Conditioning

transhuman2 darkartczConditioning, noun: influencing, shaping, constraining, controlling; bringing something into a usable state by preparing, adapting, softening; changing behavior by rewarding or punishing each time an action is performed. We’re all familiar with Pavlov’s example of conditioning – by ringing a bell simultaneously with the feeding of test dogs, he trained the dogs to salivate at the mere ringing of the bell even if they could not see the food. Conditioning is easy to explain neurologically, as a biochemical response. The satisfaction of a bodily need or the discharge of an emotional tension leads to a release of hormones and to changes in the sensitivity of nerve cells. As an axon repeatedly fires to a cell, the cell is more easily stimulated each subsequent time because a neural pathway is established. An automatic reflex or unconscious response is formed, which is no longer subject to control by the will. Conceptually and emotionally, it’s more difficult to explain the complex conditioning of human behavior, since it begins to take shape before language and memory develop and has to be inferred backwards, from its effects. Continue reading

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Waking sleep / Sleepwalking

zombies walkingOur greatest illusion – and the one that’s hardest to give up – is that we live a conscious and deliberate life, that we create our own unique personality, that we are masters of our own choices, that whatever we feel and think is authentically “us” and that we know who we are in all of our fascinating depths and complexities. The condemnation of our lives as a sleepwalker’s trance and the call to awaken has resounded across time, from the old testament to the Buddhist sutras and the revolutionary pamphlets of the last two centuries – but we usually take these statements as merely quaint metaphors. What if our sleepwalking is literal? Every day we rise and fall into automatic routines, we think the same old thoughts, spout the same familiar words, replay our habitual emotional responses, and move with identical mannerisms. But we resist admitting that we dwell in a state of semi-consciousness, like wooden marionettes whose strings are pulled by unseen hands, or that we’re mechanically going through the motions of life without rhyme or purpose. We might feel comfortable to impute this dazed unawareness to others, but not to ourselves. There’s a performative contradiction inherent in it – we cannot know that we are sleeping while asleep. Continue reading

Will / Willpower

sisyphus by michael wulschnerWillpower is overpowering, directed inward. It’s an external power of domination through discipline even though it appears to be an internal relation between the I and I. The two I’s are not the same – it’s a battle between our conscious I or the seat of our personality and the subconscious, which in different traditions is symbolized as the lower self or inner child. Willpower is an attempt by our conscious self, which sets intentions and makes plans, to overpower the inner child into doing something it doesn’t want to do or doesn’t feel ready for. Willpower is haunted by a feeling of being divided, torn apart in contradictory directions, in an uncomfortable precipice between conscious intention and subconscious impulses. We are trying to subdue those impulses, like a parent trying to discipline a child into complying with strict, external demands. Continue reading

Intimacy

performance Eiko KomaIntimacy is … nakedness. The kind of nakedness that comes from being emotionally open to another human being without barriers and self-imposed restraints, the willingness to reveal the full range and intensity of our thoughts and emotions and personalities. Intimacy is a full disclosure without masks, without dissimulation, without playing a role – and this is what separates it from the social face we adopt with many other people in many other contexts of daily life. In an intimate relationship we reveal ourselves with all our beauties, flaws, evasions, fears, weaknesses and shadows. We say to each other, you have shown me the best and the worst of yourself and I love you not despite but because of it. Continue reading

Friendship

kiddie loveFriends, like lovers, stand face to face and gaze into each other’s depths. There doesn’t need to be a third thing – a common interest or hobby, or a quest for a shared truth – that binds friends like an external glue, and the bond is often deeper when this third thing isn’t the main attraction. When we love friends, we value them for who they are as complete persons, for their idiosyncrasies and quirks, their beautiful virtues, their annoying habits, their smiles and laughter, their tears, and their unique style of expressing life. When we love friends as ends in themselves, as repositories of their own uniqueness, they are utterly irreplaceable. There is no seriality in close friendships, each friendship is a universe onto itself. We might be happy if a third and fourth and fifth friend joins the party, especially in contexts with a feeling of gregariousness and fun, but we also value the intimacy of each singular connection, which is often deeper when shared in twos. Continue reading

Fool

lear performanceThe fool, folly and madness exist along a continuum of meanings – in some languages, the words are even indistinguishable. There are many types of fools: the fool who is crazy in love, temporarily dispossessed of the faculty of instrumental reason and given over to excessive bouts of generosity, adulation and reckless behavior; the fool in the guise of the court-jester, like the shadow accompanying Lear on his journey, who is able to speak truth to power and to criticize the madness of kings and the folly of social conventions; and the fool deemed utterly “mad” by the commonsensical world, sometimes locked up in asylums or banished to floating islands, and at other times praised for the crazy wisdom that’s the unique providence of poets and prophets. The fool is someone who is stripped naked and has relinquished the social masks of normality, decorum and proper behavior. Continue reading