Dopamine vrs. Death • 14 May 2010

It is just ludicrous here. I’m trying not to care about spring, because nature blogging is in even worse taste than poo blogging and sex blogging… but decay, sex and nature all come together in the form of these tulips that won’t die. Compost-fed and prurient. Down the street, there’s a whole bed of them –at least fifty in number—and they’re the exact pale pink of Caucasian flesh after a long winter. Pick a gender, pick any erotic body part … these lascivious blooms, pursed together and ready to pop, evoke it. Priapic and coy at the same time.

The humungus tree I visit on the weekends is also budding – little capers pushing out of the husks of April’s flowers. I wonder if they’ll make some kind of cherry? It’s like not knowing the sex of a fetus. And Sunday is something called Flower Day at the Detroit Farmers’ Market: obviously it's going to be a massive porn expo. I’ll go check it out after dropping in to practice up at the stealth shala.

For the new moon, I caught a spin class at the sleek ala carte gym called Vie. When the mirrors tossed the teacher in to my peripheral vision, an annoying talk-function in my brain would respond: “lady Adonis, lady Adonis.” Sculped arms and silicone C-cups shown off tastefully in gym gear that holds everything statue-still. I love her mischievious smile, her joy in the work and integrity of her beautiful form, and her godlike strength. My form is excellent in its own weird way (hill climbing is all sputa k, the fingers curve like the handlebar’s a piano, solar plexus thrusts back like a jet engine) and I’m guessing it is a little uncommon to do this practice on two cycles of breath per minute…, but dayam if these biker chicks don’t make me look scrappy.

In the saddle, I’m soft formless goo from the waist up, emotionless, steady-eyed, and dressed without reinforcements. It would take me a decade to look like her, to rework my musculature and energy; and on the flipside I don’t know what it would take her to loosen the sinew and turn those armpits inside-out. Not that she would want to. She doesn’t look at me and see mastery – she sees a gloopy alien who doesn’t care to exhaust herself but keeps up with mild amusement or even blandness. Breath, voice, heartrate, chemical makeup, eyes, chests, pelvic tilts, subtle energy… our bodies make us mutually alien even though the gene pools and personalities have so much in common. We even have the same name.

But about personality, incidentally. Have you noticed the way that, as a person strives to “be a character,” she becomes more and more derivative? I have a manifesto brewing about how solidifying your personality competes with having a life, and how defining oneself in terms of cultural objects is as dead as Friendster. Maybe I’ll call this manifesto Originality is Overrated: Selfhood in the Creative Commons.

What is it, this need to play a totally defined, consistent, dramatic character? Maybe it’s a search for love, or a fear of mediocrity. It might be a kind of morality: being "true to yourself" defined as staying attached to certain stories and things. Or maybe it’s an effort to be "on," just in case the reality TV scouts are watching. Oh yes, now that one’s got real personality.

I don’t know. But it's the twenty-teens already. Mannered, modernist personalities are not as cool as selves that can receive and adapt to new information. Cool is listening to your environment. Some people have this natural shimmer – the ability to catch and throw light as they move in the world. I love a self that can bracket the stories, notice what’s going on now, and flow with it. Owl scouts don’t think like old talent scouts, perhaps.

We’re doing a half-retreat tomorrow on deepening what Shinzen calls “Focus Out”—meditative attention on the objective streams of touch, sight and sound (to the exclusion of their subjective counterparts of emotional feel, internal imagining and self-talk). Working in this way compromises the Friendster-self because you experience mind as what's in the immediate environment rather than what's "in the head." Closing off the subjectivity valve means that the "I am my thoughts" and "I am my emotions" layers of experience get a rest. There’s still a self hanging around the back lot. Yet putting subjectivity to the side makes the world so much more intense. It’s amazing.

But about emotions. There are two strong, but contradictory, patterns happening right now. First is the probably chemical happiness factor that has been increasing over the last couple of years. God, how much of this is just inversion-induced serotonin or the dopamine-nectar of opening up the cervical spine? How much of it is unanticipated payoff from the glances of real silence and connection that meditation makes possible? Who knows. I often feel, and try not to express, a pretty overwhelming love for everything, and every one I encounter face-to-face. If it’s making me act especially stupid, I try to re-channel the love in to gratitude—a more manageable, socially acceptable sentiment. (Maybe later I’ll be able to experience a lot of love moment to moment without expressing it—I don’t know.) Ann Arbor is teaching me that even mild excitement and openness annoy most strangers, especially if they’re Midwestern and at all cerebral (both very adorable qualities, by the way). It's good. I remember when I was coolly pissed off, distrusting, cynical, and self-isolating. Grrr. I made fun of happy people then too. Morons.

The second strong emotion feels somewhat like things did when I was this edgy person who decided she was an Existentialist. I was going to rise above the whole delusional world then, since Existentialists, besides being dead to metaphysics, are all a bit fascist. It’s a world view that depends on the otherness of others. Hell is other people, right?

Anyway, the feeling now is no longer freighted with images of angry Continental drunks choking on coal soot and typing away in small rooms with rats. It’s actually made stronger, and darker, by the fact that others no longer feel so much like others. The sentiment is a frustrated determination mixed with light despair. There’s an anxiety that doesn’t know its object—and the not-knowing redoubles the anxiety. Maybe I’m reproaching myself for reaching the fateful age of 33 with neither power nor fortune (the consolations of void-embracers) to show for my self; or maybe this is a wave of good old fear of death. Mine, yours, Earth's. Crap. Dopamine don’t stand a chance against death.

Or does it?


  • Posted 15 May 2010 at 12:39 am | #

    eventually nature will get the better of your blog too. it already has in its own stealthy increments.

    dopamine and death: they better rock-paper-scissors it. until showdown, keep pontificating.

    the nice thing about love is that it too can be a very very very stealthy practice. in my own typical unstealth way i’ll say this: whoever you are or aren’t, i love y o u !

  • e&sj
    Posted 15 May 2010 at 8:17 am | #

    “hill climbing is all sputa k” could you elaborate?

    I handed out the old multiply copied Mysore John Scott “cheat sheet” to my students this past semester. And on their home practice essay I kept getting back “sputa” everywhere as the names were so worn out that one really couldn’t read ‘em. So many handed me back a sputa padangustasana and the like. Kind of funny. I imagine its a typo but I was just checking to see if there was something more there and how does it help with your posture on a bike?

    When you are 33 1/3 you are more at Aum then at any point in your life before or after. And you also spin – vrtti -appropriately. (vinyl or what we used to call albums – long playing that it is).

    Dope-amine. Don’t you get that from smoking (or shooting) dope? Elevation is an emotion. A sweet one at that. It comes spontaneously in the Spring or after an effortless efforting.

    go to 07:40 and consider vis-a-vis 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc series

    Parting shot: LOVE is never having to say your Sarte.

  • Posted 15 May 2010 at 2:15 pm | #

    Eric Kandel. My new love.

    “Copernican revolution, Darwinian revolution. Freudian revolution.” I always love hearing SF get his due.

  • Gregor
    Posted 15 May 2010 at 11:34 pm | #

    Yes, but you have love. Even Nietzsche agrees thats the better product!

    This works…

  • Posted 16 May 2010 at 1:06 am | #

    Rock, paper, scythe 🙂

    Woah, there are Templars in that vid, Gregor.

    David Bowie + aliens + templars + sunflower sprouts from the Farmers Market (swoon) + crim Saturday practice + teaching ashtanga + miniworkshop on bandha + superhot bath in clawfoot + meditation retreat + gloooorious sun… I am full, and exhausted.

    Will watch Charlie Rose and explain about sputa k (adorable… I am so glad you are using that handout… it should be the only ashtanga handout ever) when the brain is back online…

    But briefly… this retreat today was far more challenging than usual for me. It’s just very difficult for me to stay concentrated in the visual field, without spinning off in to talk talk talk. Shinzen noted that a lot of people have this experience – the visual field is uniquely loaded with memory triggers that take you right in to fear, fantasy, etc.

    We talked a bit about talkaholism. That is, compulsive, unconscious habits of internal talk. Hilarious. “Meditation is the recovery program for talkaholics.”

    He mentioned another really interesting theory about why we retreat in to talk space. As babies, we learn to attune to the voice of the parent in order to be soothed (or not soothed, as the case may be). Later, to try to replace that experience, we develop elaborate habits of self-talk, a kind of effort at self-parenting. (Not that this ends up being especially nurturing talk, as the case may be….)

    Also, a lovely technique for when one gets caught in the mind. “Take the nearest exit.” So say you are wrapped up in some visual fantasy and must be free of it: exit directly in to sight space. Free yourself in to the field of objects around you. Correspondingly, if you’re wrapped up in some internal monologue, exit in to sound space: burrow the concentration in to the sounds of the world, allowing the internal monologue to retreat a bit to the background (not bashing it down or anything, just letting it run its course or do whatever it needs to do on the side until it settles down). And finally, if one gets wrapped up in emotions, exit in to the body. Get really grounded in what is going on in the body as a way to get some relief from and perspective on the suffering in the subjective dimension.

    Ok, reading a bit of Brunton (perfect follow up to The Razor’s Edge and watching “A Single Man” recently. Detroit tomorrow. Hope everyone is having a really wonderful weekend.


  • Matthew K
    Posted 16 May 2010 at 9:40 pm | #

    Not to correct you or anything, but technically we’re in the twenty-TWEENS.

    I haven’t visited here in a while, but you’ve got the sort of attentive focus on this entry people normally apply to books. Makes me wonder whether you’re doing that, too, as once threatened.

  • Posted 16 May 2010 at 11:54 pm | #

    Feels like we just criss-crossed through the same space from utterly different directions. Interesting stuff. If I can ever get half of what’s been in my head for the past week written, we can see if any of the notes converse.

    “Never having to say you’re Sartre.” 😀

    “The nearest exit.” Priceless; thanks!

    Talkaholics. Totally.

  • Posted 17 May 2010 at 12:10 am | #

    Tonight’s two podcasts:

    David Shields on Realite Hunger and genre trouble

    Charlie Rose brain series, Pt 7: positive emotion, dopamine and addiction.

  • Posted 17 May 2010 at 1:10 am | #

    Check that. Brain Series Pt 7 is all kinds of fun. Thanks for linking to that series, ESJ. The panelists are all so materialist that they’ve convinced themselves that addiction is a purely objective situation, but maybe they have to see things that way. Intriguing research, anyway.

    About the other podcast. Sadly, David Shields is a whiny moron who should not be allowed to talk about his work. I guess the interesting thing about his work is the things others say about it — the ways it is misread as prophecy, misread as art. He’s actually just moralizing and trying to pass off his provincial tastes as somehow post-something. I could rant about this interview, because it pushes all my buttons about lazy, pseudo-intellectual academics with weak aesthetic sensibility and such anxious grasping for theoretical innovation that they say the stupidest shit, but… the body is more interesting.

    Moving on.

    Hill climbing on a bike is something I’ve done in the past by intuition—just stand up, bear down on a pedal, and grip. Bad form. But actually, I guess what I’m doing now is flaring the whole thorax like a cobra hood. Spreading it out over the bike with the tail over saddle, but the shoulders dropped low even as the collarbone spreads and the heart reaches forward. Turtles are actually quite aerodynamic! Holding that form (while still being able to breathe) takes incredible strength of the whole back and abdomen, and insane flexibility and ability to relax the shoulders and hands. So most people in a spin class can’t do it. But we can. It’s a good pose.

  • Posted 17 May 2010 at 1:13 am | #

    Matthew, good to see you.

    I didn’t want to admit it, but I think the self-punishing side of my present dark cycle—the frustrated determination—might be writing that is not happening. I’m writing sociology. It’s just work. Something else wants to be written and it makes me uncomfortable not knowing what is might be.

  • Posted 17 May 2010 at 1:19 am | #

    Oh! I keep forgetting to say this…

    Not to intimate that the ancients knew better than we do or that the real yoga happened 2500 years ago on the banks of the Ganges… but… the Katha Upanishad is why I couldn’t say that Death crushes Dopamine in every iteration of the rock-paper-scythe game.

    Dopamine beats death for one little guy in that scripture. It’s just a short read, and stunningly beautiful and other-worldly. Very good before bed.

    David Shields would sneer in to his latte at the very thought.

  • Posted 17 May 2010 at 8:11 pm | #

    BTW, blogs worth reading:

    Occult Experiments in the Home

    Tabby Cat’s Gamespace

    Monk Mo Jo’s 1000 cuts

    The blog of the Buddhist Geeks.

  • Yancy
    Posted 17 May 2010 at 11:48 pm | #

    I love this post. And ditto what Matt said. This gets at what I’m trying to get at, but what I’m totally failing to get at. But I want to see this manifesto.

  • susananda
    Posted 18 May 2010 at 4:37 am | #

    I like this spinning thing.. the speed and intensity, and also the way you whole-heartedly throw yourself in there as an alien in the circle. I wonder if they are curious about you? Two breath cycles per minute though?? Oy.

    ‘And finally, if one gets wrapped up in emotions, exit in to the body. Get really grounded in what is going on in the body as a way to get some relief from and perspective on the suffering in the subjective dimension.’ Well there’s something that comes naturally, at least!

  • Posted 18 May 2010 at 7:23 am | #

    i think RF says everyone should read katha one hundred million times before they die…amen! ahem!

  • Louise
    Posted 19 May 2010 at 11:29 am | #

    I think love is expression and expression love. So I hope you keep on expressing it however stupid you feel. This particular form of idiocy is worth surrendering to. And thanks for the katha upanishad reference..

  • Posted 20 May 2010 at 8:14 pm | #

    Louise. 🙂 Hi.

  • Posted 20 May 2010 at 8:22 pm | #

    The Katha Upanishad is beautiful. All of them are beautiful. Funny thing… I had not read them since my sophomore year of college, when I took them on my first visit to New York City. I wrote the most trivial marginal notes back in 1997. Funny.

    Yancy, woah. You and Matthew are people who could make me want to write for real. I didn’t realize either of you came here but am happy you do.

    Susan… you’re so right about the breathing. It’s kind of ridiculous to over-rely on the self-calming long breath in such a purposely intense situation. I just hit the spin bikes for a late Thursday class and consciously sped the breath way up instead of trying to stay calm by drawing it out. Result: way faster heart rate and stronger rhythm. Maybe I’ll blog more about it tomorrow. Sometimes it’s good to go fast…?

  • Posted 20 May 2010 at 8:42 pm | #

    About love, and Sara’s comment up there about it being a stealth practice.

    I guess that the very strong, er… heart-opening stuff has only been the past two years or so, with initial inklings more like six years ago.

    The thing is, at this point there is this happy-go-lucky part of me that wants to take the world in a love embrace (spin class soundtrack doing the talking there). But most of the world does not want a fuckin’ love embrace.

    Maybe the heart stuff can get so subtle that it goes all the way down and so thoroughly de-polarize my microactions that the only suffering I cause others is due to their own projections. But just having love doesn’t create that kind of subtlety or consciousness—I see myself causing others suffering even through well-intentioned actions all the time. It’s really insane how much friction is still there. Looking at myself, I sense that BIG heart energy is sometimes just… big. It can be obtrusive, or even intrusive, if I let it be especially emotional. Kind of depends on context.

    I think that for me, I’m still creating suffering for others all of the time, in my little micro-actions. Even if I experience huge amounts of love for those same people. Like… love and peace and shit are super important as feelings, but I can’t just go poof and make the unconscious conscious by hanging out in my heart energy where it feels like the world is a perfect place.

    I guess I’m just getting interested in love that’s super practical. Or maybe… love that’s not necessarily dependent on this strong chemical-emotion stuff that’s paving the way.

  • R
    Posted 22 May 2010 at 2:35 pm | #

    Woah, Friendster.

Post a Comment

Your email is kept private. Required fields are marked *