Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turning Points: Failure

To understand this you'll probably want to read the first installment

When I began to write this section of the series, I wrote it as a simple chronology of events. But to tell what happened doesn't say what actually happened.

What actually happened was desperation, and fear. What happened was frustration and frenzy. What happened was loss disguised as a little bit of public attention and a small bite of power. I spent the next few years feeling as if I were fake, and I concluded this period by becoming an outright fraud.

I was desperate to feed the attention and power machine that I had become. What started as a shocking turnaround in my social fortunes at 14 became a full-on need for as much personal attention as I could muster. It wasn't enough that I was charismatic (one acquaintance half-seriously suggested an experiment: put me in a large box, wheel me around on a dolly, and see if people still stopped, turned around, and stared. He guessed that they would). No: I had to spend hours in front of the mirror every morning, fashioning ever more outlandish attire, so that no stare might ever be averted. I had to spend every waking hour mulling over the next publicity stunt-- all in a good cause, you see-- except I knew inside that my bottomless pit of loneliness was the real cause in question.

I really did believe in the ideas and values I espoused. I really did hope that I might do some good even as I substituted quantity of people and degree of influence over them for quality of relationships. But I knew how very far my persona, both in public and in private, deviated from who I was and why I did things. And I felt fake.

Fueling the drive for attention also was that it seemed I could no longer succeed at anything else (and I was obsessively ambitious even while pretending not to be). After two years of hiatus, during which it had seemed I could accomplish anything I wished, my waking nightmare and nemesis was back.

I called this nightmare Dark Thing. I had named it as a child when I had no more creative language. It had a sound: a deep, bone shaking sound in one's mind as chilling as any Siren's call. It had a size -- large, usually several feet taller than myself, reaching to whatever the height of the ceiling. It had a color (if things not seen with eyes can be said to have a color) -- not mere optical black, but the very color of annihilation. It had an effect: to shut down cold whatever l I had been thinking at the time of its arrival, not just at that moment but for days and weeks afterwards, as if it were a giant Novocaine shot to the brain. And it was Terror, as near to the absolute quality of terror as anything could be.

It had a modus operandi, too. From a very young age I liked to play with ideas, to follow the threads of reasoning as deep to their roots as I could, push out the limits of an idea as far as I might, and follow the tangly web, the grand patterns, of thought as it linked and merged and wove among other thoughts and ideas. That's why I loved the sciences: there were so many broad, deep, and interconnected patterns to play with. It wasn't just science though. The act of writing generated a mental playground within which I could romp. So did painting. So did reading, on nearly any topic.

Dark Thing always struck when I was at play with ideas. Moreover, it always struck at the point when ideas were flowing the easiest and patterns of connections were tumbling out. One moment, I was as happy as I could be, surrounded by connections, and the next, I was blindsided by Terror.

It was impossible for me to apply myself to thought after Dark Thing returned. My mind was too numb even to think about things, like chess, that had never generated the cascade of ideas from which Dark Thing emerged. If I wasn't directly impacted by Dark Thing, I was terrified that I would be impacted by Dark Thing. I had mapped out over the years a kind of mental minefield, where to stray would certainly bring about Terror (I called such thoughts "Forbidden Thoughts"), but there was much I hadn't mapped, and, I suspected, new mines were being planted every day. It isn't possible to be a physics and mathematics major -- at least not a very good one -- when vast swaths of one's chosen field were flagged and cordoned off as unsafe.

There was never a question of defying Dark Thing and pushing onward. It could not be done. My mind shut down tight. Even if someday it didn't, I was certain that beyond Dark Thing lie death itself, or maybe even something worse than death, some kind of utter annihilation.

But I could apply myself with little difficulty to winning a little bit of fame, and using what influence I had to wield a small amount of power. I rationalized my new interest, in promoting me, as an interest in furthering assorted noble political goals. The catch is that accreting a following and wielding those followers to noble political ends was not especially good at producing noble results. Mostly it produced complicated situations where no side was the side of right, and where I was as apt as anything to find myself, after a few convolutions, fighting for the exact opposite of what I believed in.

But I persisted with the tumult for lack of any other functional plan, until I couldn't. Then, upon diagnosing my problem as that which happens when needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks try to accrete and wield political power (and since I had no prospects that did not involve me being the needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck that I was), I decided to take my act to the one industry where needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks were the norm: music. I could, I thought, be as charismatic and attention seeking as I could bear, and the worst that I could do with a following would be to boost sales.

This scheme failed as well, when I came to realize that the violence that seemed to follow our band around (it was an early punk band) had everything to do with the violent imagery we drew upon and that I wrote into our music. Evidently I could be plenty destructive as a needy egomaniacal ambitious fuck atop a stage. People were getting hurt. And I was at fault.

Maybe the destructive effect came about through my personal charisma, I reasoned. Maybe I needed to take up an activity where people wouldn't actually see me very often. So, one morning, I put a sheet of paper between the rollers of my typewriter, and began my career as a writer of political theory.

My writing career lasted about a dozen keystrokes.

My first book, I had imagined, would be on the intimate relationship between hierarchy, freedom, and the very words we have to describe relationships among people. It had long been obvious to me from my trace-the-ideas sessions that to a great extent what was politically "possible" was merely that which was linguistically easy (by way of simple illustration I believed Russia's willingness to experiment (badly) with state socialism was in part the consequence of how possession is expressed in the language. The construction for possession, У меня, is, literally, "by me". Only context can tell you if the man standing next to a factory is discussing his proximity to the building, or claiming ownership of it). Furthermore the politically possible was, I thought, wound up even in our popular choices regarding logic itself (logic, or more generally how we know what we know, is a much more complex question than the average person understands it to be).

I had to think these ideas through, of course, before putting them on paper. And as I started to do so I began to see a horrible pattern. My failures as a leader were not merely the product of my glaring personality flaws. They weren't even the consequences of flaws in my political theories (though flawed they were). Those attributes that I least liked in the political world, that I least liked in myself, and more, were an inevitable consequence of the the very stuff of language and logic. The problem lie at a stratum of thought just below language. And so long as it remained, unchallenged and unchallengeable, in the stuff from which symbolic thought emerges, ideas would fail. Make a theory of freedom and follow it, and eventually it would tell you that you needed to advance its cause through dictatorship. Make a theory of peace among people, and it would guide you to bomb in its name. Make a theory of kindness towards animals, and surely someday those ideas would instruct you how many puppies and kittens to dropkick, and when.

I could see the glimmer of a solution to this fundamental failure of the intellect. It involved peering below the substratum of symbolic thought, at a still deeper level (one notch over is generally speaking where such resolutions, if extant, lie). And so I started again to trace things, this time deeper into the silent world beyond words, the world of the high pitched whine of one's brain, the whoosh of one's breathing... and then, a sound. I recoiled and put as much distance as I could between my previous line of thought.

The answer to how not to be so damned destructive was a Forbidden Thought. I was well and truly trapped.

I had no idea what to do with myself. I worked at a computer job or two, joined a none-too-dedicated folk band for a while, and otherwise drifted aimlessly for a few months until the interview.

It must have been a slow news day at the Rocky Mountain News. I got a phone call from a reporter who wanted to do a story on me. If I had any degree of self-restraint, I would have admitted that I was lost and had nothing of value to say to him or his readership. But while I was undoubtedly lost, I remained a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck, and so I consented to the interview. I recited my usual lines to him, even as I thought to myself "this is all garbage and I know it". And he published it.

I was no longer a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck. I was a lying needy ambitious egomaniacal, knowingly fake and knowingly destructive, fuck. I couldn't keep myself from perpetrating this flagrant fraud as far as opportunity allowed.

I had to physically remove myself from the opportunity. It was time to run.

Part 3 is now available, and you can read it here

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rainbows and Unicorns in Jail

Readers of this blog already know I don't like much of what goes on under the rubric of New Age because it lacks seriousness and discipline. I also don't like the bulk of it because, even as it grants the most fantastical and unreal ideas a place of honor and credibility, it suffocates the human spirit in jails built of its own lack of imagination.

I'm thinking in particular of the "Mayan elders" and the "13 crystal skulls" my New Age friends are excited about. Aside from the easily proven facts that the people involved are not Mayan elders, the crystal skulls were carved with modern jewelry tools, and authentic Mayans would have no use for Western numerology (yes, that's a big aside, but I'm willing for the sake of argument to suspend my judgement)--- aside from everything about this that just isn't true, the event and the stories told of it are so very confining.

The most spiritual time is now -- regardless of whether "now" for you is a few minutes after I post this article on 11/11/11, or five years from now, or whether you're examining this blog as part of the archaeological record 20,000 years from when I've written this. It's any now that you have, with or without any putative elders of any sort doing anything at all. It's now,  no matter what numbers or letters have been assigned to this now by calendar makers and timekeepers (as someone whose desk once sat exactly one floor above NBS-6, I can assure doubters that the world's timekeepers are largely atheists and agnostics, not prophets).

The purest, most powerful "crystal" is the structure of reality itself. The only skull that need be involved in its perception is the one housing one's own mind. To attribute to age, status, ethnicity, time, number, object, or any other externality any attribute of necessity or importance is to turn away from the extraordinary freedom of right here, right now -- anywhere, anynow -- in one's own awareness. It is to imprison oneself in status and stuff, none of which has any good claim to spirituality.

There is sometimes a usefulness for spiritual tools and rituals. The usefulness of tools is as a treatment for spiritual ADD -- the tendency for humanity to go stare at the latest spectacle or wander off in search of a trinket, or to become wrapped up in the pains and limitations of human flesh. As I type this I have been fingering a miniature string of prayer beads, counting off prayers in lieu of, say, going off on a wikiwalk or getting lost in You Tube. Good tools properly used point to the crystal of Truth one can discover with one's own skull. They point emphatically to Now! They point to Divinity! Right here! Nearer than your occipital plate! Closer than your sinus cavities! They never, ever, point to themselves.

They have no intrinsic value (aside from aesthetic and financial considerations), and no special properties (unlike the magical qualities attributed to "Mayan" crystal skulls), because the magic of Truth is expressed in all being, even, as Chuang Tzu put it, "in the piss and dung". They need not be dug out of the wreckage of a civilization superior to our own (as it is alleged was the case of the crystal skulls) because Truth is not bound by the doings of any civilization. Carrying them across the country or even across the galaxy would not create any greater effect than, say, tossing them in the trash, because while tools may be carried about and thrown away, Truth is unmovable and impossible to get rid of.

The New Age movement is looking to superior beings, powerful objects, special locations, and magical dates and times, any or all of which are expected to usher in a future sacred time (i.e., not the time of now, but some other time). It's easy to document and criticize the sheer fraud behind much of that status and stuff, and that's where most of the criticism of New Age thinking begins and ends. But the real tragedy is not the money lost to fake gurus and overpriced rocks. It isn't even the deaths that have been caused by gurus who promise miracles and rainbows and unicorns for a fee. It's the spiritual opportunity lost when people imagine a spirituality so brutally confined by externalities of every sort. It's all those rainbows and unicorns in jail.

If there is any message I wish to give to my New Age friends, it's a message of freedom. I'd invite them to breathe in this liberty and know they need neither the dispensation of a superior race, nor the advantage of a sufficiently aged soul, to know -- not know about, not feel emotions about, but know -- Spirit.  I'd invite them to know that now, not some future age, is sacred time, and right here, is sacred ground and sacred space; that even the spit of their mouth and the content of their bladder has power equal or greater than all the power they've ever imputed to the crystals of Atlantis and Lemuria.  I'd invite them to unburden themselves, of the clutter of belief in special spiritual stuff, and of the clutter of supposed spiritualities, like "The Secret", which revolve around stuff. I'd invite them to free themselves from the mental clutter of having to find credible the incredulous simply because someone claiming special status said the incredulous was credible.

I'd invite them to throw away everything, in fact, as is their birthright as a free being.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Turning Points: The Decision

I've, since the beginning of this blog, sought to keep as much of me out of my blog posts as I could, lest I, and not the subject matter, become the topic. I'd say I am about to go out on a limb with this next series of posts on the stages of mysticism, but that would exaggerate the size of the twig I find myself standing on :)

Every mystic's journey begins with a decision, though it isn't always seen as one at the time. Sometimes its something they read in a book. Sometimes it's something they hear at their place of worship. Sometimes  it is even something they experience during drug use that makes them want the real thing. Often it is at the turning point of a personal crisis. That's what happened to me.

I was fourteen. And my life was hell.

I wonder about the adults who insist no child's life can be hellish. Have they forgotten what it was like to have a child's inability to escape or significantly alter one's circumstances? Have they forgotten a child's presumed lack of credibility? Or how a child's underdeveloped brain and limited experience impact's one's ability to solve problems which adults themselves find difficult to handle?  Or maybe those adults who insist childhood is a never-ending stream of ice cream, rainbows, and unicorns are the very adults who think so little of the young that they can't even imagine that the victims of their thoughtlessness experience harm.

My world at fourteen was a friendless one of bullying and abuse. Recent events had only escalated the helplessness and brutality. I was without hope. I had come to a decision a week or two before: I was going to steal a gun from where I knew one was hidden, and I was going to bring it to school, and I was going to kill everyone I could before I turned the gun on myself. This was decades before Columbine, or even before Columbine's immediate predecessors. I would have been the pioneer of this species of killing, if it were not for what happened that night.

I was standing at my bedroom window, looking at the stars and working out the fine details in my head of how to smuggle the gun into the building undetected. It was at that moment that the deep blackness that filled and surrounded me broke, and in an instant I saw... information. A lot of information.

The information could be divided into three broad categories. The first category might be described as "how to think." The object was to empty out the crud in my head so that I could think clearly, and the immediate task was to stop daydreaming. The primary method was to continuously observe my own thoughts and throw out the unwanted ones. When solving problems, the approach was to clear out the crud -- in essence, to stop grinding away at a problem -- and then take a clean, clear look at the situation. There were tricks for breaking mental ruts so that one could think more clearly. I dubbed all this the "mind exercises".

This first category of information had immediate appeal. I likened it to the idealized form of the scientific method, where the object of the researcher is to clear away biases so as to arrive at conclusions supported by fact. To see clearly was an irresistible goal.

The second category might be described as behavioral. I could see, in that instant of information, how this second category functioned to support the first category, but that did not make this second category any more appealing. I was to avoid anything that addled the mind, whether it was drugs and drink (as someone who was at that age already drinking, this had precisely zero appeal to me), or whether it involved other techniques, such as the hypnosis games some girls had been playing around with in eighth grade. I was to maintain simplicity in all things-- for example, in my attire. I was a teenager, and I loved flamboyancy, and it was the early '70's: this was not what I wanted, either. The third point, which straddled the behavioral category and the third category, was that I needed to maintain my fitness and my survival skills, because there would come a time when I needed both. All in all I accepted the logic of this category: I simply wasn't going to do much of it.

The third broad category was the category I categorically rejected. It contained a promise of what would happen if I followed the previous directions. As an atheist I had no use for the supernatural (never mind that the moment, in its entirety, had a decidedly supernatural quality). This part just reeked of Too Much Imagination. I put it out of my mind, or at least as far out of my mind as any component of a moment of this magnitude can be put (it had the quality of being the Monolith in the living room, to mix metaphors about elephants and images from science fiction).

I was still a mess the moment after the moment. But I was a mess with a spark of hope. People who have hope do not commit murder-suicide. I dropped my plans after that, and I started to play with the mind exercises.

When I got back to school (I had been on one of my many school suspensions when the moment by the window happened), some very odd things occurred. I was suddenly befriended by a popular girl in my school, and soon afterwards found myself firmly ensconced in the theater, music, and creative writing clique. I was suddenly popular for the first time in my life-- in fact, I seemed to attract people to me (the bullies were still out there, too, but their bullying became far less effective-- almost pathetic, really). For the next two years I experienced a string of inexplicable successes, personal accomplishments (some in the "adult" world that won me a mild fame), and extraordinary connections. Two years and some change later, despite the year I spent largely on suspension, I stood, at sixteen, with a high school diploma in my hands and a ticket out of my circumstances to a major university to study physics.

I also stood on the verge of several years worth of learning why treating portions of the directions as if they were optional wasn't going to work. And why all that apparent success was a double edged sword, one that would drive me inexorably to listen and to do what I had not wanted to do. But that's another post.

Part 2 is now available, and you can read it here