[This is another episode of this blog’s occasional column, Fear and Loathing in McBuddhaland ]
Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going. Hunter S. Thompson from The Rum Diary
This is a bit of a tangent taken from my last column FLM:Dr. Feel-good and the Medicalization of Buddhism.
As well some time ago I got into what could have been a very heated discussion with one of the scientists at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies regarding the mixing of science and religion. (my blog post on this Science and Religion make a Lousy Cocktail… ) but fortunately civility reigned and we had a nice discussion. The discussions there range from debate over human enhancement with technology to global security and techno-immortality. Interesting subjects in the forums and blogs. This Institute also has something going on called The Cyborg Buddha Project which links a number of scientists, all of whom have Buddhist backgrounds including monastic backgrounds to:
…promote discussion of the impact that neuroscience and emerging neurotechnologies will have on happiness, spirituality, cognitive liberty, moral behavior and the exploration of meditational and ecstatic states of mind. from the ieet CBP website
These and an email from a friend have prompted further thought. This time about the techno-medical-pharmaceutical-psychological establishment if I can compound all those together into one great Behemoth to tilt at. I like big targets because then I don’t need my glasses.
So get out your God helmet and strap in.
In the Beginning…
…there was the evolving human brain. From this brain came religion to explain the mysteries of existence. Then, after some time there came psychology to explain the mysteries of the brain that invented the notions of religion. Then there came technology to explain the mysteries of psychology. Then there came pharmacology to alter the human brain. Then there came the corporations.
OK maybe it didn’t happen in just that order. Many of these things co-evolved in many cultures. Pharmacology has long been tied to religion and religious experience. And psychology, though not named as such, has a place in many religions. Ethnopsychiatry, an interest of mine, generally means the indigenous diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The questions in that discipline revolve around the identification of behavior that is “abnormal” for want of a better term, within a given culture and what is the culture’s response to such behavior.
In academia this has been a fairly scholarly sort of cataloguing endeavor with regard to “other” cultures. The usual ethnographies and texts are written and few bother to read or remember what exactly they were about. And this kind of discipline has extremely limited exposure in the general culture of the Americas or Europe or anywhere else for that matter. Sociology has sub-disciplines based on medicine and psychology but they too are not generally known.
So it occurs to me why not look at “Western” culture through this kind of lens and get a handle on the patient-culture that North America is becoming. And further why not look at some of the efforts to extend this disease/dissatisfaction-model of human existence into the future.
The Modern “Abnormal” and The Culture of the Damaged Individual
A guy walks into a bar and catches the eye of a beautiful young woman. He walks up to her and says “What’s your diagnosis?” She smiles and they exchange the phone numbers of their respective mental health professionals for screening.
Was viewing some of those self-help program web sites recently and they had a pages of testimonials. Some of the quotations included such phrases as:
- I attended the … Retreat hoping to find healing, and renewal.
- … it was deeply healing.
- I am moving towards wellness again.
- you saved my life this weekend.
- You helped me to access my emotions to enable healing to occur
- I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal with you.
- “Thank you … for seeing my hurt, for calming my fears, for enabling me to get through my pain, fear and anger that has been an anchor in my life for too long.
- I finally feel as though my cloud of doom has lifted!
There are thousands of such testimonials on every kind of self-help website imaginable. Looking in the mirror it seems all people see reflected is some kind of damage. And on some of these sites it’s almost like a damage sweepstakes and some kind of achievement to have the longest list of emotional and psychological problems, ailments and detrimental beliefs.
Time and time again people invoke some kind of illness or popular psychological jargon in casual conversation. Some of the things I’ve heard include:
- I’m so neurotic..
- I have panic attacks all the time.
- I’m sure I’m bulimic…
- I think my child has social phobia
- That time gave me PTSD. I mean I still think about it.
- He has ADHD for sure…
- You are sooo OCD…
Yet none of these people had any sort of psychology background nor had they been to any sort of psychotherapist regarding these complaints. Nor had they even seen their family doctor about any problems they were confessing to. And the last comment was directed at me. Someone said that to me once sarcastically. I asked them to define OCD. They mentioned something about the neatness of my house and that my DVD’s were in alphabetical order. I am fairly mindful of my surroundings but not in a pathological sense. Neatness is not OCD by a long shot!
Are we all really this fucked up?
Is the “damaged individual” the new archetype? (Consider the celebrity press!)
And are we also demanding that others take on our own versions of perceived illness?
Are we becoming a culture of psychological hypochondriacs and fantasy diagnosis pushers?
Why is it not OK to be OK?
The Big Catalogue of Misery
In an email to me recently Ven.Kobutsu Malone wrote:
The thing about western psychology is that it is solely concerned with
psychopathology…. it cannot identify one single “healthy” state of
As for the DSM…. talk about “corporate” influence? That book was
created for the insurance industry to enable psych people to fill in
insurance forms with number codes.
In popular culture the DSM has become something more. The hegemony of psychological ideology into people’s lives particularly in American culture has both enabled corporate profiteering in the health care sector and disabled otherwise healthy individuals with diagnoses that are often overblown and incorrect. The ignorance disguised as scientific authority with which the psychiatric and psychological community continue to practice is almost unbelievable. Ask any of them how ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) actually works or what the exact mechanism of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors-aka Prozac and it’s relatives) action is on the brain and you’ll get an answer that starts with “We think it does…” Please read the criticism/controversy/adverse effects sections of the Wiki pages cited for more information on the dubiousness of these treatments. I could also cite many medical studies that run contrary to the corporate funded research that lauds these things so highly. Only for the sake of brevity will I refrain. [No I am not affiliated in any way with Scientology and their anti-psychiatry campaign!]
What is becoming increasingly popular is the realm of self diagnosis. Any self-help section of a large book store has hundreds of books on subjects taken right out of the DSM. There are such titles as
- Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder For Dummies
- The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
- Anorexia Nervosa: A Survival Guide For Families, Friends And Sufferers
- Conquering Math Phobia: A Painless Primer
- The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook: A Guide to Healing, Recovery, and Growth
It is not that these books are not useful to those that actually may suffer from these conditions. And it is not that the symptoms clusters do not present themselves with some degree of association and regularity. It is that in this instant expert world and especially with everyone believing they are an expert on themselves, self-diagnosis is often mis-diagnosis. If psychologists and psychiatrists, who have actually taken the time to study these behaviors in depth can often be wrong how much more so for people with little or no knowledge of the subject? Suggestibility is much higher in people than they would like to believe. And in view of marketing campaigns and big bookstore sales tactics that suggestibility is manipulated as much as possible. (Did you know books just below eye level are purchased much more frequently than those lower down? Now you know why they waste space with table displays in book stores instead of all shelving which would be much more sensible and efficient for the housing of books. And these tables are usually dining room sized, which reminds people of food consumption. There’s a lot more that goes into designing the “browsing/buying” experience than most realize.)
These books are well marketed not only to patients but to potential patients. And in the marketing business we are all potential patients. Tell someone they are ill long enough and they might start to believe it. The classic movie Gaslight reminds us of that. Of course there the woman’s husband was setting her up with the scenario. But it does seem increasingly we are setting ourselves up for our own “gaslighting” with self-talk, reinforced by strong marketing campaigns relating to our “unwellness”.
So much time and energy is expended on going from one thing to another in an attempt to relieve this “unwellness” this dissatisfaction with self. After a time we start to look for a definitive definition of this vague “unwellness”. The lists of available “ailments”continue to grow. Look through the big book of misery and try on the diagnosis.
I came across an apparently abandoned blog by a young woman who I will not name here, as she may not even remember writing this a couple of years ago. She wrote the following:
The question is not whether I would receive a diagnosis, but what particular diagnosis it would be; it is apparent that the intensity and nature of my inner experiences would not be considered normative or healthy by the majority of people.
A few months ago, it dawned on me that I might “be” bipolar. Looking over the course of my life experiences, and then stripping them of the spiritual or religious meanings I once attributed to them, it is all too apparent that they match a bipolar cycle of uplift and abjection. I ascend the heights and think I have discovered the “truth,” only to turn around and find it all meaningless.
This young woman had taken some psychology training but was not a psychologist. When you are a psychology student you go through a kind of sympathetic symptom syndrome where you start to think anything described in your Abnormal Psychology text is about you. Sort of like men who go through a sympathetic pregnancy (Couvade syndrome) with their wives.
In any case this kind of self-scrutiny is becoming all too common. And the big catalogue of psychological misery known as the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association is rapidly becoming popularized. Articles appear in consumer culture magazines such as Redbook and Cosmopolitan with their advice columns which encourage reliance on some outside “authority” for life’s questions and often pull a considerable amount of their data from the authority of the DSM or from those who’s practice involves invoking said manual. Where the advice giver is not an “expert” in the field outside “experts”, usually psychologists are often consulted and quoted.
Romanticizing Psychological Dysfunction
Susan Sontag’s 1978 epic work Illness as Metaphor contains the following:
With the modern diseases … the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease – because it has not expressed itself.
I would take up that theme of linking character with disease and expand it to presently include the romanticization of currently popular psychological dysfunction.
In another quote from the anonymous young woman’s blog she states:
So the question is, then, what is illness, and what is Genius? If so many creative individuals have been driven at least in part by what would now be termed “mental illness,” then why is it that the average “sane” person in this world finds so much inspiration in the fruits of their efforts? Might not such creative individuals, through their “dysfunctional” brains, be brought to the threshold of liberating truths and visions capable of filling others with a holy fire? If the hunger for meaning is universal, what then should we make of the fact that we would diagnose those who have provided us with it as “ill”?
In this case the label of mental illness becomes a metaphor for “special”, “creative”, visionary and liberated. Sontag stated :
Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance.
My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness–and the healthiest way of being ill- is one most purified of, most resistant to metaphorical thinking.
And if illness is not a metaphor then neither is wellness. Increasingly the terms wellness and happiness are becoming interchangeable. We can be wholly well yet unhappy. These are different categories of experience. Happiness is too often synonymous with satisfaction of every goal, craving and whim. The striving for happiness is not unlike trying to dress in smoke. One is covered until a good wind blows. And it is never satisfying.
Kicking It Up To The Nth Degree
The healthy are not healthy enough. The intelligent are not intelligent enough. The insightful are not insightful enough. The visionary are not visionary enough. There is something lacking, something is not satisfied. One may take this lack and perform the metaphorical blessing of the DSM-IV and become one of the romantically liberated, the psychologically significant and the Divinely “touched”.
Sontag again had something to say on the subject of psychology. She called it “a sublimated spiritualism”. That sublimation of spiritualism is taking new turns with the advance of technology.
One may, without recourse to disease models, instead search for relief from the self-perception of ordinariness and inferiority into the technological realm which includes the pharmaceutical.
Spiritual technology in various forms in nothing new. In the Amazon basin rites of passage, which have long been affiliated with shamanism, are marked with an initiation ceremony involving participants receiving bites of “bullet ants” which are large poisonous ants. Here is an additional explanation. And here is a video from the National Geographic of the ceremony.
Spiritual technology, be it through natural or chemical substances, manipulation of sensory experience through deprivation or bombardment or other alteration, neurosurgery, machinery or technological enhancement has been and will be something that continues along with the developments in human technology. The apparent need for external manipulation of one’s internal condition is not something that is going away any time soon.
There was a series of articles and interviews from Tricycle magazine in 1996 about Psychedelics and Buddhism. Most of the articles are only subscriber access but one is available The Roundtable: Help or Hindrance with Ram Dass, Joan Halifax, Robert Aitken, Richard Baker. The discussion revolves around the use of drugs and it’s efficacy in the spiritual experience. This series is taken from Zig Zag Zen which is one of the first books to raise some of these issues. The book contains articles and interviews as well as artwork related to the topic. Although most of the material is of a historical perspective questions are asked as to the utility of the drug-induced psychedelic experience in relation to the spiritual. Several excerpts and abstracts are available here.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Technoshamanism is a term that has been around for quite some time. In essence it is the melding of technology in service to shamanistic spiritual practices. It was taken up by the Rave culture and many of those that self define as Modern Primitives the latter of which also involves body modification often employing elements of tribal cultures. The use of music with strong rhythms along with the strenuousness of dance and often drugs produces an altered state of consciousness. Whether this altered state is for the purpose of spiritual discovery or just having a good time depends upon the individual. Steve Mizrach has an interesting article on the Modern Primitives for those interested entitled “Modern Primitives”: The Accelerating Collision of Past and Future in the Postmodern Era .
The inner/outer apparent dichotomy and the manipulation of one to understand deeper truths and possibly effect change is nothing new in the world. It is not even new in the realm of science which is often seen as a bastion against irrational experience or unprovable speculation. Quantum Mysticism with such eminent thinkers as Heisenberg and Bohr pondering the possibilities and it’s critics such as Victor Stenger (Mystical Physics…,, The Myth of Quantum Conscience, Quantum Metaphysics ) bring these questions into the material realm.
What it comes down to is experience, sometimes its a peak experience, an altered experience, a way to understand experience, a search for a new experience, a way to augment our current experience or simply a satisfying way to understand our human experience.
Dissatisfaction with the ordinary perspective on experience drives most human searching behavior, whether one is a scientist or a shaman.
There is no reason why this will not continue. We have seen it in the popular imagination with such films as Johnny Mneumonic including it’s themes of Neurohacking or the imagined reach of technology in Total Recall or Vanilla Sky.
It’s about experience and dissatisfaction
What strikes me is the zeal of the scientific quest. And the willingness of Buddhists to participate in that quest. It is as if Buddhism, unless proven by science is dissatisfactory. And that science will remain unsatisfied unless it can quantify the spiritual experience with some kind of measurement. It will not accept that there may be something beyond it’s reach.
The psychonauts of the Neurotheology movement are just getting started. Buddhists in America and elsewhere have been invited and are all too willing to attend. (Neurophysiology of Meditation, Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain’s regulation of attention, ZEN BRAIN-from Upaya Institute, Wired 14.02: Buddha on the Brain, etc.)
How long will it be before the Factories of Bliss start to manufacture satisfaction and happiness? That seems to be a promise so many religions have been accused of reneging on. Will science finally make it happen?
It’s about experience and dissatisfaction
Cyborg Buddhas Indeed!