocidaires and who could, after healing, continue to perpetuate violence. He answered, and I paraphrase, that he is frequently asked this question and does not feel there was any dilemma present because of the underlying principle of his actions as a physician and humanitarian, which was to treat each patient as a human being first, worthy of aid and common decency. The relationship of physician and patient reaches a fundamental place that is inviolate by politics.

It is only now that I have become aware that I have been living with this incredibly subversive idea and how actions derived from this feeling can be truly revolutionary. To experience in action, that every person, regardless of their past, their actions and their wrongdoings, is still a human being that deserves a certain regard.

Sometimes I wonder if the one-on-one encounter holds the most potential for this subversive idea. Perhaps the dyad is where equality may begin – even in relationships that are traditionally structured around a power differential (e.g., teacher and student). It seems to me that there is something unique about a coupling that cannot occur elsewhere. All context falls away and at least temporarily, you are the whole world of the other and the other becomes your whole world. It is no surprize that a frequent desire for a romantic couple is to get away from it all, to escape context, to try to protect the dyadic connection.

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I had a friend ask me the other day about meditation. He’s a hard working, luxury loving Taurus sun with over half his planets ensconced within the 2nd house of values and possessions. Not surprisingly, this young man eventually went on to get his MBA at Harvard and has had a very successful career. Now he leaves his place for work at 6 am only to return at midnight to crash and do it all over again. He’s a consultant which means his work often consists of trying to fix other people’s problems all day.

Work is really stressing me out, he confides, but the whole “stop and breathe thing” doesn’t seem to be working. No matter how hard he tells himself to calm down, it doesn’t work. So he asks me about meditating. And I’m no expert, but two things have become very clear to me.

Lesson the first: Don’t waste time trying to dictate to your unconscious what to do.

Even from a strictly neurological viewpoint,* your unconscious is immeasurably more powerful and millions of years “older” than the newer, inhibitory structures of the brain. Trying to get the “newer” frontal lobe to put the brakes on a cascading anxious reaction from the “reptile” brain is an exercise in (further anxiety fueling) futility. A perfect example of how this can fail is when you actively supress a thought or emotion only to have that backfire and amplify your unwanted reaction!

The lower/older structures of the brain have primary pipelines right into your body, giving them the first call in regulating (or disregulating) your emotions, your physiology, and the frameworks by which you perceive the world. They work on the premise of survival. You want to try to rationalize your body out of survival mode? That’s like believing you can control a startled wild horse by using your bare hands to muscle it into your control.


Better to respect and ride the beast, than to be trampled underfoot, no? Meditation will give you the tools to do this.

Lesson the second: Meditation is cumulative!

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Have been reading more and more about the downsides of our multi-task happy lifestyle. Especially interesting were recent studies suggesting that multi-tasking degrades cognitive abilities, including those that require switching tasks! The latest article, a short one from the NY Times: Wandering Mind is a Sign of Unhappiness.

The thing about distraction is, you’re partly seeking novelty. Novelty is what makes the brain orient itself and become alert with attention. And our brains are wired to like it. We have become addicted to, and also mentally lazy with, novelty. Modern life means being bombarded with novelty via each new interrupting email/text/call/IM/etc. If not that, then try avoiding the endless image/sound stream of advertising. Advertisers probably know more about the psychology of ensnaring your attention than someone with a degree in the subject.

I know this is a long post. Here's a pretty looking visual distraction.

In meditation, one of the tasks we may be asked to do is to concentrate on one thing (usually breath) and to constantly be aware of the novelty within that one experience. This means, at the very least, working hard for your novelty fix. It takes serious mental concentration and attention. This is a great way to train for concentration, but frankly, it can also be a pain in the ass to do, even when the pay off is huge. But there are other, less arduous ways of training concentration.

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