Riding the Abused

“He imagined a wealthy Christian knocking at the gates of heaven and saying, “Here I am, Lord! … I went to Church, I was close to you, I belong to this association, I did this… Don’t you remember all the offerings I made?”
To which Jesus may reply, according to the Pope:
“Yes, I remember. The offerings, I remember them: All dirty. All stolen from the poor. I don’t know you.’ That will be Jesus’ response to these scandalous people who live a double life.”

To be a Christian means to do: to do the will of God — and on the last day — because all of us we will have one — that day what shall the Lord ask us? Will He say: ‘What have you said about me?’ No. He shall ask us about the things we did.”
Pope Francis, Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian

 

“And even if in the future, from some cosmic place, they say, “That little third planet out in that little old solar system over there, boy they blew it” — even so, there were some beautiful efforts made, some beautiful music. Strong hearts, and a lot of loving.”
Joanna Macy, Learning to See in the Dark Amid Catastrophe: An Interview With Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy

 

 

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

The probabilities of nuclear war are increasing. Try a mental experiment. Assume a nuclear war were to break out in the next few years. Maybe it would remain small, maybe not. Knowing this, would you experience your day any differently? Does it add a certain gravitas to the events of right now? Do they become more precious? Will you take that little bit of extra time to be with your loved ones or to just sit and contemplate nature? Maybe the bombs will take away everything you love, maybe they only do that for people you do not know on the other side of the earth. Does that really make all that much difference as you use your imagination to place yourself into the tomorrow we are making?

Were you impressed with that big bomb’s rape of earth’s tunnels in Afghanistan? If you liked that you are going to love chapter next. Earth rape – real and symbolic – could not be made any more explicit. In a culture saturated with torture and porn (often no longer two distinct categories) it is hard to get too aroused because we used the largest non-nuclear bomb on the poorest country on the planet. All the worse for us.

Are you scared yet? You should be. This is not a dress rehearsal, these geopolitical events splashing themselves across our headlines. Do you think that the problem with giant industrialization’s relationship with the earth’s ecology is going to be fixed by attacking foreigners?

This is what being mindful of the ecological reality of our times provides, a type of acidic analysis of events from a more systemic point of view. It is from this point of view that even our most powerful weapons look helplessly inadequate. Oh sure, we can cause a lot of damage, kill tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of people, but none of that is going to get us even one inch closer to the changes our societies will be forced to make by ecological circumstances.

It is not sane to allow the lifestyles of a few living today to ruin tomorrow for everyone. A few sadistically sick individuals in positions of power are capable of causing enormous amounts of suffering. Due to their own psychological histories such people thrive on causing other people pain. They need to shame and degrade other human beings. They need to cause people and other sentient beings to suffer, slowly and excruciatingly. We who let them do this to others in our name do our best to keep the benefits we enjoy from their cruelties foremost in our minds. It is easy to eat chicken when you don’t think of the factory farms on which they are raised with less respect than we give a five dollar bill. We see the electronic gadgets and the designer clothes filling our malls and allow the fantasy factory of TV to make living this way seem justified and normal. We do not see the bodies torn to shreds by our bomb, nor the sweat shops and the toxic e-waste we pile up where poor non-white people live, and cleverly we have made it illegal to look inside our slaughterhouses and factory farms. This is the price, in the lives of the poor and voiceless, we are willing to pay for our high and mighty lifestyles. We just do not like being reminded about it. Perhaps there was a time such shopping mall dreams were dreamt in innocence. That time is long past. Today the pathetic injustice stands accused by a whole library full of documentation about these corporate exploitations. Reading some of the blasphemous volumes is simply allowing the reality of the interconnected molecular world into your thoughts.

The details just listed are what is evident from the outside, as reported by the senses of anyone who cares to look. What is more formidable is learning to see is how the exploitation of the poor and weak has re-written the lives we live from the inside. We are all slave owners now. When, as a society, we decided seeking profit was somehow a sacred calling, we advanced along the trend we see fruiting all around us today in which everything has a price.

When the pornographers went after our children, we could not muster up the slightest effective defense. Where was the outrage from fathers when the media taught our daughters to see themselves as little more than sex machines and families across the country started dealing with the eating disorder fallout and the smashed reputations of those whose lives were turned upside down by a few minutes of filmed intoxication, etc. etc? Trauma is the price we are evidently willing to pay to protect the pornographer’s “sacred” profits. We watched as the makers of images decided to push the envelope, sexualizing children and infantilizing women for the taste of the pedophiles among us. Did you know research suggests addiction to adult gonzo porn seems to lead to pedophile perversions as the quest to degrade innocence takes on its ultimate forms? This has been the case for many men. Did you know upwards of 80-90 percent of those convicted of child abuse used child porn first, at least by one study (Debate on Child Pornography’s Link to Molesting)? Even with this there was no public outcry, no public outrage.

When you have already sold your children’s future by dismissing all those things that would be necessary to assure a stable planetary home for them, it is a little hard to get too upset with such things.

We tell ourselves this pornification of our culture is just a matter of freedom of choice. The alternative is difficult to take. The alternative explanation is that we have allowed a system that rewards exploiting the abused children among us to become the core society in which we all live. The best CEO is the one that is able to leverage the repressed needs of their wounded employees. He (and it is still almost always a he) takes advantage of the hurt person’s need for love and respect denied them by their abusive mother or father. These carrots and sticks run deep within us. Successful managers and bureaucrats of every stripe have also learned to stick the knife of fear into the soft spot and twist.

This, of course, has left us angry. Someone always seems to have more than we do. None of us, we are groomed to believe by every commercial we have ever been exposed to, have what we deserve. All of us want more, the more we feel we are entitled to. This is consumerism.

The image makers have found we angry adults have a taste for torture; sadism sells. All the little boys beaten up by their fathers, now grown into adult sized bodies, are suckers for such material. It not only illustrates what it felt like to be physically and emotionally abused but also holds out the false promise of restoring the inner child’s broken ego and removing the mark of shame from their breasts. On the movie screen angry, violent men get the goods. Of course, in the real world angry, violent men just get trouble.

Grown men don’t cry, we are taught to say. What is implied need not be said, namely that this is because their job is to make other people cry. Our image of manhood revolves around these things, and little else: to be a man is to be a tough guy protecting loved ones from other tough guys. There is no place for curiosity, wonder, laughter, teaching. Torture as entertainment, how degrading. It fills the airwaves now, training us to see our own society as being populated by people who are mean and cruel. The scripts of such movies are mind-numbingly repetitive: I wish I could be a good guy but with all these bad guys out to take what I have, I need to become the baddest of the bad (yet somehow retain a heart of gold after the sadism). Some of us will choose to divert our eyes and only watch Disney fare, but we all know the other events are playing out in the theater just down the hall. We are being groomed to be good little sadists, good little Nazis.

Actually, all this foolishness is a really old tale. It has all been done before. Worshipping weapons and cruelty has long been the agenda pushed by the alpha males. Priests have blessed their weapons and organized their crusades. None of which, as the Pope recently pointed out, has had anything to do with the love of god or a god of love. Now here we are again. Do you think that the problem with giant industrialization’s relationship with the earth’s ecology is going to be fixed by attacking people who belong to religions other than your own?

Consumerism socialization: One gender raised as cannon fodder and the other as sex robots, both taught they are no more than interchangeable pocketbooks living to serve corporate profits by those who retain the right to dismiss their existence at the flick of a nuclear switch.

There is a war on our children being conducted right under our noses, day in and day out. Those conducting that war have profited immensely. The large corporate conglomerations funding and profiting off these exploitations have become entwined with our institutions of education, finance, religion and entertainment. Over time consumerism’s belief that only monetary relationships can organize a modern society has corroded our ability to even imagine life being lived any other way. This is why we seem to be willing to risk everything in nuclear war to keep shopping at Wallmart. We have yet to find the courage to discuss how what is valuable can be salvaged from what is no longer adaptive.

All that is rather bleak, isn’t it?

Every bit of it is a lie. Cruel and violent men can make trouble, but not nearly as much as they think they can in their hubris, dreaming of dethroning that father-god that beat them so badly when they were young. Yes, it turns out, women enjoy sex as much as men do but this does not mean their lives consist of nothing else or that we as a society should judge their worth only by their ability to conform to the image of women being created by the cruel and violent men. Perhaps most damning of all is the lie that being human finds its social culmination in shopping. Anyone who has had any kind of peak experience understands Homo Sapiens have cosmic roots. Moreover, the teachings say that our expressions of loving kindness and beauty are the final identities we were born with and will take to our graves. It has been called our shared Buddha Nature or that we are all equally loved children of god.

What this means to me is that the cruel and the violent who bring physical or emotional abuse to others are living a part of the cosmos’ grand story just as necessary as those who do not do these things. It is just that those lives have been given over to the role of the villain. I do not think we were supposed to put them on pedestals as exemplars of our species potential. All our stories, from anywhere around the world and from any eon, agree that to be human is to have a deeply held desire to share in real love and to live, as the stories say, happily ever after. Human happiness for me necessarily includes happiness for you. Those whose lives are filled with tragic fate / karma / fortune miss this basic lesson, yet are a necessary ingredient. Why? Who can say? Is that not between them, their victims and the mystery from which all arose together? What we can say is that by illustrating the truth of where cruelty and violence lead, their lives provide a type of reverse teaching for those whose fate / karma / fortune has lead them to walk the path of peace.

So what’s the plan? We know there is no long term future in consumerism. We know there is no long term future that allows us to keep using oil, the engine of our built out infrastructures. We know there is no long term future in allowing inequality, injustice, and exploitation to form the bedrock of our economy. We even know that the seemingly sacred nature of violence is a lie. Real violence makes you want to throw up, as anyone who has encountered it can tell you. Ok, so knowing all this, what is the plan? Are we thinking we can just continue a little longer and hopefully our children will pay for all this and not we ourselves? Are we thinking we have no choice but to let the cruel and violent continue to take anything and everything they want? Are we thinking the cruel and violent are protecting us from something worse, tentacled aliens from between the stars perhaps? Are we going to let them go through with their self-fulfilling prophecy Armageddon-plans just to see what happens? Or maybe we are thinking its ok to let them run a little crazy for awhile because we can always pull back from the brink at the last moment?

I do not subscribe to any of those positions. I subscribe to courage and reason. The truth of the matter is that in our future some will take the high road, difficult as it is, and they will try to build things, nurture a new way of being together socially and go searching for a life affirming set of values. Others will take the low road, easy and socially approved, of just blowing shit up and continuing to rape the planet and its people for cash rewards. The ecological, economic, and sociological evidence is in: business as usual is over. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Might I suggest setting aside, daily, a few moments of concern for the earth?

The Threshold

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

David Bowie, Blackstar

 

This week, in a rather longer post, I would like to touch on a piece of information that might be relevant for some readers at some point and, I hope, interesting to all. It deals with one of the ways the human mind has evolved to deal with trauma. The reason it is a necessary subject to deal with in this set of posts about subjectivity is that it gets to the heart of what it means to be an embodied awareness. It does so by showing us how that awareness behaves under extreme duress.

One of the more interesting things about our understanding of ourselves as human beings is how the so-called occult, or discarded knowledge of our culture often forms a mirror-like impression of what the mainstream knowledge contains. If the mainstream is convex, the occult underground is concave. Among the many tales of ghosts and angels, spirits and demons, magical and psychic powers found in the occult literature, there are traces of actual events people have experienced. Many of the events are encountered in what we call altered states of consciousness, states that range from the slightly unusual to full twilight consciousness in which we seem to be transported bodily to other realms or places.

Some altered states seem to teach us more about our body and mind in the place we actually are. These are what we seek in our contemplations of ecology. Other altered states seem to go the other direction, providing us an escape from the material world, leaving the limitations of the body and earth far behind. Anyone who engages in any spiritual discipline needs to know about these very different currents. If I may indulge in a too simple metaphor for a moment I would suggest this is why Buddhists meditate with their eyes open and seek the middle way. Others teach meditating with the eyes closed and seek cosmic consciousness. There are two currents. This makes things sound black and white which in practice are anything but, yet there is an important distinction here that this simple metaphor captures.

One staple of the occult literature is the out of body experience, or OOBE. This is said to be a separation of the soul or mindstream from the body it is currently occupying. The soul is then free to wander the so-called astral planes. Much of the literature describes visits to other planets or realms populated with a menagerie of alien beings. Magicians and mystics of every stripe have added their stories to this semi-underground cultural inheritance. It is quite a mixed bag. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. And a few, we can assume, know the score.

One of the things that quickly becomes obvious as one stays with ecological studies (remaining mindful of ecology) is that there are any number of loud, self proclaimed experts who are absolutely clueless. This is a very, very important lesson to take to heart. These are all those people who are misrepresenting the facts, as we best understand them, concerning global warming, ocean dead zones and acidification, the sixth extinction, the poisoning of land and water in fracking operations and so on, right through the rest of the list of horrors we who do study ecology know so well. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. None, evidently, really know the score.

The same lesson should be applied to sources that speak to the human condition as well. Our inheritance includes any number of works by people equally clueless about what they are really discussing, just as clueless as the ecologically ignorant of our day are. The OOBE books are, I suggest, propaganda for the Descartes Error we have been exploring: that the mind is more real than the body, which is presented as little more than an optional appendage. Some of this occult tradition, including OOBE material, is the production of liars and con men flat out, nothing more. It is hard for some people to imaging using spirituality this way, just to make a buck and get laid, but history shows there is no shortage of such people. I’ve always thought this might be a really bad way to go about messing around with people if there ever turns out to be a real god or a real day of reckoning in any form. Anyway, this group is not the most dominate. Among the authors of reported OOBEs the majority are true believers. They have experienced something unusual and have done the best they can, given the contextual intellectual tools they have, to integrate that unusual experience with the rest of what they know.

There is no question that it is possible for the human mind to experience itself disembodied. There are reports by the bushel full of people seemingly leaving their body and looking back on it still lying on the bed, or the operating room table, or the floor of their torture cell. Something like this can happen. The data is there. The question is, what does it mean? Are these actual experiences of crossing the threshold of death? Epistemologically, are these experiences of the mind dying or of dying itself?

There is another set of literature in our cultural inheritance that also deals with OOBEs. This is not the occult traditions but the psychiatric ones. Here is a typical case report:
“During the raped I found myself looking down on the act from on high, from a point in the corner of the ceiling. I was looking down on my body but it wasn’t me, it was like a doll, a puppet …”

The point to see here is what has happened to the victim’s subjectivity. The body of the victim has been used as an object. When the victim reports seeing their body from a third person perspective, they too have taken the view of the perpetrator. They too are now seeing themselves as nothing more than an object to be used. There is a body over there, just a body, not my body. I – all my inner feelings and memories, cognitions and images – am up here floating; as insubstantial and invulnerably untouchable as a ghost.

The abuser has forced themselves into the mindstreams of their victims and displaced them. How? In a mistaken attempt to feel some power over what is happening to them, a part of the victim takes on the role of the perpetrator. If your only choices are between being the abuser or the victim, the urge to survive insists we take on the power the abuser seems to have. This is perhaps most familiar in the Stockholm Syndrome in which victims of kidnapping come to identify with their kidnappers, explaining to all who will listen that they really are not such bad people after all. Patty Hearst was the poster child for my generation of this frightening feature of the abused mind’s potential.

What power is that which the perpetrator wields that causes such pervasive disruptions to a person’s identity? The power to blind oneself to the value of another sentient being’s subjectivity. That is it. That is the great magical power – but it only enchants those who use it. It does not change the reality of the victim’s subjectivity. It is kind of like the two year old making the world disappear by covering their own eyes. The perpetrator pretends not to see the relationship with their victim as one consisting of I and Thou, but this is to deny what is obvious to the senses. The perpetrator knows that what they see in their victim’s eyes is equivalent to their own subjectivity. In a confused attempt to make the “I” real, to assert their own abused subjective value, they try to make the “Thou” unreal by pretending it is an object and not a fully sentient being. Then the rules governing a relationship between I and It take over, instead of the rules that are to govern relationships between I and Thou. In the narcissistic delusion the mind believes that by doing so it will become master of the world, no longer vulnerable to the shame and humiliation only another Thou can deliver.

This, then, becomes the ideal adult. It is the one we in the over-developed world have come to worship: the asshole, the action hero quick to kill a few hundred in every picture show, the gangster warlord who is a tough son of a bitch and seems to have the whole world just eating out of his or her hand. We are trying to decide right now which is the coolest – the soldier who drops cluster bombs and wipes out a few bad guys along with truck loads of children and brags about patriotism, or the CEO who lays off ten thousand hardworking household providers, then eats a feast that would have cost his workers a month’s salary and sleeps well that night. You know the types; they are on every channel, every day with the same old tiered script: “Look how awesome I can be because I do not care what you feel at all, I can torture you and eat a sandwich, doesn’t phase me a bit!” In our pain we come to believe hard-heartedness is humanity’s peak achievement.

Torture was supposed to be condemned, not worshipped.

The perpetrator has tortured their victim using sex, violence and emotional-cognitive manipulations. As the victim tries to process what has happened to them, particularly as children with no means of escaping the environments in which such tortures take place, a type of amnesia is created. Imagine, if you will, what it is like to wake up each morning in a home where you never know if you will be beaten again today, or worse. Additionally, if this is a child’s mind we are trying to empathize with, we need to add the fact that they have yet to know if they will ever be able to live a life outside the influence of their abusers. Children have yet to prove to themselves they can make it on their own. They know, in fact, that they cannot yet. They are not stupid.

The psychological solution that aids their survival is disassociation. One part of the self comes to know things about the truth of one’s own story that other parts of the self do not normally have access to. Sadly, a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The shunned part, like a thief in the night, will break into the daylight consciousness whenever the strength of repression grows weak. When that happens the human being will respond in less than skillful ways. The part that identified with the abuser will come clothed in anger at the vulnerability of the victim part that was sensitive enough to suffer so. Therapy consists of making some kind of peace between these warring parts. Healing comes when the person recognizes that the introjected abuser that is within them is not the same as the external person who caused the actual abuse. That, in fact, it is sharing the same body with all the rest of the parts of the mind’s psychological makeup.

The self is normally grounded through a set of nerve pathways connected to the major energy processing centers and senses of our physiology. When the therapist asks their client where they feel their pain they will typically point to one of the chakras. We can think of these nerve pathways as cords tying the mind to the gauges and instruments it uses to maintain homeostasis and orient itself within its environment. In the OOBE those cords are cut. To protect the ego from shattering in madness, the self is taken to a safe place concocted by the imagination. Another part of the person comes to take the place of the absent self and takes on the burden of the trauma. This part is then so disowned, repressed and denied that they come to feel like they are in another body entirely.

This becomes the source of the disassociative pain that accompanies most people who were abused as children throughout their lives. The part forced to play the role of the self remains a source of confusion as it continues its semi-conscious existence. It seems to get stuck in time and remains always on the lookout for the next attack. Abusive events in the external world of the adult can continue to trigger this part, which then takes over and deals with things as best it can. It has its say, speaks its truth to power, as it were, in binge drinking, violence, cutting or whatever and can then settle down again for awhile. When these things happen we say we were ‘not ourselves’ or ‘I don’t know what got into me.”

All people deal with this phenomenon to one degree or another. Consciousness itself seems to depend on opposites which creates a continuum of disassociation. Psychological maturity consists of re-associating these disparate parts so that we come to recognize, for example, that our early caregivers had elements of both good and evil in their hearts. Psychological maturity in general consists of the ability to tolerate complexity instead of insisting on the black and white thinking of childhood which would separate everyone into the overly simplistic categories of sinners and saints, angels and devils: Us and Them.

The painful dissociative confusion will remain a driving factor in the victim’s life to whatever degree the traumatized part remains un-integrated with the rest of a person’s life story. The direction is not further out into space on the wings of the ghost, out there with Major Tom that Bowie warned us about. We are not seeking the great Gnostic revelation of what the universe is all about. We are seeking to know that part of the universe given to us to know intimately. The direction is down and in. The work is to get to the place where the monster dwells and to unmask it by seeing the truth of our own past. Then we are succored by our own individual pain and our own individual joy. It puts an end to provisional living. We recognize we are living in a sacred world.

This is where this whole thing about working with dissociative persons gets rather fascinating. It is reported by councilors who work with the severely abused that often when they are dealing with a part like this, that part does not believe they are in the same body as the client. These clients suffer under the false idea that each part has its own body. The acting out associated with emotional pain often bears this mark. Those who cut themselves or who have eating disorders, to site two common examples, can be modeled as consisting of dynamic psychological parts that are using the body to make themselves heard or to satisfy their unmet needs – as if that body belonged to someone else. They use the body as if it were an object, instead of who and what they are. They treat themselves the way their abusers taught them to treat themselves.

This is where Descartes Error leads. Or, perhaps, this is where Descartes Error comes from.

The body, mind and imagination are all working together in this OOBE move to protect the survival of the victim. There is something within this body, mind and imagination complex that understands just what has happened in the psyche. It remains unconfused about what is real. The same physical continuity remains throughout all altered states of consciousness. The body does not lie, it knows the score.

There is a whole collection of psychological techniques designed to bring this truth to the alienated part, to orient the part again to the person. It is a milestone in treatment when someone is able to realize all the parts share the same body. Typically this insight requires a confrontational approach. One technique, for example, uses two chairs side by side. The councilor asks, say, the angry part to stay in the current chair while the client moves to the one next to it. Once the client is in that second chair the councilor , making eye contact, asks puzzled, ‘Hi angry part, why did you not stay in that chair?”

This might sound just too strange and of no use to us trying to get by in a time of ecological ignorance. What does it mean for a traumatized individual to recognize that all their psychological parts share the same body? Of course they do.

Yet, here we are – building weapons of mass destruction and mass deception as if we could poison one part of the earth’s skin with radiation and not poison ourselves in the process, or poison the public marketplace of ideas and not become fools ourselves. It is not a good thing that the war hawks are talking again about winning nuclear wars. It is not a good thing when we insist we can treat other human beings without concern for their individual differences, lumping the ones we do not like into object categories based on religion, race or politics and then treating them all like dirt: the ultimate It. We even treat dirt like dirt when we saturate our soils with chemicals and force it to produce the yield we desire. This too is not a good thing. All this is not much different than those occult treatises describing all manner of colorfully imaginative alternate realities the soul visits once it is freed from the shackles of the gross body. Somehow, long after the oil is gone and food harvests have become unreliable, we won’t mind because we will still be able to go shopping: our reward for keeping the faith and prioritizing economic growth above all else. We are acting as if we really believed this.

In our cultural confusion we honestly act as though a new, purified earth awaits us on the other side of our social and ecological collapse. To those who would abuse us so, to those who would hurt the earth this way, we should raise our voice and say the word that undoes the bewitchments: No. Not on my watch, not as long as I draw breath. The only tool I have in my arsenal is rational discussion. It might seem pale next to slo-mo close-ups of monsters and gore, but it has a power all its own. We cannot stop the abuse handed down the long generations. We are not personally responsible for the weapons of the mind or the weapons of the nucleus. We are asked to live our story, to contribute our thread to the tapestry of life this precious earth uses to cloak her nakedness from the cold of space. We should live them well, mindfully.

We do not need to remain in the liar’s double bind: “I am both responsible and helpless.” We can learn to train in both / and after we have graduated from the school of either / or. We do not need to remain Or Men, those who would cut everything Right In Two. It is not the case that our only choice is a bad one between becoming victims or perpetrators ourselves. We can choose to be compassionate adults, wise in the ways of the world. We can face our monsters and recognize when our gods are scarecrows of our own invention. We can learn to nurture the child within and protect the child without, the hope of our species. We can wake up. That is, we can learn to recognize when we are dreaming, dealing with psychological projections and emotion laden-images even when our eyes are open, and when we are not dreaming, when we are dealing with real things in our real molecular world.

“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen,
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all,
Your Eyes…”
David Bowie, Blackstar

The Assault Upon Identity

“From the beginning Dr. Vincent was told he was not really a doctor, that all of what he considered himself to be was merely a cloak under which he hid what he really was. And Father Luca was told the same thing… Backing up this assertion were all of the physical and emotional assaults of early imprisonment: the confusing but incriminating interrogations, the humiliating ‘struggles,’ the painful and constricting chains, and the more direct physical brutality. Dr. Vincent and Father Luca each began to lose his bearings on who and what he was, and where he stood in relationship to his fellows. Each felt his sense of self becoming amorphous and impotent and fall more and more under the control of its would-be remolders. Each was at one point willing to say (and to be) whatever his captors demanded.
Each was reduced to something not fully human and yet not quite animal, no longer an adult and yet not quite the child; instead, an adult human was placed in the position of an infant and stronger ‘adults’ or ‘trainers.’ Placed in this regressive stance, each felt himself deprived of the power, mastery, and selfhood of adult existence.
In both an intense struggle began between the adult man and the child-animal which had been created, a struggle against regression and dehumanization. But each attempt on the part of the prisoner to reassert his adult human identity and to express his own will (‘I am not a spy. I am a doctor’…) was considered a show of resistance and of ‘insincerity’ and called forth new assaults.
Not every prisoner was treated as severely as were Dr. Vincent and Father Luca, but each experienced similar external assaults leading to some form of inner surrender – a surrender of personal autonomy. This assault upon autonomy and identity even extended to the level of consciousness, so that men began to exist on a level which was neither sleep not wakefulness, but rather an in-between hypnogogic state. In this state they were not only more readily influenced, but they were also susceptible to destructive and aggressive impulses arising from within themselves.
This undermining of identity is the stroke through which the prisoner ‘dies to the world,’ the prerequisite for all that follows.”
Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, A Study of “Brainwashing” in China.

 

There is much in this quote of interest for many of mindful ecology’s concerns. Abused children are prisoners of their circumstances every bit as much as the unfortunates who find themselves behind bars during a political revolution, for example. The mass media, and the consumer culture generally, make it all too easy to remain little more than an adult-child hybrid monstrosity our whole lives. Waking up in the age of limits, mindful ecology’s little tag line, suggests we are suffering from a hypnogogic, trance-like condition; one whose spell is broken when we being to consciously wrestle with the reality of our ecological situation. It is, however, the point about how autonomy and identity are related that will concern us as our discussion of subjectivity continues.

“Our existence is not a crime,” read a headline in my Sunday paper. It was for a story about immigrants and captured a foreigner’s simple insistence on the equal value of their subjectivity. (Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the whales and worms, Redwoods and Mayflies, echoing, for the record, “Our existence is not a crime.”) Deportation and racism are evoking a response, at least in some, in which the very existence of the human beings being targeted feels as if it is threatened.

It is an interesting headline in light of the totalitarian ideology Robert Lifton studied. The Communist ‘re-education’ prisons and schools of the early 1950s implemented thought reform on behalf of the Maoist revolution with an enthusiasm, pervasiveness and strictly controlled set of techniques unlike anything any dictator had tried before. The rationale given was that the bourgeois were enemies of the people, tainted by thought crimes which made them unworthy to exist. Communism had come to save the laboring class from the exploitations of the imperialists. Those who could not be re-educated, or not given the chance, were killed. It is estimated two million were killed in the terror against counterrevolutionaries. Those who survived to build what is now modern China were the true believers, the products of ‘re-education.’

It was not enough for Mao that the people go about their lives conforming to the party’s dictates. As George Orwell explained in 1984, the power driving totalitarians is not satisfied with outer conformity. Whether they are religious or political, these authoritarians insist on something more. Wilson, the protagonist in Orwell’s novel, is tortured in the final scene. All the power of the state has been brought to bear, he must be taught to really believe that if the party says 2 + 2 equals 5, it does. He must ‘willingly’ give his autonomy over to those who have broken him. This is what is at stake in subjectivity. I have argued that the ecological crisis stole the optimism we once had in progress through technology and science. This left us exposed. The heartlessness of technology turned against mankind’s innermost sanctum is what Orwell’s genius captured so disturbingly: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face – forever.”

Robert Lifton’s study of “brainwashing,” today known as the study of undue influence, confronts us with an uncomfortable fact about our subjectivity – it can be molded to serve the interests of others. So far, that is little more than a truism, but here’s the rub: it can be done, to one degree or another, against our will. Think about this a moment, it is frightening. The brain of the Homo Sapien Sapien can be infected, programmed with double binds that act as viruses which will attack the very sense of identity by which that brain functions. Viruses seek to reproduce themselves, whatever the cost to the host, just as ideologies among populations do. To one degree or another, and no one is quite sure where the final lines lie, each and every human being is susceptible to these ‘re-education’ techniques and their aftermath.

If we are to grasp subjectivity it helps to understand how it can be perverted. The first step, Dr. Lifton explains, is an assault on a person’s identity. The quote opening this essay is from this section of his book. It is identity that is at stake in subjectivity. “Our existence is not a crime,” cries out the victim. “Oh contraire,” insists the destroyer, “your being is flawed.”

There are great dangers here. The will Schopenhauer discussed becomes complicated. What are we to make of this evidence that there exists a difference between what we might want to call the true will of an individual’s identity, and this programmed, robotic thing?

What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe? It is not inconceivable. The size of our galaxy is astonishing but its complexity is rather lower than that which is found in the brain, from one point of view anyway.

It is a fools game to insist one part of our universe is ultimately more valuable than any other. Interdependence, and an eye that appreciates the beauty of individuality, subverts any simplistic approach to ordering values in a hierarchy. Yet, due to having the nature I have, willing what it is I will, a universe without subjectivity would, it seems to me, be profoundly incomplete. It would be as if a necessary half were missing; not the right side, or left side – but the inside.

We see nature producing individuals by the trillions, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of any particular one. More specifically, in light of evolutionary theory, the fate of any one particular mating pair and their offspring does not receive more care and attention than any other. Chance rules (but the tinkerer remembers!). Still, as one of those many trillion of individuals, it has come to pass within me that what I care about most are a few other individuals whom I have come to know well. It is their individuality which I treasure. Which is just exactly what the outstanding fecundity of nature seems to show us has little worth.

What if what we experience on the inside, in our love and compassion for other individuals, is more real than what we experience on the outside, where chance seems to rule our fate? More accurately, what if the combination of will from the inside, meeting resistance on the outside, is exactly the friction needed to sustain consciousness at all? World-Soul making. What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe, or at least, what if it is as important as what we encounter objectively? What then of these crimes against the integrity of the self which we have been examining in the various techniques of mind manipulation, thought reform, and undue influence?

We have recognized crimes against humanity. Perhaps we have yet to recognize them all.

I want to be a caring human being; one whose daily activities nurture and support the earth on which I rely and the fellow human beings in which I come in contact. My needs are few and simple and yet the physical reality of my environment, mostly man made, does not make that possible. To survive in that environment I have been taught to be a competitive hard-nosed realist instead. After years of introspection, I am still not that clear about how voluntarily I chose this molding of my identity. My will includes the fierce power of the thunderstorm, as well as the fierce beauty of the tiger and the lily. Like a guardian angel it looks out for my survival. I am clear that when I took my seat on compassion, however, I swore to defeat that which lied to me, about me; whether I found it within or without.

Cruelty on the Cross

As social primates how others react to us is extremely important. Our expressions of ourselves through word and deed are self revealing, leaving us vulnerable to a cruel word or act from others. Since trust cannot be naively extended to strangers, we rely on the defense mechanism of the persona, the mask we wear when we are just going through the motions, as we say. Each of us is able to cover our uniqueness in a cloak of collectively defined characteristics; the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the flirt, the hard hearted businessman, and the cold calculating player of real politic, to name a few. Whatever our chosen mask, for most of us the primary personas are molded into our nervous systems by the time we leave high school. As adults we become adapt at shifting masks as needed.

When the environment is safe and secure, when we can trust the ones around us not to hurt us cruelly, we are able to relax and, as we say, be ourselves. We are fed and nourished in these times as the reflection of ourselves in another’s eyes makes us real; they confirm our own perceptions and expressions. The ear and the tongue evolved together: we are story tellers at heart and love to share with one another. The smile is the ticket to the heartstrings and it plays a fine song, given the chance. We humans laugh, and when the laughter is free of malice, its sound is pure praise celebrating this moment, just as it is. Joyful moments shared with others are memories every human being holds dear.

In the abusive home this environment of safety is missing, so those within its walls are unable to receive the nurturance required by mammals of the social primate flavor. In an overly competitive society, such as ours, there is no external security to be found either. Arguably, everyone in such a society suffers some degree of self alienation, everyone is abused by the worship of cruelty as the final arbiter of power. In our fear, surrounded as we are by so many threats and dangers, we find it hard to take off our masks; to relax, safe and content. The danger is that then our lives can become little more than circus shows, staged for one another but not lived with one another.

The point, of course, is to live an authentic life. To use the masks, understand them and their role, but never to confuse the mask with the living flesh of the face it covers.

This, I think, is what the Jesus story and the crucifixion is teaching. That is a human face on that cross. It asks us to have compassion on the suffering being displayed. Which is stronger for you, on which will you ultimately place your faith: the cruelty of empire or the compassion of flesh? The Gospels provide just enough detail that we recognize an individual within their pages. On the cross this individual suffers the cruelty of torture, exposing the vulnerability of the flesh, but even more so that of the heart. On the cross Jesus wears no mask. Reality – this cosmic, mysterious thing made by an unknown – is its own balm, a harsh taskmaster at times, but not nearly as cruel as mankind can be to itself when we choose cruelty instead of love. This icon of Christianity teaches us torture hurts, it is wrong. It is a stake in the emotional ground. It may have additional religious meaning also but what I want to point out is it is much more pedestrian than that. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is real. And this action is wrong.

Emotion and values are inseparably linked. In our pursuit of value-free greed, we as a people have not had much respect for the inner, subjective life of the emotions. Animals, women and children were all thought to be ruled by their feelings, and hence lesser beings. To accept that what other people feel matters, that how I make them feel matters, is to invite a whole host of values captured in the universal Golden Rule. These threaten the values being used to prop up this consumer society in which status, as conferred by wealth and fame, is held up as the alternative ideal. When the powerful use this view to argue that the values of war are as serviceable for a society as those of compassion, they commit, in my mind, a crime against the truth. We cannot remake ourselves over into the image of our machines; cold, calculating robots capable of pushing the nuclear button without flinching. We are not our own creators.

To be human is to be, first, a mammal. The line of mammals is characterized by a unique trait: they show extended care for their young. From this quite real biological, emotional, and cognitive experience attachment bonds are formed. Mammals come to express care and compassion among themselves their whole life long. Second, we humans are primate mammals, and social primates at that. This means we have evolved around the need to need each other. The individual’s biological, emotional, and cognitive structures are attuned to reading and responding to social signals from others in our tribe.

Christianity is catholic; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross, just as it is in the icon of the meditating Buddha. The cross asks what do you, personally, choose to do about the fact human beings are capable of inflicting torture upon one another? That is the psychological maypole around which we are built. In the icon of the corpus on the cross the mystery is openly displayed. The psyche aligns itself either towards the pole of ‘I will not torture another sentient being whatever the cost,’ or not.

It is important to be clear we are talking about torture: the deliberate desire to inflict maximum pain through cruelty. Arguably all killing is suspect from compassion’s point of view, as the Jains have it, but how can there be an absolute rule when protectors need to execute evil when necessary? Regardless, what soldiers typically do on the battlefield is not the same violation of the integrity of another being’s subjectivity torture entails. Only acts of sexual and sever psychological abuse begin to position themselves on the spectrum of ‘soul violation’ that ends in torture.

The Gospel is about a man who learns to call this creator-mystery, this cosmic force of deep time planted on earth from out of deep space, by the most intimate form of address possible. Though Christianity typically speaks about god the father, Jesus addressed god as daddy, the child’s loving address, as if to teach that this cosmic force by which we were created is to become personalized by our fully becoming human. A task, I might add, no one who has ever lived has ultimately failed at. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe, for the very human love we share witnesses otherwise.

Torture rightly frightens the human animal. And so, in the Christian mythology, we are taught by ‘god’ to watch how people use this ability to be so cruel to one another. It is ‘his’ revelation. That cruelty, the teaching goes, kills the god among men.

These evolved traits around compassion are as real in the realm of human experience as gravity is. Our biology, emotions, and cognitions bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a supernatural, magical bogey man. It is the cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.

Samsara

PewTorturePollI think every citizen of the world’s various governments should read the report released last week to the U.S. senate summarizing the use of torture by the CIA in the years 2001 to 2009.

In this Christmas season many millions of Christians worldwide honor their image of deity in the form of a child. Yet Christianity’s iconic image, which shocked the ancient world, is not the stable first constructed by St. Francis of Assisi but the crucifix, that of a man being tortured to death. What Buddha taught was kind of subtle; how the mind makes the world we experience. What Jesus taught was not subtle at all, at all: torture man and you kill god. The corpus on the cross is stating this in as clear of terms as it is possible to get: that which would torture is damned, cut off from the divine. There have been centuries of thought devoted to the theological meaning of the crucifixion but might the most basic message be the most important ?

I have avoided the subject of politics on this blog up to this point and do not anticipate turning to it often from here on out either. Still there are times events touch on aspects of this blog’s project so directly it is worth taking the risk of alienating some readers to explore them. As a lifelong member of Amnesty International I think it is important to use the fact that there is torture going on in the world – right now – as a subject for our contemplations. It is important to recognize just what it is that we are seeking to liberate ourselves and all other sentient beings from. Samsaric ignorance is what we are trying to overcome by our practice of meditation; we are looking for the middle way between extreme views of all kinds. The enlightened mind can only be born in a heart of Bodhichitta, a heart of loving kindness. This shows how twisted the paths have become for those whose karma has lead them to these hallways of horror, how very far lost it is possible to become.

Torture – what the human mind created, it can undo.

To avoid being misunderstood I want to say at the outset that I think it is important everyone on earth becomes aware of this report not to join the bandwagon of the many, many voices heaping scorn and derision on the United States. Just the opposite actually. The form of government in the United States and the track record of its relationship with other countries and peoples is one of the most precious chapters in the history of civilizations. Even if it is only in its rhetoric, it has tried to affirm the rights of the individual above state and religion. This is in stark contrast to those religions that dictate what can be thought to their members and those despots that lord it over their critics with death squads and torture.

I do not think I have a Pollyanna view of the United States and its role in history. Yet it seems to me only ignorance would refuse to agree there is an important difference between its actions in the world and say, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or the Stalinist purge or the Nazi death camps. Critics of the empire the United States can all too easily lose sight of these vital differences in the rhetoric that would paint the US as the great Satan.

I am of the opinion that the US has acted in horrific ways many times and deserves much of the criticism it currently receives. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about my country it would be that we would listen carefully to our critics and take their concerns to heart as ways to help us become a better society. Having spent my whole life in the states my experience has been that the people who do “most of the working and paying and living and dying” would give you the shirt off their backs if it was needed. It is for these citizens I recommend a long, sober contemplation of this senate report. All the blowback from our country’s selfishly evil deeds, manipulations of lives and minds, death dealings and lies are coming home to roost. Perhaps it is naïve but I place my hope in the hands of these people because among them I think it is just possible for a mature understanding to develop about our country’s place in the world. Our most probable future is going to be characterized by payback on so many levels; ecological yes but political, economic, social and religious as well. We already see our cities aflame and our coasts flooded. My hope is that the quite majority are willing to accept the discipline of enduring the results of our mistakes with an eye to learning from them. As this century unfolds and the American empire unravels, as I believe it most probably will, there will be an opportunity to return to the political and cultural roots that once made this country a shining light on the hill, a source of hope for millions of the poor and downtrodden the world over.

It is just these considerations that provide the proper context for appreciating just how lost the world-wide modern industrialized societies have become. So how then should people seeking to stay awake respond to such an item as this senate report? First we should recognize that the details in the report are about real human beings who inflicted and suffered these events. Second we should recognize that this is a cyclic event. Every so often the CIA is dragged through the mud in public. The last time was during the 1970s investigations led by Senator Church. We collectively cast our shadow on this whipping boy and feel better when the whole thing quickly disappears down the empire’s memory hole. Nothing is fundamentally changed by the process but our image of ourselves gets a face lift.

What do these despicable actions teach us about the human condition? Acts of barbarism are caused by rigidity of consciences, a result of extreme views. This fixation, lost in concepts without feeling, is ego mind. Mara, the devil. Spinner of illusions and lies. Doesn’t that characterize well what these station chiefs, trainers and army recruits were chasing down these corridors of hell? Here’s why it is so hard for those who have participated in these kinds of things. Sacred world requires seeing the entire world with a type of purity that is born of absolute acceptance. It is hard to accept one’s self in unconditional terms when acts of blasphemy against awareness haunt the conscience. There is no final escape from conscience, the hounds of heaven and all that. They are so sure they are so right… until they are not.

It is taught that it is possible to purify all evil deeds, obscurations and degrading actions but it is remorse and regret that unlocks these powers. Neither individuals nor countries can hide behind weasel words like extrajudicial punishment and enhanced interrogation techniques. That we show no regret and remorse is just a sign of how full blown our psychopathology has become. The psychopath / sociopath are defined by having no regret when regret is the proper response. When it is missing it is due to ignorance, an inability to see there is something to be remorseful about, just as we see in this national spin about the torture we committed a few years ago.

The world created by these mental delusions is known as samsara. Classically it has been likened to a world on fire, a pit of snakes and an island of cannibals. It is not hard to see how these describe the world such unfortunates inhabit: world on fire, a war zone; pit of snakes, everyone’s full of poisons; island of cannibals, what we call dog-eat-dog. It is not surprising that those who live in this mind created world, creating nightmares for themselves and other people also easily create nightmares for the environment. People so caught up in exclusively anthropomorphic concerns can hardly spare a thought for spilling poisons in a river or anything else along those lines.

There are a number of important lessons to draw from this pathetic turn of affairs in foreign affairs, not least is the new note being played; the total lack of remorse. These evil acts are condemned not because they contradict the history of American ideals and centuries of international law but because the techniques did not prove to be effective. This, I suggest, is a frighteningly clear indication of just how far the so-called leader of the free world has lost its bearings. It is hard to think straight about politics in our time. The public square has become dominated by Ph.D.-level psychological spin-doctoring, the internet has created an echo chamber where any nutty idea can find encouragement and the mass media has become almost wholly irrelevant by refusing to take up any of the truly important issues facing our society. It has been said that the American people get the government they deserve and it is true we citizens have become all-together too complacent with our corporate sponsored infantalization. Still this lack of remorse should be capable of penetrating even our hardened, manipulated hearts.

To think straight about modern political philosophy it is important that we recognize the role played by the desire for creating utopia through the enlightenment project that is coming unraveled all around us in our time. The ancient wisdom teaches that this was always destined to be a quixotic attempt since samsara has always been broken and cannot be fixed. To think straight also requires that once we see this clearly we do not swing to the opposite extreme and disregard any and all attempts to seek a better way of being in this world. There are differences between living under the barbarism of the killing fields and not, and these differences matter a great deal.

In some perversion of human experience we have come to expect a life without hardship, to be continually entertained and to never be put upon to do what we do not feel like doing. The fake world of the advertisers is made of images and emotions and it is as if we have shoved our heads into that fantasy land and insisted to all the world that we are living in utopia. Just like the marketing messages are designed to have us react. Meanwhile as our heads are surrounded by sex, violence, anger, yelling, power plays and all the rest of it, the real world our bodies occupy is becoming daily less and less capable of supporting living things and the clash between nations is growing more and more harsh.

All of this serves as a reminder for why we practice. Seeing deeply into samsara provides the fuel. The aspiration remains to relieve those who suffer as expressed in the traditional Buddhist prayer. During practice we recognize our minds classify all sentient beings into three groups. There are those we love and who love us that we hold close to ourselves. There are those we hate and who have harmed us and others that we push as far away from ourselves as we can. Finally there are all those who we neither love nor hate but are simply indifferent to their fate one way or the other. The traditional aspiration works with all three groups. In the traditions that include visualizations we are taught to see the group of enemies as in front of us, that they hold one of the keys to our heart of loving kindness.

Compassion is the way to peace. Recognizing the ignorance involved, the snares of samsara, it is possible to embrace even these darknesses without condemning the species capable of them.