January 22, 2009

Unattached: the same in heat and cold

I love the man who hates not nor exults, who mourns not nor desires...and who remains unmoved who is the same to friend and foe, [the same] whether he is respected or despised, the same in heat and cold, in pleasure and in pain, who has put away attachment and remains unmoved by praise or blame...contended with whatever comes his way.
Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, quoted on p77 The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt
What would such a person be like? Ram Dass [born Richard Alpert, clip below] has a line about working with dying AIDS patients and keeping himself balanced between the extremes of hope and hopelessness, and managing to get off on the bad ends by seeing everything. I summarize it badly, but essentially he's rewired himself, or allowed the wiring to come loose. Now I can see the appeal of this, in theory and in practice, and it's obviously also an aim, but there is a wondering about how relationships run when you reach this state of non-attachment. Moreover, non-attachment in this field has never been a problem for me, and another aim is to become more attached, as a game, to try on the mask of a truly social animal, find out if it can be done this late in the day. Either way, some rewiring needs to be done, and the trick is in beating yourself, judo style, defeating bad arguments and practices with their own force, so that when they rush at you - thwump! - you end up unharmed on the other side, the strong and bad things overcome.

Here's a story about a time I failed to do this. When I was in London earlier this month I was very cold and felt genuine discomfort. Southern Taiwan has a warm climate - it's tropical -, and I like the weather here very much. I was walking with a friend in London and I would freeze up, shaking, meaning that every 15 minutes or so we had to duck into a bar or someplace and allow my body to reach an acceptable temperature. All this would've been fine, but we weren't really in the condition to be hiding out among people, and I was drawing attention, so we kept on the streets.

My friend tried to get me to change my thermoception submodality. I got down to the condition where I could understand that hot and cold are only physical sensations, that it should be possible to mess with my own responses to such stimuli. I got down to the freezing cold being an abstract notion that could be turned around in my head and viewed dispassionately, like a 3D model of a virus. For a short time I flipped my response to the input from discomfort to comfort, and the harsh cold was interpreted as pleasure, and I could see that the colder I got, the more pleasurable it would be. But very soon the cold came back as cold itself and pain, and a fear that if I kept fooling with my reactions then real damage could be done to my system. That night, probably unrelated, I was very sick in my hotel room.

It was an interesting experience, and going down into rewiring myself I understood extreme S&M practices, how an intensity of feeling could be opened up this way that the more well-used routes cannot offer. Pain leaves a more lasting impression than pleasure, because the consequences are generally so much more significant. If you can exploit the first to trigger the latter, there's whole new lands of delight to be discovered, [in theory].

But then I thought...what's the point? I enjoy living inside my conventional reality, all the more so because I know how fragile it is and how easily I could wreck the controls and cause all kinds of imbalances. I don't want to end up either freezing to death or getting off on genital mutilation.

I'm pretty sure the body is wiser than the mind, and the unconscious is smarter than the self. Anything that has been built up, hard wired over millions of years is to be trusted over something you learned in an afternoon. Still, because I'm idiot a guiding principle is still to tinker, hack the system, see what's possible, f*** up, and then reset most things to default.

Richard Alpert

Related post: The same life as Napoleon [The perils of extreme kicks]

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