Thursday, July 31, 2014


The white rat released the hooded rat in the tube.

Late Fifties “white rat” experiments were sneered at in the romantic Sixties where people insisted on free will.   But even hippies had to admit that a stimulus to a living creature led to a response of some kind.  Skinner and his notorious boxes in which a cat could learn how to trip the latch have by now led to far more elaborate experiments in which rats had to cooperate with each other like Air Force guys down a missile silo, both tripping switches together.  Or, even more intriguingly, rats would actually throw the lever to free their fellow rat from a transparent tube.

Stimulus/response plus conditioning have, since those early days, been joined by a host of ingenious experiments that teach chimps to talk, cause you to buy things you don’t need, and twist your mind politically.

At first the conditioning was pretty obvious:  ring a bell when you feed the dog and pretty soon the dog slobbers when you ring the bell, even if there’s no food.  But then the SR conditioning went into the subconscious.  So much of the mind is subconscious.  FAR more than is conscious.  SR conditioning works even at the level of the knob at the top of the spine that is the earliest precursor of brain.  But it’s not conscious.  “Why do I do what I would not do?” asked Saint Paul.  (I shudder at the possibilities of just what that might have been.)  Why do I go on a diet and then find myself standing in front of the refrigerator holding half a ham sandwich without any memory of how I got there.  SR conditioning.

Reference Ranges for Blood Tests

We can see operant conditioning on an fMRI.  Neurons love to travel on the paths they know, a repertoire of connectome patterns.   And they’re not necessarily conscious.  Anyway, neurons aside, much of consciousness and thought is at least influenced and possibly the product of hormone messaging.  We know enough about testosterone to make jokes and enough about street drugs to realize how much they change behavior, but not everyone thinks about the hormones their own bodies necessarily and constantly make until they get out of whack.  Luckily, we can monitor them with frequent blood draws and chemical assays and compensate with med antagonists.  Of course, it’s a drag to test blood all the time, even if it’s just a blood glucose test at home.  If you’re rural, you’ll have to drive.  Often.  Calibration of meds is now a given of many treatments.

Certainly organs can be taught schedules and expectations:  how do you think your stomach knows to growl when you miss a meal?  But we think of the molecules themselves as being inert, just passive substances.  Now we begin to realize that our situations change our responses which change our secretions which affect our minds but not CONSCIOUSLY.  Fertile and pregnant women have such drastic changes in their body chemicals that their resulting behavior becomes obvious to themselves and others.  In the best of cases, after the baby is born or after the woman has aged past menstruation, everything returns to normal -- whatever that is -- but not always.
ANY dimension necessary for function can go rogue and threaten survival.
Maintain homeostasis!

The “solutions” of the body’s dispersal of molecules in fluid in turn affect organs.  So in finding out whether or not metformin has given me a susceptibility to lactic acidosis -- which is a change in the acid/alkali balance of the fluids of the body -- the Ph.D. nurse practitioner gave me a lot of information about kidneys reacting to the base number.  I listened closely because when I did my clinical pastoral education, a young girl was brought in who died from drinking too much lemonade on a hot day -- the acid level of her blood was beyond the level that would allow function.  They keep telling us this is the same thing happening in the world’s oceans, which are becoming too acid to allow the formation of lime-based shells on the little marine creatures.

One’s acid/alkali balance is managed unconsciously but voluntary behavior can overcome it, causing us to do harmful things.  Is making the world’s oceans more acid a voluntary behavior or an involuntary behavior?   The medical/social research people tell us that only thirty per cent or so of patients are compliant when they are told what they need to do to say healthy:  pills, diet, exercise, both public and intimate behavior, may be involved.  Why is that?  The unconscious reaches up from our internal sea and grabs us.  We are conditioned to eat our neighbor’s pie at a church social.  Want to talk about smoking?  How about a steamy Saturday night?

It goes even deeper than that.  We creatures are really colonies of one-celled animals who cooperate to keep the complex process that is “us” surviving in the world.  And now that we can detect what goes on in a cell, each little blob turns out to have preferences and prejudices about what it will take in and what it will kick out.  Fold the proteins wrong, introduce strange molecules, alter the temperature -- you might or might not survive as a whole process.  Human planetary society is the same thing only larger.  This is called “fractal,” when one little part’s pattern is repeated by the whole.

A fractal pattern

So that implies that the behavior of the people of the planet is about thirty per cent of what it ought to be.  Is there a difference between the white powder of cocaine and the white powder of sucrose or the white powder of processed wheat flour?  The Ph.D. nurse practitioner said that the warning label on metformin, which is very definite about the danger of lactic acidosis, is so scary that it makes people obsess.  Therefore the medical community tries to resist testing people’s blood.  In fact, they’d just as soon keep the problem secret because it is “very rare.”  It’s such a nuisance to have to give the test.   At least this person filled me in on what conditions are likely to trigger the condition, mostly failure to hydrate or a suddenly high demand on muscles.  You know -- cramps.

It turns out that research devised to understand rat behavior is often more useful and interesting than research on their internal organs after they are cut open.  And since death is not involved in behavior research, much of what is learned will transfer to people when experimenting on them.  It is not reassuring.  You know the one about the person who thinks he is shocking a disobedient volunteer and takes the level of supposed shock to a life-threatening intensity?  You know the one about the person sitting in a room with others when the room begins to fill with smoke?  The others know it is an experiment and pretend nothing is happening -- so the person being tested just sits there as well.

But now the experiments have gone online.  Here are two to ponder.

They don’t call it experimenting.  They call it “tweaking the algorithm.”  Such funny business can make a person paranoid.  Pretty soon we think there’s an “evil cabal” planning all this stuff.  But the real danger is the conditioning that forms all by itself, the habitual behaviors we trigger over and over until they are part of our lives, though we never really intended either them or their consequences.  The laws of convergence, emergence, synergy and the like are not human-planned events -- they are the realities of interacting forces in the physical world.

No one planned ebola, but now we’re faced with the need for some kind of monitoring and counter-meds, just as we were with the World Flu epidemic and the present World HIV  -- and global warming.  The trouble is that so much is unconscious -- but our consciousnesses can only deal with so much at one time. 

So where is your free will now, Mr. Romance?  But, hey, I'm not ready for the return of John Calvin yet.  If religion is a way of guiding one's behavior so as to maintain homeostasis for one's self, one's society and one's planet, which religion is it?  Science?  Tao?  Some hybrid?  Start from scratch?  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


What is the difference between “liminal space” and “dissociation”?  Both are outside ordinary experience and either can be good or bad, depending on circumstances.  

The main difference depends on the origins of the concept.  “Liminal space” comes from anthropology and was a theory derived from the ceremonies (especially rites of passage) of groups.  In fact, it was developed by observing “primitive” peoples but it soon became clear that it works pretty well for the “developed world.”  Where there are humans, there are ceremonies, and ceremonies work by taking the people across a limen (threshold) of some kind into a sort of changing ground where the group witnesses a shift in status, and then returns the changed person to ordinary society but with a new set of parameters.   The specifics depend on the customs of the culture.  Where it gets into trouble is confusing "liminal" with "numinous" or "theodicy," which are religious terms.

Dissociation comes from psychology.  It shows in behavior and personal reports, but seems to be directly linked to brain function that is detectable with instruments.  (Liminality is maybe not.) Whatever is happening inside the skull of the person may or may not change them as far as anyone else can tell.  Mild versions might be a waking dream or memory gaps.  The most intense would be outright psychosis, although probably coma would be the ultimate.  Dissociation can be imposed chemically or by heredity, trauma, lesion, infection or inflammation.  It can be forced deliberately as torture.  It can be triggered emotionally.  Again, it is confused when the category is considered epiphany or visions, which are spiritual and can easily be claimed by religions.

In my enthusiasm for creating events that would evoke deep meaning, perhaps life-changing, I have not reconciled the “high” that might come from an evangelical tent meeting with the “high” of a person who has a brain tumor.  “Meaning” in our culture seems to be double:  on the one hand the rational thought of the scientist or mathematician, and on the other hand an emotional total-body response.  Our religious institutions offer rational “theo”-ology, reasoning about God or Gods or whatever mask you choose for some almighty power.    They draw diagrams and argue numbers.  But there is nothing rational about the belief that there IS an almighty power.  It’s a felt meaning, which is spiritual.   And not everyone feels it. 

The DSM composed and constantly revised by the psych people is always in pursuit of a final definition of dissociation with little success -- they are trying to impose rationality (like theology or math) on something that is essentially elusive because it is individual.  Psych-handbook people are urged on by pharma folks who want to identify a pill for every symptom and insurance people who want to pin down the exact compensation per symptom.  ("How much is a severed limb worth?"  It's on a list.  Ask your agent.)

Feelings are undependable.  Words are shifty.  Dance, art, music, vids, and the other less scholastic (taught) media are more useful.  Humans are a process, culture is a process, life is defined by being a process -- once it stops processing, it’s dead.  Feelings are embodied, an expression of living bodies.  The state of the body can dictate the state of the felt meaning.  However it was caused, a “high” is not a deduction (rational) but a reaction (emotional).  But it does not deny rational reflection, maybe later.  One can reflect rationally on anything, including the practice of being rational!  (How does that make you feel?)

It occurs to me that institutions are agents of reconciliation between reason and emotion and that they arose as we know them because of the invention of bookkeeping and writing.  Nomadic hunter/gatherers millennia ago had no need for such markings.  Agriculture, which underlies the invention of written records, is rooted in ownership and defense of land and its stored products.  The invention of inventories.  Institutions need to be in a place, so the record books and measuring devices can be kept there. At this point in history war also became located -- no longer done on the run, but marked by the measurements of boundaries, often seeming to be ABOUT the location of boundaries.

Thinking this way lets me make a helpful distinction.  “Liturgy” is usually institutional and based on prescribed -- or at least recorded -- words and possibly actions.  “Ceremonies” might be liturgical, but also could be events that aren’t even considered primarily religious, like the installation of secular leaders.  Institutional religion cherishes liturgy.  Nations need ceremonies.  If the two are mixed, there can be trouble.

Therapeutic exercises, possibly for the healing of individuals and possibly for building group morale, have little to do with written words or prescriptions.   Rather, spoken words, acting out, using props, composing living sculptures of relationships, pretending to be reborn . . . all often improvised.  Try something -- see how it makes you feel.  Follow your gut.

Most institutional therapy is practical and concrete: meds, surgery, electroconvulsive therapy.    Controlling stuff.  These are severe enough that the larger secular institution of the state will try to regulate them through credentialing and even oversight by inspectors and professional peer organizations.  But this does not spare society from major ghastly blunders like lobotomies or pharmaceutical suppression of personality.  Nor does it seem able to control the self-medication of people through street drugs.  It is a puzzle how the institutions came to eject the people they were supposed to help -- some kind of bait and switch.

Religion began to get into the therapy approach through morality.  The Salvation Army, for instance, appeals to people hooked on alcohol to accept the theological “high” of feeling saved.  They offer themselves as a support group that is practical: food and beds, but you must accept their God.  Many “pastors” of mainstream denominations now function as counselors far more than they do as theologians.  Their role in maintaining the institution of the congregation or denomination is always controversial.  Everyone wants the congregations saved, but maybe not on the same terms.

Another escape from institutional theology and control is to the great outdoors.  Some interpret it as returning to the world before agriculture.  This is considered therapeutic but not theological -- some accept spirituality as a middle ground that escapes institutional control, therefore not needing theology.  But spirituality might be mediated or expressed by a person, as in Jesus or Buddha.  Neither was a theologian but both advocated empathy rather than rules.  Compassion for others.  Benevolent masks for God.

Neither liminality nor dissociation has much to do with rationality: math, science and legalities.  Liminality is an art form; dissociation is simply a state of mind.  But both of the them can underlie a demand for justice because of suffering.  Both are forces in a world that gets far too much absorbed in doing what they CAN do (Can we make a weapon we never use?) instead of what they OUGHT to do.  Both can function as alternatives to force/violence/war.  Both can reconcile and heal.

Now that internet culture is escaping the necessity of basing affinity groups on a place, offering close relationships without physical presence, what does that mean in terms of liminality or dissociation?  Some would claim that the Internet IS liminal, over a threshold, and that dissociation IS working in a virtuality, not attached to ordinary reality, particularly when playing cybergames as an invented avatar.  So in a ceremonial sense, how is it connecting us to institutions?  Or is it only a new kind of hunting and gathering?  Whose culture applies or is a new one developing?  (I vote for the second option.) 

It’s clear that governments want control of the internet.  It erases boundaries, evades certification, cannot guarantee loyalty to certain leaders.  Shifty stuff.  It can be “scraped” to give us a nearly theological statistical understanding of what people as a group are doing -- omniscient and provable math/science algorithms about behavior.  It can control feedback to make people believe others are doing what they are not.  But also it can be a surveillance tool, watching individuals, a fox and hounds game that foxes can win. 

Dissociation is a given, one skull planted at the pixel end distribution point of the whole system.  Hypnotic suggestions, arousing and disorienting images and storylines, all the tricks of illusionists are there to be used.  But liminality is something else, dependent on a group that forms the time/space and also, probably, defines the transformation that will happen with the cooperation of the people as equals in consensus.  Screenwriters are liminalists.

The origin of my fascination with all this was high school dramatics -- that simple.  (Unless you count reading.)  Then theatre -- as it is wont to do -- became religion.  Why not play "for reals"?  In both fields the more I went into them, the more mysterious, entwined and unmanageable they became. 
"Beaver Bundle Opening" by Bob Scriver

Since my exposure was to two religious kinds of ceremony, one the Bundle-Keeping of Blackfeet and the other the formal elitist post-Christian Unitarian Universalists, my interest became reconciling them or at least putting them into relationship.  What I find is a need for new terminology, new science, and a heckuva lot more reading.  Excitingly enough, it’s all there -- still in books -- and in retirement I have the time to read.  When I figure it all out, I’ll let you know.  It’s not likely to be theological.  Nor institutional.  Nor even urban.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Philip Seymour Hoffman as "The Master"

This movie is often presented as a “take” or “take down” on L. Ronald Hubbard who devised “Scientology” and “Dianetics” after a short career writing scifi.   “The Master” is already a strange film, but watching it now, after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, makes it even more strange.  L. Ronald Hubbard is sort of crowded out of the picture.  The critics were all very positive, but couldn’t really explain the film, which has left it open to an “Emperor’s New Clothes” sort of understanding.  How should we think about such a seductive but overwhelming figure as the one played by Hoffman?  Is it religion?  Is it psychology?  Is it about gullible society?  Or all three?  Certainly, it’s fascinating to just watch.

One can “master” a body of knowledge, or a skill, or even master other people.  But does anyone ever really master themselves?  What does “mastery” mean anyway?  Skill?  Power?  Special gifts?

I note that “Quell” (spelled “kwell” is the name of a cure for lice which is not recommended because it contains poisonous Lindane, gamma benzene hexachloride -- which sounds like something Quell might drink.  Counter indications include: “Uncontrolled Epilepsy, Lower Seizure Threshold, A Mass Within the Brain, Hardening of the Liver, Atopic Dermatitis, Psoriasis, Skin Condition, Seizures, Head Injury, Pregnancy, A Mother who is Producing Milk and Breastfeeding, Habit of Drinking Too Much Alcohol. Quell the character is totally, deliberately, out of control.  He goes with the flow, simply records as he goes, searches for the edge which is often violent.  He is a great cure for control freaks, but a risky one.  Maybe the cure is worse than the affliction.

Over the years I’ve known a few guys like this “master” spellbinder which is not surprising considering where I’ve been.  In acting, Weldon Bleiler.  In ministry, Davidson Loehr or Clarke Wells.  There were professors.  Even cops.  “Insiders” who knew these guys will understand what I mean.  It’s the Orson Wells shadow.  Charismatic, persuasive, and then -- where did he go?   They were gifted, grandiose, narcissistic, controlling, but finally had nowhere to go, no goal, just the going.  The wake of the ship.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

The two characters, Quell and Dodd, are not buddies.  This is not Butch and Sundance.  I also reject the theories about homosexual relationship -- surely it’s clear that the grip (literally -- you know where) of sexual relationship and generational children belongs to the wife of Lancaster Dodd.  His strength comes from her and she protects him, but when he is truly confronted by unbelievers, she’s no help.

I nominate Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”  This pair is Prospero and Caliban.  Or maybe Caliban is mixed with Trincolo, the drunken sailor.  So maybe Dodd’s wife is Sycorax.  (If you’re not up on your mythology, you’ll need to do a bit of research.) If I showed this movie in a film class, I’d pair it with Julie Traynor’s version of “The Tempest.”   (Other versions would work -- I just like Traynor’s best.)   Master must have servant, servant is trapped but obedient, then servant escapes.  There are ships, but the wrecks are onboard rather than a storm crash.  When all is dry, Caliban escapes, racing away across the desert, the old sea-bed.  Maybe Prospero has set him free.  All these forces of enchantment are at play under the quite conventional events of sailor, evangelist/inspirational coach, family and society.

John Gielgud as Prospero in "Prospero's Books."

The vulgar phrase for what’s going on in this movie is “mind-fucking” and surely that’s what it is.   In the beginning the two protagonists are brought together through solvents, alcohol plus whatever other volatile substance was around.  The Caliban side knows how to mix it, the Prospero side appreciates the relief.  No one is so susceptible to magic potions as a magician.  The two bond in oblivious abandonment.  Lancaster Dodd’s name is sort of vaguely English, but his set-up is pretty much like any of the spell-binder evangelists we know.  
Star Hawk

The closest I ever came to being like Dodd was being the “key-noter” as a women’s spirituality conference in Seattle.  I was the opener for Star Hawk.  Emotions were high, I was confronted for being a “Christian” speaking on the Jewish sabbath (Friday), and for the idea that any one person, much less me, HAD a key, etc.  But that just polarized a lot of people onto my side.   My sermon (“low-key”) about homemade socks (even the wool was from sheep the knitter had raised) became sort of semi-famous.  (It’s the lead essay in “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke.”)

Curly Bear Wagner

It’s so EASY!  People want someone to be the mighty leader, the truth-teller, the one who assures them they are wonderful and can succeed.  I’ve watched Bob Scriver do it.  I must know at least half a dozen local Blackfeet shamanistic spell-binders who can throw an enchantment over an audience by telling stories and holding up metaphors.  The supplicants and sycophants are often do-gooders, educated, well-heeled, not from around here, sort of drunk on mega-scenery and a romantic culture.  They want a different reality than the boring one they know -- something with more meaning, more pizzazz, something that will make their friends gasp in admiration.  Magic.

There’s a hunger for emotional connection in our culture that gets interpreted as sexual, but in fact is sort of pre-sexual, like a child’s need for a parent’s approval.  Maybe it’s more like a need for understanding.  There’s a saying that a “sick” (unequal, unapproved socially, dangerous, maybe out of control) intimate relationship can be much closer and more intense than a “normal” one that meets all the social standards.  Lancaster Dodd, when pushed out of his savoir faire, can only shout “pig fuck!”  But that sounds more real that his moonbeams about this and that.

Caliban onstage

One might think that Quell is vulnerable, but just about everything that could be done to him has already happened.  He has sex on the brain in the beginning and has actual sex in the end, but outside of that, the only way to take anything away from him is to give it to him in the first place.  Like a role in an organization that seems significant.  Like approval.  But never love.  Never escape from loneliness.

I look at Tom Cruise and think about the way he was used and tortured to make “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kubrick’s last gasp before death.  As often happens, the real drama was on the set and the real subject was not sex but social status and the grasp it can give a person over the lives of others.  The more pretentious it is, the more the naive will think it’s an accessible reality.  From way outside, I think Kubrick damaged Cruise’s sanity -- or maybe it wasn’t all that stable anyway.

Once I was at a Hollywood party and had a long conversation with someone in the corner of the kitchen where I was trying to hide.  This person confided much about her life and I did my duty as a minister trained in pastoral care.  Not counseling, but reassurance and encouragement.  I told her nothing at all about myself, nor did she ask.  But later she said she felt deeply moved, even changed. Most of what she told me I’d heard before from dozens of people.  I could see she had not listened to what I said, but had watched herself tell me her story: she was acting.   Is there such a thing as intimacy masturbation?

Yes.  But “The Master” is not a depiction of that.  It’s we watchers who are indulging in it, as we do much of the time at the movies.  This is a movie about S/M -- not the obvious stuff like bondage or whipping, but the clever domination of someone who seems to be a loser but turns out to be a sly survivor.  A guy like L. Ronald Hubbard -- or whomever you want to dredge up from the nutcase box -- uses up enormous amounts of energy but it's intoxicating.  The danger of a short-circuit is real.  A woman at that women’s spirituality conference, literally sitting on the floor by my chair, sighed to me,  “Oh, I could just sit at your knee and listen to you babble forever.”  Babble.

I stood up and left.  It was a narrow escape from shipwreck.  I’m back on dry land now.

L. Ronald Hubbard monitoring the thoughts of a tomato.

Monday, July 28, 2014


The dissonant brain is a term I like better than “dissociative identity.”  The latter means that the process that we think of as one person, since it is confined to one body, can split into more than one “personality” each of which is a coherent pattern of behavior.  We all present ourselves differently in different circumstances, using fancy manners in one place and relaxing into a bit of cheerful vulgarity or maybe indignation in the company of people we know and trust.  Identity, I’ve been saying, has five different levels:  1)  the intake of sensorium from the environment; 2)  the unconscious first-sorting that happens to that intake of electrochemical information throughout the body; 3)  the various operations on the whole by the parts of the brain; 4)  the reacting response; and 5)  the shared interpretation with other humans.  Things can go wrong at any of these five levels.

Three “categories” of dissonance -- identities “out of tune” enough for others to notice -- are all seen by society as MAL-function, something to be cured.  Society wants people to be unified identities. The three poly-coherences are: 1)  the kind of splitting that we call schizophrenia; 2) a phenomenon we call popularly “split personality”; and 3) a mind-state that leaves reality to enter a kind of dream or vision -- something close to being hypnotized.  These things are not consciously chosen, but simply appear, possibly in reaction to circumstances.  

They are dramatic enough that media loves to portray them in ways often more drastic than any scientific skeptical investigation would be.  Schizophrenia in its paranoid mode, which means that the person feels under attack, can be dangerous if the person reacts in defense, perhaps violently.  In the modern confused world it is sometimes hard to separate people who are genuinely being stalked and endangered from those who just imagine they are.  The norms of a culture can almost impose paranoid schizophrenia on us, so that recently a Missoula citizen, evidently inflamed by right wing news, sprayed the interior of his garage with gunfire, killing an intruding student.  Since this was a university town, some will accuse explorations by students thinking they are entitled, and others will think of drugs.  It is well known that some drugs will trigger paranoia.  But this man was simply assuming things that weren’t true.  His crap detector was out of order, but that's not insanity.  No one knows what the students was thinking -- if he was.

The second exciting version is the person who manages to construct “alters,” meaning whole identities that are separate from each other, may not know about each other, and may be mixed with periods of amnesia.  Movies like “The Three Faces of Eve” or “Sybil” have vividly shown this phenomena and the conditions of abuse that can cause it.  The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a version that shows identities divided between “good” and “evil.”  Some will suspect that taking on another identity is just a way of evading blame, which would be punishable if it were conscious -- but what if it’s not?

A third category of dissociation asserts that when a person -- esp. a child -- is subjected to terrible abuse, either in terms of pain and deprivation or possibly in terms of transgressive acts, primally forbidden behavior, that child’s mind may go off to a different place, a silvery desert or a dark tangled forest.  In fact, the Plains Indian tribes, who had no drugs or alcohol, would deliberately seek that other world in a vision quest, using dehydration, high altitude, hunger, and repetitious behavior like percussion or chanting.  Too much cold, too much heat, and lack of oxygen will also bring on visions, which might be welcome and even comforting if the person is close to the edge of survival, facing certain death.

“Otherness”, esp. when it comes to an internal state in which a person seems different to others or in a different place even to themselves, often suggests some kind of supernatural connection with a separate mysterious being or world.  “Seeing God in the Third Millenium,” an article by Oliver Sacks in the December 12, 2012, Atlantic Monthly, is a short discussion of the material in his book called “Hallucinations.”  He is a professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine and has made his lifework the attempt to understand brain function.   His work is so dramatic that five movies have been made about it:  two from “Awakenings,” and then “The Music Never Stopped,” “At First Sight,” The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.”  

Oliver Sacks

Here is Sacks giving a TED talk about hallucinations.

He speaks of things seen or heard that come from the unregulated firing of neurons.  He's seen them himself.  Geometric, maybe faces.  In the article Sacks puts more emphasis on visions that are wholistic and emotional, often blissful, easily -- even eagerly -- interpreted as spiritual.  Possibly the Old Testament stories of Jacob’s ladder or Elijah’s chariot were phenomena of this sort, though in "sky" country like the Holy Land, there are spectacular and spooky light shows, like "sun dogs".  These are seized upon by religious institutions for their own purposes, given names, claimed as miracles.

Ehrenreich’s account of a blissful fusion with All Being probably involved autodrugging, molecules made by internal organs and distributed through the fluids of the body.  Simple neurons firing could not have suffused her this way.  Nor did she see faces or staircases.  This was an immersion in emotion, which is a state of the entire body, partly guided by the autonomic nervous system which interfaces brain and hormones, the molecular messengers.  It was particularly embracing for Ehrenreich, who had been taught to be as dispassionate as possible.  This interpretation does not cancel any possibility that something outside what we know, maybe "supernatural," was involved. 

A person is a transaction between what is outside the skin and what is inside the skin.  It is not always clear whether the transaction is being distorted by ideas embedded deeply in the brain’s organizational systems or whether there is some kind of trauma or malfunction of the actual flesh and fluids.  When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education, which is required preparation for the ministry, a punitive supervisor assigned me to the neurology ward, supposedly to force me to give up objective rationality, the opposite of the pressure put on Ehrenreich.  But it was one of those accidental gifts to be close to people with brain tumors and stroke damage.  I vividly recall them. 

One was a man who was dying and yet believed that a “ball of light” came to him in the night and assured him that he was saved.  His brain surgeon, a former Jesuit priest, forbade me to talk to him, lest I try to make him give up his vision.  I visited him anyway -- he called me into his room -- with NO intention of disillusioning him, since he was beaming with happiness.  It was the Jesuit surgeon who was tormented, unable to reconcile science with spirituality.  Why resolve it?  Why not let the two modes peacefully co-exist?  And yet, if you desperately grip some idea that seems to save you and everyone around you tells you with serious faces that you're involved in a fantasy, how can you defend yourself?

Sunday, July 27, 2014


For a month I’ve been lighting candles to St. Cloaca, patron of the water closet.  The plumbing of this old house is dubious enough, but then the crapper flapper began to leak.  That’s the gizmo in the tank on the back of the toilet that refills the bowl.  The bowl continued to work fine, so all I had to do to get by was use a bucket to sluice the contents through to the sewer.  But it was not particularly convenient and summer visitors, esp. the female ministers, could hardly be expected to do it, though there was nothing unsanitary involved.

Though I had bought books on repairing all the systems in a house (plumbing, electricity, insulation), I’ve discovered that YouTube is a great resource for the little dilemmas of life.  There must be twenty videos of various lengths, each a plumber describing what to do about a crapper flapper leak.  I knew I had a good one when the man kept talking about cloacal mocus, though when I tried to research that slimy buildup, it turned out that he might have meant cloacal mucus.  The cloaca is the messy place on sub-mammal creatures (usually fishes) that excrete all unwanted icky stuff through one aperture.  The tank is clean water -- so “cloacal” is not accurate.  In fact, it turns out that part of the reason my flapper had deteriorated is that I had grown fond of those big tablets one throws into the tank water just to be sure about germs.  Chlorine deteriorates rubber, which is what the flapper is made of.

The top part is the ball cock.  All toilets are male. (!)

Old-fashioned toilets had a metal arm inside the tank with a big rubber bulb on the end.  It's called the "ball cock".  If the water level was not ideal, one bent that arm so the bulb floated lower or higher.  It controls a water intake off to the left.  When the lever on the outside of the tank is pushed, a chain inside pulls the flapper up and lets the water through to the bowl.  Then it “flaps” down to seal off that pipe top. When the water rises high enough, the floating bulb shuts off the intake.  

If the flap fails to seal the pipe top, the water continues to leak through to the bowl in small enough quantities that sometimes it’s only detectable by putting dye in the tank and checking after a while to see whether the bowl water shows color.  If that flapper leaks, the water level in the tank will gradually sink and the water intake will turn on.  Mysteriously in the night, water will be running.  Most people don’t notice until they see their water bill.  A remarkable amount of water can escape.
The float on the tube at the left replaces the ball cock.

So off to the hardware store in the county seat.  I dislike the local one because a clerk there loves to play the Montana game which is demanding what people think they’re doing and then instructing them, not necessarily accurately.  I had watched the vid about the twenty different kinds of flaps for different ages and kinds of toilets, then bought a “universal” kit with a “five minute” fix.  It included a modern water feed which is a float on a kind of stem -- no arm-and-bulb -- and a sort of silly putty ring to put on the top of the leaky tube.  Since it was a brass tube with a rough upper edge, I bought a little box of “plumbers abrasive sandcloth” which is just a neat little roll of sandpaper that you can tear off as needed.  Carefully following all advice, I thought I had the problem solved and assured the lady minister it was safe to use the facilities.  

Wrong.  The silly putty didn’t stick.  I must have done something wrong.  Back to the hardware store but they don’t sell just the ring of putty -- I’d have to buy the whole kit again.  So . . . Amazon.  This time it was a different brand, Corkee instead of Fluidmaster, and it came with a hard plastic ring and a little tube of silicon sealant to stick it onto the top of the brass tube.

Everything was proper, the top of the tube was definitely sealed -- and the water inlet STILL kept coming on -- not often and not much, but still . . .   A day of twiddling and messing around.  At some point I had two flappers on chains (that’s what fastens them to the lever outside) and draped one over the overflow tube to get it out of the way.  That’s what did the trick.  I think it was because it made the attached chain pull straight up instead of a little sideways so that when the flapper came down, it was centered.  I will NOT ask anyone for advice.  It’s against my principles.  Unless the advice is via YouTube.

But my other principles and practices are to consider the big picture.  The local big picture, which the locals ought to be figuring out instead of throwing temper tantrums, is the stuff AFTER the toilets and other drains.  First, no one in the beginning of the town a century ago thought of storm sewers so town drainage is poor; second, our soil is largely very fine gumbo that expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry, changing volume so drastically that no house in town is straight except when the ground is the wetness it was when the house was built; third, when weather is severe, our town sewage lagoon doesn’t work.  At thirty below the “bugs” (bacteria) don’t work and who can blame them?  So we’re looking at a very expensive system of covers for winter.  If we fail our testing levels of e coli, et al, the fines are also pretty steep. 

It is the state that sets the standard for sewage lagoons and their goal is to make sure the water has been sufficiently sterilized to let it travel on down a little creek without exposing anyone in that drainage to contagion.  The state can move the standard up and down; lately they’ve been moving it up.  There is trouble on the way: filtering for toxins, including heavy metal and herbicides, and removing pharmaceuticals.  Already experiments show that it is possible to test city sewer effluent and know what the consumption level of illegal drugs is in the town as a whole, but now scientists are worrying about LEGAL drugs, particularly since such a high proportion of aging Valier people are on insulin, blood thinners, heart meds, and so on.  Maybe Viagra.  Not so much birth control pills.  Testing for and removing pharmaceuticals is VERY expensive.  No one knows what they do to downstream life.  Nor do I know what happens to our sludge, which can’t be used on fields if it contains heavy metals.

There’s lots more to find out.  Like who it is who sneaks their cesspool pumpings into the town sewers so that strange things are found floating in our lagoon.  We do allow the honey wagon to unload -- or did.  We were all relieved when the crop duster moved his operation out of town so there were no longer big tanks of herbicide at the highest point in town.  The grain elevator, which is technically out of town, is using our sewer system, so unknowable amounts of grain sneak in.  Our small population is enough to justify having the post office, but not to offer efficient enough PO service to get our lagoon test samples to the state lab before they become useless.

Lately I’ve been reading articles about the problem of public defecation in India, where it is usually confined to “waste ground”.  When it dries, “untouchables” rake it into piles and burn it:  the book, “The Jewel in the Crown”, talks about the smell.  There are public lavatories -- that is, open to the paying public but privately owned and who knows where the sewer goes?   The result, it seems, is children burdened with infection so that they are stunted and dull.

In most places the problem is about overpopulation producing too much byproduct.  In Valier the problem is that there are not enough people paying into the system to meet the standards set by the state.  What I want is one of those electrically fired toilets that simply burn up feces.  But then I’d have to get photovoltaic units to make sure I have electricity, since our service is not entirely dependable.  And still people have a fantasy about idyllic country living being cheaper!

Saturday, July 26, 2014


The key to the relationship between religion and war is the concept of territory.  All religions grow out of a local ecology -- the interacting forces that dictate the economy and therefore the strategies of survival.  If the strategies are successful, the population will expand until it hits limits, sometimes geological and sometimes other people.  If the confrontation is with other unified people, the ecological solutions might be developing a new survival strategy, infiltrating the other people in a symbiotic of trade, or going to war.  War displaces whole populations, making their survival problematic.

In the beginning humans passed innocently through the world, like any other animal, depending on their wits, strategies, or maybe what some call “confrontation hunting,” which depended on a group taking on a big animal like a mammoth with only spears.  

An eBook

In an ebook called “Hunting - Philosophy for Everyone: In Search of the Wild Life” which can be partly read by Googling (a form of hunting), a writer distinguishes between “distant confrontation hunting” which means throwing weapons from a distance, and “close confrontation” which he describes in close detail, claiming that the woolly fur of the mammoth offered handholds so that one hunter could “rodeo” as a distraction while the others drove their sturdy spears into the innards of the beast.  Early humans, who came out of Africa later than Neanderthals, used throwing -- Neanderthals used grappling.  Hunting skills become war skills.

Today we have two even more separated strategies:  REALLY distant hunting, like bombs and missiles which are indiscriminate, or personal representative diplomacy, which offers possible scenarios and consequences by people facing each other across tables.  Then game theory is in play.  When I look at the Netflix movie suggestions, I see very few stories that are not about these various struggles for territory.  In fact, the futuristic dystopias use the loss of habitat, both the structures and functions that supported complex life and the raw land full of plants and animals.  All gone.  In small ways, we do this in cities all the time, tearing down neighborhoods and replacing them.  Sometimes we wall off our territory.

In fact, now that people would rather be “spiritual” than institutional, the church buildings that once seemed to offer sanctuary, continuity and inspiration have become problems.  When we turn to secular life, what happens to the sacred?   The ceremonies of “de-sacralizing” buildings are not much of a solution, but Catholic canon law provides for it. 

Canon 1222 §1 If a church cannot in any way be used for divine worship and there is no possibility of its being restored, the diocesan Bishop may allow it to be used for some secular but not unbecoming purpose.

§2 Where other grave reasons suggest that a particular church should no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan Bishop may allow it to be used for a secular but not unbecoming purpose. Before doing so, he must consult the council of priests; he must also have the consent of those who could lawfully claim rights over that church, and be sure that the good of souls would not be harmed by the transfer.
Here is a paragraph from the CLSA New Commentary for canon 1212:


If a sacred place is to be given over permanently for profane uses, the competent ordinary should first issue a decree in writing, directed to the person responsible for the sacred place, stating that the place in question is no longer a sacred place and has by the decree lost its dedication or blessing. The issuance of the decree is subject ot the rules for individual administrative acts and individual decrees (cc. 35-47, 48-58), and recourse may be taken against it if a person, physical or juridic, is aggrieved by it. Although a sacred place also loses its dedication or blessing when in fact it has been permanently given over for secular purposes, this is not a legal option for omitting a decree but simply a provision of law in case a decree is not issued. A decree should be issued because it recognizes the authority of the ordinary who had the competence to establish the sacred place, it leaves no uncertainty about the status of the place, and it allows the possibility of recourse.

When the Unitarians left the Unitarian church in Helena, I do not know whether there was a ceremony of deconsecration, but there was a legal provision that it had to be used for a purpose in keeping with the principles of the denomination.  It has been a library and is now a theatre, which are good uses that no one disapproves.  Secular but idealistic.

When a territory is legal rather than sacred it will be recorded according to the laws of the state.  In the case of Valier, one possibility for addressing our infrastructure dilemma -- which is that the people living inside the boundary of the town are taxed to pay for the amenities enjoyed freely by the whole service area in the form of businesses, the school, the library, the churches and so on -- is to disband the town, dissolve the boundaries -- a secular version of deconsecration.  The problem with that is that county officials are not likely to be very protective and the interests of the town might simply dissolve. 

The new Valier Catholic Church

The most concrete vestige of the Belgian origins of Valier is the church that still stands east of the town at the foot of "Belgian Hill" where the communication relays are.  So far as I know, that church has never been deconsecrated though the congregation moved to the church in town.  The cemetery is still visited and neighbors will come to investigate idle visits.

That’s an immediate example.  There are ecological examples like the NW spotted owls in timber who displace the barred owls which then come back to displace spotted owls, or possibly merge.  There are scorched earth human industrial examples like the wheat fields around Valier that have eliminated microbiota, root networks, whole species -- replacing them not just with rows of genetically altered wheat but also saturating the earth with poisons.  And installing tall windmills that change air currents, shake the earth, and throw off microwaves we can’t even detect.  Yet.  We have declared war on ourselves, with little success since the population doesn’t diminish -- merely suffers.  A new microwave tower has been installed just outside Valier that will solve the problem of the service shadow cast by the Cargill-built elevators because it is taller.  More, taller, straighter, replicated. 

It could be a relief to resort to “close confrontation war” to claim back our territory of prairie and buffalo -- or even the open range.   But it’s not possible so in our frustration we quarrel with each other.  One cannot bomb a stubble field in any useful way.  There is no way to war.  We’ve got to use words on paper, faces across tables.  That means education and creating coalitions -- not depending on separatism.  If we look at the older millennial history of this land, it is daunting -- a story of a people whose land was taken from them. 

The Thirty Years War in Belgium

If we look at the history of the Belgian people we see war.  At first the usual scatter of kingdoms, divided among various allegiances, including ownership by the Roman Catholic church, then separating by languages into loyalty to Netherlands, France, and Luxemborg, and finally, after the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and the earlier Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), becoming a nation in the modern sense in 1830.  This is little more than twenty-five years AFTER Lewis and Clark came through and twenty years BEFORE the prairie tribes signed the first big treaty.

Today Brussels, Belgium, is the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, which it supported.  But Belgium has its dark side of early industrial development and failure to achieve real unity, partly because of language differences which always means different assumptions about the nature and goal of human beings.  The darkest side of all was in the Belgian Congo where many of the contemporary ghastly practices of mutilation, slavery, and oppression were brought to the local people by King Leopold.  The demoralizing scandal resulting from knowledge of this broke just before WWI, about the time that Cargill bought the 7 Block Ranch.  

It was the irrigation project that created Lake Francis as a holding reservoir that also caused the development of the town of Valier, beginning with the big boom that was dam and canal construction.  The town was incorporated in 1910, more than a century ago.  Now we are pressed to renew the aging infrastructure and come to terms with legal neglect of water allocation with the Blackfeet tribe.  So should we do “close confrontation” or “distant confrontation”?  Or just run?  But to where? For some of us, this is our sacred place.  Our holy land.