Article 43


Spiritual Diversions

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories for Spiritual People

image: truth

Why are “spiritual” people attracted to conspiracy theories?

By “Steve Taylor, Ph. D.
Psychology Today
January 4, 2021

Karlfried Graf von Durckheim was a remarkable German man who helped to popularize Zen Buddhism in the west. He had his first spiritual experiences during the First World War when he came close to death on the battlefield. In these moments, Durckheim became aware of a deeper aspect of his own being. As he put it, “When death was near and I accepted that I also might die, I realized that within myself was something that has nothing whatsoever to do with death.”

After the war, Durckheim became a spiritual seeker. He was from a wealthy aristocratic family but gave up his property and inheritance to devote himself to his spiritual studies. He had a major spiritual experience while reading the ancient Chinese spiritual text, the Tao Te Ching. As he wrote, he felt as if the veil was torn asunder..."Everything existed and nothing existed. Another Reality had broken through this world.”

However, Durckheim was also a Nazi. In the 1930s, he was a great admirer of Hitler, who he described as a “new man” who had been given to the German people to awaken fellow Germans in an “infectious movement and transform them.” In 1937, he was sent to Japan as a Nazi envoy. At the same time as studying Zen, he disseminated Nazi propaganda and tried to build links between the Nazis and the Japanese government, promoting the idea that the two countries could conquer and dominate the world together.

There seems no doubt that Durckheim had profound spiritual experiences and was deeply devoted to Zen and to spirituality in general. In his later life, he wrote several books that show genuine insight and wisdom.

How is it possible for a spiritual person to be a Nazi? How could a spiritually developed person ally himself with a murderous fascist regime with a philosophy of paranoid conspiracies and bizarre racist ideas? How could a person who was clearly wise in some ways be taken in by a leader who was a deranged and brutal authoritarian?

The Strange Phenomenon of Modern Conspiracists

Durckheim’s case relates to a strange phenomenon I have become aware of over the past few months. As an author of books on spirituality and psychology, I have a lot of spiritually-minded friends and followers on social media. Recently I have been surprised by the number who have propagated conspiracy theories about the global coronavirus pandemic and the recent US election. Some of them believe that the pandemic was purposely generated as part of a strategy for a “great reset” by a global elite (including figures such as Bill Gates and George Soros). They are opposed to masks and vaccines and view the outgoing president, Donald Trump, as a messianic figure who is fighting against this global conspiracy. Of course, they also believe that Trump’s election loss was rigged, to try to derail his efforts to halt the great reset (and to fight against child sex-trafficking rings).

I know some of the people who propagate these theories personally and am aware that, like Durckheim, some of them have had authentic spiritual experiences. This begs the question: How can spiritually-minded people be taken in by bizarre and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories? And in a similar way to Durckheim with Hitler, how can they support a president who appears to completely lack spiritual qualities like empathy and compassion, and who many mental health professionals believe suffers from severe personality disorders?

The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories to Spiritual People

I would suggest three main reasons for this tendency. Ill describe these in turn, saving the most important reason for last.

First, spirituality is often associated with a sense of exclusivity. Following spiritual practices and ideas may bring a sense of “specialness,” of having access to esoteric knowledge that most people are not aware of. Of course, this is an unhealthy tendency, and actually contravenes the real aim of spiritual paths and practices, which is to transcend self-centredness and narcissism. However, some people are certainly attracted to spirituality because of this sense of specialness.

This is a large part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, too. They also make people feel special, that they possess secret esoteric knowledge that others are too naive or dim-witted to take on board. In many cases, spiritual conspiracists are simply expressing the same impulse for a sense of superiority and exclusivity in two different areas: spirituality and conspiracy theories.

Second, authoritarian figures like Donald Trump (or in the case of Durckheim, Hitler) may appeal to a devotional, guru-worshipping impulse. This relates to another unhealthy reason why some people are attracted to spirituality, and to gurus (or spiritual teachers) specifically. Although many people devote themselves to gurus to further their own spiritual development, others view gurus as powerful, parent-like figures who can take control of their lives. (Of course, these motives may be mixed to some degree).

They want to return to a childhood state of devotion and irresponsibility, when their parents had complete responsibility for their lives, protected them from the world, and satisfied all their needs. Authoritarian leaders like Trump have a similar paternal, protective appeal. Their authoritarianism is an attractive throwback to parental omnipotence during early childhood, and we instinctively offer them the same unquestioning trust that we did to our parents (which is the same unquestioning trust that many disciples offer their gurus).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, spiritual conspiracy is caused by an impulse for connection. Spirituality is largely about connection. It’s about expanding beyond our own limited ego-identity and making connections with our own deeper selves, to other people, to nature, and to the whole cosmos. This type of connection is based on feeling or being, but sometimes the urge to connect is taken on by the intellect, where it manifests itself in an impulse to find connections in random events.

This is where conspiracy theories come in. Conspiracy theories are all about connections. Nothing happens randomly. Nobody acts randomly or altruistically. There is an agenda, or a network of nefarious agents, behind everything. World figures and global institutions are not acting independently or altruistically; they are all in it together, from Bill Gates to Prince William and the World Health Organisation. It’s all part of a coordinated effort to enslave us. The coronavirus isn’t an unfortunate accident but purposely created as a part of this effort.

Spiritually-minded people become vulnerable to conspiracy theories when their impulse for connection is misdirected into their intellectual outlook.

It, therefore, doesn’t seem too surprising that many spiritually-oriented people take on unsubstantiated beliefs and voice support for authoritarian fascist (or would-be fascist) leaders. This doesn’t make it excusable though. All of this represents the shadow of spirituality, the negative aspects that can emerge when spirituality is hijacked by narcissism, or that occurs when healthy spiritual impulses are misdirected. Healthy spirituality moves beyond the poisonous suspicion of conspiracy theories into the clarity of reason. It moves beyond unfounded conceptual connections into a felt sense of connection with other beings and the world. It moves beyond the unquestioning worship of corrupt authoritarians, into self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.


Posted by Elvis on 01/05/21 •
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Monday, March 09, 2020

The Politics of Depression

image: capitalism isnt working

[W]e find that we endogenously produce our incapacity to even try, grow sick and depressed and motionless under all the merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes and just can’t, even if we thought we really wanted to.
- Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health

By Mikkel Krause Frantzen
Los Angeles Review of Books
December 16, 2019

“How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you CAN’T GET OUT OF BED?” This question, formulated by Johanna Hedva in SICK WOMAN THEORY, has been with me for quite some time now. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Why? Because it points to a situation familiar to too many of us (but who is that us?) : a situation characterized by despair and depression. A situation in which you really cant get out of bed. This situation is also, in most cases, saturated by politics and by the economy. Contrary to mainstream psychological and psychiatric discourse the reason why you can’t get out of bed is not because you have a bad attitude, a negative mindset, or because you have somehow chosen your own unhappiness. Nor is it merely a matter of chemistry and biology, an imbalance in the brain, an unlucky genetic disposition, or low levels of serotonin. More often than not it is a matter of the world you live in, the work that you hate, or the job that you just lost, the debt that haunts your present from the future, or the fact that the planet’s future is going still faster and further down the drain.

This essay, then, is an attempt, based on a dissertation and some personal experience I had a postpartum depression in 2013/2014 to think about depression and politics; to think about the political economy and the psychopathologies of the present. It is animated by a fact, a claim, and a call. The fact first: as the Danish Mental Health Foundation makes clear, more and more people in Denmark are diagnosed with depression. At any given time, four to five percent of the population is depressed, or, more accurately, diagnosed as such. Indeed, according to the Danish Health Authority more than 450,000 Danes bought antidepressants in 2011, a figure which has almost doubled over the past decade. This tendency can be observed all over the Western world. The US National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 7.1 percent of the adult American population - 17.3 million people suffers from depression. Other data suggest that depression affects one in every five Americans. These numbers have led the World Health Organization to conclude that depression is the most common mental disorder and the prime cause of disability and suicide, affecting around 350 million people worldwide. No wonder, then, that the global consumption of SSRI antidepressants has gone through the roof with sales now approaching $14 billion annually, according to the market research firm, which also, in some very clumsy prose indeed, points out that “[t]here are many factors including genes, factors such as stress and brain chemistry that could lead to depression.”

The claim: Depression makes manifest the contemporary subject’s alienation, in its most extreme and pathological form. As such, the psychopathology needs to be related to a world of capitalist realism, where there really is no alternative, as Thatcher triumphantly declared, and the future seems frozen once and for all. The crisis embodied by depression thus becomes a symptom of a historical and capitalist crisis of futurity. It is a kind of structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams would say. Consequently, any cure to the problem of depression must take a collective, political form; instead of individualizing the problem of mental illness, it is imperative to start problematizing the individualization of mental illness. The call is for the left, for these specific reasons, to take seriously the question of illness and mental disorders. Dealing with depression and other forms of psychopathology is not only part of, but a condition of possibility for an emancipatory project today. Before we can throw bricks through windows, we need to be able to get out of bed.

The best political thinker of depression remains the late Mark Fisher, who suffered from and in the end took his own life because of depression. His whole oeuvre is an ongoing meditation on depression as a personal experience and a social and political experience. In the book Capitalist Realism from 2009, he connected depression to what I have already referred to as capitalist realism, ēthe widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. In this book, depression becomes a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates, a symptom of our blocked and bleak historical situation. In the essay “The Privatisation of Stress” from 2011, later reprinted in K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 - 2016) from 2018, Fisher wrote that one difference between sadness and depression is that while sadness apprehends itself as a contingent and temporary state of affairs, depression presents itself as necessary and interminable: the glacial surfaces of the depressive’s world extend to every conceivable horizon, and because of that, because of that specific characteristic of depression, a strange resonance exists between ԓthe seeming realismђ of the depressive, with its radically lowered expectations, and capitalist realism. And in the text Good for Nothing from 2014, Fisher stated that his depression always involved a deep and ineradicable conviction that he was literally good for nothing. He wrote that he offered up his own experiences of mental distress not because he thought there was anything special or unique about them, but “in support of the claim that many forms of depression are best understood and best combatted - through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and psychological.” The importance of arriving at a political understanding of depression cannot be overstated. If the reader only takes one thing away from my text let it be this: depression has a set of causes and a concrete context that transcend any diagnostic manual, as well as the neoliberal ideology of focusing on subjects, not structures; personal responsibilities, not collective ones; chemistry, not capital.

However, to understand depression through political frames does not mean that the problem of depression can be immediately solved by political means. There is a horror to depression that cannot and must not be translated too quickly into the sphere of politics, regardless of our critical and revolutionary aspirations. As anyone who has been depressed - or been around someone who has knows, it is literally hell on earth. The physical pain is unbearable, your body is inert and feels too heavy, your mind is not functioning, and you cannot escape the feeling of being stuck, stagnated, that the race is run and that the present - which is hell is all there is and all that can ever be imagined to be. It would be an offense to say, well, it’s just politics. By the same token there is absolutely no need to romanticize what has become known as depressive realism, since that realism only runs in tandem with and supports the realism of capitalism: that there are no alternatives, that there really is nothing to be done about the current state of affairs. This is another thing to take away from this. Let’s also not forget that depression is the major contributor to suicide deaths, which number close to 800,000 per year according to a recent report from WHO.

A third and final thing to be considered here is that it is indeed difficult to writeabout depression. By this I do not only mean that it is difficult to writeabout your own depression; it is also just difficult to writeabout the immense suffering while at the same time finding a position in relation to depression or developing a discourse on depression that is not in itself utterly depressing. Not less so after Mark Fisher’s tragic death.

We have a lot of facts about depression, but the facts do not speak for themselves. The sale of antidepressants does not correspond exactly to occurrences of depression, as SSRIs are not exclusively used for treating depression, but used to treat a range of other mental illnesses as well. The frequency of diagnoses does not necessarily mirror the frequency of depressions, and thus the increase in diagnoses could testify to a growing number of depressed people or to an escalating tendency to pathologize common, A normal affects such as sadness, translating them into the diagnostic category of depression (the latest example of this tendency is the inclusion of grief in the new editions of diagnostic manuals such as the DSM and ICD). We also have to wonder, why does there seem to be so much comfort in psychiatric diagnoses? Because there is comfort in the diagnosis of depression. So that’s why I feel so bad! Depression! A chemical imbalance in the brain! In this way, the diagnosis provides momentary meaning to meaningless misery. The suffering gets a name and a cause: a lack of serotonin. But this cause has causes which in the diagnostic system and in the capitalist world as a whole - remain undiagnosed and untold.

As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism:

It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.

Before going into the causality of depression, however, let me first describe the morality that surrounds depression. Take, as an example, a SELF-HELP VIDEO, “Why am I depressed?,” by a man called Leo Gura. He is, according to HIS TWITTER PROFILE, a professional self-development junkie, life coach, video blogger, entrepreneur, and speaker, who helps people design awesome lives.

Gura, a bald man with a goatee and the founder of, starts the video by saying that he wants to answer the question of the title, Why am I - you [raising eyebrows, while forming with his hands a parenthesis in the air as if around the word] depressed? And the answer is simple: you are depressed because your psychology sucks. It should be noted that this is also the title of a video work by the artist duo Claire Fontaine, who in their ready-made video Untitled (Why Your Psychology Sucks) from 2015 has an African-American actress perform an almost exact verbatim copy of Guras talk, unfolding a pungent and quite comical criticism of the neoliberal self-help industry’s ideological personalization of depression and generalized responsibilization of the subject as such. Claire Fontaine is one of the artists who have worked in the most concentrated and consistent way with the problem of depression. In their work, depression is always already political and must be understood in relation to its real basis in social conflicts within a capitalist economy of debt and financial speculation.

Back to the original video, where a flashing sequence of catchphrases or keywords succeeds Gura’s introductory remarks. In the order given, the words read: “Success, happiness, self-actualization, life purpose, motivation, productivity, peak performance, creative expression, financial independence, emotional intelligence, positive psychology, consciousness, peak performance, personal power, wisdom.” (Apparently, the concept of peak performance is so important that it must be repeated.) Then, Gura delivers his message, his shocking truth: “Here is the deal. I’m going to blunt with you here, because the bottom line is that the reason you’re depressed is because your psychology sucks. Alright, you’ve got shit psychology. I’m not blaming you, I’m telling you a fact.” He goes on to clarify that he is not talking about people who are “clinically depressed,” and who thus have legitimate depression. He is talking about the rest of us, the majority who get a diagnosis of depression and whom he is not blaming, except that he is. The video lasts a little more than 20 minutes, and at one point Leo Gura boldly and bluntly declares: “You are causing your depression. There is something wrong with your mental and cognitive apparatus, your psychology is shit.” Stop being a victim and take ownership of your psychology! Peak performance!

It is easy enough to laugh at the video and make fun of its logic, but the logic is the dominant one in the world of today even if it is sometimes articulated in more moderate ways - and it has real effects. The logic is this: people create their own reality. Thoughts alone can change things. This means that you weave the thread of your own fate, there are no external circumstances and no excuses either.

A Danish sociologist with a quasi-royal name, Emilia van Hauen, expresses the same logic when writing on her homepage that happiness is a choice - your choice, and fellow Danish therapist, Eva Christensen, sings along (again in my own translation):

Happiness is a personal responsibility. Happiness is not something you can expect to get from others. Everybody has the key to their own happiness. And hence also the responsibility to put the key in the right lock. Happiness is created from the inside, it is not other people’s responsibility to make us happy, it is our own responsibility. Just as we cannot change other people, only ourselves.

If the individual is responsible for her own happiness, then she is also responsible for her own unhappiness. If the keys are in our own hands, each of us is personally responsible for almost everything. Success or failure, and health or illness are a matter of subjective willpower, lifestyle, and choice alone. While we may not be able to change other people, or the world for that matter, we certainly can work on changing ourselves and our selves. Structural change, a change of the system, is abandoned in favor of subjective change, a change of the self. Every problem, however social, political, or economic in nature, is personalized and even criminalized, the subject is made responsible for its own unhappiness, and made to suffer alone and to feel guilty, at the same time, for feeling unhappy, for not being a good and productive citizen, for not coming to work, for not getting out of bed.

These processes of personalization and responsibilization that positive psychology and the imperative of happiness entail, these processes go hand in hand. Mark Fisher was attuned to this logic, or should we say ideology. Depressed people are encouraged to feel and believe that their depression is their fault and their fault only. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist,ԓ as he wrote in Good for Nothingԓ implicitly referencing another of Thatcherԗs claims, that society does not exist. This is where the problem of depression feeds into a more general problem: the model of subjectivity advocated in the original self-help video by Leo Gura is identical to the model of the autonomous, self-determining, competitive individual, the fiction of capitalist subjectivity. In the video the viewer,ғ the you,ԓ is the cause of his or her own depression, but consequently also the only cure. What the video wants to do is to teach you how to master your psychologyԓ and eventually put you in a state of total bliss and happiness.ԓ It is a deeply moral message. Failing to be happy is simply immoral. If you are such an immoral and bad person that you have become unhappy or depressed ԗ it is you, and you alone that is to blame. This is the blaming cult of contemporary capitalism: you are causing your own depression even when evidently you are not.

Capitalism, in other words, inflicts a double injury on depressed people. First, it causes, or contributes to, the state of depression. Second, it erases any form of causality and individualizes the illness, so that it appears as if the depression in question is a personal problem (or property). In some cases, it appears to be your own fault. If you had just lived a better and more active life, made other choices, had a more positive mindset, et cetera, then you would not be depressed. This is the song sung by psychologists, coaches, and therapists around the world: happiness is your choice, your responsibility. The same goes for unhappiness and depression. Capitalism makes us feel bad and then, to add insult to injury, makes us feel bad about feeling bad.

From my own experience of depression except that it is not really - my own experience - and from having written a dissertation on the topic, I think it is beyond doubt that we need another analysis of depression, and, also, another kind of cure. The personalization of depression must be answered by a politicization of depression. At the level of analysis and social causation, the phenomenon of depression should be connected to issues of labor and work and unemployment, since stats show that unemployed people are more susceptible to get depressed than people in jobs, regardless of how much these people hate their job. It should be connected to our brutal, neoliberal culture of competition (Happy Hunger Games and may be odd be ever in your favor!) and to the concomitant ideology of happiness, which forces all of us to smile and BE HAPPY NONSTOP, even or especially when we are fighting among each other, fighting to make ends meet and just get by another day. Depression should, moreover, be connected to the realm of education: it is obvious to me that so many of the students at the University of Copenhagen, where I work and teach, are struggling with countless mental illnesses. I cannot even begin to imagine how it must be in the United Kingdom or United States, where students don’t have the benefit of free education as is the case Denmark but are driven ever deeper into a spiral of debt. No matter where we look, students are depressed, anxious, stressed out, burned out.

In the wake of the economic crisis, a plethora of studies have looked into the psychopathological consequences of debt. In 2012, economist John Gathergood published a study showing that people awash in a sea of debt experience and exhibit a variety of mental problems, including depression. By all accounts, it seems that BEING INDEBTED can, and indeed does, lead to an increased risk not only of depression but also suicide. Another study found that “[t]hose in debt were twice as likely to think about suicide after controlling for sociodemographic, economic, social and lifestyle factors.” And in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu have conducted an epidemiological research project which demonstrates that austerity policies rather than recession as such - have disastrous consequences for the state of public and private health. At one point in their book, Stuckler and Basu refer to a particular study of Americans over the age of 50 which found that between 2006 and 2008, people who fell behind on their mortgage payments were about nine times more likely to develop depressive symptoms.” Their bleak conclusion is that austerity not only hurts, but kills, exemplified by the tragic case of the Greek Dimitris Christoulas, who on April 4, 2012, put a gun to his head in front of the Greek parliament and declared: “I am not committing suicide. They are killing me. Then he pulled the trigger.”

These conditions are real, and so are the causal connections. Obviously, the causes are many, and complex. But the symptoms of depression are also symptoms of something else. And the fact is that the economy of debt causes deep distress as indebted people, students and otherwise, are forced to pawn their own future. Yet the psychiatric and public discourse remain bent on treating depression as a personal problem devoid of context. Nowhere is this clearer than in the discourse of the diagnostic manuals a discourse that increasingly dominates public opinion where mental illnesses are addressed solely in terms of symptoms, without any regard for the historical, social, and economic context of the person suffering. An important task, then, for a leftist analysis of the present is not only to insist on the context but also and perhaps above all to insist, with Hedva, that “it is the world itself that is making and keeping us sick.” Not the world in any abstract sense, but the concrete, capitalist world in which we live, or plod our way through. This is the reason why so many of us lie in bed, and cant get out of it. Or as queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich argues in her book Depression: A Public Feeling:

Epidemics of depression can be related (both as symptom and as obfuscation) to long-term histories of violence that have ongoing impacts at the level of everyday emotional experience. “What gets called depression in the domestic sphere is one affective register of these social problems and one that often keeps people silent, weary, and too numb to really notice the sources of their unhappiness (or in a state of low-level chronic grief or depression of another kind - if they do).

The history of depression is a history of our contemporary capitalist world and also, in the words of Cvetkovich, a history of violence: the violence that people of color, or LGBT people, or asylum seekers, experience on a daily basis, a violence both physical and psychic. Data are, again, overwhelming on this point, but suffice it to mention the 38 percent of low-income mothers and mothers of color who develop postpartum depression, to quote from Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now; the half of LGBT people who have experienced depression in the past year; and the 61 percent of all the kids in Sjlsmark Udrejsecenter, a prison-like camp for rejected asylum seekers in Denmark, who would meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. In many instances, depression bears the mark of such violence and vulnerability, though it is not, sadly, the only mental health issue at stake.

Up until this point I have not mentioned the climate crisis, but on the evidence of what has been said so far, it doesn’t risk exaggeration to say that ecology and mental health stands in an intimate relation. This is not to neglect the material reality, only to hint at the profound psychic effects of ecological losses and a warming globe. Again, the young generation of today, sometimes called the fucked-up generation, is worth mentioning (Phil Neel writes about this generation, the first in a grand parade of the futureless, in his brilliant book Hinterland). They are living in a world where tomorrow will most likely be worse than today, where there really are no alternatives and no future, not least because of how the climate crisis quite literally annihilates the future as such. Who can blame them for being depressed?

All of this to say that the current social, political, economic, ecological crisis is thus a mental health crisis as well. The perpetuum mobile of capitalism and its exhaustion of resources also pertains to mental resources. The economic and the psychological seem to have become indistinguishable from each other, as the double meaning of depression would also suggest. Naturally, we are not all in the same boat, or in the same bed. We are not all depressed (and those of us who are are experiencing it in the same way, or for the same reasons). We are not equally fucked (up). Some strata of society have access to futurity in ways that others do not, some bear the burden more than others, and some simply die sooner than others. People in Greece during the Euro Crisis, or people in the US higher educational system, are not indebted or depressed in the same way. As shown above, the violence and social suffering are differentially distributed along axis of class, gender, and race; so is the climate crisis insofar as citizens of Copenhagen are not feeling the devastating weight of it as those in Chittagong.

Insisting on the politics of illness, mental health, and depression, it is crucial to keep such local and global differences in mind. This should not, however, lead to a competition of social suffering. Competition is precisely what capitalism is all about, and seeks to intensify, so that we are, simultaneously, alone in our suffering and fighting among each others suffering selves. But it should lead to a recognition that a critique of capitalism will need to take into account the contextualized psychopathology of depression as well as other mental illnesses. Furthermore, it gives us an idea of a possible cure, of what needs to be done, of how we get out of bed (or maybe, why we even want to get out of bed).

The first thing to note is that an adequate diagnosis of depression and its context - is not enough in itself. It is common wisdom, however, that the diagnosis does not necessarily entail the cure. Just because we know whats wrong does not mean that we will be able to deal with it. On the contrary, one of the primary symptoms of depression is that what you need to do is precisely what you cannot do, at least NOT ALONE and on your own. Or in the plain words of Ann Cvetkovich: “Saying that capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me get up in the morning.” Also, there is no reason to believe that abolishing private property ownership, or realizing a global and absolute cancellation of private debt, will relieve the suffering of depressed people with a single stroke, as if by magic. But, in an act of speculation, I am tempted to say that revolution is the best antidepressant there is, it makes for a better world, true happiness. But, alas!, in order to do revolution, we need to get out of bed. A real dialectical catch-22 of depression.

Maybe a good place to start, then, with regards to the politics of depression, is to collectivize suffering, externalize blame, communize care. At this point, the question of responsibility returns in all its force. The neoliberal responsibilization of the depressed subject must be rejected, and, also, replaced by an idea of collective responsibility. The same goes for any kind of therapeutic project, and Italian thinker Franco Bifo Berardi - who is, admittedly, a bit loose and careless when it comes to precision in the clinical vocabulary may be right when he asserts that “in the days to come, politics and therapy will be one and the same.” Therapy as resistance, not as reactionary obedience to the given order. Therapy as a collective project, not an individual one. Therapy as the overcoming of alienation.”

What might such collective and emancipatory “therapy” look like? We have an archive of feminist and artistic projects of care, self-care, and collective care from Audre Lorde to Claire Fontaine to, rather recently, Danish artist and activist Jakob Jakobsen and the Hospital for Self Medication that he initiated after a severe depression and several months of hospitalization. We need a language that joins this archive to a movement and separates it from institutional psychiatry, neoliberal therapies, and the capitalist pursuit of profit. This is care that transcends the hospital, the clinic, the family, the state, the insurance company, Capital as such (even if one does not have access to those institutions in the first place). This is care which, based on a politicized understanding of mental illness, moves beyond care in its commodified and capitalist form. When bodies take care of each other, when responsibility is redistributed, and individual collapses are transformed into collective intimacies, the future can be (re)built in the name of a communist, shared, and sustainable one. As poet Wendy Trevino writes:

We can’t individually win in this world
and simultaneously create another

This would be one way of imagining a cure for depression without reinforcing conformity and the status quo. What is certain is that any left politics worthy of its name must go beyond saying capitalism is the problem (even if it surely is) and confront the question of how to get up in the morning. This problem is as practical as it is revolutionary. Of course, sometimes staying in bed can be a revolutionary act in itself, a kind of strike, the epitomization of an exhausted and negative No, I cant in a world that revolves increasingly around an emphatic and positive Yes, I can. But there are also people finding new ways to get out of bed: I’ll just mention in passing, as an encouraging sign, that THERE ARE CRACKS IN THE EDIFICE OF CAPITALIST REALMISM that Mark Fisher didn’t live to see.

Regardless, the point is obviously not to get out of depression so that we can get back to the work that caused the depression to begin with. The point must be, rather, to destroy the material conditions that make us sick, the capitalist system that destroys people’s lives, the inequalities that kill. Thus, creating another world together. But to do that, to get to where that becomes possible, what is called for is not competition among the sick, but alliances of care that will make people feel less alone and less morally responsible for their illness. In alliance with each other, people might eventually be able to get up and throw some bricks.

Adapted from the book Going Nowhere, Slow, out on Zero Books November 29, 2019.

MIKKEL KRAUSE FRANTZEN holds a PhD from the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, and is currently postdoctoral fellow at University of Aalborg, Denmark. He is the author of GOING NOWHERE SLOW - THE AESTHETICS AND POLITICS OF DEPRESSION (Zero Books, 2019).


Posted by Elvis on 03/09/20 •
Section Revelations • Section Dying America • Section Spiritual Diversions • Section Personal
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Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Line Between Love and Narcissism

image: unpefect

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
- Galatians 5:19-21

Disconnected from our human and spiritual roots, we flail around in a world that is oblivious to the suffering of others. Lacking a gentle mindfulness toward our own feelings and vulnerability, we quickly LOOK AWAY from who are suffering or the environmental havoc were creating.
- Spiritual starving.

There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.
- Everything doesn’t happen for a reason.

“If you are wise,” she said, “You’re not only regulating your emotional state, you’re also attending to another person’s emotional state.” She added: “You’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”
- The science of older and wiser.

Why I’ve Come to Think the Notion of “Self-Love” is a Myth

By Umair Haque
August 9,2019

The other day, Tig Notaro said something on Twitter that struck a chord with me to the effect of:

Isn’t it funny how the people who should hate themselves the most don’t, and the ones that shouldn’t do?

It’s funny. Because it seems to be true. There’s a stranger truth, though, of human nature. We lionize self-love these days. And yet it always seems that were falling short of it. It seems like an impossible struggle, in fact. You want me to love… this person - whose flaws and failings I know only too well? And yet there’s an intimate link there, too, to the rage consuming this age, that’s boiling over into extremism (I’ll come to that, first a little psychology.)

Here’s a secret. One that especially us Americans aren’t familiar with, haven’t quite understood. And it goes a very long way to the heart of our failings as a society (and as a world, too.) It goes like this.

Everyone hates themselves. Yes, really. Everyone hates themselves (and the Trumps of the universe hate themselves most of all, which is why they’re always trying to prove how “great” they are.)

And not in a superficial way. I hate myself because I’m not pretty enough, rich enough, thin enough, ripped enough, popular enough, famous enough. Nor in a social way: I hate myself because they have more than me, I hate myself because I’m not part of the right tribe, the in-group, the elite (lets band together, incels, and go kill us some women.) Not in that thin, surface way at all.

Everyone hates themselves in the deepest way of all. In an existential way. Inescapably. Deep, deep down. What do we hate ourselves for? Just for existing. For being. In our predicament. For being mortal. For being alone. For being finite. For being limited to the prison of our individuality. For being helpless and powerless to change any of it one bit. We hate ourselves existentially, and it cuts at the deepest part of us. We hate ourselves - and it takes courage and more than a little self-reflection to see it just for the condition of being alive, for its irresolvable uncertainty, its unknowability, its impossible beauty. But who wouldn’t? To exist is a terrible, unbearable burden. Nobody knows why, how, when, where we go, where we came from, what happens to us, what were made of, what the point of us is. We flicker out after barely having taken a breath. The only alternative to the burden of living all that is death. Dilemma. JUST EXISTING IS MORE TERRIFYING THAN ANY HELL ever invented.

Now. Really think about that for a second. Think about all of us, carrying all that self-hate around, every day - and all of us trying our best to deny it, ignore it, bury it, because its the deepest pain that we have. The primal wound in us. All of us. All that hurt, all that aching, pulsing around the globe, every second of every day. Each one of us has that primal wound, burning. But how many of us admit it?

What do we do with it? Well, mostly we try to run away from it - by focusing on the superficial forms of self-hate, because we imagine they’re things we can fix. I can get thinner. I can get richer. I can get more popular. But I can’t get any more life, any more power over death, any more time, any less finite, any less helpless. No matter how hard I try or what I do.

Yet think about futile and useless it is to try and address the superficial forms of self-hate without dealing with, as we say these days, the deep one. You can pile up money and fame and likes and be the prettiest most ripped one of all. What happens? Does it do anything at all to ease the hurt right down in the soul? Not a bit. If you doubt that, take a look at how many happy Instagrammers or YouTubers or even Hollywood stars or bankers there are.

As a culture, we tell ourselves three key myths of self-love, which are also therefore myths of self-hate. The first is that we can outrun our self-hate in a competitive way by outdoing the next person. That one weגre proven false. The second one is that we can force self-love on ourselves, by repeating mantras, by BEING POSITIVE, and so forth. And the third is that self-love is some kind of great and shining prize, without which happiness isnt really possible. What about those two?

If positivity could make people love themselves, then American should be the happiest people in human history. But they’re not. THEY’RE PRETTY MISERABLE, in fact. Depression and loneliness are endemic. Suicide is skyrocketing. A nation of self-lovers? Not quite. Americans have set themselves an impossible bar: perfect lives, which have to be loved - or else life is barely worth living at all. Neither one of those things is true.

We forget how deep self-hate, of the existential kind, really cuts through us. How can I love this thing - this being that will die, never knowing why it lived? How can I love this being - this one that is exiled to be alone, no matter how close another ever gets, even if we spend a lifetime in each others arms? How can I love this one - the being who is finite and fragile, and helpless to change that finitude and fragility in any real way at all? Who could love a thing like that?

It’s NO SURPRISE that as a culture, we try to run away from this PREDICAMENT. As Sartre said, “it feels sickening.” As Camus said, “it’s absurd and horrific.” As Kierkegaard said, “it’s terrifying.” To be this thing, this being, that needs to be loved, held, seen - and yet knows its own fragility and mortality and smallness all too well. We run away from it with RELIGION, with ESCAPISM, with CONSUMERISM, with CRUELTY, with VIOLENCE, with war, with greed, with HATE. We run away from it all the way down into the abyss.

Now we come to a great paradox of the human condition. You and I have this burning need to BE HELD, to be seen, to be known. And yet we hate ourselves for the knowledge of who we truly are. Do you see the irony? Its a terrible plight. It’s tragedy within tragedy. First, the tragedy of mortality and finitude and then the double tragedy of hating one’s self for it. How do we resolve this tragedy? Can we? Are we just empty, meaningless things? Or does the paradox itself hold the keys to a higher meaning, a greater purpose, something that finally matters? It does of course it does.

In that paradox lie the beginnings of all that is true and noble in us. Empathy, courage, wisdom, defiance, grace. The power to love is born right there. I can say: “I know myself as a thing who hates itself for its finitude, its fragility, its powerlessness. But you are just that thing, too. Ah I see you in me. I can’t love myself for being this thing. But you are not me. Perhaps I can love you. Here take my hand. Let us wander this desert together.” Our wounds in that way are our guides.

Do you see what I mean? Let me put it a little more succinctly. Its in the recognition of self-hate as an inescapable and universal condition of being human that love is born. I empathize with you. I hold you. I see you. I know you. As someone who is always, deep down, aching and hurting just like me. Always. Forever. Until the last breath. Are you not worth loving? I can’t love myself. I know myself too well. I will always hate myself, a little but I can love you.

We need ONE ANOTHER to be CAPABLE OF LOVE. If you are not there, who will empathize with me? I I am not there, who will see you, hold you, know you? Doesn’t it seem obvious when I put it that way? How could such a thing as self-love ever really have been?

Ive come to think that “self-love” is a myth. Perhaps the logic above shows you why. I can’t love myself because Im the subject of my own finitude, fragility, helplessness, no matter what I do. But you are not. I can love you.

I think it takes people, really seeing each other, to teach one another what love is. One can’t love ones self in a vacuum any more than an atom in a vacuum can catch fire. Perhaps that’s why Americans chase this glittering prize called self-love but forever fail to find it. Itגs an illusion to begin with. If the idea that loving yourself makes you love others were trueӔ, after all, wouldnt America be a functioning society? ItҒs full of little narcissists, of egoists but that is all. And that, I think, is where the modern obsession with דself-love leads. America is what happens when the wound is not the guide.

If there is no one else there, just a vacuum - then our well of self-hate will soon take over. And that, it seems to me, is what happened to America. Americans are, as the saying goes, “lonely together.” Trapped in little isolated bubbles of lonelinss - desperately seeking self-love -being positive - reciting mantras - chasing a thing which doesn’t really exist - and so as a society, America goes nowhere, except down and down, because nobody is doing the emotional work of really seeing, holding, or knowing anyone else. Self-hatred comes to rule. Hence, Americans are renowned for their cruelty, their lack of empathy, their hate, their greed and violence. The yellow brick road of self-love ends in the sandcastles of narcissism.

Now. If there’s no such thing as “self-love,” then what is there? There’s something much more like peace. Like knowing. Like a gentle consolation. Like a last stand. Like an embrace of acceptance. This is me. In my finitude. In my helplessness. In all my fragility. I am standing inside my mortality. I am reaching upwards to the sky, anyways. I am this thing, made of, as Kierkegaard said, fear and trembling. Let me admit it. Let me be just that thing. Instead of pretending to be something else. Isnt that living a lie? As difficult and painful as it is - let me be just that thing. Without pretense. Authentically. Let the wound in me be my guide.

Do you see the difference? What I’m describing is an ambivalent thing. It isn’t a kind of passionate, egotistical, narcissistic infatuation “look how awesome I am!! It’s a conflicted thing, a position that’s bent-over, the crook of a gnarled tree, the bend of a river. I don’t know if I can love myself. I know myself too well for that. I know that Im alone, I’m helpless, I’m ignorant, I’m mortal things I donגt want to be, cant bear. I can, perhaps, know that. Admit it. Accept it. With a kind of defiance.

I can rebel, as Camus said - but only if I have the courage to know who and what I really am. I can never love that thing, that bent, broken, helpless one I call myself. But perhaps I dont have to hate it, either. It is just who it is. Who it was born being. Who it is condemned, as Sartre said, to be. Perhaps I can offer it as it is to someone just like it.

All that I can do in this life is to reach out my hand. And walk beside you. I can love you, perhaps, for your fragility, for your finitude, for your littleness - but never myself, because I am me, the subject of all my own finitude, and you are not. The same is true for you. In that way, love is born. The wound is your guide.

But that also means that we have a choice in this life. Either we love ourselves which is to say glorify, aggrandize, and reward them, none of which are really love, but all numbing escapes from the central existential challenge of self-hate. Or we love. We just love. The river, the mountain, the tree. The soil that becomes the forest. The word, the letter, the song. And if weגre lucky, that way, perhaps we find someone we see the whole universe in.

I think that America chose the illusion called “self-love.” But the more that I reflect on it, the more I conclude: there’s no such thing. There’s an ambivalent, conflicted, difficult peace. With the position of finitude and fragility that makes us us. But we can’t love ourselves for being these things - the MOST WE CAN DO is not hate ourselves for being who and what we are. And yet those are precisely what make love - which is always the discovery of meaning beyond the finite, helpless, limited self - possible.


Posted by Elvis on 08/10/19 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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Friday, February 08, 2019


image: aura

The Great Thread of Being
The Raw Stuff Were Made Of, And Why it Matters

By Umair Hague
February 7, 2019

“The energy you put out into the world is your responsibility!” I couldn’t help but be struck by how funny the tweet was, whereupon someone told me it was from some guru type. Is it true? Lets talk about “energy” and being and you and me for a moment. I don’t writeoften enough about this kind of stuff these days, though its my favourite thing to writeabout, because, well, the world has more pressing issues. What are we? Why are we here? Who are we, really?

This kind of sentiment “the energy you put out is your responsibility” - which you and I both hear expressed ubiquitously - is a kind of convenient mishmash of East meets West. It takes the formative philosophical idea of the East - that there’s “energy,: which is to say Qi, or prana, or so fort - but then combines it with the formative idea of the modern West, which is rational individualism: its yours, like a car or house or money. Feels a little off already, doesn’t it?

I think that any of us who have been close to the edge of ourselves recognizes there’s indeed such a thing as “energy.” Deep down, when you go beyond the narrow limits of the ego, there’s something that the old philosophers of the East described beautifully, because its so accurate to anyone who’s had the experience. A kind of luminous coiling presence, the “snake” of Kundalini, a force that’s pure in intensity as it is impossible to put into words. If you want me to describe it in words, when I was close to death, I’d experience it just that way - as a kind of coil of light, in a place of pure being, stretching into an endless expanse of stars, dust, time beyond, space beyond space.

But that coil of light wasn’t “in” me. Its more accurate to say that it was something that poured “through” me. But even that’s inaccurate. Its more accurate to say that it was something that was released, or experienced, or encountered, as “I started to die. That coil of light that existed in space beyond space, in time beyond time - what was it?”

Let’s think about it a little more. It wasn’t pure being - because it was in the “ground” or the “field” of pure being. Yet nor was it “me” - because, as the ancient philosopher who discovered this energy, this “Qi” or “Kundalini” and so forth rightly pointed out - it’s found where you, the little you of appetite and desire and money and clothes and so on ends. For the same reason, you feel connected when you stand on a beach - there’s nothing of you left suddenly, and somehow everything feels right, not wrong. You’re naked - “o now what are you?”

Immediately, a few things should be crystal clear already. This energy doesnt “belong” to “me” or “you.” because it only comes into focus when “you” and “I” and are fading. Therefore, it isn]t something that can “belong” to us at all, in an individualistic sense. To say that we must take “responsibility” for the energy of being is as wrong as saying that the summer must take responsibility for the sun. It is a thing that belongs to none of us.

This energy is there to teach us a lesson. A great and mighty lesson about the truth of us. A lesson thats as difficult to learn as it is to teach, one thatʒs as impossible as it is beautiful, as awesome as it is tiny.

So we struggle our whole lives long with all this. Western psychology tries to treat this energy in us in a hyperrational way - with therapy and so on. Eastern thought tries to treat it in a silent, contemplative way - with meditation and Tai Chi and yoga whatnot. Its hard to say if the Western approach has been any more successful - just witness how depressed and anxious and angry people are these days.

When it comes to “energy,” the Western approach tries to contain it - which is what so much psychotherapy is about, calling it “libido” and “eros.” The Eastern approach, on the other hand, tries to “channel” it, for example in yoga. And yet that approach, while I think can work better, often fails, too. Why do both these approaches fail? Because neither one brings us, first, closer to encountering this “energy” in its pure form - to really experiencing it, knowing it, bonding with it, developing a kind of intimacy with it.

So what happens? It roars through us, tears at us, wails like a banshee. It is saying: Know me. See me. Feel me. What am I? I am you. Don’t you want to know yourself? Of course we do. But we’re diehard rationalists - we’re taught to ignore these whispers and screams, which we can so obviously hear - and they only get louder the more they’re ignored.

Now, here’s the funny thing. Nobody doesn’t feel this energy - just stand on a beach for a moment, or stare into a sunset, bang! There it is, coursing through you - we just don’t know what to call it, where to put it, what the hell to do with it. How would we? Nobody teaches us. Nobody much even really acknowledges its reality. We walk around all pretending away the deepest parts of us.

Soon enough, by about midlife or so, most of us are wrecks. Our lives feel strangely disconnected. We feel lonely, even when we’re with our kids and families. Our work seems meaningless. We don’t seem to know our place in this universe at all. We struggle to contain this energy that’s screaming and whistling and exploding through us by now. Maybe we have affairs, maybe we blow up our careers, maybe we throw our life savings away. What are we really searching for? We are desperate by this point - truly desperate - to know who we are. Why we are here. What we are made of.

But we’re still not ready to go inside and face this energy of being itself - really just experience the truth of it for ourselves. Its funny, isn’t it? We know we are not just bags of chemicals. We feel there is a “soul” or a “presence” in us. But we can’t quite seem to connect with it. Bang! The energy overwhelms us - and that leaves us weary, exhausted, drained, as we try to fight it, repress it, ignore it. Isn’t that how you feel sometimes? I know I used to feel drained every day, even though I was bursting with energy - until I was in something like a walking coma, numb and frozen.

So what should we do about it? What can we do? We can go towards the energy. Really go towards it. Just try to see it, and be seen by it. Just experience it. By “experience” it I don’t mean imagining coils of light in your mind’s eye (which is comforting and relaxing, but.) I mean experiencing it, feeling it, so there is nothing left but that energy. So it is you, and you are it - and that is just the beginning. Just sit there for a while if you want to do it - there’s no great secret, you’re just overloaded from modern life.

As you look “along” the light, or “into” it, depending on your perspective, you will see that this “coil” is something as magnificent and remarkable as beautiful and impossible. “Look” here means sense, in the way that we look with the third eye, with the witness, with the observer - not with the physical eyes, of course. So what is this coil?

It is the thread that links all selves. It has no ending and no beginning. It just spirals and stretches and twists and dances endlessly in this space beyond space and this time beyond time. Along it lie all selves who ever were or have been. From the tiniest insect to you and me. Selves are just artificial separations in this consciousness, which is the raw material of existence itself, as quantum physics is starting to understand. No “selves” - no object “reality” just pure energy.

When we say two people are in love, it means something like their place along this coil has intersected , touched, and a little explosion has happened. When we say that people die, it means they are letting their “selves” go, and returning to the ground, or the field which this coil lingers in. (You can think of this thread as alaya if you like, if you’re versed in Buddhism, all the karma in all the worlds, flowing like a great river, from self to self, conditioning them into existence.)

Imm sure by now some of you are amused or horrified or just plain bewildered. What the hell is this guy talking about? LOL that’s OK. Before I died I would have been the first to laugh off stuff like this - pretty viciously, too. But I was desperately unhappy, too. So let’s go a little further still, if you really want to delve into a few untold secrets of being.

Energy, Qi, Kundalini, etcetera, is the thread of selfhood which we are all traveling along. It is always flowing through us because we are all just traveling along it. In that sense, it is the cycle of life, too, that the ancients spoke about. One self goes - bang! The next one is found, had, lived. That doesn’t mean there’s a sequence, really, because we are not in a linear space. We are trying to use words to explain an impossible reality, the idea that consciousness, not matter, is what is fundamental, and therefore, there is a place where all consciousness exists in its raw form, too , undivided, unseparated, one, whole. That place is the thread of being, which we sense, but which our eyes can never see, because our eyes, just like mountains, rivers, or stars, are made of it to begin with.

Now let me try to distill a few practical, simple lessons from all this. The energy you feel coursing through you is not your own. Because consciousness is fundamental, it is the truest thing in you. It is the raw stuff of existence itself. That is why it is always crying out to you to know it.

It doesn’t belong to you any more than the sunlight or the ocean does. The most that you can do is try to honor it, in a way, to do justice to it. That means letting this great thread of life unfurl through you, and that means lifting up and nourishing and nurturing every life that you touch, because from the threads point of view, there is no difference between you whatsoever.

To do that, though, you must have the courage and wisdom to gain some intimacy with this “energy,” this great thread of being - which is just primal consciousness, roaring through you. You have to stop the futile work of trying to ignore its pleas and cries. You have to stop pretending its not there, while all the time you feel unhappy and lonely for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on. You must understand your exhaustion and weariness come as much from this existential battle you are waging with your true self as they do from capitalism and supremacy and so on. You must go into it, towards it, and really know it, not just as part of you, but you, yourself, as just a tiny, evanescent part of it.

The starting point is to no longer be afraid of the idea that you are only what you’re told you are - just a consumer, a material object, a worker, in short, a brain-body piling up money and stuff - but that you might just be something much greater and truer and wholer. You are this whole thread of being, and this whole thread of being is you. In the end, you learn that - whether it is in the moments before you die, or in the moments long before them. The question is only when. So there’s no need to worry - only to laugh.

I think if you learn this early on, though, a lot of things become a lot clearer. There’s a sense of happiness, a sense of belonging, a sense of peace. That makes love truer, relationships deeper, intimacy warmer, moments more intense. It makes life something a little more mysterious, vast, impossible, tiny, beautiful. You have a higher sense of consciousness - but it’s better to just say a deeper, simpler, rawer, truer one.

Or maybe the rationalists are right - it’s all just an illusion, a fairy tale fools like me tell. I guess there’s only one way for you to find out.


Posted by Elvis on 02/08/19 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Religious Diversions Part 13 - Psychology of Religion

image we invented Jesus

Religion has been the longest running form of MIND CONTROL on the planet and has served to not only keep us separated, but to depopulate the world through numerous wars, Inquisitions and Crusades in the name of God.
- How to Deprogram Yourself

God is understood to be responsive, loving and present - even when things are tough, miserable and unfair. The theology is not about explanation, but about relationship. That is what makes churches like these work for those who come to them. People stay with this God not because the theology makes sense, but because the practice delivers emotionally. When you feel lousy, reaching out to this God helps you to feel better. Under these conditions, it is often when prayer requests fail that prayer practice becomes most satisfying.
- Prayer Failure

[W]hat modern priests and pastors do all the time. They tell you to “just have faith,” to “trust in faith,” and even to “work on your faith.” Does this differ significantly from telling one to JUST STAY STUPID?
- Religious Diversions - Part 9

“Expose every belief to the light of reason, discourse, facts, scientific observations; question everything, be sceptical because this is the only chance at life you will ever get.”
- James Randi

Religion is about emotion regulation, and its very good at it

By Stephen T Asma
October 9, 2018

Religion does not help us to explain nature. It did what it could in pre-scientific times, but that job was properly unseated by science. Most religious laypeople and even clergy agree: Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that evolution is a fact and Catholics should get over it. No doubt some extreme anti-scientific thinking lives on in such places as Ken Hams Creation Museum in Kentucky, but it has become a fringe position. Most mainstream religious people accept a version of Galileo’s division of labour: The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.

Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power? Sigmund Freud, who referred to himself as a godless Jew, saw religion as delusional, but helpfully so. He argued that we humans are naturally awful creatures - aggressive, narcissistic wolves. Left to our own devices, we would rape, pillage and burn our way through life. Thankfully, we have the civilising influence of religion to steer us toward charity, compassion and cooperation by a system of carrots and sticks, otherwise known as heaven and hell.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, argued in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) that the heart of religion was not its belief system or even its moral code, but its ability to generate COLLECTIVE EFFERVESCENSE: intense, shared experiences that unify individuals into cooperative social groups. Religion, Durkheim argued, is a kind of social glue, a view confirmed by recent interdisciplinary RESEARCH.

While Freud and Durkheim were right about the important functions of religion, its true value lies in its therapeutic power, particularly its power to manage our emotions. How we feel is as important to our survival as how we think. Our species comes equipped with adaptive emotions, such as fear, rage, lust and so on: religion was (and is) the cultural system that dials these feelings and behaviours up or down. We see this clearly if we look at mainstream religion, rather than the deleterious forms of extremism. Mainstream religion reduces ANXIETY, stress and depression. It provides existential MEANING and hope. It focuses aggression and fear against enemies. It domesticates lust, and it strengthens filial connections. Through story, it trains feelings of empathy and compassion for others. And it provides consolation for suffering.

Emotional therapy is the animating heart of religion. Social bonding happens not only when we agree to worship the same totems, but when we feel affection for each other. An affective community of mutual care emerges when groups share rituals, liturgy, song, dance, eating, grieving, comforting, tales of saints and heroes, hardships such as fasting and sacrifice. Theological beliefs are bloodless abstractions by comparison.

Emotional management is important because life is hard.The Buddha said: “All life is suffering” and most of us past a certain age can only agree. Religion evolved to handle what I call the “vulnerability problem.” When were sick, we go to the doctor, not the priest. But when our child dies, or we lose our home in a fire, or we’re diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer, then religion is helpful because it provides some relief and some strength. It also gives us something to do, when there’s nothing we can do.

Consider how religion helps people after a death. Social mammals who have suffered separation distress are restored to health by touch, collective meals and grooming. Human grieving customs involve these same soothing prosocial mechanisms. We comfort-touch and embrace a person who has lost a loved one. Our bodies give ancient comfort directly to the grieving body. We provide the bereaved with food and drink, and we break bread with them (think of the Jewish tradition of shiva, or the visitation tradition of wakes in many cultures). We share stories about the loved one, and help the bereaved reframe their pain in larger optimistic narratives. Even music, in the form of consoling melodies and collective singing, helps to express shared sorrow and also transforms it from an unbearable and lonely experience to a bearable communal one. Social involvement from the community after a death CAN ACTas an antidepressant, boosting adaptive emotional changes in the bereaved.

Religion also helps to manage sorrow with something I’ll call “existential shaping” or more precisely “existential debt.” It is common for Westerners to think of themselves as individuals first and as members of a community second, but our ideology of the lone protagonist fulfilling an individual destiny is more fiction than fact. Losing someone reminds us of our dependence on others and our deep vulnerability, and at such moments religion turns us toward the web of relations rather than away from it. Long after your parents have died, for example, religion helps you memorialise them and acknowledge your existential debt to them. Formalising the memory of the dead person, through funerary rites, or tomb-sweeping (Qingming) festivals in Asia, or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or annual honorary masses in Catholicism, is important because it keeps reminding us, even through the sorrow, of the meaningful influence of these deceased loved ones. This is not a self-deception about the unreality of death, but an artful way of learning to live with it. The grief becomes transformed in the sincere acknowledgment of the value of the loved one, and religious rituals help people to set aside time and mental space for that acknowledgment.

An emotion such as grief has many ingredients. The physiological arousal of grief is accompanied by cognitive evaluations: “I will never see my friend again”; :I could have done something to prevent this”; She was the love of my life”; and so on. Religions try to give the bereaved an alternative appraisal that reframes their tragedy as something more than just misery. Emotional appraisals are proactive, ACCODING to the psychologists Phoebe Ellsworth at the University of Michigan and Klaus Scherer at the University of Geneva, going beyond the immediate disaster to envision the possible solutions or responses. This is called “secondary appraisal.” After the primary appraisal (This is very sad), the secondary appraisal assesses our ability to deal with the situation: “This is too much for me” or, positively: “I will survive this.” Part of our ability to cope with suffering is our sense of power or agency: more power generally means better coping ability. If I acknowledge my own limitations when faced with unavoidable loss, but I feel that a powerful ally, God, is part of my agency or power, then I can be more resilient.

Because religious actions are often accompanied by magical thinking or supernatural beliefs, Christopher Hitchens argued in God Is not Great (2007) that religion is “false consolation.” Many critics of religion echo his condemnation. But there is no such thing as false consolation. Hitchens and fellow critics are making a category mistake, like saying: “The colour green is sleepy.” Consolation or comfort is a feeling, and it can be weak or strong, but it can’t be false or true. You can be false in your judgment of why youre feeling better, but feeling better is neither true nor false. True and false applies only if we’re evaluating whether our propositions correspond with reality. And no doubt many factual claims of religion are false in that way - the world was not created in six days.

Religion is real consolation in the same way that music is real consolation. No one thinks that the pleasure of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is “false pleasure” because singing flutes don’t really exist. It doesn’t need to correspond to reality. Its true that some religious devotees, unlike music devotees, pin their consolation to additional metaphysical claims, but why should we trust them to know how religion works? Such believers do not recognise that their unthinking religious rituals and social activities are the true sources of their therapeutic healing. Meanwhile, Hitchens and other critics confuse the factual disappointments of religion with the value of religion generally, and thereby miss the heart of it.

Why We Need Religion: An Agnostic Celebration of Spiritual Emotions by Stephen Asma, 2018 is published by Oxford University Press.



image: Ashtar

It performed great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of everyone.
- Revelations 13:13

Alien Confession Found: We Invented Jesus Christ

September 28, 2018

American Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill will be appearing before the British public for the first time in London on the 19th of October to present a controversial new discovery:

Ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.

His presentation will be part of a one-day symposium entitled ”COVERT MESSIAH” at Conway Hall in Holborn.

Although to many scholars his theory seems outlandish, and is sure to upset some believers, Atwill regards his evidence as conclusive and is confident its acceptance is only a matter of time.

“I present my work with some ambivalence, as I do not want to directly cause Christians any harm,” he acknowledges, but this is important for our culture.

“Alertcitizens need to know the truth about our past so we can understand how and why governments create false histories and false gods. They often do it to obtain a social order that is against the best interests of the common people.”

Atwill asserts that Christianity did not really begin as a religion, but a sophisticated government project, a kind of propaganda exercise used to pacify the subjects of the Roman Empire.

“Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century,” he explains.

When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented. Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to give onto Caesar and pay their taxes to Rome.

Was Jesus based on a real person from history?

“The short answer is no,” Atwill insists, “in fact he may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.”

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying WWars of the Jews” by Josephus [the only surviving first-person historical account of first-century Judea] alongside the New Testament.

“I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts.

“Although its been recognized by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more.”

What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus.

This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.

How could this go unnoticed in the most scrutinized books of all time?

Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren’t all immediately obvious.

After all, the authors did not want the average believer to see what they were doing, but they did want the alertreader to see it. An educated Roman in the ruling class would probably have recognized the literary game being played.

Atwill maintains he can demonstrate that, “the Roman Caesars left us a kind of puzzle literature that was meant to be solved by future generations, and the solution to that puzzle is We invented Jesus Christ, and we’re proud of it.”

Is this the beginning of the end of Christianity?

“Probably not,” grants Atwill, but what my work has done is give permission to many of those ready to leave the religion to make a clean break. We’ve got the evidence now to show exactly where the story of Jesus came from.

Although Christianity can be a comfort to some, it can also be very damaging and repressive, an insidious form of mind control that has led to blind acceptance of serfdom, poverty, and war throughout history.

To this day, especially in the United States, it is used to create support for war in the Middle East.

Atwill encourages skeptics to challenge him at Conway Hall, where after the presentations there is likely to be a lively Q&A session.

Joining Mr. Atwill will be fellow scholar Kenneth Humphreys, author of the book “Jesus Never Existed.”


Posted by Elvis on 10/10/18 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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