Happy Everything!

Now that the December holidays are within a couple days of being totally over, I hope it’s safe and amusing (rather than triggering and insensitive) to talk about them from my idiosyncratic point of view 🙂

We left the U.S. in January of 1976 for tropical countries, shortly before my 10th birthday, and didn’t move back for about 7 years. (This is relevant. Hang on.)
airplane_Abu_Dhabi_Boeing_747jpg
This means my entire pubescence and adolescence was spent in countries where, at the time, Christianity was an amiably tolerated oddity, and Western-style Christmas was weird almost beyond belief… but the pragmatism of shopkeepers is the same the world over: It’s all money!

And, of course, the legendary sweetness of Egyptians (outside of politics) made it all a sort of good-natured sport:
“Tell me what is ‘Christmas tree’ and I’ll get it — for you, special price, my friend! You my friend! Special price!” (The last part is indispensible.)

For you, my friend, special price!
For you, my friend, special price!

Then it was a matter of watching them try to keep a straight face, as you:

  • Try to obtain a cold-weather evergreen … in a hot desert country;
  • Subsequently drape that evergreen in colors of snow and blood … in order to celebrate a god of peace;
  • Who came to earth in — yup — the desert … where it snows less than once a century;
  • Which is all somehow tied up with celebrating a Northern solar event, which doesn’t matter near the equator

… And then there’s the obligatory gift-giving. This was even a bigger trip to explain.

The Cultural Gap on Gift-Giving

“Everyone?” I remember one man asking Mom, in deep confusion. In his life, the only people who got gifts were those who deserved it, and little children on their birthdays.

“Well, not everyone,” she temporized.

“Who do you have to give things to?” he asked, really wanting to understand.

She did her best to explain, as a good cultural ambassador should. “Your husband or wife and children, of course.”

ALL the children?” he asked, in shock.

“Well, yes.”

“Even if they’ve been bad, or broke the car, or spoiled the crops? Cost you a lot of money? You still buy them presents?”

Mom had to stop a minute. This is where practice bears no relation to theory. “You can try not giving evenly to the children, but they’ll let you know. Mine let me know, as a group, if they think it wasn’t perfectly even.” We did, too. She went on, “And I send presents back to my brother and his wife and family –”

He interrupted, “Where are they?”

She said, “In America.” Where he knew we hadn’t been in a few years.

He tipped his chin to one side, in that “as you wish” gesture of the Middle East, which was a polite way of indicating, “yeah, this doesn’t seem silly. Much.”

She went on, “We also send gifts to my husband’s brother and sister and her children — she’s divorced, so we don’t have to buy for her husband any more.”

His eyebrows popped, but he held his tongue. Why would you buy gifts for nieces and nephews thousands of miles away? What have they ever done to deserve that much effort? — And divorced?? A woman, divorced, still embraced by her famiily? And these foreigners push off the guy instead — odd, but probably praiseworthy. Okay. Nice. Weird, but nice. Moving right along.

But he didn’t say any of that aloud.

Mom went on, “And my mother, of course. My husband’s parents and my father are no longer living, so we don’t have to buy for them.”

I thought he murmured, “I’m surprised.” Maybe it was just his limpid expression.

She went on, “Oh, and we get something for the servants, plus a bonus of money. [Eyebrows up: nice deal, a bonus for your boss’s religion]. And Tom gives his boss a gift, small but nice, and the office pitches in and gets something for each of the secretaries, but Tom still gets something extra for the ones he works with [visibly wondering about those secretaries]… And then of course our friends.”

He was beginning to sound weary, or possibly just relieved that it wasn’t him. “All your friends?”

Mom said, “You get nice things for those you’re close to, less valuable things for friends further out.”

He nodded. At least that made sense. He asked, like the socially sensitive person he clearly was, “What happens if they’re not equal — if you get a nicer present than you give, or the other way around?”

“Well,” said my mother frankly, “That can be a little embarrassing. It happens sometimes, but we try to be polite about it. I’ve gone back and gotten someone something more, to even up the balance.”

Another gracious tip of the chin, this time probably meaning, “Smart move in a crazy system.”

Mom added, “And, if someone invites you to a party, it’s considered good manners to bring them a small gift, or at least a bottle of wine.” How suitable — in a traditionally non-drinking country.

He shook his head slowly and said, “And that’s not everybody?”

Mom finally laughed. “Well, not quite.”

It really makes you wonder, when you look at it from the outside.

"Oh no, I couldn't take another thing!"
“Oh no, I couldn’t take another thing!”

Blowing scads of money every single year on a bunch of ill-thought-out purchases, mostly for people you hardly know, who are getting inundated with them anyway, to celebrate the birth of someone who told you that love matters more than money … or possibly because it was the armpit of winter, so let’s all go indoors and eat ourselves sick until the sun shows up again … in the desert.

I never sneer when someone uses the terms “religion” and “mythology” interchangeably, even when they’re talking about mine. I know for a fact that it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Back to the tree question.

Our first year in Egypt, we did try buying a spruce and, well, sprucing it up. The result was pathetic even beyond my father’s generous taste for “trees with personality”. It was the quintessential Charlie Brown tree, but slightly taller. The poor straggly little thing was quite overwhelmed by even the few decorations we dared hang on it, and was almost crushed by a single strand of lights.

That was that for traditional trees (and none of us cared for the plastic ones.)
ChristmasTree_NOT
So we had to come up with non-traditional trees.

Each year, my feverishly creative mother outdid herself in coming up with some fabulous representation of a Christmas “tree”, appropriately gaudy and festive, festooned with merry decorations and strung with whatever we felt like stringing it with. (I remember learning just how tedious crafts could be, the year we decided to string popcorn.)

She was especially fond of the stacked poinsettias, perched on benches and boxes at several levels, but I liked every single year’s distinctive creation as much as the others.

I only wish I could remember them in any detail; it was a pleasant part of the backdrop of life, as far as I was concerned at the time. We take so much for granted at that age!

She finally called it quits on our first Christmas in Bangladesh. She was fed to the back teeth with coming up with something every year and decided to “rest on her laurels” — a nice way of saying that she was plumb out of ideas.

I was home from boarding school in the US (there were no accredited high schools in Dhaka at the time) and was still blossoming under the influence of tropical warmth, so notably absent from Massachusetts in December.
woman-with-sitar
I found a red-and-white canvas plant hanger (this was back when plant hangers were made of fabric rather than plastic) and fastened it to the wooden screen between the living room and sun room. A few bent wire coat-hangers later, we had a Christmas tree to decorate.

I even whittled a couple of reindeer out of Ivory soap and fashioned a little sleigh for them to pull out of unlined 3×5 card and toothpicks. Our little elfin Santa perched in it quite happily.

I have no idea how I pulled it off, but it was easy to do at the time.

So, as you can see, my notion of the holidays involved a lot of flexibility from very early on. This probably explains a lot. I celebrate Yule, Solstice, Christmas, and if I’m invited to any other spiritual observance, I do my best to participate with my best manners and heartfelt good will.

Normally. This disease does change things; most obviously, one’s social activities.

All last year, I sent off presents whenever I found them, things I really thought the recipient would absolutely love. Nothing thoughtless and nothing I couldn’t afford, and no waiting and storing and wrapping to deal with. It was a nice change! Not everyone I love got something, but everything I sent was right, and everyone else knows I love them just the same — I simply didn’t find the right gift yet. Next year, it’ll be a different mix.

At home, there was no noticeable festivity, but there was a cozy little trailer filled with love and care. That was all we were up to, and it was fine.

Next year, J and I think, there will be lights and color and a bit of show. In our own little way, we will celebrate anything we have a mind to, and it will probably involve lights and candles and sweet smudge. Whatever we do, it will still be in a little home full of love and care.

Because love is more important than money.

Postscript
Informal International Network of CRPS Bloggers:

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Different souls, one world

I’m intrigued by how different the characteristic of integrity looks on different people.

My car’s detailing is being supervised by a very Catholic chaplain who really doesn’t lie, really does respect others, really does care about his world, and really does put his time, life and energy into working for the greater good. He’s pleasant and charming in a comfortable way, and his whole demeanor is slightly aglow. He’s a man on a mission, and it’s one that coheres with his best innermost self.

Obviously, what comes next is about the general perception of certain groups — not individual or local impressions, but the wider impression that history, actions/consequences, and the publicity about them, have left in the public mind…

The Catholic church isn’t known these days for turning out coherent, stable, disciplined characters, so it’s really good to meet one.

Lutheranism isn’t known for sweetness, and one of my uncles is both a devout Lutheran and one of the most kindly, gentle, nonjudgmental people I’ve ever met. It really works for him.

Atheism isn’t known for consideration, yet this culture of argument which so often defines itself in terms of opposition has turned out some of the most resolutely practical, inspiring and embracing activist-philosophers of any creed in this age.

It’s possible to go on for some time, but let’s take a moment to realize that all belief systems look a little odd from the outside, despite the fact that living a belief system is a seriously powerful thing to do. It’s one of the great ironies of humanity.

I suspect it’s a clue: it matters on the inside, but shouldn’t matter on the outside. Being responsible to our own internal structure (respecting our own uniqueness) makes sense, but trying to push our framework onto others (disrespecting the uniqueness of others) does not.

Decency and moral stature don’t belong to any one belief, but they do belong to the human race. Each of us is at least as different in our inmost selves as we are in our outward lives. When you think about it, it would be impossible — bizarre and irrational — for us all to believe the same way.

Anyone who finds a path — whether well-defined or idiosyncratic — that gives them, in their uniqueness, real strength and purpose holds a great gift and a powerful tool.

I no longer fear the differences of belief and it’s been a long time since I held any in contempt, but I’ve taken a step back to simply admire and appreciate them, filled with joy tinged with awe.

We are an astoundingly diverse species, inside and out. Such an abundance of different ways to be should make us fitter than ever to handle anything. When we enjoy and admire our variety, rather than fretting over it, I’ve noticed that that’s exactly what happens: together, we can handle anything.

After we had done the paperwork, this chaplain and I continued our conversation and I wound up telling him about the purpose of this trip, the reason I was dropping scarce money on prepping my car.

As I did so, I felt my own coherence of integrity coming into focus, the energetic union of innermost self and outer reality.

And I realized: I’m on a mission. Regardless of my own outcome, I’m certain now of leaving the world better for my feeble but determined efforts.

This radiant chaplain is going to pray for me and my work. The science shows that prayer and meditation correlate to better outcomes, regardless of the forms used. To bring the science back to life and into specifics, I know that the prayers of someone so coherently devout are powerful help.

I’m a handicapped woman on a mission which is technically impossible. But now, I do have a prayer 🙂

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The arts are not trivial — why mythopoiesis matters

Almost 7 years ago, I was walking with a fellow writer, sharing our souls as good friends do. I was recently disabled with CRPS and, needing activity as I do, I was trying to think what to do with my life beyond struggling to stay alive and in manageable pain.  I complained about my internal blocks to any sort of publicity for my work.  (I had no blogs.  Nobody outside the Java software industry had ever heard of me.  Nearly all my output had been printed anonymously by the company I worked for.)  
She asked what I thought that was about.  I said I had been brought up with the very clear message that arts are fine for a hobby, but that making a living as a writer or actor was absolutely unthinkable.  It was irrational to take the arts seriously.
Her soft voice changed to ringing iron in the shape of a bell: “The arts are not trivial.”  
I stopped, right there on the sidewalk, shocked out of my self-pity. She turned and egged me on; we continued walking.  “What did you do after surgery?” she asked.
I mumbled, “Watched movies.”
“You watched movies. When you were a little better but couldn’t go back to work yet, what else did you do?”
“Read.”
“You read.  Writers and actors and producers and other artists got you through that time.  They got you through the last year, with the awful work and the layoff.  Survival is not trivial.  It’s significant.  The arts matter.”
Hard to argue with that.  I’d be dead, miserably dead, without the work of visionaries — especially the really  funny ones.
This came up again in the context of my own more recent absorption in the value of mythology as a ticket to survival in the face of horrible odds — a pressingly modern issue in these impossible times.  Then today, I learned that it was Professor Tolkien who created the word “Mythopoeia” — wrote a poem on it, in fact, to his increasingly rigid friend Reverend Lewis. 
While both men were theists, C. S. Lewis was much more interested in the structure and received wisdom of religion; J. R. R. Tolkien was a spiritual seeker more in the experiential, visionary, nature-loving, nearly shamanic mode of poets like Coleridge and Keats.  
 Here it is, with my annotations [in square brackets and italicized.]  Take your time and enjoy:

To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

[“Loves Myths” to “Opposes Myths”]

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);

[I love this comment on the dry limits of literalism!]

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;

[he’s making the point that there’s more to all this than we can comprehend in our poorly-constructed, limited and ignorant theories of time, space, matter, and life.
He goes on to describe fiction, which at least doesn’t pretend to hold all facts:]

and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,

[he used “queer” in the sense of “odd”, but as far as I’m concerned it’s all good]

each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.

[by pairing these luscious words with the plain ones, he just destroyed the dry concept that “trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'” — making the point that there’s more to language and life than the rules we know.]

The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

[he’s pointing out (with beautiful imagery) that our brains are so rich and complex, and that life and experience are so rich and complex, that each rich experience makes unique patterns in a complex brain…]

Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,

[…and that even to come up with dry little words to describe them, is a feat of imagination in the first place]

faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

[remove the line-breaks and read that again: “but neither record nor a photograph, being divination, judgement, and a laugh response of those that felt astir within by deep monition movements that were kin to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars: free captives undermining shadowy bars, digging the foreknown from experience and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.” 
In short, taking pictures and otherwise recording things is often a nervous tick, used by those who aren’t enough in touch with their feelings and experiences to find some richer way to convey them meaningfully — but convey them we do, however we can, in an effort to rescue our deeper selves…]

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

[…and from that effort we grow, and brilliant works come in time.]

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

[in short, to see something, we must first be able to imagine it.  This idea of his has since been borne out by modern science: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080703145849.htm]

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him.

[Tolkien’s religious background was Roman Catholic, which believes in God as the ultimate source of wisdom …]

               Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

[…and teaches the story of the Garden of Eden as the fall of man and expulsion from paradise.]

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

[Our minds may be separated from God’s (his belief, not mine) but they are still derived from it, and all our rich variety of unique perceptions create endless possibilities.]

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

[A triumphant assertion of the right to exercise creative will.  Go Tolkien!]

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?

[yeah, so we make stuff up — and it makes us stronger. It’s holy.]

All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

[now that’s pretty clear!]

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

[you don’t have to be a soldier to strive against evil. To make stories, or art of any kind, as a refuge and defense against evil, is to make room for a better future…]

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

[… and the future itself starts out as something imaginary, a “rumor.. guessed by faith.”]

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

[it’s been said that this sounds a bit like our own times]

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

[artists and writers and musicians keep us going, reminding us of brighter times and a future worth having, even in the face of defeat]

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.

[“I would” means “I wish” — it’s an older form, so an antiquarian like the Prof can use it with a straight face]

I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

[he doesn’t care how silly or crazy or poor he seems, he will keep his courage and share his vision whatever anyone says.  Man after my own heart]

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient.

[in his day, “progressive” meant “making more machines, funding more science without conscience,” “making bad things happen faster”; what was called “progress” in his day, we would call “unsustainable development,” “pollution,” “health crises,” “rising poverty,” “environmental destruction,” and all those associated events. This word’s meaning has swivelled about 180 degrees]

                Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

[another line that makes me rise and wave my fist in triumph. He will keep his little sovereignty over his own poor life and trivial work, rather than give himself up to the unfeeling machine of so-called “success” that’s based on anaesthetic values like logic without art, money without value, creation without creativity.]

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.

[when we are true to our best selves, we are heavenly and whole.  Simple as that]

Evil it will not see, for evil lies not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.

[evil is due to distorted perspective, vile actions and unfeeling motives — it’s not available to those who are sincere]

In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.

[creativity is not a lie]

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

[when we’re dead, those of us with the nerve and integrity to create will be valued, have endless possibilities to choose from — and work directly with God!]

Sources:

It occurs to me I should check the copyright status of this poem. Obviously, I think of Professor Tolkien’s work as being for all people and for all time, but his executors’ views may differ from my implementation.  

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Releasing the gods within

Modern mythology (á la comic-book heroes & Harry Potter) make extraordinary powers something odd, often imposed on those who never asked for it or are forced into concealing it in order to survive.

I don’t have a lot of time for the victim mentality, however charmingly restated. (I love Harry Potter and X-Men but still take them in small doses.) And the idea that it’s abnormal to be super-anything is not congruent with my experience. I don’t know anyone who isn’t super-something.

Embracing the deep weirdness of reality and going from there seems much more effective — and realistic. Notions of normalcy are hopelessly entwined in history and place, sealed with the invisible glue of social fear.

In other words, normalcy is unstable and profoundly irrational, even as we’re desperate to hang onto and justify it.

Not very helpful for dealing with bodily meltdown, lasting pain, deep disruptions and the massive issues of powerlessness, poverty and loss that are shaking so many. It’s too easy to feel like a victim and a freak.

I’ve been delving into the mythology of the Titans, creator gods (like Gaia, Rhea, Ouranos, Kronus) who gave rise to the later — and nastier — Olympians (like Jupiter, Mars, Hera, and all that crowd.) They deal with devastating changes, massive loss, pain, betrayal, mutilation, everything we face — but not for one minute do they imagine that they are ordinary, held to small standards, ineffective or meaningless.

They move and think and act and feel as if it mattered, because it does; they are born to their extraordinariness and they own it, warts and all.

I want to reframe the stories we tell ourselves so that we start out being extraordinary — not by accident or as oddities, but by right. Then the overwhelming tasks we face become merely heinously difficult, not completely beyond us.

We need not waste energy trying to conceal how much we can really bring to bear. We have better things to do.

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Pain Manifesto

This came out of cold chronic CRPS type 1, a debilitating condition of intractable chronic pain, nervous system disruption, and multi-system dysregulation — destroying the body’s ability to manage heat/cold, blood sugar, immune defense, circulation, sensation, bone density, movement, vision, digestion, heart function, and ultimately survival.

“Standard” treatments don’t work well for me; moreover, they involve invasive procedures too brutal to tolerate and medications I’m either outright allergic to, or that impair me so profoundly I can no longer function. At all.

So I took myself off my meds, thought things over, and came to the following conclusions.

MY CHRONIC PAIN MANIFESTO

Yes, it hurts.
It’s going to anyway.

So should I hoard my days
And fast from life?
Comfort myself with poisons,
Blister-packed and FDA approved?

Some think it would be best all ’round.
I’d cure them if I could (heh!)
But I’m too tired for
Yet another pointless struggle.

The sunlight pours through trees like prosecco
And reminds me what it means to live:

Voices warm with love, the
Mouth-smack of good food,
The hug of hills and the
Rough snuggles of the sea.

Hoard my days? I’ll spend each one
Like it’s stuffed with jewels
Pouring through my hands like a miser’s dream.

Feast on this:
The cost of life is much the same.
The difference lies in how you spend it.

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Mind, brain, spirit, and the im/pertinence of death

I referred to this material in an earlier post, where I described the online conversation that started it. My first thought was to turn it into a coherent essay. On reflection, I realized that digesting what my co-conversationalists said was not necessarily going to improve the content, as they’re very eloquent and have distinctive voices. So I chose to let them speak for themselves.

Note to non-academics and other civilized beings: I find that, with academics as with working engineers, it’s more important to be clear than to be sweet. Caveat emptor.

This thread is from James Croft’s blog on “State of Formation,” an excellent venue for lively conversations. It started with Jim F., as I secretly suspect a lot of the most interesting arguments do:

Jim F. says:
[…] Injuries to the brain from accidents or from disease like tumors or strokes can lead to radical changes in personality and/or character. In Lamont’s opinion, there are no real good reasons for believing that consciousness is something that can exist without the body. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the mind.

Isabel says:
February 28, 2011 at 2:30 am
Jim, I’ve mulled that relationship a lot. (Lifelong interest in neurology, now with neurologic disorder.) My studies and experience leave me certain that it’s a seductive mutuality, but not an absolute connection. It’s certainly not a simple one.

While mental states are associated with neuroendocrine activity, the subjective experience is inevitable _only_ to the extent that it’s unaware — or, of course, volitional.

This seriously disturbs the structure of the idea that “mental state doesn’t exist without physical state.” And that doesn’t even go near the eternal chicken/egg question — whether the chemical shift or the feeling it’s supposed to transmit comes first.

Go on to look at more organized ways of managing one’s mentation & neuroendocrine flow, like meditation or yoga or “inward” martial arts, and the question of connection and control becomes not just loose, but flaccid.

The more I think about awareness, and the more I learn about neurophysiology and endocrine behavior, and the further I go on the personal inquiry into how to navigate this neurologic disruption, the less I’m persuadable that the mind depends on the brain. That concept totally fails in the face of this experience — the clinching argument for me, obviously — but it also fails to describe those experiences that are _not_ as unaware, uncontrolled, and are experienced as irreflectively as those of animals. We are richer beings.

When my neurochemistry is whacked, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding other ways to hold my mind in a bearable state. That would be impossible if the brain were the only determinant of mental state. And I know I’m not so special that this capacity MUST be rare if I have it.

I’ve never found a good explanation for that part of the mind that can participate with and respond to neurochemistry, without being pwned by it (in hacker parlance.) It sure is an interesting inquiry, though I don’t need an answer. I just need to continually improve my command of it, since so far this condition is incurable. (We shall see.)

I’m glad you raised the mind/brain issue. More philosophers should study neuroendocrinology — and meditation.

Jim F. says:
March 1, 2011 at 7:21 am
Responding to Isabel. I have always found Hume to be pretty persuasive on this subject, even though he was without the benefit of modern neuroscience. In his essay, “The Immortality of the Soul”, he wrote:

“[…]— Sleep, a very small effect on the body, is attended with a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. — The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness; their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death.”

//Isabel comments: Hume must have had curious nightmares. My own dreams tend to be rich and narrative; not as rich as waking life but often more encouraging.
// Hume’s understanding of mental development is clearly in step with his own time, which is to say, very uninformed: the brain of an infant is in the most quickly-developing, rationally evolving period of the person’s entire lifetime. Never again are we as aware, as able to learn, and as able to prune away useless thoughts as we are in infancy. The tiny fledgling bodies we have are needy indeed, but again, the capacity to recover from proportional insults to the body and brain is better than it ever will be again. Still, the brain function far exceeds the body’s function in infancy. Not proportional at all.
// The mutual disorder of the body and mind in sickness is rarely proportional, and as I have worked with sick and injured people for most of my life, I am the authority there. Sorry, Hume. Normally-healthy men are vile patients, making their tenders miserable while refusing to mend themselves; old women typically manage their way through pain and physical disruption that would have most of us on our knees in howling agony — unless it kills them. And of course, the rest of us fall in between these extremes, depending more on our personalities and cultures than on a proportional response to the illness or injury.
// Senility in old age is not a given, either: some people’s bodies rot long before their minds do, and with others, their minds go fast while their bodies soldier mercilessly on for decades. Any true proportionality between a fading body and fading mind is so rare that, in my clinical experience, it’s the exception and not the rule. (It would be fun to find a study on that, if only to discover the name of a doctor who has the nerve to tell us what degree of disintegration is “proportional.”)
// Thus, while Hume’s prose is wonderfully telling, his conclusions are not.

“[…] Every thing is in common betwixt soul and body. The organs of the one are all of them the organs of the other. The existence therefore of the one must be dependant on that of the other. — The souls of animals are allowed to be mortal; and these bear so near a resemblance to the souls of men, that the analogy from one to the other forms a very strong argument. Their bodies are not more resembling; yet no one rejects the argument drawn from comparative anatomy. The Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can harken to.

// Hume is always delicious to read, but he is ignorant of the better-developed spiritual traditions which characterize the spiritual body as overlapping and interacting with the physical, but not being either a clone or tied into lockstep with it. These (both Asian and European) traditions therefore fundamentally differ from his base assumption about the twin-image nature of the body-mind relationship.

Concerning meditation, Rick Heller has been writing on the neurological basis of meditation in The New Humanism. He is himelf a practioner and teacher of meditation and also a convinced naturalist and physicalist.

// I’ll have to look him up. Could be interesting.

There seem to me a lot of problems with the sort of psychophysical dualism that Isabel seems to be defending. If it is true then this would seem to violate some of the most basic laws oh physics. Maybe such basic laws like the laws of the conservation of energy and of momentum are not completely valid, but most natural scientists are going to requires lots of very strong evidence to be so persuaded. Dualists have yet to come up with a convincing account of how a nonphysical mind can interact with the physical body. Dualistic interactionism therefore seems to violate a general heuristic principle of science: the causal closure of the physical world. And at this point we can invoke Ockam’s Razor to argue that we really have no need to posit any sort of a mental substance that exists apart from the physical organism.

// The assumption that mind is necessarily physical because the brain is, is a false conclusion. This nonbrain attribute is generally considered to be energetic in nature. Energy interacts with matter all the time, or none of us could (for instance) access this web site, let alone think the thoughts we bring to it. Hence the law of conservation is easily observed.
// Given how the body parts transmute so nothing is wasted, it remains reasonable to suppose that the energetic component transmutes as well, without being lost. Unrecognizable, perhaps, as Paul indicates below — but not annihilated. That would indeed contravene a number of laws of physics.

Returning to Corliss Lamont, one of the other arguments that he made was that even in the Abrahamic religious traditions, there is the tacit assumption that a body is required for conscious existence. Hence, the doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead that exist in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. Eastern religions likewise have their doctrines concerning reincarnation

// I’ve been content to agree with the theologists/spiritual philosophers who explain that this is a metaphor for the benefit of the many-headed, i.e., a handy lie; the inward self continues in a way that does have its own integrity, but re-inserting the energetic “self” into the physical body is not something that happens literally. It makes a useful concept for the bulk of the laity to work with, to reinforce the idea that they are going to be held responsible for what they do to themselves.
// (While I object to using religion as a form of terrorism, it _is_ an ancient form of crowd-control. In the times of short lifespans, societies were run by adolescents and post-adolescents; therefore, these kinds of down-to-earth metaphors could be very useful indeed.)
// Physical experience has no exact correlation in the nonphysical realm; therefore, certain kinds of understanding can only be reached by means of in-carn-ation — allowing the spiritual/energetic/durable self to become embodied. This is one of the most basic theses in many traditions which consider both life and afterlife to be valid memes.
// It would be more accurate to speak, not of “conscious existence”, but of incarnate life that’s perceptible to itself. This leaves an obvious logical gap: What about perceiving non-incarnate “life”, or un-embodied types of consciousness? That’s a much more sophisticated question than, “is there continued existence after bodily death”, and requires a degree of intellectual care on everyone’s side.
// Why so much intellectual care? Partly because, to assume that spiritual life must be consistently observable only through a narrow spectrum of physical means, is to overlook one or two (or a million) basic realities of matter, energy, logic, and so on. And partly because, if spiritual theses can’t be described in plain language, they probably need rethinking. Thus, both sides need to approach that question with consideration, care, and (ironically) good faith.

Paul J. G. says:
March 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm
So thought-provoking as always. You just can’t help yourself can you?

// obviously, I didn’t even try to 🙂

Something cannot become nothing. What is it precisely that we want from an ‘afterlife’? What did the Star that went Supernova ‘want’? It probably wanted to keep being a Star. It could never have imagined its afterlife to be human cogitation, and Happy Meals, because it lacked the vision and imagination to see its new emergence as an afterlife. So maybe the Star thought it had no afterlife. I would disagree. Brian Swimme leads us down this road.

[…] What’s more, we don’t need to wait till some ‘final’ death (in the way we usually talk about death of a person as a person) to identify our many continuation bodies– the infinite ways that our life, energy, heat, thoughts, words, bodies, breath continue. Just because we are not sensitive enough to identify all of these continuation bodies, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh, does not mean they are not there. It just means that we fail to see. Hanh teaches this because the Buddha teaches that there is no annihilation.

I think there is no such thing as a final death– and that’s what is meant by afterlife: endless going on, eternal life. But, I agree with Charles Hartshorne who says, eternal life is not some eternal human career after death. To think that is an offense against the lavish exuberance of cosmic creativity. Human beings are not the end. Maybe we are merely embryos, or blastocysts, or zygotes of what is yet to come!

Isabel says:
March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm
Well put, Paul. Yeah.

Further thoughts on stroke and brain injury …

These are good examples of unprepared-for, unawarely-encountered changes in the brain state, and these are the kinds of conditions that most disrupt the mind. Without a chance to become aware of the interface between your mind and your brain, and without a chance to learn and practice the techniques that give you some conscious leverage over it, the damage that these injuries do to the mind – that energetic aspect of the self, the one that may or may not outlive your body – can be devastating indeed, because the injuries to the brain specifically disrupt your ability to understand and deal intelligently with that interface. The injuries that disrupt the personality are perhaps the most difficult to overcome, because access to your accustomed “self” is specifically disrupted.

Practical note: It’s much easier to manage a well-hydrated brain. Drink more water.

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Expanding these horizons

As a gift of my old friend Jen, I’ve scraped the online acquaintanceship of a very lively group of secularists… And it says a lot that many will shoot down that collective noun; these are the intellectual equivalents of the clan of Asterix the Gaul, who will cheerfully scrap with each other when there’s no one else around to scrap with, and woe betide anyone silly enough to try and conquer them.

I love it. Oink heaven. My memory still has Swiss-cheese holes in it, but my reasoning is not completely shot.

I was mulling a blog entry on “trying to remember there’s a forest among the trees”, given the way that we tend to get fixated on a tiny handful of things which, if we had ’em, would surely fix everything. Surely.

These thoughts have been rather derailed by an online conversation I got into about the mind/brain issue. It touches on neurology, history, philosophy and theology, with logic and info architecture as palette-cleansing interjections (or so my thoughts are trending.) Naturally, I’m knawing it like a rawhide bone, tail thumping.

In fairness, not everyone wants the erudite stuff; nor does everyone want the why-what-works pragmatism. Both are so closely linked for me (the blogger, here) that I’ve decided not to break out a different blog. I’ll get better about tagging, and I’ll use indicative titles.

Please come along and play. I hope this works out well.

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