Disclaimer

All information in this blog is solely intended for study and entertainment, and should never be treated as medical advice, endorsement or promotion of any practice or product. The writer is not a medical professional, and will not be held responsible for any damages that have resulted from any practice or action, or lack of action inspired by reading this blog.

Advertisements

On humans, clowns and happiness

I’ve been thinking about eccentricity, and how people react to it. Upon meeting up with my mother recently, she just couldn’t let go of the fact that I was carrying a canary yellow, spotted umbrella, and was gently offering to get me a ‘proper’ one instead. I guess for my mom I’ll always be a weird rebellious son she’s slightly worried about, and that’s okay. I think I’ve lived long enough to know about men’s style. I’ve held jobs where I had to wear a suit, and honestly, I was good at it. I still am, if the need surfaces. So I started wondering about is why I’m carrying the spotted umbrella in the first place. I mean while it’s a perfect clown umbrella, I’m not really clowning on the street, now am I… and it hit me that in a way, I actually am.

From interviews with the greatest artists, there seem to be two distinct approaches to the idea of clowning among them. One is focused on the audience, on inspiring laughter, on masterful technique, that is, on Doing… and the other is focused on Being a clown, stating that everything else follows from that. On finding the inner clown, the inner child, and sharing the joy, freedom and emotional openness from that source. An extreme adherent of the second approach is Slava Polunin, whom I consider on of my role models. He is a true rebel artist, who used the wordlessness of pantomime to evade censorship in Soviet times, and an unwavering believer in creative human freedom, both in the theatre troupes he was part of or led, and in our lives in the outside world. Today, he’s turned clowning into a lifestyle through his “Academy of Fools”, in his words, turning the focus of his life onto finding and exploring what makes human beings happy.

And yes, that spotted umbrella makes me happy. I look at it on a rainy day, and think of sunshine and playfulness. And so do the colorful hippie clothing, the five-toed shoes, or any of the other trappings of eccentricity I consciously decide to allow myself. In doing things my body and my inner child wants to do, rather than what my superego would allow me to do. And yes, people do sometimes stare. I’m sure there is a part of them thinking how nice it must be to be so free and childish. And this is, probably, a degree of clowning. Being that reflective, joyful person that many deny in themselves for fear of societal reprisal, or in sacrifice to an arbitrary self-image of prestige, or a desired gender expression, or whatever else.

I honestly believe that performing a little in my everydays, for myself and the world around me, as an eccentric and a free human being, leads to greater happiness, motivation and potentially success in life. I mean, if I want my brain to find reasons for climbing out of bed, why not help it out a little, by making every day worth living?

The TAZ, the Festival and the Burn

Ever since I listened to a presentation about Hakim Bey’s Anarchist philosophy at O.Z.O.R.A. festival, I’ve been quite fascinated by the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey is a quite controversial philosopher even in hardliner Anarchist circles, due to his preoccupation with the idea of pederasty, and his occasional rants praising illiteracy; even still, in my eyes his writings on the TAZ are fundamental to building livable systems of human cohabitation, at least temporarily free from the total alienation and commodification culture of consumer society.

As the ideator of Nonviolent Communication, Marshal Rosenberg put it, while we’re all raised with the commandment to be “good”, our reward for being “good” is depression. One suppresses one’s own desires and bliss, the very reason one might want to live for, and alienated society simply cannot provide the “good”, self-denying person with any outcomes that are worthy to pursue, and thus one falls into a state of demotivation and depression. This is a truth I have experienced many times over, and the solution I found was to find my bliss in alternative society, a society of hope.

I urge everyone interested to read Hakim Bey’s own writings on the topic; in short, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is a small event, place or social structure that exists outside mainstream society, as a separate culture and set of social norms, hidden and protected through its insignificance to the outside world, and to what Hakim Bey terms The Spectacle. On a sabbatical around freegan communities and open eco-farms, I’ve finally come to see the principle of the TAZ living and working in reality. Even now I’m writing this article sitting among hippies, ‘pirates’ and goatherds, in a location that in my former, urban life believed only exists in stories and films. A location with the sword of Damocles dangling above its head for years now, yet still living on and thriving. And that sword of Damocles is, unfortunately, unavoidable. According to theory, the Temporary Autonomous Zone is necessarily ephemeral. With time it grows, and as the outside world, The Spectacle takes notice, it needs to voluntarily disband before the forces of repression descend upon it in various forms.

What he writes much less about is what comes after. Most festivals start out as a TAZ of sorts, a small group, much like ancient band societies, coming together to celebrate. They cannot, however, stay that way for long. The O.Z.O.R.A. Festival, a psychedelic cultural event in Eastern Europe with more than 50 thousand participants every year, is no Temporary Autonomous Zone, no matter how some may want to make it look like one. Its last claim to the title ended years ago, when police descended on it in a massive raid, and its continued existence could only have been assured through a lucrative contract with the security firm owned by the Minister of Internal Affairs himself. It’s no TAZ, but the mummified corpse of one, dressed for the grave with mugs of chai sold for 5 Euro each, and (faux) Nepalese clothing overpriced 3-5 fold.

Now the question is whether that makes the festival unworthy of attention, or an event of a lower order, and it is my strong opinion that the festival, while heavily commodified, taken over by the Spectacle, and sold as a canned-and-sterilized uprising for the tired office worker, definitely has its place in the world as a learning ground and an embassy for alternative society, for the Web of Temporary Autonomous Zones. It was, for me, the first exposure, and an experience in immediacy, a gateway toward finding my way to communities one can never find or connect with through Facebook Search.

The Rainbow Gatherings, a surviving stream of the original hippie movement from the 1960s, choose a different approach. Gatherings are intentionally limited in time, and locations where a periodic gathering has grown too well known, too large, and too damaging to the local systems, are intentionally abandoned forever. Keeping with TAZ theory, the Gathering is temporary in one place, but the chain of Gatherings is unbroken, and the movement, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, has held up and thrived throughout the disillusionment of the 1980s and the capitalistic hurrah of the 1990s and early 2000s. The Gatherings have serious issues however, relating to their Anarchistic way of (non)governance, and a reach too large for optimal functioning as a true band society, something people often complain about, but the only proposal to handling it had been smaller, more remote and less public Gatherings.

What I find quite unique about the Burn is that it has taken a different approach. The controversies about some practices of “BMOrg”, the non-profit behind the original Burning Man gathering in Black Rock Desert notwithstanding, the philosophy of the Burn took a separate, and quite noteworthy path. Most burns start out small, as true Temporary Autonomous Zones; Burning Man itself started out as one; however, their growth and reach necessitates a level of integration with outside society that eventually removes most TAZ characteristics. The really noteworthy thing, compared to the Festival, is the specifics of how this happens.

Contrary to the Festival, the Burn doesn’t invite in the Spectacle and the systems of the outside world. There are no outside security forces checking cars, nor profiteering landlords growing rich on 5 Euro chai and 300 Euro entry tickets. The Burn becomes an alternative society, creating a tribe government capable of maintaining security and order to a level where the outside world is content leaving its hand off the event. Burns tend to have low or no police presence, due to the highly professional volunteer force of Rangers, who have over the years kept injuries, deaths and similar incidents low, and due to the principle of Leaving No Trace, a strict and quite literal approach to leaving the environment in just as clean and untouched a state as we arrived in.

Now this means, of course, that the Burn is no longer Anarchistic. It is governed, it has strict rules, it maintains close ties with the outside world in order to maintain its existence and safety, it even has a “policing” force of its own. Which, in a way, is a logical and necessary result of its size and reach. As the Rainbow Gathering struggles to maintain its standards of ecological and societal awareness due to sizes unsuitable for ancient band society governance based on consensus, the Burn faced the same issue, and moved to the next level of governance, that of the Tribe.

Through the tribal government of the Burn itself, with codified rules and roles, the smaller unit of Burning, the Theme Camp, is capable of maintaining a more informal, consensus-based governance suited to its size, while being part of a Web of similar micro-societies in the overall tribe society of the Burn itself, allowing for some form of a Temporary Autonomous Zone to come into being and exist within the manageable family unit of people living, eating and sleeping together.

The Burn is often derided for its perceived break with Anarchist ideals, and apparent marriage with Silicon Valley culture and money-flinging billionaires. However, while maintaining that all such criticism of Burning Man is, to a level, warranted and important, the Burn itself, as a model of alternative society, has succeeded in something few experiments have reached before. I’m quite excited for the future of the movement, regardless whether Black Rock City and BMOrg continues on this route, or will be forced to compromise on their ideals. The Burn, as a model, has already strewn its seeds across the globe, and is growing and multiplying.

You Can Be a “Real” Energy Worker

In my last post on hypnosis, I primarily addressed show hypnosis, and why I think it’s usually done wrong all over the world. Hypnosis however, can be a wonderful tool for giving. It has certain qualities and components that allow the hypnotist to elicit certain feelings that, for some people, are incredibly rare commodities. Sometimes you’ll find people crying just from being put into trance.

So now I’d like to invite my readers for a virtual workshop. You can imagine attending a burn and sitting at a theme camp workshop before going out to party for the night. I’ll be informal, brief and on to target, and tell you how you can utilize a few of the core components of hypnosis in improving your intimate human connections, and become a “Real Energy Worker” in your own right.

That sounds like corny mentalist stage patter, right? When people talk about “energies” in an occult context, what they really mean is “feelings”. Like someone saying “this building has a foreboding energy” really means “I have a foreboding feeling in this building.” Of course then they put all kinds of beliefs and theories behind that, but we’ll generously disregard all that. I’ve been told multiple times after using the following approaches that I must be a high level energy worker. Well I never paid a guru for an initiation, but I cultivate empathy and love, and apparently that is enough to deliver positive “energy” (ie. feelings) to the people I connect with.

First, for what hypnosis is, please read my previous post on the topic, in case you haven’t already. Read it? Good. Because I won’t be teaching you hypnosis. Some of you wouldn’t believe that I could teach you in a single blog post, while some would claim that I couldn’t deliver the necessary way of thinking, including safety & security. The former would be wrong, the latter would be right. So no hypnosis here. I’ll talk about approaches that are just as good for delivering positive feelings to people.

And these will, in my opinion, not only make you a Real Energy Worker, but a better hypnotist as well, should you ever decide to learn that craft.

Step one to Energy Working: Learn how to Hug

This is a truly wonderful discovery I made in the magical world of hippies, and it’s so simple. Becoming a person with a reassuring, emotionally healing hug is really easy, you just need to learn two things not to do in a hug, and only one thing to do.

Here’s the two things you shouldn’t do in a hug: push, or pull.

Here’s the one thing you should do in a hug: be present.

CONSENT CLAUSE: The first step to hugging someone is making sure whether they want to hug. Pushing includes pushing a hug on someone who doesn’t want it. Don’t do it.

So hopefully you’re in a consensual hug with someone, and they are hugging you back. If you are hugging a person who isn’t hugging you back, there’d better be a good reason for that (like their arms are in casts). In a regular situation the lack of reciprocity is a good sign that you should withdraw from the hug, as it’s not welcome.

So first, don’t push. This is especially important with lovers. Unless you’re just coincidentally hugging each other while having sex anyway, do not initiate any kind of erotic activity, do not feel your partner up, do not try to french kiss, etc. You can also get pushy in a non-sexual way, so if the other person’s body language indicates that they would like to leave the hug, gently disengage.

Then, don’t pull. If you’re in a hurry somewhere, don’t offer hugs, or at least prefix them by saying “sorry I’m in a hurry mwah-mwah gotta go kthxbye”. But that’s not a proper hug, just a formality. So don’t pull away from a hug. You decided to give it, stand by your decision. Don’t disengage, or make motions to disengage, before the other person does.

(What happens when both people follow this advice? They will possibly spend a wonderful few minutes to a few hours together. Don’t worry about that for now, you’ll know when it’s time to part as it happens. If you decide to give, then stand by that.)

Some people will loosen their grip, but then pull you in tighter. So don’t try to escape at the first sign of their letting go. Make it a nonverbal conversation: “Time to leave?” “Yes?” “Okay, I still love you.” “Love you, bye.” And definitely not “Leaving? Okay! Imouttahere, kthxbye!”

So not doing these things is already a lot more than what most people will give, and will by themselves elevate you to being a walking source of love and happiness. Now for what you should do: be present.

Keep a stable, safe hold of the other person, let yourself be there and pay attention to their movements and breathing. Don’t let yourself be distracted by what you should be doing, your phone, the traffic, etc. You’re there for the other person. Allow yourself to feel them, and feel your own reactions to being there. If you do this, you’ll notice that your breathing will naturally synchronize, maybe even your heartbeat after a while.

After letting go of the hug, stay with them. Don’t run, keep looking at the other person. Appreciate them and smile.

Sounds simple, right? It’s sad that so few people actually do this. Sure, it’s easy to do with a new lover. It comes naturally to many people in that situation. But how about with your mother or father? When was the last time you gave them your love and attention like this? Or a long-term partner with whom your relationship is strained?

I challenge you to hug your mom the next time you meet her, and follow my guidelines. Seriously. If you still have a mom, do it. You’ll be really thankful to yourself that you did. If your relationship is less then perfect, she might ask you what made you so affectionate all of a sudden. In that case, just tell her that you realized how much you love her. That’s explanation enough.

Step two to Energy Working: Learn how to Hold someone

In the article about hypnosis, I passingly mentioned regression. Not to be confused with various past life and alien abduction recall stuff (that, I personally, see as questionable and potentially amounting to malpractice), regression is a mental state where one regresses (lit. “returns”) to emotional patterns characteristic of a younger age. This experience, while an important part of healthy human psychology, is rather rare in modern society, and there are few socially normalized places for most adult Westerners to experience it without stigma.

It can be an extremely healing experience, and something that is not all that hard to give. Well-delivered hypnosis can provide this feeling, but it’s really not necessary. What is necessary is giving clear permission to the other person to let go, and ensuring them that we have the capacity to hold them as they do. This is a step up from hugging: it’s not reciprocal, it’s a gift of kindness. Also, it needs a higher level of consent: being put in an unfamiliar situation without prior discussion can make someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe, defeating the whole purpose.

So if you want to give this to someone, make sure that you are in a social relationship where something like this isn’t completely off the wall. Then, ask them if they would appreciate being held. If the answer is affirmative, the key to this is assuming a comfortable position, better sitting than standing, while holding much of their body weight. Calculate for your own fatigue, it’s important that you’re comfortable too. You can assume any position you like, the key is a) to communicate control and support, holding someone in a way you’d hold a child is generally a great approach, and b) to make sure nothing you do has a sexual overtone. Sexuality can be a trigger, and you don’t want to bring it in, even if you do otherwise have sexual tension going with the other person. Generally, if you’d feel inappropriate touching a small child in a certain way, make sure not to touch the other person like that.

So once you have the other person in your lap, or in a spoon, hold them reassuringly, and follow the advice about hugging. Don’t push or pull, and make sure to be present. One thing to note, in order to elicit a deep feeling of regression, you need to be somewhat firmer about your intention to hold and protect. You shouldn’t disengage immediately if the other person moves. Make it a drawn-out nonverbal, and potentially verbal discussion about whether they really want to leave, or just need a calming voice telling them that their Twitter notifications can wait for another ten minutes. WARNING: This does not mean you should hold anyone after consent had been revoked! If you cannot discern fuss from withdrawn consent, I advise you not to try this at all until you can.

Step three to Energy Working: Touch with feeling and intention

There are points on the human body that are more sensitive to touch than others. No, I’m not talking about erogenous zones. Take your right hand in your left, and move your thumb across your palm. You’ll find spots that are particularly sensitive, like the base joints of your fingers, and the soft areas right inbetween them. The human body is full of spots like these.

Explore yourself, and find as many as you can. Find the optimal pressure that is the most intense, without being painful. Gently drawing your finger on your skin, find spots where you are ticklish, and find what kinds of touch feel good, and what kinds of touch feel uncomfortable. Knowing these spots gives you the “where” of touch. It won’t teach you how to heal cancer with accupressure or somesuch (honestly I’m very skeptical of people claiming similar things), but it will definitely teach you how to heal a chronic lack of human touch. WARNING: Note that many of these points are considered highly intimate due to the feelings they elicit, and you should seek consent before touching, even if you are already hugging or holding someone.

As for the “how” of touch, here’s what you shouldn’t do. You don’t poke, and you don’t boop. (A boop is a short touch immediately withdrawn, like how you’d playfully “boop” your child on the nose.) That’s a form of tickling, and can be part of your playful touch repertoire for sexy times, but not for anything hugging, holding, or hypnosis related. You touch slowly, deliberately, with gentle pressure. You can imagine giving time for your finger or palm to transmit your body heat to the other person.

Also, you don’t grab. This is important as heck. Not by the pussy or balls, not by the ass, not by the waist, not by anything. Grabbing is possessive, even if it’s not expressly sexual (though, usually it is). So no grabbing. Touching with your palm should be done with an open palm, slightly relaxed and spread fingers. All pressure should be on your palm, and none on your fingers. Holding hands is okay and encouraged, but let the person you’re holding initiate it first. Gently placing a palm on their hands is nice though.

And well, I decided to tell you all these guidelines because I’ve seen otherwise really nice people being completely illiterate about human touch, but don’t follow it to the letter. Follow it to the spirit. You need the right intention, which is to comfort and hold, and never to possess or dominate. And the most important part, again is being present, and mirroring the other person. If you pay attention, you’ll be able to see their reactions, their small signals telling you what they would like, what they enjoy and what makes them uncomfortable.

Step four to Energy Working: Be prepared for abreactions

As I said, some people will burst out crying just from being put in a trance. These feelings are so rare that for some people, a regular hug will be something they last had when they were four years old. They might have had sex, but it was about power and control and possession, they might have hugged their children, but weren’t present to give and receive, and here comes a random hippie and gives them a hug, and suddenly they are reminded of all their feelings they convinced themselves of not having.

So while the reaction of most people will be positive, you’ll potentially encounter negative emotions. The easiest of which is having a crying person. As you’re not their therapist, don’t try to analyze them, or give them guidance. Make sure that they know you’re not inconvenienced by their emotional outburst. Ask them what would feel best for them, do they want you to stay with them, do they want to talk. Stay with them, unless they ask for time alone. (Hearing someone out is not the same as providing therapy or coaching! Hear them out without judgement, and refrain from giving advice.)

It’s possible that you get strange and hard to interpret reactions like shaking, jolts of movement, moans, sighs, strange vocalizations, tears or drool, etc. Hitchhiker’s Guide rules apply, don’t panic. Also don’t try to solve or fix anything. Make sure that they are okay. There are two questions you should ask. “Are you okay?”, and regardless to the answer to that one, “Would you like me to keep holding you?” If the answer is affirmative, keep holding them. If they told you they aren’t okay, also ask them if they need anything. Applying pressure with your palm over the chest, or the head can be comforting in case they are “not okay”.

A worse situation is an outburst of anger or other negative feelings. This can result in an immediate withdrawal of consent. You’re not their therapist, so it’s not up to you to fix them, and you didn’t do anything to them that you need to feel guilty about, so in such a case simply withdraw, be polite and respectful, and remember not to push.

It’s not strictly an abreaction, but a potentially unexpected occurrence, that they go into a deep trance all by themselves. This can result in becoming nonverbal, in infantile body language (snuggling, taking up a fetal pose, changes to facial expression) or body catalepsy (becoming immobile). This is a good thing. It means you gave them something wonderful, and they trust you enough to let go. In such a case, there are two things you must never do: get scared, or attempt giving hypnotic suggestions.

You don’t get scared, because in this state, your fright will be a traumatic experience for the person you are holding. And you don’t attempt giving suggestions because you didn’t receive consent for it, and you’re probably not trained how to do that well anyway. Don’t try to shake them awake, that’s just evil. You can ask the person if they are okay (you’ll likely get the slightest of nods along with a sigh or a hum), but don’t ask open questions. Asking a nonverbal person to talk is… well… not very nice. Let them be nonverbal. And tell them it’s okay, and that you’ve got them. Handling a regressed person follows exactly the same guidelines as holding a baby, only that they are a lot bigger and heavier.

You’d better not have anyplace to go in the following hour or so. If you, for some reason, do, or after an hour the other person is still in a trance, you can gently ask them to slowly come back, as you’ll need to leave soon. Don’t shake them awake!!! That’s extremely rude! Have you ever heard the phrase “a rude awakening”? So no shaking! They will come back soon enough. If they don’t, just repeat it gently several times, until they do. Don’t raise your voice. Be patient, and they will come back. Anything else, and you’d be breaking your implicit social contract formed by you offering to hold them, and can result in a break in interpersonal trust. Even if it’s the tiniest of cracks, it’s still a crack, You want to avoid that.

Step five to Energy Working: Hold your own boundaries

Just because you’re starting out in control of the situation, doesn’t mean that you need to disregard your own boundaries. Have a good grasp of what forms of touch you want to accept from the other person. It’s quite possible to hold someone while not allowing them to proactively touch you at all, but make sure to communicate this beforehand. Even if you’re okay with being touched, the gesture you provide can be misinterpreted as sexual, so it’s a good idea to lay down the groundwork before the first touch.

As you are in the situation with the other person, and they attempt to overstep your boundaries (like touching you on an erogenous zone, or starting to talk dirty, or similar), firmly but gently stop them. Remember that the other person is in a very vulnerable place, so being gentle at first is important. Like, take the offending hand, firmly return it to fetal position, hold it there, saying, for example “don’t. your hand remains here, okay?” Now if the other person doesn’t listen, and keeps pushing against your well-stated boundaries, then extract yourself, and tell them that they made you uncomfortable, and you don’t want to touch anymore.

Protect yourself, because if you don’t, you cannot protect anyone else either.

There are a few things to note. First, you should be able to discern a childish thirst for touch, that is pretty natural in a regressed state, from sexual attempts. Be equally firm in all cases that make you uncomfortable, but if the other person is in the mindset of a child, handle them as you would handle a real child. It’s easy to cause severe emotional damage to someone in this sort of altered state. As for opportunistic feel-ups and harrassment, as I said first be firm but gentle (unless you expressly discussed boundaries beforehand, and the other person wilfully disregarded it), and the second time is a great time to call “three strikes out”. Also, if you are holding a male bodied person, erections are not an indication of either sexual intent or desire, so don’t treat them (or lack of them) as anything other than an involuntary physiological phenomenon.

So that’s it for today. Go out and be nice to others.

Exploring wonder

In art and self-expression, my primary motivation is to inspire wonder. There’s of course also the deep psychological aspect of art, where half-conscious material from the mind can be sublimated into something… sublime… however when it comes to my motivation, the reason I want to explore, to learn and to get better at art, it always comes back to wonder. So taking a closer look at wonder might be a good idea.

There are multiple definitions of wonder from various scholars of art, but it might be easier to define it for ourselves by finding instances when we experienced it, rather than by finding a general description. I know that my personal understanding of wonder has to do with a sense of momentary incredulity. A sense of “does this really exist, or am I dreaming?” Of suddenly finding myself in a storybook.

I vividly remember a profound moment of wonder that was connected to a rather mundane experience. As a teenager I was at a music festival, and I went exploring in the park areas of the festival grounds. It was a dark forested area with trails lit by colorful paper lanterns. The colors of a light painting installation were cast in broken shards across the foliage, and a taste of incense and chill music was on the air. Along with the unique people around me, at that moment I felt like I was in a magical maze in a storybook, where adventure and beauty lives all around me.

If I break it down, the festival was a rather mainstream, commercial event; the park was unkempt and average; the lights were pretty simple, just a ready-bought festive lantern chain from a Chinese store; the light painting was aimed somewhere else; ultimately, there was no artistic genius or true natural magnificence behind my sense of wonder, and yet it was real and complete.

Thinking back at an exhibition by contemporary painter Attila Szűcs, I can recall a very similar sensation. His art is visually realistic, often based on photographs, but with a dream-like quality added to them. There’s a level of mystery to his work, a sense of not being quite sure what one is truly looking at. A middle-aged man in shirt and tie, standing knee-deep in water in a nothingness of whites and greys. A teenage boy in amidst lantern-lit trees, himself decorated with lanterns like a human Christmas tree. A fighter airplane, or the ghost of one, resting erotically on a freshly made bed.

According to an interview, he often paints in a meditative state, and at least for me, it seems his work invites the viewer to experience a mirror to that state, to mentally step into the frame, and get lost in this strangely detached dreamworld, foreboding and beautiful. And somehow it feels like that this component of mystery, or openness, really contributes to true wonder. The sense of there being “more than you can encompass with your senses”. The sense of being invited to imagine an entire universe through a single, surreal glimpse.

So one wonders (sry for the pun) what exactly links the sensation of getting lost at a music festival, and seeing surreal and magical paintings. I might be jumping the gun here, but there is a sense of reality opening up, a sense of discovery, of new horizons. And that’s where I think true wonder and simple amazement diverge.

Consider for a moment magic tricks; if they are executed properly, they are obviously amazing. Where did the coin go? Where did it come from? Wow! Amazing! However, it takes a master performer to make them wondrous. To hold your attention. It’s sad, but most of circus can get somewhat boring, even though it’s a group of arts all about amazement. Reading this book on clowning (Clowns by Ezra Lebank & David Bridel), it was interesting to read that many of the greatest masters in the art of clowning today say that they weren’t really into circus as kids. Thinking about it, it’s no big surprise, as a kid I was also often bored at circus.

Amazement can be overloaded. Also, in and of itself it’s not all that interesting. Watching the olympics is only interesting at length if one is invested in national pride connected to it, or as a fellow athlete, can truly relate to the level of refinement exhibited at world class level. Otherwise, it’s just hairless monkeys running in circles. You can see that on the playground. Sure, the don’t run as fast, but who cares, at least the kids are being cute while doing it.

I see the success of Cirque du Soleil in no other thing than the fact that they put wonder back in circus. It’s no longer just amazing feats of skill following each other, it’s a story, a whole world told through the language of amazing feats of skill. I think there really may be something to my idea of “opening up reality”.

I started writing this post mainly as a way to rehash my opinions to myself as well as my readers, and I do think I may have grasped something that I was only vaguely feeling before. And there’s some really good news in here for everyone who’s a burner. It’s a lot easier to create wonder at a burn than it is in a circus. The burn is open. It’s participatory. It’s an experiment in how to create, in how to be artists and humans. It carries its own level of wonder, that we can piggyback on.

So let’s go out, create and burn. :)

Revisiting hypnosis in art and in life

Back when the blog was new, I wrote a lengthy piece about why I thought hypnosis was, to put it mildly, overrated. I had had extensive personal experience and quite a bit of learning behind it, but I was definitely far too judgmental, and had had the misfortune of seeing and experiencing too many instances of really badly executed hypnosis. (I removed that post for not being up to the quality standards I’d like to hold my blog to. In this post I’ll be re-addressing all the major points I had there.)

One reason I decided to rehash the topic is that I have had really good experiences in therapy with (really well executed) hypnosis, and the other reason has to do with art and self-expression. With my newly found interest in the art of clowning, which, really, is the art of human connection, wonder and empathy, I had the realization that recreational and show hypnosis might be a mostly untapped resource of deep human connection and pure wonder.

So… what the hell is hypnosis.

“Is it real?”

When people ask “is hypnosis real”, what do they really mean? I mean, how can a behavioral phenomenon be “not real”? There’s two people, usually two at least, and one is doing something, and the other is doing some other thing, and this whole behavioral phenomenon is happening in reality. You can record them on video. They actually are doing that. It’s real.

So what do we mean when we ask, “is it real?” Well, I managed to decipher that into the following question:

“Is the subjective experience of the hypnotized person congruent with what is claimed or widely believed about hypnosis?”

Of course this question is still quite fuzzy, and the answers even more so. For now, my focus here is stage show hypnosis, Las Vegas sideshow stuff, later I’ll get to therapy too, but in this article only as a sidenote… And well, in show hypnosis, most of the time the experience is actually not congruent. But then, before we stand in judgement, we need to look at another question, that of “is it fake,” which we can decipher into the following:

“Is the subjective experience of the hypnotized person congruent with that of a stage extra who purposely acts out out the part of a hypnotized person, in order to fool the audience?”

And the answer to this question is also no, at least most of the time. So when we take the most literal definition of fake, then hypnosis isn’t fake. Not even the cheesy sideshow kind. There are actual psychological laws behind why the behavior happens that we can observe on a video recording.

And here’s where things get complex.

It’s not “a thing,” it’s “a number of things”

Hypnosis isn’t one specific phenomenon, it’s more like a discipline. Like there are specific biological, ethological and psychological reasons why we experience real emotions when watching a movie or a play, but that doesn’t mean that “acting” is some kind of psychological phenomenon in and of itself. It’s a human discipline that builds on our being human, in order to elicit an effect. It’s the same with hypnosis.

There are, in my view (based on literature research and on introspection), multiple components that lead to the behavioral effects of hypnosis:

The social component

The social component of hypnosis is very important. There are still experts who claim it’s the only component, which some might interpret as “hypnosis being fake”. Still, social psychology is as real as any other psychology. Social situations have an actual involuntary effect on us.

So one half of the social component is the social script of hypnosis. A social script is a learned pattern of human interaction. Buying food at a supermarket, ordering at a restaurant, or teaching a seminar are examples of social scripts. They come with a set of roles, a set of acceptable acts and phrases, a set of expectations of what will happen. There is one for hypnosis, that is taught by media. Most people know what is supposed to happen in hypnosis, what they are supposed to do, etc.

The other half is peer pressure. If one feels like they are expected to, or bound by social contract to follow this social script, then it becomes very hard, or even impossible to veer away from it.

The attention component

Researchers have identified a certain specific thing that hypnotized people’s brains do on MR and QEEG. One may cry triumph that we finally have found what hypnosis is (some researchers did), but the truth is that the same things happen in the brains of people flying a 747 across the Atlantic, or driving a car from Berlin to Munich on the Autobahn. So it’s not specific to hypnosis.

This thing that happens in the brain is what is colloquially called a trance state, or at least a kind of trance state. It has to do with an intense focus of attention among other things. It doesn’t explain the entire phenomenology of hypnosis. If you’re sitting in a car with the driver in a highway trance, and you tell them to meow like a cat, in response you’re a lot more likely to get “yea right, smartass” than “meow”.

The evolutionary component

Now this is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and introspection, but bear with me. It really explains a lot for me.

I’d like you to recall a time you were bedridden with an illness, maybe in hospital, with a loved one or a very sympathetic nurse or doctor taking care of you. Of course I don’t know about you specifically, but most people seem to feel like a child in situations like this. Not “helpless as a child” as a metaphor, but actually, subjectively have a very similar emotional experience of dependence and bonding as they did when they were (small) children, and a natural urge to be passive and compliant. This phenomenon is called regression. (Not to be confused with past life journeys and stuff.)

So here’s my pet theory. Imagine an injured hunter in the stone age, with a bleeding head from the kick of an antelope or buffalo, and a shaman using a sharp stone to scrape his skull to probably save his life. If it were another species of animal, one without the altruistic tendencies of humans, the injured party would probably try to flee or fight the pain in such situations, making rescue hard or impossible. However, in the human, the fight-or-flight reflex is turned off, and so is avoidance of pain and most voluntary action, purely through a) a situation of overwhelm, and b) the clear demonstration of  authority, competence and benevolence. “Yes please save my life, I’m out of my depth here, I’m entrusting you with full control.”

And guess what, this sounds a lot like a lot of hypnosis. In hypnosis we often have a competent authority figure, a demonstration or implicit agreement of competence, and in certain methods of hypnosis, especially of the recreational and stage kind, a sensory overwhelm or startlement of the hypnotized person, to create an “out of depth” feeling. (In therapy one generally doesn’t need that, as there’s already an issue to solve, and an agreement to help and be helped.)

Hypnosis in coaching and therapy

The largest issue that I see in this field is the public representation, partially fuelled by certain hypnotists themselves, and the amount of really bad work done with no real knowledge behind. Even used car salesmen will moonlight as hypnotherapists, and sometimes take more money for an hour than a certified clinical psychologist.

My original, now deleted post on the topic was mainly a rant about debunking the myth of direct suggestion in self-improvement. Telling someone in hypnosis to automatically work out three days a week won’t magically make them athletic. What will more likely happen is similar to what happens after an average new year’s resolve. Hypnosis is not a magical ingredient to change personality traits. It’s neither necessary nor sufficient to do so. So it’s used far too much as a way to sell bad coaching for more money than it’s worth.

Also, I felt it was important to address some popular myths that are particularly dangerous. It’s still widely believed among the public that hypnosis can help people recall past experiences exactly, or to recover lost memories. This is simply wrong. If someone says this, they “are either stupid or lying, so stop lying before stupid people start believing you.” Human memory is quite fallible, and the hypnotically “recovered” memories are made up fantasies fabricated on demand. This is proven fact. To make it worse, the hypnotized person runs the risk of actually believing that this is a real memory, through the mechanism of social narratives. There is a good reason hypnosis is no longer an accepted tool in court cases. It has a really bad track record.

In legitimate therapy and coaching, hypnosis is used to build rapport and help the client focus inward. It’s not treated as administrator access to the mind (as it isn’t), and the therapy or coaching techniques used would actually be effective without hypnosis. It’s a lubricant, like oil in an engine. The oil doesn’t make the engine run, it just makes it run more efficiently.

So what does it feel like

We broke off talking about what the subjective experience of the hypnotized person is. Well, in therapy and coaching, if the practitioner is good, then the experience is that of a state of reverie or introspection, along with a feeling of safety and deep emotional rapport with the practitioner. And usually this is exactly what the practitioner will tell the client to expect, so in fact the experience is congruent with expectations. It’s real.

How about show hypnosis though… Well, the expectation is that of magic. Of being controlled or transformed. To, and this is what a lot of show hypnotists actually say in their patter, “to experience the power of mind over matter”… Well, here’s the hard truth, and not a lot of people will tell you this, but what it feels like most of the time though, is more like being bullied into buying a vacation timeshare.

Now I don’t think I need to tell you this, but there is nothing even remotely magical about buying vacation timeshare. It involves uncomfortable social pressure, a markedly non-magical sense of obligation to do something one doesn’t want to, and severe cognitive dissonance afterwards.

The timeshare salesman formula

Here’s how most stage hypnosis is built up.

First, there is a demonstration of suggestibility to select the easiest subjects from the audience. This is mostly built upon the regressive effect I mentioned, people are often uncomfortable sitting at a hypnosis show to begin with, and there’s a seemingly competent authority figure telling them what to do. It’s comfortable.

Then, there is a section of relaxation and deepening, often using some level of social pressure and the power of expectation (seeing others fall into a trance before you is quite powerful), as well as a comfortable trance state. This is equivalent to the three day free vacation at a five-star hotel with a large pool and an all you can eat buffet. It’s the hook. “See how nice I can make you feel?”

Then, of course, comes the show part. And it’s kinda sad how unimaginative and downright mean these acts get. The people are in some level of trance, and there’s the urge to follow the authority figure, but there’s also the very very real social pressure of having entered a social contract. They are on the stage to provide entertainment. Bailing out would be bad sportsmanship. It would make them seem like jerks, and what’s worse, they would feel like jerks too. This is quite similar to how people feel that having been given a gift of three days’ vacation socially obliges them to actually buy the timeshare.

And finally, there’s cognitive dissonance. Most people simply don’t experience hypnotic amnesia from direct suggestions. They just don’t. So why is it that most people act like they forgot the show when the hypnotist told them to? Well, it’s just better to pretend that they forgot. It was too embarrassing to begin with, let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Plus, breaking the illusion would a) be a jerk move, and b) be equivalent to admitting to having been conned. So it’s just much better to pretend that there was actually some magic and they were controlled like puppets, and not bullied and conned into doing things they’d rather forget.

“So, what just happened?”, asks the hypnotist after an amnesia suggestion…
The subject winces uncomfortably. “Hum… hee-hee… wow…” A tiny shrug. “Weird… dunno…”

This is almost a typical response, just check out some hypnosis demonstrations on YouTube. The subject is really saying “I don’t want to lie but I don’t want to contradict you… Why am I feeling so obliged to agree with you? This is weird and uncomfortable. Wow. Please don’t ask again.”

So, in a way, stage hypnosis is real. And here I’m not talking about all of stage hypnosis, kudos to those who do it differently, but unfortunately a lot of it, while definitely real, is “real bullying” and not “real magic”.

The power of the $50 bill

There’s a demonstration routine, to show the power of hypnosis to a skeptical person. Here’s how it goes. The hypnotist induces trance in the subject, using easy suggestions like the lemon trick and yes-sets to build rapport and compliance, and then drops a $50 bill on the floor.

The subject is given a suggestion that their hands are turned to stone, and the dollar bill weighs a metric ton, so they are incapable of picking it up. If they can pick it up however, and so demonstrate that they are unaffected, then the bill is theirs to keep. I haven’t heard of anyone who had picked the bill up.

Why does this work? Well, the magic is in the $50 bill. If it was a plain piece of paper, there would be a small percent of people who’d override the suggestion and pick it up just to spite the hypnotist. But it’s fifty bucks. And there’s an implicit social contract with the hypnotist that even though they said the subject could keep it, they aren’t actually expecting to lose it. It’s a magic trick, a game, a play for two.

Picking the money up wouldn’t just be a jerk move, it would be stealing. So nobody picks it up. The power of social pressure. This is real too, just not very magical.

The wall of deception

I’m not sure all show hypnotists understand the full implication of what they are doing with their routines. Quite a few do, but I don’t think it’s all of them. And even the ones who instinctively or consciously understand still seem to be buying into the illusion themselves, after all it’s “all in good humor”, never mind that it’s usually not funny.

Of course what they tell others, even when teaching workshops, is colored with all the woo about “power of the mind” and “power of hypnosis” and whatnot. There’s a lot of misinformation going around, including extraordinary claims about what is possible in hypnosis, stories about the lame and the blind miraculously getting cured Jesus Christ style, as well as people who had their lives almost ruined by a misworded suggestion.

Now as a hypnotist you do actually need to be careful with suggestions, not because of how much control you have, but because of how little. People will ultimately do what they feel like, and if they (consciously or unconsciously) feel like harming themselves while conveniently blaming you, well… You’ll be suddenly finding yourself in very hot water. So the safety warnings stand. Just know that it sometimes can do that, but usually it won’t, and it’s not up to you when.

This collective effort to pretend that hypnosis is something that it isn’t is kinda like the kayfabe of pro wrestling, or the secrecy of illusionists, however here I believe it crosses over into being harmful rather than playful. Nobody is hurt by not knowing how a particularly elaborate card trick works, or where the real life persona of a luchador ends and where his character begins; It just makes the entertainment more mysterious and engaging. People however are hurt to various extents by bad hypnosis.

Hypnosis has real effects, it really increases compliance and focus, but for example, in truth both the lemon trick and the hand levitation trick work in a fully awake state, you can try them right now by yourself. They are things the hypnotist knows about the mind that many in the audience don’t, that help create a sense of wonder. It’s like an ancient astronomer wooing the people by forecasting a solar eclipse. The astronomer didn’t create the eclipse, he just knew something others didn’t.

The lemon trick

Imagine eating a slice of lemon. Imagine the color of the peel, the touch, the smell in your nose, the tart taste as you bite down… Most people start salivating when they really imagine this. Your physiology responds to an imagined stimulus as if it were real.

It’s awesome, but it’s not an effect of hypnosis.

The hand levitation trick

Imagine a bunch of helium balloons tied to your right wrist. Imagine tying more and more balloons there, the pull on your wrist, the bright colors of the balloons, the light sensation in your arm… Most people feel as if their arms “want” to rise by itself after putting in enough effort into imagining, and it’s a markedly different feeling than raising your arm consciously.

What you just did is you temporarily changed the tone of some muscles in your arm. It’s more comfortable to hold out for longer periods than the “normal” way of using direct conscious movement. It uses different pathways in the brain.

Now this isn’t as easy to achieve as the lemon trick, and hypnosis does help with it, as it helps lower the guard of the inner critic that may stop you before succeeding, but you really don’t need hypnosis for it to work. Martial artists and athletes use mental techniques like this a lot. It’s the power of the mind, but not the power of hypnosis.

Finding magic in show hypnosis

So we have a set of real phenomena that are routinely misused to create un-funny shows and mildly traumatized people. When in fact, hypnosis, when applied with the knowledge of what makes it work, and a deep human empathy, could have the power to create real connection, and real wonder. The childlike perspective and the weird impulse to follow can be an experience of wonder, like dancing follow with an expert dancer.

It’s a similar question to audience engagement in clown acts. That can be done well and done badly as well, and is done badly too often. And even one instance of it done badly would be bad. As famous clown Avner Eisenberg aka Avner the Eccentric put it:

I can’t watch performers humiliating people, making them do hoochy-coochy dances in front of the public. It drives me nuts. Or juggling clubs around them when there’s this implication, this threat, that they might get hurt. I can’t stand that. I’ve developed a whole philosophy and lots of techniques for what – I hope – creates a situation where the rest of the audience says, “Wow, that looked like fun. Maybe I can be next”

I believe the right way would be to create an artistic experience through hypnosis where the subjective perspective is not “wow, why am I putting up with this”, but rather “wow, there’s magic and I’m part of it”. And for that, the show would need to be designed for the primary audience of the subjects, considered with empathy from the perspective of each person, about the emotions, feelings, experiences entailed in each act and trick. And of course, this would mean letting go of many staples, and re-imagining the entire format of the “hypnosis show”.

That, and the kayfabe needs to be torn down, at least in the head of the hypnotist, but preferably everywhere else, too. Operating from the viewpoint that hypnosis is magical admin rights to the brain, one is certain to either fail, or to replicate the horrible timeshare sale experience mentioned above. And there’s plenty of magic left even when the bullshit is shoveled off.

Five years gone

It’s been five years since my last post, nearly, and now I decided I need a place to blog again. So why not here. I left the blog online, as I think there’s some important information here for the DIY tDCS crowd, and didn’t want to take that away. Too much stupid was (and sometimes is) going on in the biohacking scene, and a sane voice is always a good thing.

It’s been a long and busy 5 years for me. Things changed. I hopped countries again. Probably will do it again soon. I went through a major crisis, came out, and found new callings. I’m still a hacker, and now I’m a burner, too. The Burning Man movement and subculture has shown me that life can be worth living, and pulled out some deeply buried childhood dreams. Like that of being a clown.

I don’t feel talented at clowning, only motivated. I’ve never been very good at theater arts. That said, the very mild neuroatypia I grew up with may have the benefit that I can see humans one step removed, and I do think I have the right heart for this. So now I’m applying the stuff I blogged about in How to Be Someone Else years ago. Learning to see the world through the lens of poetic comedy, learning flow arts, and hanging out with burners and amateur circus people. And somehow I have the feeling that if I can learn to be a clown, I’ll at the same time learn to be a good human being.

As for tDCS, I started getting headaches after stimulation, so I don’t use it frequently anymore. I do want to experiment with tACS still, I just need time and energy to design and build a device I can trust. I was, and am keeping myself busy with a number of things at all times, and this kinda slid to the bottom of the product backlog of my life.

I’ll probably be blogging about more psychological, philosophical and artistic topics going forward, with some hacking thrown in.

A slump and a new tDCS montage

Over the last few months I haven’t updated this blog – I have had a slump, which left me somewhat unmotivated about self-improvement and other activities that aren’t central to staying afloat. In the end what shook me out of it was an overseas trip. Jet lags force one to look at things in a new light, waking up at unfamiliar hours, or staying up late without a hint of tiredness.

Still, about the time when I got back, I heard of an interesting new montage mentioned on the /r/tdcs subreddit. It is called a fronto-occipital, or F-O depression montage, and involves placing the anode over Fp1, and the cathode over Oz.

Here is an abstract of a paper detailing this montage. It showed a lot of promise, and the activation of the DLPFC was observed to be even higher than with the most popular bifrontal montage.

Some other data also popped up that made this montage extremely interesting. It would seem, based on animal testing, that the habenula (pineal gland) plays an important role in motivation for both bodily exercise, and the pursuit of pleasurable activities. Of course, being deep inside the brain, targeted stimulation of the habenula is all but impossible without invasive (surgical) techniques, but a front-to-back montage, which directly affects much of the brain, might likely impart some effect to such deep-seated areas as well.

I tried the montage, with a 3×3 inch electrode over Fp1, and a large, 3.5×7 inch one draped horizontally over the occipital lobe – I wanted to avoid creating a cathodal hotspot over the occipital lobe. So far, it seems extremely rewarding. I did notice a significant alleviation of passive behavioral patterns, and an improvement in my mood. Applying tDCS in the morning, as opposed to the afternoon was also a welcome change – it is definitely the superior option, and the jetlag made it a lot easier than it would normally be.

My plan is to keep at it for 7 days, and write about my observations afterwards.

Casual use of tDCS

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have some pretty good experience with tDCS. I’ll try to quickly go through the protocols I’ve been using, and my experiences.

First experiment

When I first applied tDCS, it was in the middle of a depressive episode with strange behavioral blocks. Such as, I’ve had this inexplicable dread of checking my mail, been unwilling to start or do anything productive, and similar. I have no idea about the exact neuropsychology of it (it would have been interesting to check myself with a QEEG unit if I had one), but I suppose it was some kind of over-inhibition. It’s something that’s characteristic of my basic “personality”, and something that’s caused me much grief in the past.

I applied tDCS in a bifrontal configuration with the anode over F3 (left dlPfC) and the cathode over Fp2 (right supraorbital). This is an extremely widely researched and proven configuration for treating depression, and is associated with increased conscious control over emotions and an improvement of executive functions including short term memory.

A great overview of tDCS montages and their observed effects in experiments is the TDCS State of the Art paper. Another awesome resource everyone should read are the manuals from Trans Cranial Technologies. They have a comprehensive, easy-to-understand manual on the 10-20 QEEG positioning system, proven tDCS montages, and on cortical functions for those who want to experiment with new setups.

The device was extremely simple, consisting of nothing but an array of CRDs (totaling 2.0mA) and a 1k resistor to suppress current spikes. As a bonus I managed to be the idiot I mentioned earlier, and connected my head last to a powered-up loop, so it can be said without doubt that the total current clearly has gone above 2.0mA upon turn-on (which manifested in a weird popping sensation and a feeling of electric shock – though no phosphenes).

The behavioral-cognitive effect was quite noticeable, but I still don’t know if it had more to do with the tDCS or the shock from the transients. Anyway, the behavioral blocks I mentioned were gone in about 5 minutes, and I soon caught up with all the stuff I have been putting off for days or weeks. In total I did 20 minutes of treatment, and disconnected. Upon disconnection, I experienced phosphenes. While from a subjective standpoint I’ve been successful, I decided to put off further experimentation until I’ve built a more secure device.

Following up

Later, when I completed the device described in previous posts, I decided to do a 5-day treatment regimen, using the same bifrontal configuration. This time, I always used the manual start/stop pot, and thus avoided any form of transient.

At this point I was not in any particularly bad condition psychologically (apart from a slight slump in motivation), and thus the effects of this treatment were barely noticeable from a subjective standpoint. I did observe a slight “emotional desensitization”, or increased control over my emotional responses. In a kind of Vulcan-ish way.

The treatment markedly did not help with my lack of motivation, which culminated in spending an entire weekend doing literally nothing but watching Game of Thrones. (In a rather positive mood, but that hardly counts in favor.) So it must be said that tDCS is not a magic bullet. It’s a “hardware level” tuning, and will not necessarily alleviate cognitive, “software level” problems.

A walk in the woods

I did a search over the net looking for ways to increase motivation via tDCS. What I did find was a montage based on anodal stimulation of the right dlPfC (F4), supported by some anecdotal evidence, and unsupported by experimental data. The one relevant experiment I found that used this setup failed to provide statistical data to support its effect on goal-oriented behavior. (That said, the failure might be attributed to a bad choice of measurement task, so I didn’t dismiss it out of hand.)

The protocol was 25 minutes daily for 3 days, using 2mA of total current between the anode over F4 and cathode over Fp1. Though there were no studies showing the effectiveness of this montage for motivation or goal-oriented behavior, it was proven to be without negative effects, and was being researched for alleviating alcohol and drug cravings, so I wasn’t particularly worried.

I did notice some reduction in the compulsive-repetitive behavior that is inherent to my genetic condition (there might be a link with the addictological effects of the montage), and slightly better goal-oriented planning, but nothing particularly striking, so I cannot rule out placebo effect. This slight improvement seems to have dissipated after discontinuing the regimen, though.

Refining the depression montage

I have had some worries about the bifrontal setup, as it has both the anode and cathode over areas of the frontal lobe. Later, I found some data supporting the use of an extracranial cathode. In this setup, the anode is placed over the left dlPfC (F3), and the cathode over the contralateral (right) arm.

I’ve done one 5-day regimen using this since, and I have recently started another. It does seem to help a lot – though I haven’t noticed such marked effects as the first experiment, that may also be because I haven’t experienced such marked behavioral blocks since. It’s hard to pinpoint the effect of treatment, but it’s definitely a thing. It’s not really what “is” there, but what “isn’t”. I definitely feel better and more productive when I’m using tDCS.

If the mountain fights back

Sometimes, even though we have the tools to create or increase motivation, it just isn’t enough. The problem is not in not trying hard enough, it’s in the strategy, or rather, the field itself that we are trying to attack. This is when you’re no longer just fighting your own body, the mountain you’re trying to climb has started to fight back.

This is surprisingly widespread in our current culture, some of it intentional, some unconscious, but much of human knowledge and skill has been written up, and is being taught in a way that creates an artificial barrier to understanding and assimilating it.

Most of it is just the fact that the percentage of great teachers among mankind is rather low. Even experts of a given field often turn out to be quite subpar when it comes to giving their knowledge over to the next generation. Textbooks are often arduous reads that spend far too much time on insignificant details, and hamfist the explanation of key concepts, while university lectures are often seen by students as an ideal place to take a power nap, and through no fault of their own.

However, that is not all. We are, as a society, captives of an idea of specialization. The only people we see as valid are those who streamlined their whole lives toward a single carreer, a single area of expertise from early childhood, and much of education seems to concentrate on selecting the best candidates for each pursuit of life, as opposed to building whole human beings.

In many countries, the role of PE is not to give children a health-conscious mindset and improve their physical prowess – it is to selectively pick out the children who are best suited to become professional atheletes, while (intentionally or no) instilling a sense of failure in the rest. The same goes for music education, but in this area the problem is even more widespread, and, particularly, in mathematics and the sciences.

The idea of “teaching kids that life is no walk in the park” is a rather old maxim among teachers, and I’ve seen an otherwise extremely liberal and enlightened professor of philosophy, mathematics and psychology write that the fact that most children get a sense of failure and inadequacy from mathematics or PE classes is in fact a good thing, as it teaches them that they cannot do anything.

And this was a liberal, well-rounded, polymathic professor regarded as a role model by many students, probably the person closest to the reneissance ideal at the psychology faculty of the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest that I knew. If people like him hold such satanic ideas, no wonder we’re faced with so many problems.

Of course, most people who did chew themselves through all the hardships and artificial roadblocks will not be very happy to see others master their field with ease and fun, so anyone looking for help from those “in the know” will often be faced with jargon, an in-group vs. out-group mindset, and some open resentment for trying to “cheat”.

So it’s safe to assume that most fields do not want you to master them. It’s not that you cannot, you just need to find the best path of attack. Sometimes “renegade” teachers with novel ideas will create seminars and books that allow outsiders to sidestep the artificial roadblocks, and assimilate the field according to one’s own capabilities and the field’s true complexity.

An example for this would be Duncan Lorien, a pop music producer who, seeing the abysmal state of music education in the west, took it up to become the best music teacher of our generation. I attended his seminar, and it was really, really great. I recommend attending both the Understanding Music and Understanding Songwriting seminars, as they form a complete whole.

In other cases, while there may be no sherpa to lead you up, there is an easy trail up the mountain. A segment or pursuit within the field you’re aiming toward that has a lower entry barrier than others, one that will yield positive feedback in a measureable amount of time. Ironically enough, these pursuits very often have a bad name.

Take body building for example. Many athletes and coaches will openly tell you that body building is not a sport. However, while in most sports the aim of the coaches is to pick the best and weed out the rest through unenjoyable and monotonous practice, the very atmosphere in body building is different. Honestly, I haven’t seen as many newbie-friendly and helpful people in any other walk of life as in body building. And while some of the worries about “cosmetic-focused training” are valid, if you follow a good exercise regime, body building can help you become athletic, and allow you to later enter any other field of sports at your own pace.

Similarly, cycling, while boasting a much less helpful community, is an activity that scales very well, and is extremely suited to people with a traditionally “wimpy” phisique, and is thoroughly fun and enjoyable. Also, cycling is very good at providing positive feedback. You’ll notice improvements in your physique and stamina very early on, which helps one keep on track.

Sometimes there will be no clear easy road, but often the choice of textbook or teacher can mean the difference between success and failure. Anthony Lee of GetLimitless has recently blogged about a new way of learning, using short bursts of concentrated information, with resting periods inbetween. While this is extremely promising, and I know it to work (I’ve used a similar pattern to assimilate most university courses I took), getting the information in digestable, concentrated format is what is hard.

Unfortunately, United States textbooks tend to be extremely superfluous, and full of unproductive banter. In Hungary (my birth country), university textbooks are usually extremely terse. A textbook that would be a 1000 pages in the US is likely to be somewhere around 150 pages in Hungary, with the exact same amount of knowledge crammed in. I’ve had textbooks with little or no natural language explanations, the pages filled with equations and a few figures. I’m wondering if this might have anything to do with Hungary’s awesome track record for raising great scientists and inventors.

[Nb. I need to mention a huge exception here, an American textbook that cannot be described with anything but the highest praise possible. And that is the Feynman lectures on Physics, now freely available to read online. It’s the best physics textbook I’ve ever come across.]

I’ve raised the idea on Reddit that a movement could be grounded for creating terse, concentrated learning materials for various fields. I think if it took off, it might even grow to be a world-changing endeavor.

A practical guide on how to be someone else

The world is full of methods allowing us to mess with our heads, but in this post I’ll concentrate on something most people are looking to achieve – changing who we are, and how we act. I’ve used these techniques several times in the past to effect positive change in my life – of course, it has also happened time to time that later I fell back into negative patterns and behaviors, so it’s not a magic bullet by any means. However, it can help a lot.

When a desire to act differently comes up in someone’s life, they usually think of symptomatic, superficial changes, and fantasize about ways to “program their subconscious” to automatically work out 30 minutes a day, not to eat sweets or pizza, stop smoking, spend more time studying, etc. The greatest lure of hypnosis is the belief that someone can just tell you that “from now on, you will find the taste of cigarette smoke revolting”, and poof, life problem solved. Well it doesn’t work that way.

The simplest approach

To change how we act, we need to change who we are. Our image of self is one of the major driving forces behind our daily acts. If I see myself as an athlete, I’ll be motivated to work out every day – if I see myself as a geek and a gamer, I’ll be motivated to spend a copious amount of time playing video games.

Our current mainstream culture seems to shun the idea of changing oneself. It’s all over television, movies, etc. “Be who you are”. The fat geeky kid tries to be sporty and cool, and ends up as laughing stock. It’s the absolute worst advice you can give a child. Self-representations, and our place in society are not constant, are built and developed as we mature, and well into old age, preferably up until death. Being discouraged from a course of life because of ones self-representation is one of the most common ways people make themselves miserable.

The absolutely easiest way to change who we are is through changing what we put in our brains. I mean entertainment, media, leisure reading, etc. If someone wants to become stronger and more athletic, the best thing they can do is go and buy a bodybuilding magazine, watch the Muscle Channel on cable, go read Internet forums and watch YouTube videos about strength training.

Note though that Internet forums can be a double-edged sword. If they are full of people who are either trolls and assholes, or hold totally opposing beliefs to one’s core alignments, participating in such can actually discourage one from adopting a certain identity. Say, one decides to eat healthy, and the healthy eating forums are packed with anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-vaccination conspiracy theory tinfoil-hat nutjobs, it can really really work as a motivation to just leave the whole healthy eating shit for the birds, go drop by a McDonalds right now, and kiss the website of Monsanto while thanking God for GMO soybeans. Unfortunately there is nothing one can do about people being stupid, so my suggestion is that if beliefs in a community go against your core ideas, just leave them, and try to find other sources that you find more acceptable.

The maxim that “you are what you eat” is particularly true of information. The Japanese seem to be particularly aware of this, as each year they push a plethora of children’s cartoons out the door, each showcasing a sport or activity of some kind, often in exaggerated ways that Western viewers tend to find hilarious. It’s solid fact that this sort of push from the media does manifest in an increased interest in sports. Years ago it was all over the news that after a cartoon was made about the game of Go, considered to be an “old man’s game”, with little interest from young people, suddenly Go clubs sprang up at schools country-wide, and the game enjoyed a nationwide revival.

Many of these sports cartoons do have a trick to them. The protagonist usually starts out as a non-athletic, weak kid, and through the story, progresses to be a top class athlete. This is very important, because it does not allow the viewers to disassociate themselves from the theme. It breaks down the wall of self-doubt that inevitably stands in the way of change.

Similarly in the US, television shows that cast African Americans in non-stereotypical roles, such as Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek as a high-ranking officer, or the upper-middle-class Banks family in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, actively helped young African Americans change the way they looked at their future, and aim for university and well-paying careers.

In my experience, if the motivation is there to change, then it doesn’t take too much input to affect a change in self-representation. Humans naturally learn by imitating others, and if you provide yourself with plenty of role models to imitate, change will come naturally.

If the simple approach fails

Well, sometimes it’s a bit harder to adopt a new way of life, maybe the emotional motivation isn’t as strong, or one just can’t muster the strength to make the change.

There are ways to help in cases like this. The best tool, I believe, is NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It’s a form of therapy developed years ago, which has undergone quite a lot of changes since. I do not agree with most of the tenets of old-school, orthodox NLP, but there are really good techniques there if you know where to look.

The primary goal in NLP is to change our mental representations. It can be applied by a therapist, or you can do it to yourself. Contrary to the name, it has little to do with “neuro” – it is not based on any kind of neurological or neuro-psychological research, I guess it just sounded cool. As for “linguistic”, while there’s a lot in NLP written about words and wording, I’d say the best techniques are the ones that do not use words at all.

My favorite “do it yourself” book on NLP is Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power. In case you’ve never heard of him (though I doubt it), Anthony Robbins is a world-famous life coach and “guru”, and this book is a crash course in his technique and approach to NLP. It’s a fun, engaging read, and extremely hands-on. I’m not advocating for everything Anthony Robbins ever said or did, but this book is really good.

As I’m no NLP expert by any stretch of imagination, I suggest you read the book, and make your own conclusions, but let me give you two examples of what you can do with NLP to help change your representations of yourself.

One is called modeling. It’s basically a conscious approach to imitating a role model. In simple terms, it entails trying to mimic their posture and facial expressions (one of the tenets of NLP is that the state of our body creates effects in the state of our mind), creating a model of what this person would live and act like, and periodically comparing our own conduct with this ideal. For example, “Would Arnold Schwarzenegger sit here and watch Office, or would he rather go down to the gym?”

The other favorite of mine is called reframing, and is one of the most basic techniques in NLP. This allows you to change your own perceptions about what’s possible or impossible, and what’s significant or unimportant. For example, you want to learn music, but all your life you’ve heard nothing but that you have to be born a musician, or at least start learning as a very small child. Of course, since you have such representations, it will be very hard to muster the will to pour energy into something you think is impossible.

To change this belief, you conjure up an image of you as a musician with people listening and enjoying your music in your mind, and then an image of something that you do know is possible. Say if you’re a great programmer, imagine yourself in the act of winning a coding competition. Then compare the two images based on modalities – how large they are, where they are in space, how colorful they are, do they have movement or sound, do you have kinesthetic feelings from them, do they have a frame or border, etc. Then you take the “impossible” image, and forcefully make it like the possible one.

By doing this regularly, over time you can change even deep-seated fears and beliefs, and set your sights on new horizons.