“As I consider my brother’s two houses, two boats, his devoted wife, three wonderful children, and his comfortable life enveloped in tropical balm, I wonder, with a slight degree of frustration, why it has fallen on me to be so restless and dissatisfied…always asking myself: Is this it?
The poet Stephen Dunn has a term for people like me: ‘Hunger Artists’ he calls us, “all going forward because the food they ate tasted wrong and the world was sad.” But I’m beginning to sense that moving forward is not enough. Finding better-tasting food to bring joy back to the world should be the purpose of any quest.”
The poem to which he refers reads:
“In spite of their lack of humor
I love Thoreau and Jesus, Marx
Malcom X. I love their obstinate courage,
Hunger Artists all, going forward
Because the food they ate
Tasted wrong, and the world was sad.”
“All the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms. No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.” – Walter Lippmann
Theo appears consumed by that “divine dissatisfaction” dancer and choreographer Martha Graham spoke about – “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”
Is it madness?
Or is it the only path available when you sense that the world is mad?
“Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain.” – Emily Dickinson
Or nailed to a cross…or forced to kill yourself by drinking hemlock.
Like author E.B. White, who once said he held one share in the corporate earth and was uneasy about its management, Theo considers the scorecard:
From the year 1500 to 2000:
– Human population has increased 14-fold.
– Production 240-fold.
– Energy consumption 115-fold.
as author Yuval Harari asked after presenting those figures in his book ‘Homo Sapiens’: are we happier as a result?
“Did the wealth humankind accumulate over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave?”
If the answer is not a resounding and categorical “YES!”, what’s the point?
Theo is in the process of turning over his share – his membership card to the world – and is walking away.
But away where? What for?
He considers the legacy of other Hunger Artists:
“After Jesus, the Catholic Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, pedophiles.
After Buddha, unbridled capitalism, sweatshops, call-centers, pollution, anomie – a consuming greed in both India (its cradle) and in China.
What about Socrates’ Greece: near financial collapse, unemployment, despair.
Thoreau’s Walden?: despoiled planet, life diminished.”
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Jesus
“I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.” – Thoreau
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates
Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
“We have capitulated, in order to fit in.” Theo recalls his brother’s earlier words as they sit under a clear, starry sky.
Theo wants to “fit out”, and midway in his journey, he is still struggling to rid himself from the suffocating clutch of all the beliefs he’s unwittingly assumed.
“Mine,” he wrote in his First Letter to his crew, “is a spiritual journey, in which I intend to question all the conventions of our modern world – all the ideologies, myths, and illusions that shape our understanding of the world – and think everything anew, as if for the first time: What is Happiness? What is Love? Why Death? What’s the meaning of our short presence on this Earth? How can we live with greater joy, purpose, and presence? I am headed towards a new orientation to life, if you will.”
Some have branded his journey as “escapism”.
To which his response is to quote Henry Miller:
“The real escapist is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to.”
Godspeed Theo! Stay hungry, and bring us better tasting food.
After my divorce in 2011, followed by a few tumultuous attempts at virtual dating, and ending with an extremely dangerous dalliance, I gave up, realizing I knew nothing about love and relationships, and told myself that if I ever was given another shot at it, I first needed to move away from the ‘Land of Women’.
So, I wrote this letter; a temporary farewell if you will, to women in my life:
“Now, leave me be! I can’t deal right now with your tears or menstrual blood. Stop seeing me in shining armor. I am no charming prince, nor have all the answers. Don’t ask me to go out and slay more dragons. I am tired, and just want to sleep. Don’t seek in me constancy, or nerves of steel. Don’t expect me to pay your bills at the baker or butcher shop, nor place a new toilet paper roll nor fill the empty ice trays. Don’t expect me to open doors for you or place my coat over a water puddle so your shoes won’t get wet. The only thing I want to do for now is to step down to the serfs’ mess hall to drink a pint of mead with the stableman and devour a mutton’s leg held with my bare hands. Let me sleep on the floor. Don’t daub my face with anti-wrinkle cream. Don’t trim my nails or beard. Don’t hold dinner for me or stay awake waiting for me to read you mushy poetry. I’ll be hunting deer and sleeping under the stars. Besides, for now, the only book I wish to read is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And please, above all, stop asking me how I feel!”
Then, I plunged into a months-long study on love, romance, sexuality, eroticism, relationships, and the personal unconscious. I ran the gamut, starting with the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, to the often-sexless courtship of Medieval troubadours, all the way to our current age of excarnation, hook-ups, serial monogamy, polyamory, and digitized vaginas. I vowed that if I was to have one last shot at love, I was going to be fully prepared, and walk into it with eyes wide open.
I figured that if we are required to study seven-to-ten years to become doctors, for example, or eight to practice law, we should at least dedicate some time to one of the most important aspects of our lives and our humanity. I also knew that I needed to explore the unconscious feelings that surrounded my ideas of women, to dispel false – or twisted – mystifications. If you consider my background, you’ll see what I mean.
“It is the woman in our heads, more than the woman in our beds that causes most of our problems.” – Sam Keen
About two years ago, at eleven at night on January 15, 2016, my phone beeped with this message:
“How are you?”
We had dated for two years while I lived in Costa Rica in my early twenties. Thirty years had passed since we last heard of one another.
I did not feel fully prepared, but so many serendipities were occurring in my life at that point that I considered her message as another sign from the universe. I seized it, we picked up right from where we started, and have been in a wonderful relationship ever since.
Meant to be? Is it true love? Is she my “other half” Plato proposes in the Androgyne Myth?
Genealogy and ancestry are now big business. People are hungry to know where they come from. I prefer to trace the ancestry of our ideas – our cultural DNA. We are the intellectual offspring of the ancient Greeks.
In a nutshell, the myth explains that long ago, there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous. Males were descended from the sun, females from the earth, and those who were androgynous, descended from the moon. They were powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans made to them, so Zeus (the Sky-God of Indo-Europeans) decided to cut each person in two. Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half and reunite with it. When found, they would embrace and stay together, not wanting anything else.
“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one…I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire?’ There is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.” – Aristophanes.
Sweet, but it sounded too cloying and absorbing. I also suspected that the myth had less to do with relationships, and more with the split between our female and male essences I discussed in Part II of my Series on Objectification.
Having unwittingly surrendered my sovereignty – my ‘Inner King’ – during my marriage, the idea of “losing myself”, or melting into another, as the myth says, was not something I wanted in a future relationship.
In my studies, I came across this vow, proposed by Sam Keen:
“I vow that I will defend the integrity of my separate being and respect the integrity of yours. We will meet only as equals; I will present myself to you in the fullness of my being and will expect the same of you. I will not cower, apologize, or condescend. Our covenant will be to love one another justly and powerfully; to establish and cherish inviolable boundaries; to respect our separate sanctuaries. We will remain joined in the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love until we arrive at a synthesis.”
Keen’s words immediately resonated with me, so I added this to the vow, and sent it to my girlfriend:
“Already whole, we will not look for the other to complete us. Rather, we will look for the other to complement us.”
And that was that…for a while.
But something kept nagging at me: neither the myth nor Sam Keen explained what both halves were coming together for.
I dug deeper, finding this quote from the renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion:
“Marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.”
That did not help much either.
What does that “spiritual identity” look and feel like? What is the “synthesis” Keen suggests a couple must arrive at through “the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love”?
Then my girlfriend’s daughter announced her wedding.
Having little money to gift her, I decided to create a recipe box, and in it, I included the quotes on love and relationships I felt could guide the newlyweds when struck by the inevitable conflicts that arise in a long-term, committed relationship.
This one made a lasting impression in my mind:
A few weeks ago, I flew down to Costa Rica to visit my girlfriend and attend her son’s high school graduation. The day after the ceremony, we drove north to the province of Guanacaste, and trekked high-up into the cloud-forest of the Volcán Tenorio National Park.
The night before, we hiked the path leading from our small hotel to a river at the base of the park. I was stunned when we got to its end, having never seen water of this intense blue before.
Its name is Rio Celeste. Sky Blue River.
“Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!” The phrase of the quote I had included in the recipe box rang in my head. I was eager to climb up the top and reach the river’s springhead.
We left very early the next morning. It had rained hard the night before, and it was still drizzling and overcast when we reached the base of the trail. An hour into the hike, I was glad I listened to my girlfriend, and had rented rain boots and ponchos from an enterprising ‘Tico’ who operated a makeshift stall by the parking lot.
Midway up the mountain, we reached a tranquil section of Rio Celeste where the water’s vibrant color makes you understand how it got its name.
We kept going; sloughing across the narrow trail, bruised and scraped, knee-deep in mud, calves burning by then; both realizing, in silence, that age was taking its toll on our tired bodies (she’s 51 – I’m 55).
She walked ahead of me, and seeing her bravely forging ahead, I recalled the fifteen reasons (and counting) I’ve compiled on why, every single day, I make the conscious choice to be with her. One of them stems from this phrase in German: “Jemand mit dem man Pferde stehlen kann”: She is someone with whom one can steal horses – daring, adventurous, insouciant; she has my back, as I do hers.
We were exhausted when we reached this crossroad:
But we decided to climb the remaining 3000 feet to ‘Teñideros’: the place where Rio Celeste is born.
It didn’t hit me at first.
Of course, I was intellectually intrigued by the ‘alchemical magic’ created by the confluence of two ordinary rivers – the clear one to the left, with the mineral-rich, white one in the middle – producing, in their joint flow, such an unbelievable, ethereal blueness.
It wasn’t until I returned home and received the prints of the photos I had taken on our journey that I was struck.
I had found it! The perfect, visual metaphor for love in a committed relationship.
And my memory instantly connected that visual, with the recipe I had given my girlfriend’s daughter:
Love is an art, an activity. It is a standing in, not a falling for. It is primarily giving, not receiving; giving as the highest expression of potency, experiencing oneself as Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!
I also made the connection with the “synthesis” to which Sam Keen alluded:
Syn·the·sis (noun): the combination of ideas to form a theory or system.
So I sent my girlfriend that last photo with this letter:
“Upon receiving the photos of our fascinating trek to Rio Celeste, this one has kept me thinking about us.
Because in it, I visualize the combination of your feminine essence (the earthy and mineral) with my masculine (crystalline) one, producing in their interlacement, something much more beautiful and meaningful than on their own.
It is a visual metaphor for two persons, singular, becoming one person, plural.
Both rivers, merging in that intense and vibrant blueness, have not lost one atom of their singularity. None has absorbed the other. They join to give rise to a new expression of their natures. They combine the best of each other in a new riverbed – a joined enterprise – that by themselves, they could never fashion.
Now they flow together, singing their joys, gurgling their newfound passion, carving in their drift new landscapes and a common future, as they meander towards that final, salty embrace with the sea.
I love realizing that together, we are creating our own Sky Blue River.”
On our way back from Teñideros, we made a final stop here:
The Ideal, the Eidolon, a woman in the league of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Bathsheba, and Helen of Troy, driving Kings, Emperors, Prophets and Poets mad, chewing them alive, then spitting out their bones with regal indifference. Women, as poet Robert Bly noted, who throw a spark into dry wood, pull energy from a stagnant psyche, and are capable of stirring the sea with a single hair.
Often incorporeal – in fantasies, books, and dreams – Theo has also projected this mysterious energy onto flesh-and-blood women whose features matched the blueprint in his imagination: black eyes (avid, plaintive, and supplicant), raven-black hair, and olive skin. Beyond the physical, such blueprint also contained intangible traits, that, upon projection, endowed these women with a fascinating and irresistible allure: exoticness, seemingly-innocent seductive cunning, primitive sensuality, graceful femininity, and maddening elusiveness.
Jungians call her The Anima: the unconscious image of ‘woman’ in the minds of men.
In her two-part essay, ‘The Archetypal Female in Mythology and Religion’, Dr. Joan Relke says that the “anima manifests as an inconsistent creature: appearing positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. She can be cruelly provocative, taunting, seductive, and terrifying on the one hand, and gentle, solicitous, and wise on the other. She is an active protagonist in dreams and fantasies, and male projections.”
Think Marilyn Monroe.
“Thousands, even millions of men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. In the economy of Monroe’s psyche, her death was inevitable [because] no single human being can carry so many projections.” – Robert Bly, ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’.
Fed up with the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the dizzying fevers, the maddening arousals and ensuing disillusions; desperate to rid myself from the chthonic allure of the myth that had caused me so much trouble in life – like Melville’s Captain Ahab, but accompanied and aided, not by Ishmael, but by the psychoanalytic theories and case studies of Jung and Freud, I sailed across my dream-logs, journals, books – harpoon in hand – searching for the archetype, and for clues of where and when it had first infected me with the psychic parasite that feeds on dangerous infatuations, and that makes some men prefer to endlessly pursue a chimera, rather than tussle with a woman of flesh and blood, fury and tears, scars and wrinkles, and a fragile, fractured, but ultimately endearing humanity.
What Theo discovered was shattering but ultimately enlightening.
Pouring through his dream-logs he found this one of August 26, 2001:
She visited me again last night, in a long white cotton wrap-skirt like those worn by peasant girls or gypsies. I was sleeping in the dream, while she sat on the bed with my head nestled in the warmth of her crossed, bare legs, and caressed my hair. I began to dream-up stories, the words forming above us in wraithlike filigrees of smoke, which she rapidly copied inside a small, black leather notebook as her face looked forwards and backwards.
Like a powerful search beam, the last phrase illumed in his memory something he had recently read in Robert Bly’s book ‘Iron John’:
“When a man is ready to make a decisive move toward ‘The Legends,’ a feminine figure whose face looks both waysmay appear in his dreams. It is as if she has two faces: one looks toward the world of rule and laws, and the other toward the world of dragonish desire, moistness, wildness, adult manhood. This dream figure is not a flesh-and-blood woman but a luminous eternal figure. The Mysterious Hidden Woman loves privacy, overhanging trees, long skirts, the shadowy places underneath bridges, rooms with low lighting…she wants passion and purpose in a man, and carries a weighty desire in her, a passion somewhere between erotic feeling and religious intensity.
Again, Dr. Joan Relke:
“They are temptresses, using sexuality to drag one into the depths of the unconscious, to the destruction of the conscious will and ego, and into the wider world of the ‘Self’. The anima lurks in the unconscious, wielding her supernatural power to drive our lives either towards mystical knowledge, consciousness and individuation, or towards oblivion in sensual urges.”
All along, what Theo, time and again, had been searching for in vain, driven blindly by sensual urges with disastrous consequences, was not something, or someone outside himself, but an integral part of his psyche. More than simply “anima”, this luminous figure constellated the intuitive, non-rational and creative energies Theo had repressed for far too long, living one-sidedly in the world of reason, rules, and laws (I wrote about the dangers of such one-sided existence in Part III on my Series on female objectification).
Theo came close to oblivion.
Now, with growing knowledge, passion, and purpose, he journeys towards wholeness, looking to arrive at a synthesis of the World of Legends and the World of Rules; to achieve a harmonious balance between his duties and his dragonish desires.
As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.
In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.
This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.
Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.
The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.
Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:
“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.“
Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.
“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”
But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.
I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.
What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.
We have entered the Age of Anxiety.
‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?
But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.
What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?
Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.
In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.
“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.
It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.
Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.
“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts
But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.”
The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.
It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.
How to become a Willow?
To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.
“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22
The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:
We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.
“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts
When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.
But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?
Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.
“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.
While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.
The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.
A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.
Since I began this series, at least forty men, in entertainment, media, and politics, have faced allegations ranging from inappropriate behavior to forced sexual misconduct to rape. The list continues to grow and has caused the downfall of many powerful “men”. It has sparked an entire movement (#metoo), and led Time Magazine to name ‘The Silence Breakers’ as 2017’s Person of the Year.
It’s encouraging to hear young people such as comedian Sarah Silverman say we need to understand what’s behind all this, or watch actor Justin Baldoni give a poignant TED talk on why he’s done trying to be “man enough”.
Both are choosing the hard and long road of empathy, rather than the easy one of judgment and condemnation.
While my exploration of this issue has revolved around Millennial Men, it is not a stretch to imagine that they could well be on the road of being the Harry Weinsteins, Al Frankens, Roy Moores, or Matt Lauers of the near future.
In my mind, they all share one thing in common: they are uninitiated men, or more precisely, wrongly initiated into what it means to be a man.
Former NFL defensive lineman and coach, Joe Ehrmann, had this to say in the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’:
“My earliest memory is my father bringing me down to my mother’s basement, putting up his hands and teaching me how to throw jabs and punches. It was there that he gave me those words: “Be a Man”. Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions. If you are going to be a man in this world you have to learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances. I left the room in tears, feeling I wasn’t man enough. Football became a tremendous place to hide. You can hide inside the helmet. You can hide behind the roar of the crowd. You get to project this façade, this persona of what it means to be a man in this culture. I thought if I could manifest this hyper-masculinity, somehow, it would validate who I was. Certainly, my father would respect me; see how powerful…how strong I was. Then he’d give me the love and attention that I desperately wanted. I ask every man to think about what age they were, what was the context, when somebody told you to Be a Man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture, I believe.”
This issue not only impacts gender relations, but spills over into our politics and the sustainability of our future on this planet. It is why I am investing so much time on it. If my words – my voice – can be heard by more and more men (women too), and through them, I manage to prevent but one instance of sexual assault, I will have done my share.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve listened to several young men explain why they often objectify women. We’ve talked about the holes in their psyches, and explored ways in which they can begin to heal. We’ve listened to their fears of rejection, intimacy and vulnerability. They have shared their sadness stemming from a sense of being split from their right-brained essence.
We’ll now deal with Ethan’s answer to why he sometimes objectifies women through pornography. We can as well substitute the word ‘objectify’, with harass, exploit, or rape.
ETHAN: “When I use porn semi-frequently, I do so whenever I am disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
This has everything to do with two very famous erections.
Meet Priapus, the John Holmes of ancient mythology
The God of Lust and Fertility, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite, which means that every hard-on is mothered by love and beauty. So far, so good.
Until Hera came along.
Hera is the queen and mistress of heaven. Brought up in a domesticated and orderly household, she is also the goddess of marriage and the family. Suspecting her philandering husband, Zeus, of being Priapus’ father, Hera deceptively offered to help Aphrodite’s delivery of Priapus. With just one touch of her finger on Aphrodite’s belly, Hera caused Priapus’s ‘deformity’ and unshapeliness. Horrified, his mother rejected her son, and banished him to a mountainside on Earth.
What does the myth point to?
We’re back to that eons-old, tug-of-war I talked about in my post on why monogamy is so damn difficult: between our desires and conventions.
As Goddess of Marriage, Hera likes only one kind of erection: the procreating kind within the bounds of conjugal love. To her, Priapus is living testimony of philandering. Therefore, indirectly, she made sexual imagination ugly and shameful, and banished it to the mountainside – our modern day Red Light District, Pornhub, Las Vegas, etc. In his lecture, ‘Pink Madness’, James Hillman said that the Hera archetype is what causes us to see Priapus as deformed and distorted.
Then came this guy, St. Augustine.
I wonder why he doesn’t look as happy as Priapus.
When he was sixteen, back in 370 C.E., he went with his father to a public bath, and there, had an involuntary boner. He called it inquieta adulescentia, or restless young manhood.
Imagining himself a soon-to-be grandfather, Dad was pleased.
Mom, a pious Christian, and the Hera in this story, wasn’t.
“She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine wrote in his ‘Confessions’, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father rather than him.”
A year later, when Augustine was sent to study to Carthage, his father died. Commenting on Sarah Ruden’s translation of ‘Confessions’, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New Yorker:
“If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed.”
“I came to Carthage,” Augustine wrote, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” (Sounds like Vegas)
Within a year or two of what appears to have been a period of feverish promiscuity, Augustine settled down with his mistress.
But his mother was still not satisfied. When Augustine was getting ready to leave Carthage to take a teaching position in Milan, his mother, Augustine writes, “was hanging onto me coercively, trying to either stop my journey or come along with me on it.” Lying, he told her that he was only seeing off a friend, and persuaded her to spend the night at a shrine near the harbor. “I got away, and got away with it.” A few years later, his mother sailed from North Africa to join him, and once settled in his household, sought to change her son’s life by getting rid of his mistress and finding him a suitable Catholic girl for him to marry.
In little more than a year’s time, Augustine had converted to the Catholic faith.
Then something really weird happened…
In the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before setting sail for Africa, Augustine and his mother were standing by a window that looked out onto an enclosed garden, and talking intimately. Their conversation, serene and joyful, led them to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, no matter how great, could ever match the happiness of the saints. And then, Augustine recounts, “stretching upward with a more fiery emotion,” he and his mother experienced something remarkable: they felt themselves climbing higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter and through the heavenly spheres and, higher still, to the region of their own souls and up toward the eternity that lies beyond time itself. (Here comes the creepy part) “While we were speaking and panting for it, with a thrust that required all the heart’s strength, we brushed against it slightly.” It is difficult to convey in translation the power of the account, Greenblatt writes, and of what it meant for the thirty-two-year-old son and the fifty-five-year-old mother to reach this climax together. Then it was over: “Suspiravimus,” Augustine writes. “We sighed, and returned to the sound of our speech.”
Fast forward forty years or so, and Augustine still can’t get over his inquieta adulescentia, or unruly adolescent boner:
“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”
And this ardor, Greenblatt adds, to which Augustine gives the technical name “concupiscence,” was not simply a natural endowment or a divine blessing; it was a touch of evil. What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. “But the action is not performed without evil.” True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: “Surely, any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.”
(Surely, if you say so).
Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal (or hard-on) was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum = original sin.
This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants,and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years. [Greenblatt].
“The insistence to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under a tide of swirling sexual frustrations, libido-killing boredom, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: ‘Sex at Dawn’
Our insistence on opposing spirit and mind to both nature and sexuality, makes us become split (disconnected, in Ethan’s terms), and at war with ourselves and our instinctual appetites. Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed, gave Eros poison to drink.
Pornography is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. According to Pornhub, in 2016, the human race consumed enough hours of porn to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says James Hillman, is the return of the repressed.
“Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. Crucially – in all cases of addiction, it’s never that we are simply greedy or lusty or depraved. The real reason is always more poignant and more worthy of sympathy: we get addicted because we’re sad.” – Alan de Botton
Sad, because, like Priapus, we have been exiled from our natural sensuality, so we now look for it through fantasy.
The problem is that the fantasy starts becoming more lifelike than the real, and we end up, as Alan Watts cautioned, “bestowing more metaphysical and aesthetic value to what is lifelike to what is life”.
Reality begins to disappoint us. (e.g. the movie ‘Her’)
In 2016, an all-new term shot into the top searches on Pornhub: ‘Overwatch’, in reference to the popular video game released earlier that year, known for its fast action and overtly sexualized characters. It appears that the trend is moving more toward fantasy than reality. ‘Generic’ porn is being replaced with fantasy specific, or scenario specific scenes.
Losing our Senses
My friend Theo, who I’m currently helping navigate across his own love and existential tumult, wrote this to me as he entered the wilderness after many days sitting in front of his computer:
“Ninety percent of our human story as hunter-gatherers, forgotten. We’ve retained all the fears of the Savannah, but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we now can’t find our way without a GPS. The world’s shrill cacophony roaring in our ears makes it impossible to listen to silence. The bark’s rugosity, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff, the silk of a leaf…unfamiliar. Our sense of smell and taste blunted by exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality. We now rely on labels to tell us what will nourish us. Our sight, bleared by glaring and flickering blue light, misses the forest’s secret clues and diminishes its rich depth…diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred daily by a lightning storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear – soon losing their effect, requiring more potent doses to keep us hooked – have made it impossible for us to know what exactly it is we are to do with ourselves in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored. Like a violin, discarded in the dusty attic of our past – strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bout – we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. In that state of alienation, rather than attuning ourselves to her symphony and harnessing her power, we now are bent on her domination and destruction.”
Exacerbating our state of exile, our increasingly virtual world is pushing us deeper into Plato’s Cave.
In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets – the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are only the shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. The prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real; they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
In its truest sense, Alan Watts suggested, American culture is the most ‘immaterialist’.
In his blog for ‘The Stone’, Richard Kearney asks if today’s virtual dater and mater is not more like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who can see everything at a distance, but is touched by nothing. “Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation,” Kearney asks, “where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image.”
Pornography, he adds, is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh – one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.
In his book ‘De Anima’ Aristotle pronounced that touch is the most intelligent sense, because it is the most sensitive. As such, it is the most universal of the senses. In this pronouncement, he not only was challenging his own previous conceptions, but the dominant prejudice of the Platonic doctrine of his time, which held that sight was the highest sense. Aristotle did not win. The Platonists prevailed, and the Western universe – our universe – became a system governed by the ‘soul’s eye’. Western philosophy (our ideas) thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower animal senses, stigmatized by touch [Kearney].
We’re back to the battle between spirit/mind vs flesh/nature; Psyche vs Eros; between the ideas of the Myce and the Minos I talked about in Part II.
Enter the weeping, pre-Platonist philosopher, Heraclitus.
This guy is best known for his aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice. But his more important doctrine, in my mind, is his commitment to the unity of opposites, whereby no entity, or person, can occupy a single state at a single time. While Heraclitus did not coin it, the concept of ‘enantiodromia’ has been attributed to him.
Enantiodromia (Ancient Greek: enantios – opposite, and dromos – running course), basically means that the superabundance of any force, inevitably produces its opposite. It is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme, is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite. (For an example of this dynamic, between the interplay of male and female energies, read the excerpt of Elizabeth Zioga’s blog, included in Part II).
In analytical psychology, enantiodromia means that something that is repressed (a man’s natural sensuality, or instinctual appetites, for example), shapeshifts in the unconscious into something powerful and threatening. To wit: St. Augustine’s natural erection turning into the touch of evil.
Carl Jung had this to say about it:
“Enantiodromia. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time, an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
How do we heal this split caused by Hera and St. Augustine?
Enantiodromia also refers to the process whereby one seeks out and embraces an opposing quality, internalizing it in a way that results in individual wholeness. This process is the crux of Jung’s notion, called the “path of individuation”. One must incorporate an opposing archetype (or essence) into their psyche to reach a state of internal completion.
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld – or the body – where they have been exiled by the mind. We convert neurosis (stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior) into authentic suffering, through active participation or soul-making. Illness indicates the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Enter Hedone, Goddess of Sensual Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Delight.
Hedone was the daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction).
Sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight, are therefore, the products of the union and healthy balance between spirituality and sexuality, between mind and body.
Hedone is the deity with whom you, Ethan, must establish a relationship.
Full humanity, Richard Kearney says, requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to “feel what wretches feel” — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth. To close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, “I have been touched”.
The Road Back to our Hearts and Bodies
If you’ve been paying attention, Ethan, you’ll know right away that I am not going to suggest that we return to the sexual liberation of the 1960’s; to an unbalanced plunge into carnal pleasures. Enantiodromia, remember?
Though I am suggesting that we all flip St. Augustine the bird once and for all.
Meet Apollo, representative of logos, mind, reason, and intellect.
I know…not as impressive as Priapus’, but that’s not the point.
The point, as Alan de Botton said, is that the statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished.
So, how do we find our way back to our natural sensuality?
I asked Theo this question and this was his prescription:
1. Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed, as the female poet Kapka Kassabova said, the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting, or having sex.
“Never give a sword to a man than cannot dance.”
Just take a look at our current political mess, and you’ll understand what Confucius meant by that.
Or, if you prefer the French, here’s playwright Moliere:
“There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance. Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, the blunders of politicians…all this comes from not knowing how to dance.”
2. Read poetry every single day. Start with this selection. Then move on to Rumi, or Neruda, or Mirabai. Heck! Even the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’.
3. Learn to cook, and when you do, use your hands to mix, blend, and knead, as if you were caressing a woman’s or man’s body. As often as you can, cook by an open fire.
4. Play music and sculpt.
5. Go out often into the wild, but go alone, and without your electronic appendages. See everything…smell everything…touch everything.
6. Give yourself permission to be who you are. Authenticity is a powerful aphrodisiac. Switch your existence from a mode of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’, and do not squander all your erotic and sensual energies in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power. In Chapter 6 of my journey, I recount a personal, blissful experience of this kind.
7. Have the courage to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why eroticism is dead in our world, as Alan Watts suggested, is because of our culturally-ingrained discomfort with vulnerability which we try to overcome by perfect self-control which is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. Control is a degree of inhibition, and a system, or person, that is perfectly inhibited, is completely frozen.
8. Fall in love with your body, no matter the shape it’s in. Fall in love with your lover’s body, and in its presence, assume it’s virgin territory, and you, a daring, sensual explorer. Discover it with your five senses, every time, for the first time. You’ll always find a new, adorable freckle.
9. Before lovemaking, do as Napoleon did, who once wrote to his wife, saying: “I’ll be home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Our natural scent is intoxicating.
10. And, finally, when you and your partner meet, in love, recite this to each other:
In the 4th installment of this series, we will wrestle with Arturo’s response to why he often objectifies women:
“The women I typically objectify are the hardest ones for me to understand completely. The thing I notice, is how easily such a mysterious woman can [match] the ideal partner that I subconsciously created as a child.”
Don’t miss, it by FOLLOWING THIS BLOG.
Please SHARE THIS SERIES with every man in your orbit, and, if you’ve enjoyed this, and my other writings; if you’ve been challenged, informed, provoked, confounded, amused, or in any other way, stirred by my work, please consider supporting it by JOINING MY GENEROUS PATRONS. This will permit me to keep writing for you full time.
 In his essay, ‘Big Red Son’ written in the late 90’s by David Foster Wallace, he added this footnote to his coverage of the Annual Adult Video Awards:
“Dark’s and Black’s movies are vile. They are meant to be. And the truth is that in-your-face-vileness is part of the schizoid direction porn’s been moving in all decade. For available, more acceptable, more lucrative, more chic – it has become also more “extreme”. In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc. It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade.”
 Enantiodromia. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:52, December 10, 2017.