Saturday, May 03, 2008

Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering

An interesting article from American Thinker.

Be Happy: The American Refusal to Deal with Suffering

God bless America. I mean that with all sincerity. We are a nation of hopefuls and always have been.

We march on Washington. We cure diseases that have wracked humanity for eons. We break records and run faster-than-four-minute miles. We split atoms and conquer space. We manifest our destinies and defy the presence of gorges, rivers, and mountains that threaten to block our collective will.

In our relatively short time on earth, this nation has spawned more utopian societies and splinter religions promising immediate deliverance than any other culture in history.

We not only hope. We demand. And we do not take "no" for an answer. If we have to move mountains, we move them even if we have to do it one truck load at a time. If we have to wipe out polio, we develop a vaccine. If we have to get across enemy lines, we build stealth aircraft. We believe that nothing can stop us but ourselves.

This, in and of itself, is not a consciousness unique to our time. There have been other warrior nations and empires that have been as bold and clever as we have. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Romans have all forged paths through impossibly dense forests and forbidding deserts both concretely and metaphorically.

What IS unique to modern America is that our hopefulness comes with a price tag that no other culture has ever been willing to pay. It comes at the expense of reality and the medium of exchange is our spirit.

We want to be happy. We want to be healthy. We want to be wealthy. And, I believe, this "wanting" is only natural. What is not is that we want to be wealthy without having to work all that hard or study all that much. We want to be healthy without having to eat well, sleep through the night or exercise regularly. We want happiness and love and contentment without ever having to suffer or sacrifice. And we want it now.

Of the three "wants", the third is the most troubling and potentially poses the most subtle danger of our time. The first two (health and wealth) are primarily issues of entitlement which we may address at some other point. The third want-to be happy-is really a deeply ingrained psychic need. We need to be happy at the expense of what we know to be true. We need it so badly that we are forced to deny the obvious inevitability of suffering, rendering it not only meaningless but the mark of a "loser."

A friend of mine had a conversation with a young man that made this version of "happiness" starkly clear. After the young man praised a mutual acquaintance for buying a high-end television, my friend said to him, "I'd rather have nothing and be loved."

To which the young man responded, "That's just loser talk."

You can see this in New Age theology a great deal, where even sickness, injury, and tragedies are by definition self-inflicted and reveal an error in our core programming. In that philosophy, which has permeated the media and popular thinking, we are responsible for everything that happens to us and around us. Happiness, abundance, good health-all these things are seen as our birthrights. So, if we are suffering, if our loved ones are suffering, well, that just means we're writing bad scripts for our lives.

In some ways it is a uniquely American way of nipping God in His Achilles' heel. It says that if there is a God, then it all has to be good, all the time. Evil cannot exist. Because Americans are basically a religious people, for us not to disavow God, we must disavow evil, and by extension, disavow suffering. This is dangerous because in order to do this, in order to deny the value and meaning of suffering, in order to be able to say to someone "If you're not happy or successful something is wrong with you," we have to deny the only real hope we ever had: our souls.
Read the rest.

I agree with what the author is saying here, and it's one of the reasons that I have issues with the positive psychology movement -- they tend to disavow suffering in their quest to discover and promote the strengths that allow us to thrive.

For me, since I accept the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, suffering is the nature of relative existence -- it can't be disavowed, only transcended through enlightenment. Since few of us are ever going to become Buddhas, suffering is the best teacher to make progress on the path.

The author of the article draws another, equally valid conclusion -- that suffering is necessary to know love.
In writing this article, I had to ask myself: Why shouldn't I avoid suffering? What's in it for me, for anyone? It's a fair question. And the answer I came up with was this: By being present for suffering, we become present for the whole of life, not just the niceties. And the reward is nothing less than the ability to love fully. This is not a philosophical point. It is a most pragmatic, palpable benefit and the only one that really means anything after all. When I think of all the things I did as a young adult to make myself "happy," all the risks I took, all the hurt I created in myself and others-all in the name of happiness, I literally shudder. I rarely actually felt happy and almost never felt deep love. The mantra "whatever makes you happy" ran my life but gave me nothing but heartache.
A good point. I did the same thing when I was in my 20s. At some point in my 30s I began to "get" that suffering is a wonderful teacher. Yes, we need to know pain to know happiness; but more importantly, our pain can teach us a great deal about who we are and where we are wounded.

The only way to heal is to identify and get to know our suffering, our wounding -- with curiosity and compassion.

Psychologists Collaborated with "War on Terror" Torture Program

Anyone remember this scene from George Orwell's 1984?

It seems pretty brutal and unreal in our "civilized" world. But maybe not. Seems psychologists -- and who better? -- have been instrumental in the military's in-the-field "information extraction" programs, otherwise known as torture.

[NOTE: This is one of those anti-American articles, you know, the ones that point out how corrupt the Bush administration is.]

Psychologists Collaborated with "War on Terror" Torture Program
by Tom Burghardt
Global Research
May 3, 2008

Newly declassified documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from the Department of Defense (DoD) expose the role played by psychologists in the illegal interrogation of prisoners at CIA and Pentagon detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

According to ACLU staff attorney Amrit Singh,

"The documents reveal that psychologists and medical personnel played a key role in sustaining prisoner abuse -- a clear violation of their ethical and legal obligations. The documents only underscore the need for an independent investigation into responsibility for the systemic abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad." ("Newly Unredacted Report Confirms Psychologists Supported Illegal Interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan," ACLU, Press Release, April 30, 2008)

In 2006, the civil liberties group received a highly redacted version of the Church Report, commissioned by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Written by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, the report was to serve as a "comprehensive review" of military interrogation operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

A cover-up the moment it saw the light of day, the Church Report refused to address relevant issues of command responsibility for prisoner abuse and torture at U.S. military detention facilities and CIA "black sites," claiming such questions were "beyond its mandate."

Official failure to issue legal interrogation guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners by American military forces and mercenary contractors in their employ were euphemistically labeled "a missed opportunity."

But as we now know, under the torture regime given legal sanction by the Bush administration, as ABC News reported in April, medicalized torture by military psychologists operating in U.S. dungeons was both a ubiquitous and banal aspect of the "war on terror." According to the Church Report whitewash, military psychologists:

...analogous to the [Behavioral Science Consultation Teams] BSCT in Guantánamo Bay, the Army has a number of psychologists in operational positions (in both Afghanistan and Iraq), mostly within Special Operations, where they provide direct support to military operations. They do not function as mental health providers, and one of their core missions is to support interrogations. [emphasis added]

Indeed, BSCT operatives at America's premier gulag, Guantánamo Bay, "reversed-engineered" Special Operations Command's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program as a means to destroy a prisoners' will to resist his captors demands to "confess" to all manner of "plots," however far-fetched, against the U.S. "homeland."

Following a script written during the CIA's MKULTRA "mind control" days, the KUBARK Counterintelligence Manual, vicious techniques of isolation, sensory deprivation, sexual and cultural humiliation, waterboarding, etc. were viciously applied by behavioral "specialists."

As psychoanalyst Stephen Soldz wrote last year, citing the DoD's August 2006 report from the Office of the Inspector General,

All evidence is that these SERE techniques continued to be used, with active participation of the BSCT psychologists. For example, it is well documented (see the interrogation log) that the chair of the Guantánamo BSCT team, psychologist Major John Leso participated in the abusive interrogation ( a.k.a. torture) of prisoner 063, Mohammed al-Qahtani. A July 14, 2004 memo from the FBI to the Army Criminal Investigation Command documents the effects of this interrogation on al-Qatani:

"In September or October of 2002 FBI agents observed that a canine was used in an aggressive manner to intimidate detainee -- after he had been subjected to intense isolation for over three months. During that time period, ... was totally isolated (with the exception of occasional interrogations) in a cell that was always flooded with light. By late November, the detainee was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in the corner of a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end). It is unknown to the FBI whether such extended isolation was approved by DoD authorities." ...

With the release of the OIG's report, it is now irrefutable that both SERE psychologists and Guantánamo BSCT psychologists were involved in the development of these forms of interrogation abuse, forms of interrogation that clearly constitute psychological torture and were illegal under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and various US laws until the 2006 Military Commissions Act granted immunity to those who had previously broken these laws during the "Global War On Terror." (Stephen Soldz, "Shrinks and the SERE Technique at Guantánamo," CounterPunch, May 29, 2007)

The ACLU's latest tranche of documents also reveal that Army medics routinely failed to report the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. According to the ACLU, citing the Church Report,

"enlisted medics witnessed obvious episodes of detainee abuse apparently without reporting them to superiors." One episode involved a detainee whose wounded leg was intentionally hit. Two others involved detainees handcuffed uncomfortably to beds for prolonged periods, such that one eventually suffered a dislocated shoulder and another experienced excruciating pain when eventually forced to stand. Another incident involved a medic who witnessed pictures of naked detainees in a pyramid but did not report the episode to superiors.

Grimly, the report found that in three separate instances between November and June 2003, three detainees were in all probability murdered by U.S. forces: at Abu Ghraib a prisoner died due to "compromised respiration"; a prisoner at Forward Operating Base Tiger in Iraq, "died of asphyxia during interrogation"; while a third detainee in Al Nasiriyah died of strangulation. His ribs and neck bones had been broken. The Church Report avers: "the investigation suggests he was beaten and then dragged by the neck by a guard."

But in the post-Constitutional bizarro world of Bushist "homeland security," guilt, innocence, or for that matter the security of the American people, are of no consequence. What is important however, for the masters of the American deep state, is "keeping the rabble in line" by regular injections of psychological terror dispensed by administration shills and their "message force multipliers," the corporate media.

Yeah, yeah . . . patriotism, blah, blah, blah, terrorists, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Fuck that!

Any psychologist or psychiatrist who participated in the torture of detainees should immediately be stripped of their license to practice upon returning to civilian life. I would not oppose war crime charges.

Mental health professionals should live by the same code as doctors -- Do No Harm.

End of story.

How Meditation Can Lift Your Spirits AND Slow the Ageing Process

A good post from Goodlife Zen.

How Meditation Can Lift Your Spirits AND Slow the Ageing Process

Photo by artct45

Research has shown that our brain changes if we practise meditation. These changes trigger a more positive frame of mind, and may even slow the ageing process.

In his book Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman describes a very interesting collaboration between Professor Richard Davidson, a leading brain science, and an experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditator who used the pseudonym ‘Lama Oeser’. The Lama was asked to practise certain kinds of meditation, such as one-pointedness of mind and a meditation on compassion. During each of these meditation exercises, researchers looked to see whether there were any changes in the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). I’m not a scientist, but this is what I understand about fMRIs: The images can show up activity in particular areas of the brain. Daniel Goleman says:

The EEG analysis bore particularly rich fruit in the comparison between Oeser at rest, and while meditating on compassion.

The results showed an increase in neural activity in an area that Davidson’s previous research had pinpointed as home for positive emotions, such as feelings of happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.

Goleman continues:

The very act of concern for others’ well-being creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.

The research that Davidson did with Lama Oeser and others has shown that meditation can in fact change the structure of the brain.

Reseach at the Harvard Medical school has also yielded some interesting results. Results show some unexpected changes in brain structure through meditation. Sara Lazar, psychologist and leader of the study says:

Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being.

In ‘plain speak’ this means that in some areas of the brain the lining gets thicker proportional to the length of time that a person has practised meditation. These changes indicate that a meditator learns to process emotions and thoughts in a way that makes them feel happier.

Read the rest.

Sherman Alexie Interviewed

The Guardian UK posted an interview with Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite contemporary authors. OK, it's less an interview than a story about the man and his work. Still, quite interesting.

All rage and heart

Maya Jaggi
Saturday May 3, 2008
The Guardian

Sherman Alexie combines his successful writing career with stand-up comedy. His siblings, with whom he grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in the east of Washington state, are surprised people find him funny, he says. "I was always the depressed guy in the basement. But I've borrowed their sense of humour and made it darker and more deadly - a weapon of self-defence. Being funny you win hearts quicker; people laughing are more apt to listen."
He is speaking in a bistro in his "adoptive hometown" of Seattle, the Pacific city named after a 19th-century Suquamish chief now revered as a guardian of nature. Alexie, in some 10 volumes of poetry plus novels, short stories, screenplays and songs, has been at pains to deflate just such romantic myths, whether steward of the earth, stoical warrior, shaman or savage, still projected on to the country's roughly two million Indians - a term he prefers to what he sees as the guilt-ridden liberal coinage, Native American. In his comic and touching screenplay Smoke Signals (1998), the visionary storyteller in plaits and government-issue specs, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, says Spokane Indians were fisherfolk not warriors, unable to fit the heroic image of Hollywood's Dances with Wolves: "It's not Dances with Salmon," he points out.

Smoke Signals, adapted from stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and directed by Chris Eyre, won the Sundance festival audience award and is still, Alexie insists, the only feature film "by and about Indians" to have had a major distribution deal. While it takes place on a dirt-poor "rez" on the Idaho border, Alexie's later fiction is largely set in urban Seattle, where he lives in a gentrifying black neighbourhood. "I like being the pale one," he jokes.

Now 41, Alexie was one of Granta's 20 best American novelists under 40 in 1996, and was among the New Yorker's 20 best writers of the 21st century. Some critics have suspected that his literary territory (his titles are often flagged with "Indian" or "reservation") may have inflated critical sympathy. While James Buchan in these pages described his latest novel, Flight, as a "short-winded epic", it was praised in the New York Times as a "narrative stripped to its core, all rage and heart".

Flight is set on the underside of "sanitised and computerised" Seattle, amid destitute drunks, child-abusing foster carers and "kid jail". The teenage narrator Zits, an Irish-Indian "half-breed" with bad skin and no parents, meets a terrorist named Justice. Zits plans a shoot-out at a bank, but is hit by a guard's bullet and time-travels into other lives, including a child at Little Bighorn in 1876, a flight instructor betrayed by a would-be suicide pilot, and an Indian wino who turns out to be his father. Alexie has worked with charities for the homeless, yet the novel, although trenchant, seems less confrontational than earlier work. September 11 changed him, Alexie says, by revealing the lethal "end game of tribalism - when you become so identified with only one thing, one tribe, that other people are just metaphors to you".

That insight informs his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published here next month. It was a US bestseller and won the 2007 National Book award for young people's literature. With illustrations by Ellen Forney, it is his first book to explore his own childhood condition of hydrocephalus (about which he has narrated a documentary, Learning to Drown, also out next month). The autobiographical teenager, Arnold Spirit, is a budding cartoonist born with water on the brain, or "too much grease inside my skull - like my brain was a giant French fry". He survives an operation at six months (as did Alexie) with persistent physical problems for which he is bullied at school. But his talents help him realise that, though a Spokane Indian, he also belongs to other tribes, including basketball players and bookworms.

Read the rest.

Daily Om: Locating The Underlying Cause

This was yesterday's Daily Om.
If Only
Locating The Underlying Cause

Often, when we’re unhappy, we fall into the habit of thinking that, if only one or two particular things in our life would change, everything would be fine. We might focus on the fact that we need a new car, or a raise, or a change in our living situation. We dwell on this one thing and strategize, or complain, or daydream about what it would be like to have it. Meanwhile, underneath the surface, the real reason for our unhappiness sits unrecognized and unaddressed. And yet, if we are able to locate and explore the underlying cause of our discontent, all the surface concerns have a way of working themselves out in the light of our realization.

Maybe we really do just need a new car, and maybe moving to another city would improve our life situation. However, it can only help to take some time to explore what’s going on at a deeper level. Sometimes, when we take a moment and stop focusing on external concerns, we get to the heart of the matter. We might realize that all our lives we’ve been dissatisfied, grasping at one thing after another, only to be dissatisfied about something else once we get what we want. Or perhaps we’ll notice a pattern of running away from a place, or a relationship, when things get too hard. We might then wonder why this keeps happening, and how we might work through the difficulty rather than just escaping it. The point is, slowing down and turning our attention within can save us a lot of energy in the long run, because it is very often the case that there is no external change that will make us happy.

Once you’ve taken the time to inquire within, you can begin to make changes that address the deeper issue. This can be hard at first, especially if you’ve grown used to grasping for outside sources in order to quell your discontent, but in the end, you will be solving the problem at a deeper level, and it will be much less likely to recur.
In my own life, I have found that when there is a persistent sense that things aren't working, that I am living in "If Only..." land, it's only rarely about the if only belief. Generally, there is something deeper at work.

Usually, if I am living in if only mind, there is some part (subpersonality) at work. If I can separate from it, and look at it objectively (as an object in my awareness), I can usually begin to understand what it really needs, rather than being caught up in its cravings.

In Buddhism, craving the source of attachment, and therefore of suffering. But when we begin to address the emptiness beneath the craving, we can begin to heal whatever wound that might be lurking there.

It's not easy to do this kind of work with ourselves, but it is certainly beneficial.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Rumi - Poetry of the Beloved

Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (or simply Rumi) was one of the world's great spiritual poets. Many of his best poems are about or to the beloved -- a reminder that "this experience is universal, the all embracing divine love cannot be contained by any sectarian form. The only goal is experience of the Beloved, or in Rumi’s words: Possess the heart in love. "

From Poet Seers:
Rumi tells us the supreme secret of the inner journey is the path of love.
If we can possess our whole heart with contemplation of the beloved we will experience the wonders and beauty of the universe as Rumi says:

"The beauty of the heart
is the lasting beauty:
its lips give to drink
of the water of life."

Mathnawi II, 716-718

"Love is the cure,
for your pain will keep giving birth to more pain
until your eyes constantly exhale love
as effortlessly as your body yields its scent.”

Love Poems from God

Then there is this great poem about the Beloved as God:

One Whisper of the Beloved

Lovers share a sacred decree –
to seek the Beloved.
They roll head over heels,
rushing toward the Beautiful One
like a torrent of water.

In truth, everyone is a shadow of the Beloved –
Our seeking is His seeking,
Our words are His words.

At times we flow toward the Beloved
like a dancing stream.
At times we are still water
held in His pitcher.
At times we boil in a pot
turning to vapor –
that is the job of the Beloved.

He breathes into my ear
until my soul
takes on His fragrance.
He is the soul of my soul –
How can I escape?
But why would any soul in this world
want to escape from the Beloved?

He will melt your pride
making you thin as a strand of hair,
Yet do not trade, even for both worlds,
One strand of His hair.

We search for Him here and there
while looking right at Him.
Sitting by His side we ask,
"O Beloved, where is the Beloved?"

Enough with such questions! –
Let silence take you to the core of life.

All your talk is worthless
When compared to one whisper
of the Beloved.

This next one, however, is one of my favorite Rumi love poems, with an anonymous "you" that could be the divine Beloved or a very human Beloved -- either way the feeling is the same : "To disregard this world, to see only that which you yourself have seen I said, Heart, congratulations on entering the circle of lovers, on gazing beyond the range of the eye...."

Only You

Only you
I choose among the entire world.
Is it fair of you
letting me be unhappy?

My heart is a pen in your hand.
It is all up to you
to write me happy or sad.

I see only what you reveal
and live as you say.
All my feelings have the color
you desire to paint.

From the beginning to the end,
no one but you.

Please make my future
better than the past.

When you hide I change
to a Godless person,
and when you appear,
I find my faith.

Don't expect to find
any more in me
than what you give.

Don't search for
hidden pockets because
I've shown you that
all I have is all you gave.

Psychology News - Selfishness, Dreams, Super Heroes, and More

Another installment of news from the world of psychology.

We begin today with a look at why the human brain requires so much energy (adenosine triphosphate) to function -- roughly 20% of the calories we consume.

Why Does the Brain Need So Much Power?

New study shows why the brain drains so much of the body's energy

By Nikhil Swaminathan

It is well established that the brain uses more energy than any other human organ, accounting for up to 20 percent of the body's total haul. Until now, most scientists believed that it used the bulk of that energy to fuel electrical impulses that neurons employ to communicate with one another. Turns out, though, that is only part of the story.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA indicates that two thirds of the brain's energy budget is used to help neurons or nerve cells "fire'' or send signals. The remaining third, however, is used for what study co-author Wei Chen, a radiologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School, refers to as "housekeeping," or cell-health maintenance.

Researchers reached their conclusions after imaging the brain with magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure its energy production during activity shifts. Chen says the technology, which has been around for three decades and is used to track the products of metabolism in different tissues, could prove instrumental one day in detecting brain defects or to diagnose tumors or precursors of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) early.

Chen and his colleagues used MRS specifically to track the rate of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, the primary source of cellular energy, in rat brains. MRS employs a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine programmed to pick up particular elements in the body—in this case, the three phosphorus atoms in each ATP molecule. Their goal: to determine whether ATP production is linked to brain activity by measuring the energy expended during different levels of consciousness.

Sure enough, ATP levels appeared to vary with brain activity. The team noted that when the lab rats were knocked out, they produced 50 percent fewer ATP molecules than when they were mildly anesthetized.The ATP produced when the brain is inactive, says Chen, seems to go mostly toward cell maintenance, whereas the additional ATP found in the more alert animals fueled other brain functions. He speculates that only a third of the ATP produced in fully awake brains is used for housekeeping functions, leaving the rest for other activities.

"Housekeeping power is important for keeping the brain tissue alive," Chen says, "and for the many biological processes in the brain," in addition to neuronal chats. Charged sodium, calcium and potassium atoms (or ions) are continuously passed through the membranes of cells, so that neurons can recharge to fire. ATP supplies the energy required for these ions to traverse cell membranes. Chen says there must be enough energy to maintain a proper ionic balance inside and outside cells; if too many get stuck inside, it can cause swelling, which can damage cells and lead to strokes and other conditions.

He says the team has since used MRS to study energy demands of a cat's brain, which they said also jumped when the kitty was visually stimulated. Next up: humans, which Chen says researchers hope to study "very soon."

So does this mean that more time we spend thinking, the more energy we consume? Can we think ourselves thin?

* * * * *

A recent story making the rounds on all the science and news sites is the finding that selfishness may be an evolutionary partner to altruism.
Selfishness May Be Altruism's Unexpected Ally

Just as religions dwell upon the eternal battle between good and evil, angels and devils, evolutionary theorists dwell upon the eternal battle between altruistic and selfish behaviors in the Darwinian struggle for existence. In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), evolutionary theorists at Binghamton University suggest that selfishness might not be such a villain after all.

Omar Tonsi Eldakar and David Sloan Wilson propose a novel solution to this problem in their article, which is available in the online Early Edition of PNAS. They point out that selfish individuals have their own incentive to get rid of other selfish individuals within their own group.

Eldakar and Wilson consider a behavioral strategy called "Selfish Punisher," which exploits altruists and punishes other selfish individuals, including other selfish punishers. This strategy might seem hypocritical in moral terms but it is highly successful in Darwinian terms, according to their theoretical model published in PNAS and a computer simulation model published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. Selfish punishers can invade the population when rare but then limit each other, preventing the altruists from being completely eliminated.

Individuals who behave altruistically are vulnerable to exploitation by more selfish individuals within their own group, but groups of altruists can robustly out-compete more selfish groups. Altruism can therefore evolve by natural selection as long as its collective advantage outweighs its more local disadvantage. All evolutionary theories of altruism reflect this basic conflict between levels of selection.

It might seem that the local advantage of selfishness can be eliminated by punishment, but punishment is itself a form of altruism. For instance, if you pay to put a criminal in jail, all law-abiding citizens benefit but you paid the cost. If someone else pays you to put the criminal in jail, this action costs those individuals something that other law-abiding citizens didn't have to pay. Economists call this the higher-order public goods problem. Rewards and punishments that enforce good behavior are themselves forms of good behavior that are vulnerable to subversion from within.

Eldakar and Wilson first began thinking about selfish punishment on the basis of a study on humans, which indeed showed that the individuals most likely to cheat were also most likely to punish other cheaters. Similar examples appear to exist in non-human species, including worker bees that prevent other workers from laying eggs while laying a few of their own.

Is selfish punishment really so hypocritical in moral terms? According to Eldakar and Wilson, it can be looked at another way - as a division of labor. Altruists ‘pay’ the selfish punishers by allowing themselves to be exploited, while the selfish punishers return the favor with their second-order altruism. “That way, no one needs to pay the double cost required of an altruist who also punishes others,” says Eldakar. “If so, then the best groups might be those that include a few devils along with the angels.”

If you remember back a while, David Sloan Wilson (along with E.O. Wilson) has been instrumental in helping move evolutionary theory away from a pure reliance on the selfish gene to include group selection as part of the process.

It makes sense that he would be involved in a study that looks at how social pressures (altruism or selfishness) can influence evolutionary natural selection.

From an integral perspective, I think we will be seeing more and more about social and cultural pressures on evolution, as well as more about group mind in helping us explain human consciousness.

* * * * *

Many of us have known for a long time that taking a walk in nature can reduce stress and help improve our mood. In fact, more and more psychologists are advocating time in nature as a way of treating mood and personality disorders. Here is another study in that growing literature.
'Forest therapy' taking root: Researchers find that a simple stroll among trees has real benefits

For stressed-out workers, this may someday be a doctor's prescription: Walk around in the woods.

Scientists in Japan have been learning a lot in recent years about the relaxing effects of forests and trees on mental and physical health. Based on their findings, some local governments are promoting "forest therapy."

Experience shows that the scents of trees, the sounds of brooks and the feel of sunshine through forest leaves can have a calming effect, and the conventional wisdom is right, said Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Center for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University.

Japan's leading scholar on forest medicine has been conducting physiological experiments to examine whether forests can make people feel at ease.

One study he conducted on 260 people at 24 sites in 2005 and 2006 found that the average concentration of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, in people who gazed on forest scenery for 20 minutes was 13.4 percent lower than that of people in urban settings, Miyazaki said.

This means that forests can lower stress and make people feel at ease, he said, noting that findings in other physiological experiments, including fluctuations in heart beats and blood pressure, support this conclusion.

"Humans had lived in nature for 5 million years. We were made to fit a natural environment. So we feel stress in an urban area," Miyazaki said. "When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be."

Taking a walk in a forest, or "forest bathing" as it is sometimes called, can strengthen the immune system, according to Li Qing, a senior assistant professor of forest medicine at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo.

Li conducted experiments to see whether spending time in a forest increases the activity of people's natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer.

In one, 12 men took a two-night trip to a forest in Nagano Prefecture in 2006, during which they went on three leisurely strolls and stayed in a hotel in the woods. Thirteen female nurses made a similar trip to another forest in the prefecture in 2007.

NK activity was boosted in the subjects in both groups, and the increase was observed as long as 30 days later, Li said.

Read the rest, then get thee to a forest. Hmmm . . . . I wonder if cacti work the same magic?

* * * * *

In the past, our super heroes were seldom in doubt, never showed fear, and generally were always in control and doing the right thing. Not so much anymore. As our ideal of heroism has evolved to be less idealistic, so have our super heroes become more human, though still noble (most of the time).
Big-screen superheroes gone wild

The classic superhero is polished, brave and morally righteous. Strong and unerring, he is perfection personified - a superhuman ideal.

Not this summer.

Everyday human flaws are the Kryptonite of this year's movie good guys, who deign to suffer the same foibles as those who pay to see them. They may be reclusive, egotistical or intellectually challenged. They may have anger issues or alcohol issues. Some are alienated and lonely.

While the archetypal superhero always has a "weakness," this summer's super problems are more fit for the psychologist's couch than the villain's lair. Such shortcomings make heroes more relatable, says Marvel Comics master Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, among sundry others.

"If you can have a good guy who's got hang-ups and flaws and failings, he's more interesting because he not only has to defeat the villain, but he has to defeat and conquer his own flaws and inabilities," Lee says. "It rounds him out and makes the character empathetic."

Flawed heroes are also a sign of the times, says "Iron Man" director Jon Favreau.

"Complicated times demand for escapist entertainment," he says. "These characters are facing the same types of problems we are. They're a proxy for us."

"Iron Man," which opens Friday, stars Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a pompous, womanizing, hard-drinking genius whose superpowers come solely from a supercharged, weapons-filled suit he created from scratch. Without it, Stark is just another guy with issues - not much of a stretch for the actor who's a veteran of both big screen and blotter.

After many nods to that effect throughout the film, Downey (as Stark) acknowledges at its conclusion that he's "not the hero type, with these character defects and all."

Indiana Jones is another "real guy," says creator George Lucas. The archaeologist-adventurer played by Harrison Ford returns to theaters May 22 with "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

"He makes lots of mistakes. He kind of goofs up. He has the same kind of thinking that we have," Lucas says. "It's like he's not a superhero. He's just an average Joe that's always in over his head that somehow seems to get through it."

June will bring three more unlikely superheroes: Bruce Banner, Maxwell Smart and Zohan.

After a gamma-radiation accident, Banner (Ed Norton) discovers he involuntarily transforms into a monstrous mass in "The Incredible Hulk." Fearful and emotionally withdrawn, Banner is "blind to his heroic potential," says Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios.

Read the rest.

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Many of us have had dreams that seem more than a little bizarre. Perhaps even psychotic? Turns out that dreams and psychotic thoughts have some things in common.
Mondo Bizarro

Researchers identify similarities between dreams and psychotic thoughts

Dreams and psychotic ruminations have certain strange features in common, and psychiatrists have now measured the degree of similarity.

Both dreams and waking psychotic moments share cognitive bizarreness — a well-defined term in psychology. It consists of impossible plots, characters and actions: flying over Elvis’ first concert or conversing with Fido the dog. It also includes discontinuity or uncertainty in time and place: stepping outside your house, which is really your aunt’s house, and onto Mars, the day before.

“We are not talking about hallucinations,” says Silvio Scarone of the University of Milan in Italy, “but rather the organization of thinking.” When awake, normal people don’t have bizarre fantasies, he says. But when asleep, their dreams are as bizarre as a schizophrenia patient’s waking fantasies.

To examine these fantasies, Scarone and his team instructed normal people and schizophrenia patients to tell a fantastic tale about a given image. The stories were systematically scored according to how bizarre the tales were. Normal people’s plotlines contained few signs of bizarreness, whereas the plotlines of schizophrenia patients contained as many bizarre, illogical jumps as dreams do. The researchers also scored people’s descriptions of their dreams. Normal people and those with schizophrenia showed similar levels of cognitive bizarreness in their dreams, the researchers report in the May issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin.

By understanding the organization of schizophrenic thought, psychiatrists might be better able to communicate with their patients, Scarone says.

Bizarreness appears to arise when sensory information from the outside world is blocked, and when thoughts are heavily influenced by an excess of emotion, says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson, another researcher on the study. A predominance of the inner world characterizes a variety of mental illnesses. Likewise, the dreaming mind cuts off outside stimuli. “It’s not just a dull waking state,” Hobson says. “It’s an entirely different state of consciousness.”

But bizarreness isn’t the only thing that lurks beneath madness. Other elements of psychotic episodes include delusions of grandeur and paranoia. Dreams, however, generally don’t exhibit these qualities. Normal dreamers rarely imagine being chased by the KGB, Scarone says. This difference may indicate that the two erratic modes of logic, bizarreness and delusion, occur by separate mechanisms.

Still other researchers think the gap between psychosis and dreaming is wider. G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz expresses skepticism about any connection at all. “Dreams are far more coherent, far more consistent over time and far more continuous with waking conceptions and concerns,” he says.
Although the researchers suggest that the absence of paranoia and delusions of grandeur make dreams and psychosis different, I wonder if it is just a matter of degrees, or maybe even that while waking the mind is forced to justify the psychotic elements with the external world. While that obviously isn't working so well for the psychotics, the brain could still be trying to make sense of the lack of external information and the surplus of emotions -- and in doing so creates scenarios in which the individual is at the center of the narrative.

I'm just thinking out loud -- this is an interesting avenue of research. I wonder what fMRI images might show of both dreamers and psychotics.

Howard Dean on The Daily Show

Howard Dean, the DNC Chairman tries -- in vain, I would suggest -- to explain the Democrats' confusing nomination process.

Daily Dharma: The Lost Necklace

Today's Daily Dharma from Tricycle.

The Lost Necklace

...No special effort is necessary to realize the Self. All efforts are for eliminating the present obscuration of the Truth. A lady is wearing a necklace around her neck. She forgets it, imagines it to be lost and impulsively looks for it here, there and everywhere. Not finding it, she asks her friends if they found it anywhere, until one kind friend points to her neck and tells her to feel the necklace around her neck. The seeker does so and feels happy that the necklace is found. Again, when she meets other friends, they ask her if her lost necklace was found. She says, "yes" to them, as if it were lost and later recovered. Her happiness at re-discovering it round her neck is the same as if some lost property was recovered. In fact, she never lost it nor recovered it. And yet she was once miserable and now she is happy. So also with the Realization of the Self.

~ Ramana Maharshi, 365 Nirvana, Here and Now

Fractured Fairy Tales - Rapunzel

A great cartoon from 1959.


Poetry News - Charles Simic & Gary Snyder

News from the poetry world.

Simic stepping aside as U.S. poet laureate

A lecture on poetry translation will be the final time Charles Simic speaks as U.S. poet laureate, the Library of Congress said.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed this past year," Simic said in a news release. "The best part of being poet laureate of the United States is working with the fine, dedicated and learned people at the Library (of Congress)."

Simic, poet laureate since August 2007, will give a lecture on "The Difficult Art of Translation" May 8 in Washington.

Most laureates serve one or two years. Simic said he didn't want to be considered for a second year because he wanted to spend more time writing poetry.

Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990 for his book of prose poems "The World Doesn't End." His more recent volumes of poetry include "That Little Something: Poems," "My Noiseless Entourage" and "The Voice at 3:00 A.M."

"We are very sorry to say farewell to Charlie Simic, but deeply appreciate his service to the library and the nation," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said.
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$100,000 lifetime achievement award is one of largest to poets

CHICAGO—Poet Gary Snyder is the winner of the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Established in 1986 and presented annually by the Poetry Foundation, the award is one of the most prestigious given to American poets, and at $100,000 it is one of the nation’s largest literary awards. Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and chair of the selection committee, made the announcement today. The prize will be presented at an evening ceremony at the Arts Club of Chicago on Thursday, May 29.

In announcing the award, Wiman said: “Gary Snyder is in essence a contemporary devotional poet, though he is not devoted to any one god or way of being so much as to Being itself. His poetry is a testament to the sacredness of the natural world and our relation to it, and a prophecy of what we stand to lose if we forget that relation.”

Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder began writing in the 1950s as a member—with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—of the Beat movement. For most of the 1960s he lived in Japan and studied formally in a Zen monastery. Blending physical reality—precise observations of nature—with insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism, Snyder has explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose.

The judges issued the following statement in making the selection: “Gary Snyder is a true nature poet: there’s no sentimentalism to his work, and he never uses the natural world simply to celebrate his own sensibility. A deeply learned and meditative artist, an impassioned ecologist, and a poet of great scope as well as intense focus, Snyder has written poems that we will be reading for as long as we’ve been reading Robert Frost.”

“The selection of Gary Snyder as this year’s winner of the Lilly Prize does honor to the tradition of excellence and importance that the prize has stood for since it was established over 20 years ago,” said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation.

Snyder is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, essays, and translations. His poetry collections include Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, The Back Country, Regarding Wave, No Nature, Mountains and Rivers Without End, and Danger on Peaks. His essays are collected in Earth House Hold, The Real Work, A Place in Space, and Back on the Fire.

A committed environmental activist who has received the John Hay Award for Nature Writing, Snyder has also been recognized for his contributions to the theory and practice of Buddhism. His many honors include the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Turtle Island, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize and the Levinson Prize from Poetry, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Times, and the Shelley Memorial Award.

Snyder was born on May 8, 1930, in San Francisco. He is professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis, and lives in northern California.

Judges for the 2008 prize were poets Eavan Boland, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Christian Wiman.


The Rabbit

A grizzled black-eyed rabbit showed me

irrigation ditches, open paved highway,
white line
to the hill.
bell chill blue jewel sky
Banner clouds flying,
The mountains all gathered,
juniper trees on the flanks
cone buds,
the snug bark scale
in thin powder snow
over rock scrabble, pricklers, boulders,
pines and junipers,
The trees all singing.

The mountains are singing
To gather the sky and the mist
to bring it down snow-breath
and gather it water
Sent from the singing peaks
flanks and folds
Down arroyos and ditches by highways the water
The people to use it, the
mountains and juniper
Do it for men,

Said the rabbit.

First published in Poetry, March 1968. © Gary Snyder


About the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize
American poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly. Over many years and in many ways, it has been blessed by her personal generosity. In 1985 she endowed the Ruth Lilly Professorship in Poetry at Indiana University. In 1989 she created Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, for $15,000 each, given annually by the Poetry Foundation to undergraduate or graduate students selected through a national competition. In 2002 her lifetime engagement with poetry culminated in a magnificent bequest that will enable the Poetry Foundation to promote, in perpetuity, a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.

The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize honors a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. Established in 1986 by Ruth Lilly, the annual prize is sponsored and administered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. Over the last 20 years, the Lilly Prize has awarded more than $1,000,000. The previous recipients are Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Hayden Carruth, David Wagoner, John Ashbery, Charles Wright, Donald Hall, A.R. Ammons, Gerald Stern, William Matthews, W.S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Carl Dennis, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lisel Mueller, Linda Pastan, Kay Ryan, C.K. Williams, Richard Wilbur, and Lucille Clifton.

About the Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine and one of the largest literary organizations in the world, exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience. The Poetry Foundation seeks to be a leader in shaping a receptive climate for poetry by developing new audiences, creating new avenues for delivery, and encouraging new kinds of poetry through innovative literary prizes and programs. For more information, please visit

Antonin Scalia: Torture Is Not "Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Is it just me, or is Scalia a scary man?


Smashing Pumpkins - Thirty Three

An old video.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Spiritual Advisors in Context - Billy Graham

I can't sleep, so I'm catching up on The Daily Show. This skit makes a good point.

The Time 100 - Complete List

These are Time Magazine's 100 most influential people.
Leaders & Revolutionaries

Heroes & Pioneers

Scientists & Thinkers

Artists & Entertainers

Builders & Titans


Hmmm. . . I never like these lists. Where is Richard Dawkins? He might be annoying, but he is certainly influential. Or how about Bono? Or Tiger Woods? Or Jon Stewart and/or Keith Olbermann?

I have to say, on the reader poll list there are A LOT of people I have never heard of, including the top two.