Monthly Archives: July 2012

Discursive Enlightenment

Tomorrow I leave for 10 days of ayahuasca, dieting and meditation in Peru. So it seems appropriate to take some time to think about what I want.

Skeptic that I am, I have always hesitated to say that I am searching for enlightenment, or awakening, truth-realization or anything like that. Of course, the Buddha listed skepticism as one of the five hindrances (lust is another big one for me). And such hesitation is an opening for fear to take control and stop me from making any commitment, telling me that I am better off plodding along as I am, being a professor and then dead.

One of the things that makes me skeptical, is how easily seduced I am by the smooth rhetoric of ‘Eastern’ spiritual and enlightenment-speak. From the Vedas, Buddhist Sutras and Laozi to Carlos Castaneda, Mooji, Deepak Chopra, Jed McKenna and my tantric masseuse, certain seductive words and phrases come up repeatedly: mindfulness, stillness, non-action, nothingness, witnessing your thoughts and feelings, freeing yourself from ego, realize that you are already god/the Buddha/truth, don’t mistake the pointing finger for the moon, duality is an illusion, everything is one, everything is love, meditate meditate meditate meditate. There is such an enormous fund of existing rhetoric that anybody who picks wisely will have a hard time not sounding wise and profound. We could say that this is proof of the validity of a great tradition (and thus paper over the many significant disagreements in Eastern religion and spirituality—and ignore the many traditions that don’t use this vocabulary at all.) Or we could also call it a flaky, New Age grab bag. There is no doubt that many charming charlatans have pulled from the grab bag and convinced the suckers that they are enlightened. But even among those who are not searching for disciples and fame, is there really any experience of enlightenment outside of the repetition and faith in these phrases? There is not much pudding to give us proof. Of the millions who have repeated and believed these phrases, how many have been enlightened? (How would we know?) And are even the enlightened doing anything more than merely convincing themselves of the truth of these phrases?

When it comes to monotheistic religious talk, I am much less easily seduced. I have no problem seeing even the most highly nuanced and passionate monotheistic claims and discussions as a discursive construct—something that does not exist beyond language and our own emotional attachment to the words. And I have little trouble seeing monotheistic religions as mostly a method of social control: be humble, don’t cause trouble, take care of your families, listen to the men and the priests, give money to us, work hard, don’t doubt, feel guilty. If you do all that, we promise to continue saying beautiful and hopeful words to you.

I think it is not only monotheism, but any organized religion. I also feel this easy skepticism of certain aspects of Buddhism, especially in daily Buddhism as I encountered it in Thailand and the early Buddhist Sutras (not to mention Pure Land and esoteric Buddhism). In addition to small doses of this enlightenment-speak, Buddhism spends a lot of time telling you not to steal, not to lust, to respect your parents, respect your teacher, treat your servants well, don’t hurt people, don’t cause trouble, don’t think bad thoughts, listen to authority, and so on and so on. It is not about transcending the illusions of this world, but about reinforcing those illusions by insisting that transcendence is only attained through social order.

And monotheism has cracks. We can find traces of Eastern Enlightenment-talk among Gnostics, Sufis and other assorted ascetics and heretics. It is as if the institutionalization of religion serves to snuff that kind of talk out, and all we are left with from what were once flourishing mystical and ecstatic traditions are a few disembodied phrases with their talk about higher consciousness, great unity and the nothingness/god that already exists within us—phrases now just flopping around homeless waiting for entrepreneurial gurus to mish and mash them back together.

But something does keep me going. It is the reality of mystical experiences. I’ve never had a full-blown emptiness-of-all-being, death-and-rebirth, or Oneness-of-God kind of experience. But I’ve had strong enough psychedelic experiences, been able to call up enough visions, remember enough dreams, and have enough weird bodily sensations in meditation to think that there is something going on a lot different than our consensual reality. Scientists try to explain those experiences away (thus carrying on the work of organized religion in suppressing ecstatic experience) but barely come close to scratching the power of these experiences. Only the mystics come at all close to engaging with those experiences. Even some of the most platitudinous of Enligthenment-talk phrases come closer than scientists and institutionlized religion.

Of course, many Buddhists and other enlightenment-seekers will tell you that these experiences are just more illusions. At best, they are temporary insights and not abiding truth-realization. Enlightenment comes when you have gone past all that, and directly perceive everything clearly. As the zen parable states: Before you start meditating, you look at a mountain and see only a mountain. Once you are well along in your practice, you look at a mountain and see the great unity of all being. When you are enlightened, you look at a mountain and see a mountain.

But to be willing to do all that work for a possible enlightenment is really a matter of faith. You must believe that it exists, and that these methods of sitting, exuding loving-compassion, chanting mantras, or whatever will lead to it. I am not capable of such faith. I need those mystic experiences to keep me going. They make me aware that something else is out there, that there is a different way perceiving and processing–perhaps a different way of being.

Sometimes I just tell myself that it is an adventure. That the same curiosity and desire to understand everything that drove me into academia is now driving me into inner exploration. I’m going to die, so may as well take some chances and make the best of my time alive. But somehow that is not enough. The promise of a job, income and glory was necessary to pull me through the more difficult moments of academia. Some promise of liberation, awakening or whatever will also help pull me through some of the nastier psychedelic moments, and even more nasty periods of loneliness and doubt. I look at all the people describing enlightenment, and see the enormous divergences in their experiences and sometimes I experience doubt. But at other times I figure that this is only evidence that the mid is a bizarre and pliable instrument. Liberation, great insight, truth will never look the same, but will always be translated through the conditioning of a particular mind.

The works of enlightenment-speak that I often find most convincing are those that say it is hard work and you’ve got to do it yourself. And always push farther, never be satisfied with the next layer of illusion, never believe promises. This means don’t think you can follow the path that somebody else took. His or her strengths and insights are not mine. Instead of bemoaning my hindrances, I should work with them as my strengths. Rather than spending my energy fighting my demons and trying only to be blameless and undefiled, I should learn to harness them. Fighting them will only exhaust me and keep me continually fearful and obsessed with them. Instead I need to listen to them, learn what they want, collaborate in the hopes that it can transform us both. Use my skepticism to keep on pushing further, never getting caught in the trap of gurus and organized religions and multifarious ways of controlling you in the name of searching for freedom and grace. Follow those lustful fantasies into explorations of those feelings that never find expression in conventional frameworks. But never get attached–don’t live within those activities and criticisms and reify them as truth. Instead always watch and move forward. Moving further means that at each step you have to grab for some new truth beyond the one you’ve just rejected—and which will be rejected in turn.

So may I meet the goddess of ayahuasca without fear, open, willing to surrender and perhaps even be healed.

Helping

Helping people that cross your path or who come to you is generally a good thing—benevolent, meritorious, generous, compassionate, however you would like to interpret it. But even there, we have to be careful of some traps, such as: Trying to show off  that we are ‘generous’ and have resources to spare; helping mostly because social pressure, fear of criticism or other compulsions; or because you want to make somebody indebted to you.

Organized, systematic helping is much more dubious. It usually involves pressuring or seducing other people to do things; imposing preconceived ideas and theories on them; lecturing more than listening (we like to call it ‘educating’ them); making compromises in the name of efficiency or ‘mission’; becoming dogmatic about certain abstract theories or actions; using organizations and ideas as the platform for our own egos and vanity; becoming so involved in the organization that it becomes more about self-preservation and expansion than doing good.

Just think of some of the most well-known mass enterprises set up to help and serve other people: missionaries, colonialism, communists, structural adjustment and other economic advisors, armies and welfare states. I think that few of us would agree that all, or even most of these enterprises have done more good than bad. The same mix of vanity, bureaucracy, self-interest and dogmatism undermines even aid and activism projects that are less well-established and maintain better reputations. The success of a project to build a dam, empower women, provide microcredit, build public housing, free slaves (19c. abolition was probably one of the most successful do-gooding projects ever), fight apartheid, protect a park, encourage temperance, promote abstinence, or whatever obsesses you is entirely the luck of the draw. Most end up hurting as much as helping, with many unintended side-effects. The complexities of real life far transcend the theories and vanity and anger and compassion of do-gooders.

Take anti-trafficking activism as an example. Activists routinely misrepresent facts and spread false quantitative data; rely on sensationalist anecdotes and pimp fantasies rather than measured presentation of a problem; prefer to tell ‘victims’ how they feel rather than listen to them; use compulsion to rescue and reform ‘victims’; constantly expand the definition of trafficking in order to find more victims; and slander and browbeat those who disagree with them. The people who do this are a bizarre mix of government officials (esp. the U.S. State Department and UN agencies), moral dogmatists (such as conservative Christians and radical feminists) and people who just want to get on the bandwagon. Whatever the original intentions of people who get involved with this, the result is mostly Orwellian nightmare. To be sure, not all do-gooding operations are as extreme and oblivious as the anti-traffickers. But most will probably have to develop some mix of similar tactics if they are to have the mass effects that they dream of.

Organizations designed to promote their own interests are on more solid ground: gay rights, women’s rights, labor unions, sex worker rights and so on. Sure they can get dogmatic and make compromises. But they are less about telling other people what to do, and less invested in denying that their own ego and vanity (i.e. respect and self-respect) is at the center of their activism. Since that impulse to help is sometimes hard to suppress, perhaps it is best to contribute to groups like these that are serving themselves.

But if you still feel the compulsion to join or organize some large do-gooding enterprise to help those who can’t help themselves, or give voice to the voiceless . . . well it would probably be best to first spend a couple of years first trying to listen and see if they are already speaking and we just are unable to perceive it. 1) Spend 2 to 3 years living with the people you want to help, depending on them for resources, friendship and love, putting your ties with your old life on hold. Argue with them, learn from them, fuck them, pray with them and eat with them. Then try to figure out what kind of help they need; and 2) Spend at least 2-3 years in some kind of spiritual practice or psychological self-analysis to better understand the many devious ways that our egos put our own needs first and camouflage these needs behind moral dogma or labels like “helping others.” And keep up with this, even as you are helping.

Why Pay for Sex

Here are some reasons why people pay for sex. They are not all reasonable reasons, and not all customers use them honestly. But they are still reasons. And, of course, many of them are reasons that only make sense in a society like the United States where we imagine that there can and should be a firm line between commerce and intimacy.

  • The thought of paying money makes sex more exciting.
  • Unfamiliar circumstances, secretiveness and illegality is exciting.
  • It is quick and convenient.
  • Loneliness.
  • To get laid.
  • It is less expensive than dating or supporting a girlfriend/boyfriend.
  • It is more time efficient than dating, and doesn’t require new clothes or knowledge of restaurants.
  • It provides a more predictable return than money spent dating.
  • Paying sex workers is no different than giving resources to partners and spouses.
  • It entails less emotional complexities than a steady partner, spouse, or even a one-night stand.
  • It is helpful for people who are insecure because they feel they are unattractive or undesirable.
  • It is good for people who are shy and can’t meet people easily.
  • It is more straightforward and honest than seduction and dating.
  • It is acceptable to be open about sexual desire.
  • In a marriage with little to no sex, paying for sex may seem like a better alternative than dissolving the marriage.
  • Sex workers provide services that a spouse or partner is not willing or able to provide.
  • Sex workers are good at what they do—be it body rub, role play, SM or ego stroking.
  • It is a chance to learn something.
  • It can satisfy a desire for variety in sexual partners.
  • Paying for sex doesn’t feel like cheating.
  • It is easier to be open and vulnerable in front of a discreet stranger.
  • Fear that a partner or non-professional are more likely to ridicule you for certain fantasies or desires.
  • It is cheaper than therapy.
  • It is a chance to meet new people whom one would not usually meet.
  • Many sex workers are intelligent, interesting and creative people.
  • Because sex workers are precieved as sleazy and dangerous, or as exotic, and that’s thrilling.
  • It is a chance to be intimate with people of various body types.
  • Every encounter is different, and provides an interesting diversity of experiences.
  • Purchasing somebody gives a feeling of power over that person.
  • It is a space where one can be weak and submissive.
  • A desire to support a sex worker in their entrepreneurial efforts and financial needs.
  • A fantasy of ‘saving’ the sex worker.
  • It is the natural form of sexual intercourse in a capitalist society.
  • It is fun.

There is no typical paid sex encounter. Each meeting is an act of creation.

I can’t finish this post without an expression of gratitude and respect for good sex workers. When done well, it is a service worth far more than the money paid for it—while still costing less than a therapist who offers even less promise of good results. And it is surely one of the most difficult jobs around. A successful sex worker knows the hypocrisies of society first hand, is the target of social and legal persecution, and must deal with sometimes repulsive and misogynistic clients. Yet she remains tolerant, open, available, a good listener, a good actor, professional, skilled, discreet, giving, sexy and committed to providing pleasure and service. It must be an incredibly difficult balancing act to maintain strong self-protective emotional barriers and remain practical, while constantly entering situations of emotional and physical intimacy.  . . . Or perhaps I’m just imagining that it is difficult because of my own weird ideas about sex. But still, thanks for sharing yourselves.

Swigging the Koolaid

Getting a PhD in history has many of the characteristics of mind-control or a cult. Here are some common techniques of mind-control as described by a Berkeley professor, with parenthetical comments about how they apply to academia (see here for more detail).

  • Use strong in-group language that shapes the way we can think about things. (Jargon)
  • Cause members to think about the group most of the time.
  • Give rewards for conformity in language, dress and behavior. (Academics certainly watch what we say. And while the [dowdy] norms for dress and behavior are relatively loose compared to the army or a lawyer’s office, we still very rarely diverge from those norms.)
  • Attack members’ old concept of self, and encourage a new concept. (This is what we call ‘education’: making people think differently about the norms they grew up with, ‘opening their horizons,’ and  implying that old patterns of thinking are racist, sexist, chauvinist, elitist, uneducated or otherwise lunkheaded.)
  • Offer members something they want, and say it can only be achieved through commitment to the group. (Life of the mind, search for knowledge, summer vacations, tenure, full professorship).
  • Instill a sense of powerlessness. (Talk to anybody going through a comprehensive exam, a job search or tenure process about how they feel.)
  • Strong peer monitoring with feedback to the group. (Academia is an endless process of self-policing: applications, exams, reviews, defenses, comments, discussants, question-and-answer.)
  • Have people in power who are skilled at never losing an argument or admitting wrongness. (That is what we are trained to do.)
  • Get members involved in the initiation of new followers, giving us a stake in the group. (Our students! And even students initiate other students.)
  • Establish an endless structure of rungs and initiations, and insist that the great revelation will come if we only stick to it with faith and determination. (Admissions, exams,  defenses, job applications, grants and promotions. As if liberation will finally came with tenure. But what we get instead are new anxieties and a personality that is so habituated to anxiety that we can not even admit it to ourselves).
  • Make people feel guilty for questioning the structure. (Any questioning of academia itself only proves we are not smart enough or don’t work hard enough. And we have plenty of outlets for our frustration in our constant criticisms of each other, and of those who gained success only by gaming the system.)
  • Exert control over multiple dimensions of a person’s life–replacing family as the main locus of security (income, health insurance, housing, schooling for children, vacation time, retirement funds).
  • Reduce ties to outside relationships. (How many families ever really understand what you are doing and why for so long when you get a PhD? So few of us feel we could ever go back to a ‘real’ job.)
  • Instill a fear of leaving the group. (Failure! Incompetence! Impossibility of reintegration into society!)

It is not perfect mind control. There are a few things the university is not very good at. We don’t induce trances, chanting or other altered states, however hard we may try in seminars and lectures. Our concentration of power and leadership is also imperfect. Too many of us don’t take university administration seriously. And within a department, we are all rampant egoists and individualists (although our constant struggles against each other can obsessively bind us to each other nearly as much as group-building activity).

Our group work with disciples is excellent, however. I once saw a documentary about U.S. prisoners of war in Korea that (for me at least) drew out the similarities between ‘brainwashing’ and the university. They prisoners were first held in a North Korean camp, where they were beaten and starved. Then the Red Cross intervened, and they were moved to a Chinese camp. They said they were well-fed and never beaten, but it was even worse. “We had to go to school every day. We learned how American imperialists were hurting the world, why people resented us. We began to internalize it. We started to doubt our own identities.” The documentary called it ‘brainwashing,’ but the techniques were not much different than university seminars. We encourage students to talk about what they have read and how it is relevant to them. We then reiterate what they said, in the context of our preferred words and theories. Over time, they learn to say what they want in phrases that approximate ours, and in the essay format that we require. And once they have developed an ability to regurgitate in an effective manner, we praise them for having learned, for having expanded their minds. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades. There is pressure to do this, because they have to write papers and want good grades–but many students embrace the new identities willingly. Over time, the new ways of expressing and understanding themselves and the world around start to get internalized, and the old ways of thinking slip away, remnants of an uneducated youth.

It turns out that really effective mind control is hard work, and most of us—be we communist cadres or professors or priests—aren’t that good at it or don’t have ideal circumstances in which to do it. It works best in small groups in nearly constant contact, isolated from the larger world, and under the guidance of a very charismatic personality with a few devoted assistants. So our successes are partial, and the priests complain that that the parishoners keep backsliding, the professors complain that the students aren’t serious, and the cadres complain that the reactionaries are still subverting the revolution.

So why do we demonize some brainwashing/educational institutions as cults, while praising others as the cornerstones of our societies—teams, corporations, armies, political parties, families, universities? It can not be because cults demand near-exclusive devotion and even self-sacrifice. Would a good football team, military squadron, wife and child, nation, or 70+ hours-per-week professional job demand any less? Nor can it be that they shut down free thinking. The techniques to shape thinking and emotions are the same across cults and non-cults. It is more likely that cults promote skepticism of conventional norms. But universities and even political parties do that to some extent–and internal corporate and military documents often express contempt of those norms. No, that is not it.

I think the big difference is that cults promote withdrawal from the larger society, and encourage members to look inward.  Rather than engaging with or trying to control society, they encourage members to look into their souls, or at least to look no farther than the exclusive knowledge of the group.

Because, in the end, the techniques used by cults and for mind control are just the standard techniques used everywhere to promote group cohesion and strength. And the one thing that can not be tolerated are those who don’t want to go along with the group.

I Am a Genetic Dead End

I am a genetic dead end. Each ejaculation spews only a few dozen atrophied, useless sperms. Physical reproduction is impossible. I still have plenty of sexual fantasies, and a perfectly good (if contextually sensitive) libido. But the means fall short of the reproductive end.

According to the (more dogmatic and orthodox) evolutionary psychologists,* I am a total loser. The whole point of life, the foundation of morality and development itself is based on the perpetuation of genetic material. I don’t even have any brothers and sisters whose common genetic material I may help to disseminate. I may just as well commit suicide and stop hogging resources.

The less dogmatic evolutionary theorists suggest some other options, especially in the realm of group selection. They suggest traits that serve group cohesion and sociability may promote evolutionary fitness by making that group better able to deal with difficult circumstances and inter-group conflict. Thus, wisdom, experience, skills, the desire to care for others, and a legacy of creation and knowledge may all contribute to the perpetuation of certain lineages in the species, or perhaps even the species as a whole. Perhaps even sex is about more than just reproduction, but also about social bonding and attachment—the more promiscuous the better for the group!

I am—with a couple of notable exceptions—the kind of safe and reliable man with whom (according to the orthodox) women choose to partner because we are reliable and more likely to help to take care of family. I am clearly not the rugged, strong, genetically superior type that women prefer to fuck when they are ovulating. In other words, my genetic purpose seems to tend towards care, bonding and group perpetuation rather than genetic reproduction. That’s an odd fate for an introverted loner like me (although no more ironic than if I were a charming and promiscuous ovulating-babe magnet with no sperm).

But what if I embraced my genetic doom? What if I lived life constantly aware my impending total physical annihilation? Fuck convention, fuck the species, fuck getting along and taking care. If the future won’t have my DNA, what the hell do I care? Follow my heart, stop worrying about all those reasons not to do something, escape from my genetic and evolutionary bondage. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make some great discovery that all the fearful sheep, worried for their genetic legacies, could never possibly perceive.

Of course, the materialist view of the matter is only a minority. Plenty of people will tell me about my soul, the atman, my Self, Heaven and Hell, karma and rebirth, the five aggregates that condition the future, judgment and so on. Genetic perpetuation is only barely relevant to that. . . . . But, ultimately, the people telling us to worry about these things tell us to value the same things as the genetic materialists: family, education, authority, tradition, hard work, group feeling, politeness, social stability. Only a few of the more hardcore Buddhists, ascetics and libertines want out even from these values; compounding their genetic doom with spiritual and social doom—in the hope of liberation.

*I have in mind Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and early sociobiology of E. O. Wilson as the more well-known orthodox dogmatists who ground evolution in genetic and individual selection. Steven Jay Gould, later E. O. Wilson and the book Sex at Dawn are sources of less orthodox ideas.

Swigging at the Teats

I once read—probably in some Jungian book—that for professors the university is a substitute for mother. We think we are breaking away from mom by getting an independent career, thinking daring thoughts and doing things she never taught us to do. But we are just slipping right back into the bosom, into an enveloping presence that takes care of us, plans our lives, and follows gives us that same familiar structure we have lived since we started school at 5, if not earlier. For other students, the university was a rite of passage. But we never passed.

Fair enough. Even if we disregard the psychoanalysis, the phrase “incestuous insularity” seems to fit the academy just right. And family is even a better metaphor than mother. A totalizing institution that has the sanction of time and tradition, with an ideology that claims to connect us to the basic truths and structure of human life. “Education” is the only thing that comes close to “family” in its claims to be a core necessity of modern life.

The internal dynamics are certainly similar. For people immersed in the academy, everything seems vibrant and meaningful. We treasure our genealogies, curate our legacies, speak of our trivial competitions as if we were conquering the world. It is an intense love-hate relationship, an attachment that both drains and sustains us emotionally. Petty arguments prevail, and chance comments generate excessive, over-emotional reactions. And the substance of the arguments just repeats, over and over and over again.

One big difference it that academia and families have different entrance requirements. We are not born into academia nor do we get swept in on a romantic wave leading to marriage. Instead, we undergo a long, painful & selective ritual of PhD, job search and tenure. And once we are in, nothing engages or time and interest than more than the selection of new initiates. It is a long and interminable process of continual self-reproduction. It generates enormous anxiety, bitterness and fear of rejection. With relatively easy barriers against exit (as compared to the family), one would think that defection would be common. But academics rarely cut ties of their own volition. As with family, such a break is almost inconceivable. It would mean failure, emotional castration, rootlessness, the pointless rejection of all that is valuable, the void.

Like family, academia carves out a tiny section of society and makes it seem like a universe, imprints itself on our personalities, provides material security and familiarity, shapes our social ambitions and fundamental sense of reward and failure. Most institutions probably do much the same–and some, like the army, a monastery, Google or a sports team are probably even more effective than the academy. But unlike them, we academics claim to be individualists, following truth (or our hearts, or love of the subject, or whatever), hostile to group-think, hierarchy and exploited conformity. But every time we insist on our intellectual freedom or speak truth to power, we’re just looking for approval from mom, jockeying for another big swig from the teat.

From the outside, on the other hand, the academy looks, well . . . . well, we don’t really know much about that. Everybody out there seems just a little bit wrong. We’re here to teach them. Anyways, we’re really busy. . . .

The Unhistoricist

Changed the name today. From now on: Why history doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. Need to move further, not try to crawl back into the hole that I dug.

Fortunately, the banner image works even better for this.