Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Relativity of Delusion (part 1)


MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that themselves are sane. —Ambrose Bierce (from The Devil's Dictionary)

Puthujjano ummattako. ("The common person is insane.") —Pali proverb


     This post, the first installment of a two-part essay, may seem harsh and cruel, or more so than usual, but I will eventually turn around and come back the other way. Please be patient. Life is like this.
     Around two and a half years ago my old friend Wayne, the New Age surfer dude who maintains that he is not New Age, was writing a novel, or elaborate, metaphorical fairy tale, and—I don't remember whose idea it was—I expressed a willingness to go through it and offer him some editorial feedback. He evidently much appreciated the comments, and eventually advised an acquaintance of his who had just written a novel of sorts himself (and who might, for all I know, also deny being New Age) that I might be willing to edit it for him. So a little later I received an email from this man, who I do not recall ever having met in person, accompanied by a 578-page manuscript, and a request that I edit it.
     I was busy with other things at the time, but I took a look at it, and read the first chapter. It did not look promising. The story begins with the narrator claiming that three people want him dead and may be trying to kill him, that he is surrounded by people who can control his mind, and that he owns a slave woman—in the 21st century, in the United States of America. The part especially about mind control seemed to hint at a possibility of schizophrenia, and I decided not to wade through the whole thing. Editing it would probably be a task I would not enjoy. Besides, it was written by someone I didn't know, and I was expected to do this motivated by nothing but the goodness of my heart and a vague offer of free popcorn. (It is true, though, that monks should not do anything out of any desire for payment, nor should they accept any, especially if it is in the form of money.) So I set the manuscript aside in the digital guts of my computer and left it there for more than two years.
     Then very recently some generous folks offered me a solar panel, so now I can use this computer at my cave, as much as I please; and I happened to notice that manuscript among my files. Books that would be unreadable in America, or at any place with Internet access, become quite readable when one is living alone in a remote forest cave in Burma. So, I read it. I'm still not inclined to edit it, however, as I judge it would probably need a major overhaul to make it decently publishable. In fact, I resist the urge to vent frustration and impatience over the thing. I'll probably wind up venting a little before I'm done, though. Sometimes it's not good to keep things held in.
     On the positive side, I did learn quite a lot about New Age and one or two other current American subcultures. For example, the author describes the services at a New Age church, which is something I've never seen before. (They began with two designated healers offering healing energies to anyone willing to come up and sit by the altar. Later on there was a guided visualization of flying, bird-like, to the Great Pyramid.) I learned something of the extraordinarily wide spectrum of "metaphysicists" in the New Age and related worlds, including, but nowhere near to being limited to, telekinetics, crystallomancers, lunamancers, projecting empaths, and "glamours." I learned that one should always avoid necromancers.
     Since the "novel" is hardly a fictional story at all, but is an extremely thinly-veiled autobiographical account, I also learned that a peculiar kind of slavery is not altogether uncommon in certain circles in modern America. There is even a standardized protocol for slave behavior. For example, whenever they are not in public (unless maybe at a BDSM dungeon) their conversations tend to be conducted formally, with the master sitting on a chair or bed and the slave kneeling before him, naked or wearing only a collar, with her knees apart, her hands behind her back, and her head bowed in submission. New Age, or some New Age at least, tends to be very open sexually, and has considerable overlap with what is euphemistically referred to as "alternative lifestyles," or just "lifestyle," which in the book means BDSM, or Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism. In addition to owned slaves, the manuscript also mentions "masochist submissives" (also mostly female) and "pain sluts"—i.e., women who actually want sadistic sociopaths to beat the living daylights out of them, or worse. Methods of conditioning or breaking in a new slave include, according to the text, repeated rape (genital and anal), choking the person until she loses consciousness, and force-feeding her her own excrement, until she eventually breaks down to the point that she submissively and habitually accepts it. The impression I got was that many of these women reach the point where they believe that they deserve such treatment, or even crave it. As the narrator's slave says at one point, virtually all slaves have been massively traumatized. To be fair to the author/protagonist, he makes no mention of beating his slave, except maybe as some BDSM "love play," or of having bought her, although slave women are not uncommonly bought and sold, and he was not the one who forcibly "conditioned" her. Plus the two appear genuinely to love and respect each other. This sort of thing (i.e. female slavery in the US) appears not to consist of rare, isolated cases, but represents an entire underground subculture. Whether it's a "thriving" subculture or not I don't know. Also, whether it's more a manifestation of modern Western cultural alienation or a universal human perversion, I don't know.
     At which point I would like to make a digression on the issue of slavery in modern America, setting aside for the moment the aforementioned agonizing female variety. It is commonly believed that Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution freed the slaves, but that is only partially true. The text of Section One of the Amendment makes this clear: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction" (my underscoring). It seems fairly obvious to me, although most people don't make the connection, that prisoners working at labor camps or on road crews (Cool Hand Luke comes to mind here), or otherwise working involuntarily, like making license plates or whatever, are legal slaves in the USA. And as the government attempts to stave off bankruptcy and turns the prison system over to capitalist, profit-making corporations, as I've been told is happening nowadays, legal slavery is becoming commercialized. It would be nice if laws are not made more strict in order to increase the slave labor force.
     Other alleged forms of modern legal slavery include military conscription by draft boards, "wage slavery" (alleged mainly by communists), taxation (alleged by some anarchists and libertarians), the domination of domesticated animals (alleged by some animal rights activists), and "psychiatric slavery," that is, the subjugation of patients against their will at psychiatric hospitals (who, as Mr. Bierce pointed out, are declared insane by authorities who are not proved to be entirely sane themselves). This could be taken to a more universal level, with mandatory obedience to laws which a citizen never voted for, or agreed to, being a kind of slavery (Cool Hand Luke comes to mind again). Perhaps to some degree this last is just a necessary form of semi-slavery in the present way of things. I'm getting too damn political lately. 
     Getting back on track though, and back to the strange manuscript….as a Castaneda-esque autobiographical account of New Age beliefs and practices, including some rather "metaphysical" psychic training, and with some "lifestyle" kinks thrown in for a bit of stark intensity, the book could be informative and useful; and I think it probably should be edited (or reworked) in that direction if the author seriously wants it published and read by as many people as possible. But as a novel it is, in my opinion, a lost cause. Some sort of conflict, or at least mystery, and the satisfactory (or deliberately unsatisfactory) resolution of same are a virtual necessity for any self-respecting novel, especially one dealing with the macabre and "occult"; but these are virtually absent in the story—or rather, they exist primarily in hypothetical form in the obsessive, easily terrified, very credulous, and rather paranoiac mind of the protagonist. For instance, of the three people in Chapter 1 who supposedly wanted him dead, the number of actual threats to his life from these people was zero. One of them was a woman in whose house he was living, who expressed angry disapproval of the author's woman, and who subsequently asked him if he had seen her gun cleaning kit. He promptly put two and two together, arrived at a total of seven, and assumed that she intended to murder him and/or his slave. He frantically ordered the slave into hiding and slept at night with a loaded gun by his side and heavy furniture against his bedroom door…and of course his housemate had no intention of murdering anybody. She wanted to show her gun to a friend, and wanted to clean it first. The author honestly admits to all this later on, and includes a scene in which the lady is berating him for his paranoia, but still.
     The central, mainly imaginary conflict involves the hero's remote efforts to separate a young woman, whom he deeply cares for, from her boyfriend. It is true that the boyfriend is a Goth with a rudimentary conscience, morbid fantasies involving world conquest, immortality (possibly involving cannibalism), and destruction of his enemies, and just plain immaturity issues; then again, the young woman apparently has shockingly little perceptiveness with regard to her boyfriend's distorted/perverted values, and seems to have some morbid fantasies herself—for example, a large picture directly over her bed in her bedroom features a black devil devouring a white angel. The hero attributes her lack of common sense to malevolent mind control. His efforts to separate the couple are "remote" because, almost immediately upon hearing of the new boyfriend, he reacted in such an alarmist and frantic manner that within a week the young woman was harassed and exasperated to the point where she didn't want anything to do with him, the hero, anymore. Consequently, his efforts to rescue the damsel in distress were at a respectful distance, and predominantly along "metaphysical" lines. The young couple made no personal appearance at all throughout most of the story, and the protagonist met the Goth boyfriend only once or twice—although the slave woman vehemently insisted that he was of the Abyss, and strenuously warned her master not to touch him, because it would give him greater power to access the hero's mind. There is no final, climactic confrontation whatsoever. I hope I don't wreck the surprise ending for anyone, but the climax takes the form of revealing the identity of "Gorm" (not his real name), a master of the Abyss who allegedly has given the Goth boyfriend powers to control and "condition" the young woman, after which he  (the boyfriend) would destroy her innocent soul, sacrifice her for the sake of his own immortality, and then pass her on to Gorm, who would then allegedly consume her soul-energy to maintain his own demonic existence. It turns out that Gorm, whom the author never meets, is a discarnate demon of the Abyss. The slave makes a deal with him, which she strongly prefers not to explain or discuss, resulting in Gorm agreeing to withdraw his powers in the subjugation of the young woman's soul. It is this which eventually allows her to leave the Goth boyfriend (outwardly appearing to have nothing to do with the hero's or anyone else's psychic efforts), thereby vindicating his continued overreactions and obsessive fears. It is true that the author/protagonist considers the possibilities that his slave is delusional, or just making up the story of meeting Gorm and making a deal with him at Denny's to help allay his single-minded conjuration of worst-case scenarios (plus maybe making herself appear more powerful and useful to her master), but he quickly dismisses these possibilities as unlikely. 
     The author's/protagonist's decisions and conduct are conditioned by dreams, visions, visualizations, sudden intuitions and strange feelings, wild speculative theories readily accepted as facts, tarot card readings, guidance from various "metaphysicists," some of whose advice is mutually contradictory or proves obviously false, the powers of a mystical amulet, and even fortune cookies. (There is mentioned in the book, however, no astrology that I remember, nothing channeled by mediums in trance, no interpretations of flights of birds, and no inspections of sacrificed animal entrails.) Actual empirical facts seem to be little emphasized once the magic ball starts rolling. Although it is probably completely unnecessary, I'll give two illustrations of his world from the manuscript.
     On one occasion the protagonist experiences a strange feeling early in the morning that the Goth boyfriend will confront and attack him that day. He wakes up his slave from a sound sleep to tell her this, and to request her "backup" while he is at work. Then he calls his brother, who apparently lives at least a two-hour drive away, and asks him also to come and help protect him from this follower of the Dark Side, who at this point is hypothesized to be a possible glamour, skilled at mind control. The slave comes with a sword, the brother comes, and the hero himself brings a loaded pistol and prepares for death, even hurriedly writing down a kind of final testament, which he afterwards places in a plastic bag to protect it from any splattering blood. He warns the slave not to use lethal force with her sword against the enemy until he is clearly attempting to kill the hero, and she agrees. Then, as was not difficult to predict, the Goth boyfriend, probably not giving this fellow a moment's thought all day, fails to show up.
     On another occasion, toward the end of the tale, after the young woman has gotten fed up with the immature boyfriend and has already left him, the hero is still obsessing, fearful that the boyfriend, still of the Abyss, will seek her out and harm her in vengeance, or else will start controlling her mind again to get her back, putting her back on the road to being sacrificed and cannibalized. He feels a sudden, powerful urge to pray for her, which he does, with great emotion. Then he tries to "image" or visualize her and her mother. The mother in the visualization appears blank or mildly stunned, while the young woman appears happy and smiling, with her face bathed in white light. He considers this: the mother stunned, the girl blissful and bathed in light—and suddenly recoils in horror, with an internal exclamation of "Oh my God!" He doesn't make clear why all of a sudden he's fighting to remain coherent through his tears, but it may be that he saw his visualization as indicative of the young woman's death. Upon finally getting a grip on himself he tells the slave about it, and, apparently used to this sort of thing, she remains completely impassive. So after he returns home he does an elaborate tarot spread on the girl, which reassures him somewhat, and then he goes outside to pray again, this time wearing nothing but a swimsuit and rubber boots. 
     So it becomes clear that most of the conflict in the story is created by the hero's own vehement, febrile imagination. Even if the girl were in real danger, which is never more than a suspected possibility, the chronic slumped shoulders, voice choked with sobs, and tear-blurred vision did nothing at all to help resolve the situation. I can sympathize with the man's distress, but I cannot take his interpretation of the facts very seriously, nor his reactions to them, except as a kind of psychological case history—but, this is simply indicative of my own personal bias.
     I have no real quarrel with most of the strange New Ageish metaphysics described in the document. I do consider, though, folks of the New Age orientation to require very little verification, if any, in order to believe something. I also consider New Age in general to be very goal-oriented in its practices, which includes meditation. The author uses meditation more as a springboard for psychic question answering and for intensifying visualizations than simply for clarity and peace of mind in the here and now. Meditative clarity and peace of mind, if attained, seem to be seen as mere means to some occult end. Even a mention of Zen masters in the book apparently implies that Zen masters also use meditation mainly as a kind of tool for answering questions, or for some other more or less mundane ulterior motive. Another reservation I have about New Age, based upon what I have seen of it, is that even relatively advanced practitioners may be very broken and messed up inside. This appears to be very common in fact. The slave woman is a case in point; she is profoundly damaged and hurting, by her own confession, yet she comes up with much of the wisest, most knowledgeable counsel in the whole book. Some, but certainly not all, of what she says strikes me as truly wise. To some degree it may be a matter of "breaking the shell," a life of some viciously hard knocks breaking through some of the limitations in the "normal" point of view and allowing one to see, unobstructed by the "normal" shell, in non-normal directions. Some people may call it insanity, but even so-called crazy people may have real wisdom. But I'll get back to that. 
     My main trouble with the book was with the amazing, occasionally irritating paranoia, obsession, and fear, supported by some rather extreme credulity, which is rather over the top even if measured by a very liberal yardstick. Sometimes I would stop reading the manuscript for a minute or two in order to make profane exclamations of frustration, shake my head, and then cuss a little more. The author freely admits that his conduct, especially the full-time obsessional aspect of it, occasionally annoys the people around him, and it totally alienated the damsel he was trying to save (and the writing of the book itself may have been another symptom of it); but then again, I imagine that he is not all that weird or anomalous of a person by the standards of the society he lives in. Some of his arguably bizarre convictions were handed to him by "metaphysical" friends, and others were endorsed and reinforced by them. Arguably bizarre beliefs and practices, and deviations from "normal" human psychology, appear to be rather commonplace in the New Age world, and in other subcultures deviating from the scientific materialist mainstream. I'll get back to that too.
     I get a subjective feeling that I shouldn't quote the manuscript in question any more than I have with the exclamation "Oh my God!"; and I hope I haven't totally crossed the line by giving away the surprise climax. And if my comments on his attitude seem unfriendly thus far, I do apologize to him. In fact, I would feel like I was blabbing a confidential communication from someone if not for the fact that he obviously wants to make the book public to the world anyway. And at the very least, the part about abused female slaves in 21st-century America should be publicly announced as a kind of red warning flag. So instead of quoting him further I'll quote instead a classic New Age document that a very nice New Age guy lent to me once. This has the further advantage of demonstrating what is widely accepted and even respected in the world of New Age nowadays. It is from a book entitled The Magdalen Manuscript: The Alchemies of Horus & The Sex Magic of Isis, by Tom Kenyon and Judi Sion (ORB Communications, 2002). Mr. Kenyon may, perhaps, deny being New Age, but he is considered to be a kind of oracle in some New Age circles, and I've heard him mentioned with the same quiet awe that some Western Vipassana people affect when they speak of Jack Kornfield. Anyway, Tom Kenyon is, among other things, a channeler; and in the classic book in question he presumably channels Mary Magdalene, a female follower of Jesus of Nazareth (referred to as Yeshua in the text) who had a troop of evil spirits driven out of her and who was present at his crucifixion and afterwards. The Bible says little more about her than what I have just related, and nothing really incriminating, but there are numerous legends floating about that she was the mistress or secret wife of Jesus. (Any of you who have read The Da Vinci Code know all about this, and I will add that that is a much more engagingly-written book than Kenyon's is.) The Magdalen Manuscript goes further than most of these legends, as Mary M. herself asserts that she was an advanced priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis—and if my memory is reliable, that Mary the mother of Jesus also was an extremely advanced Pagan adept. The following is the first paragraph of Chapter 15 of Kenyon's book, in which Mary M. describes some of the sexual tantra that she and Jesus practiced together:
"When Yeshua and I made love, as you call it, we caused our Serpents to rise up our spines, up our Djed. We did this simultaneously, and at the moment of mutual orgasm the charge released from the first seals in the pelvic areas of our bodies was sent upward, into the Throne, which is in the upper part of the head—stimulating the higher brain centers."
     Now, I am probably more openminded than the average guy, but this strikes me as gobsmackingly priceless, like something out of Monty Python's Flying Circus—say, the Fish Slapping Dance. What makes it even more delicious is that Judi Sion, in her part of the book, declares her husband Tom Kenyon to be the skeptical, scientific one. Yet there are people who believe all this as though it were gospel, without a flicker of doubt, nor the slightest raising of an eyebrow, not to mention the tiniest shred of empirical evidence other than Mr. Kenyon's testimony. But then again, there have been, and still are, entire religions based on scriptures only slightly less absurd or less supported by evidence or logic than the above. People, really, can believe anything
     And again, my own personal bias interferes with pure objectivity—if there even is such a thing as pure objectivity. Allow me to step back a little and cool down.



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