Sunday, September 17, 2023

A Brief History of Humanity

Some millennia ago, some ape-like creature looked in a still pool of water, saw its reflection and thought, “Wait a minute – that’s me!” It showed other ape-like creatures this trick, and soon there was a whole tribe of “people,” who recognized themselves in the reflection and recognized that they were different from other “people,” including animals.

Recognizing their separateness made certain things easier for the ape-like creatures – they could kill and eat other animals with much less stress, for instance, because they were different/separate/not-me. The ape-like creatures could also see that they were different from the environment, so they began to excavate, to dam rivers, to farm and otherwise exploit the rest of the separate-from-me world.

The ape-like creatures continued to evolve and grow their societies, but retained various connections to the rest of the world, especially through long-time practices like hunting, fishing and farming. Like any other animal, the ape-like things had to pay attention to the water, the woods and the weather to know when to plant, hunt or fish. When they went to war they reverted almost entirely to their pre-reflection selves, although war was only possible because they saw themselves as separate from whoever they were fighting. In body/mind/spirit terms, they were almost completely physical – the biggest, strongest and most connected to the physical world won, in general.

Not all the ape-like creatures were big and strong, though, and as their species’ dominance over the other animals became more and more established, the ape-like creatures had time to wonder. This gave rise to shamans, priests and other spirit guides, and the ape-like creatures went through a spiritual phase of existence, guided and ruled by other ape-like creatures who claimed a close relationship to God. Curiously, the ape-like creatures became very afraid and distrustful of the physical world during this phase, diminishing the social status of hunters, fishers and farmers and turning away from sex and other pleasurable aspects of the physical world.

Then along came Rene Descartes, who said, “I think, therefore I am,” and the ape-like things were off to the races. If thought was the thing that made the ape-like creatures exist, and if awareness of their individual existence made them different from the dumb animals and the quiet Earth, then the sky was the limit. Literally – flying and leaving the Earth are universal fantasies of the intellect. It almost goes without saying that the mind feels nothing but discomfort and contempt for the physical and spiritual worlds. 

Now (September 17, 2023) we are at a point where our willful, purposeful separation from the rest of existence has led us to the brink of global climate and culture collapse. And what are our responses? To create AI, which has no connection to the natural or spiritual worlds at all, and to make plans to leave the planet once it’s ruined, the greatest separation of all. Some try desperately to “go back” to some former halcyon time. But for these “golden age” ape-like creatures too, the mechanism of their solutions, the avenue of their efforts to reclaim the past are the same as the other ape-like creatures’ forward looking solutions – to separate. From the immigrants, from ape-like creatures with different religious beliefs, from government and from other representatives of the modern world. 

We have become a uni-directional species that appears to be speeding toward a cliff, and the common feature of this rush to self-annihilation is this habitual but now purposeful and sometimes violent tendency to separate. This tendency has become the favored strategy, even the monopolistic strategy for the species. Even the stupidest, least thoughtful among us say, “I’ve done my own research” as justification for whatever self-destruction they may be practicing. 

There is no going back. We can only go forward. However, we must go forward in three dimensions, because this is a three dimensional world. We must learn, as a species, how to integrate our bodies, our minds and our spirits in our decision-making and actions in the world. This means observing the consequences of our actions on the world around us and making adjustments, which is a big drag for forward-rushing, separate-from-others animals. However, we have no choice – we either resume paying attention to everyone and everything else who shares our planet or we will become extinct. And our extinction will arise directly from our own incompletely considered actions, which is poetic justice that the separate-from-others ape-like creature doesn’t typically even recognize.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Mindfulness is a Mistake

As I have gotten older and have gained more mastery over my chosen profession (acupuncture and breath-centered exercise therapy), I have lately reflected on who and what I am within that profession. It turns out, I’m sort of unusual. A professor and an editor’s son, born and bred to be an intellectual, I rejected the Academy at 19 because it was plain to me that, although it would be an easy way for me to go through life, it would also be a life of inevitable addiction, sexual misbehavior and despair.* I couldn’t articulate why at the time, but I can now: the life of the Mind is incomplete, and leads, like all incomplete lives, to unseen bias, faulty assumptions and chronic frustration. 

When I was 19, my inchoate articulation of the quandary was, “What about sex?” By which I meant, sex is obviously, blatantly an enormous (yet mysterious) motivator of human behavior, yet other than studying D.H. Lawrence’s novels in Literature and the reproductive cycle of the fruitfly in Biology, sex was almost completely overlooked and devalued in the classroom. At the same time, sex ruled the campus every weekend and most weeknights, for faculty and staff as well as the students. “What about sex?” is still a decent starting place for questioning the life of the Mind, but sex is such an inflammatory topic that it is hard to stay on topic, or to draw universal conclusions from the intensely personal and intimate nature of sexual experience.** As time has gone on, sex and sexuality have become a much more central part of the Academy’s focus, but most of the current academic discussions about sex focus on sexual agency, gender expression and other attempts to direct, define and control sex and sexuality rather than to listen to and learn from sex. So although the subject is getting more attention, the human intellect’s tendency to attempt to fully control before fully understanding continues. 

When I quit college at 19 I became a professional dancer; that was also the year I began to practice yoga. Although I retired from dancing at 35, my yoga practice, idiosyncratic and self-centered, has continued, and continues to open my eyes at 62, 43 years after starting. When I stopped dancing I embarked upon a career in classical Chinese medicine, which is one of the most intellectually rigorous of the folk/traditional forms of medicine that exist, and I have gradually realized that this practice has allowed me to combine my natural, intellectual bent with my learned knowledge of the physical world. After spending ten or fifteen years learning Chinese medicine on its own terms, I have spent the last half dozen years seeking connections between Western and Eastern thought, as well as analyzing concepts that I think one approach or the other gets wrong. This is where I have recently understood that I’m in an unusual position among 21st century humankind – I was raised to be a rigorous, atheist intellectual, and although I am still a rigorous intellectual, due to my explorations of the Body I haven’t been an atheist for 35 years and I now take my prodigious intellect and its remarkable ability to make deductive leaps with a grain of salt. It turns out that very few people have undertaken a similar mind-body-spirit path through life. To be sure, a major part of my ability to pursue this path arises from my immense, unearned privilege as a straight white American male, but with privilege comes reponsibility, and I have tried (slowly, grudgingly, with much whining) to take my responsibilities seriously. As I continue to work with patients and continue my own self-cultivation it occurs to me more and more regularly that I have something to offer to the ongoing conversation about the nature of existence, and humankind’s place within Creation.

When I was younger, Kundalini yoga, with its sexual imagery and exploration of sexual energy was especially interesting and useful to me – it was a natural starting point. However, connecting that sexuality to breath, or in yogic terms moving on from Kundalini to Hatha, quickly became the most interesting and useful game in town, especially as I began to work more and more with other people in therapeutic settings. As the circumstances of my life, including my sex life, have changed (married to the same woman for 25 years; three mostly grown sons; serious illnesses and injuries for both my wife and me), the study of breath’s movements and feelings has become the central focus of my personal yoga practice, and also is the keystone of my professional exercise therapy practice. Among other things, I haven’t injured anyone doing exercise therapy in more than 30 years. Considering the age and frailty of most of my exercise clients, this is quite a statement, and would be the envy of any athletic trainer or physical therapist. It turns out, when you know how breath moves in a body under different circumstances, you can see when a person is about to hurt themselves and you can stop the movement before the injury occurs. Sounds like magic, but it’s just a different system than most people are aware of… or have given the time to figure out. Which brings me to the title of this article.

“Mindfulness” has been my bete noir since it came into the public consciousness a dozen or so years ago. Some of the promotion of the concept of “mindfulness” has come from long-time practictioners of meditation, qi gong or other breath-centered practices, and some has come from psychotherapists, physicians and academics. In the former case, experienced practitioners were trying to make these complex quasi-spiritual concepts accessible to a wider, secular audience, and in the latter case, busy providers were trying to toss a rope to some of their more desperate and stressed-out patients… or were trying to build their portfolio in order to qualify for tenure. Based on both my personal and professional experience, no matter the intention or the source of the concept, it is a colossal mistake. My 19 year-old self screams out, “It should be BODYfulness! We’re already too damn mindful!” My 62 year old self is a little more restrained, but only a little. In fact, I grow more and more impatient with humanity, that it won’t get over its childish resistance and learn something new about itself that will benefit all humanity and the planet.  

In the simplest body-mind-spirit terms, the great (and terrible) thing about the Mind is that it is quick, limitless, and can make jumps or shortcuts. So Newton and Einstein had their “Eureka!” moments and everyone can empathize, because we’ve all made those kinds of logical or deductive leaps. However, the great (and terrible) thing about the Body is that it has limits. People regularly interpret, “body-mind-spirit” as “mind over matter.” However, this is completely upside down – mind over matter is a lie, or is at least a very rare thing that only occasionally occurs. The actual point of a body-mind-spirit approach is that it is a three dimensional representation of reality that acknowledges that we are all intellectual, physical and spiritual beings, and somehow must reconcile all three aspects of existence to have an accurate view of the nature of reality. *** In the logical, rational, technophilic West, we recently gave up on the supremacy of the Spirit (who wouldn’t after watching the Catholic Church for a millennium?) after having previously given up on the ages-old dominance of the Body (except for, recently, sex, drugs and rock & roll) and went all-in on the Mind about 400 years ago. Since the Communist revolution in mid 20th century China, much of the East has followed suit. This has given us cool stuff like cars, rockets and the internet, but also led in a direct line to the unlimited exploitation and abuse of the planet and of any person deemed eligible for exploitation or abuse due to their gender, race, intellect, class, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.**** Unlimited exploitation and abuse lead directly to burn-out, of people and other complex systems, so climate change, chronic species-wide frustration, and political instability tending toward Fascism are all directly attributable to humanity’s reckless love affair with the Mind. 

The Mind assumes that all things start within itself – every movement, thought, flavor and emotion, for instance, is said to exist only because the Mind thinks it or interprets it, and all mainstream ideas about the nature of reality assume that things started at some central point and then expanded outward; i.e., The Big Bang. However, although this is mostly true it is incomplete, and the 15% or so of movement that is not from the inside-out but rather from the outside-in completely gives the lie to the Mind’s assumption. At the top of this list of “outside-in” movements is the inhale. 

Yes, I know that science tells us that the inhale is actually governed by the brainstem, but this is a piece of incomplete information. From an Eastern, energetic (and experiential) point of view, the inhale starts with the diaphragm, powered by the kidneys. As far as I know, no scientific study has investigated this possibility, perhaps because the all-mind-all-the-time assumption is so tidy and convenient. The inhale is also associated with smelling things; that is, taking things in through the nose and mouth, after which a reaction in the Mind takes place. So although the Mind is involved in telling us what the smell means (Yummy! Poison! Fire!), the physiological drawing in of air with scent molecules is the initial movement, making the inhale, itself, the physical act, the initiator. Scientists can (and will) quibble, but there are more pieces to this puzzle. The first is that, while the Mind can take shortcuts, the Body has no choice but to travel through every part of a movement. With breathing, this means that we have to inhale as well as exhale. There are tricks, to be sure, of breath-holding and circular breathing among free divers and saxophonists, but none of these tricks upsets the basic premise that to live, we have to inhale and exhale. There are also tricks, to be equally sure, of yogic breathing techniques to bring on certain states of mind or create an altered state of mind, but again, one must return to the basic mechanism of breathing in, then breathing out. This is one of the core characteristics and limitations of the living Body – it has to breathe in and out. 

Exhaling is an inside-out movement – it starts in your lungs and forces air outward. Exhaling is   the breath one does for more power, to continue a train of thought/speech and to control ones hands and mind for fine work. We can exhale for a long time while speaking a run on sentence, singing along to Meatloaf or sighing about the Mets. It is much more difficult to inhale for a long time – you can train yourself to take a long inhale, but it will never have the same easy strength, direction and focus of the exhale. On the other hand, even in the middle of a strong, directed and focused exhaling movement, we must pause to take an inhale. It is no surprise, therefore, that in our driven, focused and logical modern lives, most of the attention breath receives is given to the exhale. You can direct it, control it, and it makes you feel stronger. Much of “mindfulness” practice has to do with telling your breath what to do – inhale through one nostril, exhale out the other; inhale for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of four, etc. However, this focus on the exhale is in a way just a continuation of our species-wide focus on directing and controlling outward-moving energy, which brings with it exploitation, abuse and burn-out. To summarize with a metaphor, to make a fire burn hotter you blow on it.

In fact, at this stage of human development, we started with the strongman form of self-governance, we then moved to the religious model of self-governance, and after that we tried reason and logic as the dominant model of self-governance. All are androcentric, starting with the human body, then the human spirit and subsequently the human mind, and moving outward from that point. Basing our understanding of the universe on our own restricted point of view is extremely limiting, but more than that it is incomplete. Nevertheless, we keep trying the same things, only more. For some people, that’s bigger muscles and more physical endurance. For other people, that’s bigger churches and more political influence of the congergation. For still other people, that’s an insistence on science, technology and math as the final word. All three approaches, plainly, are incomplete, and humans and the rest of the Earth-dwellers have suffered considerably from our incomplete philosophies of life. It turns out that the thing we haven’t tried as a species, that has only been tried by individuals, or by extremely small and uninfluential groups, is to listen before acting; specifically, to listen to our breath. Within breath, the listening part, the “taking in” part, is the inhale. Which, providentially, is called the “inspiration.” Keep in mind, the inhale will never be as powerful as the exhale, just as a hyper-extended spine will never have the same strength as a flexed spine. But with a flexed spine, all we can see is our navel, while with a hyper-extended spine we can see the sky and the universe. “Mindfulness,” with its Mind-centered  terminology and its navel-gazing tendencies, is not really much different than Existentialism or one of the other Western intellectual philosophies, only with directed exhaling added to the mix. A free-thinking Mind will ask, “Why 2 and not 3? Why 4 and not 7?” Quite right, too – breathing is under each of our individual controls, so it is a place where we can either be purposefully, intentionally and messily free, or allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and shackled in the name of order, even if it’s by well-meaning people. The problem is that listening takes time just as inhaling itself takes time. It so happens that the Covid 19 pandemic has given us a chance to see that we have more time than we think we do. The world shut down for several weeks in 2020, and ran at half-speed for another year or so, yet everything didn’t go to hell. In fact, the planet and its inhabitants benefited by the enforced reflection and days off – “the Great Resignation” is one of the signs that this is so. People had a chance to take a breath, to wake up and smell the coffee, to stop and smell the roses, and almost automatically received inspiration to pursue different paths. The ozone healed itself, air quality improved and animals were free to enjoy ancient skyways and other territories, in some cases returning from the brink of extinction.

And now that the pandemic is winding down… we’re back at humankind’s favorite state, based on the historical evidence: war. Russia with Ukraine, but also Red America vs. Blue America, and especially, humankind vs. Nature. Academics and qi gong masters with marketing degrees are not helping things with their bleating about “mindfulness.” They are helping Tom Brady find a way to play football until 50, but are not offering a way out of the morass our species finds itself in. The only problem is time. Listening to breath takes time; understanding the inspiration that is available in the inhale takes time; inhaling itself takes time. We’re almost out of time, but we keep trying the same things over and over – pushing, forcing our will on Nature rather than listening to what Nature might have in mind for us.  Now it must be said, a thoughtful person might be terrified to pause, open up and listen to what Nature has to say – there are plenty of misdeeds and guilt to go around. What if we carefully, thoughtfully inhale with an open Mind and smell… shit? Some other kind of offensive odor? B.O.? Why do you think people smoke? It gives them a moment of respite, lets them steal a minute of time from their-too busy day before they get back to the grind. BUT IT ALSO LETS THEM CONTROL WHAT THEY SMELL. Smoking is the physiological equivalent to the sophomoric mind trick of saying, “We’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the difference? Nothing matters.” By defining life thus, it takes the sting out of ones daily insults and frustrations, but also completely negates the possibility of improvement, progress or creativity. It’s no accident that smoking gives you cancer – not only are you taking in toxins and hot smoke, but you’re perverting a natural function in order to put up with things and get more out of yourself than maybe is good for you. If you’re going to smell the world, you don’t get that kind of control – you have to take what you get. But even if you don’t like what you get, at least now you have a more complete picture of the entirety of existence, WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF PROGRESS, and not just humankind’s self-centered and incomplete point of view. It may not be your personal preference, but smelling shit won’t give you cancer.

This thing I’m saying makes instant, obvious sense, but is unlikely to reach any influential ear because those ears are too busy and don’t have time to even listen to a fellow human being with experience, education and sensitivity, much less their own breath or the breath of the Universe. We’re missing out on transcending our current miserable state because we’re not willing to take the time out of our busy schedules to take a few breaths. Our loss. The world will breathe on without us – it has before and can again.

By the way, the Big Bang..? That should be called the Big Sniff.

*I can’t honestly say that my life HASN’T been one of addiction, sexual misbehavior and despair, but those things haven’t been inevitable, and especially I have been able to learn from my experience, do better and hope to do better still in the future.


**Although from a Tantric point of view all of the highest, most sophisticated sexual practices are rooted in sharing breath, literally. A squeamish or standoffish partner may turn their head or otherwise attempt to avoid this sharing, but they are fooling themselves. They are already sharing fluids and intimate friction, and turning their head away is not only fruitless, but is a rejection of a potentially deeper intimacy. This attempt to ignore reality by imposing ones will to hold oneself (pointlessly) apart also turns sex from a shared thing to an adversarial thing. Much as filling wetlands and swamps in order to avoid the stink and the mess, it turns out, turns our relationship with the Earth into an adversarial thing. The specific thing that both acts have in common is that you have to be willing to INHALE your partner’s/planet’s breath, and you have to allow your partner/planet to inhale your breath. Wetlands and swamps may exhale some pretty stinky gases, but they also, crucially, inhale all kinds of carbon that would otherwise go to destroying the climate. Human beings exhale some pretty stinky stuff, too, but if your guilt about the booze or smoke or squeamishness about the garlic stops you from sharing, you are both missing out and depriving your partner of the chance to know you in your entirety. In both cases, the human need to control, direct and avoid “stink” leads to alienation, dissociation and the unintended destruction of life-giving interaction; i.e., “breathing.”

***Because I am a body-mind-spirit practitioner I’m always considering all three of these existential legs when diagnosing a problem – there’s always a spiritual issue attached to a physical or mental issue, there’s always a mental issue with a spiritual or physical issue, and there’s always a physical issue associated with a mental or spiritual issue. This triangulation is very useful because it allows one to test and confirm ones initial impression. One of the clear spiritual hang-ups that contributes to the seductiveness of the “mindfulness” paradigm is that thoughtful people tend to be afraid of anger – their own or others. Many religions, including Christianity, the dominant religion in the rational West, and Buddhism, the driving force behind ”mindfulness,” seem to frown on anger – Buddhism specifically (along with all other earthly passions), and Christianity selectively (thoughtful Christians tend to downplay the part where Jesus drove the moneylenders from the Temple). However, meek intellectuals aren’t the only ones with spiritual issues – thoughtLESS people tend to be afraid of change. Thoughtless people’s motivations are completely different from thoughtful people’s motivations, but they are all products of the same society, and ironically (or cosmically, depending on your point of view), both anger and change are associated with the liver, from a classical Chinese perspective. Furthering the cosmic joke, thoughtful people tend to be fine with change, while thoughtless people are fine with anger. In fact, each tends to fetishize their own particular preference and aversion, so anger is the active enemy for some, while change is the active enemy for the other. The liver has many other associations in Chinese medicine, but the salient feature here is that it is associated with springtime and, by association, youth and new beginnings. In a historical sense, the “rational West” is still a new construct, and America is one of its most youthful practitioners. The simplest, most brutal suggestion for people who are suffering from these particular liver ailments is to grow the fuck up…

****Curiously, due to lingering philosophical ideas or assumptions of the Body and Spirit eras (tribalism; dominion over the Earth) combined with simple human laziness and cupidity, the Mind has tended to go along with these abusive definitions and has maintained these abusive practices, even though there is no intellectual justification for them. Western medicine is sometimes guilty of the same sort of casual disdain for what it doesn’t know and over-confidence in its own ethics. Kind of like the practice of white male supremacy – if it is handed to you at birth and you don’t question it, it is easiest to just continue to practice and maintain it. This is one of the main, obvious drawbacks of the Intellect – it is very, very easy to lie with the Mind, including to oneself.

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Gout, redux

 I'm sorry to report an attack of the Gout, my first serious flare in more than a year. My own damn fault.

HOWEVER, today when I gave myself acupuncture I stumbled upon something, and FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, I got immediate relief!

Hell, no, I'm not gonna tell you what it is!

However, if you know a sufferer from the Gout, I now know a way to give relief to the gnaw-your-foot-off pain that doesn't itself hurt! The previous approach I knew usually worked, eventually, but hurt like hell. This technique felt good as I was doing it. I'll let you know what the longevity of the effect is, and don't get me wrong -- my foot still hurts like hell. However, I can concentrate well enough to write this on the second day of a pretty bad flare. And I'm even able to smile as I write it.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Sentinel Crow, first shift

 My truck died, so I've been walking a lot. Enjoyed it, through the snowstorms and freezing days of this intense year's winter. Enraptured every evening by the sights and sounds of my semi-riparian stroll homeward. Especially enjoyed the clattering gaggles of crows that would flop in and out of the nearby trees from time to time...

I realized: I have frequently called myself a canary in the coal mine, and it is true that I have gotten out of a number of explosive situations that others haven't seen coming. But I am a survivor, and I also squawk to warn others before I fly the coop. Plus, you know, the whole black clothes thing... 

From now on I'm calling myself a sentinel crow.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Peace-Making in the Time of the Mid-Llfe Sex Wars

I'm no different than anyone else -- I crave love and intimacy, but it doesn't always work out. As a life-long feminist and sex fiend, though, it might be a little, shall we say, highlighted a conflict in my life. When I married my wife in 1997, I thought I had beaten the system. My wife is much younger than I am, and from the beginning we had a great relationship. We were friends before we were lovers, we've always fought fairly with each other, and there was always a strong physical attraction between us. However, like the rest of the middle-aged sad-sacks who write to Dear Abby, there was a huge shift in our love life after we had kids.

Some of it was straightforward -- my wife was a radical breastfeeder and we had a family bed with attachment parenting -- the whole bit. I don't know about you, but it's difficult for me to be intimate with my wife when there are other people in the bed. Okay, no big deal, we were both tired all the time anyway, and the kids will grow up one day, and then, oh boy..! There were some other issues, too, associated with having three C-sections, but my wife's health improved, the boys got into their own beds, and...nuthin'. Oh, I don't mean we never had sex, but whereas it was still a very powerful, central facet of my life, my wife seemed to become much more take it or leave it in her approach to our love life.

I can't describe, although you can probably imagine, all the havoc this change in our marital dynamic created. I have always had a very strong sex drive, and still do, and it so happens my wife is pretty much my erotic ideal. Every day I have been her partner (24 years) I have been shocked and thrilled to find such a beautiful, sexy woman in my bed. Still, she's not a piece of furniture to be sat upon, and if her heart's not in it, neither is mine. That doesn't mean that I simply accept my lot, though. Oh, no. It is an exquisite discomfort, being at the height of your game professionally, socially and politically, but to be completely powerless over this most basic, vital aspect of your private life. Oh, the tantrums I've thrown! No one has to be at fault for people to suffer, but of course it's natural that people feel guilty when their loved ones are unhappy, then the unhappy person overcompensates, and before you know it you're in the middle of a John Updike novel.

My thinking about this came to an abrupt head last week, though, when the latest mass-murdering lunatic put out as part of his excuse that he was a member of "the incel rebellion." Part of the insanity of the internet is that it allows every fringe group of nutjobs to name themselves and their cause and pretend that naming it makes it relevant. "Incel" means "involuntarily celibate," and so the "incel rebellion" is a bunch of frustrated, horny men who can't get laid, and are evidently willing to kill strangers over their personal frustrations and failings with women. Well, as an honest man that brought me up short. If I continued along the line of "reasoning" that led to my sexual frustration tantrums it led pretty directly to "the incel rebellion." Say what you will about me, I ain't no mass murderer, and I don't want to be on any continuum that includes mass murderers.

So I had to think a little harder about how to understand my situation. As a body/mind/spirit practitioner I think that every spiritual problem also has an intellectual and physical component, every intellectual problem also has a physical and spiritual component, and every physical problem also has an intellectual and spiritual component. I had mostly been experiencing physical "deprivation," and responding with emotional/spiritual outrage, followed up by a bunch of feverish intellectual rationalization and attempts to coerce physical love from my wife. I tried to see things from her point of view, but it kept sounding like, "Oh, I'm just not that into it [you] any more." That sort of statement stops any man but a rapist dead in his tracks, and further tends to crush his self-confidence, ego, etc. When the kids were little and my wife said something like, "There are always hands grabbing at me! I just want to get some sleep!" I could understand it, even if I still suffered. But now, with half-grown or mostly grown kids, what's the hold-up?! I kept getting stuck at the emotionally painful spot and couldn't see any further into the situation in a way that might provide some solace or some possible way of moving forward. I think I had an insight the other day, though, and would like to share it with you.

As frequently happens, I was talking to a patient about his problems and free-associating when I had my "aha!" moment. This patient is a few years older than I am, and is much further down the road of marital discord than my wife and I. He and his wife don't touch any more, they actively avoid each other, seek affection outside their marriage and are only still together "for the sake of the kids." A very sad situation, but one that I can imagine all too easily. As we were talking the other day and I was casting about for some way to make Chinese medical philosophy more accessible to this Western rationalist, I suddenly got onto a thread of a thought. As I followed it in conversation the thread turned into a rope, and after doing a little research I now think I might be weaving an actual piece of inspired fabric about this common but unfortunate trend in long-term sexual relationships.

Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone." It is most commonly spoken of in relation to breastfeeding and maternal bonding with children, but it is also associated with romance and the physiological responses of sex, including erections and orgasm. Some studies have been done about oxytocin in different contexts, but as far as I could tell, no one has tried to examine the dynamic that occurred to me. In some of the few candid, non-confrontational conversations my wife and I have had about our altered sex life, we have both agreed that, while my response to sex is unchanged (very eager anticipation, followed by a low-level high that can last the rest of the day), she is much less affected by sex than she used to be. Even if she has orgasms and otherwise has a very satisfying sexual encounter, she doesn't particularly look forward to it, nor does it have much lasting impact on her day. She didn't object much when I said, "It sounds like you'd get the same amount of pleasure and satisfaction from making me a sandwich." Which is actually just about a perfect analogy for what I think happens in women who have had children, and maybe especially women who have breastfed for extended periods of time.

In a childless woman, all her oxytocin is free to be devoted to romance, orgasm, and bonding with a romantic partner. However, once she has a child the bulk of her oxytocin is diverted to this other task of  making milk and feeding and bonding with her child. Science seems to say pretty clearly that child-rearing is the primary role for oxytocin, so this isn't pathology but simple biology. Once this powerful hormone becomes primarily associated with the decidedly non-sexual but still thrilling and captivating experience of feeding and bonding with her baby, romance, sexual arousal and even orgasm become associated with oxytocin in a secondary way. That is, sex and romantic love are overwhelmed by, subsumed by and associated with non-sexual bonding and feeding her baby. In other words, sex becomes about as fulfilling as making someone a sandwich.

For me, a physiological explanation for an emotional experience is very useful -- it helps to take the sting out, in some cases, and it also helps me come up with new approaches for addressing the emotional situation. In this case, I feel a lot better about my "manhood," or at least about my desirability, sexual prowess and attractiveness. On another hand, it suggests some ways I might move forward in my sexual relationship with my wife. Although vanilla is my favorite sexual flavor, and I mostly am seeking comfort, intimacy and connection with my wife through lovemaking, I can see how all of that might feel to her like "sandwich." So while I continue to await her initiation of vanilla love-making, I am now spending some time trying to come up with novel, fantastic, taboo or other, non-sandwich types of stimulation of her oxytocin. While it makes me feel a little silly, it also makes sense to me, in many ways. When "50 Shades of Grey" is an international bestseller among middle-aged women, a smart husband sits up and tries to understand the phenomenon.

From the perspective of a practitioner of Chinese medicine I am flying blind with these ideas. The classics of Chinese sexology all were written at a time when the intended audience (educated aristocratic men) would have had multiple wives and concubines. The main emphasis was on sexually satisfying multiple women without exhausting yourself. If a middle-aged woman in ancient China  started thinking "sandwich," the husband would have moved on to another wife or concubine who was more interested in sex as sex. Sticking with one wife and trying to develop a life-long romantic and sexual relationship is a modern, Western idea. However, without any question, starting from a Chinese viewpoint and seeking the Western scientific ideas I need to inform an idea is now my standard operating procedure, in my office and in my bedroom.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Epidemic of Dampness

Damp is one of the five pathogens in Chinese medicine, and we are currently experiencing an epidemic of dampness in the West. This epidemic is spreading to the rest of the world as our wealth and influence spread. Not only are many of the most vexing modern medical issues damp in nature (obesity, addiction, diabetes), but so are many of modern medicine's main treatments (antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants). Further complicating matters, in general terms dampness is all the good stuff -- fats, sugar, alcohol and other proofs that God loves us and wants us to be happy. The final confusing factors are that dampness can act as a solvent to move other dampness, dampness can act as "coarse" or "emergency" yin, and dampness can sometimes save your life so that you can try again tomorrow.

Damp is associated with the Earth element -- that is, with this plane of existence right here that we live on and in. The Earth element is associated with digestion and thought, with boundaries and turf, with home and hearth and material possessions. When it is in balance, we have enough to eat, enough to think about and healthy boundaries. When it is out of balance we have obsession and hoarding; codependency and emotional trespass; alienation and circular thinking that rationalizes and justifies counter-productive or destructive habits. Its two-sided nature is part of what makes dampness so confounding, but really it boils down to one thing: accepting the limits of the physical world.

Many people mistake the concept of "body/mind/spirit" with the concept of "mind over matter." This is a complete misunderstanding -- they almost mean the opposite of each other. Body/mind/spirit medicine includes the idea that, if our body is sick or hurt, it is trying to communicate something to our minds and spirits. "Mind over matter" says that the mind can overcome anything, including the body's physical limitations and physical wisdom -- if you are sick you don't have to listen to your body because you can think the problem away. In fact, contained within this idea are the seeds of the current epidemic of dampness in the West. Our civilization is based on reason, logic and science. That's fine, as far as it goes, but we keep trying to make reason, logic and science go too far, to places they don't belong and can't help. Describing  love as a purely biochemical phenomenon, for instance, or inserting poison into food plants in order to kill pests. Obviously, reason, logic and science are all of the mind, and if our society places reason, logic and science above all other approaches for understanding existence, we are by definition over-balanced toward the mind. In other words (in Chinese, or body/mind/spirit terms), our civilization is over-balanced toward the Earth element, which results in obsession and hoarding, codependency and emotional trespass, alienation and circular thinking that rationalizes and justifies counter-productive or destructive habits. Going a step further, our logic-above-all civilization and its main philosophical concept, "mind over matter," leads its adherents directly to obesity, diabetes and addiction.

In the old days in China, only the wealthiest people could afford education and unlimited access to sugar, fats and alcohol, so dampness was mostly only a problem for the richest. In early 21st century America, though, EVERYONE has access to damp foods, and most of have been to school. The problem with dampness/earth is that it accumulates. Whether you are talking about the hoarder's newspapers and wrapping paper, the diabetic's sugar and insulin or the obsessive thinker's routines, accumulations take good stuff (newspapers! sugar! routine!) and turn it gradually into swamps that prevent forward progress. It is ironic that many of today's worst healthcare issues are "self-created." That is, a lifetime of drinking too much alcohol makes you an alcoholic with a fatty liver who dies of alcohol-induced cirrhosis. A lifetime of eating too much junk food with too little exercise makes you a diabetic whose illness causes you to have to strictly curtail your enjoyment of the foods that got you into your predicament. Usually obsessives are just left the hell alone, because their internal swamp is so impenetrable that an outsider can't find his way through, much less lead the person to a better place. When the obsessive's routine is, inevitably, broken by external factors he frequently is paralysed, unable to move forward except along the familiar pathway. Just like the drunk and the diabetic, the only way he knows is the way that got him in trouble in the first place. This is the seductive power of dampness -- even though, say, shooting heroin is dangerous, illegal and expensive, and even though the addict knows it causes way more harm than good, dampness accumulates in the body and mind and encourages further accumulation by its nature. The junkie's body suffers until he gets a fix, and then the new heroin acts as a solvent to temporarily move the stagnation of the old heroin out of the way. The mind then rationalizes and justifies the body's experience and both mind and body conspire to say, "Dampness is good!" even when it is plainly killing you. So our body's appetites and our mind's rationalizations lead us into the swamp, and until we decide to acknowledge that the mosquitoes are really bad, the weather sucks and you can't grow much there, our bodies and minds continue to tell us the swamp is where we're meant to be.

"SO WHAT'S THE ANSWER, TREY?" I hear you exasperatedly shouting at your computer. First of all, pure self-denial is not the answer -- anorexia and other self-denying compulsions are simply another face of the Earth element gone awry, and the teetotaler who would scold a grieving father for drinking to his dead son's memory is cruel and unrealistic about the potential healing power of that glass of whisky. The Earth is here for us to live on and enjoy. However, it has limits, and we have limits. This is not a flaw, any more than the fact that everything poops, breathes and dies is a flaw. Recognizing limitations, accepting them and learning to thrive within them is the lesson of the Earth. The positive Earth image would be of cultivation. You plan a project, plant the seeds, care for the crop and harvest the bounty when the plan comes to fruition. Activity that is repeatedly undertaken that never results in a crop is probably not going anywhere. This doesn't mean you should never get drunk, overeat or indulge in aimless wondering, but it does mean that periodically you should check to see if anything is coming of your efforts or if you are just spinning your wheels in the mud.

Unfortunately, acting on the Earth element in the physical sphere is and always has been ultimately about labor. The Earth time of year is late summer, or harvest time. For agrarian cultures, the harvest is the busiest time of year, with work from sunup to sundown. In our modern, work-averse culture, you could hardly offer a less appealing cure. The saving grace is that the harvest is about joyful labor -- the more work there is, the better supplied you'll be in the coming winter, and the more variety and abundance of food you'll enjoy. We have become so far separated from nature that most of us never think about "the harvest;" it sounds quaint, provincial, old-fashioned. If we want something, we go on the Mighty Internet (created by brain power), order something from Amazon (created by brain power) and wait expectantly for our package to arrive. "The harvest" has nothing to do with it. Moreover, the Mighty Internet allows us to live almost completely separated from Nature and from each other. This allows us to have sweet, sweet instant gratification of our earthly desires, but causes big problems in the long run. Amazon destroys decent paying retail jobs and turns retail clerks into warehouse wage slaves, barely able to make ends meet and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the thinking machines that will take their jobs. And all those FedEx flights and UPS truck trips contribute to climate change, which is changing living conditions on this actual, physical planet where we live. You know, the Earth. So in return for avoiding work and receiving instant gratification we contribute to the destruction of our home world. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," may well end up being the whiny excuse for how humans made the Earth uninhabitable.

Some "visionaries" say we have to colonize the stars if we intend to survive as a species. This is one of those far-fetched ideas that really cerebral people come up with, like the multiverse, when their education, experience and imagination fail to point out a simpler possibility. That is, when their heads are in the stars and their feet aren't on the ground. The problem with the idea of interstellar colonization is that we are sure to do the same thing to every other "earth" we inhabit. If we can't learn to respect the physical and to accept its limits here on our home planet, the universe is probably better off if we just go ahead and die off. Something better may or may not come along to replace us, but the prospect of humankind continuing on its current path and creating a legacy as "the greedy planet-destroying species" would be a tough pill to swallow. All because we couldn't curb our appetites and didn't want to work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Half staff

I continue to be fascinated by trying to practice ancient Chinese medicine in 21st century America. As I gain experience and confidence I become more able to make judgments in one direction or another, and especially have developed the confidence to say, "Well, maybe that's the way Chinese scholars saw it two thousand years ago, but that's not the way we see it today, and I think our way is better." For example, after many years of searching I finally found an English translation of the Chinese classic of sexology, Su Nu Jing (available from the State University of New York Press, by Doug Wile). Sexual problems are some of the things people come to see an acupuncturist for, and I have been eager to expand my education.

So far I am very much enjoying my reading, and have been given a lot to think about. However, right off the bat it was apparent that 21st century Americans have a fundamentally different point of view about sexual relations than did the authors of the Chinese classics. In the first century CE the only people with the means and education to read these classics were aristocrats, and aristocratic Chinese men of the time typically had several wives and many concubines. Therefore, the best sex according to the Chinese classics satisfied all the women and preserved the man's energy. At an extreme, men were even taught sexual and meditative techniques to siphon off their partners' energy. Without making any judgment about the social and sexual practices of ancient China, I can say with confidence that I am satisfied with monogamy and with treating my wife as a partner, and see sex as a sacred and rewarding intimacy that we both share. I should say that personal experience reinforces my academic conclusion -- my conviction is practical AND theoretical.

This is one of the very few instances in my experience as an acupuncturist where I can make this judgment: "Things have changed -- we have progressed beyond that point of view and things are better now." The ancient Chinese also made free use of slaves, and I think we've progressed beyond that point, too -- we no longer think keeping slaves is okay, and we no longer see sex as purely a means to procreate or to control other people. HOWEVER, I am making these statements as a 21st century white American male, one of the most privileged classes of human being to ever exist. As such, I am writing the "classics" of tomorrow, whose inhabitants may say, "Yeah, well, but he could AFFORD to have only one wife, and could afford to spoil her with his undivided attention and all his wealth. And the soil was rich enough that they didn't need slaves." Still, I think human "progress" is possible, in small increments, and I think the current wisdom that sees men and women as equal qualifies as true progress for the species. To be sure, both slavery and sexual manipulation (frequently combined as sexual slavery) continue, but neither is socially acceptable, at least not in America. Insofar as people still talk about American ideals, look to America as the way of the future, and come to America to find a better life, these are known as (modern) American ideals -- no slavery; no rape. However things pan out, I'm good with being on the no slavery/no rape side

On another hand, much of my judgment consists of looking on the ancient Chinese with admiration, even awe, while cringing and shaking my head at current "best practices" in the West. For instance, personal freedom, which is so much more important to modern Americans than it was to ancient Chinese people, has led us into as many dreadful dead ends as glorious achievements. One of these (literal) dead ends has to do with the American obsession with guns. Yes, the Second Amendment, yes, personal freedom, rights and responsibilities, but honestly? We can't have those things without also having daily mass shootings by deranged, angry or depressed people? 

Politicians are taught to say, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." However, this amounts to nothing more than a marketing slogan for gun sellers. People ARE going to be deranged, angry and depressed, so why make instruments of mass destruction so freely available? This is a problem with living in a "rational" society -- the assumption is that if you can say it, it's true. This un-examined assumption allows us to believe all kinds of evil lies. Sometimes you need a simple dose of common sense, especially delivered by a very old or very young person, to cut through the crap of the literal and rational. I'm not old enough or young enough to qualify, but try this out.

I saw Old Glory flying at half staff over the weekend and thought, "What's that for? Oh, yeah, the shootings in Dallas..." Then I realized how many times I've had the same series of thoughts in the last few years: "What's that for? Oh, yeah, Orlando; Oh, yeah, Sandy Hook; Oh, yeah, Aurora; Oh, yeah, Columbine..." This made me think: we seem to have become the half-staff States of America. What does that say about a country, that it is constantly in distress or mourning? What do you think an emperor would do if his country displayed his banner in this way more often than not? How can we keep our technological advantages and modern progress while retaining the emperor's disgust and horror on behalf of his beloved nation?

On every side of the political divide(s), Americans feel deeply uneasy about where we are and where we're heading. I will always champion personal freedom, but in a thoughtful way because it seems to allow for the easiest pursuit of individual progress. Once "individual freedom" becomes about the right to do any damn thing you want to, just because, then you lose me. I will never vote for a strongman or hope for the re-ascent of the church to keep us in our places, but I will also always demand, insofar as I'm able to, that individuals practice individual responsibility as well as individual freedom. The ones who don't practice responsibility ruin it for everyone else, and make the less-thoughtful among us much more likely to vote for the strongman or to hope for their church's ascent over others. That would be a step back, and steps backward lead toward slavery and sexual exploitation, among other things. Then where would I be as an American acupuncturist? Longing for the days of the emperor, and learning techniques to keep my slaves and women in line.