Anger, Melancholia, And Distraction

Anger is a funny business; it’s an unpleasant emotion for those on the receiving end, and very often, in its effects, on those who are possessed by it. And there is no denying that it affords a pleasure of sorts to those consumed by it; it would not have the fatal attraction it does if it did not. That kind of anger, of course, is a righteous anger; we feel ourselves possessed by a sense of rectitude as we rail against those who have offended us; we are in the right, they are in the wrong, and the expression of our anger acts as a kind of confirmation of that ‘fact.’ But anger’s hangover is very often unpleasant, and among its vivid features is a crippling melancholia. We became angry because we had been ‘wounded’ in some shape or fashion, and while the expression of our anger is often a powerful and effective palliative against the pain of that injury, it is almost always a temporary one. What is left in its wake is a complex welter of emotions: we are sad, of course, because the hurt of the injury is still with us; we are fearful too, because we dread the same kind of injury again; our anger might have fatally wounded an important personal relationship or friendship; we might well have ventured out into unknown territory, fueled by anger, trusting it to guide us, but instead find ourselves at an unknown pass, one whose contours we do not know yet to navigate. (I used the word ‘possessed’ above deliberately to indicate a kind of capture or hijacking of the self; to describe a person ‘suffering’ from anger might be equally accurate in terms of describing the sense of being a patient, one helpless in the face of an emotion running wild.)

I write about anger and distraction and anxiety here because I suffer from all of them; they are my psychic burdens, my crosses to carry. On one view, anger and distraction both bottom out in a kind of anxiety and fear. As I noted recently, I do not think I will ever rid myself of anxiety; it is a state of being. Because of that, I do not think I will rid myself of anger either. Anger cripples me–not just in personal relationships but in another crucial domain as well; it corrodes and attenuates my ability to do creative work. This failure induces its own melancholia; my sense of self is wrapped up quite strongly in terms of not just my personal relationships and social roles and responsibilities–like being a husband and father and teacher–but also my reading and writing. (I’m loath to describe this activity of mine as ‘scholarship’ and am quite  happy to describe my intellectual status as ‘someone who likes to read and write.’) Reading and writing are well-nigh impossible in the febrile states induced by anger; among the terrible costs of anger this one brings with it an especially heavy burden for me. When I sought out a meditation practice a few years ago, one of my primary motivators was to ‘tame’ or ‘master’ this terrible beast somehow; it remains an ongoing struggle, one not helped by a falling off in my commitment to my meditation ‘sits.’ I write here, of course, as part of a process to try to reintroduce that in my life. More on that attempt anon.

Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past: Continue reading

Notes On Meditation Practice – II

Meditation induces two interesting forms of self-consciousness that do not arise during the actual sitting itself. They are, rather, ways of regarding the practice of meditation as it meshes with the rest of the meditator’s life.

First, the meditator is self-consciously aware of the fact that he is one. The normal, ongoing processes of identity formation and maintenance now include the attribute, ascribed to oneself, “engages in a meditation practice.” This is not innocent; for better or worse, ‘meditation’ carries certain connotations with it. These include, at the least, dimly perceived and understood stereotypes about the kind of person who does meditate, and why they might do so; by becoming a meditator, some of those stereotypes become ways of regarding yourself.  For instance, shortly after I began my practice, I found myself kicking off what looked like turning into a heated argument. As I did so, I felt curiously abashed and undignified, and a thought, unbidden, came to me: this was not how those who engage in meditation practice are ‘supposed to behave.’ I was supposed to be one engaging in a practice that induced calm and dignity, but here I was, squabbling like a child. Overcome by a sudden awkwardness, I retreated from my previously grimly defended position and began winding down the argument. I wanted to retreat from this zone of my loss of composure. This has not always been the case; on many occasions, I have blundered straight into the heart of a meltdown, and emerged with very little of my former grace intact. But that new perspective on myself has not gone away. It remains, lurking on the edges of my consciousness of myself, reminding me I now engage in an activity supposed to be changing me and making me into a new person.

Second, meditation is self-indulgent and the meditator knows it. Forty minutes a day is ‘too much’ to spare; none of us, especially here in this city, have that time to spare. As such, the very act of sitting down and shutting out the world’s demands feels like a supremely, virtuously self-centered action. You deny the world its claims on you–even as you carry thoughts about it into your mind, and yet, for those twenty minutes, remove yourself from its embrace. The awareness of the sheer subversiveness of this act–in a world-context in which there is an unceasing demand for our time and attention–is a liberation. It brings with it a curious sensation of power; to step away from this world feels like an empowering act, an assumption of agency in a situation where we are used, all too often, to bemoan the loss of ours. This awareness too, becomes part of our identity; it becomes an attribute to ourselves; it changes who we think we are.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Sitting in meditation, with a regular practice, makes you a meditator; that change, by itself, without any other extravagant claims, is a significant one.

Note: The first post in this series is here.

The Undignified Business Of ‘Exercise’

In The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon reassures himself that he is “not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” Upon hearing that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” Algernon is dismayed: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Algernon was right. The popularity of exercise in our times–or, as it is now called, ‘the pursuit of fitness’–speaks to the fact that there are fewer gentlefolk among us now; very few gentlemen and very few ladies. (We can well imagine some dignified female counterpart of Algernon’s exclaiming “Exercise! Dear Lord! No lady ever takes exercise.)

Exercise is an undignified business.  Most descriptions of the indignities of exercise restrict themselves to wallowing in descriptions of the engendered sweat,  and sometimes the blood and tears, the body odor, the rumpled and stained clothes, the ungainly bodily contortions, the falls, the slips, the many losses of grace that engaging in exercise inevitably entails. These descriptions all too often elide the profoundly misanthropic nature of exercise, its ungraceful response to human adversity.There is nothing dignified about making explicit your painful anxiety about increasing infirmity, your insecurity and vanity about your personal appearance, your abiding fear of your inevitable fate; there is nothing dignified about a desperate, overt rejection of a fate shared by all humans, nothing dignified about this disavowal of community and commonality in the face of an advancing misery of body and mind.  To be exercising when others around you are not is a profoundly elitist and vain notion, an indulgence in a deadly sin. It is a pathetic grasping at the sublime when resting content with the sordid speaks so much more clearly and distinctly to our essential natures: being sedentary, resting in repose and grace.

Small wonder then that the reaction to exercise and all the frenetic rushing about it entails is already manifest: the injunction to do precisely nothing. Mindfulness bids us be calm and stationary; it urges us to count breaths rather than gulping down more of them in a minute than was ever thought to be a good idea; it bids us slow down and sit down; it tell us that the flat stomach is to be disdained in favor a flat surface on which we may lie down and make like a corpse (the popularity of the shavasnana, the yogic ‘corpse pose’ bears adequate testimony to this fact.) More than anything, the modern acolyte of mindfulness hears the message: stop rushing around (or pulling or pushing yourself up); take that weight off your shoulders and stop trying to stand up with it. Exercise puts a weight on our backs (and other parts of our body); it makes us run around in circles, hypnotized by ersatz indicators of ‘progress’; mindfulness bids us put our feet up (and to close our eyes.)

We should be surprised it took us so long to figure this simple preference out.

Notes On Meditation Practice – I

Last year, after being urged to do so by many–friends, strangers, dissertation adviser–I began a meditation practice. In May 2015 to be precise. I registered for a four-day class, attended four two-hour ‘training sessions,’ and was off and running. Or, rather, I was off and sitting down. Twice a day for twenty minutes at time. The modality of meditation practice that I received instruction in, the so-called Vedic method, appears to be a re-branding  or simple variant of an older technique called transcendental meditation: sit comfortably with your back supported, your head free, your eyes closed, and repeat, silently, a simple word or phrase given to you by your teacher. That is all there to it. There is no counting of breaths, no sitting cross-legged (or in the Lotus Pose.) You can be sitting on a chair or a couch or a park bench (or, as in my case, on a couple of occasions, a seat in a car, subway, or airplane.) You could, if you wanted, just sit up in bed after waking up in the morning, rest your back against a propped up pillow and headboard, and get to meditating.

The mental repetition of the word or phrase supplied by the meditation instructor is crucial; it acts as a kind of block against the intrusion of distracting thoughts and permits the transition to a more quiescent mental state, one which is more placid and less agitated. (It also, interestingly enough, allows access to some very interesting behind-the-eyes imagery.) The ‘mantra’ may be displaced by these thoughts of course, but on noticing that such a displacement has taken place, it should be ‘summoned back’ and the mental repetition should begin anew. The ‘mantra’ is meaningless and deliberately so; a meaningful mantra would induce a distraction all of its own.

I cannot, currently, offer any testimonials to any dramatic changes in my temperament or my physical state–i.e., an empirically verifiable change in some physical parameter–as a result of my meditation practice. However, I will say that I look forward to my two daily meditation sessions–once in the morning, immediately after waking up, and then, once in the evening, at some point before dinner. (On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, my evening session is really an afternoon one, conducted at 3PM or so before I leave the library to go pick up my daughter from daycare; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I meditate in my office after finishing my teaching for the day, and on Saturday and Sunday, I meditate at home, sometimes in the living room, sometimes in my daughter’s room (the only quiet place in our apartment while my girl tears up the rest of the joint.)) I look forward to these sessions because I find them relaxing and useful de-stressers. The morning session seems to compose me for what lies ahead of me; the evening session relaxes me after a day’s stress has started to accumulate. (In that regard, the evening session plays a role similar to my evening walk home from campus.)  Just for that rather simple and yet hugely important reason, I consider my meditation practice an invaluable addition to my daily routine.

In future posts I hope to elaborate on some other subtle effects and changes induced by this practice, and on its relationship to other modalities of self-reconfiguration.

‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.