Tag Archives: psychology

“Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

So the problem that I have with the majority of self-help books is that they have a great idea that can be covered in a well-fleshed-out article, but they stretch it out with redundant examples to fill up the requisite number of pages needed to publish a book. Hardwiring Happiness definitely falls into this category. It is essentially a handbook on how to reprogram the neural pathways in the brain to create a more positive default response to stimuli. It’s a great idea and something I feel many people can benefit from, especially in our toxic fear-based society. I would have just preferred the Reader’s Digest version.

Hanson’s concept of hardwiring happiness is based upon the science behind neuroplasticity.

All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on the channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity—especially if it is conscious—will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.

(p. 10)

Hanson’s approach is based on a four-step principle which forms the acronym HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

(p. 60)

This approach reminded me a lot of EMDR, a type of therapy used to deal with issues of trauma (I can attest to the efficacy of this treatment). Positive experiences are embedded in the memory and strengthened. These positive mental states are then used to weaken the negative states associated with the trauma. HEAL is similar to EMDR, but used to promote general well-being and not intended to self-treat in situations where a trained therapist is needed.

As Hanson empathizes in this book, it’s important to address the brain’s negativity bias, where importance is placed on the negative instead of the positive (how our brains evolved in order to survive during harder times). But as is pointed out in the book, prolonged focus on the negative has lasting repercussions.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of falling short, of inadequacy. This material contains painful beliefs like “no one would want me.” The desires and inclinations in it take you to the bad places. It can numb and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious cycles of negativity between you and them. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your life span.

(p. 126)

In an age where news and social media provide a constant stream that feeds the brain’s negativity bias, Hanson’s book offers some practical ways to deal with this. While it could have been shorter, the book is still worth reading for the simple steps provided for improving your mental well-being.

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Thoughts on “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen has been on my reading list for quite a while, and I finally got around to it. I was somewhat concerned that the book would not live up to my expectations, but I am happy to say that it did. Now the challenge is what to write about it. There is so much that can be said about this deep psychological assessment of our society, with each character representing a modern archetype. I figured I would just talk about some of the book’s darker visions of society and where our society seems to be heading.

It seems to me that many people prefer to be blissfully unaware and ignorant of the future that appears to be racing toward us, and this sentiment is poetically expressed in the text.

Others bury their heads between the swollen teats of indulgence and gratification, piglets squirming beneath a sow for shelter… but there is no shelter… and the future is bearing down like an express train.

(p. 68)

Later in the book, one of the protagonists, Rorschach, presents his dismal view of human existence.

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

(p. 204)

So we are presented with a meaningless world full of hatred, fear, anxiety, insanity, greed, and countless other social ills. Faced with such a bleak view, the next logical question is whether humanity is worth saving, worth fighting for. This is the question that the characters Laurie and Jon debate in the book. Jon initially does not believe that human life matters, but then changes his mind. When Laurie asks what caused him to alter his view, Jon explains:

Thermo-dynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible. Like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold… that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle.

(pp. 306 – 7)

This provided me with the light I needed to find hope in this dark vision of our world. We are surrounded by miracles. Every single one of us is a living, breathing miracle, whose very existence defies all odds. And this is something I will keep in mind as I continue through this journey.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Issue #8

Since this is probably my favorite graphic tale on the shelves these days, it goes without saying that I was pretty excited to hear that it is also being developed into a television series. According to the studios:

“‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ reimagines the origin and adventures of ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ as a dark coming-of-age story that traffics in horror, the occult and, of course, witchcraft. Tonally in the vein of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ this adaptation finds Sabrina wrestling to reconcile her dual nature — half-witch, half-mortal — while standing against the evil forces that threaten her, her family and the daylight world humans inhabit.”

(Source: Indie Wire)

Anyway, this issue continues to explore the darkest corners of human nature, including incestuous thoughts that Sabrina’s resurrected father entertains. But for me what makes this issue, and the series as a whole, most interesting is the incorporation of mythology and occult philosophy.

As a back story, Sabrina performed an act of necromancy to raise her dead boyfriend, Harvey. Unbeknownst to her, she actually resurrected her dead father in the form of her boyfriend. Sabrina’s aunts summon psychopomps to ferry the resurrected soul back to the realm of the dead. “Psychopomps are creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. Their role is not to judge the deceased, but simply to provide safe passage. Appearing frequently on funerary art, psychopomps have been depicted at different times and in different cultures as anthropomorphic entities, horses, deer, dogs, whip-poor-wills, ravens, crows, owls, sparrows and cuckoos.” In this story, the psychopomps are visually depicted as cerebral jellyfish, sort of brains with tentacles, which is interesting when one considers that Carl Jung asserted that “the psychopomp is a mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The installment ends on a dark and foreboding note. Sabrina’s cousin, Ambrose, reminds her of a basic tenet in the mystical arts, that every act has its consequence and the cost of the act must always be paid in full.

“Everything must be paid for, cousin… including Harvey. You ultimately ripped Harvey from his grave… so now you must send someone else to their premature death. Put plainly… you’re going to have to kill someone, Sabrina.”

Everything we do has a consequence, and this should be remembered at all times when we deal with others in the world. Nothing that we do is free from impunity. This is a natural law from which there is no avoidance.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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