An American Mystagogue

What is your Limiting Factor?

Oct
29

minbarrel

“The worst potential competition for any organism can come from its own kind. The species consumes necessities. Growth is limited by that necessity which is present in the least amount. The least favorable condition controls the rate of growth. “

~Laws Of Arrakis, “Heretics Of Dune”

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.

You can climb it and cross to the other side.

You can go around it.

You can dig under it.

You can fly over it.

You can blow it up.

You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there.

You can turn around and go back the way you came.

Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” 
―Vera Nazarian

The first time I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series, I was deeply impacted by a concept that had been previously unknown to me, known as “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum“. It was originally developed by agricultural scientist Carl Sprengal  to describe how the growth of a plant or general ‘yield’ of crops is limited by its least abundant, yet necessary, nutrient. Having an overabundance of one nutrient, even having ten or a hundred times the necessary amount won’t make up for the lack of even a little of another essential nutrient, and will thus limit the growth of the crops. The least abundant essential nutrient/ingredient is called the “Limiting Factor”.

What I found interesting about the limiting factor is that it seems to apply to any process that requires a specific amount of various ingredients to get an end result, sort of like a recipe. Plants need X amount of certain kinds of nutrients in balance, or they die or do not flourish. A loaf of bread can be easily ruined or made unpalatable by the over-addition of different ingredients, and certainly having ten pounds of flour doesn’t help much when you lack water or milk, just as having near infinite water wouldn’t help you much to bake that loaf if you had no flour.

But more importantly, I noticed that this seemed to apply to any ‘growth based system’, including humans. While this could be seen as presumptuous on my part, I have to say that I even notice them blatantly in myself. Does one really benefit from ‘even more’ of something they already have in abundance? Does a person who reads thousands of books become better equipped for life by reading another book, or by doing something they don’t touch upon at all? Likewise, does a person who spends all of their time socializing benefit from yet another evening of socialization, something they are already abundant in, other than the myriad of things they could do otherwise? Does a person who lives spontaneously every day get much benefit from another day of spontaneous living, instead of attempting mindful, planned and volitional activities? Does a person who exercises everyday get more benefit from exercising another day or doing something new?

Don’t get me wrong I think all of the mentioned subjects are, if not necessary, then extremely useful towards ‘self growth’. Reading, socializing, spontaneity, planning, exercise and novelty, these among many other subjects are part of the ‘ingredient’ list (which is variable person to person, but not as much as you might think) of personal ‘growth’. What I am questioning is how much of a certain activity is actually holding someone back on their goals of self-change. Granted, every activity is not suited for every person. Some people have a mono-goal of a certain kind of activity, and they might put all of their energy into it, but this does not detract from the overall idea. If you are in isolation for a month seeing a person, any person, even in passing or during something as mundane as purchasing groceries,  might very well help you with your writing. If you are weight lifting, reading inspirational messages or listening to music could help your endeavors.

Its easy to do what is easy, and in the human sphere of things, what we have in ‘abundance’ is often easier to work on. A writer keeps writing, a builder keeps building, a socialite keeps socializing, but how often are we accidentally undermining our ability for growth by limiting other essential ingredients? Is it presumptuous to say that nearly everyone could benefit from both intellectual discourse and reading, physical activity and socializing, and a near inexhaustible list of things? That these things taken to their extreme might yield a person specializing in a certain few skills but ultimately limiting even those skills they are passionate about by the sheer reality of being human, being a complex system of growth? Possibly. But I think humans are not so exempt from reality as we think, and that this is a pattern you’ll find in any ‘growth system’.

Perhaps one could observe oneself. What are you abundant in? What is your limiting factor?

~ Seth Moris

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein

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Tricks of the Psyche: False Memories, Salience and Projection

Oct
21

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-Rorschach Blot

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

John Lubbock 

In the endeavor to understand the world around us, there are many pitfalls that even the most undisciplined of person is aware of. It is hard to find a person whom, when pressed, cannot think of a time in which their expectations or predictions of an event or phenomena did not coincide. Whether it was taking a sip of a drink that they mistook for another kind or calling out to someone they are familiar with only to find it is a complete stranger, these sort of conscious hiccups are quite commonplace. When a person decides to become a mystic, or a philosopher, or an occultist, they often take a hard look inside of themselves (under the hood, so to speak) to figure out what their thought processes are; how they themselves function.

However, you will note that the examples above have ways of making themselves clear to people. Taking a sip of vodka that you thought was water will inflame the nostrils and taste bitter, banishing the previously held mental concept of water. The illusion of calling out to someone who looks like a friend from behind is shattered once they turn around and you can see their face clearly. But what of the kinds of tricks the mind falls into that are not brought to the attention of the observer? The illusions that go without being clarified are the trickiest of all. How many presumed ‘objective’ experiences have you had that remain unquestioned and invalidated, for whatever reason?

For example, in the case of false memories. The problem of having a false memory is that we rely exactly upon our memories to corroborate the ‘reality’ of past situations. We base our future actions on past ones. But to show how easy it is for humans to trick themselves into having false memories we can look at the “Lost In the Mall Technique” developed by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In which, people were asked to tell the experimenter if they could remember any of four narratives of their childhood presumably given to the experimenter by the participants family. However, one of the narratives of being lost as a child in a mall was false. 25% of the participants were convinced they were able to recall the memory. Another example is the wrongful conviction of Steve Titus  who was convicted of rape and later found innocent, the actual rapist being caught and himself put in prison at a later date. However, the victim had claimed to police to have seen his face clearly and to recognize him. This is not uncommon for victims of high stress situations, for example soldiers being put through the “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” program have been shown to have a high frequency of incorrectly remembering the face of their interrogators.  Another source of false memories, which ties into the Lost in the Mall Technique and a bit more common, are what are known as source-monitoring errors. A fairly common example of a source-monitoring error is being told something that you later believe to have come up with on your own, as is the case of ‘accidental plagiarism’. Another source-monitoring error is being told a story about a friend that you later believe happened to you or that you had been there originally. This is also why lying to oneself for large periods of time can cause the person who was originally aware of the lie to believe it themselves, attributing the vivid fiction to actual reality.

Salience is the quality of one thing to stand out relative to its neighbors, a function of the mind that isn’t exactly an illusion, but rather a pragmatic process of noticing particular things about an experience (things that ‘stand out’ beyond the rest) that can give the observer the impression that they are being objective while relegating their conscious observance to a particular aspect of the situation, leaving the other aspects to not be noticed and thus unremembered. If something isn’t salient to you, you are likely to go without noticing it if another thing is much more salient. Understanding this is key to noticing things outside of your standard preference.

Projection is also quite insidious, in that often times when presented with ambiguous or incomplete information a human will ‘project’ onto that information an interpretation that exists only because they are viewing it. As Stephen LaBerge noted in his book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming:  

“Personal interests, occupations, and personality can strongly influence people’s experience.
This fact is used in tests like the Rorschach inkblot test that use interpretations of ambiguous
figures for personality assessment. In a classic study of imagination, Bartlett noted that
subjects asked to interpret inkblots frequently reveal much information about their personal
interests and occupation. For example, the same inkblot reminded a woman of a “bonnet with
feathers, “ a minister of “Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, “ and a physiologist of “an
exposure of the basal lumbar region of the digestive system.” (1 LaBerge and Rheingold )

Essentially, the people who were looking at the inkblots were more likely to see things in the ambiguous shapes that related to them personally, the same exact inkblot showing three people from three walks of life very particular and very different answers. A more real-world example would perhaps be walking down the side of the street and having a car drive by quite fast and having the driver yelling something out of the window to you, but the words of his speech not being discernible. Its not illogical to think that an elderly woman, a young male wearing a band t-shirt and a young woman would experience three different interpretations of the ambiguous event. The elderly woman might be predisposed to thinking they were being rude and rowdy for no particular reason, or just stirring up shit. The young man with a band t-shirt might think they were also fans (or in fact, people who did not like the band) and were shouting out in some sort of fan-support. The young woman might imagine she heard sexually tinted jeering. Not that these things don’t happen, but rather we have a tendency to project what we think  happened onto what we think we experienced.

These examples are on a long list of the tricks the psyche can play on our endeavor to remain accurate observer-experimenters in the world we live in, and checks should always be taken to remember that we are beings made up of highly fallible measuring equipment. Humility becomes not so much about deferring to others for virtues sake but a realization of one’s own ability to misinterpret and confabulate. Humility tempered by vigilance and fairness ends up a potent combination for the attempting philosopher, mystic or occultist. Humility that we are fallible, vigilance to ensure we reduce the chances of this fallibility the best we can, and fairness towards our own deserved and practiced abilities so that we do not end up sunk in a pit of second-guessing.

~ Seth Moris

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1. LaBerge, Stephen , and Howard Rheingold. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Ballantine Books, print.

Realization of Mortality

Oct
18

pendant

Pendant with a Monk and Death

 

“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.”

~ Excerpt from William Knox’s poem “Mortality”

                                    The first time I ever really thought about death was in grade school, after learning that the sun would inevitably blow up and take Earth and everything ‘human’ and familiar to me into nothingness. I don’t remember clearly ever having an in depth conversation with my parents about death; the subject tends to be quite taboo. I did have pets though, small furry ones that didn’t live more than a few years, so I imagine if they told me anything it was probably something akin to “They go to Heaven with the angels to be with God” or “They go to sleep and never wake up” which are the two most common explanations I’ve seen in regards to death. My parents weren’t especially religious, but I think I remember animals getting the sleep explanation and humans getting the ambiguous Heaven spiel. But once I learned that there was an ‘inevitable’ end to Earth, that was when Death really struck me. Its funny that it takes an Apocalypse type scenario to really understand the unstoppable force that is Death. We like to think we understand it or have accepted it, but as soon as an Apocalypse scare is around the corner everyone loses their marbles. I think the reason Apocalypse scenarios are so popular with people (as opposed to Post-Apocalypse, which offers the chance of survival) is because it scares them, it gives them a case of the heeby-jeebies, but why? Because in the scenario, its Death, its coming closer and closer, and no matter where you run, or where you hide, you can’t escape it. What people don’t really think about is that the Apocalypse IS coming. For you, for me. For every mortal. It’s called dying, and its inevitable.

                               But these thoughts were soon covered up by childhood worries and fun. I ended up forgetting my fear of the sun blowing up or asteroids hitting the earth (Armageddon, the movie, was popular when I was a child and soon refreshed my fears of space and Death) and got on with my life for the most part. That is, until high school. In my sophomore year, my only real ‘close’ friend dropped on the school track (he did cross country) from some sort of stroke-like brain aneurysm and was rushed to the hospital. Our school was informed, and we were told it didn’t look very good. I was horrified. My friend did end up surviving, but he was left with the left half of his body paralyzed and had to undergo extreme physical therapy; his dreams of cross country running put on the back burner so he could fight to even use his left hand. The shock of it stayed with me, however, years later. I realized that anyone, at any moment could drop. My friend was lucky to have survived (he later became a cross country runner again), but many people weren’t. The fact that Death seemed to loom over us so stealthily never left my mind.

                                                  Occasionally I think back to the first time I was ever sure I was going to die. Obviously I was wrong, but at the time you could qualify it as the feeling of impending death. Does this qualify as a Near Death Experience (or NDE)? It depends on what sort of definition you go by. There seem to be variable opinions on the subject as to whether or not an NDE ‘counts’ if you were not actually about to die. For example, the difference between one person suffering cardiac arrest whose heart stops beating, and another having a gun pointed in their face by some mugger. The person whose heart stopped could be said to have physically been ‘near’ to death, while the person who is threatened with a lethal weapon might get away unscathed. Are they the same?

I would argue that they are not the same, but that perhaps related. It isn’t so easy to simply say one is a ‘real’ NDE and one is fake. What about times where you are close to dying  physically/your brain activity stops but you have no conscious realization of the moment? Or times where you were closer to dying than you previously supposed, only to look back later and realized how easy it could have been? Perhaps there is something to having nearly all of your body shut down, because there does seem to be a tendency for more ‘transcendental’ experiences during these experiences, compared to the ‘fear of immanent death’, perhaps these could be defined as two facets of a general area of study. My personal experience was with the sense of impending death while at work.

My immediate family and I have been installing insulation into people’s houses since I was at least sixteen, though for me it has been off and on. One day I was doing what is called ‘blowing insulation’, in which you load a special kind of insulation into a large machine that looks like this. The top of it is about chest height for me, and what you can’t see are the large rotating ‘chopper’ blades on the inside. They aren’t really blades, because they aren’t sharp, but they could easily crush human anatomy.

One winter, I was loading the blowing machine in the back of a pickup truck. It was a bit cold and I neglected to roll my sleeves up as I normally do when loading it. Suffice to say the sleeve of my sweatshirt got caught up in the rotor blades. At first I didn’t think anything was wrong, in fact quite ironically when it got caught I automatically became very annoyed. I had to work, in the cold AND get my sleeve caught in this stupid thing? I was perturbed. Then my sleeve didn’t release, I was jerked forward into the machine, smashing my chest against the side with great force, and pulled up and over into what is called the ‘hopper’, or the opening that leads to the rotor. Without thinking, I pulled my arm back and thrust it out through the zipper on the front of the sweatshirt, and tried to keep myself away from the crushing blades beneath me by putting my arms and legs over the sides and pushing upward. The sleeve went around, and around and soon my body was being dragged down, and closer to the rotor. Unintended screams burst out of my lungs the likes of which I’ve never heard myself be able to do on purpose, they sounded like what I always imagined a rabbit screaming must sound like… they were animal-like.

Then I realized, I was going to die. I saw in my mind my arms being pulled into the machine and crushed, the jagged wounds spilling out far too much blood to be stopped before I could get help, or my head getting pinned and crushed against the metal sides, and picturing this, everything went calm. I wasn’t nearly as upset as I thought I’d be. I remember weighing up my own life, up until that point and thinking “I couldn’t die in my sleep? Really? I had to be crushed to death.” My muscles felt weak, and while this entire episode might only have lasted a few minutes at most, it felt like an eternity, until suddenly the machine shorted out.

The sweatshirt had been made out of  a super durable fabric (I had paid extra for it, because it was my work-wear) and the arm had wrapped around the rotor so many times that the fuses in the machine blew themselves out. An old man who lived in the house we were insulating came running out about that point (which goes to show you it must have only been a minute or two, though it felt like at least fifteen to me by the time it was done) and helped me out. The sweatshirt was tattered, and I still have it to this day as a memento mori. Maybe I wouldn’t have died, but my brain certainly thought so.

It was about this time, that the cumulative evidence I had seen finally came to be too much. The fact that you can die anywhere at anytime, doing something you love, at your shitty job you hate, having sex, watching a movie, it all made me say “Fuck this”. I had a miserable life. I hated every second of it, and the experience with the blowing machine was the last straw. I was angry. At myself, and at anyone who would try to convince me that I should put things off another day. I decided that if I was going to die, I’d be damned if I was going to do it at some job I hated, or before any of my goals were ever completed. I refused to die unhappy. It wasn’t long after this that I decided to travel around America for two-ish years living out of a backpack, walking around and getting rides or shelter where it was offered. I realized what had kept me from adventure my whole life was ultimately a fear for my own safety. But if you could die at work, what point was there to hide from adventure because of the fear of danger?

~ Seth Moris

 

 buddhadeath