Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mindfulness and Anhedonia

So in my meditation class tonight there was a woman who was talking about how she can achieve a certain amount of peace, but then came into work yesterday and was surprised at how irritated she got at a co-worker and how she felt that he took away her peace. She was confused because in the past, it wouldn't have bothered her as much. This raises a good point about what meditation actually does that I felt like sharing.

Prolonged mindfulness practice involves paying attention to what is actually going on in your mind, it is *not* a way to "bliss out". See, a lot of our everyday experience involves us getting constantly distracted, not really feeling our emotions, and just going on autopilot most of the time. When you start actually paying attention, emotions that you haven't been dealing with can rise up and shock you with their intensity, and at the beginning, it can actually make you feel worse as your usual reactivity to them goes apeshit.

The reason this happens, at least in my experience, is because you have actually been suppressing them a bit. Now, for the so-called "negative" emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, etc, that doesn't seem like a totally bad thing, but the problem is that you end up doing it with the so-called positive emotions as well, joy, love, happiness. This can lead to my old friend (like Kirk and Khan), anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. And that one sucks. Not because you're miserable all the time, because you're not. It's that you're either miserable, or just "ok". All valleys, no peaks.

For a short time, anyone can deal with that, but as it persists, the desire to shoot oneself in the face increases, because from one's own experience, there really is nothing much to live for, just suffering relieved by periods of lack of suffering, but no actual happiness. Everything becomes drudgery. Try to imagine every single task in your life feeling like a chore that you need to do to satisfy someone else, and you get absolutely no reward for it. But you have to keep at it when all you want to do is lay in bed. There's no relief aside from the brief periods of not feeling an acute desire to be dead. Some people like to quote the statistics for depressives who kill themselves as an indicator of the seriousness of the problem, and it is, but when I hear those numbers, my immediate reaction is always how low they are. Anhedonia is a motherfucker.

Anyway, back to meditation. What you learn in mindfulness is to not fight those "negative" emotions, but to sit with them and fully experience them. You look them right in the face and say "I am feeling this anger right now. I am not going to distract myself with something else, I am going to fully experience this." You pay close attention to every sensation. The increased heart rate, the tensing up of all your muscles, that little metallic taste in the back of your throat (adrenaline), all of those fight or flight chemical reactions going off in your body. It feels fucking horrible, but then something surprising happens. It can't sustain itself.

See, normally when these emotions happen, it comes with the internal dialogue constantly running through our body, and we're basically arguing with ourselves because we don't want to feel it. But that act of fighting keeps renewing the flow of fight or flight chemicals, and it prolongs our misery. When you sit down and decide to just experience it without resistance, it wears itself out comparatively quickly. Now, I'm not saying it will do this your first time, although if you're lucky, it might. But the act of embracing the feeling, deciding "OK, I'm going to feel this fully" without fighting lets it work its way through your system and then be done with it. As long as you're not constantly re-charging the batteries of the miserable experience, it will end, and then you can get on with your day.

This takes a LOT of practice, and isn't often talked about in most popular treatments of meditation. This is not "a moment of Zen" in the popular sense. This is deciding to sit down and confront your reactions head on, and it's fucking hard to do. At first. As with everything, it gets easier with practice. You just have to decide to actually do it, and not continue with avoidance behavior.

There is a popular misconception that the equanimity one seeks via meditation means that you end up in a state of calm all the time, with no peaks and valleys. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's more like you experience all of your emotions even more potently than before. For someone with depression and anxiety like myself, that's pretty daunting at first, and gives one pause. "I've been suicidal, should I really do this?" I won't speak for anyone else, but I decided to go for it. Because in addition to those scary emotions being felt more deeply, you feel the positive ones more deeply as well, so there is a pay off. The difference is that now, as I've come to accept the impermanence of all of this shit, the scary emotions aren't as scary because with the meditation (and CBT) they don't last as long because I'm not constantly fighting with them. Also, the positive feelings are less tainted by the anxiety that they will go away. I recognize that they are fleeting, and I'm grasping after them less, since I'm experiencing them much more fully than I have before. When they go away, it's not fun, but it bothers me less. I know that the scary stuff won't last, and the good stuff will come around sooner or later, so I'm much more able to maintain the state of calm in between the peaks and valleys.

And that's why I give a shit about all this, B-)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jealousy,Compersion, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I used to entertain the fantasy that I didn't get jealous. My ex-wife was an extremely jealous and paranoid person. It wasn't her fault, she had unresolved issues from the way her father left her mother. But it irritated me, because I had never been unfaithful in my life before I met her, and I found out several years into the marriage that while we were dating the first time (there was a breakup, then we got back together, which led to the marriage) she had been cheating on a previous boyfriend when she saw me, which I was not at all cool with. Eventually I was unfaithful, towards the end of the marriage. One night there was a brief drunken but highly satisfactory and affectionate encounter that led directly to me realizing just precisely how miserable I was in the marriage. A couple of months later, we were separated emotionally as well as physically, since the ex had been attending Cornell for several months when I cheated.

Now, all through my occultist period, I'd known lots of polyamorous people, but my ex was monogamous, and therefore I was. But I figured hell, sounds good to me, read The Ethical Slut, and I was sold. I know now that it was largely a reaction to how miserable I'd been in the marriage, but still, it made perfect logical sense to me. Cheating hurts people, those who've been cheated on, and it hurt me, because even though I had no real regrets about the incident, I still felt a bit guilty. So why the hell not make an agreement to be open?

I've since now gotten some experience dating poly-style, and it is working for me. There's been blunders, and scheduling can be a big pain in the ass, but it works in general. But then jealousy reared its head in a big way, and I wasn't even dating the person in question.

I fell hard for a friend of mine that wasn't interested in me. The unrequited love drove me into the worst period of anxiety and depression that I'd ever felt. I wanted to die, every day. It didn't help the fact that I was in constant contact with her and was a major confidant with the troubles she was having with her current boyfriend at the time. But I couldn't be with her, and hearing about the problems would raise false hope in my mind about the future (false because she still wasn't attracted to me, but anxiety brain tortures you with unattainable fantasies as well as the self-criticism that was making me hate myself). She finally broke up with the previous boyfriend. But if anything happened like a hookup, it would be like getting stabbed in the chest, because it wasn't me.

A few months later, she started seeing her current boyfriend, who is a really awesome guy. But I still wanted to kill him, because it wasn't me. I didn't want to feel bad about it, understand. I love this woman, and I wanted her to be happy no matter what. But my emotions would not let me let go of the fantasy, and so in addition to the unrequited pain itself, I also felt immensely guilty about feeling hurt. This is when the desire to be dead was most acute. I looked death in the face, and I wanted it. Oblivion seemed a much better alternative.

Now, while all this melodrama is going on, I've actually been making a lot of positive changes in my life. It started with the divorce, opening the way to finding satisfaction. Then I quit the job that I hated for one that made me much happier, even taking a paycut. At the same time as I was getting the new job, I moved into a house with 3 good friends who were very supportive. I didn't like living alone at the time, and the new place was much closer to where I worked. The most recent change was getting serious about starting to work out and losing weight, which is in process. I had to take a break from exercise while I healed an injury. But the kicker was starting CBT.

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not the BDSM practice that I keep hearing jokes about, cock and ball torture, ;-)  CBT is actually pretty simple in theory. You see, you don't feel bad because of what happens to you. You feel bad because of how you think about what has happened to you. Depression and anxiety put you into a mode of thought where you have developed habits of automatic thoughts that are constantly self-sabotaging you, you tend to always pick the most negative perspective you can about the events in your life, and so you spend your days with distorted perceptions, paranoid that your seeming friends are all actually colloborating in an elaborate ruse that will eventually lead to your humiliation, that all of your seeming successes are just brief, unimportant events that only barely hide the fact that you are a complete failure, fun shit like that.

What you learn to do to with CBT is to identify those automatic thoughts, identify the cognitive errors that are in play (there's a list of 10 major ones), and then respond to them with a rational response. For example, if the automatic thought is "I fucked up at work today, I'm a total loser", the error there is all-or-nothing thinking. The rational response to that would be "nobody's perfect, everyone makes mistakes. There are plenty of times when you have excelled at your job". It sounds simple, but it really works. I am currently depression and anxiety free for the first time in 20 years, and it's as if a giant weight has been lifted off of me. I used this technique to get over all of it in a very quick manner.

As readers of this blog know, I have been doing mindfulness meditation for a few years now. I have not been doing it nearly as regularly as I would have liked to, but I've done it enough to the point where as I'm trying to focus on my breath or sensations from my body, I've gotten minimally competent at noticing thoughts as they arise and letting them pass by as a cloud, rather than grabbing onto them and engaging with them.  As mindfulness goes, I'm still a tyro, but that little bit of skill bootstrapped my engagement with the previously mentioned CBT technique. I basically had to spend no time at all learning how to notice those negative thoughts as they occured, and it was like "A-HA! There you are, you motherfucker!", at which point I could categorize it and come up with a rational response. I found myself not needing to even write them down as recommended in the popular book for CBT, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling miserable, whether you have been diagnosed with anything or not. Also useful is the followup, The Feeling Good Handbook, which has even more tools on a broader range of topics, and lots more exercises. However, there was one other thing that I had to do first, and that brings me back to jealousy.

Another technique CBT is good for, one geared specifically towards phobias, is to expose yourself to the phobia, little by little, until the aversion goes away. What cured me of my jealousy was this, although rather than gradually, I did it at the end of a night that I had spent getting completely intoxicated on various substances, wanting to die, and feeling completely miserable. Finally I said to my brain, "Look, you keep torturing me with the fact that she's with someone else, I give up, show me your worst!", at which point my mind started filling my head with images of the two of them together. But it backfired.

Graphic as those images were, once I gave in to the fear and let it ride, I started to realize that whether I was involved or not, what I was visualizing was two people who had great affection for each other, giving themselves pleasure. I'm not going to say for them that they are in love, that's for them to determine, but what I was seeing was loving, at any rate. Then I remembered that the whole source of this pain was that I myself was in love with my friend. Sure, it wasn't being returned in a physical way, but she has helped me through numerous rough patches with compassion, affection, true sympathy, as I have done for her. If I really loved her, how in the fuck did it make sense for me to feel shitty that she was receiving love?

And almost like a shot, all the pain, jealousy, and agony was gone. It took seconds from the realization to the point where I no longer wanted to die. I was shocked by the rapidity of it. I had achieved compersion.

Compersion, for those who don't know, is a term bandied about a lot in poly circles. It means "a feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship." It's often called the opposite of jealousy. Before this, my poly explorations were interesting, but I hadn't really felt strongly enough about anyone to feel jealousy about their other relationships, even if at certain points I had convinced myself that I might be falling in love. Now, I got it. I truly understand what it's like to love someone genuinely, without any selfish intent. I won't say that I won't ever feel jealous again, but it's gone now, along with the rest of the misery.

So anyway, I'm great now. As mentioned, better than I've felt in 20 years. Where I am now is living in the present moment. I'm spending time with several extremely attractive women that I'm becoming good friends with. I'm interested in them romantically, but all of the neediness and desperation that's haunted me for years is gone. I'm just taking things as they come. If something develops, great, if not, no problem. I have no expectations, no fantasies about the future, and absolutely no sense of entitlement. And that goes triple for the friend I love. If it's at all possible, I think I love her even more now. But now it's unconditional. I am happy when she is happy, no matter whether that involves me or not.

Que sera sera.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Consent, Depression, and Anxiety: A Conversation

This is a transcript of a post-date conversation I had earlier today. It rambles a little bit, but I think preserving the natural back and forth is worthwhile. It covers two subjects that are often on my mind, consent, and depression and anxiety.

All irrelevancies and identifications of the other participant have been redacted, and I've fixed typos. For the record, all we were doing was relaxing and listening to music together after a nice meal. We weren't entirely sober, but that's all I'm saying about that. Anyway, here it is:

"...How much do you recall? My memory is particularly spotty...."

"I remember the whole, extremely mellow and pleasant evening.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to recall, or any questions?"
"In the event I may make sexual advances I'm going to ask that you exercise control as I have to say under the influence I'm not in my right mind to consent..."
"Of course. All that happened physically is that we kissed a bit, quite pleasantly, but I was in doubt about your ability to consent, so I backed off and let you just chill out."
"OK, thanks."
"But like if we are doing that again and I start begging for stuff.... Just say no."
"Of course. Only if you initiate in a sober state of mind. I have too many friends who have been raped, I am strict about consent."
"Personally, I do enjoy sexual activities while under the influence of certain substances, but only when it's discussed beforehand sober, and only with people who have a similar level of experience with whatever it is, and that feel totally comfortable with them. You don't qualify, ;-)."
"Just wanted you to know my policy in detail."
Me (I'm at work):
"Gonna make my rounds now, feel free to ask anything else, there will just be a delay in my replying. But I have no expectations, I just enjoy spending time with you."
"Keith, I want to expresses my true gratitude for the safe place to explore new horizons and I value your respect for me and women as a whole."

"Caught me on a smoke break. I appreciate it. Look, my romantic history is full of people manipulating me, subjecting me to emotional abuse to the point where torture is not too strong a word for it. Throw in years of rejection in my formative years, all of which triggered my initial depression and anxiety. My ability to gauge when people are actually interested in me is basically non-existent, and it's only very recently that I've been able to trust people, and I've often had the stink of desperation and neediness about me."

"I'm fucked up. Most of the last 20 years has been brief periods of respite in an ocean of pain and despair. I'm finally in a place where I'm getting better, but I still have a lot of fear associated with such things."

"Take all that, and I've never been sexually assaulted."

"I can't imagine what that does to a person, but with what I have been through, which I wouldn't wish on anyone, and I can only imagine that it's even worse."
"I would never put anyone through what I've been through, let alone anything worse. For fuck's sake, I'm in constant fear of violating boundaries inadvertently."
"As I recover, I still seek companionship, emotionally, physically, and romantically, but I have decided to just take things as they come, because it's the only way I can possibly see to proceed. So that's where I'm coming from."

"Thank you for trusting me to share that."

"I am tired of living in fear. I need to trust people, so I'm just going to fucking do it. Hell, I'll probably include it in my next blog post. If I've had to go through it, I'm going to share it with the fucking world. If it helps a single person through a rough patch, that's reason enough. Thank you for providing the impetus for me to put it in words."

"Fear is something I've been seeing as a recurring impediment to the happiness of so many people I've recently met. And I was paralyzed by it for too many years to count."

"Yep. My diagnosis of anxiety is just a fancy word for it. Ok, I really am going to finish my rounds now. Thank you for listening."


Having friends is my favorite thing in the whole world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Love and Honesty

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how I feel about love. It's one of those big huge emotions that lots of people stress about. I've done my own share of that.

When I was married, I kind of took it for granted that I was in love, since that's usually the reason one gets married. But for much of that time, I was miserable. I didn't feel desired much at all, let alone appreciated. It felt more like I was someone to be tolerated so that the bills would get paid. Needless to say, I'm much happier now that it's done.

But now that I'm in a place where I sometimes do feel appreciated and desired, I'm reassessing what I think love is. It's definitely nothing to do with monogamy for me. I used to entertain all kinds of notions about "the one", and now I realize that's just bullshit. People are complicated with all kinds of needs, and it's ridiculous to expect one person to fill them all.

Now that I'm exploring polyamory and open relationships, I'm realizing just how many cultural assumptions about love simply don't apply to me.  I definitely have no desire for exclusivity, and am dating someone with two other ongoing relationships, which doesn't bug me at all. I am rarely possessive, it's never been my thing, and especially after the paranoia and lack of trust that I experienced as a result of my ex-wife's possessiveness, I shy away from that like the plague.

In the past, sex and love have always been linked for me. I did tend to form emotional bonds quickly with those I've been with, but as my experience post-marriage develops, it's less of an automatic thing. I am quite fond of those I've been with, but there is less pressure in my head now to jump into such things. Being older probably helps this a lot, too.

Another thing I've noticed lately is that I'm a lot more open to feeling and expressing love to people even if I am not in a relationship with them. There are some people in this category that I'd like to be in a relationship with, but that's not the majority. In the past, I think I had more expectations from those who I declared my love for, like the fact that I experienced a particular emotion made them obliged to me in some way.  Now I realize how self-sabotaging that attitude was. My take now is that if I feel love for someone and choose to tell them, whether I'm romantically involved with them or not, it's just me expressing my appreciation for the joy they bring to my life. Somehow, by knowing them, they have made my experience of life better. There is no longer any sense that they are obliged to love me back. It's more of a "credit where credit's due" thing. I want them in my life, definitely, but as a free entity, not as property.

Letting go of the obligatory actually makes it better in my opinion, because I'd much rather only hear expressions of love from those for whom I have made their life better somehow, I don't want anyone to say it because they feel like they have to. It wouldn't be love then, obviously, and I'm done with pretending. My marriage lasted twice as long as it should have because both of us were too afraid to come right out and deal with our issues, all for the sake of staying married. All it did was prolong our misery. I'm no longer afraid of coming at problems head on. If a problem in a relationship is insurmountable, I'd rather find it out now and make a clean break than torture myself and my partner chasing a delusion.

I'm living a lot more honestly these days, both with myself and others, and I'm much happier because of it, and experiencing much more joy.  I may have more thoughts along these lines in a future post, but this is fine for now.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mindfulness in Practice (for me, anyway)

So I've had an irregular mindfulness meditation practice for about a year now.  I say irregular because I don't sit down on anything resembling a regular schedule.  What I do instead is take moment here and there and go into breath focus or body scanning.  However, what I do much more often is sit back and analyze the kinds of thoughts going through my brain and what effect they have on me.  It's almost like taking a step back outside of myself and trying to watch without engaging.  This started as a way to deal with distracting thoughts while trying to focus on my breath or body, but I've found it to be useful whether I am doing that kind of formal practice or not.

I've found it particularly useful when it comes to dealing with attachment and the "grasping" one often reads about in Buddhist contexts.  For example, I have various people I'm attracted to, some of which I have a better shot with than others.  Back in the day, I would get really obsessive when this happened, and I tended to be very over-eager and needy seeming, which would inevitably be counter-productive, making myself less attractive.  I still get those impulses, but now with the somewhat detached outside perspective, I have much more control over myself.  I can sit there and experience the desire and even anxiety without letting the emotions force me into action.  I sit with the feelings, experiencing them fully, to some extent more fully than when I let them take over, and I get a better understanding of the drives that fuel them.  Experiencing the emotions and the physical changes that take place in the body when experiencing them is a fascinating process.

On the practical side, taking time to do this makes me a lot less nervous when I actually see the people I'm attracted to, which then leads to a better time had for all, since my tics and whatnot aren't getting in the way.

With all I hear about mindfulness and the importance of regular practice, I'd love to hear more about this kind of approach to it, where it's focused on directly improving one's development.  Sometimes I hear about it as a side effect of one's practice, but to me, this more conscious engagement with one's behavior and thinking is the real point.  Just my observations, hopefully they are useful to some reading this.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I'm Not an Alcoholic, Alcoholics Go To Meetings

Yeah, so, in my last post towards the end, I made a comment about how alcohol helps with social anxiety.

What I failed to account for is how it affects the social anxiety of everyone else I am engaged with in social contexts, and that's where I was utterly full of shit.  After two separate incidents of people calling me on my bullshit this week, I'm going to stop drinking anywhere that I drive to, completely, to begin with.  After avoiding it for a while, I may see about having one or two beers or whatnot, and then stopping.  At this point I don't yet know if I'm capable of that, which in itself is frightening, of course.

Even when I'm at home and not going anywhere, I'm going to cut back big time, unless I'm simply in a lot of pain.  But it's become clear to me that drunk Keith is not as fun as drunk Keith thought, and sober me doesn't like him very much either.  So he's going away, for a while at the very least.

Always cherish friends who take the risk of telling you truths you don't want to hear, and do them the courtesy of listening.  They cared enough to not just write me off, so they deserve the honor of having their concerns addressed.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Look Inside My Skull

I've been wanting to write about the depression and anxiety I experience constantly for a while now, but of course, the anxiety makes that difficult.  But I figure I'll go ahead and put it all down, so hopefully it can help other people experiencing similar things.  In this I'm largely inspired by JT Eberhard, and specifically the talk he gave at Skepticon a couple of years ago. Just today I also saw this piece, which hit a lot of the bullet points I want to mention, especially #4.  But here's how things happen for me, specifically.

Somewhere around 16-17 years old, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  More recently, the official term I've seen on shrink paperwork is Major Depressive Disorder.  I kinda dig that, it sounds more important.  Anyway, after an initial month on Zoloft which gave me the shakes, I switched to trazadone, and I've been on that since, and I'm 35 now. (Note: My bad experience with Zoloft doesn't make it a worthless drug, different people have different brain reactions.)  The trazadone helps a lot, but not with everything.  I'll break it down.

When I'm not medicated, I have zero control over my emotions.  I can go from laughing to screaming in a matter of seconds.  Mood swings is too mild a word for what happens.  It's not a cyclical thing like manic depression (I guess they call it Bipolar Disorder now?), it's basically an extreme overreaction to emotional stimulus.  Where a neurotypical person might get irritated and mouth off to someone pissing them off, I would get into huge screaming bouts, often flinging things across rooms.  What the trazadone does is give me a thermostat for the emotions, and on it, I react just like a normal person.  I still feel my emotions, but they aren't uncontrollable.  This is a good thing.  Whenever people tell me, "you don't seem depressed," I tell them that's because my meds work.  I know this because there have been times when I've been off them, most notably on a trip out of town for a few days when I left them at home.  What happens then is that on the first day, I'm mostly good, but I'm a bit more anxious than normal, tapping my feet, experiencing body temperature fluctuations, that kind of thing.  Day 2, all of those symptoms are worse, and I start to get extremely irritable, minor things that I would blow off as unimportant seem like major annoyances.  By day 3, I can't really tolerate the presence of other people at all, because everything they do pisses me off.  In such states I get irritated by the way people breathe.  Oddly enough, cats don't bother me at all, and normal annoying cat behavior is less irritating than when I'm in normal mode. (The same effect might hold with other animals, but I don't have close contact with anything other than cats.)

So, trazadone is necessary and good.  All of the weird and possibly scary behavior above just goes away completely.  (This is also why I know that people who like to spout off about how 'the brain is more than just chemistry, man' are complete fucking fools.  It's really, really complex chemistry, but it's chemistry all the same.)  So, on to the stuff trazadone doesn't cover.

I don't hear voices, but I may as well.  I'm going to use the term "voice" as a metaphor in this a lot, because it's just easier to put things into words that way.  There is a constantly running dialogue in my head, and it tells me that I'm a piece of shit.  It tells me that all of my friendships are elaborate hoaxes being perpetrated on me, and that one day they will all reveal the joke and have a huge laugh at my expense (I suspect this is based on my first "girlfriend" in 7th grade, who did just this).  No one in my family gives a shit about me.  I'm adopted, and my parents wish they could get their money back.  I am a fraud, putting on a front, afraid to reveal my true self to the world.  Nothing I have ever achieved has been of any importance whatsoever to anyone, and any sense of accomplishment or good will I've ever received from anyone was wrapped in contempt.  The joke is always on me.  Women find me disgusting.  I am always awkward, and a huge embarassment.  I might as well be dead.

That's a sampling of the kind of shit that runs through my head in the background, pretty much whenever I'm awake.  It's kinda like the news-ticker at the bottom of the screen on some cable news shows.  I'm not an idiot, I know that most of that, if not all, is complete bullshit.  That is the depression fucking with me.  So I've gotten ok at ignoring it for most practical purposes, if you talk to me, you probably can't tell that I'm thinking anything of the sort.  Of course, even now, that ticker is screaming, fuck you, they can tell!  They know it, you stupid fuck!  Everyone knows! Again, I know with most of me that it's bullshit, but when you have those kind of thoughts going constantly, it worms its way in.  I'm constantly second-guessing myself in any interaction whatsoever, no matter how inconsequential, because in my mind, there's always some fraction saying, what if the other voice is right?

'Damn, that's crazy, how do you put up with that?'

As opposed to what?  It's there, I've had to come to terms with it, and even now, there are days where I believe it more than others.  It's affected my personality in a number of ways.  One of the most irritating is that I have absolutely no reliable sense of whether someone is or isn't interested in me romantically.  There are lots of women I'm attracted to, but I have no way to gauge whether it's reciprocal, because that little voice completely fucks up my judgment on such matters.  Most of the relationships I have had have been the result of a woman approaching me and declaring their interest.  At least then it's easy to ignore the voice.  It's not that good, though, because I still end up with trouble interpreting signals.  When I was married, if my wife said something was fine, I went with it, because I can't trust my own analysis due to the voice filling my head with paranoid scenarios.  When it comes to actually asking someone out, I can barely manage.  Simple rejection, that I could handle.  What makes it difficult is the voice yelling all of my flaws at me, making me self-conscious as hell, terrified if I'm going to be seen as a creep, etc.  I'm already worried about how I go about such a process for rational reasons, not wanting to be some kind of douchebag making assumptions that may or may not be sexist because I'm blind to my own privilege, I don't need this additional shit as well.

It extends to non-romantic social interactions as well.  When I'm pretty sure I've upset someone, I often go overboard with asking them to tell me what's wrong, or I end up apologizing for things that my mind has blown up into major offenses, and the person I'm apologizing to has no idea what the hell it is that I'm supposed to have done to offend them.  When I'm having conversations online and I don't have body language to observe, I often tend to end up interpreting what other people say in the most hostile possible manner because that's what my mind is telling me.  Even with people I know and trust, I still have to deal with it, see the paragraph up above talking about the big joke.  Basically, I'm always multitasking whatever I'm doing, because part of me has to be countering all the self-accusation.

So far, I've only found one thing that shuts up that fucking voice, and that's alcohol.  When I drink, once I start feeling the effects, the voice goes away, and I can actually relax and enjoy myself and the company of others.  I am well aware of how dangerous this is, it's a pretty sure path to alcoholism.  When I don't drink, I don't have any particular craving for booze, but I always want to shut up the goddamn voice, trying to sabotage me at every turn.  I am actively trying out things to help with this, however.  I've recently added Wellbutrin to my medication regimen, and it seems to be helping a little bit, but not enough.  I'll continue to seek alternatives until I find something that does work as well as intoxication.  I'm probably going to send this very piece to my shrink as a diagnostic aid, hopefully that works.  I will post follow-ups to this if/when I notice changes in symptoms, so that perhaps if/when it gets better, I can have a further example to show people how getting help actually, y'know, helps.

I know that this whole piece is a huge pile of too much information for most people.  I'm going ahead and putting it up on my blog anyway, because I know that there have to be others out there dealing with their own mental illnesses, and they need to know that they're not alone, there are people who understand what they're going through.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Houserules for my upcoming Swords & Wizardry Game

This is just going to be a list for the convenience of my players, and I will update as new things occur to me.  The previous gaming posts were me thinking out loud, what's in this post will be the rules changes I actually use.

1. No XP percentage bonuses for high stats.  Most of the time it's a hassle, but I'm also doing it because:

2. There will be no level limits for demi-human characters, but humans get a 10% XP bonus to compensate for the advantages the demi-humans enjoy.  Infravision, ability to detect secret doors, etc.

3. Since there are no level limits for demi-humans, I'm also allowing human PCs to multiclass if they do desire.  This will be pretty much by the book, as that system seems well put together.

4. Alignment, as mentioned here, will be Law, Chaos, Neutral/Balance and unaligned.  Casters like clerics and mages will have to pick an alignment, and their casting ability comes from their affiliation.  Non-casters default to unaligned.  They can choose to pledge their fealty to one of the cosmic forces, this will grant them the ability to call upon such forces for aid from time to time, but there's a quid pro quo, sometimes the PC will be required to do things that serve their alignment's wants and needs.

5. No Vancian magic, spell slots turn into mana, and a spell costs as much mana to cast as its level.  For instance, a 4th level mage can traditionally cast three 1st level spells and two 2nd level spells.  Under my rules, that mage gets 7 mana points.  Each slot multiplies by the level of the spell.  So the three 1st level spells  equal 3 mana, and the two 2nd level spells equal 4 mana.  No one can cast a spell of a level higher than they would have had access to before, so even if one has enough mana, they're not skilled enough to punch above their level.  Yes, there will be a chart for this.

6. Also, you can also use mana to wear armor.  1 mana point per level of armor, so at 1st level, a mage has 2 mana points and is 9 AC (unarmored).  The mage can either use those 2 mana for spells or they can burn one to wear something with 8 AC, and on through the levels.  (I'm ripping this off from HARP since it worked pretty well).

7. Any 1HD or less intelligent "monster" is available as a PC, provided I get advanced notice that someone wants to play one, so I can slap together a conversion.  So kobolds, goblins, not a problem.  No, you can't play as Orcus (in this game, anyway).

8. Classes not listed in S&W Complete or the SRD are also available if I'm given advance notice to prep it for this game, as with the monster thing.  I'm already porting over some as mentioned here, so if you can't find it in the SRD or the books, just let me know, and I'll deal with it.  Hell, you don't even have to want to play it in particular, but if you want me to get it ready to play, drop me a line, within reason.  I'm not going to come up with 30 or so alternate classes that no one's going to use.

Adventures Dark & Deep and Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea in particular have lots of subclasses, and ADD has subraces, too. My rule of thumb here is that anyone can play the standard 4 classes (fighter, cleric, mage, thief) without restriction, but if you want a subclass, you will have to meet the minimum ability requirements given, since those classes tend to have lots of little bonus tricks and such.  Also, if you are taking one of the subclasses from ASSH, no multiclassing, because many of them are the equivalents of multiclassed characters anyway, and I don't want the headache.

While I'm at it, if you do take one of the 4 core classes, all of those get to add their level to a defining attribute:
Mages get it as additional mana.

Fighters get it as bonus to hit OR damage (pick one).

Clerics get it as a bonus for turning OR hit points healed (pick one).

Thieves get it as a to hit bonus and a damage bonus for backstabbing AFTER multipliers are figured, (double, triple, etc, as they level up) OR a +5 bonus to one of their thief abilities. So at level 1 they can add +5 to their Climb Walls, at level 2 they can add another +5 to Climb or they can add it to fine manipulation (for disarming traps and such), etc.

Subclasses and multiclassed characters don't get to add their level to anything.

9. I've changed my mind on saving throws, so unless I hear otherwise, I will be using the default single saving throw, rather than the traditional 5 category ones.  I'm easy on this, though, it's trivial to switch, as the book gives both (and even includes both on the GM screen).

10.  Descending AC.  (Not really a houserule, but since S&W provides both, I'm marking my preference.)  Players just tell me what AC they hit with the handy one-line table at the bottom of the character sheet, I'll do the rest.  Players don't necessarily need to know the AC of the thing they're fighting, and descending works well that way.

11. There will be no specific skills (aside from thief abilities), instead, there will be ability checks, where you simply roll under or equal to your stat.  If people do want skills, I can port over the system from Dark Dungeons which works fine.  It'd be the same, roll under the stat, and skills would be a specialization.  For example, if your Dexterity is 15 and you have two points in the Acrobatics skill, you'd roll under 17, rather than 15 when using it.  Personally I think ability checks are sufficient, but I'm easy.

That's it for now, will update further if I need to.  I'm also open to suggestions, just comment here on the blog, so I can keep everything together.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

More Gaming Thoughts

Character Classes

All the basics, of course, Cleric, Fighter, Mage, Thief.  But I don't mind some variety.  In the DD game, I also had available Monks, Rangers, Assassins (although I don't see myself allowing these much) and Fighter-Mages (since I got rid of the racial classes, this is the same as the Basic D&D Elf).  I just got the pdf of Joseph Bloch's Adventures Dark & Deep, his alternate AD&D2E, and I particularly like his version of Gygax's Jester class, a Bard sub-class.  So I'll probably port at least both of those over, as well as the Thief-Acrobat and Mountebank, and a few others.  The Jester is an acrobatic melee and hand to hand fighter that fits much better into the Western European milieu that most settings assume than the Monk, which I've never been particular fond of.  It's not identical, but they seem to me to share a similar niche.  (If I was to run a more Eastern setting, Monks obviously wouldn't be a problem, and Fighters and Rangers would be replaced with Samurai and Ninjas, etc.)  They get some access to spells, as Bards do, as well as a series of abilities separate from but similar to the way Thief abilities work, juggling, knife throwing, that kind of thing.  So initially, the list of available classes would be:


Druids and Cavaliers/Paladins are an odd thing to me, I really dig the way DD does them, being alternate classes the Cleric and Fighter can choose later on as they progress in level.  I also dig the old Rules Cyclopedia division of Avenger/Knight/Paladin depending on alignment, but there's also something to be said for making them classes unto themselves, the way they already are in S&W.  I'll figure out what's easiest and do that.


Along with the standard human, dwarf, elf, halfling, I'm down with gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, whatever.  In fact, a houserule I came up with for the DD game was that any 1HD or less monster race could also be a player character, provided that any special abilities they had weren't much more fancy than that of the standard demi-humans.  As I recall, we had a kobold Ranger who was pretty fun.  I see no reason to not continue this trend, with GM approval, of course.  Since I'm not a fan of level limits for demihumans, I got around the balance issue by giving humans a blanket 5% XP bonus to compensate for their lack of fun stuff like Infravision and such.  Since it stacks with the class-based XP bonus for high stats, it seems to work pretty well.  I think I stole that trick from Basic Fantasy.

I also had a schtick where all of the characters were members of an adventurer's guild called the IWW - Itinerant Warriors of the World, which had strict non-discrimination policies towards race and alignment, so "monster" races with union cards could remain unmolested in polite society, at least as long as there was a guild house in town.  The IWW was there mostly to amuse myself as a non-current member of the actual IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).  None of my players ran with it and tried to recruit dungeon dwellers into the union rather than fighting, but the option would have been there, if they tried.  In terms of game play, it also gave them discounts on delving equipment and a labor pool of hirelings and henchmen to choose from, and a reason why such would be available.

More musings to follow.

Old School Gaming Stuff

I'm gearing up to run another campaign in a few months, or sooner.  I've been reading so many of the various retroclones and other "nostalgia" games out there that I'm having a hard time deciding on which one, or if I may just put my own set together, stealing the best elements from all of them.  I still dig Dark Dungeons (DD), the one I was running Keep on the Borderlands with, but even with switching to the alternate version, Darker Dungeons, it's just a little unwieldy, and I feel like switching it up (even if I kept with it, I'll be discarding the weapon mastery next time.  It's not bad, I just don't feel like messing with it anymore).  This post is mostly for my own benefit, while I think out loud about the elements to put into my next game.


I've been ambivalent about alignment throughout most of my gaming career, and while the memes are amusing, I've never had much use for the two axis alignment system where you get things like Lawful Evil or Chaotic Neutral.  To me, if you're going to codify a character's morality, that's way too simplistic a way of doing it.

On the other hand, being a fan of Michael Moorcock and The Eternal Champion mythos, I do really like the 3 element system of Law, Chaos, and Neutral/Balance.  But I keep these separate from notions of morality, to me they are all cosmic forces that one chooses to align oneself with, full of potential plot hooks at later levels (and at low, depending on what happens).

So for me, I'm going to continue doing what I started with my DD game, and use 4 alignments:

The Balance

If you're a Cleric, Mage, or any other kind of magic-user, you have to choose an alignment, as the source of your power.  My preference is that Mages and Clerics can both choose The Balance, but that Mages can only otherwise pick Chaos, and Clerics only Law, but I might be able to be argued out of that.  I like the notion of having the different kinds of magic be aligned that way, but there's also something to be said for having priests of Arioch and the like.

This does mean that Fighters, Thieves, Rangers, Assassins, etc. default to Unaligned at chargen.  They are perfectly free to pledge their loyalty to cosmic forces if they want to, but they won't need to, and they are free to do so later on in the game.  I'll probably come up with a mechanic that makes it meaningful (or more likely, steal one from another game), something along the lines of the way Clerics can call upon their gods for favor in Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) in exchange for some service further down the line.  I can definitely see this as a way for unaligned characters to end up serving forces greater than themselves:

Ragnar gazed around himself nervously.  If Fingers had done his job correctly, he never would have fallen down that sliding chute, only to right himself in the dark, surrounded by glowing eyes, more than he could count.  He still had strength in his arms, and his blade was sharp, but he couldn't tell what lay just beyond the shadows, and their numbers were great.  If he was going to get out of this, desperate measures were required.  He drew his sword, and readied his shield.

"Loki!  I pledge my fealty to you!  Aid my steel!"

He thought he heard faint laughter somewhere in the distance, and suddenly there was a sharp pain on his shield arm, as an eight-pointed star branded itself onto his bicep from some unknown source.  The star remained glowing red, and he could see that his sword blade was wreathed with flame.  His nervousness fell away, and he felt like shouting, laughing, and screaming all at once.

"Oh, I know I'm going to regret this eventually," he said to himself with a wry grin.  He then saluted the shadows with his sword and got to work.


I've always hated the fire and forget "Vancian" magic system of D&D, but the quick and dirty mana conversion I did for my DD game would be very problematic at high levels.  Another thing I'll steal is the alternate system I've seen in DCC and Spellcraft and Swordplay (S&S), apparently based on Chainmail, where instead of spells going off automatically and then going away, you roll to successfully cast, gaining either an immediate or delayed effect, or a failure, and the failure does make you lose that spell for the day (and botches get nasty).  I like this a lot better.  A character will still be limited as to how many spells per level he can prep, or what levels of spell are available, but fire and forget is gone.  I haven't decided yet whether to use the Mercurial Magic stuff from DCC yet.  While it's fun, I don't know if I want that much randomness.  Most likely I'll show it to players and let them decide if they want to use it or not.

Race and Class

I will most likely keep them separated, Swords & Wizardry (S&W) style, albeit without level limits, and without too many restrictions.  This was trivial to do with DD, and I don't see it being a problem.  Most likely I'm going to use S&W Complete as my baseline, and tear things out and bolt things on as needed.

Saving Throws and AC

I'll definitely be using the more traditional 5 separate saving throws option within, rather than S&W's single one, just because I prefer it that way.  I also prefer descending AC, but since the book provides it and ascending, as does the excellent Monstrosities book, this is trivial.

That's it for now, when more ideas along these lines occur, I'll post them.  There's a vague notion of actually putting this all together into my own game and throwing it up on Lulu, but that's way down the line.  First priority is to put it together for my own use and run it for people.

Friday, February 22, 2013



Living for others,
so they say,
is one of the highest of goods.

Dying, even more.

But while it may be asserted noble to suffer for others,
I'm not buying it.

We can't avoid all forms of shared misery,
c'est la vie.

But if you're hanging on the cross for someone else,
it's time to come down, and walk away.

If you're lucky, someone may come along
take the hammer from you,
and twist it around to show you that the hammer you use to nail yourself up
can also be used to pry out the nails.

I was so lucky.

You still have to stop actively hammering yourself into place.
You still have to pry out the nails.
You still have to make your way down
and walk free.

I know it's hard.

Pulling them out hurts.
It hurts so much that you want to stop prying,
and just let them be
and settle back against the cross.

But once they're out,
the pain really does go away.

Once the pain is gone
it's hard to understand what kept you up there for so long,
and walking away becomes easy.

I wish I could do this for you,
but all I can do is try to twist the hammer.

I hope you join me soon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Debating accomodationism and confrontationalism.

This is a reply to a thread on a Facebook discussion board, posted here to not clutter it up further.  The Stedman article in question is this:
The Problem with "Atheist Activism"

An article I linked to in reply is this:
The Alternatives to Confrontationalism

On to the discussion:

"I happily confront homophobia, racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, etc. Racism is a personal bugbear to me. My wife and I get dirty looks from whites and blacks, she being black, me being a honky. 

I don't single out Christianity, but since it is among the various sources of such intolerances, it goes on the list of things I have no truck with. The difference is that homophobia and the various other forms of hatred and intolerable (and intolerant) behavior needs to be confronted on their own only when they exist independent of other things."


"Religion is NOT the sourse of intolerances. Specifically racism is caused by oxytoxin (Carsten de Dreu et al) Religion plays the role of providing the justification forthe intolerance, but the intolerance is in the culture. If not religion condoning, then we would use some other mechanism, like a philosophy. "

That's an oversimplification.  Oxytocin merely increases biased feelings already present in the subject.  "The intolerance is in the culture" is obvious.  Religion is a cultural phenomenon, one that has been and can be changed to modify the prevailing cultural values present in the world.  Of course there's always going to be some cultural institutions that have a certain degree of intolerance in the value structure they create, but when those crop up, we fight them, too.


"Confronting religion itself, when said religion is a source of multiple flavors of intolerance, is not only justified, it is more efficient tactically. Within Christianity specifically, for instance, there are scriptural justifications for a wide variety of different flavors of hate and oppression. Homophobia, yes, but also misogyny, racial hatred, justifications for slavery, intolerance for other faiths, etc."


"Paragraph 3, efficient tactically: Not true, Attacking the religion, not the intolerance, then the intolerance never gets dealt with. Attacking the intolerance you can have allies from within the religion, attack the religion, and all you get is enemies."


I fight both.  I already said above that I target intolerance.  But I favor a systematic approach where you target intolerance, both direct acts of it and the systematic structures that justify it, religion being one of those.  Intolerance isn't the only problem with religion, if it were, then you might have a point.  But religion engenders other problems like relying on faith rather than reason, encouraging people to ask for intercessory aid from on high rather than enabling them to deal with their problems directly, etc.  


"All of the above are in scripture itself. If you want to add behaviors by religious institutions like the Catholic church, we can add a systematic and well documented conspiracy to conceal, cover up, and ENABLE child rapists to continue to perpetuate their crimes, internationally, and over the course of decades. So as to not single out the Catholics, we can include genital mutilation, practiced primarily on women by Muslim groups, and on males by Jewish groups."

"What do the scriptures have to do with christianity? The next time i see some family stoning their drunken son on the outskirts of town, a wife living in the shed during her period, Joel Osteen condeming rich men, or Pator Bill Tvelt renounce his endorsement of Bachman because of the book of Timothy, I will concern myself with what is in the bible. Christians don't, why should we? "

The scriptures are cherry picked, but still believed in.  I just gave a few real world examples of harms done with scriptural justification.  Stoning still happens in parts of the world.  As does the previously mentioned genital mutilation.  Things like slavery are gone (or at least not globally accepted institutions) because society has already gone against the things justified by scripture and made them unacceptable.  I want to see that process continue.


"Islam does seem to me to be the worse offender, however, as there exist Muslim states where rape isn't a crime, but a punishment that women can be sentenced to. This is pathological at best, and even right this second I have to damn near physically restrain myself from following such a mention by a long stream of expletives. Even with that said, Islam is an immediate bad instance of what religious ideology leads to, all religious nonsense has to potential to go just as bad, it just needs the right circumstances."


"So do all muslims condone the actions in the most extreme islamic states? Do you see those kinds of activities in the muslim churches here in america? If we run around painting the whole of a religion with the most extreme actions of the most extreme faction, We end up sounding like the nut jobs."

We don't paint the whole of a religion with the most extreme actions of the the most extreme faction, and neither do the bloggers that Stedman cherry-picked quotes from.  Stedman continuously makes the error that an attack on the religious doctrine itself is an accusation against every single member of it.  I am talking about a harmful set of ideas, not a war against a group of people.  It doesn't matter if not every member strictly adheres to the most pathological dictates of their doctrine, their subscription to it is a tacit endorsement of it.  The majority of citizens in fascist and Nazi countries in WWII weren't actively rounding up the Jews.  Some of them were ignorant of what was happening, and others suspected but took no action.  Others did take action.  By attacking the doctrines themselves, and pointing out the psychotic content contained within, we are undertaking the job of educating the ignorant about the stuff they should be aware of.  This can also encourage them into taking action against those who adhere to the same doctrine in name, but do decide to act on the more harmful aspects of it.  That is not just an Islam problem, it's a problem with any ideology, metaphysical, political or otherwise.


"I put the question to you: Should we atheists, and anyone else who object to such behaviors, waste our time targeting each of those crimes, these particular types of hate and intolerance individually? Even when we know that the authority for the existence of the institutions that justify such things are based on logical fallacies that are so obvious that even children can embarrass adult adherents of such faiths with innocent questions that the adults are unable to answer? I say no."

"Answer to your question, Yes we should. Because you can actually accomplish something that way."

I agree.  I just don't agree that it's impossible to accomplish something the other way, either.  People can change when they come to realize that a philosophy they've adhered to is based on nonsense.  It's how many people become atheists, or evolve politically from more extreme positions.  It happens all the time, I simply encourage open dialogue about said problems.  I'm not advocating violent suppression of thoughtcrime, just unfettered and open conversation.

"You present me a religion that does not rely on unsupportable appeals to faith, presents a coherent ethical framework, and doesn't have a record of harmful behavior, but does provide a sense of community and collective ritual to honor particular social customs, and I will happily leave that religion alone, although I will probably question why it's called a religion in the first place."

"You can question why it's called a religion all you want. You will be wrong. Shit is shit, even when it doesn't stink."

If a religion or any other ideology is shit, I feel it is so because of the attributes I just described.  If it doesn't have those, why is it still shit?  I think I gave a fair summation of the parts that are problematic.  

"Unfortunately, even the more benign religions in the real world like Buddhism and Jainism exhibit some of the more harmful behaviors I have previously enumerated, and they have to be at least reformed, if not abolished."

"So you are sympathetic to Buddism? Following your model, we should oppose buddism because in the 50's in tibet, the Dali Lama endorsed serfdom."

I'm sympathetic to some of the philosophy contained in Buddhism, especially early Buddhism, before it had really developed the authoritarian structure of religion that various forms of it developed later.  Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular, the Dalai Lama's position as a theocratic head of state is opposed by me.  He has endorsed various positions that have led to violence between different schools and factions of Vajrayana Buddhism, murders have occurred, etc.  Buddhism as a religious institution has many of the same problems in other countries that I previously identified in relation to Christianity and Islam.  Even here in the states there have been Buddhist teachers that used their authority as "enlightened" teachers to take advantage of their students, in sexual and non-sexual ways.

None of that kind of behavior should be tolerated.  As I mentioned in paragraph 9 (included below for completeness), I'm sympathetic to modern, secular redactions of Buddhist thought, with all of the metaphysical nonsense stripped out.  I am not at all sympathetic to those parts of Buddhism that exhibit ANY of the behaviors I mentioned above.

"I myself am highly sympathetic to Buddhist thought, being rather fond of Sam Harris's thoughts on the subject, and a fan of Stephen and Martine Batchelor, amongst others in the burgeoning "secular" Buddhist movement, and I do my best to keep up a regular meditative practice and engage in serious contemplation of Buddhism's "Eight Noble Truths" as at least decent philosophical offerings, although I don't cheapen such conjectures with notions of metaphysical holiness."


"Since it will probably be brought up, when I do target Christianity, or any religion, my targets are the bad ideas contained within such ideologies. The rank and file members of Christianity, or any other religion, are generally good and decent people when one takes the time to get to know them. What needs to be confronted is the irrationality of faith itself, which holds members of religion in varying degrees of mental thrall.

Religious indoctrination is a willful manipulation, somewhere in the continuum between the parishioner in the pew and the pastoral heads of particular religions (I'm sure that there are some ministers who are true believers, hence why I paint it as a continuum), and boils down to mind control and totalitarian thinking."

The members of Christianity, or any other religion, are victims of the authoritarian structure they are enmeshed within, and the whole reason that religious institutions and clerics of said institutions piss me off is that they are parasites on those people. The whole reason to confront religion is to liberate the good people enslaved by false ideologies from the glorified con-artists somewhere in the authoritarian structure of their churches, if not their direct priests, ministers, and imams."

"Umm, no dude, that is so wrong. There is no master puppet master, pulling the strings, willfully manipulating people to follow his will. The menbers are not slaves. The leaders of the religion actually believe the stuff they are teaching (watch the HBO documentary, A question of miracles). "

They're not slaves, but they are being manipulated.  I did say that there are ministers who believe, and that it was a continuum. It's not a conspiracy theory.  If a preacher gets up in church and preaches against gay marriage, for instance, he's going to influence the opinion of a certain proportion of his congregation, and they are going to adjust their behavior towards that issue politically when it comes time to vote.  Some ministers are going to do so because they honestly believe in the doctrines in the Bible that they are basing that view on, others are going to be in collusion with political figures to cynically encourage that their parishioners vote a certain way.  It doesn't matter whether they believe or not, or to what degree of control is involved, the manipulation occurs because the minister is an authority figure that the congregation is going to accept as delivering received wisdom to various degrees.  His authority and the authority of the text are based on demonstrably false information, and I see nothing wrong with pointing that out.  The texts contain lies.  Point out the lies, and at least some people who hear that will start to question the truthfulness of those doctrines, and they may be on their way out of religion.

"I disagree completely with your assessment of Zahn's reply. Zahn heard Stedman's anemic complaint quite clearly, she simply rejected it, as she should have."

"Then go back and read it again. Eventually it will sink in."

I recommend you do the same.  I have.  

"Confront religion itself, because if you attack the foundations of unthinking faith that support all the injustices done in the name of various religions, you don't need to attack each particular injustice. Any behaviors that do turn out to be beneficial, and therefore worthy of preservation don't deserve to be sullied with the label of religion, because they are frankly superior."

"And finally, paragraph 13, attack the foundations, and you bang your head against a wall. You move nothing, and get a headache."

This is demonstrably false.  Questioning the foundation of my own former belief structure is what led me to discard it.  There are plenty of others who have done likewise.  It's not going to happen quickly or in huge swathes of people, but it does happen everyday.  It's a long struggle, but one worth participating in, in my view.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Memetics of Religion: Fundamentalism as a Parasitic Adaptation

Recently on Google+, I posted some Bible quotes with the caption, “Jesus, on Family Values”:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” — Luke 14:26

“And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”— Matthew 19:29

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” — Matthew 10: 34 – 37"

One of the replies I got was:
"You can't even read these passages allegorically. How can these believers BS themselves into believing this crap?"

As I was replying, it got longer and longer, so I turned it into this essay.  While I was quoting from Christianity in my original post, I think that it applies to all religions.

I think part of the problem is that most don't believe this crap.  What we have are a bunch of different memes contending with each other for replication opportunities.

The first meme of importance is the moral meme.  The bearers of this meme are primarily focused on living a moral life according to standards that are designed to maximize well-being, treating others with kindness and charity, avoiding conflict, enjoying family time, etc.  We can shorthand this group of behaviors as “being moral”.  All of these behaviors have sound evolutionary reasons for existing, and many of the predecessors are readily observed in our fellow primates.  But the moral meme doesn’t usually exist on its own, it often combines with a doctrinal memeplex (large collection of memes) called religion.

The first branch retains much of the motivation of the ethical meme itself, and only partially adopts the religious memeplex.  These meme-bearers have vague notions of the myths and stories of their doctrine, but they haven't bothered to sit down and actually examine the doctrines that they purportedly believe in.  Being moral, from an outside observer's perspective, is what they actually care about and how they define themselves.  The problem is that even though it's apparent that their real focus is on being moral, they call that "being religious", and due to various other factors involved in the structure of the religion memeplex itself, they get "being moral" and "being religious" tied up in their heads so much that the two terms become inextricably intertwined.  For the purposes of this essay, we'll call this type of confusion the moderate meme.

Then we have the second group.  These meme-bearers aren't dedicated to “being moral”, they are actually dedicated to accepting the content of their doctrine as "truth".  That is how they define themselves.  This “truth” includes the actual moral content of the doctrine, the bits of the doctrine that correspond to a maximization of well-being, but also the assertions about how the universe functions, the petty prejudices of ages past (misogyny, racism, bigotry towards the sexually adventurous), as well as the literature content, et al.  This tendency to accept doctrine as “truth” we can shorthand as "being religious".  They also conflate "being moral" and "being religious", but for them, the prime concern is the acceptance, not the maximization of well-being.  We can call this type of confusion the fundamentalist meme.  

So we have two groups of meme-bearers, moderates and fundamentalists, both running around calling their memes by the same terms.  Worse, both the moderates and the fundamentalists consider that “being religious” and “being moral” define who they are as people, and they use both terms interchangeably and to refer to different behaviors.  But because they are using the same terms, they fool themselves into thinking that they are both working towards the same goals, and there ends up being memetic drift between the two groups.  The moderates, who are generally decent people, end up picking up on some of the doctrinal memes (the assertions about reality and petty prejudices) of the fundamentalists and feel obligated to believe in them too, because subscription to doctrine is a part of their "being religious" meme, even though it has a lower priority to them than "being moral".  You also get some fundamentalists with a certain amount of tendency towards maximizing well-being, because being moral in actuality is also part of the doctrine, even though it’s of lower priority.  Both of these crossover situations can cause cognitive dissonance when the underlying conflicts are pointed out.  As a defense against dissonance, there is often a strong reaction in the meme-bearer of either sort against processes that draw attention to the dissonance, like critical thinking procedures or investigative methodologies like scientific empiricism or historical analysis.

Scientific empiricism and historical analysis are memes too, of course, but the difference is that they are investigative memes, not religious memes.  Religious memes are about certainty, about knowing “truth”, whether it’s a moral truth or a truth about the way the universe is put together.  Investigative memes are about discovery.  Some of the products of those discoveries can be elevated to truths, and even turned into doctrines for religions (especially in the past), but the emphasis in the meme-bearer is on discovery, not truth, so as long as they can keep discovering, they don’t mind overturning yesterday’s truths, as long as the new discovery can do so via application of strict standards.  These meme-bearers define themselves as investigators, not as truth-possessors.  The source of conflict between the different classes of meme-bearers becomes obvious once one identifies the identity issues at stake.  The religious meme-bearers have their identities locked into a static “truth” position, and the investigation meme-bearers have their identities locked into a process of challenging static “truths”.

Keep in mind, this isn’t actual different tribes of people who possess only one meme or the other.  These memes are in everyone’s minds, influencing our behavior.  What does seem likely is that in any given person, certain memes are going to be more dominant in influence at any given time.  People in the real world are going to have multiple points of commitment to these memes and others with varying levels of intensity.  I’m necessarily simplifying to be illustrative.

Fundamentalist memes arise, I suspect, when investigative memes and moral memes combine and replicate.  The religions that exist in the world today seem to be a result of this type of interaction.  Investigative meme-bearers are today constantly producing models of the world which are then picked up and adopted as doctrines.  In the past when technology memes hadn’t progressed to the current level that they exist at today, it took a long time for investigative meme-bearers to produce new models.  This exerted a selection pressure that naturally favored fundamentalist memes, as the models had a seeming eternal “truth” aspect, since most meme-bearers of any type didn’t get the opportunity to observe the emergence of a new model.  Potential moderate meme-bearers would be fairly invisible in the general population, since there was no pressure to differentiate from fundamentalist meme-bearers.  So for centuries, fundamentalism was a decent survival strategy, as it could parasitize the investigative memes, and change happened slowly enough that fundamentalism, which is highly resistant to change, could adapt when necessary.

This all changed with the acceleration of technological know-how, and the gradual process of improvement and refinement that the investigative meme-bearers were always pursuing.  Even the old obsolete models were useful data, because it gave them a base to build on and improve.  As time goes by, new discoveries are made, and old discoveries that proved valid end up stronger.  So the foundations get more and more certain (although never 100%), and provide a wider and wider base to use as a launchpad for new discoveries.  The more time goes by, the more information is accumulated, the more the discovery methods improve and the faster new discoveries come in.  Unlike with biological genes, memetic evolution is Lamarckian as well as Darwinian, and enjoys an accelerated learning curve.

This is a problem for the survival of the fundamentalism meme, because it can no longer get nourishment from the relative stability of the “truths” thrown off by the investigative memes as they go about their work.  The selection pressure now favors memes that aren’t tied as strongly to doctrinal issues, since truths change so rapidly.  This is what has been allowing the moderate meme to assert its own identity, that of a religious meme focused on “being moral” in practice.

Now that we actually have moderates, things are improving, but it’s not all roses.  The problem is that the moderate meme-bearers still conflate “being religious” and “being moral”.  This keeps them believing in things that are demonstrably false, even if that belief is shallower than that of the fundamentalists.  It also leads them to make excuses for the hateful doctrinal material of the fundamentalists, which can cause dissonance on its own. 

Finally, this conflation often leads to prejudice amongst moderates against those who have untangled the semantic confusion of “being moral” and “being religious” by getting rid of the religion meme and retaining the moral meme.  This isn’t any one particular group, but a whole category of groups that generally err on the side of secular humanism.  It’s like the semantic confusion of “being religious" and "being moral" is an adaptation that the religious memes developed because the confusion does actually help the religious memes hold on longer in people's heads by inculcating the notion that without the doctrinal content of “being religious”, they would descend into immoral chaos.  The meme-bearers don't want to be immoral, and the meme fights against the realization that moral and religious can be separated.

The memetic warfare, therefore, is geared mainly at liberating the moderates from the religious memes.  There are many tactics in play at any given time.  There’s the frontal assaults on the religious doctrines themselves by the so-called “Four Horsemen,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, as well as others that fall under the rubric of the “New Atheists”.  There’s the historians like Jennifer Hecht and Susan Jacoby, doing valuable work illustrating the long history of philosophical skepticism and doubt about doctrinal hegemony, undercutting the religious memes’ efforts to assume a universality that has never existed.  There’s the scientist educators and populizers, Carl Sagan, NeilDeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, out there explaining the fascinating discoveries of science in a more digestible but NOT dumbed down manner, and illustrating the awesomeness of the natural world.  The legal strike forces like the FFRF, AUSCS, and Eugenie Scott and the NCSE* in the courts fighting the efforts of fundamentalists to undermine science directly. There’s the artillery division of people like Penn & Teller and the Mythbusters making skepticism awesome in the popular imagination, one explosion (or bullet catch) at a time. 

Most important of all, however, is the infantry of the common everyday atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.  Using the more gentle approach of things like the Atheist Out Campaign, raising consciousness via similar tactics as the gay liberation movement, causing direct cognitive dissonance in the prejudiced by letting the religious meme-bearers know that not only can one be good without god(s), like the billboards and buses say, but that they already know good moral people who happen to be free of the religious memes, they’ve just been concealing their irreligion because of the intolerance.

I think we need all of these combatants in this memetic war.  Some are going to rub people the wrong way, but for others, it’ll be just what they need to hear.  It’s a war on many fronts, and requires many different strategic and tactical approaches, just as the memes we’re combating have their own multifaceted approach.

The good news is that signs seem to indicate that there is real progress being made.  Survey after survey is coming out that shows that the fastest growing “religious” group in the country (adjusted for immigration) are those marking “none” as their preference.  More and more people raised religious are moderating or leaving their faiths, and becoming more tolerant of those without religion, focusing more on just living good, moral lives.  I think that the reason we see so much more craziness from the fundamentalists who are left is that the more morally focused are leaving that kind of religion and leaving behind a precipitate of concentrated doctrinal crazy.  These people still need to be fought against on the memetic battleground, and many of those skirmishes are bloody.  But while it’s not certain, I think that a case can be made that as with the trend Steven Pinker points out about violence decreasing over time**, I think a case can be made for a similar trend with superstition and toxic religious faith.  I think generally those bearing the memes of science, critical thinking, and rationality are winning globally, and we should remember that when things look grim, while also remaining vigilant in the face of victory.