There is a big question in the media currently about how it is possible that young people (and older ones as well) can be radicalized in the western world. How is it that middle class teens or twenty-somethings view Internet sites and then are recruited by ISIS or other radical organizations? Why are the conversion/recruitments more successful with ISIS than with Al-Qaida? Some are Arab Muslims, some are recent converts. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some do not. The question is similar to but not identical to the question of why a middle class student might walk into a school and shoot other students.

In my opinion, one way to better understand what is happening here is to use a cognitive model I first encountered in a book titled Virus Of The Mind, by Richard Brodie (1996). Actually, the book itself was less than spectacular. I found it difficult to read and rather blurry in both its concepts and its writing style. However, the central idea was a very interesting one. One of the problems with the book and with many other renditions of memetic viruses is that they take to literally the foundation established by Richard Dawkins in his original article, “Viruses of the mind”. Because of Dawkins’ strong ties to biological evolution, he applied the same ideas to the evolution of memes. Because of the highly rationalistic world view of many evolution supporters, the ideas ended up being translated to memes quite literally. The other thing that Dawkins seems determined to do in his original article is to relate the whole thing to religion and the transmission of religious ideas (to which he has a rather knee-jerk antipathy), which ends up hobbling the idea al little.

While I believe that there might be some transfer, I think that it is very dangerous to be too literal in applying biological concepts to mental ones. It seems to be too rigid an application of materialism. The model, however, can adopt parts of the biological model. The important thing is the degree to which the model fits, works and predicts. “The map is not the landscape” clearly warns about taking any model or analogy too literally. In fact the analogy of a computer virus may be more appropriate than a biological one.

Keeping that in mind, “meme as virus” is a useful map in order to try to understand the current situation with regards to radical extremism. Let me clarify the way in which I am using certain terms in order to provide perspective.

A meme is a unit of meaning usually summed up in a catch-phrase like “the end justifies the means” or “things go better with Coke”. It is the cultural equivalent of what in science is often called a Holon, which is important because Holons can evolve dialectically and so can memes.

Several memes can combine to create a larger meme, called a super meme, which is far more powerful because it relies on several mutually supportive memes for its inner validation, producing a sense of intrinsic consistency and rationalization.

A meme virus is a meme that is either deliberately crafted or the product of a selective evolution of ideas, and which strongly self replicates, especially in a particular medium of mind, like a seed engineered to thrive in particular kind of soils and environmental conditions. This may be a deliberate configuration of the meme, a product of a selective evolution of a meme (explained below), or a combination of both through the opportunistic utilization of an emergent meme.

In essence, all memes are viruses, defined by their ability to engage and be absorbed by the mind, however some act in a more virus like, efficient manner, defying normal safeguards against them. Take for example a religious meme vs “things go better with Coke”. While the ad meme is weaker and more likely to be mediated by intelligent thinking, the religious meme is far more powerful and can take on more virus like qualities.

The meme in the case of “radical violent extremism”, which for the sake of simplicity we will henceforth refer to as “Jihad”, is in fact a super meme which can be reduced to its supportive sub memes. However, the idea of “radical violent extremism” is not restricted to Muslim extremism or even religious extremism. For example, there are forms of environmental extremism which have exactly the same meme foundation. Comparing religious and environmental extremism yields some interesting insights into the nature of this virus, which I will examine at a later point.

The sub memes which constitute Jihad can be reduced to the following:

  1. The end justifies the means.
    2. Some ends are valued to justify any cost, including martyrdom. They are ends that demand justice. They are ends that have moral or ethical priority over all else. That end can be easily rationalized or may not even require evidence at all.
    3. Using extreme means to fight for these ends is noble and self righteous.
    4. People who don’t agree with the value of this end are working against it and therefore against the ultimate good that is associated with it. If they’re not with you, they’re against you. Their well being or even their lives are therefore a lesser priority.

We can see many of these operate individually with only slight or moderate consequences. When you put them all together, you end up with a radical mind set.

In the case of religious extremism, the morals and dogmas associated with the religion are the end. In Muslim extremism, for example, the values of the religion are so sacred that to defy them is considered a blasphemy. The “end”, whether it be moral righteousness or the promise of an afterlife in paradise, can take on a fanatical and extremist nature. In the case of environmental extremism, the survival of the environment at all costs is the end along with a condemnation of those that defile it. (I’m not equating these on an ethical level, just on a structural one.)

The soil in which this particular super meme of Jihad is likely to take hold most effectively has a relation to the nature of the sub memes. These sub memes have a foundation based on injustice and sense of purpose. Those people who are particularly vulnerable in those areas will be the ones most susceptible to a meme virus directed at conversion and recruitment to such a cause. This may include:

  1. People who have been the victims of injustice and prejudice in their own lives, or who identify and empathise with the injustice done to others.
    2. People who do not have a sense of purpose and feel that there is a void of meaning in their lives.
    3. People who have a fundamentalist conceptual mind set, seeing the world in terms of black and white or good and bad.
    4. People who have not developed a strong or consistent sense of empathy.
    5. People who have other forms of mental illness or personality disorders that lead to hardship in their interpersonal relationships and which encourage them to see the world in extreme terms.
    6. People who have little to lose, which is both the result of and a reinforcer for all of the above.

Combine the above memes with the above mental states in various combinations and permutations, and you have the perfect catalytic situation for the development of the Jihadist super meme. Expose kind of person described above to a Muslim extremist narrative of violence, and that virus will take hold and self replicate. Expose them to a different one, say a political or environmental ideology, and they will be susceptible to that as well. Put it in a racial equality context, especially one in which violence enters the meme through the actions of the “oppressors” and the meme will thrive in the form of violent demonstrations and organizations. One difference is that politics and environmentalism are more difficult to fully comprehend, and so intelligence plays a part as well. Religious ideologies are tailored to not require intelligence. This is not meant to be an insult to religion. They are meant to be highly accessible by nature.

Right now, one of the strongest extremist super memes in the world is Jihadist Muslim extremism. Its strength comes from several sources. There is a legitimate sense of injustice against Muslim people and the Arab world. Even highly rational and politically sceptical people will admit to a certain moral ambiguity in the way that the West has treated the Arabs of the Middle East. We’ve seen it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in the way Iraq was invaded under the pretense of Weapons Of Mass Destruction. It’s a complex issue, but nobody can deny that it is a huge compost pile for feelings of injustice. Combined with that is the feeling in the western countries post 9-11 which engender a sense of persecution or suspicion of Muslim people. As I said, these are all highly complex issues, the justification for each side being debatable, but the sense of injustice is easily understood and easily made a factor that can influence and promote the meme.

Also as a religion with a strong fundamentalist side to it, Islam can easily be reduced by an evolving meme into extremist views. While the vast majority of Muslims would never resort to extremist violence to express their outrage, most would agree that the depiction or insult of their prophet is a blasphemy and is highly offensive to their religion. That’s not that different from fundamentalist Christians who would be outraged if someone posted a video of a person blowing their nose with pages from the New Testament or perhaps peeing on it. There would be outrage, especially from the fundamentalist corners of the religion who tend to take things more literally. There might even be a violent reaction, although that would be far less likely that it would be in the Muslim case. Why? For two reasons. First, Christian Jihad isn’t a prominent meme. If it were being reported every day that Christians were rising up in protest and violently reacting to certain things, that meme would quickly grow. Second, among fundamentalist Christians, the soil in which such a meme could develop is less likely to exist. Principally, they would have too much to lose. The person susceptible to Islamic Jihad characteristically has little to lose (and often much to gain, at least in their own minds).

ISIS, in particular, has figured out that it strengthens their meme to depict themselves as a source of brotherhood and adventure. To the bored young person who feels alienated from their social environment, or who feels rudderless, this becomes extremely enticing, the way that joining the Army is often depicted as adventurous to young recruits. (In fact, American military recruiters tend to use exactly the same meme and tactics, just replacing religious fervour with patriotic fervour.)

All this may be further complicated by personal issues that involve unresolved issues and Shadows, especially those that might result in a violent temperament. In fact, when the meme lands in the soil of the prospective mind, its very nature will dredge up Shadows, sometimes the worst and most unstable parts of ourselves, and celebrate them. That is part of the virus, to zero in on mental weaknesses and exploit them.

From an Integral point of view, those people who are at a Red/Amber (Pre-Rational / Pre-Modern) state of personal evolution are more susceptible to this process. Mediation by more reasonable forces is less present and the mind is already operating in a more fundamentalist, black & white mode. Feeling empathy for a victimized people and then joining a movement to kill or injure innocents and to make everybody think the same way, is not really empathy at all. It is, I think, related to the pre-trans fallacy that Ken Wilber talks about, where Pre-Modern values are confused with Post-Modern ones. Empathy becomes confused with a kind of murky, dark relativism. The person thinks they are being empathic and working for a higher morality, but really it is all rooted in Red egocentrism and groupcentrism.

By framing the idea of radical Muslim extremism in the model of a meme virus, I hope to illuminate several things. First, it is not the Muslim religion that is at fault here, but the way that it is being crafted to better suit a Jihadi meme. Similarly, the mal-contents that find it attractive are responding to a set of mental pre-conditions that would have likely responded to some other form of violent meme. Perhaps they would have become gang members or criminals. The central cause is the merging of a crafted, violent meme with a fertile mind, -and right now the prevalent violent meme is Muslim radicalism.

Secondly, I hope that this sheds some light on how to spot and avoid this from happening. The media needs to reframe the meme. How to do that would take another long entry to explain. Also, the personal issues that make an individual fertile ground can be addressed. In communities where Arab Muslims feel alienated and where they don’t feel that they have anything to give up or lose, you’re much more likely to find a fertile field for the meme to pursue conversion and recruitment. People in general who feel an absence of purpose or who have been bullied and feel victimized will clearly be more susceptible.

As a model this perspective is far from perfect or absolute. However I feel that it does illuminate and even answer some of the questions which are being asked about the current situation concerning domestic terrorism.

I feel that it was a very lean year for movies. A lot of the films that are garnering award nominations seem to be coming from desperation and would not get that kind of recognition in other years where stronger films were more prevalent. Films like “Into the Woods” and “Foxcatcher”, …and even “Birdman” don’t seem to be of the kind of calibre that deserves recognition, and “American Sniper” hadn’t even been released when the nominations were announced.

“Birdman” seems to be a favorite this year. While it was well produced and directed, the story seemed hollow to me. The filmmakers did an excellent job of telling a very jumbled and largely irrelevant story. It didn’t really speak to me at all in spite of the fact that it was well crafted. “Selma” is probably an excellent film (…I haven’t seen it…), but I have to say (and may be criticized for it) that after “The Butler”, “The Help” and “12 Years a Slave” civil rights issues just might be getting a little overdone. I’m sure that those most directly affected by civil rights issues don’t agree with me, …although the Academy does seem to agree with me as “Selma” got a mention for best film but nothing else.

There are several movies that I do feel deserve award mention.

“Boyhood” is a classic Linklater film. He does a very good job of making a film about nothing in particular. I appreciate the scope of the task and think that it was a novel idea, but the opportunity presented by the film was, in my opinion, squandered. The story didn’t live up to the overall accomplishment. In spite of that, I feel that it is worthy of award nomination as a film, although none of the individual performances were particularly noteworthy.

The two films that I think are on top of the heap are “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game”. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” came out early in the year, a rare January release of an Oscar worthy movie. It got my attention immediately and is an original, funny and well crafted movie. “The Imitation Game” is a far more serious film about Alan Turing, with many layers of story and significance. They are totally different films, but both had fantastic acting performances and were very entertaining.

“The Theory of Everything” comes close to “The Imitation Game” in telling a deeply significant biographical story, but the latter, in my opinion, is just a hair better both in acting and story. There is no doubt that Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking takes on a very difficult task in portraying Hawking’s disability, but personally I think that an excellent performance of a normal person trumps an excellent performance of a person with a handicap. (Don’t misunderstand this. What comes to mind is Meryl Streep’s performance in “August: Osage County” where the melodramatic portrayal of the crazy, alcoholic mother was very deep, but none the less melodramatic. –Not that Redmayne’s performance is melodramatic. It’s actually quite masterful.) “The Theory of Everything” tackles a complicated character and manages to bring a special humanity to it, while still tackling the science that made Hawking famous.

Best actor should go to preferably Benedict Cumberbatch, but Eddie Redmayne would be fine.

Best actress seems to be a thin category with many of the nominations coming from peripheral films. I can only speak to Felicity Jones, in “the Theory of Everything”, who did a very good but not exceptional job.

“Interstellar” deserved some recognition beyond the music nod. Perhaps it was a little too “out there” for the Academy. Films that made my top 10 that aren’t on the Oscar list include, “Chef”, “The Internet’s Own Boy” (for documentary), and “Night crawler”. Movies like”Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of Planet of the Apes” never get the recognition that they deserve.

Finally, it is disappointing that “The Lego Movie” didn’t get any recognition, other than a music nod for “Everything is Awesome”, which I hope it gets. It clearly deserved a nomination if not a win for Animated Film.

About 30 years ago my first serious exposure and training in meditation came from the Native American Shamanic tradition as taught by Tom Brown Jr. in the Tracker School. It was the model that I used when integrating meditation skills into my youth wilderness programs, with about ten groups and one hundred youth having gone through the process. I won’t take time here to outline the original program. If you went through it either with me or at the Tracker School, you know what I’m talking about. Others will be able to follow along without too much difficulty.

Very briefly, The Tracker meditations involved guided meditation that walked down a path, stairs and eventually through an archway to a spiritual domain. The path was the realm of the unconscious mind while the stairs and beyond had a more metaphysical focus. Tom Brown spent little time developing the skills of the path, spending most of his training time on the more spiritual skills. I found that the skills associated with the path were the easiest and most practical skills to teach, so while I still spent a lot of time on the farther reaches, I had a strong interest in developing those of the path. Not only were they more down to earth and less controversial, but they also seemed, to me at least, to form a prerequisite for the more advanced skills. Balance and harmony within one’s own mind might be a necessary foundation before examining the balance and harmony of the rest of existence. Originally you walked along the path encountering a series of clearings or stations, each of which allowed you to exercise a particular skill. Beyond a cursory explanation, I don’t remember any course material that focused on these subconscious skills.

And so in my own research and reading over the years I began to piece together additional exercises and extensions to the existing skills, trying always to remain faithful to the original teachings. From Dan Millman I learned about Huna traditions and the power of the subconscious, which was very consistent with the things Tom Brown taught. From Dr. Hal Stone I learned about Divided Self Theory, which has since been adopted by the American Zen Association as a major focus of meditation. Other people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Dan Siegel extended the value and domain of meditation even further, reaching into an integration with neuro psychology and biology.

And so, after 30 years of working with the original meditations and being afraid to violate their structure, I finally decided that I could alter them to include many of the lessons I’d learned. As I began to do that, I noticed a flow that ran through some of the new skills that I wanted to add. What follows is a description of that new structure and the associated flow.

*    *     *     *     *

The heart of basic meditation is an inner stillness, uncomplicated by thoughts, emotions, judgements and physical sensation. To accomplish this we focus on breath and surrender. One of the first meditation exercises I like to use to introduce the practice is to simply count your breaths in loops of four, exclusively thinking about the counting and nothing else. When other thoughts or feelings arise, you push them aside after acknowledging them. Accept and dismiss. This is the heart of meditation. Later the counting can be replaced just by attention and awareness of breath. Guided visualizations are also used in meditations. The aim when using these is that the act of visualizing something becomes the single focus of attention, replacing breath (although the breath can be returned to at any time in order to reinforce the meditation).

When first entering the meditation I ask subjects to visualize themselves at the beginning of a familiar path, retaining this structure from the original Tracker practice. (A path and a journey is a useful archetype.) The beginning of the path can have two purposes. The first is just the basic grounding of pure meditation and the values that come with it. The second is that it is a place to do the basic meditation based on Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness meditation (the modified version of which I described in the previous entry). The beginning of the path means the journey has not begun and the meditation has not yet been involved with any sort of intention other than to experience the silence of meditation. This silence or pure meditation has its own value, often overlooked or skipped by Shamanic traditions. Never in any of the Tracker classes was this pure meditation either practised or valued. As I state in the previous entry, doing this version of the Wheel of Awareness meditation has its own benefits, and is essential in both deepening the meditative state and forming the mind body integration which will continue to trend through the other stations on the path.

The second purpose that can be employed at the beginning of the path is as a visualization staging area. In order to begin the transition of focus from breath to visualization I will often have them imagine picking up an object and experiencing that object using multiple senses. Not only what it looks like, but what it feels like, its texture and temperature, what it sounds like if you tap it, even what it smells or tastes like, if appropriate. The idea is to engage and strengthen the visualization before heading down the path.

Moving down the path to the first actual station/clearing means leaving the complete silence of the breath oriented focus and introducing some intention into the meditation. It becomes like a lucid dream, still connected to the silence, but also accepting the impulses from the subconscious in a non-judgemental way. That first station is the place of All Personal Memory (again retaining the original structure from the Tracker school). APM can have several roles in meditation. It can be a place where you retell yourself a story of an incident in your life, re-experiencing it in memory but also depicting it in words. This is particularly valuable with an emotional incident that you may have trouble accepting or understanding. By reliving it and retelling it in words, according to Dr. Siegel, it becomes integrated into various parts of the brain’s neurobiology, including the Pre Frontal Cortex, which is the rational part of the brain that makes sense of things. This is not to say that all emotional experiences need to be rationalized or reduced to rational components. What it means is that experiences need to be made available to all parts of the brain in order to best understand and learn from them. Putting the experience into words helps the brain integrate the experience more completely. (And, as I outlined in another previous entry, this is very similar to an exercise that Tom Brown suggested called Tree Preaching).

The second function of this station is a more direct connection with memories and past experiences, allowing you to revisit them and benefit from them. Examples of doing this might involve finding lost items or remembering the particulars of conversations. Using a screen on which to project your memories and thoughts is a good device here, which was used by Fool’s Crow in his shamanic visions.

The central theme of the APM station is the vividness of memories. In order to both elicit and integrate memories it is important for them to be fully vivid and multi-sensory. (In some of the more advanced uses of this station, which I’m still exploring, using it with various NLP techniques will involve the manipulation of the vividness of the memories.) The energy of the vividness of memories is then carried along to the next station on the path.

Moving down the path to the next station or clearing brings you to the place of Body Control. (This is a change from the original setup done for several reasons which will be explained later.) In Body Control, you communicate with your sub-conscious in order to get its assistance in controlling autonomic responses in your body. This can be anything from increasing body temperature and metabolism in the cold, to visualizing yourself as healthy and healed in the case of sickness or injury. I firmly believe that everything from metabolism to immune responses to phobias can be influenced by the conscious mind if it knows how to get the subconscious mind on board.

Effective communication with the subconscious mind rests on proper visualization of the outcome and empowering it with positive emotional intention. That proper visualization rests on the work done with memories in the APM station. To visualize a warm body, for example, you have to have a strong memory of a time when you were warm, drawing that memory forth to use it. When I want to be warmer, I will visualize myself standing beside a campfire or, better yet, slipping into a hot tub. In order for those visualizations to work, it is very helpful to have actually had those experiences and to be able to call on them. Memory facilitates my intended visualization of feeling warm. The skills of APM are an important foundation on which to build the visualizations of BC.

Self Healing, which was a separate station in the Tracker format, is combined with Body Control, which I don’t think Tom Brown would actually be upset with as he’d many times referred to self healing as just a form of body control. It uses the same kind of envisioning and, to my mind, the same level of intentionality.

Farther down the path, we come to the third station/clearing, which I’ve chosen to modify considerably from the original format. For lack of a better name, this is the place of Selves. As memories and intentionality combine, they create patterns of response which create the multiplicity of Selves that often rules our minds. We are not one Self, but many, having a different set of responses, attitudes and values depending on external stimuli. There is a self that tries to be responsible and another that strives to be fun-loving and wild. There is the self that is the parent and another that is the child. There is a self that is confident and another that is a critic. These, in turn, create alliances within our mind to produce Meta-selves. The Selves and the Meta-selves arise in our lives, often automatically, to rule our actions and desires. (This interpretation of mind comes from Dr. Hal Stone and a lot of Ken Wilber’s work, including the Zen applications developed by Genpo Roshi and “Big Mind”. It can also be traced back to the works of Georges Gurjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who insisted that man was a mechanical manifestation of multiple selves way back in the beginning of the 20th Century.)

The station of Selves offers a lot of opportunities to work with these selves. By using techniques pioneered by Dr. Stone in embodying isolated selves, and learning to use them within a meditation, one can have a board meeting of selves, to discuss events or plans from multiple perspectives. One can have a conversation between one’s own Child Self and Adult Self, or between a Critical Self and a Confident Self. Just recognizing that they exist within a broader framework is often enough to create a better perspective on things. This is very similar to those old visuals of the angel sitting on a person’s right shoulder and the devil on their left shoulder, but this is more specific and individual. I have many times identified an emotional reaction to a situation as my Child Self sulking, thereby allowing me to address and hopefully resolve the situation. You can do this at a boardroom table or a court room or whatever other method of dialogue works for you.

Two additional Selves are important within this station. One is Primal Self, which was jumped over earlier on the path. Primal Self is the animalistic, lower brain function, unencumbered by higher reason. It is the one you want to bring forth when there is an emergency survival situation, or you have to build a shelter in record time, or you have to carry a person to safety even if you feel physically unable to. I like to empower the Primal Self with an animal totem (or several). Moving and reacting the way a majestic animal would can help you connect with the primal powers of your mind, which are still very much present even though we keep them chained up much of the time. Unleashing Primal Self becomes a conscious decision when it is done in this way, although Primal Self can also emerge when someone is drunk or angry, unwanted and uncontrolled. Learning to bring it forth consciously will make it much less likely to pop up in unwanted or random situations, as you learn to develop a positive relationship with it.

The other facet of this station is the Shadow Selves. One of the most important components of mindfulness and mental awareness fostered by meditation is an awareness of Shadow Selves. These are the repressed and buried selves collected through life that linger and fester within the mind, waiting for the time that it can slip in and cause trouble. When you are dealing with a situation and suddenly have an intense emotional reaction against a decision or a person, a reaction that seems disproportional to the situation an which you can’t quite figure where it came from, that is very often a Shadow trying to break out of its confines. If you do something irresponsible, out of context with your normal personality, and you are confused as to how it happened, that’s a Shadow. When you should be able to make a relationship work, but keep finding ways to sabotage it (or feel that the other person is sabotaging it), the Shadow may be putting in an appearance.

This is a huge and important area of work, pioneered by Carl Jung but brought into its own in Divided Self Theory and also in Ken Wilber’s work. There’s a lot more to be said about it than I can easily include here. But this station of Selves is definitely the right place to do a lot of the work. Shadows need to be confronted, accepted and reintegrated into the mind’s consciousness. A person who goes out and gets into trouble at wild parties may be dealing with a repressed “Wild Self” that wants to have fun, but is constantly kept in check by a more conservative or sedate set of Selves. Figuring that out, and thinking of ways for the Wild Self to manifest itself in ways that are acceptable to all or at least most of the Meta-Selves is something that can happen within a meditation.

 

These are the new stations on the path that I am currently using in meditation training. I like the way that it flows, with each station resting on skills practiced in the previous one. I like its richness and its ability to connect with real life problems and situations. I like that it also connects with modern neurological and brain research. It provides a whole arsenal of tools to use balancing the mind and reconnecting with all aspects of mind body and spirit. I see it as an essential prerequisite to the more spiritual tools and skills that can be found on the stairs and beyond. So many of those skills depend on Inner Vision and the kind of deep intuition which can only be found in the harmonious mind. Dan Millman and the Huna tradition actually say that one can only access the Higher Selves through the Subconscious. The Higher Selves don’t respond well to the Logical Mind. That’s an embedded part of the Tracker meditation training as well.

The final thing that I like about it is that it takes the woo factor out of meditation. Spiritual skills are controversial and often rub people the wrong way. These skills are very grounded and scientifically based. They shouldn’t grate against the rationalist or the religious. It gives skeptics a chance to familiarize themselves with meditation before approaching more controversial exercises, -if they ever do. And if they don’t, well they have still accomplished some very important things at this level.

This is the first of two entries in which I will attempt to revise some of the meditation exercises that I’ve been teaching for the past 20 years or so, which were originally based on the teachings contained in Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker Philosophy courses.

A major part of the revision comes from the neuropsychology work of Dr. Dan Siegel, and I would like to start here by examining his Wheel of Awareness exercise.

When I first read about it, I felt that it would be valuable addition to the Tracker “Path” meditations (which I will explain more in the second entry). However, after attempting to use and teach it I came to the realization that, while it is a great exercise, the perspective it uses would benefit from a little tweaking.

Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness exercise has you meditate from a calm, peaceful centre, which he regards as the hub of a wheel, and then focus outward to senses, thoughts, emotions and interconnectedness on the rim of the wheel. Personally, I found this very difficult due to the fact that the conscious intention of focusing outward to specific stimuli interfered with the openness of the meditation. It was too much thinking. And yet, I knew that within the exercise was a very valuable lesson.

So I tried flipping it inside out. Meaning that instead of going from the hub to the rim with an active intention of identifying distractions in different categories, I allowed the distraction to come from the rim to the hub. Instead of looking for particular distractions to your calm centre by cycling through the various categories as Siegel’s exercise suggests, I just stayed in the silence and acknowledged the distractions as they arose on their own, calmly recognizing each for what “type” they were, -emotional, thinking, sensory-, before accepting them and then dismissing them. I know that this is really just a description of a classic meditation technique, but it has the slight twist of acknowledging the distracting impulses as coming from a particular place of origin, whether it be a physical or emotional irritation, or just a stray memory. That’s important in that it plays to the neurological integration goal that Siegel intends for his exercise. While this is definitely meant to be a meditation exercise (or “mindfulness” as it has been rebranded in the past while), the explicit goal is to encourage neural integration and plasticity. That’s just a scientific way of saying that the goal is to get in touch with all parts of your mind and body. The activity builds links which eventually allows for more awareness and more self control.

So, to summarize the new exercise, I begin with the standard “breath to surrender”, which is basically centering on awareness of your breath as the single focus of your awareness to the exclusion of all other distractions. This centering on breath is a trigger that has been established in prior exercises linking breath to deep states of relaxation. Of course, unless you are highly proficient in meditation, that focus on breath is going to be interrupted by various distractions. As the itch or the distant sound or the memory of an argument pop up, I briefly recognize them as coming from my senses or my body or my emotions or my mind’s activity. In a sense, I’m recognizing from which part of Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness the impulse or distraction has arisen. Then I let it go and return to the silence and focus on the breath. And I do this for all of the distractions as they arise, allowing them to arise on their own rather than trying to go and look for them. I recognize them, dismiss them and consciously return to the quiet of my breath, over and over again.

In doing this I not only strengthen the various benefits of meditation such as building powers of concentration and learning how to calm my mind, but I also become acquainted with that mind and the facets that are constantly striving for attention and dominance. I get the benefits of the meditation and I also become more connected to the fact that I have a body, a mind, emotional impulses and interpersonal concerns. The package gets tied up with a nice bow of mindfulness, which leads to a more mindful, aware self.

 

 

My Music Picks for 2014

Posted: January 1, 2015 in Reviews

It’s been an odd year for music. Few albums have stood out beyond the first couple on my list. Many albums were added after listening to them again over the past weeks and saying to myself, “I didn’t remember it as being that good.” Then it fades back into obscurity. Whether that’s the quality or nature of the music, the sheer volume of material that is now available, or my aging memory, I couldn’t tell you.

Anyway, for those who care, here are the picks for 2014.  (Starting with #1 and working down the list.  WordPress doesn’t like numbers…)

Conner Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
One of the few albums of the list with solid, catchy tunes all the way through, not just a couple here and there. There’s not one song on the album that I don’t love. It is one of the few albums and artists where the lyrics stand out on their own in a meaningful way.

 

St. Vincent – (Self Titled)
I have to say that my love of this album probably has a lot to do with the fact that I found the Dundas Square concert back in June to be one of the best concerts I’ve been to. The talent and originality made it a great concert, and those same qualities are on the album, with kind of a Lori Anderson meets Joan Jet (more in the live experience) feel to it.

 

Kongos – Lunatic
A group of South African brothers who grew up in London and went to high school in Phoenix, sons of John Kongos, a well known singer songwriter himself. Catchy tunes. This is one of those albums that’s great to listen to, but not all that memorable. Some songs bring back memories of The Refreshments.

 

Hozier – (Self Titled)
Again, catchy and original tunes with some interesting and ambitious arrangements. Clearly the work of an artist that is trying to stretch his talent. Many of the lesser known songs delve into his Celtic roots, which I think is what adds a nice spice to his music in general.

 

Alt J – This Is All Yours
This album is an original mixture of strong tunes and ambient music, sometimes wandering too far into the latter. However, when it is strong it is very strong.

 

Spoon – They Want My Soul
A consistently solid album of great songs. “Inside Out” and “Do You” are the key tracks, but all of the others are well worth a listen.

 

Ryan Adams – (Self Titled)
This prolific songwriter keeps getting better and better. The new album is a soft rock venture that still has some teeth and usually avoids the country territory that Adams sometimes explores, thankfully.

 

Great Big World – Is There Anybody Out There?
Pure Alt-Pop. The strength of this album is the pure accessibility of its songs. Great tunes, lyrics and simple arrangements. Simple, clean and catchy.

 

FKA Twigs – LP1
Kate Bush has had a bit of a comeback this year, deservedly. FKA Twigs comes off as a spacey Kate Bush, and, while it takes a while to warm up to it, it works and becomes very listenable.

 

War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
This album and the Alt-J album could make a nice music set as they kind of have the same vibe and themes. This one is a little more concrete (less abstract) than Alt-J, but still. Again, well done in many places, but tends to drift away in places.

 

Future Islands – Singles
Don’t get me wrong, I like the sound of the album, but can anybody tell me what 80s band this is ripping off?? It’s right on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t place it. So familiar though.

 

Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes
This ranked really high on the Rolling Stone list, as you would expect, but t would be just another tired Springsteen album if not for the work of Tom Morello. Makes all the difference and kicks it up a notch to noteworthy status.

 

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Albarn is one of the prodigies of the past decade or two, having given us Blur, Gorrilaz and several other gems. This is a very sedate album, but has lots of character. Good late evening listening, with a glass of wine and a plate of Peek-Freans.

 

Elbow- The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Good stuff, but you’ll need more wine and cookies.

 

Some Honorable mentions:

Damien Rice : A little pretentious, but an interesting, full bodied listen.
Black Keys : What you’d expect, which is OK.
Lenny Kravitz : Nicely produced but not too original.
Liam Finn : the Nihilist lives up to its name.
Lana Del Ray : More of the same, which is, again, OK.
Boy & Bear : Reminds me a bit of Hothouse Flowers, which should be regarded as a compliment.
Walk The Moon : Too new to really have gotten into it, but it will probably grow on me.

And a special mention to my favorite discovery of the year, although their album more correctly belongs on a 2013 list. WLAK OFF THE EARTH is, hands down, a great band. Their REVO album speaks well for them, but their true strength is in the versatility and originality of the covers they’ve published on their talented YouTube videos. This is a band that I’d go out of my way to see live.

 

One of the advantages of Integral Theory is that it tries to bring previously divergent or distantly related models together in an integrated manner.

There are many graphic models that can provide us with guidance for our relationship with reality, such as the Yin Yang symbol, the Kabala or the Enneagram. One of the symbols that has always provided me with guidance is the Native American Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel describes a process of the cycles of life and Nature. It varies a bit in its specifics from tribe to tribe, but the underlying ideas remain the same.

The Medicine Wheel is divided into four directions, in its simplest form, each of which represent a certain stage of development and the energy which is embodied in those stages. In the East is the energy of vision and beginnings, of birth and infancy, of spring and of morning, to mention a few specifics. In the South is the energy of doing, of youth and young adulthood, of summer and of noontime. In the West is the energy of consolidation, looking forward and backward, of mature adulthood, of fall and evening. And the North is the time of celebration and thanksgiving, of Elders and their wisdom, of winter and midnight. This is a very cursory description and each of these directions could merit a full essay on their own. However for the purposes of the point I’m trying to make here, it will do. Further information is amply available by Goggling “Medicine Wheel”, although there’s a lot of crap out there.

MedWhl-2

The “All Levels” part of Ken Wilber’s AQAL Integral Model, based on Spiral Dynamics, meshes with the Medicine Wheel in an interesting way. (Admittedly, it is probably only interesting to those who have a special interest in Integral Theory.) These levels can be simplified to the Pre-Rational (Red and Amber levels, Mythic and Mystic), Rational (Orange, scientific and materialistic) and Trans Rational (green, pluralistic), sometimes referred to as Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern. One might also add to this the next level in altitude, which would be the Integral level (turquoise). Again, this is a cursory description.

AQAL chart 8

When you combine these two models, not only do the mesh well but, as often happens when you combine models, the result yields some interesting new insights. Pre-Rational is a good fit for the east, where there idea of infancy and childhood definitely matches. The East is a place of vision and insight which can offer initiative and guidance for a new endeavour. This too seems to be a good match for a Pre-Rational mind set. It also helps to make you realize that this Pre-Rational stage, while often ignored or maligned by those with a “Rational” view, is in fact very significant and important to the process. Inspiration, intuition and vision all have their places and are ignored with great risk. The South is the place of doing and of young adulthood, and so seems a good fit for the Rational stage. This is where problem solving and scientific method plays its best role. Those at this stage of life often value their newly found reasoning ability, sometimes with too much tunnel vision. The west is a time for middle aged adults to contemplate and consolidate the various components of their lives. As such it has the potential of being more pluralistic, enabling multiple perspectives and greater empathy, and perhaps admitting that there could be things beyond pure reason in heaven and earth. It has the makings of a Trans-Rational world view. It is also a time for looking backwards and a time for looking ahead to insure proper care in old age. This is a special time for preparation, which will return to shortly. And finally, the North is the time when Elders can view the broad spectrum of life with wisdom and perspective.

The West has always held a special intrigue for me. If you take the example of a squirrel, it is born and frolics in the Spring, it gets down to business, perhaps mating, in the Summer, and in the Fall it has the special job of building a nest and gathering food for the winter, which then comes as a time of dormancy and waiting for the renewal of the next Spring. If the squirrel does its Fall job properly, preparing for the Winter, then it is likely to survive and take another turn around the wheel. If it does not prepare, then the North becomes death and finality. I’ve always felt that to be a special lesson of the Medicine Wheel, that the West is time where special consideration has to be given to the future and to the past. Bringing in another model altogether, one can see here the work of Gurdjieff’s Law of Octaves, where he says that the third step in the eight step process requires a special input and kick in order for the process to continue to the fourth step and beyond. (Think of the musical scale.) The West is the third stage and the North is the fourth. If the squirrel does not pay attention in the West, it is not likely to survive the North. This is true of all endeavours. Any process requires special attention in the West in order to proceed or continue to evolve through the North and around the circle again. (Taking Gurdjieff’s model more in depth, one might think of a complete process as two trips around the Medicine Wheel.)

The West and the Green, Trans-Rational stage is also an opportunity to gain wisdom from the past. The Orange, Rational stage has a tendency to quickly throw out and reject everything that came from the Pre-Rational stage. All the myth and magic and the traditional religious dogma are often strongly condemned and discarded, refusing to accept anything that cannot be proven by their new passions, science and materialism. Sometimes this involves throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The Trans-Rational stage retains the logic and respect for science that characterizes the Rational stage, but is more willing to accept two important conditions. The first is that science, and especially our understanding of it, may paint a limited picture of reality. The second is a beginning of understanding that the magic and mythic beliefs of the Pre-Rational stage may in fact have some basis is reality, and some function in the cycle of life. (This becomes the first kernel of the Integral stage.) The Trans-Rational is willing to re-examine some of the Pre-Rational beliefs and views, salvaging bits in a new, more enlightened perspective. (There’s a danger here too, though, as described in Ken Wilber’s discussion of the “Pre-Trans Fallacy”.) Seen in a new light, such re-examination paves the way to the more Integral (North) stage of development, encouraging greater wisdom and perspective. Without it the North may become the domain of the curmudgeon and old age bitterness. The wise Elder is reduced to the cranky Elder.

I love to mix and match different models as I find that, when you do, they yield new insights.

Determinism, an offshoot of the materialism that is prevalent in the Rational (Orange) world view, states that human action, individual and collected, is as predetermined and a result of scientific laws of causality as is the movement of the planets, or of billiard balls on a pool table. Consciousness and will power, it seems, are an illusion for many reasons, not the least of which is that it smacks of a “soul” or an unknown spiritual (i.e. non-physical) power, and that would be contrary to materialism. It is a reaction to the Pre-Rational, religious ideas of soul, spirit and self determination, wanting to throw out Will with the rest of the bathwater.

And yet Rationalism and Materialism value, above all else, scientific and empirical data, setting the objective high above the subjective.

This is important because, to my mind, what could be more empirical than each individuals personal experience of making a decision and carrying it out? My empirical experience of having the ability to carry out my decisions, along with similar experiences felt by almost all humans, belie the idea of Determinism on the most basic level. If fact, if there was a person who strongly felt and acted that he was a “robot”, strictly controlled by external forces, we would suspect that they were mentally ill in some capacity. Even staunch Determinists do not live their lives as if they had no will power.

In response, Determinists might claim that I’m using a subjective experience as if it were an objective one. I disagree. The universality of the experience is objective. Plus, the experience of being in control is no more or less empirical than experiencing, say, the colour red. While scientists may wish to qualify the experience of colour, or explain it in terms of physics, its existence is still accepted as fact.

Neuro scientists have done many studies showing that often an impulse from the brain will arise from its depths (sub-conscious or primitive brain stem), moving us to action before consciousness kicks in. But, on the other hand, there are also studies that demonstrate that conscious, decisive action can mediate such automatic responses and even work to influence and change them.

Hence, it seems, the Pre-Rational world believed that, as a divine being, man was a self determining animal. In fact it was the thing that placed him above the other animals. The Rational world view threw all of that out in the name of materialism and science, yielding Determinism. But as we dig deeper, we find that while many of our actions may be determined by subconscious or purely automatic reflexes, there is still an element of self-determination, which can be called consciousness. There is still the ability to make decisions and, more importantly, to self program those automatic reactions. This begs the question “Who is doing the self programming?” To which we have to respond, some conscious element of ourselves which is beyond determinism. This is the Trans-Rational view, which includes an acceptance of the Rational, but also returns to an aspect of the Pre-Rational in an informed and more enlightened way.

I think this is a common trend. When one explores the Rational to great depths, such as Quantum Physics or Neuropsychology, one begins to understand that the purely rational, logical interpretations that originated with Newton and Descartes have limitations. These are often the result of the Objective view completely denying the Subjective view. Even Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.”