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Sisyphus Speaks

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Tired of your unceasing pity,

Of your allusions to hubris well rewarded,

Tired of being the symbol for absurdity,

And the one first invoked at failure,

Sisyphus speaks out now aloud:

I ask you — what of yourself?

The absurd hero is seen in you, not me!

.

Doomed to eternal failure I might be,

But blessed am I in every way,

When I stand next to you,

You common man of today:

Blundering though your life,

Never knowing a goal or a path,

How can you know that taste —

The sweet taste of success, when

You are not even blessed enough,

To know the strong spice of failure!


So stop your pitying glances,

And envy me, you foolish rats:

Symbol for failure I might assuredly be,

But at the least I know what my success is.

Have you seen its form this life,

Or even conceived dimly of the thought?

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— For I see my goal everyday so clear,

And feel the exhalation of glory near,

I taste the spice of failure everyday;

And I live so I can fail and fail,

And try again the very next day,

Doomed to fail yet untiring, questing,

What greater success there be ever?

To strive in sweat to that distant goal,

And come tumbling down in grand despair!

,

Yes I would choose this lot of mine,

Over your blind and stumbling life,

With no grand goal, no glimpse of glory,

Just a sodden tramp in them marshes;

Rolling your stone on in the pointless plains,

Straining for nothing, attaining nothing,

And pitying me, for you dare risk nothing!

.

Sisyphus speaks out now aloud:

Come join me if you care to live a little —

Take that rock and start the impossible (Sisyphean?) quest!

.

.

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2 Comments

Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Puzzles, Thoughts

 

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Wherever You Go, There You Are: A Short Course in Mindfulness and Meditation

Dear Brother,

                                When you first asked me about how to practice meditation (was it last week?), I gave you a few vague answers and then dismissed it from my mind, thinking that while it is impressive that you consider it seriously, it is not really vital to you right now. But, yesterday when you spoke about how difficult it is to study for more than two hours continuously, I realized that there might be more to it. That conversation set me thinking about a concept called “Digital Natives“. You would definitely qualify to be one. Digital Natives are supposed to have shorter attention spans and a greater propensity to multi-task. They are more at home using technology or entertainment as well as education and even blend the two in exotic mixes. Most of the characteristics of the Digital Natives, like their appetite for knowledge, their openness to stimuli and their connectedness with this world of constant change, are all very positive traits. I too consider myself as a Native, even though, Tarun, who introduced me to the concept would disagree and try to classify me as a Digital Immigrant.

Having said all that, we also have to consider if these so-called positive traits might not also have the negative effects that the older generation attributes to it? Could there be a fundamental fleetingness encroaching into our natures? Could small things like it being harder and harder to spend long hours concentrating and a lot of my friends complaining that they can hardly find the energy to read anymore be side-effects of this life-style? What can we do to keep the positive side of this information age and yet not lose our ability to concentrate and to put in focussed effort when required?

As I thought of these things, I felt that maybe meditation may indeed be the answer for you and many like you and also to myself. So I spent a few hours researching and browsing about on this and stumbled on this wonderful book about meditation. I kept you and sis in mind as I read this and I think I might have an adaptation of the ideas that might help in our daily lives that might help you enjoy your hours spent studying and also make them more productive as well as longer.

I hope you can find the fifteen minutes needed to read this rambling of mine. As I keep telling you, 24 hours is a long time and we all have more than enough time to do more than earn a living and worry about school during a day. We have more than enough time to read, to meditate, to sleep and dream and to take a quiet walk. Shall we start?

What is Meditation?

Think of this present moment as a mirror. A mirror reflecting the past and the future. You have to understand and accept this reflection of yourself in this mirror. You have to be aware of this present moment in all its depth and fullness. Do not judge it. Just know it. See it completely and entirely. Every. Single. Detail.

The present moment exists whether you like it or not. Whether it is enjoyable or not. And even if time passes, the mirror stays still. it is always the present moment in which you find yourselves. You cannot change it, you need not judge. You can only understand and accept it. It just IS. If you can do this, only then will you know what to do next.

This practice is called “Mindfulness” and is the core of Meditation. I know the last two paragraphs might have been too abstract for your tastes, but indulge me and read it again please? Don’t worry, even though I wrote it, I too don’t understand it.

Unless we become “Mindful”, we may never quite be where we actually are, never quite touch the fullness of our possibilities. Instead, we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening – all the while remaining enshrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses.

To be “Mindful” is to wake up from this constant ignorance about yourself, your surroundings and your situation. To find your path in life, you will need to pay more attention to this present moment. It is the only time that we have in which to live, grow, feel, and change.

The work of waking up from these dreams is the work of Meditation, the systematic cultivation of wakefulness, of present-moment awareness. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life. Meditation may help us see that this path we call our life has direction; that it is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.

If what happens now does influence what happens next, then doesn’t it makes sense to look around a bit from time to time so that you are more in touch with what is happening now, so that you can take your inner and outer bearings and perceive with clarity the path that you are actually on and the direction in which you are going? If you do so, maybe you will be in a better position to chart a course for yourself that is truer to your inner being? If not, the sheer momentum of your unconsciousness in this moment just colors the next moment. The days, months, and years quickly go by unnoticed, unused, unappreciated.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted. It has to do with waking up and seeing things as they are. In fact, the word “Buddha” simply means one who has awakened to his or her own true nature.

All these ordinary thoughts and impulses run through the mind like a coursing river, if not a waterfall. We get caught up in the torrent and it winds up submerging our lives as it carries us to places we may not wish to go and may not even realize we are headed for.

Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us. This process doesn’t magically happen by itself. It takes energy. We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment “practice” or “meditation practice.”

The Practice Of Meditation

I know that you like to sit and meditate. But is it the only way? Not really. You can meditate while sitting, while walking, while standing or while lying down. Once you have some practice, you can even meditate while eating and while bathing and even while studying. That should be the goal. To be able to live every moment with that wakeful awareness called “Mindfulness”.

How to start then? I know it is hard to start meditating. there is always a hundred other things to do. You could be studying or reading or doing something else. DOING something is SO important. Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. You have to learn to “Stop”. Literally. Just stop doing things. Could you stop wanting to do things? Stop wanting to improve or get somewhere in life? For five minutes? Surely?

People think of meditation as some kind of special activity, but this is not exactly correct. Meditation is simplicity itself. There is a joke: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” But meditation is not just about sitting, either. It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing things. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment? Could it be this moment? What would happen if you did?

A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the “being mode” for a moment.

Imagine that you died. Now no more responsibilities are there. If this is true, maybe you don’t need to watch one more tv show right now or open one more browser tab even if you think you do. Maybe you don’t need to read something just now, or run one more errand. just observe the moment. Stop thinking of it as a waste of time or a utilization of time. This time is for yourself. To BE yourself. without judgements. For a few minutes.

Once you have accepted this and is ready to meditate, try to ease into it. You may want to go to the next room first, to the drawing room or the kitchen. Then walk slowly and deliberately to the spot you have decided to meditate in. Meditate as you walk. As you approach the spot, stand there for some time. Meditate as you stand. Now, slowly and with dignity sit down.

Walking Meditation

Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Peace is every step.”

Sometimes it is very difficult to just sit down. Walking is easier. Try walking formally before or after you sit. Try a period of walking meditation. Keep a continuity of mindfulness between the walking and the sitting. Ten minutes is good, or half an hour. Remember once again that it is not clock time we are concerned with here.

The walking is just as good as the sitting. What is important is how you keep your mind.

In walking meditation, you attend to the walking itself. Walking meditation can best be done by imagining a river. Imagine that you are a flowing river. Steady and changing, moving in time, but always yourself. Aware of every boulder and every turn. Be aware of every step.

You can focus on the footfall as a whole; or isolated segments of the motion. You can couple an awareness of walking with an awareness of breathing. In walking meditation, you are not walking to get anyplace. Usually it is just back and forth in a lane, or round and round in a loop. The challenge is, can you be fully with this step, with this breath? Walking meditation can be practiced at any pace, from ultra-slow to very brisk. The practice is to take each step as it comes and to be fully present with it.

Of course, you can extend this to walking anywhere, normally. You can walk mindfully as you walk that long path back to our home or every time you go to the terrace. Try to bring awareness to walking, wherever you find yourself. Slow it down a bit. Center yourself in your body and in the present moment. Walk with dignity and confidence, and as the Navaho saying goes, walk in beauty, wherever you are.

Standing Meditation

Once you have reached the spot, don’t abruptly sit down. Remember that we are trying to keep a continuity of mindfulness between the walking and the sitting. Stand still for some time and try to meditate. Standing Meditation is best learned from trees. Imagine yourself to be a tree. Feel your feet developing roots into the ground. Feel your body sway gently, as it always will, just as trees do in a breeze. Sense the tree closest to you. Listen to it, feel its presence.

You can try standing like this wherever you find yourself, in the school, in the football ground, by a river, in your living room, or just waiting for the bus.

Sitting Meditation

Finally, sit down. But sit down with an intention. Sit with dignity. It helps to come to the bed or to the chair or to the floor with a definite sense of taking your seat. Sitting meditation is different from just sitting down casually somewhere. Sitting down to meditate, our posture talks to us. It makes its own statement. If we slump, it reflects low energy, passivity, a lack of clarity. If we sit ramrod-straight, we are tense, making too much of an effort, trying too hard.

To describe the sitting posture, the word that feels the most appropriate is “dignity.” If you are told to sit like a king from Lord of the Rings, how would you sit? That is dignity. A Royal Posture. I try to tell this to myself when I sit down to work, or write. To sit with dignity. You should try this while sitting down to study too. It makes a difference in you attitude. When we take our seat in meditation and remind ourselves to sit with dignity, we are coming back to our original worthiness. That in itself is quite a statement.

How you hold your hands is also important. that too is a way of making a statement, to yourself, to your mind. The hand positions are called “Mudras” in formal terminology and they embody different attitudes. There is no one right way to keep your hands. You may experiment with different ways yourself in meditation. Try sitting with your hands palms down on your knees. Notice the quality of self-containment here. This posture might feel to you as if you are not looking for anything more, but simply digesting what is. If you then turn both palms up, being mindful as you do it, you may note a change in energy in the body. Sitting this way might embody receptivity, an openness to what is above, to the energy of the heavens. I personally prefer the hands kept together in the lap, with the fingers of one hand lying atop the fingers of the other, the thumb-tips gently touching as if I hold the universe in me.

All our hand postures are supposed to be mudras in that they are associated with subtle or not-so-subtle energies. Take the energy of the fist, for instance. Try making a fists as if in anger. Feel the tension, the hatred, the anger, the aggression, and the fear which it contains. Then, in the midst of your anger, as an experiment, try opening your fists and placing the palms together over your heart in the prayer position. This is probably what Gandhiji did when he was assassinated at point-blank range. He put his palms together in this way toward his attacker, uttered his mantra, and died.

Try being aware of these subtle emotional qualities you may be embodying at various times of the day, as well as during your sitting practice. Pay particular attention to your hands. Does their position make a difference? See if you don’t become more mindful by becoming more “bodyful.”

Now, on to the meditation itself. In Sitting Meditation, the image of a mountain might be most helpful. Imagine yourself to be a mountain, invoking qualities of elevation, massiveness, majesty, unmovingness, rootedness – bring these qualities directly into your posture and attitude. As the light changes, as night follows day and day night, as weather changes, as crows and birds sing, as people try to blast it, and as years go by, the mountain just sits, simply being itself. Through everything, the mountain continues to sit, unmoved by the weather, by what happens on the surface, by the world of appearances.

How long should you sit like this? As long as you like, of course. It is quality not quantity that matters. Forming the intention to practice and then seizing a moment – any moment – and encountering it fully in your inward and outward posture, lies at the core of mindfulness. Long and short periods of practice are both equally good. In a line six inches long, there are an infinite number of points, and in a line one inch long there are just as many. Well, then, how many moments are there in fifteen minutes, or five, or ten, or forty-five? It turns out we have plenty of time, if we are willing to hold any moments at all in awareness.

Once you are sitting, there are many ways to approach the present moment. All involve paying attention on purpose, non-judgmentally. What varies is what you attend to and how.

It is best to keep things simple and start with your breathing, feeling it as it moves in and out.

Sit and watch the moments unfold, with no agenda other than to be fully present. Use the breath as an anchor to tether your attention to the present moment. Your thinking mind will drift here and there, depending on the currents and winds moving in the mind until, at some point, the anchor line grows taut and brings you back. This may happen a lot. Bring your attention back to the breath, in all its vividness, every time it wanders. Keep the posture erect but not stiff. Think of yourself as the mountain.

Not able to Meditate?

Remember how you told me last time that you are NOT able to meditate, no matter how hard you TRY? The answer it to stop “trying”. Thinking you are unable to meditate is a little like thinking you are unable to breathe, or to concentrate or relax. Pretty much everybody can breathe easily, anybody can concentrate, anybody can relax.

People often confuse meditation with relaxation or some other special state that you have to get to or feel. When once or twice you try and you don’t get anywhere or you didn’t feel anything special, then you think you are one of those people who can’t do it. But, meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.

Above all, meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are. If you don’t understand this, you will think you are constitutionally unable to meditate.

True, meditation does require energy and a commitment to stick with it. Anybody can sit down and watch their breath or watch their mind. And you don’t have to be sitting. You could do it walking, standing, lying down, standing on one leg, running, or taking a bath. But to stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline.

Just try again, this time letting go of their expectations and just watching. Capture the moments. Meditate on the Now.

Breathing

Our breathing can help us in capturing our moments. It’s surprising that more people don’t know about this. After all, the breath is always here, right under our noses.

To use your breathing to nurture mindfulness, just tune in to the feeling of it – the feeling of the breath coming into your body and the feeling of the breath leaving your body. That’s all. Just feeling the breath. Breathing and knowing that you’re breathing.

Just try to concentrate on your breath. If you look up the word “spirit” in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Latin, spirare, meaning “to breathe.” The in-breath is inspiration; the out-breath expiration. The work of mindfulness is waking up to vitality in every moment that we have. In wakefulness, everything inspires. Nothing is excluded from the domain of spirit.

Use your breath to help you to stay in the moment – feeling your own body standing, breathing, being, moment by moment. Thoughts will come up which will pull your attention away. Work with those perceptions, thoughts, feelings and impulses, memories and anticipations. Accept them. Reflect them in the mirror that is the present moment. See them clearly and let them go with the outgoing breath.

Ending The Meditation

Toward the end, if you are not particularly attentive, before you know it you’ll be off doing something else, with no awareness whatsoever of how the meditation came to an end. The transition will be a blur at best. You can bring mindfulness to this process by being in touch with the thoughts and impulses which tell you it’s time to stop. Whether you’ve been still for an hour or for three minutes, a powerful feeling all of a sudden may say, “This is enough.” Or you look at your watch and it’s the time you said you would quit.

As you recognize such an impulse, breathe with it for a few moments, and ask yourself, “Who has had enough?” Try looking into what is behind the impulse. Is it fatigue, boredom, pain, impatience; or is it just time to stop? Whatever the case, rather than automatically leaping up or moving on, try lingering with whatever arises out of this inquiry, breathing with it for a few moments or even longer, and allowing the moving out of your meditation posture to be as much an object of moment-to-moment awareness as any other moment in the meditation. Bring awareness to how you end your meditations. Don’t judge it or yourself in any way. Just observe, and stay in touch with the transition from one thing to the next.

You may even do the Standing Meditation and then the Walking Meditation again to end the period of Meditation. Stand up slowly, imagine being a Tree. Become a River and flow out of your room. Go to the balcony, enjoy the breeze as a tree again and then come back refreshed for a fresh day of studying.

This technique of learning to transition slowly in and out of things might soon help you to do things that you consider “tasks” to be accomplished more easily. Adopt this attitude before you start your daily exercise, before you sit down to study, before you go jogging, maybe even as you sit down to write the board exams. Let a continuum help you shift gears into things, so that you don;t postpone or cancel them.

Also use the technique of examining your intentions when you feel the need to stop an activity. Imagine you are studying, or jogging, or exercising. You feel the need to stop. Ask yourself why. Are you tired? Whatever be the answer, breathe with it a few times. Breathe with this idea that you want to stop. Then continue the activity for some more time. The more your practice this, the more you will find that your attention span is increasing.

Other Ways

You can meditate even while lying down. You might find the image of a lake helpful then. Imagine floating on a beautiful lake which supports you in stillness, not going anywhere, held and cradled in awareness. Does it have ripples? Waves? Note the calm below the surface.

You can also focus on different areas of the body while lying down and meditating like this. A sort of Body Scan with a Breath Machine. Not everybody can sit for forty-five minutes right away but anybody can do the body scan. All you need to do is lie there and feel different regions of your body and then let go of them. One way to practice is to inwardly direct your breath in to and out from the various regions of your body as if you could breathe right in to your toes or your knee, or your ear. When you feel ready, on an outbreath you just let go of that region.

Everyday Meditation

In time you can extend this feeling of awareness and ‘wakefulness’ to everyday activities. Start slowly. Take deliberate small steps first. Maybe before you sit down to study?

Try to recognize the beauty of the present moment in your daily life. If you are up early in the morning, try going outside and looking (a sustained, mindful, attentive looking) at the stars, at the moon, at the dawning light when it comes. Feel the air, the cold, the warmth. Realize that the world around you is sleeping. Remember when you see the stars that you are looking back in time millions of years. The past is present now and here.

Thus, every now and then try Casual Meditation. Stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let be. Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are. Then, when you’re ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully and with resolution.

You can use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own house as invitations to practice Mindfulness. Going to the front door, answering the telephone, seeking out someone else in the house to speak with, going to the bathroom, going to the refrigerator, can all be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment. Notice the inner feelings which push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response time have to be so fast that it pulls you out of the life you were living in the preceding moment? Can these transitions become more graceful? Can you be more where you find yourself, all the time? Also, try being present for things like taking a shower, or eating. When you are in the shower, are you really in the shower? Do you feel the water on your skin, or are you someplace else, lost in thought, missing the shower altogether? Eating is another good occasion for mindfulness practice. Are you tasting your food? Are you aware of how fast, how much, when, where, and what you are eating? Can you make your entire day as it unfolds into an occasion to be present or to bring yourself back to the present, over and over again?

These questions can help you cut through those moments when self-involved feeling states, mindless habits, and strong emotions dominate your practice. They can quickly bring you back to the freshness and beauty of each moment as it is. Perhaps you forgot or didn’t quite grasp that meditation really is the one human activity in which you are not trying to get anywhere else but simply allowing yourself to be where and as you already are.

The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing. Knowing the path you are taking in life.

Hero’s Journey

Contemplating “What is my Way?” is an excellent element to inject into our meditation practice. We don’t have to come up with answers, nor think that there has to be one particular answer. Better not to think at all. Instead, only persist in asking the question. As with everything else in the meditation practice, we just watch, listen, note, let be, let go, and keep generating the question, “What is my Way?”, “What is my path?”, “Who am I?”

After all, in this moment, it may be an accurate statement of how things are for you.

This is a good way to find the path that lies closest to your heart. After all, the journey is one of heroic proportions, but so much more so if enlivened by wakefulness and a commitment to adventurous inquiry. As a human being, you are the central figure in the universal hero’s mythic journey, the fairy tale, the Arthurian quest. For men and women alike, this journey is the trajectory between birth and death, a human life lived. No one escapes the adventure. We only work with it differently.

When we practice meditation, we are really acknowledging that in this moment, we are on the road of life. The path unfolds in this moment and in every moment while we are alive. Meditation is more rightly thought of as a “Way” than as a technique. It is a Way of being, a Way of living, a Way of listening, a Way of walking along the path of life and being in harmony with things as they are.

Seeing your own life this very day as a journey and as an adventure. Where are you going? What are you seeking? Where are you now? What stage of the journey have you come to? Are you stuck here in certain ways? Can you be fully open to all of the talents at your disposal at this point? Note that this journey is uniquely yours, no one else’s. So the path has to be your own. Are there struggles? Difficulties? You have to listen and take them on in the spirit of the heroic never-ending quest each of us embodies.

Think of this journey as a forging period. During this time, inwardly, a new development is taking place, a maturation, a metamorphosis, a tempering, which culminates in the emergence of a fully developed human being, radiant and golden, but also wise to the ways of the world, no longer a passive and naive agent. The fully developed human being embodies the unity of soul and spirit, up and down, material and non-material.

The meditation practice itself is a mirror of this journey of growth and development. It too takes us down as well as up, demands that we face, even embrace, pain and darkness as well as joy and light. It reminds us to use whatever comes up and wherever we find ourselves as occasions for inquiry, for opening, for growing in strength and wisdom, and for walking our own path.

Conclusion

Meditation can indeed be done at any time. Take a break from time to time. Maybe during the advertisements of a cricket match, maybe while reaching for a glass of water while eating. Remind yourself: “This is it.” Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgment that what is happening is happening. Acceptance doesn’t tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do, that has to come out of your understanding of this moment.

Try telling yourself when you find that you are not concentrating on what you are studying or reading that “This is it.” Tell yourself that this is what you are doing. Re-evaluate. Accept that you were being lazy and ask yourself what you really want to be doing at this moment, then do that. Wholeheartedly.

The type of ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ that I am recommending to you is not “new-age” or spiritual. It is the same kind of self-awareness you would have to practice if you were a hunter or a long-distance runner. That is why this is deeply scientific and hence very very useful. It ties in fundamentally with our evolutionary history, and the awareness of breath and body is part of how we should be in a world not so artificial in its trappings. That is why I recommend to you this form of mediation over any other.

That is why I kept insisting that anything, any action you do in your life can be made into a sort of meditation. Reading a book can be made into meditation too. So can sitting down and studying. Or playing cricket. It is not just about concentration but about a complete awareness about yourself. Sort of like what young Jedis are trained for in Jedi temples – We have spoken about this, remember? ‘Jedi Awareness’? As you bring awareness to what you are doing. That awareness is what really matters.

May Meditation help you in the full development of your true potential. It is a way of being, of living life as if it really matters, moment by moment by moment. Make it part of you daily life, rather than merely as a technique or as one more thing you have to do during your already too busy day.

The deepest of bows to you for having the courage and perseverance involved in throwing yourself wholeheartedly into this adventure of a lifetime. May every breath you take in mindfulness, in your everyday life, make you smarter, wiser, more compassionate and kinder. Moment by moment, breath by breath.

Yours Truly,

R.

 
13 Comments

Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Phantoms in Your Brain?

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human MindPhantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this was a good book to read after reading Susan Sontag. While Sontag says that the more we attribute a disease to our mind and to our attitudes the more it betrays our ignorance, Ramachandran tries to answer questions like “Can your mental attitude really help cure asthma and cancer?” – For example, VSR is courageous enough into venture into esoteric areas such as mind-body connection and divine visions and sound them out with science and a curious imagination.

The Victorian attitude that VSR brings to these explorations make the book a pleasure to read and you too can play Sherlock with the neuroscientist as he goes about snooping in the recesses of the mind in each of the cases.

The most basic questions about the human mind are still mysteries to us – How do we recognize faces? Why do we cry? Why do we laugh? Why do we dream? Why do we enjoy music and art? and the really big question: What is consciousness?

And more generally, how does the activity of tiny wisps of protoplasm in the brain lead to conscious experience? – These are the questions that VSR tries to address as he stitches together an elaborate network of clinical case studies into a coherent tapestry. He does not claim to have all the answers but shows the daring to face up to these toughest of questions without the grabs of a philosopher or a mystic but with the probing flashlight of a scientist. And that is why both his books are so captivating.

He opens the book with an overview about how our brain works. After a few pages of diagrams and explanations about those weird Latin names, he gets o one of the important points that he wants to address through all these wandering with patients and obscure questions – Modularity Vs Holism – What is the nature of our brain’s workings? Is it modular with separate areas for separate functions or is fundamentally holistic with all the functions arising from an intricate interaction of all regions?

Consider the following examples:

Many stroke victims are paralyzed on the right or left side of their bodies, depending on where the brain injury occurs. Voluntary movements on the opposite side are permanently gone. And yet when such a patient yawns, he stretches out both arms spontaneously. Much to his amazement, his paralyzed arm suddenly springs to life! It does so because a different brain pathway controls the arm movement during the yawn— a pathway closely linked to the respiratory centers in the brain stem.

Or consider the unfortunate story of a patient known as H.M., who might as well have risen straight out of Memento: H.M. suffered from a form of epilepsy and his doctors decided to remove his ‘hippocampus’, a structure that controls the laying down of new memories. We only know this because after the surgery, H.M. could no longer form new memories, yet he could recall everything that happened before the operation.

After this lengthy introduction, the book finally takes us to the deep end – the clinical cases and their implications:

The Phantom Limb

To understand Ramachandran’s approach to this strange malady, you have to get your mind around something called the Penfield homunculusA map of the entire body surface exists in the brain like a miniature body drawn on the brain surface. Some parts like lips and hands are overrepresented and the locations of the different body parts is not as it is in actual anatomy. Literally a miniature map of your body in your brain. Perform a google search for more.

Ramachandran while experimenting on patients with phantom limbs soon found that the penfield map for their missing arm seems to be on their face now. So now if he touches the patient’s face, the patient feels the touch on his non-existing arm! Apparently, the part of the map corresponding to face in the brain is very close to the part corresponding to the arm and following the surgical removal, the ‘face map neurons’ has invaded the part reserved for the arm and is now making the brain believe that sensations are coming from that arm when the face is touched. Stimulated by all these spurious signals, Tom’s brain literally hallucinates his arm.

He gives a number of examples involving phantom feet and arms and breasts and even sexual organs.

One patient, in his description, stood up, letting her stumps drop straight down on both sides. “But when I talk,” she said, “my phantoms gesticulate. In fact, they’re moving now as I speak.” – This reminded me so powerfully of Munnabhai and his chemical ‘lochas’ talking of Gandhi.

One of the main problems with patients is paralyzed phantom limbs that are in weird positions that cause pain. To address this, VSR postulates that the phantom limb experience might derive from this explanation: Imagine that your brain area that gives motor commands do not know that the arm is no longer there. So it sends a command, “move”. Each time the motor command center sends signals to the missing arm, information about the commands is also sent to the parietal lobe which houses the penfield map containing our body image. In the case of an actual arm there is another source of information – the impulses from the joints, ligaments and muscle spindles of that arm. These impulses let the brain know that it is actually moving. The phantom arm of course lacks these tissues and their signals.

Now imagine that the actual limb was paralyzed before amputation. Every time the brain sends a signal to move, all the responses from the arm and the visual response gives feedback that “nope, the arm is not moving.” This process repeats till, eventually the brain learns that the arm does not move and a kind of “learned paralysis” is stamped onto the brain’s circuitry and when the arm is later amputated, the person is stuck with that revised body image: a paralyzed phantom.

So in a burst of intuitive insight or creative genius, VSR wonders if he can give feedback to the brain visually that the arm IS moving, then maybe it will “unlearn” this paralysis – visual feedback telling him that his arm is moving again while his muscles are telling him the arm is not there? The only way his beleaguered brain could deal with this bizarre sensory conflict was to say, “To hell with it, there is no arm!”

He does it with his famous mirror box contraption that does exactly that thus performing what he calls the first successful “amputation” of a phantom limb!

BlindSight

VSR gives a few clinical examples of patients who are blind in all conventional sense but can still navigate rooms an around objects and can even put envelopes through slits even when they can’t see the slits or its orientation. to explain this strange almost extra-sensory perception, we need to understand more about how we see and how we process what we see:

What happens when you look at any object?

The light from the object reflects back to your eye, activating corresponding optic impulses in the receptors in your retina. These impulses then travel through the optic nerve and then they take tow pathways – one called ‘old‘ and a second, called ‘new‘.

The “older” pathway goes eventually to higher areas in your brain. The “newer” pathway, on the other hand, travels from through a sort of ‘relay station’ en route to the primary visual cortex. From there, visual information is transmitted to the thirty or so other visual areas for further processing. The “new” pathway after going to the visual cortex diverges again into two more pathways —a “how” pathway in the parietal lobes that is concerned with grasping, navigation and other spatial functions, and the second, “what” pathway in the temporal lobes concerned with recognizing objects.

Why do we have an old pathway and a new pathway?

VSR postulates that maybe the older pathway has been preserved as a sort of early warning system or a quick response system. When time is too short to not have the luxury of processing information etc, this pathway allows you to quickly get out of the way of anything that looks vaguely threatening – hard-coded threats and symbols etc. For example, if a large looming object comes at me from the left, this older pathway tells me where the object is, enabling me to swivel my eyeballs and turn my head and body to look at it. This pathway only gives you a sense that ‘something’ is there.

At this stage you have to deploy the ‘newer’ system to determine what the object is, for only then can you decide how to respond to it. Damage to this second pathway, particularly in the primary visual cortex, leads to blindness in the conventional sense.

So, coming back to patients with BlindSight, the paradox is resolved when you consider the division of labor between the two visual pathways that we considered earlier. In particular, even though these patient might have lost his primary visual cortex, rendering him blind, their primitive “orienting” pathway was sometimes still intact, mediating BlindSight, allowing them to react to objects that they cannot see and with no conscious acknowledgement that they are aware of these objects. It becomes an unconscious reflex reaction for them.

They have BlindSight and can see without seeing.

Imagination and Reality

Ramachandran explores the difference between imagining an object and seeing one. Are the same parts of your brain active when you imagine an object, say, a cat, as when you look at it actually sitting in front of you?

He first takes us through a variety of intriguing experiments that we can perform on ourselves to play with our visual ‘blind spot’ I am reproducing one here but for more off these fun games, go here.

Blind spot demonstration: Shut your right eye and look at the black dot on the right with your left eye. From about one and a half feet away, move the screen slowly toward you. At a critical distance the circular hatched disk on the left will fall entirely on your blind spot and disappear completely. Notice that when the disk disappears you don’t see a dark void or hole in its place. The region is seen as being covered with the same light gray color as the background. This phenomenon is loosely referred to as “filling in.”

If you did go to the link and perform the tests, you have now experienced what VSR calls “Perceptual Filling In” which is very different from just imagining the continuities in those lines etc. When you fill in your blind spot with a carpet design, it is carried out by visual neurons. Their decisions, once made, are irreversible.

If you got this much, let’s return to the distinction between seeing a cat and imagining a cat. When we see a cat, its shape, color, texture and other visible attributes will impinge upon our retina and travel through to the primary visual cortex, all the information combining to tell us that this is a cat.

Now think of what’s going on in your brain when you imagine a cat. There’s good evidence to suggest that we are actually running our visual machinery in reverse! Our memories of all cats and of this particular cat flow from top to bottom—from higher regions to the primary visual cortex—and the combined activities of all these areas lead to the perception of an imaginary cat by the mind’s eye. Indeed, the activity in the primary visual cortex may be almost as strong as if you really did see a cat, but in fact the cat is not there.

Why don’t you see a cat in the chair when you simply think of one?

The reason is similar to what we explored in the case of the Phantom Limbs – The actual signals from your retina informs your higher visual centers that there is no cat image hitting the retina – thereby vetoing the activity evoked by top−down imagery. But if these early visual pathways are damaged, this baseline signal is removed and so you hallucinate – vividly!

This then forms that elusive interface between vision and imagination.

He talks about the Charles Bonnet syndrome to illustrate this where the brain does not receive confirming visual stimuli and is free simply to make up its own reality.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

In Ramachandran’s own version of the story that Oliver Sachs made immortal, we meet Arthur who suffers from a condition called The Capgras’ delusion: As Arthur said, “That man looks identical to my father but he really isn’t my father. That woman who claims to be my mother? She’s lying. She looks just like my mom but it isn’t her.”

Remember the ‘what’ pathway we talked of earlier? This pathway connects to the ‘temporal lobes’ which contains the regions that specialize in face and object recognition. In a normal brain, once the ‘what’ pathway conveys the visual signals to these areas, these face recognition areas (found on both sides of the brain) relay information to the ‘limbic system‘, which then helps generate emotional responses to particular faces.

What if Arthur’s case arise from a disconnect from these two functions of ‘recognition’ and ’emotional response’? He can recognize his parents’ faces but feels no emotional response as the limbic system is damaged in some way? What if he copes with this lack of emotional response by telling himself that they can’t really be his parents? Ramachandran then proceeds to test and confirm this outlandish theory using GSR which is used extensively in Blink by Gladwell too.

The God Delusion

Ramachandran in this scintillating chapter lays into the god hypothesis with all the innocent charm of an avenging angel. He argues that the limbic system, especially the left temporal lobe is somehow involved in religious experience. Every medical student, he says, is taught that patients with epileptic seizures originating in this part of the brain can have intense, spiritual experiences during the seizures. Patients may then have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, “I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.” Or, “Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.”

Ramachandran finds it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.

The Origin of Smileys

This “false alarm theory” is the explanation that Ramachandran puts forth as the fundamental basis for humour. He gives the example of people who have uncontrollable fits of laughter when they have lesions in certain part s of the limbic system. Is it not strange, he asks, that the same system that controls our flight or fight response also governs our laughter mechanism? This is because laughter is a form of social signaling that lets us tell others that a potentially dangerous situation is really harmless or ‘silly’. It is contagious as the more people convey this “all right” message, better it is for the society – they will waste less effort on these false alarms unnecessarily.

Mind-Body Connection

There was once a woman who was pregnant. She was very excited and happy. FInally after nine months, she started experiencing contractions and rushed to the doctor for delivery. The doctor examined her and got ready for the delivery procedure. He was an experienced doctor and he sensed something was wrong though. he examined her once more and some signs like a down tuned belly button told him that this might be a case of Phantom Pregnancy. He told her he will anesthetic her for delivery and once she woke up informed her that she had miscarried. She was dejected and went home. Several days later she came rushing back. She had a pregnant belly gain and all the other accompaniments of pregnancy. She plopped down on the examining chair and told the doctor – “You forgot to deliver the twin!”

Pseudocyesis or false pregnancy is a condition in which some women who desperately want to be pregnant develop all the signs and symptoms of true pregnancy. Their abdomens swell to enormous proportions, their nipples become pigmented, as happens in pregnant women. They stop menstruating, lactate, have morning sickness and sense fetal movements. Everything seems normal except for one thing: There is no baby.

Ramachandran treated phantom pregnancy as a potential example of the kind of mind-body connection he had been looking for. He meditates, If the human mind can conjure up something as complex as pregnancy, what else can the brain do to or for the body? What are the limits to mind−body interactions and what pathways mediate these strange phenomena? And assures us that, contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the message preached by physicians like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil is not just New Age psychobabble. It contains important insights into the human organism— ones that deserve serious scientific scrutiny.

Phantoms in the Brain is a wonderful book. It explores some deep and strange ideas and tells us that it is only through exploring questions such as these that we can begin to approach the greatest scientific and philosophical riddle of all – the nature of the self.

Freudian Analysis on Ramachandran

Ramachandran spends a lot of time either supporting or critiquing Freud and I am having to struggle hard to resist the temptation of conducting a Freudian analysis on him. Even though I will not engage in it here, I will leave you with a clue why: It is about the number of times he refers to the two primary sexual organs in the book. One is referred to almost constantly (in addition to his numerous sexual innuendos) and the other is mentioned absolutely never.

Disclaimer

In many parts my explanations are simplistic versions of the ones presented in the book. I removed most of the scientific terms and omitted a lot of the examples and have concentrated on concepts that I found more interesting. If your interest was evoked by this short summary, I would urge you to pick up the book and read it. I would also add a qualifier that if you have read The Tell-Tale Brain, a lot of this book will seem very repetitive with almost word for word similarities between the two, and contains almost nothing which has not been covered in The Tell-Tale brain, which is the better work as it is more developed and coherent and just more fun to read for the general reader.

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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Play with your Blind Spot

These illustrations and accompanying explanations are reproduced from the book Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran to act as an addendum to my review of the book.

Blind Spot Demonstrations

1)

Figure 5.2 Blind spot demonstration. Shut your rißht eye and look at the black dot on the right with your left eye. From about one and a half feet away, move the book slowly toward you. At a critical distance the circular hatched disk on the left will fall entirely on your blind spot and disappear completely. If you move the screen closer still, the disk will reappear. You may need to “hunt” for the blind spot by moving your head to and fro several times until the disk disappears. Notice that when the disk disappears you don’t see a dark void or hole in its place. The region is seen as being covered with the same light gray color as the background. This phenomenon is loosely referred to as “filling in.”

2)

Figure: A vertical black line running through the blind spot. Repeat the procedure described for Figure 5.2. Shut your right eye, look at the small black dot on the right with your left eye and move the page to and fro until the hatched square on the left falls on your blind spot and disappears. Does the vertical line look continuous, or does it have a gap in the middle? There is a lot of variation from person to person, but most people “complete” the line. If the illusion doesn’t work for you, try aiming your blind spot at a single black−white edge (such as the edge of a black book on a white background) and you will see it complete.

3)

Figure: The upper half of the line is white and the lower half black. Does your brain complete the vertical line in spite of this internally contradictory evidence.

4)

Figure: Repeat the experiment, “aiming” your blind spot at a pattern that resembles a swastikaan ancient Indo−European peace symbol. The lines are deliberately misaligned, one on either side of the blind spot. Many people find that when the central hatched disk disappears, the two vertical lines get “lined up” and become collinear, whereas the two horizontal lines are not lined upthere is a slight bend or kink in the middle.

5)

Figure: Move the screen toward you until the hatched disk falls on the blind spot. Does the corner of the square get completed’? The answer is that most people see the corner “missing” or “smudged”; it does not get filled in. This simple demonstration shows that filling in is not based on guesswork; it is not a high−level cognitive process.

6)

Figure: Amazingly, when the blind spot is aimed at the center of a bicycle wheel, no gap is seen. People usually report that the spokes converge toward a vortex.

Referenced from  Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran.

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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative

 

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Book Appreciation: Illness as Metaphor By Susan Sontag

Illness as MetaphorIllness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1978, when Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work, she was a cancer patient herself. But in spite of that, it is not a book about being ill or about the travesties of being a cancer patient. In Sontag’s words, it is ‘not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation‘.

Her subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of the various diseases as a figure or metaphor for completely unrelated instances. Sontag is very emphatic that ‘My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness-and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.‘ Yet, Sontag admits, it is hardly possible. But, her work still attempts to do just that – ‘It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.

Sontag directs her sharp scrutiny on the two diseases have been spectacularly, and similarly, encumbered by the trappings of metaphor: tuberculosis and cancer and to other diseases such as cholera, plague, syphilis and leprosy that are used to a lesser extent.

The book’s main contention is that our fantasies are responses to diseases that are mysterious in origin and terminal and capricious in nature. TB in the last century and cancer now fits that bill and hence becomes targets of our collective imagination.

The Metaphors of TB

TB used to be the disease of choice for all sorts of metaphors throughout the last century. Many myths surrounded it.

One of the most potent myths was that it takes a sensitive person to feel melancholy; or, by implication, to contract tuberculosis. The myth of TB constitutes the last step in the long career of the ancient idea of melancholy. The melancholy character – now of the tubercular – was a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart. It was so well established that TB and creativity was linked in mysterious ways that it was even suggested at times that it was the progressive disappearance of TB which accounted for the current decline of literature and the arts.

The tuberculic is characterized as a dropout, a wanderer in endless search of the healthy place. Starting in the early nineteenth century, TB became a new reason for exile, for a life that was mainly traveling, as shown in many great travel novels of the era. It was a way of retiring from the world without having to take responsibility for the decision or consequences as in the story of The Magic Mountain.

In contrast to the great epidemic diseases of the past (bubonic plague, typhus, cholera), which strike each person as a member of an afflicted community, TB was understood as a disease that isolates one from the community. However steep its incidence in a population, TB – like cancer today – always seemed to be a mysterious disease of individuals, a deadly arrow that could strike anyone, that singled out its victims one by one. The disease that individualizes, that sets a person in relief against the environment, was tuberculosis and today is cancer.

Transformation of the TB Metaphors

The TB myth has been transformed in the modern age but the object of all the transference is not, of course, cancer – a disease which nobody has managed to glamorize. In the twentieth century, the romantic aspects of the TB myth has been transferred to a similarly harrowing and mysterious disease that is made the index of a superior sensitivity – Insanity.

Sontag points out that with both TB and with mental illness, there is confinement. Sufferers are sent to a “sanatorium” (the common word for a clinic for tuberculars and the most common euphemism for an insane asylum). Once put away, the patient enters a duplicate world with special rules. Like TB, insanity is a kind of exile. The metaphor of the psychic voyage is an extension of the romantic idea of travel that was associated with tuberculosis. To be cured, the patient has to be taken out of his or her daily routine. It is not an accident that the most common metaphor for an extreme psychological experience viewed positively-whether produced by drugs or by becoming psychotic-is a trip.

With the coming of the twentieth century the myth and the metaphors and attitudes formerly attached to TB has now been apportioned among two diseases:

Some features of TB go to insanity: the notion of the sufferer as a hectic, reckless creature of passionate extremes, someone too sensitive to bear the horrors of the vulgar, everyday world. Other features of TB go to cancer – the agonies that can’t be romanticized. Not TB but insanity is the current vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence.

Comparisons between TB and Cancer Motifs

The metaphors attached to TB and to cancer are contrasted in great detail by Sontag:

Etymology – ‘Cancer’ is imagined as malevolent growth, crawling or creeping like a crab and its etymology comes from this image. Tuberculosis was also once considered a type of abnormal extrusion: the word tuberculosis comes from the Latin tuberculum, the diminutive of tuber, bump, swelling – means a morbid swelling, protuberance, projection, or growth.

Symptomstransparency vs opaquenessWhile TB is understood to be, from early on, rich in visible symptoms (progressive emaciation, coughing, languidness, fever), and can be suddenly and dramatically revealed (the blood on the handkerchief), in cancer the main symptoms are thought to be, characteristically, invisible – until the last stage, when it is too late.

Speed and Time – TB is a disease of time; it speeds up life, highlights it, spiritualizes it. Cancer has stages rather than a “gallop”. Cancer works slowly, insidiously. Every characterization of cancer describes it as slow, growing menacingly and out-of-control, though this metaphor has speeded up since Sontag’s days.

Economics – TB is often imagined as a disease of poverty and deprivation-of thin garments, thin bodies, unheated rooms, poor hygiene, inadequate food. In contrast, cancer is a disease of middle-class life, a disease associated with excess. Rich countries have the highest cancer rates, the toxic effluvia of the industrial economy that creates affluence

Pain – TB is thought to be relatively painless. Cancer is thought to be, invariably, excruciatingly painful. TB is thought to provide an easy death, while cancer is the spectacularly wretched one. The dying tubercular is pictured as made more beautiful and more soulful; the person dying of cancer is portrayed as robbed of all capacities of self-transcendence, humiliated by fear and agony.

Parts of the BodyWhile TB takes on qualities assigned to the lungs, which are part of the upper, spiritualized body, cancer is notorious for attacking parts of the body (colon, bladder, rectum, breast, cervix, prostate, testicles) that are embarrassing to acknowledge. TB is, metaphorically, a disease of the soul. Cancer, as a disease that can strike anywhere, is a disease of the body. Far from revealing anything spiritual, it reveals that the body is, all too woefully, just the body.

But leukemia seems to approach TB in being romantic and deserving of a more spiritualized metaphor as in  the case of the heroine of Erich Segal‘s Love Story.

After providing these comparisons and contrasts, Sontag is also quick to admit that these are only metaphors and not accurate reflections of reality – “These are contrasts drawn from the popular mythology of both diseases. Of course, many tuberculars died in terrible pain, and some people die of cancer feeling little or no pain to the end; the poor and the rich both get TB and cancer; and not everyone who has TB coughs. But the mythology persists.”

Metaphors of Cancer

Cancer has never been viewed as anything other than a scourge; it had no romantic metaphors and it was always,  metaphorically, the barbarian within.

The language used to describe cancer evokes an economic catastrophe – one of unregulated, abnormal, incoherent growth. It is out of control.

Sontag elaborates on this economic metaphor thus:

Early capitalism assumes the necessity of regulated spending, saving, accounting, discipline-an economy that depends on the rational limitation of desire. TB is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of nineteenth-century homo economicus: consumption; wasting; squandering of vitality.

Advanced capitalism requires expansion, speculation, the creation of new needs (the problem of satisfaction and dissatisfaction); buying on credit; mobility-an economy that depends on the irrational indulgence of desire. Cancer is described in images that sum up the negative behavior of twentieth-century homo economicus: abnormal growth; repression of energy, that is, refusal to consume or spend.

When we pause to ponder here, we can see that in the contemporary scenario, the metaphors of cancer applied to the economic scenario has gone back to the earlier ones associated with TB. This shows how easily we adapt our metaphors to equate our worst fears with our worst illnesses.

Sontag goes on to explain that, the controlling metaphors in descriptions of cancer are, in fact, drawn not from economics but from the language of warfare: with words like “bombarding” and “invasion” and ‘radical’ populating the scientific journals.

The melodramatics of the disease metaphor in modern political discourse assume a punitive notion: to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment. This is particularly true of the use of cancer as a metaphor. It amounts to saying, first of all, that the event or situation is unqualifiedly and irredeemably wicked.

This metaphor is not entirely new either: The Nazis had used the cancer metaphor to modernized their rhetoric about “the Jewish problem” throughout the 1930s: to treat a cancer, they said, one must cut out much of the healthy tissue around it to kill the tumor of the Jewish power that “effortlessly and interminably multiplies.”

Sontag says that to describe a phenomenon as a cancer is an incitement to violence. And this is clearly ominous as shown in the example above. But, she also goes on to say that “It is, of course, likely that the language about cancer will evolve in the coming years. It must change, decisively, when the disease is finally understood and the rate of cure becomes much higher. It is already changing, with the development of new forms of treatment.

Lasting Influences of the TB Metaphor

Gradually, the tubercular look, which symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, became more and more the ideal look for women-while great men of the mid- and late nineteenth century grew fat, founded industrial empires, wrote hundreds of novels, made wars, and plundered continents.

Sontag draws our attention to the fact that the myth of the spiritually beautiful TB patient has now found in the twentieth-century women’s fashions (with their cult of thinness) the last stronghold for the metaphors associated with the romanticizing of TB in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Movies like Twilight project this metaphor of the wan, hollow-chested young men and pallid, rachitic young women.

The Death of the TB Metaphor and Hope for Cancer

Sontag says that by validating so many possibly subversive longings and turning them into cultural pieties, the TB myth survived irrefutable human experience and accumulating medical knowledge for nearly two hundred years. The power of the myth was dispelled only when proper treatment was finally developed, with the discovery of streptomycin in 1944 and the introduction of isoniazid in 1952.

For as long as its cause was not understood and the ministrations of doctors remained so ineffective, TB was thought to be an insidious, implacable theft of a life. Now it is cancer’s turn to be the disease that doesn’t knock before it enters, cancer that fills the role of an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion – a role it will keep until, one day, its etiology becomes as clear and its treatment as effective as those of TB have become. Then the negative metaphors associated with cancer too might die out, or so Sontag hopes.

But inevitably, we will find a new illness to replace it with, after all, the most powerful metaphors are the ones that scare us most. The ideal candidate would be AIDS – which forms the subject of the next Sontag book that I intend to read soon – Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors.

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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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