Practical Mysticism #004: Holy Shit!

Concerning the move from ‘religious experience’ to religion.

Milky Way Galaxy with pointer to our Sun: "you are here"
Image: NASA – public domain – we don’t seem central to pretty much anything

Emergent properties

An ’emergent property’ is something appearing in a system that was not predictable from looking at the individual parts alone. Examples? One could argue that studying oxygen and hydrogen separately would not let you predict the behavior of water. Similarly, it would be hard to predict cellular life from the set of elements created by the Big Bang.

I’m suspicious of how often the term is used, however. It seems, in many cases, to simply be the limit of the predictor’s imagination. “I didn’t see that coming! Ah, emergent property.”

Planning depth

I do, however, have a clear example relevant to this series.

It’s easiest to explain in terms of planning depth.

We think about the consequences of our actions continually. Some of the most complex planning involves our interaction with other people. Social species (elephants, killer whales, ravens, people) typically have bigger brains than other comparable species. This is because social interactions demand some of our highest cognitive capacity.

One way to analyze social interaction is by abstracting it out into a game theory framework of initial action, response, counter-response, etc. and consider each action as a game move. This makes it easier to think through. Planning depth is the number of moves ahead you can think, making assumptions about what your opponent will choose or be forced to do. 

Let’s simplify and say it’s two players in a zero-sum game like chess. Grandmaster chess players have claimed to think 15+ moves ahead. They’ve been accused of lying:-) But certainly, good players can think 3-5 moves ahead. Planning out 5 of your moves in addition to your opponent’s 5 responses and you have a planning depth of 10.

Tools such as calculating calendars (Stonehenge?) and sketches in clay or dirt can extend planning depth beyond what can simply be held in one’s head. All that applies.

Planning depth evolving

At some point during the last .5M years, our evolving planning depth capacity generated a whopper of an emergent property. To see it, we need to back up through the phylogenetic tree to a proto-chimp/human and then move forward. (Genetically, we’re the third chimpanzee, so we can see three divergent evolutionary paths.)

Image: Dave Huth, Creative Commons. https://www.flickr.com/photos/davemedia/6276774712

Our close cousins, pan troglodytes, use tools and have a troop structure. They don’t use stone weapons or fire…both things that a proto-human species developed with a brain 2/3rds the size of ours. I think they can be imagined as a reasonable starting point. Chimps can set up ambushes. Let’s call that a planning depth of three: 1) you stomp around over there; 2) our target will bolt from the bushes in the direction of where I’m hiding; 3) I’ll grab ‘em.  And maybe 4): then we eat it.

Holy shit

The point of all this planning is to keep us and our offspring alive and fed. The deeper the planning depth, the more successful we’d be.

An analysis like “We need to gather acorns in the high country, process them, and carry them out of the hills before it gets too cold. But the weather looks like the pattern of a dry year, so we need to head to the last place trees thrived in a drought rather than somewhere closer!” shows deep planning. (It also demonstrates a good reason to keep old people who remember long patterns around as humans have evolved to do.)

There’s a huge gotcha, however. Somewhere on the path from proto-chimp/human to homo sapiens, we hit the point where the deeping planning depth, evolving to keep us alive and thriving, hits the “Oh shit; we’re all going to die anyway” realization. It’s not a matter of what, just a matter of when.

At that point, we’ve stepped outside the bounds of the survival-based impetus provided by our species’ evolution. We’re now in a conceptual space with no given answers and a brain big enough to worry about such things.

Planning has suddenly become mind-blowing–perhaps even paralyzing–and something new emerges.

Religion

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.
– Gertude Stein
(Image: public domain)

I think this is where religions started to evolve…their job is to calm the existential freakout and get us refocused.

Not all approaches are adaptive. There are cults in India that pray to Shiva to open his third eye and destroy the universe. Some Christians hope for an immediate apocalypse (that, hopefully, they’ll refrain from imposing on the rest of us) rather than material thriving.

A recent, highly effective exploration of the problem is found in the work of Nietzsche, who sees meaning as something we posit as an act of will in the face of an uncaring and often cruel universe. He may not have generated the best answer, but he certainly away most of the cruft from the question.

So what

What has this to do with a series on practical mysticism?

Mystical experiences are mind-blowing: at best, transcendent; at worst, shattering (and typically a bit of both.) Religion tries to contain the damage. Religion can support the mystic by providing a framework. It can also try to suppress it as a challenge to its power. Either way, it’s important not to confuse the two.

Next up: I’m going to try and put the pieces explored so far into a general theory of ‘non-ordinary experience’ as a feature of our evolved species.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts.

We Need a Smaller Them – pt 3

TLDR: This is Part 3 in the Emotional Truth / Political Lies series: a loss of meaning can be more deadly than the loss of income when jobs go away for White working-class males. Their immiseration ripples out to affect us all.

(But first, friends links to a couple of new things on Medium:
Christianity from the Heart – Reverend Al makes a rare appearance.
Kevin Phillips – RIP – a history of today’s out-of-control Them-ing.)

Mervin Jules - Dispossessed [c.1938] - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Mervin Jules – Dispossessed [c.1938] – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Our plot so far:

We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

This is a further step in a series of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written since 2016. I’m building this in small sections. Please kibitz!

This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us.

My thesis: the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs. The economic crisis creates a crisis of meaning and identity.

Political lies: significant resources are being spent to make sure widespread discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political action.

It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

Part 1 introduced the thesis and looked at who is to blame for our current laws and regulations.

Emotional truth: the feeling that government policy ignores everyday people is accurate.

Part 2 reviewed Those That Work and Those That Don’t – an early Petri dish example of identity destabilization through job loss.

The author’s finding: identity resets outside economic factors, substituting intangibles such as ‘moral superiority.’

  • Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
    Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

Part 3 – Deaths of Despair

The next analytic touchstone after ‘Those That Work’ is the research of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. This takes us from the Petri dish of ‘Golden Valley’ out to the wider impact of job loss. In this section, the pattern of good ‘working class’ jobs disappearing is viewed demographically rather than through a specific case history.

The research

In 2015, life expectancy in the wealthiest country in the world fell for the first time in decades. Then came the nearly unfathomable: Life expectancy in the US fell again in 2016 — and for a third time in a row in 2017. It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is.
– Roge Karma, Vox, 4/15/2020

Half a million people are dead who should not be dead.
Case & Deaton 2015

Deaths: Bold Red = US White, Bold Blue = US Hispanic. Deaton & Case.

In 2015 (in a study that they initially had trouble even getting published!) Case & Deaton announced the discovery of what has come to be termed ‘deaths of despair’ among non-college-educated middle-aged Whites…men in particular and women to a lesser extent.

They noticed a spike in death rate first in comparison to other US ethnicities and then in contrast to similar populations in other countries. Digging into the statistics, these additional deaths were a result of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose coupled with poor access to healthcare. Deaths of despair.

Groups less dependent on their job for a sense of identity (primarily because of their historical exclusion from ‘good jobs’ and, hence, centering meaning elsewhere, e.g., Latinos and women) did not exhibit the same demographic trends.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective.

Chart by me. Deaths of despair extrapolated to 2019 from Case & Deaton’s 2015 numbers using their methodology. Stopped at 2020 when COVID made that too complex.

What’s going on?

Repeating:

Jobs are not just the source of money; they are the basis for the rituals, customs, and routines of working-class life. Destroy work and, in the end, working-class life cannot survive.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism 2020

If we apply Sherman’s discoveries across this entire demographic, identity was set adrift— decentered —for a broad demographic   with dire consequences both for those individuals and for society.

Individuals scrambled to find a new way to play a leading role in their own stories. As Sherman points out, being ‘moral’…being a ‘good guy’…became core.

Many of those who failed the challenge died. Between successful and dead lay degrees of emotional distress, typically a chronic low-grade sense of panic among those on the edge.

Into the breach came a huge billionaire-funded industry aimed at offering wedge ideologies as identity and toxic religion as a comfort.

A core strategic win was the political capture of the Southern Baptist Church during the ‘Conservative Resurgence‘, starting in the late 70s and consolidating gains through the subsequent 15 years and again now in a second cycle. The SBC’s ‘liberals’ were certainly not far left of center, but they and even center-right moderates were purged.

The impact of this can’t be underestimated. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination even after close to 2000 churches broke away to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the Jimmy Carter Baptists.) Huge monetary and organizational resources were now available. The SBC has six sizeable seminaries training thousands yearly and an annual budget of nearly $200M–all contributed by people in local churches.

Worse, in my opinion, those local churches, critical envelopes of support in the face of death, illness, trials and tribulations, and pillars of identity to many, now became organizing cells in the culture wars.

Add to this Koch-brothers-type think tanks, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News as the Ministry of Truth, and you have the enormous resources devoted to keeping the pot boiling.

Observing people seeming to vote against their self-interest, I hear friends asking how people can be so stupid. If we could calculate a ‘cost per unit of stupid,’ I think we’d find it’s hugely expensive to make people this ‘stupid.’ Obviously, it’s worth the investment to those footing the bill.

Two points:

First, if you combine the decentering of working-class identity and the way that it has been exploited, the result is that ideology has become identity. This is key to understanding what’s going on and looking for strategies to fix it.

An ideology is a narrow and brittle basis for identity. Under these conditions, a challenge to particular ideas is an existential threat!

Much of what seems crazy has to be understood in that light. It’s not at all a matter of ideas and evidence. The challenge is to the person’s sense of self, not some contingent idea that can be easily revised or corrected.

Another way to look at it: if people are acting against their economic interests, there must be something they see as more important.

I believe that dividing the world up into Us and Them is baked in by our evolutionary history. (Evidence on request.) That makes it a leverage point easily exploited.

Starting politics with a common rallying point…say, a commitment to decent jobs, good schools, health care that wasn’t a huge source of misery and personal bankruptcy, and a clean environment…could cut across the most common Us vs Them divides.

It would also mean that the corporate engines of consolidation and profit at any cost and the 1%’s domination of American politics would be imperiled. So, something divisive has to be substituted.


Coming in future installments. Where do we go from here? Republicans and Democrats – heartless exploitation vs. gutless weasels. And more.

Side note: Wedge identities are only getting more unmoored. Even conservative pastors are starting to flip out. They’re being challenged over direct quotes from Jesus, e.g., love your neighbor as yourself or turn the other cheek. (But “Jesus said that” apparently carries insufficient weight.) A recent study found Trump supporters trust him significantly more than their friends and families, conservative media figures, or their pastors.

For a fascinating interview on the Christians vs. Jesus thing and how ideology becomes identity, listen to this podcast with Russell Moore, ex-head of the SBC’s policy arm and current editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, in this episode of Talkin’ Religion and Politics without Killin’ Each Other.

Instinct and Resonance- Practical Mysticism #003

map of the mouth of Tomales Bay

Life flows along the commonplace
– Carl Jung

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
– Michael Pollen

Despite the American cult of individualism, I have never believed our identity was our idiosyncrasies and, despite my neophile tendencies, I have never believed that something was of value simply because it was new.

On the other hand, I don’t believe something is of value simply because it’s old—unless it’s really really old. That may be a different story.

Here follows a variant on Michael Pollen’s ‘eat what your great-grandmother ate’ test expressed not in a few generations but in tens or hundreds of millennia.

You are reading part of an intellectual wander aimed at building a framework for understanding the continuity between everyday experiences of awe and wonder and the type of ‘mystical’ experiences that are considered outside regular human experience (in my view mistakenly). And for considering the utility of such experiences.

My starting assumption is that this framework needs to address ego, instinct, and what are often termed nonordinary states. I have some theories about each of those. They will hopefully be modified in dialog with you and with the writing process itself.

Thoughts published so far:
Awe Shucks – Practical Mysticism #001
Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

First up, a bit of personal awe.

The time has come the Walrus said…

Many of you who know me know of my love of grilling oysters and, in particular grilling oysters on the beach. It feels deeply right to me.

Elaine Morgan. (2023, July 3). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan
Elaine Morgan. 1998. From Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Morgan

Explaining my theory about why requires a digression.

In an undergraduate course in Feminist Literature, I read Elaine Morgan‘s, The Descent of Woman. This was 50 years ago. I have no clue at this point what Shulamith Firestone wrote about. Time has fuzzed that out. Many of Morgan’s points, however, remain vivid.

Her central argument is that we share a few key odd body traits not with our close cousins, the chimps, but with aquatic mammals. Examples include women’s subcutaneous fat and both genders’ minimal body hair…traits that overlap with dolphins, for example, but not most terrestrial mammals. She believes this argues for some interregnum of seashore or riparian evolution. Women, specifically, were at the leading edge of evolution during this period. (Men’s layer of fat is half the thickness of women’s, and men are typically furrier.)

One reason she stayed fresh in my mind was that ‘real’ anthropologists would remind me of her in occasional snide footnotes or asides. You could almost see the eye rolls. Not that they actually disputed her claims. That would be beneath them. So, irritating certain pros, and ideas I liked: two points in her favor:-).

Jump forward to 2015 or so. Wendy, Griffin, and I are at a lecture on human evolution at the California Academy of Science. It’s being given by Zeresenay Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences and discoverer of Selam, a remarkably complete Australopithecus fossil skeleton that predates Leakey’s famous Lucy by 120,000 years.

Alemseged is discussing one of the big issues in human evolution: what provided enough calories to allow the step up in brain size between Australopithecus and Homo species. Brains burn a lot of energy. Other primate’s diets could not support a brain of our size. And evolution does not support the sort of look-forward activity that would require some Australopithecus species to decide, “Hey, we need bigger brains, let’s go look for different food.” The calories have to be there already to allow a boot-up mutation to work.

His answer is based on his recent work in what was at one time the coast of South Africa. Shellfish! They’re easy to gather in quantity, can be eaten cooked or raw, and protein is calorie-rich.

Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.
Australopithecus species had stone tools. Homo hablis used fire.

Soooo, oysters on the beach, baby! Step aside ‘man the hunter’. Enter proto-people with digging sticks on the shoreline. Elaine Morgan, fuck yeah:-).

(To set a bit of context. Both fire and stone tools predate the appearance of homo sapiens. An ancestor some 2.5M years ago used stone tools and one used fire 1M years ago give or take. All these dates keep getting pushed back. Homo sapiens likely clocks in at a mere .25M years to date.

Connecting it all up, there was an ancestor animal with a brain roughly 2/3rds the size of ours walking erect, using stone tools, cooking on a fire, and consuming shellfish. Likely there were adolescent hominids poking the fire with a stick. Shellfish have remained a high-quality staple for many cultures. The unceded Muwekma Ohlone land in nearby Emeryville contains a shell mound with the remains of millions of shellfish meals consumed over a recent two and half thousand years. )

Instinct?

Okay, evidence-wise, the oyster thing is a bit squishy. My feeling deeply grounded while cooking oysters at the beach…a feeling of ‘being all of one piece’… doesn’t exactly make it at the top of the hard evidence chart. And I’m not even sure how to articulate this within a theory of what’s commonly called instinct.

Let’s try.

I’m starting with a metaphor. In my defense, thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and George Lakoff have argued that metaphors, despite getting trashed by the likes of Newton and Bacon, can play a central role at the core of the clusters of scientific thinking and evidence that Kuhn termed paradigms. Math and hypothesis testing are key in the mix as well, of course, but both verbal and visual metaphors are important ‘tools to think with’.

My metaphor will be the mouth of a bay.

My friend Martin has warned me that the mouth of bays are particularly dangerous places to boat. You have currents, tides, waves, occasional whirlpools, and abrupt shifts in winds caused by the temperature differential between the waters and the shore. The mouth of Tomales Bay and Drake’s Estero are both good examples. Sometimes they’re relatively placid, and sometimes they’ll kick your ass. Every once in a while, they kill somebody.

You can paddle in a specific direction with knowledge, good equipment, and determination, but sometimes it is much more difficult than others, and if you take your eye off your destination, you can suddenly find yourself somewhere you did not intend to go.

Our typical view of instinct is of something like salmon swimming upstream– a compulsion or drive–which I think limits what we consider when we talk about its impact in humans.

The hormonal/neurotransmitter blend in our internal sea marks the intersection of our bodies and the environment and adds the push of currents and tides to our behavior. We transverse them occasionally wondering how we ended up somewhere.

We can consciously tweak our blood chemistry by, for example, blocking adenosine receptors with caffeine or seeking dopamine hits with a game on our phone. But mostly all this is mostly happening below the surface. Our tide and currents are at play against underwater surfaces that are not typically visible in an easy-to-interpret way. This interacts with built-in and learned schema that helps pattern what might be called raw perception into what we perceive…all that outside consciousness as well.

Something between me, oysters, cooking, and the beach is tweaking how I feel. A hormonal and neural balance is emerging in my inner sea. I contend that this is on a continuum with whatever else human instinct might be.

Side note: other reasons I like the water metaphor are, first, water flows downhill following a natural ‘instinctual’ gradient, and, second, water has depth. Things can be closer or further from consciousness.

More on instinct: positive and negative examples

In order to firm up and challenge this formulation, let’s look at a few more examples. Next post we’ll complicate things further by adding in Jung’s concepts of imago and archetype. Then try and tie it up into a tentative theory of instinct.

Thinking fast and slow

We should at least mention Daniel Kahneman’s fast thinking vs slow thinking. Kahneman describes fast thinking as ‘instinctual and emotive’. That would include knee-jerk responses, but he includes pretty much anything that happens below the surface: perceptual and cognitive biases, the automatic placement of objects in space, and even skills that have achieved automaticity.

Certainly, danger reactions that have to be faster than conscious ‘slow thinking’ can achieve should be termed instinct.

Instinct with a positive impact

Despite a shocking lack of research on grilling oysters, there’s a significant body of evidence for a similar activity: getting out into a natural environment.

As an outdoor nerd, I’ve been collecting citations. Here are just a few from my stash that focus on measurable metrics.

1. How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

… experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. … These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.

2. The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash BorerAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2013, Geoffery Donovan et al.

There was an increase in mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness in counties infested with the emerald ash borer. The magnitude of this effect was greater as infestation progressed and in counties with above-average median household income. Across the 15 states in the study area, the borer was associated with an additional 6113 deaths related to illness of the lower respiratory system, and 15,080 cardiovascular-related deaths. [In other words, when the trees went away, health suffered.]

3. In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure – Nature, 2017, Simone Kuhn et al.

Our results reveal a significant positive association between the coverage of forest and amygdala integrity. We conclude that forests may have salutogenic effects on the integrity of the amygdala.

Brother Francis and Brother Sun, Giovanni Costa, 1878 – if there’s a patron saint of getting outdoors, it would be Francis:-)

Instinct with a negative impact

Regular readers know that I consider our Us vs. Them reaction to be a species of fast thinking with malign impact. (Links here, here, and here; it’s a long story.) Here are a few things more contained.

  1. Ebola Fears Helped The GOP In 2014 Election – Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, 6/14/2017

Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters’ intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.

“Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways: increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall.

For those working on a better class of conspiracy theories, note the Ebola panic faded shortly after the election.

Heightened anxiety makes people more prone to share claims on social media – Psy Post, 3/22/2023
reporting on Believing and sharing misinformation, fact-checks, and accurate information on social media: The role of anxiety during COVID-19, 2021, Isabelle Freiling et al.

A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.

Next up

    In part #004, I intend to complicate things considerably.

    We will explore a Jungian view of ‘instinct’. Here we find an unconscious realm populated by ‘imago’ and archetypes and inhabited by dark gods and talking animals. A realm from whence not just impulse but full-blown narratives arrive. A realm of entities that constantly tweak our felt gradients and that can override our everyday self quite dramatically—but that might also contain an instinct for wholeness and healing.

    The driving question that Jung successfully answers: what form did instinct take as hardwired behavior evolved in beings such as ourselves that need room for the huge role of learning and culture?

    Thanks for reading.

    We Need a Smaller Them – pt 2

    I’m working on a recap of a dozen or so works of political analysis I’ve written between 2016 and today. As I complete a section, I intend to post it here first. Please kibitz!

    This is also the counterweight to a theme of mine: the need for a Bigger Us. We have a baked-in tendency to split the world into Us and Them. That’s being exploited to pit us against each other. We need to focus on the few Thems behind the Them-ing. In short, we need a Smaller Them.

    First, an overall outline.

    • Intro (published in part 1)
    • Decentered Identity (in part 1)
    • Grounding (in part 1)
    • Emotion Truth / Political Lies Touchstones
      • Setting the Stage (skipped for now)
      • Those that Work and Those That Don’t (found below.)
      • Deaths of Despair (this and below are assumed sections and will follow)
      • Betrayal
      • Exploitation
    • A Smaller Them
    • Wrap Up

    My thesis is that the economic immiseration of a broad section of the American middle and working classes has unmoored them. Identity is up for grabs and significant resources are being spent to make sure their discontent doesn’t feed back into effective political change. It’s expensive to make Americans this stupid, but the payoff has been rich.

    Here follows a look at research that I think provides a clear analysis of what happens when the good working class jobs that underpin a community disappear. This was logging but think factory closing, consolidation of farming into corporate hands, or any number of community-level economic disasters.



    1) Those That Work and Those That Don’t

    My first touchstone is Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t by Jennifer Sherman. Before the widespread loss of good jobs in much of the US, an abrupt economic collapse in an isolated logging town provides us with a sort of petri-dish case history of the pattern that will repeat widely over the next 30 years.


    Golden Valley, a once-bustling logging and mill town, is a community on the decline, characterized by unemployment, job instability, and poverty. Its denizens are caught in a struggle to define themselves as successful despite their economic and labor market failures.

    Morality is one of the few remaining axes upon which to base this hierarchy. When jobs, incomes, and other sources of identity are stripped away, it is still possible to find ways to define themselves and their entire community as morally upstanding.

    Jennifer Sherman from Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t, 2009

    In 1994, the Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species. As a result, logging in some parts of Northern California was cut by 80%. Forest Service and logging jobs disappeared, and the mills closed one by one. 

    In 2003, Jennifer Sherman, in dissertation research, moved into ‘Golden Valley’ CA, to study social hierarchy and self-definition in folks impacted. That work was expanded into a book published in 2009: Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America

    Sherman’s core finding: when the economic underpinning of everyday life disappears, morality emerges as the critical component of self-definition and social standing. Being ‘moral’ provides dignity, purpose, and a place in the social hierarchy. Working … standing against the tide … is an indicator of moral worth.

    Morality. A narrative emerges: We’re good people. We’ve done nothing wrong. Good people fight the good fight for a righteous way of life based on (sometimes imaginary) old-time values. Honesty. Godliness. Self-Sufficiency: being a breadwinner (or, at a minimum, staying off welfare) becomes a significant component of social standing and personal dignity. Self-reliance through hunting and fishing also grants status and meaning. Drug use is a crutch…a sign of moral failing.

    The corollary: economic failure is a personal moral failure. Even though the economy has been shot out from under the whole community, it is not merely unfortunate. To succumb by, say, going on welfare is weak and wrong. 80% of the jobs are gone, but you can be a failure because you don’t have a job.

    I’d like to note that this narrative is highly useable to our hypothetical controlling economic elite.

    1. Supporting this definition of worth and identity doesn’t come with a cost in, say, higher taxes. 
    2. Keeping the focus on the uncoordinated individuals or families, the least effective political actors, as the sole agents of own their success or failure short circuits effective action.
    3. Related, channeling the emotion caused by the suffering into Us vs Them both within the community (Hillbilly Elegy) and toward the exogenous actors that shut down jobs keeps the situation manageable. Keeping the focus on the Them rather than strengthening and organizing the Us is very useful politically. (More on that in subsequent sections.)

    (There’s not a lot of room for nuance in this quick summary I’m trying to provide. For a deeper look, I recommend Sherman’s book as a very worthwhile read.)

    Ego and Awe – Practical Mysticism #002

    Next up – maybe: a dive into awe and the outdoors. What is it about showing up in a natural environment with a human nervous system that has a positive impact? (Or, at least, a positive impact on the human:-)
    – me, part #001

    I guess the key word in that was ‘maybe’:-)

    There are three interconnected concepts that frame up the story I want to tell. In rough terms, they are ego, instinct, and awe. All feel connected to me as ideas circling around something that might be called access to a bigger self. But, also to potential groundings of identity.

    (This is not to be confused with the Bigger Us that connects outward to what ML King calls a ‘blessed community.’)

    As per usual, I’m having trouble unbraiding and crisping up my three framing concepts–a great case in point of why it takes me forever to get something written. The issue: crisping up any of these, impacts my understanding and formulation of the others, which in turn, feeds back and alters the starting point. Rinse and repeat. Until I throw in the towel and hit publish.

    Well, I’m going to throw in the towel right off the bat. Brother Skip once told me he was convinced all the bolts were there…but that they were only on hand tight. I like that. I’ve vowed to use the blog to write more casually and let the ideas mature as we go. Hopefully, I’ll get the bolts on hand tight. Lord knows how many more passes it will take from there.

    We’ll start with Ego.

    A good enough theory of ego

    • Starting with ego means we start with the Freuds, Sigmund then Anna. Ego is pretty much defined by its defenses which are mostly a response to unavoidable childhood sexual trauma. An example of an ego defense is projection, i.e., discomfort in one’s unacknowledged dark traits is projected out as dislike or irritation with someone else who seems to exhibit those traits. The unconscious, of course, is where all the scary stuff lives.
    • Jung’s unconscious can be much less fraught than Freud’s. It’s the repository of the excluded, the inferior, and the undeveloped– things you are bad at, ashamed of, etc., and not just trauma. Also, sex isn’t the main driver, and trauma isn’t a given.
    • Jung adds a second big component. The ego creates directable energy and attention by walling off the ebb and flow of unconscious reactions, which can unfocus and distract us. (Look, squirrels!)
    • Further, the paradigm of classical Jungian thought is that this ability not to be taken over by whatever stray impulse arises has been gained relatively recently, i.e., subsequent to us becoming anatomically homo sapiens. Humans accomplished this by developing a psychic structure that provides a barrier against the unconscious. The classic paradigm further states that the barrier mechanisms have become too rigid, and the task now is reconnecting with the unconscious.*1
    • Last, I think I should also throw in a concept that I identify with Buddhism: ego’s fear of annihilation: that white-knuckle fear that makes even a little ego loss or loss of control feel like death.

    Okay, that was a long way around to a ‘good enough’ theory of ego.

    In summary, we have a psychological structure that acts to include things in and exclude other things out (all the things are us, of course); that maintains barriers and defenses to make that happen; and that can too rigid to our detriment.

    Expanded self

    My thesis here is that awe and wonder are a small ‘pop’ that expands our acknowledged self. Something that was ‘outside’ egoland is now ‘inside.’ Further, this same mechanism leads into the mystic, as it were. Or rather, wonder is a bit of the mystic touching down in everyday life.

    We can use Zen koans as an additional example. They pose a problem not solvable with everyday tools and are traditionally solved with a pop that signifies a change in the student, not the correct answer per se.

    Even our well-known ability to solve problems by sleeping on them is relevant. The ego is relaxed to a bit player, more of us is brought to bear, something that was outside is now inside, and the self is just a tiny bit bigger.

    Containers

    It occurs to me now that we need another component if we talking about awe/wonder in the context of the wider sweep of ‘non-ordinary states’*2 and ego. As framed up by our ‘good enough theory of ego’, the core concept is sidestepping the walls ego built. But the ego has a purpose. We need to get past ego without obliterating it or freaking it the fuck out.

    The protocol for psychedelic sessions beginning with Grof and Leary and continuing through contemporary John Hopkins mushroom sessions, is to emphasize set (mental state/expectations) and setting (the physical space and guide.)

    That’s missing a piece I call ‘container.’ In the above, the container is the assumption that your guide is competent and benign. Container is the wider envelope. Sangha can be the container. Growing up in a culture that gives 15-year-olds monastic experience is a container. For me, movement in nature is itself a container, along with community and music.

    Next up (maybe): a good enough theory of instinct.

    Thanks for reading! Feel free to share this.

    Feedback

    I had some interesting discussions as a result of the last post in this series…in particular with Paula, my running buddy on much of this whether she’s aware of that or not. Here are some resources as a result.

    footnotes

    *1 – More: this classical Jungian story holds that ego development arose at the same time as the patriarchies and that the ego is experienced as masculine while the excluded is thus seen as feminine This part is a little sketchy in a Joseph Campbell ‘all heroes are male’ sort of way. Both Jung and Campbell use a pattern of myth called the ‘night sea hero’…Jung as a story of individual maturation, and Campbell as a story of cultural advancement. The use of gender here is highly debatable, but, on the other hand, it is easy to argue that patriarchal thinking is a pathology. Might be worth a future discussion.

    *2 – ‘Non-ordinary’ has become the standard description of non-ego-centered mental states. I don’t like it. First, many of these states are more ordinary than assumed…they just don’t have much acknowledgment in our culture. Second, the objective here is to make them ordinary. Third, by most definitions of nonordinary states, there is a very common ordinary one caused by alcohol consumption–which might become less common if a better one came along.

    Story of Stories #2 - Resilience

    …Ray Charles was shot down / But he got up…
    -Van Morrison

    What family stories do your kids know? 
    What stories do you remember from your grandparents?
    Which grandparent stories do you think your grandchildren should know?

    These are important questions simply because knowing the family narrative is a key to resilience in children and young adults…and likely all of us. 

    Continue reading Story of Stories #2 - Resilience

    Meaning of Meaning Pt 1 – Introduction

    Introduction.

    [[This is an experiment. Generally I write and edit and write and edit and edit some more and then publish. I’m working on this in public; parts will probably only be comprehensible to me while that’s happening..]]

    I’ve been sporadically preoccupied with the big Why Bother questions since high school: What’s worth doing? Why bother to act? What justifies itself in the face of the imminent heat death of the universe. (Well, maybe not always the latter.)

    This has lead through the decades to a slow motion analysis of the meaning of meaning.

    My initial thoughts were shaped by three books I found in the paperback rack in my father’s drug store when I was a high school freshman: Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, RD Laing’s Politics of Experience, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections.

    It should be obvious from what follows which one of the three had the biggest influence.

    I will still argue that Jung is inappropriately dismissed as unscientific. His basic mechanism of the Self, particularly as elaborated by his collaborator Erich Neumann, is an auto-regulatory system, an explicitly compensatory mechanism, that kicks in when the personality becomes lopsided and fore-grounds and integrates needed but excluded and/or under-developed aspects of the person.

    With that introduction. Here goes….

    (Quick links: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

    Meaning of Meaning Pt 2 – Much Assembly Required

    Life is not a matter of holding good cards but of playing a poor hand well. – Robert Lewis Stevenson

    Intrinsic Meaning

    Identity

    Paragraph form: You are a bag of parts; much assembly required. That’s it. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. There is no guarantee that the bag of parts you received is optimized to fit together or even optimized to work at all. We have a cognitive bias to assume we’re a unity. (It is very likely that there’s a strong ‘instinctual’ force that seeks to bind us together. Unfortunately, that task is not guaranteed to be easy.)
    Outline form: Starting set: Identity
    1. Human beings are a genetically randomized collection of traits. You are a bag of part.
    2. The upside, there is no one else exactly like you. Human beings are genetically unique even without elements of culture and personal biography.
      1. Probably. Estimates on the number of the human genotypes range from near 1 trillion to 70+ trillion unique possibilities. If you exclude non-viable combinations, I suspect that this number would drop singificantly. But, of course, the impact of culture, experience including birth order, etc, pump uniqueness back up.
    3. There is no guarantee this set of traits will work well for you; it essentially presents you with your unique bag of parts and assembly is left as an exercise. The more an organism is open to learning and culture, the looser the knit.
    4. We have a cognitive and emotional bias to assume we’re a unity. This may not be superficial but, particularly in the emotional component, may itself be an evolutionary mechanism aiming at knitting it all together.

    Meaning

    Paragraph form: Meaning is a human activity. We act as if it is a discovery and, although it presents itself as found, it is built not found. Meaning is fundamentally a social construct and, if all goes smoothly, it provides reasonably stress free guidance to the individual. If that fails, the individual is forced back upon whatever resources they have or can discover.

    Outline form: Starting Set: Meaning.

    1. Meaning is a human activity; not a property of the ‘external’ world.
    2. There are both individual and social components to meaning construction. There is not necessarily a single system.
    3. Meaning is most easily constellated by the ‘tribe.’ This can be authentically in the individual’s best interest…we are fundamentally tribal animals…but it is also the mechanism where our energy is re-purposed for other interest’s projects.
      1. In a narrow contexts (a company, a battle) connection and progress constellate out in a way that easily can provide direction.
      2. (From a certain perspective all meaning might fit this description.)
      3. Corporations succeed by harnessing this tribal energy.
      4. Games provide a parallel with simple goals and clear conditions for their achievement. Every game can be considered an experiment in social engineering.
    4. ‘Individual’ meaning is a different process and is frequently driven by the failure of social meaning.
      1. Social meaning as a determining force for individuals can break down either through cultural collapse or shift or through a strong mismatch between the individual and the surrounding culture.

    Contradiction

    Paragraph form: Apparently clashing values are a problem only if they lead to contradictory impulses to action. There are often schisms through our belief systems. Some derive from personal biography, some from our culture, some from the nature of our species or any embodied being in a context of forward moving time and physical space. It is only when we find ourselves actively on both sides of a schism, that we are challenged. It is only then that we are given the opportunity to seek/forge deeper meaning. There is, of course, no guarantee that our solutions will be totally successful.

    Outline form: Contradiction:

    1. Our individual and cultural value systems are frequently riddled with apparently conflicting values.
    2. An apparent conflict between parts is not necessarily a conflict.
      1. Take two ideas as an example. ‘The King is generous’ and ‘The King is cruel’, considered as being in opposition are no particular problem unless the impulse “Kill the King” is added to the mix. Now one belief supports and one opposes the action. Until a contradiction is activated, it is not necessarily a contradiction at all.
    3. In my experience, our belief systems are riddled with similar contradictions.
      1. Some of those could be considered personal, some cultural, some existential.
      2. The personal contradictions imposed by the demands of job, family, etc, tend to need resolution first with the cultural following similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
    4. Contradictions might be unresolvable.
      1. They might be based on accurate observations of a complex phenomena
      2. The world might not only be stranger than we understand but stranger than we can understand. Our contradictory descriptions, no matter how rigorously developed, might be the best we can do with an limited tool set. Modern physics might be an example of this problem.
      3. There is a tendency to retreat from the painful context that might force a search for individually-driven meaning generation into cheap social meaning, e.g. games, work, spectator sports, etc.

    (Quick links: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4)

    Meaning of Meaning Pt 3 – Building Soul

    Building Soul

    1. Given the context of “some assembly required” and likely contradiction and internal conflict, it is reasonable to hypothesize a system that works to knit together and harmonize the components of human personality.
      1. Jung hypothesized this specifically and called it the archetype of Self.
      2. Jung’s Self had the power to channel conflicting components towards synthesized whole. His interest in the mandala reflects an interest in systems that put many components into a patterned whole.
    2. Confronting our contradictions, we generally work from the personal ‘down’ into the collective. Unless your culture is in the midst of a open crisis, the demands of our personal biography trump cultural schisms. Once the personal is reconciled, however, the cultural issues come to the fore.
      1. The downward movement is what Jung called Building Soul and he defines the Soul as a organ of the psyche that gives depth by connecting the individual to deeper collective currents.
      2. The division between personal and collective is, of course, complex and multi-layered…and somewhat arbitrary. The personal is simply an instance of the collective and the collective is the sum of the personal. Conflicts and contradictions do not exist in the abstract no matter how abstractly we work with them. They are always embodied.
    3. When our personal contradictions span emerging or existing cultural divides, the work to heal and harmonize can gain significant additional intensity (often painful intensity) but, also, the work to heal and harmonize can feel powerfully meaningful.
      1. Jung and Campbell described this as the Hero’s Journey
      2. The first stage is often individual crisis and confusion. The present is in some manner intolerable but the future is clouded and the hero must depart from the known world and seek the vision or tools or guidance that allows him/her to move forward.
      3. This is the most individual form of meaning generation: the puzzles are often collective (contradictions in our culture), occasionally individual (warring traits) but the solutions are always sparked by individual blood, sweat, tears, and imagination.
    4. Jung’s Individuation vs Cambell’s Hero’s Journey
      1. Jung focuses on the introverted side: internal contradictions (generated by either personal contradictions or the ‘introjection’ of cultural divides) are resolved into awareness. Hero stories are about that process.
      2. Campbell focuses on the extroverted side. Some rupture sends the hero out to triumph and return and revitalize the culture.

    (to follow – Extrinsic (tribal): [[under construction]])

    (Quick links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4)

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