Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Shamanism, drugs and everyone’s struggle to cope with complexity

 So long as we have an internet, and so long as no totalitarian regime turns the internet to mush, all of us are now called forever to cope with a problem which NSA calls: “drinking from a firehose.”  This is a basic fact of life now, but people do need to reflect on some basic facts of life, in order to avoid falling half-conscious into habits which do not work. Even at the most mundane level, “sleepwalking” does not lead us to good outcomes or good use of the natural learning ability in our brain and in our soul.

Looking back at history – there were early people of no books, like early shamans; such still exist. Then there were the People of The Book, one book, the best their tribe could maintain. But then came People of Ten or a Hundred books, who struggled to do justice to more than one book, and tried to transcend the limits of only knowing one book. And now, we are the People of a Million Books. Some even want to augment it further by direct electronic input to the brain. How can we cope? (In this long post, I will proceed step-by-step to maximum complexity).

One possible response  to complexity is to run away in abject fear. The temptation to run away in abject fear from all kinds of things is another very basic fact of life which we can never ignore. It is such an important fact of life I should say more about it. Some of you may remember the classic book by the psychologist, Eric Fromm, Escape from Freedom, trying to understand how highly intelligent Germans with such a rich long-standing culture could turn into Mickey Mouse robotic stormtroopers. (My apologies to The Mouse; this is just an idiom.) A more important book on the psychology of being human is the new classic book by George Valliant, of the Harvard psychology department (still alive this week, I hope) about the many different defense mechanisms which intelligent people use when confronted with really scary or awful things. One of those mechanisms is “denial” – simply putting one’s head into the sand, and pretending one is living in a different, simpler world, where the scary thing never happened. His studies of the long-term outcomes of people’s lives shows that this does not work out very well, as one might expect. Denial is a matter of lying to oneself, the exact opposite of “sanity” or “integrity” (zhengqi), discussed in technical detail as part of  Two defense mechanisms which work much better are controlled postponement (“I really will get to it, but it’s more than I can handle today”), looking for the silver lining in the cloud (“What did God have in mind here? How will it turn out to be for the best?) and “converting lemons into lemonade.” That’s all very crude and rough stuff, in a way, but it’s important as a basic starting point.

Another important example of people running away in fear is given in the VERY important article, “Are We a Nation of Mystics,” by Greeley and McReady (reprinted in a book edited by Goleman, which I bought in hard cover for $1.50 last month, just for that one article.) That article recounts some unexpected findings of a large NSF-funded study of deep values in the US population, performed by the National Opinion Research Center after the usual tough NSF competition for funding. After some surprising pretests, the big survey asked: “Have you ever had the feeling of being very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?”  2/5 of the people said yes, but the fraction was higher among educated, prosperous and happy people. They did their best to follow up by probing educated “yes” people more. They learned that such things are more tabu in our present society than sex was in the Victorian era. Everyone they found responded to this experience by saying: “OK, God, thank you very much for that, but PLEASE don’t do that again! I will be a good boy (or girl).” They did their best to avoid a repetition, and diligently became very strong and loyal in whatever religious tradition they happened to be born to, Christian or Moslem or Jewish or Hindu or whatever. Greeley and McCready argued that a larger follow-on survey was needed, but so far as I can tell, it never happened. This is also one of the very important facts of life we should start from.   

So if a million books is too much to handle, what happens if people go all the way, back to no books at all (not even any sutras, if any Buddhist imagines he or she is exempt from this issue)?

Well, there WAS a time of no books, the time of shamanism, and those of us who are truly People of a Thousand Books or People of a Million Books are called to learn what we can from the human experience of that time.

No, that time was not a Garden of Eden, but it was honest and innocent to a certain degree. It was a time before the invention of the Priest-King, which many of us tend to think of as the first great power-mad plug ugly oppressing the bodies and spirits of the mass slaves of the first agricultural civilization, in Ur, the first organized People of the Vegetable. (Some historians understand that the People of the Horse and the People of the Boat were just as important as a birthplace of human civilization, but that’s another story.) Before the oppression of the Priest-Kings, one sees a kind of more natural expression of the human soul and human life, not organized by science, but honest and relatively sane. In a way, it is like the languages of the time, uninflected – like Chinese and English, pre-inflection and post-inflection. Not like the endless complex rules of ad hoc grammars and prescriptions which came from Priest Kings and their rule-based approach to life.

In 2009, when the International Joint Conference on Neural Networks (IJCNN) was held in San Jose, California, and when Borders Books was going out of business, I bought a really great book on sale – The World of Shamanism, by Walsh. I remember with great happiness reading that book very slowly and carefully, with meditation, as I sat on the balcony of a suite on Norwegian Cruise Lines looking at the Pacific Northwest, where I actually met a very real active shaman on one of the port stops. Later I learned how this book really was as unique and important as the cover material suggested. The book talked a lot about practices shamans would use to try to learn specific skills of the soul, skills which benefit from exercise just as the skills of our body do. My friend Yeshua says he really likes my metaphor of the “spiritual couch potato,” comparing most religious loyalists to folks who believe in physical fitness, who spend their lives drinking beer on the couch and screaming great loyalty to Their Team even as their own body rots away. Shamans were not couch potatoes! It was also interesting that the visit to San Jose gave me a chance to talk to people in that part of the Western tradition who are most the opposite of couch potatoes. (It reminds me also of a book by Pete Sanders, using concepts as fuzzy but as practical as Valliant’s, in the same general realm. My 2012 paper in Neural Networks is more precise, if more veiled.)

Because that book was so important, I later mentioned it at a Quaker Meeting “drop-in” discussion, when we were asking how we can learn from all the great experience of humans across history. But first I checked on Amazon for the rest of the literature on shamanism, which I had sampled before less systematically. Amazon highly recommended “The Way of the Shaman,” to buy along with Walsh – but I did notice a high recommendation from Carlos Castenada, several of whose books I had read many years ago, a very active question mark. The first review praised the high academic credentials of the author, and criticized those earlier reviews which were negative, arguing that they were either grossly ignorant or near-racist efforts by native people to keep European type people off of THEIR turf. But I read a lot further... and sure enough, down around the twentieth review, one guy mentioned very briefly that he was upset that the whole thing was propaganda for drug culture. (“Aha!” I thought, “Not a coincidence that Castenada advocates this one.”). I decided I had no intention of reading further or of buying the book (though I suppose I would if I were a narrower specialist), and would of course not write a review; however, I did post a comment to the first review, noting that I once had a friend who also spoke for the “natural drugs in cultural context school,” who also had great credentials in anthropology (including field work in South America) and was really intelligent... and ended up dead of it. (Actually, I had two close friends who were that kind of anthropologist reading that kind of stuff a lot, with field experience.  One ended up dead, one ended up having the exact same vibes as Ben Carson. But the second one did not take drugs; he only believed.)

Of course, addiction is one of the basic facts of life with drugs that everyone should understand – but not everyone does, as we see every day in national statistics. Both with drugs and with stimulation of the brain (whether by wires or by microwaves or by light), it is really essential that EVERYONE should really understand the basic experiments done by James Olds senior, a famous neuroscientist whose son is still active in that field. I read Olds’ key article, but there probably is a u-tube video by now showing mice pumping hard on a lever to get electrical stimulation to the brain – pushing so hard and so constantly that they literally kill themselves to do it. Electrical or chemical stimulation to certain parts of the brain is much more powerful than sex in taking over the whole personality. There is mathematics to explain this more deeply (as in my papers in the journal Neural Networks, which won the Hebb award), but for most folks there is a simple story which may explain it better.

Years ago, I heard of some wise but poor parents on the wrong side of the tracks trying to explain to their children why they should not give in to the drug dealers dominating their neighborhoods, and how they should understand what they see around them. “If you take that drug, it immediately becomes a kind of monkey on your back. It asks to be fed. If you feed it, it makes you happy, but if you don’t it hurts you. If you give in and feed it, it gets bigger and bigger, and can hurt you more and more. But if you feed it, that monkey on your back becomes so big that it becomes bigger than you, it totally takes you over, and pretty soon, there is no more ‘you’ any more. You are dead, and there is no one left but the monkey.” Electrical stimulation of those parts of the brain does the same thing even more, and I am still VERY DEEPLY concerned about plans going ahead right now to extend the use of such stimulation. I would urge anyone connected with that kind of technology in any way to listen to the whole day of a recent discussion sponsored by the White House, and think hard about what is really going on:

In fact, this week I really hope people will pay enough attention to the recent capture of a Saudi prince, alleged to be caught carrying two tons of captogan and cocaine in his airplane, to be distributed to people in ISIL and in Saudi Arabia, where the spread of ISIL and the folks behind ISIL is linked in part to the effects of these drugs. Addictive drugs are like a form of slavery (and with due respect to Ben Carson, this is a real similarity, not like his preposterous way of describing abortion); after the “monkey takes over”, the person becomes a puppet or slave of the drug dealer, who then uses him as part of an army of thieves to get money for the drug dealer. Taking addictive drugs, or allowing brain stimulation which includes reinforcement centers as part of what gets stimulated, is basically the same as selling oneself into slavery... but worse than slavery, suicide of the self. I wish people would remember that the words “inalienable rights” involve NOT LETTING PEOPLE BE SOLD INTO SLAVERY EVEN BY THEMSELVES. People selling themselves into slavery happened a lot in early America, and  it was a very important realization by folks like Jefferson and Washington that we need to outlaw (annul) such practices. The concept of bankruptcy rights was part of that, as many historic forms of debt also became like slavery...  like lawyers who feel they are not allowed to practice pro bono law at a low salary because they need to pay off student debt. The biggest immediate danger with electrical brain stimulation is with employers who ask for it, and folks like that Saudi Prince who want inhuman beserkers to fight to kill all non-shariacs and all non-Sunnis.


However, if we are true People of a Million Books, we will look further beyond this part of the story, important as it is.

First, the cost issue.

Some folks would argue that addictive drugs are not so bad if the drug is plentiful and cheap, so that the user does not have to become a slave of the drug distributer or electricity provider.  I have at times been something of a caffeine addict  myself, and that was not such a big problem – but it was crucial that coffee did not hit the reinforcement centers in such a powerful; and direct way as cocaine, heroin, captopan, juiced up versions of marijuana, morphine type pain relievers or any form of electrical stimulation which affects the central areas of the brain. That guy I knew who died thought that coca (sp?) leaves were safe...  I was really, really upset when our local hospital provided “on demand” type drip pain relief to my wife after an operation, exactly the kind of reinforcement learning situation which maximizes the chance of addiction; she left and quietly went “cold turkey,” but I have met people who did not, whose entire lives were destroyed by such pain relief drugs.  But yes, low-cost maintenance clinics (with other important provisions to balance them out) could be immensely useful in reducing the damage which addictive drugs do in the Americas today. Not a small issue. I wish that brain stimulation helmets were as easy to cope with, socially...

Second, the value issue.

From a scientific viewpoint, “chemicals ingested by human users” includes everything from hard drugs to water and air. Of course, addictiveness to the brain is not the only important attribute of such chemicals!   

Even now, I have a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea – just one – on most mornings, and a cup of Kedem wine (or other wine) with dinner about half the time. Maybe there is a mild degree of addiction in both cases. In both cases, I went totally zero for a long time, even though these are inexpensive habits. (I just spent $70 for a whole case of Kedem Concord Cream Red, which they say is the only wine made from native American grapes, including shipping, from the web.) With caffeine, I once was addicted, and could feel the damage to my body – but once in the morning does not do that. The coffee in the morning WITH my wife Luda is a nice ritual, and it is entirely natural and appropriate that I am deeply addicted to HER. Also, she has found some amazingly good-tasting coffees, and a little bit of extra wakefulness/stimulation is not so bad now that I am retired, and don’t have other scarier things to wake me up each morning. The wine has other health benefits in moderation.

In truth, I have also had more than one bai ju at times in China, and more than one pisco in Chile – but I also remember turning down the two times I was offered Peruvian style pisco with coco leaf in it. “It is safe and harmless,” I heard. But why take chances, when you have seen someone killed by stuff he was told was harmless? And when the Chilean variety was also available.

But – what about more?

It is true that many native spiritual traditions actually have used mind-altering drugs through the centuries.

We had a very serious discussion of that in Udaipur in April, when there was a lunch break in our tour of India and I was not fit to eat lunch. Luda showed me a magazine article about NIH granting a permit for selected researchers to use psilocybin under certain protocols, in research. That is the one really serious drug to get that kind of approval.

In a way, the idea here was for people to try to open up their minds to get MORE inputs. If one lives in a small village, without books or internet, one may rightly feel a need for MORE complexity, more inputs beyond the very limited range in the local area. That was the motive here. And yes, there was a motive of trying to “open up the eyes of the soul,” to get more inputs from the world beyond the atoms and photons we see so easily with the eyes of the head.

The article described a really intense debate among serious people about that new protocol. Both sides agreed that unsupervised use of psilocybin (let alone other stuff!) has led to huge damage to people, too much and too common to allow it. But the folks who developed the new protocol argued that it would allow people to reap the benefits without the risks which once applied.  The risk in opening up the eyes, they argued, was that people could see things which would freak them out, which they could not handle, and which would destroy their lives.

I actually forget the precise details of the argument, except that I disagreed with BOTH sides (one was too harsh, one too
naively optimistic). When Luda and another person asked my view – I cited a book I once read by Annie Besant, a leader both of theosophy and of Indian independence. “Indian independence?” you may ask with incredulity. Yes, Indian independence. On a previous blog post, I posted a picture of Mahatma Ghandi’s personal library in Mumbai, with several books of Annie Besant in prominent positions. There is a book which fell into my hands years ago, “The Seven Lives of Annie Besant,” which describes her period as teacher to Ghandi, and we noticed the street named after her in Mumbai. It is a long story... and I even remember a time many many years ago when I wished I could meet a woman like her! Blavatsky was more prominent in theosophy, but Besant struck me as a whole lot more sane and real in what she wrote.

In one of her books, Besant (like most of the highest level spiritual teachers) urges strict avoidance of mind-altering drugs. It is very simple, she said. Your soul ALREADY has connections to everything ready to engage; the main thing which limits the inputs from the spiritual world to your brain is a kind of NATURAL HEALTHY fear, a realization that you are not really ready to handle that stuff, that level of complexity. Instead of force-feeding a firehose through a straw, breaking the straw, she recommended following nature... by STRENGTHENING THE STRAW... so that just by nature more inputs will be easier to take into it.

Now that I think of it, that reminds me of an old Taoist teacher I spoke to decades ago in the Cosmos Club in DC, who said: “Of course we know how to bring people to enlightenment. We who know can do it in five minutes. The problem is how to get the person to survive AFTER that, which is harder. All the work and the discipline is led with that goal in mind.” (That reminds me of Gopal Krishna's book on how to stay alive after you successfully raise the kundalini, which was helpful to me in graduate school.)

Even that is a bit oversimplified, but it is a good next step. To grow to the full extent of our potential, we must always consciously test the limits of what we can handle. But we do not need any kind of drug to do that, at least not in the modern world. By testing and straining our capacity, we can expand our capacity... but that means living “on the edge of chaos,” pushing to our limits but NOT BEYOND, and doing the same with those of our friends who can put with it and who are valuable enough to be worthy of the effort.


And so... to maximum complexity...

At least, the maximum seen on this tiny little planet in the middle of nowhere...

Besant, like some yoga traditions, talked about planes of existence – material, etheric, astral, mental, cosmic, soul, etc. (This also reminds me of a wonderfully vivid book, “In My Soul I am Free” by Steiger.) When I first saw this... I had powerful mixed feelings. On the one hand, as a tough and skeptical scientist (still!) I found troubles parsing that into something coherent, something beyond gibberish. On the other hand... I did a few early experiments on out of body stuff... and there was such a compelling authenticity to the experiential part of it, and I knew enough to fully appreciate the importance of first-hand experience and empirical data. As of now, I view all that as a poetically valid way to describe some real and authentic experiences, whose underlying ground requires more explanation. In essence, it comes down to the “noosphere,” which I have discussed before and will again, since it is as real and fundamental as I see it as the earth itself. What we experience as “astral” travel is really just a mental thing occurring within the noosphere, a translation into things our brains can cope with of thoughts within the noosphere. (Certainly major parts of Besant and of the Upanishads resonate with that. The scientific book “Lucid Dreaming” by LaBerge of Stanford also does a beautiful job of making these connections in a discrete way.) As we learn how to translate more and better, it becomes more accurate. The “mental plane” is basically just a more direct version. And then “cosmic consciousness” is even more direct, a more direct and complete access to the noosphere itself.

At which point, unfortunately, people can “bliss out” and lose it. (I am reminded of the next to last section of Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, which embodies ideas from Scottish Rite freemasonry... the section where there is a final trial, the trial of NOT letting oneself just bliss out at a high level.) One aspect may indeed be psychokinetic stimulation of reinforcement learning centers, which is contrary to the nature and intentions of the soul, but seductive to the brain part of the self. But it is also like what Greeley describes... a point where people can have their lives changed, but return to something else. People often say at such moments “I knew everything... everything was there,” That’s nice. Suddnely you have access to REALLY huge library, not a million books but a billion. (As someone far off laughs and says... imagine another life where is a trillion, and there is a whole galaxy out there, REALLY.)  A natural defense mechanism is to bliss out, return to ordinary life, boost your ego with how infinite you are (remembering always you don’t want to be held to THAT again!)

But.. a better defense mechanism... is not just to postpone and tolerate others... but to test the limits, to GO BACK and start sampling that library, to “play tunes on the cosmic keyboard,” and slowly, carefully try to enhance what one is capable of. And yes, to correlate with other sources of input and testing, like internet and media and conversations with others.

In the end... Yeshua describes how some of us get called to “the watch,” a state which I view as the activity within “cosmic consciousness” of really paying attention to what is going on on the earth as a whole, which has ever so many levels. I wondered where the terms “day watch” and “night watch” really came from, which stimulated the fantasy-translated but interesting movies of those names from Russia recently.  Now I know.

But can I handle it? I don’t feel a lot of confidence, because that firehose is ever so overwhelming. My limits are more than visible. But then again, I remember a time when the foundations of quantum physics and of mouse brain intelligence seemed overwhelming...   and there was reading from Wollman at the last Quaker drop-in on patience and persistence. I suppose I will keep trying. Maybe if enough folks do, we humans might even survive as a species. Maybe.

 As for this kind of blog post -- it is such a tiny percentage of what comes along that firehose in ten minutes!
Part of coping with complexity is integrating what it all means... but part is condensing enough for others to get some idea. Yes, I have a lot to learn about that part too.  In the original, there are a whole lot more real equations, but this kind of blog is not the right place for them, for many reasons. ("Of all the sacred languages written on earth, the only one with traction beyond this planet is mathematics.") 

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