Haircuts And Mindfulness In The Barbershop

My patient wait over, I rise to take my turn, ready to exchange a few pleasantries and then sink into silence. It is time for my haircut. Very soon, I will close my eyes and let myself be taken over: by the sounds of battery-powered clippers that cut my hair down to the scalp, of scissors that click away next to my ears, trimming and shaping, of the pop music emanating from the ‘light FM station’ that is always playing in my barber shop, of the Italian and Spanish and Russian spoken in my neighborhood; by the touch and feel of hairs being tugged, falling around my shoulders, ears, and on my shirt front, of hands gently moving my head one way or the other, of razors scraping my skin. I am not disturbed or distracted, no one calls for my attention or help. My phone occasionally quivers with messages being delivered, but it is far away, in my backpack, and I cannot reach it–deliberately. Occasionally, the barber will check in to see if I want some amendment to my cut, to check to see if things look ‘OK’; I reassure him quickly so that he can get back to work–and I can get back to being silent, with my eyes closed. This is a genuinely self-indulgent state of being, a retreat from ‘the madding crowd,’ one to be savored. (A few days ago, I heard a friend say that he actively discourages his barber from speaking to him during his haircut just so he can enjoy this rare moment of solitude. I do not have to issue any such warnings; my barber is a taciturn Ukrainian gentleman who is only curious about when my semester begins and ends. And my satisfaction with the haircut and/or beard trim he has just given me.)

The haircut in the barber shop is, truth be told, a genuinely meditative moment. It offers opportunities  to be genuinely mindful; sit straight, close your eyes, and yield. Curious trances, sometimes accompanied by time dilation, result. So do naps, obviously. (The haircut is worth its price in gold just for that deliverance–as indeed, is the afternoon meditation sit that turns into an extended head-nodding session.) We have taken time out for ourselves, an act of self-directed kindness, to attend to our ‘needs’ in the midst of a busy daily schedule; and we know it. We have stepped out into a diversion; here, at the ‘tender mercies’ of our tonsurers, we sit, losing hair, but gaining considerable peace of mind. The shedding of hair is a crucial part of the experience; our hair, a symbol of indolence and disorganization, represents a burden we are here to rid ourselves of, and here we are, setting things right, casting off its baggage, ready to move on. Skinheads took this sensation to the extreme; the shaved head represented a cutting loose, a ‘getting closer to the bone,’ to the unmediated reality that lurks beneath all the cover-ups. Sitting quietly with eyes closed in a barber’s chair is the right way to think about what that entails.

Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

Narnia’s Pevensies And Personal Identity

Readers of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe will remember the novel’s dramatic ending: Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, now all grown up and ruling as noble and just kings and queens of the land of Narnia, set out to hunt a mysterious stag; their hunt leads them into the woods, toward ‘the lamp post’–the one that had brought them to Narnia in the first place, and then suddenly, as Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan find themselves back in ‘the wardrobe’ all too soon, they are back in England, back in the here and now, and barely an instant has passed. (Many Narnia years you see, only amount to a second or so of Earth time. Indeed, it is not clear at all that any time elapses while the children are in Narnia; the two timelines are disconnected.)

Of course, because only an instant has passed, the children are children again–they are not adults any more. They have shrunk, physically. But presumably they have shrunk psychically too; after all, back in Narnia, they were adults, and their growth into adults would have involved progression in the physical and psychological dimensions. Interestingly enough, the children remember their experiences in Narnia; which means they have memories of their growing up, their transformation into adults. This journey back to ‘the real world’ is likely to be far more disruptive, then, than C. S. Lewis lets on; Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, are, on their return to earth, facing possibly one of the most hallucinatory of all experiences: years and years have passed by, and then, one day all of a sudden, you find yourself a child again, but  this is not any ordinary child, this is a child with memories of having been an adult once. So, even if this child does not have its physical child capacities any more–perhaps they pre-pubescents again–it still remains an open question whether this child remembers its adult responses in the emotional and psychological dimensions. Does the child now behave as an adult might? What is the effect on the Pevensies as they continue their lives, with these memories reminding them of what they once were? Note that had the children gone to Narnia, and spent say, a few months there, and then been shot back through the wardrobe to land up back in England in the same way as before, these questions would not have arisen. They arise only because Lewis insisted on giving the Pevensies a full-blown reign in Narnia, a long and prosperous one of fifteen years.

Lewis has thus created a tricky situation for the Pevensies. As they grow up here on Earth, they will slowly become adults but they will not be the adults they were in Narnia; after all, Earth is not Narnia: its lands and peoples are significantly different. The Pevensies will have different experiences, encounter different circumstances and react differently. Of course, since they carry around their memories of their psychological growth, they might use those as inputs into their development in this ‘new life’ but they will still certainly not be identical to their Narnia selves. They will have multiple personalities of a sort–perhaps akin to that of the immigrant, who remembers an older world, an older self, older ways of behaving and responding to the world’s offerings. Their friends and lovers and family might find their repeated invocations of their past irritating and bothersome at times, but also of singular interest; the Pevensies for their part, if they play their cards right, will ‘enjoy’ having lived two lives–once again, much like the wise immigrant does, who considers himself fortunate to have experienced ‘two worlds for the price of one’–even if such experiences do bring their own fair share of heartbreak. (The novels featuring the Pevensies themselves span nine years–from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle.)

A budding writer could do worse than to write a novel that tracks the Pevensies’ developments as adults, back here on Earth, when they are done with the Narnia phase of lives, but with those Narnia memories animating their hybrid selves.

Talking About ‘Intellectual Property’ On ‘Counterpoint with Amanda Vanstone’

A week or so ago, I recorded an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation‘s Amanda Vanstone for her program Counterpoint (on the ABC’s Radio National.) Amanda and I discussed my recent essay in Aeon Magazine on why the general term ‘intellectual property’ should be discarded, and the why the very notion of ‘intellectual property’ being any kind of property is a problematic one. The interview is now online; do give it a listen if you are so inclined.

The Shames Of Anger

I’ve written before, here on this blog, about the pleasures of anger, of holding on to grudges–the two are, of course, inter-related, for very often it is the pleasure of experiencing anger that allows us to retain a long-held grudge. These ‘pleasures,’ such as they are, have a role to play in the economy of our lives, it is why we experience them as such–they ‘work for us’ somehow or the other, which is why we seek them out and retain them. But they do not come for free, not without their own incurred costs, ones we are willing to pay; the devastating and melancholic shames associated with the expression of anger and the retention of grudges. The shame of anger is experienced most directly when the effects of our anger are visible: the hurt of a partner or friend we have tongue-lashed or driven out of our lives, the fear and sadness and confusion of a child who has encountered our furious loss of self-control, the sometimes irrevocable damage done to relationships, romantic or familial.

These are powerful reminders of our lack of virtue; haunting indicators of how far we need to go in asserting mastery over ourselves. We are reminded violence comes in many forms, and is expressed and experienced in a rich and uncomfortable diversity; we are reminded too, by way of introspective contact with our own hurts and unresolved resentments that the injuries we bear and nurse are not always visible; the effects of the ‘blows’ we have landed through our anger are only partially visible to us–there is more to this landscape of fear and hurt than we can ever possibly know; much of it remains unaccounted for. We are reminded of the humanity and vulnerability of others when we remember and relive the effects of others’ anger being visited on us. That fear, that panic, that urge to flee– we induce those feelings in others through our thoughts and deeds; they experience the same painful affects we do. (Allied with the shame engendered by such thoughts is yet another variant: we might seek forgiveness for our anger, beg to be forgiven, and yet we do not move forward, unwilling to descend from our perches–for we are reluctant to admit guilt, to encounter another shame that our selves might send our way, that of having ‘backed down.’ In this kind of situation at least, masculinity has a great deal to answer for.)

The shames of anger remind us of why anger is considered corrosive–these signposts in our minds that we are not ‘quite together,’ that we are disordered, are powerful covert agents, inhibiting us, consuming our psychic energies in consoling ourselves, in providing ourselves palliative diversions and distractions. It becomes yet another component of our ongoing dissatisfaction with ourselves, yet another reminder that for all the blame we may send the world’s way, we always find the finger pointing back at us.

Copyright Reformers Do Not Advocate Plagiarism

If you are one of those folks who responds to any debate in the domain of copyright reform with one of the following responses (or some variant thereof), please cease and desist. You are revealing yourself to be a functional illiterate.

  1. Oh, so according to you, anyone should be able to take something written by an author and just rip it off, right? [I’m presuming ‘rip it off’ means ‘use without attribution.’]
  2. I should be able to take something you’ve written, change your name to mine and just sell it, right?

No. You may not. You would be a plagiarizer then. Folks advocating reforms of copyright laws–typically shorter copyright terms, more lenient understandings of the doctrine of ‘fair use‘ mainly–have never advocated plagiarism. They still don’t.

Copyright reformers do not advocate that copyright protections should not exist. They do argue, however, that these protections are sometimes extended to material that should not be copyrighted–for example the baseball statistics that are put into a particular format by an author should remain uncopyrighted while their new tabular format certainly should be; they also advocate that those terms of copyright should be limited–as originally envisaged in the US Constitution–so that the copyrighted material can serve as ‘raw material’ for other creators to build on, to modify. They also express concern that over-stringent application of copyright laws are sometimes problematic in the digital world in which we live today – one in which creative products can be more readily copied, modified, and distributed.

But they do not, ever, advocate that someone should be able to take someone else’s’ work and pass it off as their own.

This persistent misunderstanding of copyright reformers’ claims has two unsavory interpretations:

  1. Critics of copyright reformers are lazy and illiterate; they cannot read, and if they can, they cannot be bothered to read the actual claims made by copyright reformers.
  2. Critics of copyright reformers are intellectually dishonest, engaging in willful misreading in order to systematically misrepresent the reformers’ claims.

I pen this short screed today because this past Monday, my essay ‘End Intellectual Property,’ which argues that the term ‘intellectual property’ is a misleading piece of rhetorical excess and should be discarded in favor of the precise use of ‘copyrights’, ‘patents’ ‘trademarks’ and ‘trade secrets’ instead, appeared in Aeon Magazine, and almost immediately, many readers online made some version of the responses above. I’m left shaking my head. Especially as my essay included the following line:

And neither do copyright reformers argue that plagiarists be somehow rewarded; they do not advocate that anyone should be able to take a copyrighted work, put their name on it, and sell it.

‘Nuff said.

P.S: There are several other persistent misunderstandings–or willful misreadings– of copyright reformer’s claims making the rounds. As they have been for a while. Like vampires, they refuse to die. On those (‘so you think artists should not be paid for their work?’ and ‘how come your books are not made available for free?’), more anon.

That Alex Honnold MRI In ‘Free Solo’

One of the most commented on segments of Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarelyhi‘s ‘Free Solo‘–the film that details Alex Honnold‘s incredible free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park–is that of the MRI of Honnold’s brain. This MRI is performed in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Honnold is able to calmly scale a three thousand feet cliff without any ropes or aids, without apparently suffering the terror that would afflict most human beings engaged in any task that approximated Honnold’s feat. We learn that Honnold’s amygdala–the part of the brain supposedly activated by our fear–just doesn’t light up all that much in his case. See? He’s just built differently from us.

But we were also given some psychological insight, of course: Honnold himself is asked how he does it and he offers some interesting introspective takes on it on fear, risk, consequences, and existential choices; other climbers–like Tommy Caldwell and Jimmy Chin–also chime in. And those around Honnold offer us some explanations of his behavior and attempt to determine its psychological foundations.

Such explanations do not satisfy all–especially those who find MRI scans more convincing than verbal reasons for human behavior:

Unfortunately, Free Solo suffers when Vasarhelyi and Chin psychologize Honnold or attempt to explain his drive for death-defying climbs. It’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to examine Honnold’s psyche, given that his Spock-like demeanor and curiously casual approach to soloing does raise certain questions about his mental stability or lack thereof. Yet every “answer” they ascribe to him (or he ascribes to himself) feels pat and unconvincing. Honnold mentions his father, who was emotionally unavailable to Honnold’s mother but also spurred his son’s interest in climbing. He describes his “dark soul” as a child and his “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” There’s some talk about being a loner in school. Yet none of those explanations are as persuasive as an MRI diagnosis that simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. Similarly, Free Solo’s fixation on how soloing affects Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend feels transported from a more banal film altogether. At best, this material is uninteresting filler, and at worst, it’s a distraction

Now, I hate to have to break the news but ‘pat psychologizing is what we do all the time, every single day of our lives. In fact, if we didn’t indulge in it, we wouldn’t know how to live with each other. Think about our language of everyday social, political, and ethical interaction–replete with wants, desires, beliefs, motivations, the whole gamut of psychological attitudes. We use this language all the time to predict and anticipate the reactions of others; we do not go around conducting MRIs to find out what our fellow humans want or desire or believe; we observe their behavior, we ask them questions, we correlate their behavior with their verbal pronouncements for further refinement and we muddle right along. In courts of law, when we want to know why someone did something, we ask them or other human beings to explain their behavior; we don’t cut open skulls or run scans to elicit reasons–though some neuroscientists want to do just that. All of which is to say that there is nothing ‘pat’ about the psychologizing in ‘Free Solo’; we make this assessment at the risk of being similarly dismissive of most of our daily conversation and our best tool for dealing with other humans.

But the attitudes expressed in the review above are not outliers. ‘Pop psychology,’ ‘psychobabble,’ ‘amateur psychologizing’–these are all apparently Bad Things; we should look for more Scientific Explanations. A laudable sentiment, but one which is too caught up in reductionist fantasies to be anything more than grossly misleading. In the realm of human behavior, psychological explanations are useful, elegant, and successful; and it is neuroscientific ones that have a long way to go:

The fundamental problem…is the urge to ‘reduce’ psychology to neuroscience, to reduce mind to brain, to eliminate psychological explanations and language in favor of neuroscientific ones, which will introduce precise scientific language in place of imprecise psychological descriptions.  This urge to eliminate one level of explanation in favor of a ‘better, lower, more basic, more fundamental’ one is to put it bluntly, scientistic hubris….It results in explanations and theories that rest on unstable foundations: optimistic correlations and glib assumptions are the least of it. Worst of all, it contributes to a blindness: what is visible at the level of psychology is not visible at the level of neuroscience. Knowledge should enlighten, not render us myopic.

The urge to rely on neuroscientific explanations is easy to understand: human beings are complicated creatures; we are creatures of biology, culture, and psychology; to understand what makes us tick is hard.  Some pat neuroscientific explanations seem quite tempting. But what at cost? What, if anything, have we learned about Honnold from his MRI that is genuinely useful–especially since that MRI rests upon a series of as yet unconfirmed assumptions?  That ‘pat psychologizing’ that Honnold and those around him indulge in is far more enlightening; they place Honnold’s behavior in the domain of human relationships and motivations, far more comprehensible for us as human beings, and far more amenable to utilization in our future interactions with our fellow human beings.