Saturday, July 25, 2020

Big Theory Reading List

I have been reading a lot of books that hint toward the same large underlying theory of society and societal dysfunction but its outlines aren't completely clear. Until I write that grand theory, here is the reading list to lead you down the same path, maybe leading you to get to the destination first.

1. Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright

Evolutionary biologists are the most no fun of all scientists, so if an evolutionary biologist is going to bat for a religion you know that's something. To be clear, Wright doesn't defend reincarnation, hungry ghosts, karma etc. but is focused on Buddhist ideas of the mind and psychology, attacking one of the cornerstones of Western philosophy, showing that science actually sides with Buddhism. This is a great start to undermining the paradigm of ideas we find ourselves trapped within.

2. The Way of Zen, Alan Watts

If you're brave you should go to the Tao te Ching, or the Zhuangzi, or the Diamond Sutra and read the primary texts themselves. But that can be confusing to the uninitiated. While I'm sure Watts is woefully out of date, if you have an Anglo-American background, he's very good at making the ideas of the Tao and Zen make sense. He's water wings while you get acclimated to the water, the raft you can leave behind once you can read the sutras yourself. Exposing yourself to an entirely foreign philosophical system helps you to understand the perspective you've been trapped within. Watts is more playful and fun than the more serious Wright.

3. Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King

A great introduction to the project of cultural anthropology and its birth in the context of eugenics and race science. Now that race science is making a comeback, it's important to understand this project, especially since many of the other books on this list rely on the evidence of other cultures to explain the rut we've gotten ourselves into.

4. Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber

An important philosophical, anthropological, and historical exploration of the concept of debt. Overthrows some ridiculous assumptions of classical economics, which like must of Western philosophy, was reasoned from flawed premises and has nothing to do with recorded history. Gives you a new perspective on the history of economics.

6. The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Not quite as in depth as I'd like, but it's the perfect capstone to Debt, outlining what a more reasonable economic system could look like. Good for economic neophytes, and a well explained introduction to macroeconomic policy.

7. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin

A great corrective to the Spencerian view of evolution as being driven by competition. Most species cooperate, and often cooperation is more productive than competition. This is now a well-respected view within evolutionary biology, but Kropotkin comes at it from a more humanistic than scientific viewpoint.

8. Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche is a spicy one and guaranteed to offend, but Debt used this Nietzsche work to find important truths in the concept of debt, and it's a valuable work indeed. Like an explosive, it has a specific, particular purpose. A vicious attack on bourgeois Christian morality of 19th Century Europe, Nietzsche argues that the moral system of society is based on passive aggression and mediocrity rather than any concept of universal love or justice. One doesn't have to agree with the entire argument to see glimmers of truth, or just see how Nietzsche goes about his analysis. His way of thinking is often more valuable than his conclusions.

9. Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

The Dan Savage pull quote and subtitle about straying make this sound like a polyamory manifesto, but it's actually a blistering attack on patriarchy and its defenders in evolutionary biology. Patriarchy, monogamy, and sexual jealousy are all found to have no biological basis, and anthropological data are shown that demonstrate other ways to organize social sexuality. Further we've chosen the worst of all possible systems.

10. Lost Connections, Johann Hari

A look at how our modern society has been built, unintentionally, to make us all unhappy. We're like sickly zoo animals who have built their own zoo and wonder why they don't feel happy anymore. While many steps in this book require social change and aren't just steps you can take to help yourself, it does outline that the sense you have that things aren't quite right are scientifically true.

11. The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler

So we know society now sucks, but wasn't it always like this? Not according to Eisler, who looks to archaeological evidence to suggest that there existed many societies in the past that weren't devoted to ideas of domination of conquest, and these values were only accepted slowly. Seeing how the process occurred gives us ideas on how to reverse it.

12. When God Was a Woman, Merlin Stone

A look at the near universal phenomenon of Goddess Worship and their gradual replacement by warrior gods over the course of history. A hidden level of history our standard histories do not examine.

13. When God Had a Wife, Lynn Pickett and Clive Price

Like Merlin Stone's book, but showing there was always a goddess religion present within the Judeo Christian tradition, slowly covered up throughout history.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Dharma of Persona 4

"You should try meditating. The Zen Center has a introduction day the first Wednesday of every month," my therapist said. It seemed unlikely to help, though maybe it was worth a try. But trying to make a commitment to go to an event that happens once a month is hard enough when you're not depressed. When you were, it was impossible. Eventually I got my meds sorted and I never bothered going.

About a year later, I was feeling more anxious but the background culture had mentioned meditation so much more often it almost seemed reasonable. David Lynch, one of the few artists I respect almost unreservedly, credits much to meditation. Having luck with the Fitbit I bought a gadget to monitor my brainwaves and gamify the habit long enough for me to stick with it. It wasn't as hard as I thought, but I always dislike doing things if I don't know the full reason behind it. Using Robert Wright's Why Buddhism is True as a starting point, I began to investigate why, according to the Buddha, meditation was supposed to be helpful. Since then I've read Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, Aldous Huxley, Stephen Batchelor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Pollan, Beth Jacobs, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Tao te Ching, the Chuang-Tzu, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, bits of Dogen, and parts of the Pali Canon and I think I finally have an answer.

The point of meditation that Buddhism sets out is: To get your brain to shut the fuck up, because it doesn't know what it's talking about.

Zen koans and Buddhist paradox is meant to stun your logical nitpicky brain into silence. In Buddhism "dharma" means a teaching or an idea, a concept. The Diamond Sutra contains this gem:

The Buddha said, "If someone should claim I teach a dharma, such a claim would be untrue. Such a view of me would be a misconception. And how so? In the teaching of a dharma, in the 'teaching of a dharma' there is no such dharma to be found as the 'teaching of a dharma.'"

The part of your mind that points out that you can't teach a teaching that is not a teaching: That part of your mind is singularly unhelpful to your life.

The Buddha was a great pragmatist. When asked how the universe was created or where Buddhas go after they die, he dismissed them as speculative questions that avoid the task at hand. He also described his dharma as a raft. The point of a raft is not to carry it with you your whole life, over plains and mountains as a great burden. It's to be used get across the ocean and then to be abandoned, perhaps so someone else can use it.

And what is the task at hand for which you need the raft? The ending of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths

Can all suffering really be ended? Who knows. I imagine it's like an asymptote you can approach but never reach. It's a good ideal, though. Dan Harris says that meditation can make you 10% happier, and that's a reasonable promise that can almost surely be met. It's certainly something.

Buddhism is complicated and has a lot of interlocking parts. I think it's simple as it can possibly be without becoming trite and meaningless. To give a good starter understanding of it I need to describe three key Buddhist concepts: The first are the Four Noble Truths, and the Buddha loved numbered lists even more than Jenny Nicholson. The Four truths are modeled after an Ayurvedic medical diagnosis, first describing the disease, the cause of the disease, whether it can be cured, and the cure. If you've taken a comparative religion class you're probably familiar with something like this:

1. Life is suffering
2. We suffer because we want things
3. Nirvana is the end of suffering
4. Follow the eightfold path to reach Nirvana (another numbered list!)

This isn't wrong, but it lacks subtlety. What is usually translated as suffering is dukkha, which can also mean anxiety, disappointment, or the unwieldy unsatisfactoriness. There's something... lacking, and not just in the obvious bummers of aging, death, and sickness. Dukkha is also present when we get what we want. You want a pizza, and eat it... and a few hours later you're hungry again. A movie that you've long anticipated is not as good as you've hoped. The dream job you hoped for grows elements of tiresome routine. This goal was going to make you happy forever, but it didn't. Now you don't care and you have a new goal you need. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill. Even if you get what you want, there won't be a transformative happily ever after. You'll just grow accustomed to it and want something else. I think Anthony Bourdain is the best example of the idea that you can seemingly get everything you could possibly want and still be completely unsatisfied and unhappy. No external element is ever going to give you lasting happiness. This is dukkha.

This suffering is caused because we cling, we crave, we thirst. The world used is tanha which means literal thirst, making the internet slang even more hilarious. We crave things, but we also crave permanence in a world that is forever changing. Japanese aesthetics are all about impermanence. Consider a Japanese romance like 5cm/s, and how the romance is told basically through brief moments and distant longing. There is no fairytale happily ever after. This valorization of evanescence and impermanence feels so lacking to a traditional Western view! The idea of appreciating a relationship based on a single night in a cold train station is alien! We need every single property from our childhood rebooted because we cannot let anything go. This desire to cling, this desire to seek permanence in what cannot provide permanence, is the cause of dukkha. In his Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl, who survived a concentration camp, pointed out that those who seek happiness rarely find it, whereas those who do not seek it do. Clinging, grasping, trying to force our will on reality causes only unhappiness.

Nirvana is a semi-mystical concept, but the metaphor used by the Buddha is that of a fire going out. If suffering is a fire, and you stop throwing logs on the fire, it will eventually extinguish. Stop doing the things that cause suffering and eventually it will have nothing to feed on. Whether you want to read this as an end of reincarnation or simply breaking the cycle of bad habits is up to you. The fundamental idea is the same.

The eightfold path you can look up if you're curious. Many elements are moral and ethical in nature, which are doubtlessly important, because Silicon Valley is full of Buddhists who don't seem to follow any ethical precepts whatsoever. But you won't be learning anything new if I tell you that killing people, lying, stealing etc might rebound on you and cause you to suffer. I want to focus on the Buddha's more novel and confusing contributions.

No Self, No Problem

Listening to a lecture by Mark Muesse he said instead of referring to "the Buddhist doctrine of no-self" he preferred "the practice of no-self". Because whether you believe the self doesn't exist or not, acting as if it doesn't can relieve a great deal of psychic pressure. The need to maintain a true, authentic, consistent personal identity is a lot of psychic and social labor that only restricts you. In the Buddha's telling, a person is composed of five aggregates or bundles (which is the term David Hume used when he also dismissed the existence of a self).

The five bundles are:

1. form - this means matter. This is your body. Is your body your self?

2. feelings - this doesn't mean emotion. This is a part of perception. This is the instant positive or negative or neutral feeling you feel when you encounter something. Seeing Kristen Stewart on a magazine gives me a positive feeling tone. Seeing a cockroach gives me a negative feeling tone. Seeing the corner of the bookshelf between the magazine and the cockroach gives me a neutral feeling tone- it barely arose to my awareness. You kneejerk preferences are also not your true self.

3. Perceptions - this is the next stage of awareness. Now I see what Kristen Stewart is wearing and how her hair is cut. I see the cockroach start to scurry away. My kneejerk perception is filled in with sensory detail, usually to help justify why my feelings were right. Are your perceptions your self?

4. Mental formations - this gets into habitual thinking patterns, volitions, mental constructs. Seeing the magazine I might think "I should buy this magazine," or the roach I might thing "I should kill the roach," because in both cases that's what I usually do. Are my habits my self?

5. Consciousness - This is where we come in as the perception fully registers. I would say in the West that this is the part we might recognize most with the self. But our consciousness is always changing, subject to environmental pressures, always in flux. Is your work "self" the same as your home "self"? Which is the actual true you?

The Buddha would argue that identifying any of the aggregates, or all of them, as an inherent, reified, constant self is mistaken, and most importantly, unhelpful. People identify with some factor of their being and try and make that a permanent self. But as we've already noticed, nothing is permanent. Trying to fix a permanent self in an impermanent world is clinging that only leads to suffering.

Someone who tries to identify with their form, say someone who is attractive or athletic, will despair as they age and lose vitality. Someone identified with their feelings and their perceptions, like a writer or an artist, can be wounded if their art is rejected. Someone identified with their habits and thoughts, like a gamer or a movie buff (cough) can take mild criticism too far. And someone absorbed in their mind can take their mental abstractions and logic too far.

The Buddha suggests that these aggregates aren't present, but that they are empty. Empty of an inherent self. The tireless maintenance of a permanent self is labor you can give up, and it is a great relief.

How Does Meditation Fit In?

So how does meditation help? Scientifically, it helps to quiet the Default Mode Network, the part of your brain that turns on when you're not doing anything else. When you're busy or "in the zone" this part of your brain is silent. But when you sit quietly, it springs to life, nattering, thinking about bad things you did in the past and how you should have done them better if they weren't such a failure, or worrying about things in the future and how you're doing everything all wrong. The Default Mode Network is the voice of your depression, your anxiety, and your obsessive compulsive thinking. It is completely self-obsessed and will critically analyze everything you're doing if you let it. So don't let it. Weaken it. And meditation is how.

The official way the Buddha reached enlightenment according to the sutras is breath meditation, one of the most popular kind, and it is endorsed by the big guy himself. Focusing on the breath always keeps you in the present moment, rather than being depressed about the past or worried about the future. You can count breaths, or just feel breaths as your lungs expand. The idea is to be present and embodied. Open yourself up to neutral feeling tones, those sensations you ignore because they are neither pleasant or unpleasant. What do your hands feel like when they're not doing anything and there's just a neutral feeling?

Inevitably, a thought will arise. At this point, it's absolutely important to keep Final Fantasy IV and Persona 4 in mind.

At one point in the game the main character Cecil transforms from a Dark Knight to a Paladin, but as he does so he is attacked by his lower, evil self. If you fight back, the battle will never end. Cecil does not react, does not return blows. He defends and heals himself as necessary.

Similarly, do not let the thought lead you astray, if it does, the moment you realize that you are not focused on your breath, return to your breath. The point is not to engage with your thoughts, it's just to return to what you are doing. Let them rise and fall on their own accord. Eventually the shadow of the Dark Knight disappears.

Everyone is familiar with the famous Persona 4 "you're not me!" trope. But it's also very important that you do not judge the thoughts when they arise. Judging thoughts is getting entangled. Even thinking "I can't even meditate right! I'm thinking about this," is a distraction from the breath. Observe the thought, and let it go away. Do not engage, do not fight.

Let thoughts arise, and fall. See how thoughts think themselves and that thoughts have no claim on your self-identity. In a certain sense, Yukiko is right: The thoughts aren't her. They aren't her at all. But she's reacting against them violently, trying to preserve her own self image. Only after the boss fight, when the thoughts are calmly accepted, judgement free, do the powers of her other persona become her own.

Scientific papers have shown that repeated meditation actually does change the sizes of areas in your brain related to self control and anxiety for the better. This is basically all it is, you just have to do it regularly.

Later Buddhism was very big on the idea of upaya, or skillful means. Basically, the Buddha was willing to use any ethical method that was tailored to his audience to help them reach their goals. I can think of no dorkier upaya than using JRPGS to explain enlightenment.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, if you're interested in more I would recommend Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True, my starting point, as your own. He goes into much more scientific detail that a modern Western rationalist would want to be convinced of Buddhism's utility.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Videogame Title List

These are the available games:

Okami PS2
Front Mission Nintendo DS
Trauma Team Wii
One Piece Grand Battle GameCube
Little King's Story Wii
Rune Factory Frontier Wii
Wii Sports (LOL)
Valkyrie Profile 2 PS2
Radiata Stories PS2
Trauma Center New Blood Wii
Devil Survivor DS
Bravely Default 3DS
Shadow Hearts Covenant PS2
Tales of Symphonia GC
Persona 4 Arena (original version) PS3
Front Mission 3 (PS1)
Rocket Robot on Wheels (N64)
Monster Hunter 1 PS2
A Boy and His Blob (Wii)
Disaster Report PS2
Yume Miru Kusuri - hentai VN PC
Twisted Metal PS3
Wizard of OZ DS
Diamond Trust of London DS
Home Town Story 3DS
Harvest Moon Another Wonderful Life (girl ver) GC
La Pucelle Tactics PS1
Witch's Wish DS
Trauma CEnter Under the Knife 2 DS
999 9 hours 9 persons 9 doors DS
Trauma Center Under the Knife 1 DS
Puchi Puchi Virus DS
Time Hollow DS
Sonic RUsh DS
Harvest Moon DS Island of Happiness
Jake Hunter: Memories of the Past DS
Bit Trip Saga 3DS
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin DS
Contact DS
Saiyuki PS1
Final Fantasy VIII PS1
Chrono Cross PS1
Metal Gear Solid PS1
Saga Frontier PS1
Metal Gear Solid VR Missions PS1
Oddworld Abe's Exoddus PS1
Radiant Historia DS

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Practical Mysticism: Part Two - Chuang-tzu or Zhuangzi

The Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzi (depending on how you Romanize it) is the second foundational text of Taoism. Unlike the terse and cryptic Tao te ching, the Zhuangzi is boisterous prose, overflowing and doubling back with ridiculous stories. It's easier to read as a document, but sadly it's just not common. You can walk into a bookstore and find the Tao te ching, but you'd need to special order Zhuangzi's work. Which you should.

The selections I quote here are from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings by Brook Ziporyn, by Hackett Publishing. Ziporyn translates Tao as "Course" instead of "Way" which is the typical "way" to translate it, but I've left it alone despite the fact that it seems a little weird.

Chapter 1
Huizi said to Zhuangzi, "I have a huge tree which people call the Stink Tree. The trunk is swollen and gnarled, impossible to align with any level or ruler. The branches are twisted and bent, impossible to align to any T-square or carpenter's arc. Even if it were growing right in the road, a carpenter would not give it so much a second glance. And your words are similarly big but useless, which is why they are rejected by everyone who hears them."

Zhuangzi said, "Haven't you ever seen a wildcat or weasel? It crouches low to await its prey, pounces now to the east and now to the west, leaping high and low. But this is exactly what lands it in a trap, and it ends up dying in the net. But take a yak: it is big like the clouds draped across the heavens. Now, that is something good at being big - but of course it cannot so much as a single mouse. You, on the other hand, have this big tree, and you worry that it's useless. Why not plant it on our homeland of not-even-anything, the vast wilds of open nowhere? Then you could loaf and wander there, doing lots of nothing there at its side, and take yourself a nap, far-flung and unfettered, there beneath it. It will never be cut down by ax or saw. Nothing will harm it. Since it has nothing for which it can be used, what could entrap or afflict it?

"Stink Tree" gives a good sense of the bizarre humor Zhuangzi brings to his work, but this fable about uselessness echoes throughout the entire work.

Chapter 2
But to labor your spirit trying to make all things one, without realizing that it is all the same whether you do so or not, is called "Three in the Morning."

What is this Three in the Morning? A monkey trainer was distributing chestnuts. He said, "I'll give you three in the morning and four in the evening." The monkeys were furious. "Well then," he said, "I'll give you four in the morning and three in the evening." The monkeys were delighted. This change of description and arrangement caused no loss, but in one case it brought anger and in another delight. He just went by the rightness of their present "this." Thus, the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonize with others and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter's Wheel. This is called "Walking Two Roads."

Let people believe their bizarre ways when it doesn't change the fundamental facts of the matter. Complementarity and balance in all things.

Chapter 2
Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering about joyfully just as a butterfly would. He followed his whims exactly as he liked and knew nothing about Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he awoke, and there he was, the startled Zhuang Zhou in the flesh. He did not know if Zhou had been dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was now dreaming it was Zhou. Surely, Zhou and a butterfly count as two distinct identities! Such is what we call the transformation of one thing into another.

One of the most famous stories, even people who don't know where it's from have heard this fable.

Chapter 3
The cook was carving up and ox for King Hui of Liang. Whenever his hand smacked it, wherever his shoulder leaned into it, wherever his foot braced it, wherever his knee pressed it, the thwacking tones of flesh falling from bone would echo, the knife would whiz through with its resonant thwing, each stroke ringing out the perfect note, attuned to the "Dance of the Mulberry Grove" or the "Jingshou Chorus" of the ancient sage-kings.

The king said, "Ah! It is wonderful that skill can reach such heights!"

The cook put down his knife and said, "What I love is the Course, something that advances beyond mere skill. When I first started cutting up oxen, all I looked at for three years was oxen, and yet still I was unable to see all there was to see in an ox. But now I encounter it with the spirit rather than scrutinizing it with the eyes. My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow. I depend on Heaven's unwrought perforations and strike the larger gaps, following along with the broader hollows. I go by how they already are, playing them as they lay. So my knife has never had to cut through the knotted nodes where the warp hits the weave, much less the gnarled joints of bone. A good cook changes his blade once a year: he slices. An ordinary cook changes his blade once a month: he hacks. I have been using this same blade for nineteen years, cutting up thousands of oxen, and yet it is still as sharp as the day it came off the whetstone. For the joints have spaces within them, and the very edge of the blade has no thickness at all. When what has no thickness enters into an empty space, it is vast and open, with more than enough room for the play of the blade. That is why my knife is still as sharp as if it had just come off the whetstone, even after nineteen years."

"Nonetheless, whenever I come to a clustered tangle, realizing that it is difficult to do anything about it, I instead restrain myself as if terrified, until my seeing comes to a complete halt. My activity slows, and the blade moves ever so slightly. Then all at once, I find the ox already dismembered at my feet like clumps of soil scattered on the ground. I retract the blade and stand there gazing at my work arrayed all around me, dawdling over it with satisfaction. Then I wipe the blade and put it away."

The king said, "Wonderful! From hearing the cook's words I have learned how to nourish life!"

Even without the Buddhist prohibition against meat eating a butcher is by no means a glamorous job. A king learning sage advice from a common butcher is a wonderful subversion. Plus, this sounds like a shonen anime.

Chapter 6
The Genuine Human Beings of old slept without dreaming and awoke without worries. Their food was plain but their breathing was deep. The Genuine Human Beings breathed from their heels, while the mass of men breathe from their throats. Submissive and defeated, they gulp down their words and just as soon vomit them back up. Their preferences and desires run deep, but the Heavenly Impulse is shallow in them. The Genuine Human Beings of old understood nothing about delighting in being alive or hating death. They emerged without delight, submerged again without resistance. Swooping in they came and swooping out they went, that and no more. They neither forgot where they came from nor asked where they would go. Receiving it, they delighted in it. Forgetting about it, they gave it back. This is what it means not to use the mind to push away the Course, not to use the Human to try and help the Heavenly. Such is what I'd call being a Genuine Human Being.

This is from a longer selection of the Genuine Human Beings of old but this gets the point most directly.

Chapter 7
The emperor of the southern sea was called Swoosh. The emperor of the northern sea was called Oblivion. The emperor of the middle was called Chaos. Swoosh and Oblivion would sometimes meet in the territory of Chaos, who always attended to them quite well. They decided to replay Chaos for his virtue. "All men have seven holes in them, by means of which they see, hear, eat, and breathe," they said. "But this one alone has none. Let's drill him some."

So each day they drilled another hole. After seven days, Chaos was dead.

This ends a chapter and has no preceding context. Just a haunting little fable at the last of the chapters it is believed Zhuang Zhou personally wrote. What a goodbye.

Chapter 10
To try and govern the world by doubling the number of sages would merely double the profits of the great robbers. If you create pounds and ounces to measure them with, they'll steal the pounds and ounces and rob with them as well. If you make scales and balances to regulate them with, they'll steal the balances and rob with them as well. If you create tallies and seals to enforce their reliability, they'll steal the tallies and seals and rob with them as well. And if you create Humanity and Responsibility to regulate them with, why, they'll just steal the Humanity and Responsibility and rob with them as well.

How do I know this is so? He who steals a belt buckle is executed, but he who steals a state is made a feudal lord. Humanity and Responsibility are always among the properties found in the homes of the feudal lords. Have they not also stolen Humanity, Responsibility, Sagacity, and Wisdom?

Some real ancient anarchism with this, also a look at intentions behind stated goals.

Chapter 19
When a drunken men falls from a cart, he may be hurt but he will not be killed. His bones and joints are no different from those of other men, but the degree of harm done by the fall differs radically, for the spiritual in him forms one intact whole. Having been unaware that he was riding, he is now unaware that he is falling. The frights and shocks of life and death have no way to enter his breast, so he is unflinching no matter how things may clash with him. Finding his wholeness in liquor he reaches such a state - imagine then someone who finds his wholeness in the Heavenly. The sage submerges himself in the Heavenly, and that is why nothing can harm him.

A seeker of revenge does not go so far as to smash his enemy's weapon, and even the most ill-tempered person bears no grudge against a loose tile that happens to plunk down on his head. This reveals to us a way in which all the world can become peaceful and balanced.

A fantastic metaphor.

Chapter 26

A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. A snare is there for the rabbits. When you have got hold of the rabbits, you forget the snare. Words are there for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?

Zhuang Zhou plays with linguistics.

Chapter 33
Blank and barren, without form! Changing and transforming, never constant! Dead? Alive? Standing side by side with heaven and earth? Moving along with the spirits and illuminations? So confused - where is it all going? So oblivious - where has it all gone? Since all the ten thousand things are inextricably netted together around us, none is worthy of exclusive allegiance. These were some aspects of the ancient Art of the Course. Zhuang Zhou got wind of them and was delighted. He used ridiculous and far-flung descriptions, absurd and preposterous sayings, senseless and shapeless phrases, indulging himself unrestrainedly as the moment demanded, uncommitted to any one position, never looking at things exclusively from any one corner. He considered the world sunken in the mire, incapable of conversing seriously with himself, so he used spillover-goblet words for unbroken extension of his meanings, citations of weighty authorities for verification, words put into the mouths of others for broad acceptance. He came and went alone with the quintessential spirit of heaven and earth but still never arrogantly separated himself off from the creatures of the world, for he rejected none of their views of right and wrong and thus was able to get along with worldly conventions. Although his writings are a string of strange and rare gems, their intertwining twistings will do one no harm. Even though his words are uneven, their very strangeness and monstrosity is worthy of contemplation. For his overabundance was truly an unstoppable force. Above he wandered with the Creator of Things, below he befriended whoever could put life and death outside themselves, free of any end or beginning. He opened himself broadly to the vastness at the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths. He may be said to have attuned himself to whatever he encountered, thereby arriving up beyond them to the source of things. Even so, he was able to respond to every transformation, and thus his writings have a liberating effect on all creatures. The guidelines within them are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones. Vague! Ambiguous! We have not got to the end of them yet.

Chapter 33 is the last chapter of the Zhuangzi and one written not by Zhuang Zhou himself. It is believed to be written by a more Confucian-leaning scholar who took account of philosophical threads of the time. It's a fascinating review of the Zhuangzi and its goals from an outsider.

Next time: The Upanishads!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Practical Mysticism: Part One - Tao Te Ching

I have read a great deal of ancient Eastern mystical texts because I've found them interesting and useful. I think there's something practical to it, but it's hard to convince people to read thousand year old books. Ergo, I intend to deliver the best quotes and sections on this blog, with brief commentary, as a kind of introduction. If you want in depth looks, you can find far more knowledgeable sources than I. But I can whet your appetite.

First is the Tao te ching of Lao Tzu, where I started, and one of the most well known texts. In an age when Chinese scholars had a way of pottery and a way of archery and a way of statecraft, Lao Tzu, before he disappeared, left a way of the way. It's a series of 81 difficult and mysterious poems. Of course, you should read all of them, but here are 10 I think are especially valuable. Translation is by Red Pine from the Copper Canyon Press edition.

1. The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
no-name is the maiden of Heaven and Earth
name is the mother of all things
thus in innocence we see the beginning
in passion we see the end
two different names
for one and the same
the one we call dark
the dark beyond dark
the door to all beginnings

This is the thesis statement of the entire work, drawing a stark line between reality as such and the reality perceived, named, and taxonomized by human cognition.

2. All the world knows beauty
but if that becomes beautiful
this becomes ugly
all the world knows good
but if that becomes good
this becomes bad
have and have not create each other
hard and easy produce each other
long and short shape each other
high and low complete each other
note and noise accompany each other
first and last follow each other
sages therefore perform effortless deeds
and teach wordless lessons
they don't look after all the things that arise
or depend on them as they develop
or claim them when they reach perfection
and because they don't claim them
they are never without them

A basic statement of the yin/yang system of balance and comparison. There are no absolutes, all things are in relation to their opposite.

8. The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don't compete
they aren't maligned

Fairly self explanatory, also the first statement that water is the goal of the follower of the Tao.

11. Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it's the emptiness
that makes a wheel work
pots are fashioned from clay
but it's the hollow
that makes a pot work
windows and doors are carved for a house
but it's the spaces
that make a house work
existence makes a things useful
but nonexistence makes it work

A clever inversion showing the value of nothing, and the importance of space.

19. Get rid of wisdom and reason
and people will live a hundred times better
get rid of kindness and justice
and people once more will love and obey
get rid of cleverness and profit
and thieves will cease to exist
but these three sayings are incomplete
hence let these be added
display the undyed and preserve the uncarved
reduce self-interest and limit desires

This seems paradoxical. How would getting rid of wisdom, reason, kindness, and justice improve the world? Remember that Lao Tzu is skeptical of knowledge we have named and tamed, and the true meaning starts to become clear.

29. Trying to govern the world with force
I see this not succeeding
the world is a spiritual thing
it can't be forced
to force it is to harm it
to control it is to lose it
sometimes things lead
sometimes they follow
sometimes they blow hot
sometimes they blow cold
sometimes they expand
sometimes they collapse
sages therefore avoid extremes
avoid extravagance
avoid excess

To command and control is not the Tao. You will lose what you intend to gain.

36. What you would shorten
you first should lengthen
what you would weaken
you first should strengthen
what you would topple
you first should raise
what you would take
you first should give
this is called hiding the light
the weak conquering the strong
fish can't survive out of the depths
a state's greatest weapon
isn't meant to be shown

It's all balance and cycles. You should work with the flow of things rather than struggle in vain against the cycles of the natural world.

63. Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
plan for the hard while it's easy
deal with the great while it's small
the world's hardest task begins easy
the world's greatest goal begins small
sages therefore never act great
they thus achieve great goals
who quickly agrees is seldom trusted
who thinks things easy finds them hard
sages therefore think everything hard
and thus find nothing hard

The Taoist sage cultivates expertise to always exist in the zone, unforced excellence, effortless through practice and planning.

67. The world calls me great
great but useless
it's because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I'm compassionate
I can be valiant
because I'm austere
I can be extravagant
because I'm reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect

Another enjoyable paradox about Taoist sages.

78. Nothing in the world is weaker than water
but against the hard and the strong
nothing outdoes it
for nothing can change it
the soft overcomes the hard
the weak overcomes the strong
this is something everyone knows
but no one is able to practice
thus do sages declare
who accepts a country's disgrace
we call the lord of soil and grain
who accepts a country's misfortune
we call the ruler of all under Heaven
upright words sound upside down

The Tao prescribes a logical course of action, but its mastery is difficult. And the harder you try and master it, the more you fail.

Next time, Taoism continues with Chuang-Tzu or Zhuangzhi!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

2018 Supplement Guide for Hellworld

About three or four years ago when I decided to try and improve my health I decided to go all in on supplementation, trying all sorts of things that were supposed to help, and reading tons of books, cross referencing lists all the authors had of essential supplements, and seeing which ones each doctor included. I've also looked at websites and journal articles and experimented a ton, probably wasting a bit of money. But I've come to a list of good supplements to help in times of stress which I use even now. So that everyone else doesn't have to do the same work I did (including the expensive 23andMe and SpectraCell nutrition testing) I've decided to share the information in one place. Some basic notes on supplementation:

1. It's better to get nutrition from food. A standard disclaimer, if you think you're low on zinc, it's better to buy pumpkin seeds as a snack than buying some pills. You can't eat pizza and beer and take pills to make a shitty diet ok. However, some nutrients are intermittently available (like vitamin D), or your body burns through them quickly, or are better in concentrated doses, and in those cases supplementation makes sense.

2. Multivitamins are a waste. To make an affordable pill with every nutrient in it, companies either use cheap forms of a nutrient the body cannot absorb, or include tiny amounts. It's better to just target the nutrients you need and eat a healthy diet than try and fix everything with a cheap multivitamin.

3. Supplementing is serious business. Nutrients carry variable amounts of risk. Water soluble vitamins like vitamin C go out with your pee if you take to much. If you "overdose" you might get diarrhea. Fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A can kill you. Arctic explorers forced to subsist off polar bear liver ate too much vitamin A, and since it was stuck in their fat, they died painful deaths bleeding from the eyes. This isn't to say you can't supplement vitamin A (it's good in cod liver oil) but you need to be sensible, and contact a doctor if you have any questions or have any medical conditions. Risk tends to be lowest with water soluble vitamins and minerals, more danger with fat soluble. Herbs can vary based on if they're traditionally food (garlic) or something more exotic. Take care with pregnancy, nursing, have liver or kidney problems or other chronic conditions.

4. Supplementing takes time. Your body can only absorb so much of a vitamin at a time. You're looking at taking a pill a day for several months rather than downing it over a week. Results may not be immediate or may be subtle.'

With this out of the way, I've broken up my recommendations into categories based on how solid the scientific consensus is, whether I've noticed an effect personally, or if something is expensive or optional.

Universal Scientific Consensus
These are supplements with solid agreement among the literature, doctors, personal experience, that I would feel recommending to almost anyone because of the low risk-high benefit.

1. Vitamin D3. Vitamin D is so essential your body makes its own, from sunlight. However, people get less sunlight now, and the crucial months in the Northern Hemisphere are in summer from around 10am to 2pm. You're probably not getting enough. Low levels of vitamin D have been correlated with many illnesses, from depression to cancer, although whether disease causes low vitamin D or vice versa is unknown. Take vitamin D3, cholicalciferol, which is fat soluble. It is possible to get too much D3 so if concerned get a lab test done to determine your levels. A conservative dose taken with food or in a gelcap with olive oil is unlikely to cause problems.

2. Magnesium. The "relaxation mineral" electrolyte that allows muscles to unclench is also used in a ton of metabolic processes. Caffeine, sugar, stress, antacids, and alcohol deplete it. War refugees were found to be excreting magnesium in their urine: Even if you are getting enough from food, if you are in a high stress situation, you are probably wasting it. You cannot overdose from magnesium, you just get diarrhea. Magnesium oxide, found in most vitamins, is useless. Get magnesium citrate (which may have a laxative effect), glycinate (which does not have a laxative effect), or malate. Also an option is epsom salts, since magnesium can be absorbed directly through the skin. My chronic muscle stiffness, causing me to fear I was getting carpal tunnel, has basically disappeared since I started taking magnesium and taking epsom salt baths.

3. Fish Oil. Basically a food item, as long as you get a brand that is distilled to be low in mercury this is also safe. If you have sustainability concerns, krill oil is also an option. There is debate as to whether fish or krill oil is better, but I can't determine who is right. Evidence on cardiac health seems to be under some scrutiny, but fish oil is used as a prescription medication to reduce blood triglycerides. It also contains essential omega 3 oils. DHA is used to build your nervous system, and EPA is an anti-inflammatory that can aid with depression. I have not felt any immediate effect from taking fish oil, but the process of integrating omega 3 fats into your body is a long term project.

Compelling Personal Evidence, With Scientific Support

1. Methyl Folate. The supplement that convinced me that supplements actually could work. Methyl folate is a methylated, or active form, of folic acid. There is a very common genetic mutation (MTHFR) that prevents people from being able to activate synthetic folic acid, the kind in enriched flour and bread. If you don't have the mutation, taking pre-activated methyl folate doesn't hurt you, but if you do have the mutation, taking methyl folate is like having a switch in your body turned on for the first time. I've never taken a vitamin C pill and felt different, but methyl folate worked immediately. Folate and B12 work synergistically, so if you can find a vitamin B complex that has both methyl folate AND methyl B12 that's your best bet, as you don't want your body to only work one side of the cycle and not the full thing. I take a complex called B-Right, which also contains P-5-P, the active form of B6. People I've recommended these activated vitamins to have reported improvements in energy, depression, migraine headaches, and other chronic problems. The difference in the more pricey pre-activated forms of these vitamins and the cheap kinds used to enrich food is night and day.

2. Ashwagandha. An ancient Ayurvedic herb alleged to be an "adaptogen" or herb that rebalances your body's systems. Scientific proof for "adaptogens" is shaky, but ashwagandha does have studies with proven effects. It assists with reported levels of well being and reduces effects of chronic stress, and up to a 30% level reduction in blood cortisol (the stress hormone). I can vouch for this one myself, as the last two years have been extremely stressful, and ashwagandha has helped me manage stress and social anxiety in dramatic ways. Make sure to buy from a reputable supplement company, as some supplements purchased over the internet have been found to contain high levels of toxic heavy metals.

Compelling Evidence, Further Experimentation Needed

1. Inositol. I had never heard of this nutrient, once considered vitamin B8 until it was discovered that the body could make its own, until my nutrition test came back saying I was borderline deficient in it. Apparently, levels of inositol are reduced in people with depression. It's unknown which way the causation lies, but high doses of inositol can be used to fight depression, anxiety, insulin resistance, and it has also been used with success in treating PCOS. Inositol is used by the body to allow cells to communicate, which explains how it's useful for both insulin sensitvity and neurotransmission. I have supplemented with it and haven't felt any great effect, although the doses needed for drastic effect tend to be rather high. Something to keep an eye on.

2. Alpha Lipoic Acid and N-Acetyl Cysteine. I had never really heard of the body's main antioxidant, glutathione, until I also came back borderline deficient in it. Glutathione is in every cell, and is correlated with illness much like vitamin D: people with cancer, depression, AIDS, diabetes, etc have lower glutathione. It's the main line of defense against free radicals and toxins like alcohol in the liver. Your body makes its own, and you can't take a glutathione pill because your body just digests it. So there are two ways you can make more: One is to take N-Acetyl Cysteine, which provides the body with cysteine, which is rare and the limiting factor in glutathione production. If you go to the emergency room with a Tylenol overdose, you're given NAC to try and save your liver. The second is Alpha Lipoic Acid, which helps your body recycle the used up glutathione it's already made. I've taken both, and it's difficult to say which works better, or how much glutathione I have now, or what effects it has (it's all on a cellular level). Still, both supplements are considered largely safe, nontoxic, and are easily available. NAC has been used to treat mental illness and addiction, and ALA has been used to treat liver damage and diabetic nerve pain. Both are potent and are things you can research if you're curious.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Miko Devilman Crybaby Part 2

Here are the remainder shots of Miko, not including anything depressing. I'll do pre-transformation Miko next.