Saturday, March 26, 2016

The End of the American Rope (I Give Up)

     I was considering letting this be the very last post on this here blog before shutting the thing down, for reasons which ought to be woefully obvious to regular readers. But, I’ve already written a few more posts which haven’t been published yet, and I do enjoy writing, usually, and it helps to keep me out of trouble while I’m here in Babylon, sort of, so what the hell. This won’t be the last post, although it appears the end is near. This one is pretty much the end of the last chapter of this tragicomedy, however, with everything that comes after being by way of epilogue. I will try to restrain urges to let this degenerate into an impassioned tirade, at least until I am near the end, although I may change my mind and start ranting at any moment. Today I’ve been feeling less disgusted, indignant, disillusioned, and heart-achy than usual lately (lucky for you), so I was actually thinking maybe I should hold off on writing this until I’m more worked up; but let’s just get on with it.
     I suppose I should start with a rather simplistic synopsis of the flight of the lead balloon, or whatever it is, which will be review for some of you who are already familiar with the story.
     In the summer of 1991 I officially renounced the world and became a Theravada Buddhist monk. I did this mainly for two reasons: I wanted to dedicate my life to the cultivation of wisdom, and to understanding Reality, considering that to be the worthiest thing I could do with my life; and also I could not take American culture seriously—it is just too shallow, too superficial, too confining for me to find deep satisfaction in it. It may be that just about any worldly culture would be the same, and the wisest philosophies and spiritual movements tend to agree that wallowing in a worldly life is an obstacle to realization.
     My primary interest as a new monk was to follow the teaching of Gotama Buddha as closely as I could. I had zero interest in conforming to American-style Buddhism, to which I had almost no exposure anyway, and I also had little or no interest in conforming to traditional Southeast Asian “ethnic” Buddhism. I wanted to follow what the Buddha originally taught as purely as I could, so I kept my eyes on the Suttas and Vinaya and tried to live like an ancient Indian Buddhist ascetic.
     Before long this resulted in me being an outsider even to the Sangha, and driving myself harder and harder until I was living alone in caves in remote tropical forests and semi-desert wastelands. I followed the rules as strictly as I could manage, and over the course of my first ten years or so as a bhikkhu I figured I was averaging about six hours of formal sitting meditation per day. If enlightenment was possible for me, I was determined to find it, and not by ignoring or simplifying Dhamma to make it more convenient. (If I were a Jew I would have to be kosher, and if I were a Christian I would have to take seriously such universally ignored tenets as “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth.”) For years I was a radical fundamentalist Buddhist, perhaps bordering on fanaticism in my profound desire to follow Dhamma. 
     Burmese villagers revere monks in general, in accordance with their Buddhist tradition, and they respected and loved me for renouncing my own world in order to live in poverty in theirs, out of respect for their own religion; and the fact that I was practicing so strictly and conscientiously besides had many of them considering me to be a saint, possibly even a fully enlightened being. To this day in certain areas of Burma people make offerings at little shrines dedicated to my honor, or so I have been told. Burmese villagers are very poor in a physical sense, but they were eager and honored to offer support.
     After many years in Burma, though, I began burning out. Mainly it was the isolation and the blazing tropical heat. I started telling my best supporter that if I stayed there much longer I would go insane or die. I made some effort to come back to America, but by this time my father was dead, my former supporters in America, what few I had, had drifted out of contact, and I didn’t know how to leave. Lousy communications (this was before the country opened up and before Internet was available) almost ensured that I would remain in life-long exile. 
     By this time I felt that I had learned much of value from my practice and experiences, and that it could be good, for others as well as for me personally, if I returned to the West and shared this in some kind of interaction. I knew that the overwhelming majority of Westerners, possibly even the overwhelming majority of Western Buddhists, wouldn’t be interested, but it seemed extremely likely, pretty much a certainty even, that there would be some kindred spirits who could appreciate someone like me, and would be willing to form some kind of symbiosis. I didn’t want reverence so much as someone who could appreciate what I could share, and could communicate with me—being more philosopher than priest. Going back to America really seemed like the thing to do, essentially the next step in my practice.
     Yet because of lack of communications with people in America while I was in solitude in Burma, there seemed to be no obvious way of returning. Finally, with the help of a generous Burmese donor, I took a huge leap of faith and just flew back to my old home town of Bellingham. I knew only one person there by this time, and I couldn’t just move in with him indefinitely, but I felt that Bellingham had a noticeably higher level of consciousness than most cities, and it is a beautiful place, and I felt the need to move somewhere, so I took the plunge and started the great adventure. I wasn’t even sure if anyone would meet me at the airport.
     I had come back briefly a few times over the years to visit my parents, but this time, coming back indefinitely and in need of support, the strange, amazing ordeal began, probably a stranger shock to my system than when I first went to Asia. I really felt that I had something of great value to offer, and there have been Western people who agree with me on that, but the difference between Buddhism in Burma and Buddhism in America was like the difference between day and night, with America being night. It was like diving into ice water, the contrast was so great.
     From the beginning I met with indifference. The representative of the local Vipassana group in Bellingham didn’t even answer my emails introducing myself. (This has proven to be quite common actually; about half of Western Buddhist organizations do not reply.) As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I met with at least as much cool disdain inside the local Dharma hall as outside on the streets of Bellingham. Polite standoffishness was the most common attitude, with some anxiety apparent on the part of the teachers of the group that I might somehow attempt to “take over” the organization.
     To complicate matters somewhat, the only person in town to offer shelter, and desire eagerly what I could teach her, was a young, unmarried American woman. I moved into a greenhouse in her back yard, at her enthusiastic invitation. In addition to providing shelter, she also was providing most of the food I ate, sometimes feeding me five days out of seven, and she organized most of the other support I received. We were overwhelmed with gratitude for each other, and eventually fell in love. After it ended, and I admitted to all of it publicly, the board of directors of the local Vipassana group used it as a golden opportunity to be rid of me once and for all and unanimously excommunicated me from their “sangha”—although this was obviously a case of jumping at the opportunity to make official what many of them had been doing unofficially from the beginning. Even before I was finally excommunicated in 2013 I was living on the floor of a massage studio, fasting once a week to reduce the burden on my few supporters, and eating corn chips and cheese two or three additional days per week, which food was bought with money donated by Burmese Buddhists in California.
     The “Let This Be a Lesson” episode has been seen by others also as a justification for non-support, although possibly none of them would have supported me in any case. I will say that the only time when my efforts to live supported by my fellow Americans seemed to be working was when my great benefactress and spiritual sweetheart was acting as a kind of agent or business manager, in some ways compensating for my own lack of (or disdain for) social skills, my aversion for hyping myself, and the rules of discipline preventing me from doing my own business. It appears that without some kind of manager it just doesn’t work. Also, I consider our romance, even though it was not consummated in the biological sense (as I did manage to remain celibate), to be the most profound and beautiful experience I have had since coming back to America in 2011. Even though it eventually hit the rocks and resulted in a great deal of unhappiness, I feel it was still well worth it, and cannot possibly regret it, even though I’m not planning to repeat the experience.
     Anyway, the thundering silence of the Buddhists of Bellingham was apparently no anomaly, as American Buddhists in general seem to be pretty similar in this regard. In addition to almost total lack of interest in what I can teach, there has been almost zero interest in providing a senior Buddhist monk (me) with even the bare necessities of existence—food and shelter. Needless to say, this also indicates a lack of motivation to help a fellow human being.
     A common observation is that Westerners aren’t familiar with supporting the minimal needs of an ascetic bhikkhu. This is no doubt true; although it is also true that virtually nobody is willing to learn. They just don’t see the point, and don’t want to see it. Often it is simply a convenient excuse for apathy, or indifference, or whatever. American Buddhists prefer to cling to the familiar, with their Buddhism modified and lukewarmified to fit with that. I am reminded of a senior teacher of the group in Bellingham saying that she wouldn’t support me because she did not know what lineage I came from—although I had offered the information in the past, and she had made zero effort to find out, and continued to make zero effort. It was a convenient rationalization, although perhaps not a very rational one.
     A similar issue involves the idea, considered by some Western Buddhists to be quite reasonable, that the Buddhists of Bellingham were justified in not offering support to the only Buddhist monk in town because they had not invited me. But consider such an attitude in ancient India: Let’s say a wandering monk happens to pass through a village. The villagers, considering themselves to be Buddhists, say nevertheless, “Let’s view this monk with suspicion for three years or so before deciding whether or not to offer him support.” Well, of course Buddhism would have died out in ancient times, wouldn’t it. For that matter, why gives alms to a street beggar? You didn’t invite him. Why support your aging mother? You didn’t invite her either. Generosity makes little sense in a consumeristic society.
     So of course, from the beginning Americans have been urging me to live at an established monastery. “Go stay at a temple!” they have said. For the most part this entails choosing between the Ajahn Chah tradition and Asian “ethnic” Buddhism; and neither is really for me, for reasons I needn’t go into and which most readers wouldn’t understand anyhow. Westerners tend to have only the vaguest notions of what monasteries are like, or are supposed to be like. If there is a monastery in the West where I would really fit in, I don’t know where it is. I have been staying at a little Burmese house-temple in California for the past several months, where the Burmese offer plentiful support, and where I meet approximately one Westerner per week, and usually the same guy. He’s a good guy though. But I figure it’s better just to go back to Burma, because the Euro-Americans obviously don’t give a damn. I get more physical exercise there also, have many more options, and actually have more freedom.
     Considering that Westerners are supposedly openminded, and that Western culture in general is spiritually bankrupt and unsatisfying, the failure to find kindred spirits willing to make the effort to have me around has struck me again and again as a kind of bizarre anti-miracle. It’s totally amazing to me, especially considering the enthusiastic support in other parts of the world. I have tried to understand it, and have written several posts on this blog attempting to analyze various aspects of the situation. Obviously there isn’t just one big reason, but apparently very many, maybe twenty or more that I could list. Maybe thirty. Recently in a mood of despairing wonder I asked a Canadian man who has offered long-distance support from time to time what his explanation was. His response is interesting, and worth repeating:
Making connections isn't just about whether or not people 'accept' your style of Dharma, but whether they are motivated enough by you to actually make contact and form a relationship. I think much of it is more dependent on charisma and social skills than anything else: It doesn't matter how damn enlightened you are, if people don't find it compelling to interact with you, they won't want to. Just look at how pleasant and charismatic most Western dharma teachers are: half therapist, half entertainer, they make it very easy to connect to. 
I've seen the mistake made more than once that monastics expect the same sort of piety and respect from Western layfolk that they received in the East. Yuttadhammo made the same mistake, but he worked extremely hard to put out massive amount of content on YouTube and to involve people-- he would get them to come to his various monasteries he set up, train them and ordain them as novices. He built his following as a missionary would.
Also I think your style of dharma is also partly to blame: your explicitness and skepticism removes much of the mystique people find compelling in other teachers.
     With regard to this I would just point out, again, that it’s not so much “piety and respect” that I’ve been looking for as simple food and shelter. Even that has been too much to expect in the West, unless it is supplied by foreign immigrants. And if having spent half my adult life as an ascetic in caves lacks “mystique,” then I am incapable of it, period.
     But there is no point in yet another attempt to analyze the almost total unwillingness of American Buddhists to support me, or for that matter to support practice above an elementary level. I will just add to the pile of reasons that my own motives are presumably impure to the point of giving me some hellaciously obstructive karma. The Universe is apparently insisting, really insisting, that I give up and spend the rest of my life in solitude in a tropical Asian forest, so I may as well bow my head, give up, and go.
     Before moving on though, I will mention that sometimes I almost wish that America’s lack of interest in keeping me alive were entirely my own fault—simply a matter of impure motives and an obnoxious personality. But the fact remains that non-support of renunciants in America is practically universal. All monks in America that I am aware of are supported primarily by Asians. American Buddhists are not only unwilling to practice Dhamma as the top priority in their lives (and most people even in devoutly Buddhist cultures are the same in this), but they are also unwilling to support those who are willing. Thus American Buddhism has effectively abolished renunciation, along with the primary purpose of Dhamma: enlightenment in this very life. Dhamma is not merely decapitated, everything is cut off above the knees.
     One interesting point to me is that I encountered a great dilemma in the West: As mentioned earlier I haven’t been able to take American culture as a whole very seriously, and that includes American Buddhism of course, most of which I would call “McBuddhism.” Rather than finding Americans turning to Dhamma because, like me, they are looking for a better way of  life, practically all of them are clinging to the old way of life and force-fitting Buddhism into the spiritually bankrupt container. The kindred spirits I was so confident of finding are so extremely few and so thinly scattered across the world that they make little practical difference, except maybe at some ethereal level. So the dilemma is that I refuse to be hypocritical on the subject and, although I don’t always dwell on it, I don’t always conceal the fact that what most people in the West are seriously calling Buddhism I consider to be a corrupt farce. At least I’m not insulting their religion by it, since Buddhism isn’t their religion anyway. And I’m not insulting them personally, partly because they’re too lukewarm and apathetic to be insulted by it. Maybe I should be saying “you” instead of “them,” since statistically speaking you, the reader, probably fit the qualifications; but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter anyway.
     Maybe it is a personality defect that I insist upon standing outside the system, just about any system. Pretty much everything I write is an examination of some system or other from the outside. This is actually very valuable; but not only most Americans, or most Westerners, but human beings in general, 99.999% of us, insist not only on standing within the system, but on being enslaved to it, and wallowing in it. One reason why Burmese Buddhists support me so avidly, aside from being very generous and hospitable people anyway, is because they believe, bless their hearts, that I stand within their system, although really I do not, except maybe at the edge of it, as an accidental side effect. Those who do not stand within the accepted system are a threat to the majority’s peace of mind.
     So I have spent my life painting myself into a corner, metaphorically speaking. I am not only a misfit and outcast, but I insist upon being one as a matter of principle. I must continue with it also, and have no real regrets over how I have lived my life. If I had these past few years to live over again there would probably be only some minor adjustments, and it still wouldn’t work out. I’d wind up in the same situation as now. I thought there would be others who could benefit from my nonconformity, but apparently I was mistaken; but regardless of whether I am alone or with other kindred spirits, I have to live according to my own conscience and reason, and not follow along with the conformist herd. 
     I do hope this blog has been of benefit to somebody, that it has helped at least one person out there to be at least a little more awake, a little less entangled in the phenomenal mess called Samsara. Based on the communications I have received, this blog seems to appeal mostly to loners, to those who are unimpressed by their local Buddhist group and are looking for something more satisfying. I am very glad you are out there, and wish you luck. But even the loners appear to be pretty lukewarm. 
     Well, thus far I’ve managed to write this thing without losing my cool and breaking into a fiery rant, although it has been meandering unsteadily all over the place. I guess I’m just too weary of the whole joke to get good and fired up. So I’ll add a succulent passage from a previous post, one written shortly after my formal excommunication from the blind leading the blind. 

     When I was young and Diogenes was my hero, I rebelled against society. I no longer rebel against it; now I'm content just to renounce it, more or less. It seems madness and futility to rebel against 99.99% of the human race. I'm willing to let society be. I don't really rebel against the Bhikkhu Sangha either, although I renounced that institution also, more or less, when I was still a young monk, still not at my peak of strictness, after realizing that more than 95% of bhikkhus don't seriously practice Dhamma or Vinaya (and that is not an exaggeration). For years I avoided the company of other monks whenever it was convenient to do so. But now, in my less fanatical maturity perhaps, I'm willing to let the Bhikkhu Sangha be also, and am more willing to associate with my colleagues in that organization, whether or not they are willing to associate with me.
     But there is one institution that I still consider worth my while to rebel against: and that is what many (but certainly not all) people in America are pleased to call "Theravada Buddhism"—a movement in which laypeople who may not take three refuges or keep five precepts call themselves "Sangha," and if they do take refuge in the Sangha, take refuge in themselves; in which the members believe more deeply in scientific materialism and politically correct humanism than in Dhamma; in which even many teachers do not believe in fundamental principles of Buddhism, even Nibbana, because scientific materialism cannot explain it; in which the members sew new patches onto old cloth, and are essentially worldly materialists with a little Buddhist flavoring added; in which the possibility of miracles is rejected out of hand; in which monks are required to be politically correct, smiling politicians, or saints, in order to be considered the equals of the lay community; in which a monk must prove himself worthy of even receiving a bowl of food every day; in which many of the teachers are more ignorant of the Buddhist texts than a typical Burmese villager with a grade school education; in which most of Theravada Buddhism is rejected or ignored, with the system reduced to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, being a pale shadow of a mutilated fragment of Dhamma; in which complacent lukewarmness is standard, with anything more than that being considered extreme, unnecessary, or "cultish"; in which truth is covered up with phony politeness for the sake of not ruffling feathers, or threatening people's fragile self-esteem; in which true renunciation is scorned; in which austerity is pretty much a nonstarter, with luxury and wimpiness being virtually mandatory (with the Goenka folks not culpable of this one); in which "sacred" is regarded as a superstitious word; in which Liberation in this very life has been replaced by enhancing the quality of their mental prisons, because the members are unwilling to go beyond a very casual and elementary level of commitment; in which a radical way of life designed for enlightenment has been rejected in favor of watered-down, soft, easy, convenient, comfortable, non-threatening, politically correct fluff designed to help them stay more comfortably asleep—THAT I rebel against. I lift my lower robes and fart in its general direction.

     There you are. To those of you who have generously offered support in the past (and there are some), and to any of you who really have derived benefit from my presence, I do apologize for all this. But even so…fuck it. I quit. As a large alien humanoid once said on the old Star Trek, and as I used to say to myself while sitting alone in Burmese forests, “My life is forfeit.” As the Burmese say, becoming a monk is a form of suicide. It’s pointless to say any more—in fact it was probably pointless to say most of what is above, since maybe nobody gives a damn anyway. Better to spend the rest of my life in exile, and in solitude.  

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Upheavals (part 2)

     Fear has arisen from an uptaken stick: 
     Look at people in conflict.
     I shall relate to you a feeling of  deep urgency, 
     How it was felt by me.

     Having seen mankind thrashing about 
     Like fishes in little water,
     Obstructed by one another—
     Having seen, fear took hold of me.

     The world was entirely without substance; 
     All the quarters were shaken.
     Wanting a settled abiding for myself
     I saw nothing that had not succumbed.

               (—attributed to the Buddha, in the Attadaṇḍa Sutta of the Sutta-Nipāta)

     In part 1 I discussed the phenomenon, or principle, or theory, of profound psychological changes, especially spiritual awakenings, occurring as the result of a crisis, or despair, or being at wit’s end. Here I intend to discuss the two main ways in which these life-changing crises can occur: they can be more or less accidental, or more or less intentionally cultivated.
     The accidental way appears to be much more common, and in the West it is almost the only way, since few people in the West nowadays try deliberately to bring themselves to a crisis, or try for spiritual awakening with such wholehearted intensity that they arrive at a cataclysmic breakdown. This sort of awakening can happen to people who are not involved at all in spiritual matters—in fact, a deep, sensitive person who has been guided into a life of superficial worldliness may experience the crisis as a result of sheer frustration and despair from a lifestyle that is profoundly unsatisfying.
     One form of this that is fairly common in the world is that great misfortune may inspire a person, maybe an average Joe (or Mary Jo) living a relatively ordinary life, to reexamine the value of his or her existence. In other words, it may serve as a beneficial wakeup call, a blessing in wolves’ clothing. For example, I used to know a person who was very materialistic, and rather shallow and self-centered. Then she got cancer, and was suddenly faced with her own mortality. It scared the hell out of her. She fortunately survived the illness, and afterward she was noticeably much more thoughtful, sensitive, and unselfish. She became a better person because of it. I suppose quite a lot of people go through experiences like this. It is one reason why a misfortune is not necessarily something to be avoided at all costs. 
     In fact, this beneficial result of misfortune and pain is a main reason why Buddhists say that a human birth is better than any other. The beings in the heaven realms are happier, but they don’t have suffering acting as a goad driving them toward Dharma. Things are pretty good as they are; and adopting the attitude “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” they tend to be little inclined to improve themselves spiritually. And of course the beings in the lower realms, such as animals, lack the knowledge and opportunity to practice or ponder Dharma, even though they may experience plenty of suffering. So although it would be stretching it to say that misfortune and suffering are good, still they are major ingredients in our inspiration to be better. This applies to almost everybody.
     However, more interesting to me, and more to the point of this essay, are the cases in which accidental or unforeseen calamities result in something apparently “supramundane,” in a profound spiritual awakening. One such instance is the case of John Wren-Lewis, a mathematician, scientist, and humanist who allegedly was a leading member of the British “Death of God” movement, and who was not a particularly spiritually-oriented person. When he was about sixty years old he and his wife were traveling through Thailand. On a bus a man gave them both some candy, which was poisoned—as he intended to rob them after they lost consciousness. Wren-Lewis ate the candy, but his wife did not, causing the thief to lose his nerve and get off the bus, and also allowing her to attend to her husband as he became extremely ill. In fact he almost died, and had what is called a near death experience, which in his case was a very mystical one, so that after his recovery his perspective on life was radically altered. After that and up until his death in 2006 he became a teacher of spirituality, claiming to have an abiding mystical awareness which he considered to be more real than the so-called “real world.”  

The most important experience of my life was in 1983 when I came "to the brink" in a near-death experience (NDE). I found a meaning I'd never dreamed of in Shakespeare's statement that love "looks on tempests and is never shaken." I discovered, in the moment of time-stop, that human consciousness is grounded in the same fundamental energy that moves the sun and other stars and tempests too—an energy for which "love" is the only word we have, though its common sentimental associations are hopelessly misleading. (—John Wren-Lewis)

     Wren-Lewis also pointed out that brain damage or serious injury is not necessary for a near death experience such as the one he had on the bus in Thailand; for example he mentioned mountain climbers who fell from cliffs, and who experienced the extreme slowing of time, their entire life vividly flashing into memory practically simultaneously, mystical experiences, etc., while falling, only to land unharmed in deep snow at the bottom. It’s the extremity of the crisis, not oxygen deprivation or whatever, that triggers it.
     A much more famous case of crisis-induced accidental awakening was that experienced by the allegedly enlightened being Eckhart Tolle. By his own account, until he was thirty years old he “lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.” One night as he lay in bed he was overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of dread and misery. He began repeating, “I cannot live with myself any longer,” until suddenly he realized that this implied two selves: the “I” and the “myself” that the “I” cannot live with. Then he considered that maybe only one of them was real. This strange idea somehow jolted him into an intense awakening experience which radically changed his life, eventually resulting in him becoming one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the modern world. In his own words:

…the intense pressure of suffering that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. This withdrawal must have been so complete that this false, suffering self immediately collapsed, just as if a plug had been pulled out of an inflatable toy. What was left then was my true nature…consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.

     My favorite case of all involves the great Hindu saint and sage Ramana Maharshi. He started out in life as a seemingly ordinary Indian kid living as a subject of the British Empire. His Brahmin family was rather westernized and not particularly religious; they went to public festivals and ceremonies at nearby Hindu temples, but not much more than that. He attended a British-style high school and was studying to become, if I remember correctly, an electrical engineer. One day he was home alone doing his homework, when, somewhat like Mr. Tolle, he had what could be called a panic attack. He suddenly felt as though he were dying. He felt that if he were going to die he might as well be prepared, so he lay down on his back on the floor. Since people generally don’t move around when they are dead, he stopped moving, and waited. Then he considered that dead people don’t think, either—so he stopped thinking, to feel what death would be like. At this point, with his thinking process stopped, he suddenly had his great realization. He claimed that those few moments lying on his back as a teenager were the only real spiritual practice he ever did. (In later years if he would tell this story, he wouldn’t say “I did this” or “this happened to me,” as he no longer considered himself to be a separate individual, apparently no longer identifying with an ego; if it became necessary to refer to himself personally, he would simply point to his chest and say “this.”) 
     Continuing a bit with the story, he attempted at first to continue being an ordinary Indian high school student, but his heart just wasn’t in it anymore, and he much preferred just sitting in meditation. One day his brother, a college student, seeing him ignoring his schoolbooks and sitting as though in a trance, exclaimed in disgust, “Oh, you might as well just go off and become a sadhu!” Although he was being sarcastic, the young Maharshi knew that he was right, and shortly afterwards he ran away from home to renounce the world. Because his upbringing wasn’t particularly religious he didn’t know where to go; but he had heard of a hill sacred to the god Shiva which was not far away, so he went there. Upon arrival he had his head shaved, gave away his Brahmin earrings, threw away his sacred thread, tore a strip of cloth off his clothing to use as a loincloth and discarded the rest, and sat down in a nearby temple to meditate. He spent the rest of his life there, at a hill called Arunachala. He’s considered to be one of the greatest Hindu saints of the twentieth century.
     Although inadvertent crisis-induced awakenings may be the most common, still there are obvious advantages to triggering them deliberately. It not only increases significantly the odds of the awakening happening, but it may obviate the need for a car wreck or a dangerous illness. The conditions are more controlled, and rather safer. Also, it much increases the odds that a wise teacher will be nearby to assist in any “reorientation” that may be necessary; or at least it may provide the subject himself or herself with some theoretical or practical knowledge to help as a guide through the aftereffects of the crisis. The crisis itself, however, presumably still has to be a real crisis: making it too controlled and safe and non-threatening could prevent any possible breakthrough. One still has to go through the wringer.
     Early forms of crisis-induced spirituality dating back to the Stone Age would include so-called vision quests. Techniques for facilitating the “vision” include, but are not limited to, fasting, sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, self-torture, and simply being scared witless. I have been told that a traditional Alaskan Eskimo method for initiating young shamans is to send them out into a wilderness with no food or water, with the instructions to find a fist-sized round stone and a larger, circular flat one, and to sit on the ground and rub the small stone on the flat one, in a circular motion, without eating, drinking, sleeping, or stopping, until the vision finally comes. It may take days. Obviously, they have little choice but to have a crisis. The vision quests of the American Plains Indians tend to be rather more elaborate than this, and developed into more of a ceremony, although with essentially the same stress-inducing purpose. The ayahuasca ceremonies of South American Indians and New Age Westerners are a well-known example nowadays; and anyone who has undergone the ordeal of ayahuasca can vouch for the fact that one if its main spiritual benefits is a more or less violent purge of habitual thought patterns.
     A striking example of this principle among the more well-known religious systems is what occurred during the early decades of the Methodist Church in rural England, which I have discussed in a previous article. The evangelist John Wesley developed a way of preaching sermons that would have people literally undergoing mental breakdowns. In the 18th century most English people, especially in the countryside, could not doubt the authority of the Christian Bible; so Wesley would hammer away at the incontrovertible “fact” that if people do not repent and change their ways, they will burn in Hell forever and ever. He would then describe in gruesome detail the torments of Hell that awaited all who didn’t repent. The listeners very much did not want to believe what he said, but on the other hand were compelled by their culture to believe it—flinging them into such an emotional crisis that many of them would fall to the floor convulsing and foaming at the mouth, after which they would lose consciousness. After they regained their senses, with some subsequent coaching from Methodist teachers, they would be Born Again, and would adopt a much more saintly Christian lifestyle with rejoicing and gratitude. It could be called brainwashing of a sort, but most of them were very grateful for it, and apparently were better and happier people after the religious meltdown. 
     Possibly a more sophisticated, enlightened approach to cultivated mental breakdown can be found in Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on koans. A koan is a riddle with no answer; yet a Zen practitioner may be required to answer it. It is his sacred duty to answer it. He grinds away at trying to find the impossible solution to the riddle until his thinking mind finally reads “error” and comes to a stop—whereupon the truth that lies beyond the thinking mind becomes manifest.
     The paradoxical approach of Zen to Reality can itself be conducive to crisis-induced Awakening. The following koan, case 15 of the Mumonkan, gives some indication of this without anyone even having to sit in meditation:

     Tōzan came to study with Ummon. Ummon asked, “Where are you from?” “From Sato,” Tōzan replied. “Where did you spend the summer retreat?” “Well, I was at the monastery of Hōzu, south of the lake.” “When did you leave there?” Ummon asked. “At the end of August,” Tōzan replied. “I spare you sixty blows,” Ummon said.
     The next day Tōzan came to Ummon and said, “Yesterday you said you spared me sixty blows. I beg to ask you, where was I at fault?” “Oh, you are good for nothing!” Ummon roared. “You just wander around from one place to another!” Tōzan thereupon experienced a profound enlightenment.
Think about it. If you can explain it, you win! In Katsuki Sekida’s commentary to this case, he observes,

All night Tōzan had tossed and turned sleeplessly, trying to work out where he had gone wrong. He could find no answer to his rigorous self-searching and came to Ummon in a desperate state of mind. This is the condition that the skillful Zen master brings about by timely beating or harsh words. When the student has been brought to this extreme an explosion occurs, just as a ripe pea pod bursts open at the touch of a finger.

I may as well add that, at a deep level, Ummon’s bellowed reproof was absolutely right, and Tōzan realized this. Ummon himself, legend has it, became enlightened when his own teacher broke Ummon’s leg while slamming it in a door.
     In Theravada this principle of crisis opening the door to enlightenment is less emphasized and less obvious, but it is still there—although it was much more there in ancient times, when it was closer to what the Buddha actually taught and experienced for himself. The lifestyle of a primordial Buddhist renunciant, living homeless and without money, begging for his food in the streets, being exposed to the weather as well as parasites, dangerous animals, and antagonistic humans, was itself fairly crisis-inducing. Add to that the ancient Indian attitude, taken very seriously, of the whole world being a great mass of suffering, a cosmic conflagration, and an early Buddhist was well set up for a profound existential breakthrough.  
     I would prefer not to save my own case for last, so I will give a few examples from my own life here, since my practice has been more Theravadin than otherwise. I’m pretty sure that both incidents to be related have been described elsewhere on this blog, but they are worth repeating. 
     One time, when my attempts to imitate ancient Indian bhikkhus were going full blast, I was living under a rock ledge at the edge of a large, malarial Burmese forest. Living in solitude like this was already somewhat of a strain, with a noble yet perhaps unrealistic and impossible ideal in my head being even more of one; yet what eventually put me over the edge, so to speak, was prolonged, sweltering hot, humid weather. There were times when I would go for days without being able to be comfortable or to stop sweating, except while sitting in a creek. Even in the middle of the night I’d be lying there on the ground sweating. Finally one night I snapped and was pacing furiously back and forth like a caged leopard, raging inwardly. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Then suddenly there was a shift of consciousness. It was as though my misery went right off the scale, ejecting me from the box I was in: I was still pacing and raging and sweating profusely, yet there was another level of consciousness involved, just observing with complete detachment. It was as though I had suddenly become an actor merely playing the role of someone quietly throwing a desperate conniption. The conniption continued, but the “person” throwing it stopped being the center of attention, and became almost irrelevant, as did the whole point of the desparation itself. 
     On another occasion I had been feeling a vague, quiet despair and sense of futility with regard to my practice for about a year. I was walking down some stone steps through a forest on my way to the monastery well to take a bath, and suddenly I began feeling intensely painful stomach cramps. (Such an event was not particularly uncommon—with no electricity and no refrigeration, as well as little concept of hygiene on the part of the villagers who offered me food, eating food that had gone a bit “off,” like some spoiled shrimp curry, did happen from time to time.) I was doubled over, holding my belly and thinking that what this meant was that I would be making three or four emergency trips to the outhouse that night. Then, at around the same time, it started raining. I had no umbrella with me and no extra set of clothes at all, so I was also thinking that I’d be wearing wet clothes the next morning, until my body heat dried them out. So there I was, doubled over in pain, with a look on my face as though I were dying, with the midnight trots and a wetly-clothed morning to look forward to…and again, suddenly there was a shift in consciousness. It seemed like all the pain and trouble and commotion were like waves on the surface of a storm-tossed lake, with “me,” or rather my new center of attention, deep below it in water that was calm and still. I remember feeling as though I were looking up through the still water at the trouble and commotion at the surface, being quite detached from it; and although my body was still doubled over in pain, with a grimace indicating I was dying, the profound blessing of experiencing even the possibility of such detachment and bliss had me so happy and so grateful that I was on the verge of weeping tears of joy and gratitude.
     Such experiences could be called glimpses or brief approximations of enlightenment; and although they didn’t last, they stay with me as reminders of what is possible. They serve as frames of reference which help me to maintain a detached perspective while wallowing in this world. They didn’t last, but nothing lasts really. Everything that has a beginning also has an end. But I do feel intuitively that the source of that higher perspective, which I have experienced many times, may have no beginning and no end. I consider such experiences to be possibly the most important of my life, and well worth all the desperation and trouble that helped to trigger some of them, or maybe all of them.
     Moving on to Theravada as found in the Suttanta, I’ll give two more examples. One is venerable Godhika, whose story is told in the Saṁyutta Nikāya (S.1.4.23). A rather desperate crisis in his practice inspired him to commit suicide; and the of course emotionally intense experience of cutting his own throat, in addition to the preliminary crisis, happened to trigger the realization of full enlightenment. He died and became an Arahant at the same moment. In fact there are some teachers, like Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle for instance, who say that the moment of death, or the moment immediately before it, is a golden opportunity for liberation from Samsara (totally setting aside the materialist notion that everyone is liberated at death regardless). Godhika is not the only one to have become enlightened at the moment of death, allegedly.
     Another example from the texts is the non-Buddhist renunciant Bāhiya, whose tale is told in the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna (Ud.1.10). He was relatively advanced spiritually, and began considering himself to be possibly already enlightened; and upon realizing that he wan’t enlightened, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of intense urgency (saṁvega), and set out immediately to find the Buddha, of whom he had just heard, and to learn from him. He was in such a highly wrought state of tension that just a few words from the Buddha standing in the street were enough to trigger his realization.
     Of course we can listen to such stories with mild interest (at best), largely because we modern Westerners are almost immune to feelings of deep spiritual urgency. Almost. Even so, it helps to be very sincere about what we are doing, and really to put our whole heart into it—if only because it is only then that we arrive at complete despair when we hit the stone wall.
     Nowadays, especially in the West, crisis-induced spiritual breakthroughs are most likely to occur at relatively intensive meditation retreats, as was mentioned in part 1; or else they are of the accidental variety, with maybe some elementary Buddhist training serving to guide the person through the aftereffects of the crisis. But for the most part Dhamma practice has devolved into a comfortable, safe, non-threatening hobby (in the West) or cultural tradition (in the East) which is not particularly conducive to enlightenment and is not even directed toward it. The modern mania for safety and comfort have practically guaranteed that spiritual mediocrity and lukewarmness prevail, especially in the West. So again, we mostly wind up with the accidental kind, possibly along with some kind of terminal disease.
     Some years ago I watched an interview with Ram Dass, the video itself probably being some years old at the time; and in this interview Ram Dass made the interesting statement that he was a member of an organization which promoted whatever would cause the greatest heightening of consciousness for the greatest number of people, even if that necessitated World War Three. It is a strange reminder that misfortunes, and especially terrible calamities, spontaneously evoke the best and noblest in people, not only the worst. 
     Anyway, I’m not suggesting that we should all go out and cause a cataclysm, or catch a life-threatening disease—calamities have a way of happening without our trying for them, so there is no need for that. Besides, doing it on purpose causes bad karma, and is cheating besides. What I am suggesting is that if we do practice Dhamma/Dharma, we should do it wholeheartedly, and as well as we can, regardless of whether or not we are destined to hit a stone wall in the process. Lukewarmness just isn’t going work so well.


Ramana Maharshi 

Why is it that something like a close brush with death is normally needed for the heavenliness of the world to be experienced? (And even that works in only a minority of cases!) The film's answer [the film being Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges], if I understand it right, seems to be that the natural biological fear-response seems to have gotten out of hand in the human species, to the point where it governs the whole organization of social life down to the minutest detail, blocking out aliveness in the process. For the fortunate minority, coming close to death unravels the knot, but then we have the problem of finding out how to organize practical affairs with fear as life's servant rather than its master, something about which even the world's greatest mystics and religious teachers have left us only very partial blueprints. —John Wren-Lewis

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Upheavals (part 1)

Man’s extremity is gawd’s opportunity. —old proverb

We had diarrhea attacks in the middle of the night and shit ourselves raw under the shelter of jujube trees in pure moonlight. —Conor Mitchell

     This post is one of the last that I’ve been intending to write for years, possibly since the very beginning of this blog in 2012. I’ve been putting it off largely because it’s a long and heavy one. But it’s about time I finally wrote the thing. Not only has it been waiting, but time appears to be running out, as I am considering shutting down this blog indefinitely after I leave the West, or maybe even before. I’ve already written pretty much everything I had intended to write, with a few borderline exceptions, like an analysis of the mystical symbolism of Moby Dick; and also there is the whole giving up and going back to Asia issue, which I discussed in a post already written, but which I don’t quite have the heart to publish just yet. Anyway, I can promise to keep this project rolling until the next anniversary issue, which will be around the start of June. Gawd willing, if I don’t change my mind or die first. So, maybe I don’t promise.

     When I was a teenager I encountered, in one of the first spiritual books I ever read, a statement by Ram Dass that has followed me ever since, especially in my younger days. He said that despair is an absolute prerequisite for significant spiritual growth. He said that only when we hit rock bottom are we willing to let go of old attachments and reach out for something better. Since reading that I have continually hoped that Ram Dass was wrong—and maybe he actually was wrong—but thus far my own experience in life, plus what I have seen in the biographies of saints and in others, appears to vindicate what he said.
     It may be, though, that a more accurate term for the necessary factor is “crisis” or even “being at wit’s end” rather than “despair.” Ram Dass’s own account of his most important spiritual awakening in life, the one that resulted in him metamorphosing from Richard Alpert into Ram Dass, would seem to be more crisis-oriented than despair-oriented. It happened like this: Dr. Alpert was a former Harvard psychology professor turned experimental psychedelic drug guru, and he went to India to find a meditation master who could explain some of the states of expanded awareness that he had experienced on drugs (not just euphoria or psychedelic light shows, mind you, but heightened awareness), and possibly even teach him how to attain such states without having to ingest the chemicals. Being a high powered Western overachiever, and also a human being, he had been living in a state of chronic angst, which already had him primed for a crisis; and of course it is a hackneyed truism that all psychologists are emotionally challenged anyhow (a small joke). So anyway, he was in India, and had pretty much given up on finding anyone who could help him. He was frustrated, burned out on India, and had been smoking too much hashish besides, and was in a bad mood and ready to give up. But he was traveling with a young American hippie guy who very much wanted to see his guru; so Dr. Alpert, not wanting to meet any more “gurus,” let the young guy drive and came along reluctantly. The hippie was singing loudly and crying as he drove, apparently in a strange mixture of excitement and bliss, which had Dr. Alpert intrigued, though still in a bad mood. 
     When they found the guru, a fat little Indian man wrapped in a blanket, the hippie ran to him and feel at his feet, weeping in a kind of ecstasy. Dr. Alpert was very uncomfortable with all this, and very much did not want to touch the old man’s feet. He then engaged in a brief conversation with the guru which left him even more ill at ease. Then the two Americans were sent away for food and rest. The next part of the story I will let Ram Dass tell for himself.

     Sometime later we were back with Maharajji and he said to me, “Come here. Sit.” So I sat down facing him and he looked at me and said, “You were out under the stars last night.” (This, of course, was the English translation of what he said.) 
     “Um-hum.” [In a different telling of the story he said that at first he didn’t remember it himself, and it took him a few moments to recall it.]
     “You were thinking about your mother.” 
     “Yes.” (The previous night a few hundred miles away I had gone outside during the night to go to the bathroom. The stars had been very bright and I had remained outside, feeling very close to the cosmos. At that time I had suddenly experienced the presence of my mother, who had died nine months previously of a spleen condition. It was a very powerful moment, and I had told no one about it.)
     “She died last year.”
     “She got very big in the stomach before she died.” 
     Pause … “Yes.” 
     He leaned back and closed his eyes and said (in English), “Spleen, she died of spleen.” 
     What happened to me at that moment I can’t really put into words. He looked at me in a certain way and two things happened. They do not seem like cause and effect, but rather appeared to be simultaneous. 
     My mind began to race faster and faster to try to get leverage—to get a hold on what he had just done. I went through every super-CIA paranoia I’d ever had: “Who is he? Who does he represent? Where’s the button he pushes to make the file appear? Why have they brought me here?” None of it would jell. 
     It was just too impossible that this could have happened this way. My traveling companion didn’t know about any of the things Maharajji was saying, and I was a tourist in a car. The whole thing was just inexplicable. My mind went faster and faster.
     Until then I had had two models for psychic experiences. One was: “Well it happened to somebody else, and it’s very interesting and we certainly must keep an open mind about these things.” That was my social-science approach. The other one was: “Well, I’m high on LSD. Who knows how it really is?” After all, I had had experiences under the influence of chemicals in which I had created whole environments. 
     But neither of these categories applied to this situation, and as my mind went faster I felt like a computer that has been fed an insoluble problem—the bell rings and the red light goes on and the machine stops. My mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry, its zeal to have an explanation. I needed something to get closure at the rational level and there wasn’t anything. 
     At the same moment I felt this extremely violent pain in my chest and a tremendous wrenching feeling, and I started to cry. I cried and cried and cried, but I was neither happy nor sad. It was a kind of crying I had not experienced before. The only thing I could say about it was it felt as if I had finished something. The journey was over. I had come home.  (—from the book Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba, compiled by Ram Dass)

     In a different telling of the same story he says that the wrenching feeling in his chest felt as though an old door that had been sealed shut for many years were suddenly being torn open on its rusty hinges. Shortly after these events he stopped being an unemployed psychology professor and started being Baba Ram Dass, a spiritually-oriented being who helped many, many Westerners turn toward Dharma.
     Now, of course, some of you readers, maybe most of you, although hopefully not all of you, will easily come up with rational explanations for the sake of not being blown away. Obviously, Dr. Alpert told the hippie guy about being under the stars thinking about his mother, and forgot. Or he just remembers the story wrong. Or maybe he just made the whole thing up, since he’s a weird New Agey-type person anyway. Right? Sure. This resistance of some (but hopefully not all) readers against being blown away is largely because of a human compulsion to explain everything in accordance with one’s belief system, and nowadays in the West the belief system is scientific materialism. But all this is irrelevant. One should recall that Dr. Alpert apparently was not so different; in fact it was reportedly this same typical Western need in him to explain everything being overwhelmed and incapacitated, along with other contributing factors, that flung him into the great crisis described above. His mind was blown to the point that he let go of everything he was certain of, everything that he thought he knew, and it opened his mind to a radically different, deeper mode of experience. This happened quite a lot around Maharajji, and was particularly intense for Westerners, since most of the Indians believed in psychic powers from the beginning. 
     And even if one grants the possibility that Maharajji was faking the psychic power somehow, the fact remains the same: Being at wit’s end was what blew the roof off of Dr. Alpert’s mental prison, or at least what forced open a door. That is really the main point here, not whether or not materialism is true.
     As for my own life, I must admit that the main spiritual growth surges I have experienced have been conditioned greatly by despair. I became consciously aware of a spiritual dimension to life at the age of seventeen, at a time when I was hitting the rocks hard as a result of rebelling against a system I couldn’t take seriously, yet being unable to come up with anything sustainably better. Also, at around the age of forty I experienced a kind of awakening, which taught me to stop rebelling against my own nature, which was the result of some pretty serious despair, described in the old post “The Middle Way of Mediocrity” (10 Nov 2012). Furthermore, I was going through some unusually intense despair shortly before my ordination, which didn’t cause my renunciation, but certainly facilitated it. For that matter, the despair of ever finding a place in the West, with the stark possibility of spending the rest of my life as a cave-dwelling recluse in tropical Asia (sleeping in the bed I made), may turn out to be fertile ground for another crisis, and a breakthrough into something better. That would be nice. (It just now occurred to me, looking at the preceding sentences, that the present difficulty of my situation is that I am rebelling against a Western system I can’t take seriously, yet am unable to come up with anything sustainably better. Except for solitary cave-dwelling.)
     In addition to the major cases mentioned above I have experienced other, less chronic crises that have resulted in insights that have stayed with me ever since. For example, a few times in my life I have been very near to possible death—as a layperson this involved driving a car at high speed and suddenly losing control of the vehicle. In these cases my mind went completely silent and crystal clear, devoid of thought, and it was as though some level of consciousness higher or clearer than the ordinary waking state took control of my body and did whatever was necessary to keep me alive. It was only after the danger was past, like when I had successfully avoided the accident, that I would return to a more ordinary state of mind and start thinking again. The spiritual benefit of these occurrences, aside from simply helping me to stay alive, was to show me that such states are even possible, and furthermore to suggest that this level of consciousness is always available, always here, watching from behind the scenes of the Matrix. Such experiences are somewhat similar to psychedelic drug trips in that they demonstrate what is possible: they offer an alternative perspective which, even after the state has subsided, allow a memory of such possibility, and thereby a permanent shift in perspective.
     One doesn’t have to be an advanced meditator to have a crisis-induced shift in consciousness. For example most of the occasions mentioned just now occurred before I became a monk, and the big shift at the age of seventeen occurred before I ever sat in meditation. The following is a rather extreme instance which occurred to my father.
     Dad was an alcoholic of a type that is relatively rare in America but common in eastern Europe: He drank a fifth of vodka every day, and never seemed to be quite drunk, but never seemed to be quite sober either. It was as though he were fueled on ethanol. Anyway, when he was in his fifties he decided to stop drinking; and bull in a china shop that he was, he went cold turkey, sitting alone in his house. Before him on a table were two quick escapes from the ordeal, a bottle of liquor and a loaded pistol. So he sat there and went through the delirium tremens, raging and pissing his pants and tearing at his hair, with imaginary bugs crawling all over him. At one point he began hallucinating a huge eye on the wall, watching him. (I always imagine this to look like the eye on top of the pyramid on the back of a US $1 bill.) He somehow knew that the eye was totally indifferent—it didn’t care what happened, didn’t care whether he lived or died. He also somehow knew that the eye represented a deeper level of himself. He was the eye. So I suppose it was similar to the state of mind that would take me over when in a car about to crash, or while falling down a very steep hillside in the dark in a Burmese forest. And he learned something from that. Somehow it gave him strength. 
     As the years go by I have seen more and more examples of people for whom despair or a crisis or being at wit’s end has resulted in a life-changing epiphany or insight. One of the most famous cases I can think of is the story of Paul of Tarsus in the Christian Bible. Even before he converted to Christianity he was prone to fanaticism, in fact before his conversion he was fanatically anti-Christian. He went around having meek, humble primitive Christians arrested, flogged, imprisoned, and even occasionally put to death, which no matter how one rationalizes it is liable to plant the seeds of some incipient crisis in one’s heart. So one day as he is riding to Damascus in order to persecute some Christians there he is struck blind, knocked off his horse, and lies there on the ground hearing the voice of Christ. Those of us who are not Christians, and possibly some who are, may consider this extreme upheaval in his life to be not so much the work of God or Christ as the work of his own subconscious conscience: The man obviously had some sensitivity and desire for virtue in addition to his fanaticism, and his outward attitude and behavior finally drove his inward need for goodness to the boiling point. What some might call an act of God, others might call a hysterical meltdown. But obviously, the result of this despair or crisis was life-changing—he remained rather fanatical, yet he died to the world and became “alive in Christ,” not to mention pretty much inventing a new world religion.
     Arthur Schopenhauer in his classic The World as Will and Representation gives two interesting though less well-known cases of despair driving a sensitive person deeply into a spiritual life. The first is Raymond Lull (1232-1315), a brilliant Franciscan philosopher, who got himself martyred by trying to convert Muslims in North Africa to Christianity. According to the story, he began his career as a sensualist courtier in attendance upon the King of Majorca. Although married, he had long been pursuing a certain beautiful woman, who finally invited him to her bedchamber. He arrived in eager anticipation of having his desires fulfilled; yet when they were alone together, the beauty opened the front of her dress to show him her breasts horribly eaten away with cancer. In the words of Schopenhauer, or rather his English translator, “From that moment, as if he had looked into hell, he was converted; leaving the court of the King of Majorca, he went into the wilderness to do penance.” He was beatified in 1837, and his feast day is June 30. 
     The other example is Armand Jean le Bouthilllier de Rancé (1626-1700), a very wealthy and powerful man who eventually renounced it all and became the founder of the reformed Trappist Order of Roman Catholic monasticism. I may as well let Schopenhauer describe the case himself:

     The story of the conversion of the Abbé Rancé may be given here in a few words, as one that is strikingly similar to that of Raymond Lull given in the text; moreover, it is notable on account of its result. His youth was devoted to pleasure and enjoyment; finally, he lived in a passionate relationship with a Madame de Montbazon. When he visited her one evening, he found her room empty, dark, and in disorder. He struck something with his foot; it was her head, which had been severed from the trunk because, after her sudden death, her corpse could not otherwise have been put into the leaden coffin that was standing beside it. After recovering from a terrible grief, Rancé became in 1663 the reformer of the order of the Trappists, which at that time had departed entirely from the strictness of its rules. He at once entered this order, and through him it was brought back to that terrible degree of renunciation in which it continues to exist at La Trappe even at the present time. (E. F. J. Payne’s translation, Dover 1969)

Elsewhere, Schopenhauer adds:

     If we consider how, in both cases, the transition from the pleasure to the horror of life was the occasion, this gives us an explanation of the remarkable fact that it is the French nation, the most cheerful, merry, gay, sensual, and frivolous in Europe, in which by far the strictest of all monastic orders, namely the Trappist, arose, was re-established by Rancé after its decline, and maintains itself even to the present day in all its purity and fearful strictness, in spite of revolutions, changes in the Church, and the encroachments of infidelity.

It should be borne in mind that the book was published in 1844. Whether the French people are still the most merry and the French Trappists still pure and fearfully strict, I really can’t say.
     I continued to encounter, in myself, in others, and in books, evidence of profound spiritual awakening being a result of an acute crisis (some of which will be mentioned in part 2); and then one day I happened to find in a used book store in Mandalay an old copy of Battle for the Mind by William Sargant, a book which not only acknowledges this phenomenon but attempts to explain it empirically. Dr. Sargant was a psychiatrist who treated soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder (or “battle fatigue,” as it was called then) during and after the Second World War; and he found that a kind of abreactive psychotherapy was often successful in treating his patients. This kind of treatment entailed putting the patient under renewed stress by having him relive in memory the traumatic experience. He later found that in cases when the experience was so traumatic and horrible that the patient couldn’t bring himself to relive it, having him imagine a somewhat similar stressful experience was good enough—it wasn’t so much re-experiencing the particular event but experiencing any desperate one that was effective.
     Such results in his own work inspired him to investigate the work of others along similar lines; and he found that this tendency of the human mind to respond radically to being at wit’s end has been utilized since the stone age, and developed and exploited more and more in modern times, for various purposes. 
     The principle itself, in a general sense, applies not only to human beings, but to any kind of relatively intelligent animal. It could be called instinctive. Pavlov studied it in his dogs, for instance. The way it works is that we (including dogs, etc.) are governed by habit; and so long as a habitual way of going about life works—which is to say, so long as it keeps us alive and functioning, more or less, regardless of how happy it allows us to be—for so long we resist changing it. Even though we may be chronically unhappy, we hold to our ways. We stubbornly cling to beliefs and behaviors that have gotten us this far. So it may actually be easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but as Pavlov could attest, to unteach it its old tricks could be extremely difficult. However, if we find ourselves in a situation in which the old habitual beliefs and behaviors just don’t work, in which they cannot cope anymore and our perceptual world starts to break down, then a crisis is reached in which we become much more willing to let go of the old and much more open to accepting something new. Pavlov found that after essentially torturing his dogs, physically or psychologically, stubbornly entrenched behaviors could be reprogramed relatively easily; and clever leaders and manipulators around the world have found that pretty much the same thing can be accomplished with people.
     This principle has been used since prehistoric times in initiations, such as tribal manhood rituals for establishing youths as new men of the tribe. They may be required to go into a wilderness and undergo some harrowing ordeal, possibly having the living daylights scared out of them, as a method of preparing them for indoctrination by elder men (who of course have been through the ordeal themselves), transforming them into “braves” who will do whatever is required of them for the good of the tribe, and who will not flinch at pain or even at death. Vision quests and other religious rituals also may follow this principle; and of course in “primitive” societies religion and everyday life are not necessarily differentiated, so indoctrination into official manhood and so on may themselves be considered religious. Difficult or otherwise awe-inspiring initiation rituals to this day, including military basic training, are continuations of this, and no doubt have a similar effect.
     In modern times, as the principle became better understood, or at least its effects became better known, the method of breaking a person down into a quivering mess, and then “reconstructing” that person in accordance with the ideas of the people organizing the ordeal, has become used for various purposes, both positive and negative. In addition to some initiations and abreactive psychotherapy, the principle is also the foundation of “brainwashing” and extreme interrogation methods. In the Stalinist Soviet Union, for example, political prisoners were subjected to psychological torture in a way that would not only compel them to confess to trying to overthrow the government, but would cause them to actually, sincerely believe they were guilty of trying to overthrow the government. Those who have read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four may recall that the Ministry of Love used similar methods on Winston Smith and many others.
     But interesting as this principle is in general, my primary interest is with regard to the mainly positive spiritual aspect of it. Religious conversions are not always positive, however.
     Long ago I had a monastic friend who had grown cynical and had dropped out of the monkhood; and on at least one occasion he pointed out to me the resemblance between intensive Vipassana retreats and what went on at communist Chinese thought reform camps. Both sorts of inmates enjoy minimal sleep, few meals, are forbidden to talk with anyone except the indoctrinator, and generally live so austerely and unnaturally that it can be quite stressful. Some people just can’t stand it and break down. One of the main differences, of course, is that expanded consciousness and greater freedom of mind are encouraged at a good meditation retreat, and ruthlessly outlawed at the indoctrination camp. But the underlying principle may be seen to be the same—the artificial nurturing of a crisis, if not a full-blown psychological breakdown, leading to a breakthrough to a different way of experiencing the world. 

(end of part 1)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Little More on the Equality of Women

     The highest good is like water.
     Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
     It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.  
                    (—from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 8)

     More than a zillion books, articles, movies, documentaries, podcasts, etc. have already been published addressing feminism, and various aspects of feminism, with possibly thousands more in the works as I write this, as the subject is of course very much in fashion. So this relatively brief essay, coming from someone who hasn’t read any of the books (except maybe for a few novels) and damn few of the articles—largely because I avoid fashions like the plague—may appear to be so simplistic or unrealistic as to be derisory. But part of the difficulty in social issues is maintaining a detached perspective; and as someone who has opted out of social worldliness I do see what is going on in this world from a significantly different angle, less informed in some ways, certainly not fashionable, but seeing basic assumptions that are going unquestioned, with herd instinct limiting the options for almost everyone. So I figure, what the hell.

     In recent decades there has been a remarkable trend in action movies. The trend is to portray women as beautiful nuclear-powered badasses, often wearing tight black leather, who are able to kick the collective buttocks of entire rooms full of tough male fighters, monsters, and/or predatory space aliens. They often show their femininity only through their female face, body, and voice, and sometimes by kicking ass on their enemies without messing up their hair or makeup. Following is a very incomplete list of relatively well known examples.
     ~Emma Peel of the old TV show “The Avengers.” She was an early forerunner of the tight-leather-pants-wearing badass beauty, and was reincarnated in a bad movie remake that I didn’t see.
     ~Some of the more violently lethal James Bond villainesses.
     ~Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies (especially the sequels).
     ~Trinity in the Matrix movies.
     ~Æon Flux, in the movie by the same name.
     ~“The Bride” who slaughters entire crowds of armed gangsters with a sword in the Kill Bill movies.
     ~Violet Song Jat Shariff who does likewise in the movie Ultraviolet.
     ~Natasha Romanova, alias the Black Widow, in various Marvel comic book movies.
     ~Queen Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire, who bears practically no resemblance whatsoever with the historical Queen Artemisia.
     ~Sergeant Rita Vrataski, alias the Angel of Verdun, alias “Full Metal Bitch,” in Edge of Tomorrow.
     ~Imperator Furiosa, with a crew cut, dirt, and one arm, but still beautiful, in the latest Mad Max movie.
     ~And last but certainly not least, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the new Star Trek movies, who deserves special mention. The new Star Trek movies generally portray their main characters as very similar to the originals on the old TV show—except Uhura, who differs radically. From being just a competent, intelligent, and courageous communications officer, she became yet another high-stepping alien-stomping badass beauty, who furthermore apparently gets her freak on with Mr. Spock. There presumably was a perceived need for an ultra-strong beautiful female badass in the “updated” version of Star Trek, and a communications officer was the best they could come up with under the circumstances.
     Anyway, I’m not exactly trying to badmouth this remarkable trend, as I have really liked some of these movies; in fact The Matrix, with its ass-kicking, tight-leather-wearing Trinity, is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, although certainly not just because of her. However, with all due respect, I would like to venture a question: Has there ever really been a woman like any of the monster slayers listed above? There have been quite a few genuinely Rambo-like men in history who accomplished some major ass-kicking and sword-hacking against numerous enemies, face to face, like Spartacus, King Richard the Lionheart, and the samurai master Miyamoto Musashi; but I can’t think of a single woman who could, and did, fatally mess up numerous armed male enemies (let alone zombies or space aliens) in hand to hand combat. They may have existed, but I don’t know who they are, or were. The historical Queen Artemisia wasn’t one of them.
     Nevertheless, many take female characters of this sort very seriously, seemingly at face value as valid representations of women. With regard to the alien-slaying Ellen Ripley of the Alien movies, film critic John Scalzi considered her to be quite realistic, even in the sequels, and actually wrote of her, “Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman.” (With his emphatic bold type.) This is apparently because aside from evolving into an ultra-lethal badass in the sequels, she has a nuanced personality—an extraordinarily tough one, but nuanced nonetheless. For "The Mary Sue," a blog/website which apparently deals with feminism in pop culture, another movie critic, Teresa Jusino, wrote an article on nuanced female characters which bears the subtitle “Why we need more Rita Vrataskis.” (Ms. Vrataski, to clarify here, is one of the badass beauties listed above, who in the movie Edge of Tomorrow almost single-handedly defeated an invading alien horde in a certain Battle of Verdun, becoming a world hero, and who is much braver and psychologically stronger than her male counterpart, played by Tom Cruise.) Jusino writes, To me, Rita Vrataski is exactly the kind of Nuanced Female Character we should encourage in film. A big reason why she perceives the need for more female characters like this is because she wants more women in films who are “not caricatures.” As though beautiful young women fearlessly kicking alien ass all over a battlefield are not caricatures. (There are even some feministic movie critics who consider ass-kickers like Rita and Trinity to be not badass enough.)
     Perhaps a more important question than “Has a woman like this ever really existed on this planet?” would be “Why is there such a fashionable demand for female movie characters like this nowadays?” Past societies also have had mythological women who were physically tougher and stronger than almost any man, although their supermasculine toughness was usually tied up somehow with “purity”—once they would lose their virginity, rather like Samson losing his hair, they would become ordinary women—and the modern beautiful dragon slayer with perfect fingernails tends not to give a damn about virginity. The new Uhura mating with Spock comes to mind as an obvious example. 
     The answer to this big question seems plainly obvious actually: As Teresa Jusino freely admits, it is for “those who want gender parity in pop culture.” Obviously, it is a political-correctness-conditioned attempt to portray women as equal to men. Plus of course it’s just kind of mind-blowing and cool to watch beautiful young women beating the hell out of everyone, often in intricate, graceful movements choreographed like dancing. 

     There is another remarkable trend lately, more subtle than action movies; and this one is in so-called “real life.” The trend is for men in Western society to be softer, more timid, in some ways more “feminine,” with old-fashioned masculinity or machismo becoming more and more frowned upon as politically incorrect. In America this fashion is most conspicuous in the New Age subculture; once I had a rather feministic New Age American woman actually complaining to me that men are no longer allowed to be men. The movie Fight Club portrays this emasculation of the modern male in a (partly) symbolic form. And just recently a European woman told me that the softening and weakening of men is even more prevalent in Western Europe, possibly facilitated by the European pride of being “civilized” as well as the apparent phenomenon that Europe is less divided into subcultures than America. But although this trend is very different from what is happening in the fantasy world of action movies, the purpose of it appears to be essentially the same: the modern drive toward the equality of women and men.

     These two cultural trends, it seems to me, are based upon a confused idea that in order to be equal, men and women should be the same, or much more the same than was previously the case. Thus women should be more masculine and/or men should be more feminine, supposedly. But I consider neither to be necessary, natural, or even a good idea, even though it might turn out to be sustainable for all I know. Although at a very advanced philosophical level I can accept that the duality of masculine/feminine is to be transcended, at the very unenlightened level of mainstream worldly society I don’t think that is such a good idea either. That women and men are to be equal I agree with 100%; the question is how they are to be equal, and sameness is definitely not the only kind of equality.
     It makes simple, perfect sense that there should be as little gender discrimination as possible, positive or negative, with regard to laws of the land and human rights. With regard to whether something is illegal or not, or whether this person or that person gets hired for a job, maleness and femaleness ideally would not be an issue. This does not mean that there should be anything resembling affirmative action; for example it would be absurd to require NFL football teams to recruit equal numbers of female and male players. Whoever can do the job the best is the one who should be hired; and if that means heavy physical labor is a predominantly masculine line of work, well, Mother Nature and Darwinian sexual selection are to blame for that. But even if more miners, mechanics, and soldiers are male, that does not necessarily mean that females are not equal. This should not be a difficult concept to comprehend.
     Also, even though males and females are not the same, still, societal roles should not require aggressive, tough women to follow traditionally feminine pursuits, and gentle, timid men to pursue traditionally masculine ones. On the other hand, people should be allowed to think for themselves with regard to how to live their lives, and not be coerced by premodern traditions OR postmodern trends in political correctness. But unfortunately most people don’t think for themselves all that much. Fashion trends, political correctness, and propaganda drive the herd this way or that way. It is unfortunate maybe, but that’s just the way it is.
     One issue that deserves consideration is that society in general, including most feminists, are accepting fundamentally masculine assumptions by default, with the aforementioned cinematic beautiful superbitches being a case in point. Gender equality is viewed through a predominantly masculine lens, even by women. An additional case in point is the word empowerment, which is a kind of rallying cry for so many females in America. But the very word “empowerment” is based upon the word “power,” which represents much more a masculine ideal, with masculine connotations, than a feminine one. This is not to say that women do not have power, or that they should not have it, but it does suggest that femininity is seen through a traditional masculine lens even by women themselves, with genuinely feminine virtues being downplayed in order to compete with men at their own game.
     But there is a severe handicap in trying to compete with men on a predominantly masculine playing field: Much in the same way that traditional Eastern countries cannot realistically hope to outcompete the West in the field of scientifically honed capitalist democracy (with China’s new juggernaut status already showing indications of extreme stress), since it is an alien intrusion into these Eastern countries and something that did not evolve there naturally, even so, most women cannot realistically hope to be equal to men while adopting a masculine point of view and going with axioms invented by men. The very fact that women are waiting for men to allow their “empowerment” indicates that they really are not equal in that sense; if they were really equal in that particular sense they could simply take it for themselves without waiting decades for men to comply. The fundamental outlook is biased in favor of men, and women, including feminists, are accepting much of that outlook without examination, without seriously questioning it.
     This is not to say, I hasten to emphasize, that women are not equal to men. I consider them already equal in the most essential ways, without necessarily having to wait for anything or to demand anything. But their equality simply is not masculine, with the possible exception of a small minority of women who are naturally, if you will pardon the expression, “butch.” Women, generally speaking, have their own set of virtues which are equal to those of men, even though society may undervalue these virtues because it has been based on a predominantly masculine world view since ancient times, possibly since prehistoric times. 

     One nuclear-powered beautiful ass-kicker from the action movies who is not on the list above, but who is certainly worthy of mention at this point, is little Babydoll in the movie Sucker Punch. (The following discussion may contain spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie. Consider yourself warned.) In a way she is the most realistic of them all—while at the very same time she as a nuclear superbitch is most obviously a caricature fantasy woman. At the beginning of the movie she is a girl brutally abused by a psychopathic stepfather who kills her younger sister (possibly her mother also), accuses her of the crime, and has her committed to a mental hospital, where she is to undergo a lobotomy to keep her silent. Under these unbearably harsh conditions she retreats into a fantasy world, in which she imagines herself to be a white slave in a brothel, with fellow inmates being her colleagues in the male entertainment industry. From this realm she occasionally enters a deeper one in which she and her young cohorts become stereotypical beautiful badasses taking down giants, zombies, and monsters in Ramboesque melee fighting—dodging bullets and dragon flames, wielding swords with total lethality, and generally kicking superhuman ass all over the place. So at one level she uses her feminine beauty and sexuality, plus courage, as a means of controlling and defeating brutal men, and at the next she goes straight into the realm of masculine ass-kickery; yet both of these scenarios are the more or less delusional coping mechanisms of a very traumatized, imprisoned, seemingly helpless and doomed young woman. In the reality of the mental hospital she scores her real victory, and shows her real heroism and “empowerment,” which is found in feminine compassion and self-sacrifice. And at the heartbreaking climax of the movie Babydoll is genuinely happy, for the very first time. I suppose that is the sucker punch indicated in the title: Everyone is conditioned to assume that she’s going to blast her way out like a man, or at least exploit her sexuality with men as a way out, and then she manifests exquisite feminine virtue to achieve the “perfect victory.” Which, to those who are conditioned to see the world in a masculine way, may be seen as a cheat. This no doubt is a major reason why critics disliked the movie: It’s not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one either; what it is, is a politically incorrect movie which shows a real but despised way in which women are just as great as men are. But in a different way from men. 
     Sucker Punch was condemned as misogynistic by some politically correct film critics. They accused the movie of not “empowering” women. Some of them just didn’t understand the movie. But others could not appreciate that meekness, compassion, and self-sacrifice themselves are a kind of “power.” This seems to be a fundamental problem: From a masculine point of view which women have adopted, being genuinely, naturally feminine just isn’t equal! And this despite the wisest people in history and the most advanced spiritual traditions endorsing meekness, gentleness, compassion, patience, “subservience,” and self-sacrifice as supreme virtues. But society is not particularly wise. Again, there is confusion here between “equal” and “the same”; it is an unnecessary limitation of perspective, a narrowness of view, and an inherently sexist, even misogynistic one besides, indulged in even by feminists themselves. So long as an unenlightened masculine ethic is employed to interpret feminine empowerment, which is exactly what is happening in the mainstream of Western feminism, then women are essentially fucked. 

     Since I’ve been carrying on about how women do not need to be like men in order to be equal, I would like to give one example of a person I consider to be very feminine, yet obviously “empowered” and the equal of any man: the musician Kate Bush.
     She had written music since she was around twelve years old, and was “discovered” at fifteen by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Her first hit single, “Wuthering Heights,” was written when she was around seventeen. She was this thin little soprano-singing faerie girl who sang with such intensity that some were taken aback by it. At first the businessmen wanting to make money from producing her music tried to call the shots, but before long they bowed their heads to her genius, or Muse, because she simply knew better than they did how to present her music. Eventually she not only wrote her own songs but created and choreographed the videos and even produced the albums. Somewhat like William Blake, she was driven to express her inspiration as purely and completely as she was able, even to the point of seeming so intensely self-indulgent as to be embarrassing to some, or even a little crazy. But she had to express herself fully, making herself completely vulnerable in the process. The fact that she is also very pretty is almost totally irrelevant. At the peak of success she stopped performing publicly for many years so that her son could have a normal childhood. On a BBC documentary about Bush, fellow musician Natasha Khan, alias Bat for Lashes, says this:
I really thank Kate, because these touchstones like “This Woman’s Work,” that kind of song, is um, it’s celebrating everything that’s so wonderful about being a woman, and being nurturing and intuitive and emotional and gentle and sensual, and just, like, really intimate…. People don’t put their hearts on the line in that vulnerable way very much, and it’s really, as an artist myself it’s helped me to not be frightened to show…as much of my vulnerability as a woman that I can, and in that, be powerful. 
Which incidentally brings up the idea of what it is like to be a woman, which is interesting to me, although of course being male I can’t really say what it’s like.
     Anyway, I consider Kate to be one of an infinite number of possible examples of truly feminine empowerment: a person who is physically small with a high-pitched voice and probably incapable of beating anyone up, yet is intuitively, creatively, vulnerably, with inspiration, driven to bare her heart, so to speak. The effects of her Muse cause some to feel uncomfortable, or even disdainful, but leave others in awe. With regard to the tough, nuanced ass-kickers in tight leather pants, at least they can be intuitive. (I may as well add here that most of Kate Bush’s music isn’t my style, but still I respect what she has done with her life.) 

     As part of my minimal studies for this essay I actually consulted a female, especially with regard to her feelings about Natasha Khan’s statement about femininity above; and she referred me to a podcast of a recent symposium on feminism, especially as it fares in the UK, to give me some idea as to where feminism is at nowadays; and I listened to it with interest. There was a high-profile, “high-powered” American feminist participating who seemed to endorse, even to take for granted, the idea that women need to be taught “how to act like men.” Ack! But a little later on in the podcast a British Darwinian evolutionary biologist, a female one, began pointing out that biologically there really are significant differences between men and women, not only physical but psychological as well (for example, men have evolved to be more competitive), and that modern feminism has been “derailed” by confounding equality with sameness. She also pointed out that in the most liberal societies, in which women have the most choice with regard to how they live their lives, their choices differ even more widely from those of men than in less liberal societies. She pointed out that if allowed a total freedom to choose, women not only choose different priorities in life, but even when they share priorities with men, they go about realizing them differently. Also, women are much more likely to freely choose to raise children instead of pursuing a professional career. This speaker, asserting that it is not sex differences but sexism which should be challenged, was unquestionably the most controversial and challenging speaker at the conference, with the most (polite) disagreement aimed at her from the other participants; the high-powered American could actually be heard whispering “I don’t believe it” on one occasion, and just plain vocalized it on another. But the evolutionary biologist had empirical science backing her up rather than political correctness and ideological wishful thinking. And of course I considered her statements to be most in accordance with my own understanding of the situation. Not only do I have a background in biology, but I have distanced myself from society sufficiently that it is easy to see my species as a type of hominid primates. We are animals laden with animal instincts, with significant differences between the genders, speaking generally with regard to averages, and no amount of political correctness is going to change that. Once I read in a book on the evolution of sex (The Red Queen, by Matt Ridley) that a man from New York, psychologically, has less in common with a woman from New York than he has with a man from the highlands of New Guinea. Almost needless to say, the author received death threats for having published his ideas.
     A point that should be seriously considered by all feminists is, Exactly what sort of equality do women want? The right to imitate men, or to be as bad as men? So much feminism of the past has been geared toward precisely this. Or do they want the right to follow as their own heart leads them? If women want to be equal, then let them be equal! Deep down they’re already equal, even if most men and most governments don’t recognize this essential fact. On the other hand, if they can’t be equal unless men voluntarily let them, then they’re simply not equal and never will be, at least not in that respect.
     There is absolutely nothing wrong with men and women being different, especially considering that equality and sameness are not synonymous. It is possible to be very different, yet still equal. Life itself is possible due to the harmonious balance of contrary forces: female and male, order and chaos, security and freedom, building up and tearing down, Milton’s God and Blake’s Devil, Apollo and Dionysus, yin and yang. To give one simplistic example, and speaking very generally of course, women temper men’s instinctive aggression, and men temper women’s instinctive insecurity. That may sound very politically incorrect and socially unacceptable, but it is a fairly obvious biological trend in the human species, and kind of a beautiful one actually.
     I reiterate that ideally everyone would have equal protection under the law and under the political constitution, with equal rights in such a form that gender is irrelevant, or as irrelevant as possible. Everyone ought to have the right to decide for themselves how they ought to live a fulfilling life, within reason; which of course means women can be aggressive and men can be timid. Why not? But they should determine themselves and not be led, sheeplike, by premodern traditions or postmodern gender-issue fashions. A tough woman should not be prevented from being like a man if she is able and willing, yet she shouldn’t be urged to it either. It should be entirely up to her. 
     To conclude this conclusion I would like to point out that to the extent that one makes a social issue out of gender, to that extent it thereby becomes artificial and no longer “authentic.” A big reason why deer, rabbits, birds, and babies are authentic and not hypocritical is because they don’t cultivate social issues. Consequently it is best to keep gender issues relegated to such artificialities as laws, constitutions, and business policies; and with regard to an individual’s personal life, it would seem that the ideal is just to be true to one’s own innate nature, not to artificial traditions, old or new. Just be yourself and you’re automatically authentic, in addition to being essentially equal.

Brief Webliography

Scalzi, John: “Ellen Ripley Is Clearly the Best Female Character in Scifi Film, and That’s a Problem”

Jusino, Teresa: “Edge of Tomorrow’s Angel of Verdun: Nuanced Female Characters (Why we need more Rita Vrataskis.)”

An interesting hour-long BBC documentary on the life of Kate Bush:

Bush, Kate: “Watching You Without Me,” a song from side 2 of Hounds of Love, about a woman who drowns in a river, after which her spirit travels home and tries in vain to communicate with her mate (the weird vocal effects symbolize her failed attempts at communication)

The podcast: “What Next for Feminism?” (The evolutionary biologist stating that the more free women are the more they differ from men is towards the end)