Margaret White, the psycho mother of Stephen King’s Carrie, immortalized in the film by the ever-wonderful Piper Laurie, has this wonderful/creepy speech in the middle of the movie in which she describes the night Carrie was conceived:
I should’ve killed myself when he put it in me. After the first time, before we were married, Ralph promised never again. He promised, and I believed him. But sin never dies. Sin never dies. At first, it was all right. We lived sinlessly. We slept in the same bed, but we never did it. And then, that night, I saw him looking down at me that way. We got down on our knees to pray for strength. I smelled the whiskey on his breath. Then he took me. He took me, with the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I liked it! With all that dirty touching of his hands all over me. I should’ve given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding, and now the devil has come home. We’ll pray.
One of the things Carrie’s mama was upset about was how her prom gown let the boys glimpse her “dirty pillows.” Clearly she would have benefited from one of the more modest clothing lines now being marketed to women. (Odd how it’s never men who are immodestly putting their wares on display, isn’t it?)
Here, for example, is a line of bathing suits from a company called WholesomeWear. Their Culotte Swimmer, which is apparently styled after turn-of-the-(20th)-century “bathing costumes,” Continue reading →
A child is born, and the child seems blessed. He lives in the richest nation on Earth, at a time of greater wealth and understanding than any in history. The infant even has interesting parents: one British, one American, each a little famous in their own right.
But then something disquieting happens. Perhaps this was your child, too.
He starts to go backwards. First he loses his language, then he enters a solitary hell. He turns away when touched and arches his back when held. He lines up his toys in rows, and seems afraid of things that should hold no fear. He appears not to notice you, and his indifference makes you feel snubbed.
Soon the real heartache starts. You see other children play together in a sandpit while yours is to one side, obsessively pouring and repouring sand through his fingers. Sudden firestorms run through his nervous system, making him scream in panic and pain. Later, in the calmer years when he is four or five, other children’s attempts at friendship are rebuffed. This is not because your child wants no companions: the truth might be that he yearns for them. But he is mystified by social interaction, and conversation makes him nervous, as he has no idea how to respond. So he turns away with a distant expression, seeming cold and weird. This is autism. Your lovely offspring looks condemned to what, in 1943, Leo Kanner first described as “extreme autistic loneliness”, and many readers of this magazine will know a family that is affected. In the UK, 1 in 100 children is on the autistic spectrum.
It is a mystifying disorder. But on a farm in Texas, a British father thinks he has found a way into the mind of his autistic son. The boy has learnt to talk thanks to his relationship with a horse. He can quell his tantrums, express his feelings, even do maths and spelling — all because of a horse. He is the Horse Boy, and the loss of his symptoms is a challenge to conventional thought on how to handle his condition. Continue reading →
In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.
The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.
That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java. Continue reading →
When I was five, I knew I had a remarkable power. I could fly. Sometimes I’d sit on top of the stairs leading down to the basement, cross my legs (right over left), and float down without touching a single step.
The key was always to have complete faith in my ability; even the tiniest bit of doubt would keep me from flying. But I know I could do it. Flying was effortless.
Other flights took place during my dreams. I would take a few running steps, jump into the air and dive toward the ground, as if I had a diving board and a deep pool before me. A few inches before impact, I’d start skimming along the grass, arms outstretched (“Like Peter Pan,” I’d say, “not like Superman”), then once I had sufficient momentum I’d vault into the sky, skimming the treetops, swooping and doing aerial tricks, playing like an otter in no less fluid a medium.
My first shock was the realization that Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where I was to meet with Vincent Blackfeather, the medicine man, is south of the Badlands, and that it is 3 hours and 100 miles back there from Rockerville, where I have stopped for dinner. I’ve missed it utterly, and the realization has put me in a panic.
I head into town and call my friend Jim to ask his advice, and reach only his answering machine.
It’s dark now. What do I do? I’m very near Mount Rushmore; do I visit it in the morning, or now? Do I camp in the forest somewhere, or find a comfy-but-cheap bed in a motel? Do I go back to Kyle after doing the Black Hills circuit?
I feel like such a coward whenever I think of Vincent Blackfeather and the Ceremonial. I’m feeling stymied by the Unknown; it’s as if all my Christian upbringing is reasserting itself in the face of this rampant “paganism” I’m being drawn toward. But if I don’t see him, what will I miss? If I travel back all that way and go to the reservation, will Vincent even be there, since he’s not expecting me? Should I try and call him in the morning? If I’m able to talk to Jim after all, will he have the proper discernment for me, since my intuition seems to be on the blink? Should I throw an I Ching hexagram? Do a tarot spread? Pray?
A graduate school application can go sour in as many ways as a blind date. The personal essay might seem too eager, the references too casual. The admissions officer on duty might be nursing a grudge. Or a hangover.
Rachel Riskind of Austin, Tex., nonetheless has a good feeling about her chances for admittance to the University of Michigan’s exclusive graduate program in psychology, and it’s not just a matter of her qualifications.
On a recent afternoon, as she was working on the admissions application, she went out for lunch with co-workers. Walking from the car to the restaurant in a misting rain, she saw a woman stroll by with a Michigan umbrella.
“I felt it was a sign; you almost never see Michigan stuff here,” said Ms. Riskind, 22. “And I guess I think that has given me a kind of confidence. Even if it’s a false confidence, I know that that in itself can help people do well.”
Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.
These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.
The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Continue reading →
In many countries, a sneeze that occurs after making a statement is often interpreted as a confirmation by God that the statement was true. No word on whether more truthtelling occurs during cold and flu season.
In 400 BCE, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a dramatic oration exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him “to liberty or to death” against the Persians. He spoke for an hour, motivating his army and assuring them a safe return to Athens, until a soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking this sneeze a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers bowed before Xenophon and followed his command. Their battles were a resounding success. Xenophon’s record of the entire expedition against the Persians and the journey home was titled Anabasis (“The Expedition” or “The March Up Country”). It is worth noting that the Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.
Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar and talks with his waiting lover Penelope. She tells him that Odysseus will return safely to challenge her suitors. At that moment their son sneezes loudly, and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods.
So here is a New Year’s sneeze for you, a sign from the gods that the year will be wondrous, healing, and prosperous for all of us:
That said, I still feel that starting a new year on January 1 is the height of artificial construct. Although most cultures saw the year as beginning at the spring equinox, January assumed its position as the first month in 153 BCE simply because Rome’s consuls, or constitutional heads of state, were elected on January 1. The reason for this shift of the new year into the dead of winter was to allow the new consuls to complete the elections and ceremonies upon becoming consuls, and still reach their respective consular armies by the start of the campaigning season.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, the new year began on Christmas Day, with January 1 being designated the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (Jewish law mandated that boys be circumcised eight days after birth, and January 1 is eight days after Christmas). The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 fixed the start of the new year as January 1, but the religious feast days stayed the same.
Circumcision predates recorded human history, with depictions found in stone-age cave drawings and ancient Egyptian tombs. Circumcision was variously seen as a form of ritual sacrifice or offering, a sign of submission to a deity, a rite of passage to adulthood, a mark of defeat or slavery, and an attempt to alter aesthetics or sexuality.
So why does the Torah require circumcision precisely on the eighth day—even if that day falls on the Sabbath? The number seven symbolizes that something is complete; eight, then, is the number of new beginnings: new not only in the sense of fresh or unspoiled, but new as in strange, unknown, revolutionary. Noah saved eight persons from the Flood to start rebuilding life on earth. The inauguration of the Tabernacle as the new dwelling place for the presence of God took place on the eighth day, after seven days of preparation. When Israelites were healed of leprosy, they were to present themselves in the Temple on the eighth day as the beginning of their new life.
The number eight is a potent symbol in many cultures and traditions. It’s the basis for much of Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, its Eight Auspicious Symbols, and its Eight Worldly Dharmas. Hinduism has its eight-pointed Star of Lakshmi, representing the eight kinds of wealth that the goddess Lakshmi imparts. The planet Venus was also represented as an eight-pointed star (“the Star of Ishtar”), because it returns to the same position in the sky every eight years.
Every eight years, the winter solstice sun falls on the day of a new moon; this is the shortest amount of time that lunar and solar calendars were in approximate alignment. The eight years from one such “meeting of sun and moon” to the next were called a “Great Year” and measured the life span of the sun, because at each of these “meetings,” the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle. Consequently, in many ancient cultures (particularly Greece), kings, for whom the sun was an apt symbol, served only for eight years at a time, after which their kingship had to be renewed. (The Greek mathematician and astronomer Meton of Athens introduced a more accurate nineteen-year lunisolar calculation, now called a Metonic cycle; an even more accurate alignment occurs every 334 years.)
Robert Anton Wilson—essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist—wrote a marvelous piece called “The Octave of Energy” which looks at the repetition of the number eight throughout human history, arguing that it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. As Antero Alli put it,
A message is the ordering of a signal. This message is the framework of an alternative education system, one which arranges living planetary signals into meaningful messages. These signals come in octaves, or cycles of eight. Languages throughout history have translated these signals as: The Overtones of Music Theory, The DNA Code, The I Ching, Computer Binary Notation, The 8 Mayan Calenders, The Game of Chess and other interpretations of the universal law of octaves.
To that list I would add the Medicine Wheel as a map of the human psyche. Many of Wilson’s ideas are based on The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness proposed by Dr. Timothy Leary. I’ll be returning to discussions of their work, and similar approaches by Alli, Gurdjieff, and even Gene Roddenberry, in future posts.
So we start January with nods to brain circuitry, genital modification, religious symbology, and sneezing pandas. Not a bad way to start.
The ancient Saxons called January wulf-monath, or Wolf Month. According to Verstegan’s 1605 book with the delicious title A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation, Wolf Month was so named “because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.”
May this year keep the wolf in your heart, but away from your door.
I’m dazzled by so much that Jason Godesky has to say, but this article is, to my mind, one of his best. I hope you find it as intriguing and stimulating as I do.
Imagine, for a moment, what the world might be like if there was only one religion. Not a dogmatic creed you were forced to comply with, but a sort of “open source” interplay of visions and ideas that not only encouraged, but demanded your active participation in creating an organic, evolving vision of the world. Imagine what such a religion might be like, if you were forbidden to simply take another’s word for it, and you were required to experience the divine for yourself—a religion that required no faith in anything but your own experience of it. Imagine a religion based on dreams and visions, a religion that saw a world that was simultaneously sacred and profane but above all, alive. Imagine a world where you were not just an empty elite separated from your domain by the aloofness of power, but irrevocably enmeshed in a network screaming with life, a world where every stone and stick and blade of grass pulsed with a sacred spirit all its own. Imagine what such a religion might be like.
We don’t need to use too much imagination to conjure up such an image, because not only did it once exist, it is humanity’s natural state. That religion is today often called “shamanism,” for the Tungus word for their most religious individuals. It is the root of all our modern religions—all of them are the descendants of the shaman’s vision. It is the genesis of art, music, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and all those abstract things that we so often look to as the very best of our species’ achievements.
Defining “the Shaman”
In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Michael Winkelman puts forth a case so dense it is nigh unreadable, but if you can make it through such intense verbage, you will be rewarded with an incredibly unique point of view that is supported by an exhaustive set of evidence, pointing to the idea that shamanism had a role to play in human evolution. The reductionism of the scientific mindset is certainly bolstered by the nature of waking consciousness. The “shamanic state of consciousness” (often abbreviated “SSC”) is less a reductionist state, and more an integrative state. This boosts the mind’s integrative abilities, allowing it to make connections between various ideas on analytical, metaphorical and other levels simultaneously. The value of non-analytical thought to make intuitive leaps that may be impossible through analysis alone has been evidenced at several points in the history of science. One striking example might be Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who added a new chapter to every high school chemistry textbook with his discovery of the benzene ring—a structure he discovered only thanks to the inspiration of a dream he had, wherein he encountered the ancient symbol of the snake eating is own tail, the ouroboros.
Winkelman shows that in the shamanic state of consciousness, the body’s natural healing processes are activated in a significant manner. This is related to the placebo effect, in that the body is, in general, very good at seeing to its own treatment. For example, both the placebo effect and the shamanic state of consciousness result in the release of opioids. The placebo effect is well-known, but rarely given its due. Too often, we refer to “just” a placebo effect. Approved drugs must do better than placebo, but even our very best drugs—such as aspirin—can only narrowly edge out the placebo effect. Very often, up to 75% of a drug’s effectiveness will be due to the placebo effect. The shamanic state of consciousness does not try to denigrate such a powerful healing function, but instead tries to use it to still greater effect. The SSC exacerbates the same self-healing processes as the placebo effect. When combined with the shaman’s traditional role as resident ethnobotanist, this makes the efficacy of most shamanic ethnomedicine roughly equal to our own biomedicine. Continue reading →
The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours forth from religious people who “speak in tongues” reflects a state of mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience to back them up.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active. The women were not in blind trances, and it was unclear which region was driving the behavior.
The images, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, pinpoint the most active areas of the brain. The images are the first of their kind taken during this spoken religious practice, which has roots in the Old and New Testaments and in charismatic churches established in the United States around the turn of the 19th century. The women in the study were healthy, active churchgoers.
“The amazing thing was how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering and Mark Waldman. “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them,” he said. Continue reading →
Dreams are such peculiar things. They come in a few different varieties. There are ones that are the flotsam and jetsam of the mind, free-associating snippets that are the tired chaff of the day’s (or week’s) events. Then there are the Big Dreams, the ones that haunt you years afterward, that were pregnant with meaning; some even may have been life-changing.
Then there are those in the middle. I think of them as the Rorschach blots of the brain. The images we see may be caused by the random firing of neurons, but our minds crave order, so they recognize them as little surrealistic movies, strange landscapes that we strive to make sense of. Movies which, if we remember them in the morning, we chew on and try to find some deeper meaning from.
Last night’s movie was a trilogy. In the first, I lived in a futuristic high-rise apartment building with a curved balcony that was so close to a neighbor’s balcony that one could easily step from one to the other. My neighbor—played, in this particular dream, by actress/comedienne/activist/political commentator Janeane Garofolo (bizarre, but that’s the nature of dreams)—is a lesbian whose relationship had just broken up, and she is packing up and moving out. Apparently I’m friends with both her and her partner, but she’s obviously distressed and her partner is nowhere in sight, so I’m trying to comfort her. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but we leave the door open for her to call on me if and when she’s ready for a shoulder to cry on.
Cut to movie #2. More lesbians, an older couple, a tall skinny one and a short fat one. The short one is diabetic and rather ill, and the tall one is able to pick her up and carry her around easily, as if she’s extremely light despite her girth. What I remember most is the tall one’s attitude of protectiveness: the short one’s illness had made her rather childlike and vulnerable. I see them in the kitchen of their house, but I don’t recall anything more than that.
In the last segment, I’m performing on stage with a bunch of adults (mostly parents, I think) at a children’s school. Almost all of us are zombies, though I’m a bit more animated than most you see in the movies; I growl and moan and make menacing faces, my fingers curled into claws. There are children on stage, our pretend victims, screaming happily, and the audience is pleased.
Here’s a journal entry from 2001, written in the thick of my worst depression (one that came perilously close to suicide), when I had to pack up my life in Vermont and move back to Florida. In many ways this was something of a turning point for me.
Last night, in the shower, I communed with Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed Hindu god. I have for many years felt a kinship with him; I have a nice statue of him reclining, and a little incense burner or candleholder kind of altar.
But recently I’d been reading more about him, and learned that while he is the god who removes obstructions, he’s also the god who placed obstructions in the way of his mother’s hotheaded consort; he was her protector. And in many ways, he is mine.
I have been, for most of my life, a monotheist, a Christian. If I have had anything to do with different gods, it’s been to contemplate their symbolic power, their meaning—not to cultivate a relationship with them.
September Songs was a month-long music blog. I wrote about the songs and performers who meant the most to me. Some may find it a little tweedy (heck, some people find me a little tweedy!), but there were lots and lots of cool videos and maybe some interesting little things to read.
50 Words, 210 People was a nifty writing experiment, now completed, in which I wrote exactly fifty words a day about 210 different people who had touched my life in some way.
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