Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reflection, Metacognition and Presence.

It’s been years since my last blog post. I abandoned this blog on purpose with the intention that I'd be back someday but so much time went by that I forgot I even had a blog. I was reminded by one of those Facebook “on this day” memory things that pop up when Facebook is desperate for more content. It would be pathetic if Facebook were a thing I could feel pity for. 

Anyway, my blog about Cosmic Rays popped up in my news feed…on this day from seven years ago! I read through it and some of my other old blog posts and I realized that I’m proud of the work I did here and I want to continue it. This blog was a tool in a mission of open-hearted curiosity about the universe. It was a spiritual journey for me, even if that sounds cheesy. That’s how I think about learning.

Ironically, my last post was about why I was leaving Facebook. I did leave Facebook, for a year. I started to list all the reasons why I returned but then I realized they are boring and we all know the pro’s and con’s of Facebook, there’s no reason to spell them out. At some point, it might be interesting to delve into the ways Facebook is manipulating our brain chemistry, but not today.

So that covers my departure and return to Facebook, but what about this blog?

Of course, there are the normal reasons why I gave up blogging: I got busy, I was working on my career/relationships/fitness, I didn’t want to get home from work and then spend more time in front of a computer, etc… All of that is real, sure. But additionally, one of the big reasons I abandoned this blog was because I felt some shame about the two rather emotional posts I made, What Friends Are and Why I Left Facebook, and Philosophical Crisis/Cry For Help. Both of these posts were published during this year-or-two long time in my life where I was just generally unhappy all the time. These emotional posts were a departure from the original intention of this blog, which was exploring topics I found interesting, learning about cool stuff, and Nerding Out! I didn’t want this blog to turn into some embarrassing live-journal where I over-share on the internet and let other people ogle my pain while I romanticize it. So, I stopped blogging and Facebooking for a while and got my shit together privately.

The risk of emotion-based publication is that emotions are mercurial. I’m willing to propose that there is nothing more impermanent than how we feel. We can’t even trust our memory about how we felt at the time because there is no distinct neural path for making memories and recalling them. Each time we recall a memory, we change it, re-color it based on how we feel during recollection, mix it with imagination and then we have an entirely new scenario that could have very little to do with what actually happened. Memories can’t be trusted. There is a really good RadioLab about this phenomenon, check it out here

 Since memories are such malleable things, it can be astonishing to go back and re-read what I wrote in the times when I’ve committed my feelings to text. I’m like, "woah, did I actually feel like that? Was everything so dramatic? I certainly don’t remember it being like that." But it was, and I know it was because I wrote it down…and published it! (facepalm).

This is why journaling is so powerful, it gives you a window into a past you; a you that you can’t even remember being.

When we learn something new or change into a person we like better, we like to believe that we’ve always known that thing or that we’ve always been like this. This mentality is called hindsight bias. It was well investigated in the 70’s when psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman performed an experiment where they asked subjects to judge the likelihood that certain events will take place. Some time later, after said events were done and over with, the subjects were asked to recall the probabilities they had assigned to those events from earlier. It was shown that subjects were extremely likely to over-estimate the probabilities they had given for the events that actually occurred. In short, our brains love to think we knew it all along.

When we look at ourselves, we’re like, “I’ve always had these political opinions. I never liked that thing that turned out to be awful. I was always as cool, confident and emotionally reasonable as I am now. Socially awkward? Dramatic and reactionary? ME?? Never.” But we’re wrong. We change and learn a lot in our lives and if we have a written record of our emotions, we can prove it to ourselves.

I’ve kept journals since before I could write. I have big heavy boxes of them in storage at my dad’s house. Some of my journals from elementary and middle school would be humiliating if they weren’t so hilarious. I sincerely wish I could post a page from one of my old journals, but alas, they are on the other side of the world. Suffice it to say, they weren’t too far from this:

Poor kid, can't you see code name S{qÙlt<3 isn't into you??

or this <--- This one is narrated by actors and it's very entertaining. My favorite is November 2nd. 

Yes, looking back on our most intimate and personal thoughts from when we were younger is very funny. Why? Because we can only vaguely relate to them now. It’s absurd that these kinds of silly things were so important to us at the time. There’s an entire performance called Mortified that is just people reading their embarrassing childhood diaries. Can you imagine how humiliated 4th grade you would be if you knew that someday your deepest, darkest secrets were going to be read aloud and laughed at by a room full of adult strangers? I’ve seen Mortified, and it is indeed funny-as-fuck. I recommend checking it out if there is a show near you.

But reflecting on how we used to think isn’t just funny, there is also a solid research base suggesting that when your previous understanding of a certain topic is engaged, you can more effectively assimilate new information, even if your previous understanding was wrong.

In “How People Learn, Bridging Research and Practice”, from the National Academics Press, an experiment is described where experts and novices in a certain topic are asked to think aloud when presented with a problem. A notable difference between experts and novices was that experts constantly take inventory of how new information compares with what the knowledge base they’ve already built. If new information conflicts with previously held beliefs, experts tend to address the conflict and engage themselves in an internal dialogue to figure out what they need to alter about their knowledge base in order to assimilate this new information. It’s not just that good learners have an excellent memory, it’s also that they are very good at finding places for new building blocks of information. When information is organized in a systematic and categorical way inside our brains, it's much easier to recall. Good learners know that in order to continue building their knowledge base, they must sometimes discard their foundations and get rid of preconceptions that no longer make sense when compared to new information. 

When I was in college, I worked for professor named Andrew Boudreaux. His field is physics education so his research was all about how to most effectively teach students physics. His experiment entailed getting students to commit to some line of reasoning in ink, then perform the experiment, and later compare their original way of thinking to what they’ve learned. Of course, this is where hindsight bias kicks in. Lots of students thought that they knew the right answer all along, even though they originally wrote down the wrong answer! But the ones who could identify a contrast between how they used to think and how they think now, as well as the event that triggered this change, were the most successful. Boudreaux thought the key to solidifying a concept in one’s mind was to use metacognition and reflection. In other words, observe yourself learning. Watch how your thinking changes. Those who notice themselves learning, end up learning the most.

What I get out of that: if you want to be an expert at life and learn the most along the way, spend time in honest reflection on the ways you’ve changed. I love doing this. Every now and then I’ll binge-read a few years worth of journals. It’s always a big project. It’s fun to look at your own life as though you are some kind of anthropologist, putting all the pieces together about who you are and where you’ve come from.

In between my last post and now I’ve gone through several different epochs of Valerie. And yeah…some of them were fairly dark and depressing. At one point in the last few years, I started a research campaign about depression with the intention of making a blog post about it, but I lost interest and gave up on it, of course. That’s the nature of depression. If you don’t know what depression is like, here is a comic that gives a pretty spot-on description.

I had depression for a while, but I don’t anymore. I feel generally content now and I have for a few years. Of course, I get sad sometimes, but it doesn’t feel empty and hopeless like it used to.  I also feel like I’ve grown out of depression and I doubt I’ll have it again (did I just jinx myself?).

Employing Andrew Boudreux’s method of identifying learning events that triggered these changes in me brings me to the next topic that I really wanted to write about today: presence. I got better at living in the moment and it helped me come out of my depression. Yes, it seems counter-intuitive to reflect on my past and realize that being in the present was what really brought about a big change in my emotional state, but that’s how it happened. So, I want to talk about what I’ve learned about presence. 

One way to practice being present is to meditate. My goal in meditation is to be completely alert, aware, and conscious of everything that’s happening inside my body and around me. If my mind starts to wander away, as it always does, I notice where it went and I anchor it back to the present by concentrating on my breath.

Many meditation practices focus on breath. If you listen to a guided meditation, chances are you will hear some soothing voice instruct you to experience the entire cycle of breath as it enters your nostrils, fills your lungs and your belly and then leaves again. Breath is an essential tool for keeping your mind in the here and now. 

I have this coworker who seems to be the calmest most non-reactionary person I’ve ever met. He used to be in the navy and he lived on a submarine with a crew of people. Could you imagine what that would be like? I can’t even share a hotel room with my sister without getting into some petty argument. The thought of being trapped on a submarine with a bunch of my coworkers for months at a time sounds like a nightmare. A person would have to have tremendous control over their mental and emotional state in order to live like that. One time at work, I heard him take a deep, slow breath. Since I’ve been meditating, I notice when people do that. I said to him, “Nice deep breath, I like that.” And he responded, “Yes, breath is my secret weapon.” And then I knew, he totally gets it!

Why breath, though? What is it about breath?

First of all, why do we need to breathe? 

Every cell in our bodies requires oxygen in order to convert sugars from food into energy. Here is the chemical equation for what happens in our bodies as we take in oxygen:

Oxygen + Glucose Energy + Carbon dioxide + water

6O2 + C6H12O6 36 ATP + 6CO2 + 6H2O

As you can see above, when we respirate, 6 oxygen molecules interact with glucose to form carbon dioxide (this is a waste product that we exhale), water (useful for all kinds of things in our body), and ATP (cellular energy).

When we are doing some strenuous cardio activity, our bodies start burning energy faster, so our rate of breathing naturally increases. As our breathing increases, the activity in our bodies starts going wild. Quick, shallow breaths are telling our cells, “it’s time! Make some energy now! We need it!”.  However, breath is one of the few bodily functions that we can control. It’s possible to slow down the production of cellular energy in your body by taking slower, deeper breaths. This calms the body and allows it to focus all cellular energy only on what it needs in this moment. In this way, breath can propel us through difficult physical postures that our mind desperately wants our body to come out of. Yoga makes use of this fact. Breath is intrinsically linked to the entire practice of yoga. 

The oxygen that we inhale comes from the process of photosynthesis which occurs in green plants and certain bacteria.  Remember that chemical equation from above? Plants have a complimentary equation:

Light + Carbon Dioxide + water Oxygen + Glucose

Light + 6CO2 + 6H2O  6O2 + C6H12O6

You can see that plants use the energy from light to break apart carbon dioxide and water in order to produce sugars for cellular energy and, luckily for us, oxygen as a waste product.

Since every particle of oxygen we take into our bodies was exhaled by another organism, breathing is a way to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city. Breathing is a reminder that we are completely dependent on other life forms.

When we breathe in, we are taking in matter from outside of our skin and making it part of us. In this way, breath is a reminder that there is no separateness. This is true from a physical perspective in multiple, verifiable ways. There is no separateness.

If we could observe our skin through a window about 10 nanometers wide, we would see swirls of interactions constantly taking place. We’d see particles that we think of as “ours” constantly swapping positions, blending, and intermingling with the air. It wouldn’t be possible to determine where our bodies end and where the “outside” world begins. It only stands to reason that there is no outside world.

We don’t even exist in one place at one time. Because of wave/particle duality, all the tiniest pieces of our bodies have an extended nature. As I look across the room I’m in, I know that in the reality of quantum physics, all the particles in my body exist in multiple places throughout this room. Therefore, I exist in multiple places throughout this room. I exist in multiple places throughout the whole world, in fact. I’ve left traces of myself in every place I’ve ever visited. It’s highly likely that my wave function overlaps with someone else’s…maybe with many other people’s. I find myself here on this couch because my conscious mind decides that this is the most probable place for me to be. This decision is an observation, which means my wave functions collapse into this location.

Sometimes when I’m on a crowded train or a plane, I like to imagine all the particles in my body swirling and intermingling with everyone and everything around me and my wave function vibrating into their wave functions, creating interference fringes. 

Here is a very good TED talk that describes what it’s like to be immersed in this feeling, please watch it. Seriously, it’s so moving. It’s the best TED talk I’ve ever seen.  

This feeling is nirvana, and it’s only accessible in the present moment. We can’t get there if our brains are dwelling on something that happened in the past or consumed with something that will happen in the future.

Being present is realizing that we are not our stories about ourselves. Our egos create story-based identities surrounding memories about our lives… but memories can’t be trusted, remember? Even if our memories were completely accurate they are based on tiny sets of limited data. We are talking about the infinitesimal sliver of information we were able to gather from the following information:

-What was directly in front of us during that cross-section of space and time.

-What occurred in the teeny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to humans, or in the small portion of pressure-wave frequencies that our ears can detect.

-Whatever our brain picked out of the situation and decided was important enough for us to notice, which is a tiny slice of everything that was happening right then and there.

-If it involved another person, then the variables about what was going on in their lives and minds go off the charts.

-And to put a bow on this big, sloppy jumble, we add another total uncertainty: the way we interpreted all this information. It’s important to remember that even if our memories remain unchanged, our interpretation of events changes as time goes on. For example, a young child might think “Mommy is making me eat vegetables when I want to eat candy! She is mean! She doesn’t love me!” and as adults we realize, “Mom made me eat vegetables because she loves me and she wanted me to be healthy.”

We aren’t our memories. This is all just a bunch of bullshit that our egos hang on to in order to make us feel separate. The ego thrives on barriers between the “self” and “everyone else”. Those barriers aren’t real.

All of this is especially important for the times in our lives when we use these stories to create an identity around being a victim. We all know people who are trapped in victim mentality. They are convinced that everyone is doing things to intentionally try to hurt them; that bad things happen to them all the time and that those bad things have made them who they are. They are always talking about their misfortunes or angry about the ways other people have wronged them. This sounds familiar to me, I’ve definitely been that person before. It’s hard to let go of. It takes work. It takes practice.

I’m nowhere near existing in the present moment all the time, my ego often finds ways to creep in and steal the present moment away from me. My ego loves to dwell on annoying conversations I’ve had with people and practice the witty responses I should have given. Why? That conversation is over. My ego also loves making up some pretend scenario of what the future will look like. Why? So I can be disappointed when it doesn’t look like that? There’s nothing logical about what the ego does. It's just useless chatter that contributes negativity to my life. It’s best to silence the ego entirely. How? Get back to the present: Breathe. Notice details around you. Listen to all the sounds occurring in your space. Feel your heart beat. Feel the air on your skin. Do whatever you need to do in order to be right here right now.

The other morning I was riding my bike through a forested park on my way to work and dwelling on something that annoys me. Once I realized what I was doing and snapped back into the present, I noticed that I was riding through a beautiful downpour of bright red leaves. Huge, deciduous tree trunks were swaying in the wind in every direction. The morning sun was streaming through the branches. The air was chilly and refreshing to breathe. My cheeks felt nice and cold in the wind. I started peddling harder and laughing.  I became completely enthralled. It was a perfect moment, it always is.

We don’t have to wait for some pretend afterlife in the clouds where everything is great all the time. It already is great. The present is perfect. This is nirvana. This is heaven. This is God.

I know this is true because a person can feel it when they encounter deep truths. A great teacher named Christopher Hareesh Wallace taught me that the truest things don’t feel learned, they feel remembered. 

I think, in general, all the best spiritual teachers are on to the same thing. They are all telling us to be completely here for life.  This is what the Buddha found when he sat in meditation under the bodhi tree. This is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke about forgiveness: you can only forgive someone by letting go of the past and being with them in the present. It’s also what Jesus was talking about when he told us to be like the lilies in the field: the lilies of the field don't have anxiety about the future, they live in the here and now. This is what practitioners of voodoo are feeling when they let the spirit ride them. This is the feeling we are striving for when we go to our yoga mats. The present moment is the path to the spirit.

I love thinking about this and I could write about it for a very long time, and I often do when I journal. There’s no need to go on for longer here. Other authors have done a great job exploring this topic. If you want more literature like this I recommend that you read Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hahn, Tara Brach, and please recommend more authors for me to read, if you’ve read good books about presence.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What Friends Are and Why I Left Facebook

I left Facebook recently. I left behind a lot. I had over 1,000 friends. Many of them I had met while traveling the world. Without Facebook, I will likely never hear from them again. I used Facebook as a storage location for lots of pictures and memories. Now that I am off Facebook, those tokens will be lost for me. I play in a band and I used Facebook to get people to come to shows and events as well as to stay in the loop with other peoples’ shows and events. Now that I am off Facebook, it will be much more difficult to know when events are occurring or to get lots of people together in one place at one time.

Facebook can be used in very positive ways. If I was only using it in the above ways, I would have never left.

I left Facebook because I was also using it in unhealthy, destructive ways. I was using Facebook to construct an identity for myself and other people. I was using vague status updates that more than 1,000 people saw as a way to get someone (anyone!) to fulfill a need that I had to feel loved, supported, and accepted. I was using Facebook as a soap box to stand on and champion my own self righteous ideas about how the world should work. Sometimes I was posting things on Facebook because I wanted certain people to see and I wanted to hurt them or show them they are wrong in discreet, underhanded ways. I substituted Facebook for real human interaction and communication.

I’m young and I’m learning a lot right now. I’m learning about myself and why I feel the way I feel. I’m learning how to honestly communicate my feelings to other people. I’m learning how to be a good friend and how to love another person. I’m learning how to listen to and understand other people. I’m learning how to forgive people and let them grow. I’m learning how to admit that I’m wrong and imperfect and realize that I still deserve love. I’m learning that every other person in this world is just as intricate and complex as I am. I’m learning that no one is good and no one is bad…we are all stumbling through this confusing world trying to figure things out in our own ways at our own pace.

Facebook was enabling some horrible misconceptions I had about the world: Mistakes are permanent, friends are disposable, and peoples’ entire identity and intentions can be extracted from minimal information. I was basing my ideas about people on some really non-human things; Specifically, lines of text or images.

Text is perhaps the worst way possible to communicate. Intentions are entirely lost. There are people that base their entire lives on debating what fantastic writers of literature meant when they wrote certain things. We compromise everything beautiful and heart-felt about interpersonal communication when we surrender to the convenience of communicating via written text.

Here’s a really bad habit I have: misunderstanding, simplifying, and compartmentalizing people. I think I’m not alone on this bad habit. I think we all distill other people into static, one dimensional shadows cast from our own assumptions and projections.

When I was using Facebook, I was projecting an image of myself that I wanted the world to see. We should always be suspicious of the self that is edited and designed for public eyes. That’s not a real person. That’s a shadow person.

Real people are so complex that it takes a life time to figure them out, even if you live inside of one’s body. We like to forget that. We like to simplify people. We do this when we disagree with someone or when we feel hurt or threatened by them. We also do this when we admire and idolize someone. We like to categorize people like this: evil asshole or perfect being who could do no wrong.

We don’t take the time to consider other peoples’ experience, their insecurities and the intricate ways they rationalize things or respond to different inputs. Why don’t we do this? Because we have compartmentalizing brains that function via association. We are quite literally taking stimuli from outside of ourselves and sorting it into different physical locations in our brains based on categories that we have created throughout our lives.

Check out this this awesome research done at University of California, Berkeley where subjects got an MRI while they watched movie trailers with all the objects and actions labeled on the screen. With the data from the MRI, researchers were actually able to map the areas to which people categorize different objects and actions. You can play with the brain map!! Check it out:

To really know someone, you might need to have a category that contains only that one person with thousands of subcategories for all their intricacies, experiences, mannerisms, life-patterns, ect…

Facebook allows us to “know” so many people that we couldn’t possibly KNOW any of them.  We need to create over-arching categories and make sure people are simple enough that they fit neatly inside of them.

Category: people you don’t like. People in this category do these things and act this way. Someone you like could never do those things or act that way. If they do, you need to switch their compartment…quick!

Facebook makes our friends seem disposable. The minute they step outside of the box we’ve created for them, we can delete them from our lives in one mouse click. Or, even if we don’t delete them…we can decide that we don’t like them anymore and feel justified in our reasoning. Facebook makes the number of people available to us as friends seem infinite. Why take the time to figure out why one person is saying things that hurt/annoy/offend you when you could simply delete them or ignore them and find another friend who is a perfect shadow person and could do no wrong?

We hurt people because we misunderstand and simplify them. This is what humans do. We’ve done it forever. I happen to be in Europe right now. I’m staying in Brno. I went to this labyrinth of tunnels under the city and saw a dungeon where people were imprisoned and tortured. There was an exhibit of a cage where they used to put mentally handicapped people. In this part of the world during the middle ages, the explanation for mental retardation was an obsession with the devil. The cages were sized so that these people couldn’t stand up or lay down. It was built to be physically exhausting and uncomfortable. They would be put on public display inside of the cage. The mentally disabled people had no idea what was going on or why they were being tortured.

This is obviously not the only example in history of persecution based on misunderstanding and making assumptions about people. In fact, I’m willing to suggest that this is the cause of every single historical event involving any sort of violence. We come up with overly simple reasons for why people behave in ways we don’t understand. These reasons tend to be that they are just evil, they are just BAD people. This allows us to be as cruel to them as we want.

I left Facebook because it’s giving me the tools I need to make negative assumptions about people based on limited evidence. I left Facebook because I was using it to project an untrue and simplified image of myself and what my life is like. I left Facebook because I felt like none of my experiences were authentic anymore; like I was just doing things so I could tell Facebook about it and make myself seem however I wanted to seem to other people at the time.

I recently lost a friend that I care about a lot due to mutual misunderstanding, negative assumptions, and communication solely via written text. I don’t want that to happen again. I want to understand my friends. I want friends that require time, open-hearted communication, listening and understanding. I want friends that confuse and frustrate me until we decide that we love and value each other enough to hash it out and figure out where we are both coming from. I want friends that let me grow and change. I want friends that forgive me for sometimes pissing them off with the way I am learning how to deal with this world. I want friends that communicate with me in person so I can hear their voice, their story, their intentions, so that I can hold their hand and see their expression when they deliver their words.

 I want real friends. I want to live for real and stop living for pretend. I want to be completely honest about who I am and what I’m feeling. I want to be understood. I want to understand people. These are my main goals in life right now. Facebook is not helping me get there. I’m breaking up with all my Facebook friends until I learn what real friends are and how to tell the difference. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I'm am about to describe the things I found out via the internet about a religion that is affiliated with a culture that I am not part of and know very little about. I understand this is the quickest way to accidently say something totally stupid/ignorant/offensive. As such, I feel the need to explain why I am interested in learning about voodoo before I do anything else.

Voodoo is something I've wanted to know more about for a very long time but only recently looked into.

It started in college when I took an education class (one of many) in order to get an endorsement to teach science. The class was called Science and Society and in this class we were tasked with picking apart various non-western traditions (astrology, acupuncture...ect) and exposing all the reasons why these things were "pseudo-science". It seemed to me that a large part of the class was applying our western values to various belief systems that none of us could really claim to know anything about. It also seemed to me that the whole attitude behind this class was congratulating ourselves on our superior, well-informed, western beliefs and scoffing at cultures that don't base their beliefs on the all-mighty, infallible, scientific method. It felt like supremacy to me. I didn't like it.

One of the texts from this class was called "Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud". I remember being annoyed at the title.

"That's someone's religion!" I said to my professor.

"Well, what would you call the book?" He asked.

"I don't know...Debunking Pseudoscience?"

"And then you'll never sell a book"

...And we moved on to talking about how people who believe in intelligent design aren't interested in facts or some other judgmental bullshit about other peoples' deep seated beliefs, as though ours are intrinsically better. It's the same kind of self righteousness that makes people think science and spirituality need to be pitted against each other instead of seen as allies on the mutual mission to explore our place in this universe.

I didn't do very well in this class because instead of turning in a paper ripping apart palm reading and going through the various ways the lines of your hand couldn't possibly mean anything to your personality or life, I turned in a research paper on palm reading. I had 6 people photo copy their hands for me and gave them personality tests and questionnaires about their life style. I examined the ways their palm features correlated or did not correlate with their personalities and lives. Even though my sample size was small, I did what I could to look for statistical significance. I made pie charts and histograms. I used peer reviewed resources from the British Journal of Medical Psychology and The Journal of Medical Science showing that schizophrenia has been shown to manifest itself in the hand. I tried to convey my feelings that perhaps the reason no one had ever done extensive research on this topic is because delving into non-western traditions is a career-ruiner in the science world. It makes you sound like a spooky, psuedo-scientific kook that no one wants to give grant money.

I put lots of work into it and wrote an awesome paper. But I got an F because according to my prof, I missed the point. I guess that's true, I didn't write about the ways palm reading is psuedo science. Maybe because I felt like the difference between science and pseudo science was extremely obvious to me and the whole assignment was insulting to my intelligence and I wanted to make a statement about my feelings on this class rather than do some busy work. I was a pain in the ass, what can I say? I'm pretty sure he didn't get it, though. He just thought I was kooky. I should be used to that by now, I suppose.

Anyway, this whole palm reading rant was just a chance for me to get on my soap box and a digression from the point: Voodoo. The use of the expression, "voodoo science" in lieu of "psuedo" or "fake" science got me thinking about the way we members of western culture, we offspring of the semitic religions, tend to view other belief systems. In my research on Voodoo, I found this syllabus from a college course on voodoo. I think it's pretty telling that right away the instructor felt the need to remind his students,

"First and foremost Voodoo is a religion. It is the dominant religion of Haiti. Many of the practices and descriptions of Voodoo belief may sound to us like rank superstition, but then, imagine the beliefs of Christianity to people who know nothing about it. Tell them about the trinity or the resurrection, or the presence of Jesus in the eucharist. Any of these practices which very intelligent Christians believe in the fullest would seem no less superstitious to someone unfamiliar with Christianity.
Thus I urge you to recognize that Voodoo is Haiti's religion, it is taken very seriously not merely by unlettered peasants, but many intelligent and learned members of the Haitian society believe as sincerely in Voodoo as do German theology professors in their Christianity. In no way do I expect you to believe in Voodoo; no more than I would expect you to convert to Islam if I taught a course on that religion. But, please do recognize that it is every bit as real a religion as the major religions of the world."

 Voodoo is particularly interesting because not only are westerners usually ignorant about it and consider it frivolous superstition...lots of them are actually afraid of it! Something people know nothing about and also fear? What better thing to nerd out on?

Mainly, I would like it to make it clear that in learning about Voodoo, I am coming from a place of respect and fascination.

So here we go! Voodoo!

It's a syncretic religion, which is a word I just learned. That means it's a combination of various belief systems and schools of thought. Voodoo is a combination of the African religion, Vodun, and Catholicism.

A relatively young religion, Voodoo started up in Haiti in the late 1600's/early 1700's when the French established an agricultural colony on the island. The success of this colony was completely driven by slave labor. In order to preserve their culture, the African slaves practiced their religion under the guise of practicing Catholicism. To this day, Voodoo is pretty much only practiced in Haiti and places where there are a large density of Haitian immigrants (like Louisiana).

Voodoo's main god is named Bondyé. Bondyé is far beyond human understanding and doesn't interact with humans or get involved in human affairs. In order to interact with the spiritual realm, Voodooist invite spirits, which they call lwa or loa, to possess them. These loa are the conduits between the physical and spiritual world.

The way Voodooists view spiritual possession seems to be very different than the way people from my cultural background view it. It's not like Regan from "The Exorcist" at all. In fact, Voodooists don't even use a word that translates to possession or ownership over someone's body. They use a word that translates to "ride" or "mount". A loa will "ride" a human body after being invited to do so in community ceremony where everyone participates. It is in this way that the spiritual world can transmit messages to the community.

 This guy has some cool stuff to say about spiritual possession in Voodoo. He talks about spiritual possession as letting your unconscious mind take over, not so much letting something else enter you. We should be wary of listening to any one person's relationship with Voodoo and using that to generalize, however. Voodoo is a tradition passed down orally, which allows for lots of individualism and the potential for the practice to vary widely from one person to the next. No matter how you slice it though, spiritual possession in Voodoo is seen as positive and necessary as opposed to evil and scary. Furthermore, it's something that well practiced Voodooists have complete control over.

The loa that ride community members during the ceremony are associated with Catholic saints. This was a necessary guise during the slave days. To evoke a certain loa, a symbol is drawn on the ground with sand, cornmeal, or other powdery substance. Each loa has their own symbol, called veves. They are usually really cool looking like a tattoo Bjork would get. Here are two of my favorites:
This is the veve for a loa known as Gran Bwa or Gran Bois, which means great woods or big tree. He's the kind hearted master of the wilderness and he's associated with the Catholic Saint Sebastian who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows. 

This is the veve for the loa known as Oguon, the loa credited for getting the Haitian slaves all riled up for the revolution. Oguon is associated with St. James. Maybe because James was killed with a sword and Oguon is usually pictured holding a machete. (That's just me hypothesizing) 

Gran Bwa is the master of the forests of vilokan, the Voodoo spirit realm. Vilokan is described as a forested and submerged island.
This is kind of how I imagine it. What a beautiful heaven!
Voodoo has a strong connection with nature and a special relationship with the mapou tree, which is used as a central part of their holiest ceremonies.
I'm pretty sure the movie Avatar drew lots of inspiration from Voodooism and Haitian history.
The mapou tree is seen as a connection between the physical and spiritual world and is used as a temple of sorts.

With such a close relationship to the spiritual realm and the dead, Voodooists know they have the power to use spirits for both positive and negative magic. They are dissuaded from negative magic by a deep concern for the well being of their ancestors. The Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan states, "Taking spirits who were violent in life and using them as attack dogs will only hinder their enlightenment. Instead of helping those spirits grow and to conquer their problems, you will be encouraging them to wallow in their weakness and become more, not less, flawed."

For some reason, Voodoo has become associated with devil worship for some. This certainly is the attitude of the Christian missionaries that were interviewed in Real Voodoo, a short film. This is obviously flawed logic because Voodooists don't even believe in the devil...why would they worship him?

Maybe it makes certain Christians more comfortable to describe any sort of spirituality they don't understand as devil worship. We've seen Christians associate pagan beliefs with the devil again and again throughout Christianity's historical conquest to convert everyone in the world. The very image of the devil with his goat lower half was based off pagan god Pan in attempts to scare people away from nature worship.

For a good description of Pan, read Tom Robbins' book Jitter Bug Perfume 

 Even though Christians have a long history of pointing fingers and yelling "Devil!", I think some of the main reasons Voodoo became associated with the devil are political.

To understand the evolution of Voodoo and the stereotypes that come with it, it's becomes very important to understand the history of Haiti.

During the European colonization of the Americas, the French got a hold of the western part of Hispañola, the island that the Haiti and the Dominican Republic share.

The French were successful at growing tobacco, sugar, indigo, and coffee but not so successful at enslaving the natives to do their work for them. To sustain their labor-driven society, the French started importing slaves from West Africa, the area that is now Benin. By the late 1700s, Haiti (then known as Saint Domingue) was the most profitable of all French colonies and known for being one of the most "brutally efficient" slave holding societies. They followed the code noir (the black code) which was a document written by the French government that basically instructed the colonists to treat the Africans worse than the most soulless person would ever treat a dog. Seriously, read that shit. It's disgusting.

So brutal were conditions for slaves, that many died within a few years of being imported. Many African mothers were suspected of abortions and infanticide to prevent their babies from growing up in slavery.

In Benin the Africans had practiced Vodun. This evolved into Voodoo in Haiti due to the code noir's strict policies on Catholicism being the only religion practiced by anyone. Code noir also had strict rules about slaves gathering. However, since black slaves out numbered their white masters 10 to 1...this may have been hard to keep track of and enforce. This gave the slaves opportunity to gather and practice Voodoo.

Probably the most famous Voodoo gathering was named Bois Caiman and happened on August 22nd, 1791. During this ceremony, the slaves discussed their resentment of the conditions forced upon them and evoked Oguon (pictured above) who is credited with planting the seeds of revolution in their souls. That night, the slaves revolted. They killed all the whites they met and set fire to the plantations. This was at the same time as the French Revolution so the French government really didn't have their shit together enough to defend the colony. On top of that, Haiti's slave revolt and successive cry for independence made the new leadership of France ask themselves, "how strong ARE our convictions?  I mean, if poor people in France get rights...why don't black people in Haiti?"

All of these factors combined made Haiti the first and only state to ever be formed from a slave rebellion. In addition, Haiti and The United States were the only two countries in America to become sovereign nations before the 1900's. Not bad, Haiti.

With the onset of the revolution and Haiti's successive independence, the remaining white plantation owners and the slaves they were able to retain fled to Louisiana. As a result of this exodus, the population of New Orleans doubled.

The French, undoubtably bitter at getting their asses handed to them for being total dicks, starting spreading propaganda about the evil Haitians and their worship of the devil. Regardless, Haiti was left alone for a couple hundred years. That is, until 1915 when US president Woodrow Wilson got all bent out of shape because Germans were moving to Haiti and were pretty good at mingling with the Haitians. The Germans had been more successful than any other Europeans at marrying into Haitian families and becoming land owners. At the time, Haiti had a law that said foreigners could not own land. US troops were sent to Haiti to "protect US interests". The entire point was to change the law so that foreigners could own land and Americans could profit from Haiti's rich farmland instead of the Haitians.

US troops occupied Haiti for 19 years. During this time, Haitians were pretty much enslaved again. The National Guard ruled Haiti with a violent regime and the Haitians were left with no choice but to support themselves doing back breaking labor building roads for the US military.

Why did the US get away with this? I'll bet that it was because of erroneous propaganda that made Haiti out to be a nation of devil worshippers. A Christian nation like the US is probably not going to feel all that bad about taking away the rights and sovereignty of a nation they deem evil.

For such a community-based religion, Voodoo sure has had to overcome a lot of hatred and ignorance. It wasn't until 2003 that Voodoo was even declared an official religion within Haiti.

Along with healing the wounds of oppression and slavery, the catastrophic earthquake that occurred in Haiti in 2010 has made lots of work for Haitians in rebuilding their nation. I hope that Haitians can turn to their culture and spirituality as a means of empowering themselves and defining their own destiny.

As a closer, watch this interview with La Belle Deesse, Voodoo priestess.

"Voodoo teaches us how to love one another, be there for one another and never let each other down. Don't betray your sisters and brothers. If they have a problem you stand by their side and fight till the end."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Philosophical Crisis/Cry For Help

What is sanity? I guess all we can use as a measure is whether or not other people would call you sane. We are a social creature and to not live up to social expectations would be to reject your status as a functioning human.

So I mean...I guess you are crazy if other people think you are.

What if you chose to reject the mentality of this society? You consciously decide to take some sort of mental high ground because you've convinced yourself that the way mainstream society thinks, believes and functions is wrong. Well, if you can find yourself in a community of like-thinkers, this is called counter culture. This is sometimes called revolution or even renaissance. If you can't find a community of like-thinkers, this is called megalomania.

Herein lies my philosophical crisis. This winter, I consciously decided to reject popular mentality and rationality. It came with a backdrop of lots of things. I was in the middle of my second month hitch hiking around South America, I was learning more about the universe than I ever thought possible, and I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This was the only book I had with me. I read it several times and thought constantly about how much I can relate to those ideas.

The author, Robert M Pirsig has lots of cool ideas. I don't pretend to know exactly what his intentions were when writing the book but what I got out of it was this: The entire way we think, feel, relate to each other, and personally function is flawed. It's based on the philosophies of men in ancient Greece who told the western world how to rationalize. These men literally set guidelines into stone for how to think. We consumed, internalized and perpetuated these ideas so thoroughly that we convinced ourselves this is how human brains naturally work. Brains that don't work that way are crazy and brains that openly and publicly reject the way we as a culture rationalize are egomaniacs or megalomaniacs.

Pirsig was committed to a mental ward. He completely lost touch with society and received electric shock therapy which somehow altered the structure or function of his brain enough for doctors to declare him sane. He was fixed.

This happened in the 1960s. Not too terribly long ago. I know lots of people that can remember when electric shock therapy was common practice. We consider it cruel and unusual these days.

Pirsig's nervous break down, his time in a mental ward, and his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression freaks me out. The reason why is because I so strongly relate with all my heart and soul to these ideas that drove him insane.

These philosophers...the men that came up with the very basics for how to think, how to reason, how to rationalize...what sort of backdrop did they come up with this shit in? I'm not going to pretend to know very much about ancient greek history and culture...but I would be willing to bet that these men were leaders. They were politicians, they were religious figures, they were men who were wealthy enough to have the time to sit around and contemplate the "right" way to think, reason, and rationalize. Does that make their ideas suspect? To me, it kind of does.

I don't have a viable alternative to modern rationality. Maybe I've been so thoroughly steeped in the culture that utilizes this school of thought that my brain has grown around these ideas. The very way my brain is wired is based on this philosophy. Maybe it's the kind of thing that can only be undone by electric shock.

I wonder...before these Greek philosophers, these men in sheets that came up with these rules for rationality... Before we set up thousands of years of institutions that perpetuate these did people think? How did we think before the Greeks told us how to think?

Maybe the bible is a good resource for this. It's one of the very few documented compilations of human thought in western culture that existed before these Greek and Roman metropolises.

All the magic in the bible, the burning bushes and people living in whale bellies and woman growing from a man's rib...what does this say about the way people thought?

According to our modern rationality, these things couldn't have happened. They are myths. Why would people have made these things up? Were they just lying? Are they supposed to represent something I can't grasp because the way I think is so separate and different from the way the authors of the bible thought?

I know there are people around today that literally believe these things in the bible.  These things are "scientifically impossible" according to modern rationality. Maybe someone who literally believes the bible will even read this blog. I know lots of atheists that would say people who believe these things are just stupid. They would point to their "superior" school of rational thought and scoff while they think about how much smarter and better they are. How their school of thought gives them the "freedom to think for themselves".

In my opinion, this is lazy. Writing people off as stupid or crazy because you don't understand their beliefs is LAZY. This way of thinking does everything if can to swerve away from the open hearted pursuit of knowledge that all of us western thinkers who like to congratulate ourselves for being so clever and critical say that we champion.

I don't like it. I don't like the way we think. It's hypocritical. It's lazy. It's judgmental. There is no love in it. There is no opportunity for exploration of things that seem magical. It disconnects us from each other. It gives us an excuse to write off ideas, alienate and one-dimensionalize people and all the while pat ourselves on the back for being so rational and logical.  I reject it. I REJECT RATIONALITY.

The reason this concerns me is because unless I can find a community of people who agree with me...I am by definition, crazy. I am headed down the same path as Pirsig.

This blog, I guess, is a cry for help. Because I really suspect that I am not alone on this one. I suspect that there exists a community of like minded people who also reject modern rationality. We've just been so entrenched in our culture and the way we've learned to think that the thought of starting a counter culture to rationality itself is daunting and impossible. I'm not asking that we start a counter culture to rationality. In fact, perhaps that a group of people sitting down together and writing actual guidelines for how people should think was something that could have only existed in ancient greek culture. It was just the right time and the right place.

I realize that the thought of doing that...of deciding how people should think, is megalomaniacal. It's egomaniacal. The fact that these greeks dudes did it and got away with it totally blows my mind. But at the same time...if they did it, why can't others?

I guess all I want to know is this: is anyone else frustrated by rationality itself? By the very way we think? By the way we write things off as impossible and treat people like they are crazy/stupid/wrong if they think different? Am I alone on this? Am I crazy? Should I just watch TV and stop living in my head so often? Or are these things other people obsess over too?

I know these types of thoughts are extremely personal. The only reason I am able to publicly talk about them is because I have made every attempt to be so shamelessly honest about my thoughts and feelings in the last few years that sometimes it's even frightening and repulsive to the people who know me and love me the most. These are the people who will sometimes call me crazy for thinking the way I do. I don't know about y'all but when the people who love me and know me more than anyone suggest I am makes me call my sanity into question.

I'm not asking for you to agree with me or say what you think if you don't want to (if you do want to...please do!). I am asking, if you can in anyway relate to this can you please comment with something like, "word" or whatever? I need to know whether I am a revolutionary or an egomaniacal crazy person. Yes, this is a pathetic cry for support. So sue me.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Beetle I Found

Y'all! So many exciting things have happened in my life since the last time I blogged. 

One of the main things I’m excited about is that I’ve been given a tool to feed my obsessive nerdyness. This tool happens to be a company that makes microscopes and I totally tricked someone into hiring me there. Suckers. 

SO ANYWAY. I found this Beetle. I found it on the black top of some airport. It was all dead and dehydrated. I picked it up because I thought I could glue it to a canvas and make a cool painting around it. It looked like this:

Photo Credit to JJ Blackwood

But I happened to be hanging out with a coworker who suggested we take it to work and look at it. 

So then, I cut off it's leg and I cut off it's head and my friend Marc stuck it into his Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). It looked FREAKY. I'll show you in a sec but first you need to know that it was a pristonychus terricola (I think) based on a picture I found in a library book called The Anatomy of Insects & Spiders by Claire Beverly and David Ponsonby. 

This is a really cool book because not only is it full of historical drawings that are from as far back as 1255 but it also talks a lot about uses for these bugs in ancient cultures. Turns out, Egyptians were really into Beetles and their traditions around it are fascinating and worth their own blog which I might get to someday. 
Ok, so first of all...let's look at it's leg. 

We are about to look at this part.

This is the hook at the end of it's foot. I was playing with the cutest june bug that I found when I was in Tennessee last weekend. It was crawling all over me and I kept thinking about how it's digging it's little micro-hooks into my skin but they can't cause me pain because they are too small.
That scale bar in the bottom right hand corner says 500 microns. To give you a frame of reference, a strand of human hair can be 17-50 microns for people of European descent and 56-181 microns for people of African descent. If you want to measure the diameter of your own hair, it's really easy! All you need is a laser. Follow these steps. If you are using one of those red laser pointers then it's a helium neon laser and the wavelength, λ, is around 633 nanometers. 

This is what I like to call the leg vertebrae! See in the drawing above how beetles have a whole bunch of joints on the leg? You know what I just found out about these joints? They work like screws! Instead of a ball-and-socket joint like humans have, beetles joints have threads that screw into place. They can do a full 360 rotation and are much harder to dislocate than human joints. 
Here is a close-up of one of the leg vertebrae. It's a beetle-knee!  I think the spikes are for defense based on the fact that they kind of look like medieval armor. I don't know what enemies beetles have besides birds and things that could just swallow their little 10-micron-wide knee weapons whole...but it probably makes them look tough to other bugs.
The schmutz all over it is probably dirt or dust specks. 
This is one of the coolest pictures in here, in my opinion. It's looking into the inside of the leg from where we cut it off. That's right...EXOSKELETON. Besides the support structures, it's totally hollow on the inside! If this beetle hadn't been dehydrating in the sun when it found me, it would have been full of goo.
Exoskeletons are made out of chitin, which is a long-chain polysaccharide. According to Wikipedia, "chitin has some unusual properties that accelerate the healing of wounds in humans". The Egyptians totally knew about that, fyi. As I learn more, I'm starting to suspect that beetles are actually magical. 
Ok, next we are going to look at this long antennae here.
Look at all the little hair follicles! Antennas are for sensing, and are insects' primary olfactory senses. In other words, these are the smellers. I tried to figure out how they work but then got really confused by all the jargon. Maybe one of you bio people can explain it to me? Thaddaeus, I'm looking at you. 

OK, compare the texture of the big antennae to the smaller one.
This one.
Super smooth! They must have two entirely different functions. Like, one for sensing and one for collecting particles...or, something like that. I'm not really sure. 
This is the end of one of the long antennas. The antennas are jointed just like the knees and this one was broken off at one of the joints when I found it. This is really cool because you can see those screw threads I was talking about where their joints come together! See them?
I think the stuff on the end of it is a little speck of pollen.

This is that pollen up close. It's also got this thread stuff all over it. Seems too small to be spider web....maybe a bacteria?
This is that same thread stuff that was all over it. I have no idea what this is.  I looked up SEM images of bacteria and spider webs and they don't really look like this. What do you all think? 
Here it is close-up. See how it's kind of braided like rope but then it's got this gooey part like snot? 
Here is part of it's head. It's got a chunk of dirt and also a little crawly thing. 
Here's the crawly thing up close. Maybe a little bacteria? It's got those little leg-looking things. I actually have no idea what this is. It's hard to put "5um long wormy thing with legs" into google and get meaningful results. I wish I knew more about this stuff so I knew what I was looking at!
Ok, I guess that's enough nerding out for now. See ya next time!

UPDATE: My friend Jessyka told me that the crawly thing might be a nematode. Here is a picture I found online of a nematode:
Yep....looks like it. Nematodes are a parasite to beetles and are used as organic pest control. Maybe that's what killed my beetle. Check out nematode pest control