Monthly Archives: September 2012

Science and Death

Science is useless, or worse, on dealing with death (as I’ve suggested before).

On the one hand, science gives us these amazing evolutionary, geologic and universal time scales in which individual organisms, species and entire planets are just part of a much greater dance of creation and permutation. It grounds our consciousness in the material world–but it is a material world that ranges from an infinitesimal level where we can barely recognize it as matter at all; to a cosmic scale made up mostly of emptiness. It is a mystical space, in which life and death are part of something much more incredible.

Yet science so frequently evaluates its social success in terms of its ability to increase our life spans a few years, and to delay our inevitable death. It is obsessed with health, fearful of climate change and spends billions of dollar and person-hours trying to find more ways to evade and deny death. At the same time it denies reincarnation, resurrection, endless cycles of time that are much more successful in truly making death seem like more than just an end. It seems obsessed with pulling us out of this universal dance of permutation, in making us more attached to this body. In all other respects science is a relentless proponent of change. But in terms of human life, and the environment in which those lives currently exist, science digs in the heels and only wants to escape change. From this perspective, science is a totally futile endeavor.

Successful spiritual practice situates itself in the context of death as much as life. Science gives us a great cosmic context in which to place our lives and deaths, and then totally drops the ball.

Addendum: Of course, many individuals buck these generalizations–it is more about institutional organization than its practitioners. Some spiritual practitioners are obsessed with longevity and immortality. And many are healers–a concern with health does not necessarily mean fear of death. And many scientists are increasingly concerned with helping people experience a ‘good death’ that includes spiritual realization–such as the doctors engaged in the psylocybin and cancer research project (whom I saw at the Psychedemia conference).

Science and Mystics

“The natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.” –Alan Watts

“All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” –Henry Thoreau

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” –Albert Einstein

I’m at the Psychedemia conference on integratic psychedelics into academia at the University of Pennsylvania. The two quotes above are from a poster presentation by Sarah McManus, titled “Pricles and Goo: Playing with Scientific and Psychedelic Metaphors.” She argues that the even though the scientific and intuitive (mystical? psychedelic?) traditions are often grasping towrads the same insights, their different metaphorical styles make it difficult for them to speak to each other. She wants to discover common ground between reason and insight.

She gave several quotes from scientists–most of which I can no longer remember–who confess that their models are never truth but only useful approximations; that we are nowhere near understanding the basic nature of the universe; and that at best science can only capture fleeting moments in time and make very limited, context-bound predictions.

I know we could dig up several more quotes from scientists asserting the opposite: a firm belief in theories and particles; that we are at the verge of understanding everything; and only have to work out the details to work out. But I think she has a point. As I have written elsewhere, the most exciting science creates some of the most mind-boggling mystical visions around.

But after reading the poster I wondered: Why would scientists want to study mystics and mysticism? Why should mystics care about science? I don’t think they have much to offer each other yet, even when they are heading in the same direction. The divergence between the two lies in more than just metaphors. There are also fundamental differences in how to gain knowledge and what to do with it. The universe may be prickly goo and gooey prickles–but our modes of accessing it excessively emphasize either the goo or the prickles.

Although some scientists like to make big theories and philosophize, most of science is about reducing the great, holistic, super-entwined structure of the universe down into manageable chunks that can be analyzed and transformed into clear, useful, focused results. They retreat in trepidation when confronted with ineffable, unmodular holism. This is both because of the need for testable hypotheses, and because of the social pressure to justify research through practical consequences. Mystics, however, are all about dissolving our attachment to the particular manifestations of the universe. learning to be aware of the whole and perceive the undifferentiated fabric. The scientists work hard to put words and formulas to the parts that they analyze. The mystics are searching for those experiences that are beyond words.

Some scientists are curious about the mystics. They even like to brain scan meditating monks. But even that is all about breaking the brain down into its modular parts to figure out how it works. It has nothing to do with helping people to reach those mystical experiences. In fact, encouraging an over-analytic mind may even make it more difficult to obtain those experiences. At most, after they study all their brain scans and understand the chemistry, science may be able to develop more drugs to facilitate mystic experiences (Alexander Shulgin, for example–as well as more underground chemists today). But there is little incentive to do so, because such drugs would surely be made illegal.

In the end, the mystical scenarios created by scientific theorizing are held from us at arms length, beautiful ideas for us to appreciate but not to experience. At best, we must take it on their word that a few elite mathematicians are experiencing ecstasy through the symmetries and algorithms they discover.

Some mystics (and scientists) like to point to the similarity between mystical perceptions and the conclusions of scientific research. But I never find that very compelling. The analogies are often vague and sometimes misleading representations of science. And I often feel that the appeal to science is merely an appeal to authority, a way to justify mysticism to a skeptical audience. It is not an appeal that really helps us to have the experience. And once you’ve had the experiences, you realize that the science offers just one of many possible interpretation.

Most scientific research into psychedelics these days has more modest goals, usually to investigate their potential for therapy (basically the only kind of research that can get government permission). The investigators recognize that mystical experiences are often a crucial part of the therapeutic experience—an experience which may lead to quitting smoking, curing cluster headaches, or reconciling to cancer. But they have little to say about that experience (at least in their published work). Their research is still limited to correlation, i.e. showing a high number of patients who receive the psychedelic treatment have good results as compared to those who take placebos. The reasons and mechanisms remain mysterious, and the experience itself is valued mainly for its practical results.

Technology is the one other place were many people see an overlap between psychedelic mysticism and science. Many people like to give credit to psychonauts and psychedelic drugs for many recent advances in computing and networking (although the military surely deserves as much, if not more credit). And in turn, structures and metaphors of networking, computing and information are providing new ways to interpret the psychedelic experience (among psychonauts at least–less so among institutionalized scientists). But the more thoughtful of these theorists will be the first to admit that it is just fun and games. That the most difficult thing about mystical and psychedelic experiences is that the minute you try to stop it, to think about it and describe it, you have lost it. That’s no use for science, and no use for mystics.

(But there is still the possibility that continued interaction of clinical scientists with people on psychedelics confronting the ineffable unverse will have some kind of long-term effect on science, and even vice versa. I suspect that the results will look quite different from the science and mysticism we currently have–perhaps something more like alchemy?)

Intention Update

Last week I finished Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Platform, and this week I am reading Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This. Both are about alienated, bored middle aged men living dull, routine lives in Paris, who then make radical breaks. I’ve had these two books on my shelf for over a year, but only felt the  impulse to read them now. I had forgotten what they were about, and can’t remember what inspired me to borrow them in the first place. I also reread Catcher in the Rye last month. But I’m enjoying the middle aged failures much more than young Holden Caulfield.

Houellebecq’s protagonist found a brief redemption through love. It was a love rooted in good sex, the only activity that could still motivate him. Stamm’s protagonist, so far, only has memories of one youthful love. Sex does nothing for him, although he keeps seeking it.

Reading both novels, I kept thinking of my daughter. What happens to the wonder and enthusiasm of youth as we grow old, that sense of exciting potential and newness? I already see bits of it slipping away as she affects jaded attitudes and dives for the TV when she gets home (thankfully, she is still much, much younger than most other 8-year-olds). Will she, too, eventually get pulled into the quicksand of routine and boredom? Or lost in that nervous denial of obsessive busyness? Or consumed by the competitive accumulation of status? It seems inevitable and tragic.

I also think of my graduate students. Some come in still riding those last waves of youth, so enthusiastic about the exiting things they will learn. Others come already plotting and worrying about their careers. The latter group will do fine. They seem to expect no more than the constant struggle to advance and find security. They may even feel pleasantly motivated by the constant awareness that there is always something more to achieve, that somebody else has attained some prize or recognition that they don’t yet have. This means they will always have targets and goals to strive for, to spur their creativity. It is the enthusiastic group that makes me a bit sad. These are the ones who are more likely find careerist competition to be poisonous, the ones who will feel ground down by the lack of fulfillment in the daily grind that their jobs will become, who will regret the decline of their curiosity. A few may accommodate to their fates, whether because they really enjoy teaching or because they still manage to nurture and feed the spark of curiosity. Many will not. They will become bitter or else obsessive workaholics, frantically trying to avoid the disappointment and great hole in their souls.

And of course I look at my own life. I identify to some extent with the protagonists of the novels. Since my teens, I have shared their cynicism and basic inability to enjoy the things and routines that seem to satisfy most other people. But I have never fallen into their swamps of futility and boredom. I’ve waded there a bit, but always pulled myself out with some new project or new curiosity. But the idea that I’m basically a loser like those guys still haunts me.

As I expected, my commitment to quit my job has begun to waver since the semester started. As I increasingly live within the day-to-day concerns of my job, it becomes harder to recall what I expected to do without my job. I still have those frequent experiences that I detest so much: yet another conversation about academic politics; students wallowing in fear and insecurity; somebody getting touchy and angry when their intellectual convictions are challenged; the constant drudge of applications and peer reviews; the utterly predictable theorization and interpretation; and students trying to recreate themselves in the image of some appropriately professional persona that they imagine other people want to see (when I usually want to see exactly the opposite).

It is on those days when I am most tired and unfulfilled, days with a dense concentration of those bad experiences, that I most begin to doubt my intention to quit. Those are the days when I think that I will just become more isolated after quitting, and stuck in some even worse job. They are the days when I think it is foolish to give up my security and status, that I am just giving up. In short, they are the days when I am falling into the patterns of the protagonists of my novels. I take the misery of my current circumstances and project them as the basic characteristic of my entire life.

Interestingly, I am most enthusiastic about my decision to quit on the days when I enjoy my job. These are the days when I find new interest in the material I am teaching, or had an interesting discussion with a colleague or grad students (although the best discussions are usually more about personal lives than academic ideas). They are the days when I can see students have appreciated something that I have done for them. They are the days that make me feel like I have had a successful career. I feel willing to move on with my life, able and excited to try something new.

But I have to keep reminding myself what I will do after quitting my job. It is harder and harder to commit myself to the search for enlightenment that I was starting to embrace in the summer. The rationalistic and practical thinking required for my job just makes the whole awakening thing seem silly. But it is precisely this silly idealism that keeps me from being one of the characters in these novels.

So, I am signed up for massage classes–following the realization in my ayahuasca sessions that I should develop my sensual self. I also  keep meditating and doing some tantric exercises. I am a bit frustrated with the meditation. I am pretty bad at it, and can’t shut off my chattering mind. And I can’t help feeling that it is only another variation of my academic life–ritual self-discipline and the suppression of life force. I much prefer the tantric exercises–breathing and yoga mixed with meditation. They are premised on the idea that you should use the energy of your desires to awaken yourself, not try to suppress them.

The tantric exercises are much more effective in producing those physical sensations and images that take me beyond my mind and remind me of how much we don’t know. These are the experiences that make the future look like a new adventure, a reason to leave my job. I especially look forward to practicing tantra with Luna. Maybe those promises of extended orgasms and physical bliss will come true (I agree with Houellebecq that, for me at least, sex—especially with a woman who really enjoys it–is the one thing that can penetrate alienation and boredom. But it still takes effort to stop sex itself from declining into routine and boredom). And perhaps even enlightenment–although at this point I have to concede that I am building new attachments rather than heading towards nirvana. . . . But wherever I’m heading, I should just jump in and not worry about it. I’ll get nowhere by just staying where I am, except to have more of the same.

The Acronyms

Wisdom passed on to me by my dad:

BS: Bullshit

MS: More of the Same

MA: More Accumulation

PhD: Piled Higher and Deeper

The first one’s not difficult to decode. But the higher you go, the less you are able to see through it all.

Love and the Thai Family

Many people in Thailand assume that my girlfriend, Luna, is a sex worker—because she has money to build a house and buy a car, and because of her falang boyfriend. When I stayed in her home, women ranging in age from their late teens to their forties sometimes came for advice on how to find a falang husband, on whether it was better to work in a go-go bar or massage parlor or just freelance, or just hoping she could hook them un with a good sex-related job in Bangkok or Pattaya. Luna usually told them she didn’t know anything about it, and that they should just go to Bangkok or Pattaya to find out for themselves.

One time, however, during a period when Luna and I were not getting along very well, she started telling a girl who wanted a falang husband that it was a bad idea. The communication barrier with falang was just too large, and even when you did understand each other you would only learn that your desires and expectations are too different. There were problems about everything: what to eat, how to spend money, how to clean the house, what kind of decorations, how to treat people, treat family, even how to go to the bathroom. When one person is trying to be polite, the other will think he is lying. When the other person is trying to be honest, the other will think she is being cruel. Even when you do agree with each other, you sometimes don’t understand because of the language barrier and get angry anyways. Luna told the girl she would be better off with a Thai man. He would be easier to understand, with much fewer problems. If she needed the money, she could just work in a bar and sleep with falang. It would be much less difficult in the long run.

But the girl persisted, saying how she saw all the big houses and nice cars that falangs had bought for their wives in the country. Whatever their problems, the falangs still took care of their wives. She could learn to understand her husband, and to make him love her.

Finally Luna told her, “Even if he loves you, he will love only you. He won’t care about your family. He won’t want to help them. He’ll get angry when you want to give money to them and buy things for them.”

“What do you mean?” asked the girl.

“It’s true,” Luna went on. “All falang are the same. They love their children, but don’t care about their parents and brothers and sisters. They care about yours even less. They only treat family like friends.  They get angry when you say that you have to take care of them. If  your family asks you for something or you want to buy something for them, the falang always yell, ‘Why do you have to give them so much?! They can take care of themselves. It’s not your job to take care of them. They’ll just want more, more all the time. You just want them to be lazy.'”

The girl’s eyes went wide open. I was sitting nearby, and she looked me up and down with a snarl in her lips. “You can’t be serious?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Luna, “They don’t care about family in Europe. They only care about themselves and their own happiness.”

“But . . . how can somebody like that get married? How can he have a wife if he doesn’t care about family?”

“You have to believe what I’m saying,” said Luna. “It’s not easy to marry a falang. They don’t care about anything.”

I don’t know if the girl was persuaded. But she stopped asking questions, scowled at me again and walked off.

Luna reported the conversation to me. I thought it was true and hilarious. We both laughed. It was the best moment we’d had together in several days.

Sex and Exchange / Sex is Exchange

When my Thai girlfriend Luna was working in Italy, she was annoyed by people constantly asking her why so many Thai women worked as prostitutes and sold their bodies to foreigners. Her usual answer was, “Up to them, they can do what they want.” But later, when she reported these conversations to me, she added, “But lady in Europe get laid with many man for FREE! Have many, many boyfriend. Not even boyfriend, only for get laid. Don’t care nothing. Man don’t give money, don’t give nothing. And lady don’t take care of her family. Only take care her own happy. And then she like to speak bad about Thai lady. I want to know who bad, Thai lady or Europe lady?”

I’ve always refrained from answering Luna’s question. But I do know that for many Thais, promiscuity is more of a problem than taking money for sex.  In fact, the exchange of money and resources is an indispensable part of romance and marriage. Big dowries are an indispensable part of all weddings. When a man gives money, it is proof of love and commitment. Affection is the appropriate response from the lady. She would be foolish to marry a man who is stingy with his money. This principle extends to casual sex as well. Promiscuity only for the sake of sex just causes emotional and social problems. It is more acceptable if the man gives the woman some money so she can help out her family.

I’ve also seen some of the implications of Luna’s logic in the bar she has recently opened  in the small city near her village. It started as a hair and nail salon that Luna set up about two months ago. She was renting two shopfronts for the salon, and her cousin who owns a wholesale liquor shop suggested that she sell some beer, whiskey and simple food in the shop next door. Many of her hair and nail customers were also women who worked at the karaoke bar a few shops down. They persuaded her that the real money was in a more formal bar where women could meet men for sex. They told her the various ways that bars operated, and Luna also talked to local police about what kind of operations would and would not get negative attention from them.

So Luna renovated the second room, putting in some red fluorescent lights, a stereo and a few couches. She did not want a go-go or a karaoke bar, but someplace quieter and more low-key. She did not want to hire women or charge them a bar fine each time they left with a man. In part because the police would also start expecting a monthly fee from her, but mostly because she wanted to provide a space for independent women. Instead, she just charges a small ‘tip’ each time a man buys a drink for a lady, and splits the tip 60-40 with the woman. Some of the women who come frequently also do a bit of work in the bar like cleaning tables or serving drinks when Luna has to step out. These work arrangements are still informal so far as I can tell.

It is not turning out quite the way she expected. The bar is frequented almost entirely by the local falang (foreigners), with a few Thai soldiers on the weekends. The falang like it because the music is not loud and the women not so pushy as in the karaoke bars—although I suspect Luna’s charisma is also part of the attraction. It also turns out that the falang prefer to drink beer and talk with each other than to spend much time with the women. Only two to four women hang out there each evening, and they don’t always leave with a customer.  Falang like to drink beer more than whiskey and cocktails, which have a better profit margin. The bar is still doing fine, but not quite so profitable as she had hoped (although more profitable than the salon). A woman who goes out with a single customer can still earn more than Luna does all night selling drinks.

She has also found (returning finally to the question that opened this post) that a couple of the women are having sex with the men for very little money and sometimes for free. They are both in their 40s, although still quite attractive. They tell Luna that they like to have sex, and that they are looking for a husband. But their behavior is having the opposite effect. Some of the falang have complained that these women are too pushy, drunken and a little bit crude–always grabbing at their dicks. One even gave a blow job right in the bar. And some falang insist that they would not consider either woman as a girlfriend, unlike the women who still keep their prices high. By all reports, these two women also frequently have sex without condoms. Luna even suspects that one of them has AIDS. Overall, she thinks their behavior gives a bad reputation to her bar. But she also finds it hard to say anything because these women are more like customers than employees.

I don’t want to make any generalization from this. But I think it is an example that extends the significance of Luna’s comment at the beginning of this post. Taking money does not necessarily make a sex act less appropriate or moral. In fact, it can be quite the opposite (although the cultural context of understanding ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ will make a big difference). Women who are thoughtfully using their sexuality to earn money and attract husbands might also be more likely to maintain certain standards of selectivity and hygiene than those who are mostly looking to have sex. And–as the many foreign men married to Thai sex workers attests–commercial sex can certainly be a path to marriage and even romance. It takes discipline to deploy sexuality effectively and profitably. And a formal context of regulated payment and work might make that discipline more likely than the less regulated world of freelance hustling that is pervasive everywhere from the world of streetwalking to dating and marriage.

The strong line we draw in the West between legitimate sex and commerce, and the rather formal, clock-watching nature of sex work here, makes it hard for us to imagine sex work as a way to meet husbands. But even for Western women, the Honest Courtesan has also made the argument that the professional standards of sex workers are more honest and ethical than those of the many other women who use sex in a variety of ways to attract wealthy men, luxuries and resources—what she calls ‘halfway whores.’ At least sex workers fulfill our Western ideal of working according to an agreement for exchange; whereas the more informal sex freelancers often hide and deny the fact that money and resources are expected in exchange for sex.

Opportunity Knocks and then Forces its Way in

My parents were very low pressure in their expectations. “Whatever you want to do with your life is fine with us,” they told me. They only thing they insisted upon was school. School is good. I must finish school. School would create opportunities. More school is better. Finish school, and you can do what you want.

I finished quickly, skipping 6th grade and graduating high school a semester early. At the age of 16, I went to St. John’s college in Santa Fe (a great books liberal arts college). I dropped out after two weeks. But there was never any doubt I would be back at school. I took evening classes at the community college. Within half a year I went there full time. And then back to university to get my bachelor’s degree. I took three years off to teach English in China. But by then, I could not imagine any options for the future other than school. There was no question that my future included a PhD.

I was angry and miserable my first years in grad school. But the isolation of dissertation research and writing was good for me, and cut the edge off that anger (it has the opposite effect on most people). So, after 22 years of school (24 if we include nursery school; and 26 if we include teaching English in a Chinese college) I went back to school. I got a job in a university. I found teaching painful (now I find it tolerable). I worked 60-70 hours a week preparing class, researching and writing. And now, looking back at those 15 lost years since graduation, here I am at Claustrodemonic U. where every year looks the same.

My dad dreamed of being a professor. But he did not have my work ethic and organization, and barely finished his MA. My mom never thought of herself as a professor, but she loved the idea of being married to one. I’ve lived out their dreams. Time to live my life. . . . . Maybe that is the message of my bike accident (I’ve been biking since elementary school as well).