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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Meditating

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).

PAGUN

Content Warning

VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.

In a perfect world that would have resulted in my next PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test showing a value of zero as there ought to be nothing the produce that particular antigen.thinker

Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.

One month later my PSA tested out at .31

Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.

So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.

But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.

It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.

Your dadLet’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would Human_semen_in_handsbe a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.

Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. itsamadworld-completeMad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.

And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.

Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or mohandas_gandhivicsecretthey can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.

And then there’s death.

death

That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.

twain censorship

THIS IMAGE WAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN FOR ALL OF YOU WHO GOT UPSET AT THE PICTURE OF MY DICK

Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.

That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.

For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.

But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.

On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.

It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.light

I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.

BUT

That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.

So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.

On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.

But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.

That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.

….enditem…

Reality Games

Peeking behind the doors

Pagun

 

The Doors of Perception

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Over the years I’ve developed a hypothesis that suggests that when a complex question is asked and when, despite its constant analysis, its intense investigation, and its constant consideration by intelligent people, no real answer presents itself…the question itself is probably what’s at fault.

Douglas Adams hilariously made a similar point when he had the greatest computer ever developed in the universe analyse, compute,  and come up with the ultimate answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. You know…the big one…the meaning of life. The computer’s answer after millennia of analysis was obvious. Forty two. You see, the question had not been formed in such a way as to elicit a coherent answer. Once the question was clear, the answer would be forthcoming in comparably short order. (Of course, Bob Dylan had already reasonably formulated the question years earlier: How many roads must a man walk down? But that’s another story).

One of the most baffling and contentious issues with which one, in his or her more philosophical and internally analytic moments, must grapple is the question of perception and consciousness. This struggle raises other important and ancillary issues, including their persistence, genesis, and value. Assuming that Socrates’ observation was correct (usually a safe assumption) that an unexamined life isn’t worth living, it’s perhaps worth it to take time occasionally to examine those issues. It’s worth looking at just what we mean when we blithely toss out words like consciousness, perception, personality, or self.

We all live in our own box that keeps our “selves” isolated from other similar selves. We can do some rudimentary communication…we are able to send and receive simple, although not particularly clear or articulate, messages from one box to another; sometimes they are even vaguely understood and even replied to. We congratulate ourselves on this and call it communication; some of us even make a living trying to do that with increasing degrees of clarity and understanding. As “communicators” we delude ourselves into believing that there exists a real possibility of sharing the deepest and most complex and profound thoughts that occur within one of those isolated cranial boxes. Our understanding of others, or our explanation of ourselves to others, is a pale shadow, analogous to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, of the depth and complexity of the actual thought processes that we are attempting to communicate.

The key is that inside each of those boxes dwells something that we describe as a personality or a self. But more significantly, each one of us in our little box is under the impression that we have a fairly clear understanding of the world our physical beings – our boxes – inhabit. We know what we see and hear. As human beings, that makes up the bulk of our understanding of the physical makeup of the world. We also smell, touch, and taste; these senses combine with our primary ones of sight and hearing to create what we take to be a relatively accurate representation of the universe, or at least our section of it.

 

This much we know. Much of what comes we also know. But much is the beginning of speculation on the subject of individuality, personality, self, perception, and consciousness. I expect this introspection as well as a degree of extrospection to last a lifetime. So I will start at this point and ask some questions having to do with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe, as understood through the senses upon which we rely for our understanding of the physical realm we inhabit. 

We know, for example, that although we instinctively feel that our eyesight gives us a realistic picture of that which is before our eyes, we actually only see within a limited range of light frequencies known as the visible spectrum. Other frequencies that are simply beyond the abilities of our evolved light detection organs, our eyes, to perceive, range as far as low level infrared (perceivable as heat), beyond high frequency radio waves, imperceptible to our eyes. We are only sensually aware of a small percentage of the information that surrounds us and describes the world in ways to which we are entirely oblivious. 

Aldous Huxley described the mind in its everyday state as acting as a “reducing valve”; among its primary functions is to diminish and restrict the volume of information and detail of the world our brains would have to analyse from moment to moment. We have evolved to require a miniscule portion of all the information that is out there in the physical universe; evolution’s function is to ensure the propagation of any given gene and, by extension, the species to which that gene belongs. The result is that much of the functionality of our brains, and their emergent entities, our minds, are presented for analysis and consideration only with that data which is necessary for survival and competition with others of our species. In fact, even our limited senses provide our brains with many times more information than is necessary for those evolutionary purposes; Huxley’s reducing valve works hard to prevent information beyond that which is necessary for life from reaching any cognitive part of our brain and therefore, in our daily lives, cannot really be said to be present in our minds.

To put it succinctly, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet….

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

What we grasp is the merest tip of the iceberg of the reality we inhabit. In fact, what we take to be reality is merely an analogue….the way our brain arranges what it takes in so that it can be dealt with.

 

SPACETIME

So when we ask “What is the nature of reality?” “What is the meaning of life?” or “Is there an afterlife?” it appears that we are basing the questions on far, far too little experience of the phenomena of which we desire information.

The second question, the one regarding the meaning of life is, I’m afraid meaningless….just as Douglas Adams satirically pointed out. For linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the question would be no more than gibberish. The nature of reality is an area we are constantly studying and developing mathematical models to answer. Whether the universe is constituted in such a way as to be amenable to a mathematical description is very doubtful, but we expand our understanding incrementally each time a new and successful model is developed.

But the third question, the question of an afterlife is already pretty well answered. Time is our way of ordering our view of the universe (space/time) as Einstein postulated. Most theoretical physicists agree that the notion of linear time – birth, life, death – is illusory. That time doesn’t flow or pass. Time is the universe of space time occupies the eternal “now” just as space and all that it contains is the eternal “all”.

This concept is where science meets mysticism, but it is interesting to note that most mystic traditions from that of the Hopi Indians to Zen Buddhism express this notion in a variety of ways. It can never be explained in clear human language; language requires a linear view of time to be meaningful; nevertheless mystics, ascetics, serious experimenters with hallucinogens and theoretical physicists have all glimpsed the ineffable unity of space and time. It cannot be expressed in any human language (hence the apparent riddles that typify Zen philosophy), but it can be glimpsed through different means. Rational logic in the form of mathematics can give an academic stance from which to experience the eternal “now” theoretically. Changes in brain chemistry as the result of asceticism, meditation or the short cut of hallucinogenic substances can give a sense of the grandeur, the wonder and the utter indescribable difference of the deeper eternal reality that underlies our everyday sense of the world.

I am going to have two bouts of surgery within the next month or two. One, I have dealt with frequently in the past; shoulder work. This time they are going to replace my much travelled left shoulder join with a custom built model that should outlast the planet. The second is a little dodgier. It’s going to be an attempt to remove a cancerous tumour. That one could kill me on the table, it could prove ineffective, leaving me to shuffle off this mortal coil when I get up, or it could be entirely successful in catching every cancerous little cell in the vicinity.

In any case, I have chosen to examine my understanding of the unity of space/time and the eternal “now” through whatever is the most effective means for me. I (as those of you who know me are aware, am no ascetic. I hate to eat dinner without a martini…starvation and self-flagellation ain’t my style). Mathematics? I can barely calculate a 15% tip, so I give 20%.

No, It’s going to be hallucinogens. I have a doctor who will accompany me during any high-dose expeditions I take and be on hand with a jolt of Thorazine should it be needed. A cold beer other wise. All I need to do is nail down a supply of trustworthy and stable LSD 25 and start the explorations.

Should this work out as I expect it might, I have a written will that will include that at the point where I will not recover and that dying is inevitable, I am to be injected with 1000 micrograms of LSD and after an hour, life support is to be terminated. I believe that I will enter the eternal“now” having been prepared for the transition and will, in fact, have some experience with it beforehand.

Death is an illusion…like life

That’s my current plan, but first I need to find some reliable source of the drug. I am in touch with The Albert Hoffman Foundation….the foundation created by the Swiss scientist who first synthesised LSD25 and is dedicated to the type of research I am interested in …research into the capabilities of the drug to aid the human mind to transcend the everyday reality we live in. I will see whether they are willing to help. Failing that, I will find my own source and track my experiences.

THE ETERNAL NOW

Another great adventure and one I am looking forward to with great anticipation and some excitement.

 

I welcome your input. And acid if you know where to get the genuine article!

 

 

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