Communes, Cults or Chemicals

Homo sapiens just like many other mammals live in social groups. The proliferation of social media filled the vacuum created by weakening of the communal living – maybe? The babble of social media is not unlike the lingo used by the brainwashed cult members. We look down upon communes and cults, even though they fulfill the same need- to foster a sense of belonging at much deeper level, than the transient groups on social media.
Whatever we think is toxic in cults, permeates the social media communes too. Cults have their rituals and cult members use a uniform lingo to communicate their solidarity. At least in cults or communes one relates to what is in the vicinity and unfolding as it is rather than a “staging of the events “as in the social media. We connect with other people “as if they are on the stage – performing” – if one goes by the “sheer number of smiling faces” there should be no sadness in this universe. “
Even though it may be counterintuitive for some, I find it interesting to explore those organizations which are far removed from the idea of cult because “there is no worshipping or religion involved”. “Amway and Market America “were the two business organizations which I saw some of my friends became involved with during my training in Brooklyn, New York in mid 90’s.

This friend of mine, a fellow resident in psychiatry with me – very bright young fella -his spouse was a physician in training as well and had recently immigrated from India to pursue more advanced training in the field of medicine. Somehow, he got involved with Amway. Just like a fresh convert, he would leave no opportunity to promote Amway, even though didn’t make a dime himself. He would go to all the business meetings and conventions sometimes in other cities. He started buying their products- ostensibly to sell, which never materialized . I also noticed a sudden transformation in his demeanor, he appeared at ease and confident and rooted in the new country as if he had found a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. He would talk about the millions his “top earing distributors”-obviously higher on the totem pole, had made, and how he could join the same league. “False hope” but it was hope, nonetheless. I wanted to become comfortable, confident and acculturate to the new country as well. My program director suggested “psychoanalysis”- I jumped right in, looking for confidence and meaningful uplifting, but the only hope it offered to me was, converting “my misery” to “ordinary unhappiness”- would it even qualify as hope?
I had some personal experience with these “sellers of hope”,

when I went to a convention hosted by “Market America”. The founder CEO came on the stage to deliver his inaugural talk – oh boy! he sure was a performer and sold the “dream of becoming a millionaire” so well that by the end of the day I felt rich enough to buy a “Montblanc” fountain pen, because I couldn’t settle for less, when I knew soon enough I would be endorsing those “fantasized checks” I would receive, selling Market America products and “becoming an emerald level distributor”. I would be brutally honest in admitting that by the end of the day I catapulted from “misery” to “happy”. Alas, it didn’t last long as my skepticism kicked in. All said and done, I still want to be fair to these organizations- they sell hope but keep the cost “well hidden”.
Organized religion, Cults, communes, conmen – they all sell “hope” in some form or the other – the price extraction differs in form and steepness.

This Lady I knew a while back – worked in healthcare business. She had,a rather troubled teenage years,because of her mother’s bipolar illness. She did get herself involved in drugs. She didn’t make it very clear to me whether she was still doing drugs when she moved in a “commune” in Carolinas. She completed her college and got herself a good job during her continued stay in this “community- run by her Spiritual Guru”. The cost of staying in the commune was – giving at least one weekend towards the upkeep of the community and buying groceries from the “shop they had onsite”. She was happy, got married and her husband stayed there as well. Somewhere down the lane, they developed some differences, which were obliquely related to the communal living and the husband wanted to move out. The “guru” according to my acquaintance, started to “drive a wedge” in their already rocky relationship and wanted her to let her husband go and herself stay on. I guess this was a wakeup call for her and she decided to leave the commune lock stock and barrel. Adios commune!
After she got out, she was very bitter towards the “guru”, lamenting that she was robbed thousands and thousands of dollars she gave them directly or indirectly. I couldn’t help but observe that she did find some “shelter for her troubled soul during those years” and yes paid them for their services dearly, perhaps.
Many of the hard-core cults attract both charismatic personalities and members who feel alienated from the society. Some of them, can provide an insulated world of “us against them” to shield its more vulnerable members from the harsh reality of the real world, not unlike the protective walls of the mental asylum. The cost besides money its member pays is “selling one’s mind and souls to the good of the cult.” The cult -Branch Davidians led by David Koresh could be a good example though eventually rather than protecting it exposed them to even harsher fate.

Social media with its “groups”” friends” and so on provides a forum wherein “one is never alone” – when troubled can ask for help – start a “go fund me” if in dire straits. Share and find solidarity with the like-minded people and “follow the gurus on twitter”- seek guidance and most of it is free. The cost is very well hidden. One really must be as patient as an archaeologist, to go through the layers and layers of “freebies”,to arrive at the hidden price one pays. At the very minimum, it is one’s time and attention,and worst-case scenario parting with personal information ,for free. The data collected on the “users” is traded like commodity. One could argue – so what – it’s just data and no one individual can “mine cryptocurrency” “from that data”.Well… it’s convoluted and complex- I would suggest watching this movie “the Great Hack” to understand the full scope of this “ chess game” in which we amount to less than mere pawns.
Without getting lost in my own argument, what I am proposing is that “social media communes” also extract a price for the “hope and support” and “fostering a sense of belonging” they offer.
I acknowledge, that it would be very hard, for me to sell the proposition, that even conmen offer hope, I would easily concede though that the price extracted is at times “obscene” and could be at least potentially, more damaging than the help being offered.
The last, but not the least is “ the chemicals” or drugs – give hope to masses but again may cost more than one bargained for.
In the end, I can’t help but state, somewhat dated observation by Carl Marx that “ religion is the opium for masses”.

Boredom in Life

Listening to John Cage’s 4’33”

“An empty mind is Devil’s workshop”- many of us perhaps grew up with this dictum. The emphasis hence to stay busy and “not be bored”. Being bored for many is “being slothful”.

Is that so? If so – let’s examine what is boredom and the causes of boredom?

Leo Tolstoy called it “a desire for desires”. Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, thought “boredom is the root of all evil-despairing refusal to be oneself”. He might have even said that Gods created human beings out of sheer boredom!

Let’s examine it at more mundane level.

What causes boredom?

Could we say it’s “lack of stimulation”? if we turn it around and examine what happens when there is lack of stimulation say depriving “the urbanite” of their smart phones and” TikTok/ Instagram/ Twitter/ Snapchat and you would know. If you want to be cruel then deprive him of TV, music, coffee, coke -you could see boredom in a “physical form”. Some others resort to drugs, gambling, and other kinds of stimulations to keep boredom at bay. All said and done, there is a limit to which the brain can be stimulated, after which it has to “descend into torpor”. That’s the nature of the beast, so to say. The “crash” cocaine bingers experience, wherein no amount of cocaine gives them pleasure is intriguing, and the answer lies in the neurochemistry. As it happens, the brain has exhausted all its stores of “pleasure elixir” technically known as “dopamine”.

Psychological cause of boredom, is perhaps, a mismatch between the subject’s expectation, and what is available for such stimulation. For example, if you go to a talk or show , for knowledge or entertainment ,and the host or performers don’t come up to your expectations – you would be bored in all probability.

The above examples pertain to “ordinary boredom”

Then there is “existential boredom” which afflicts “chosen few” like the protagonist in Sartre’s novel “nausea”. That kind of boredom is malignant and very hard to deal with. The Zen masters have prescribed a “twisted remedy” for such boredom- “if something bores you in two minutes- do it for four minutes and if that doesn’t work for eight – sixteen and so on and you shall find it ceases to be boring”.

Between these two poles -there are “51 shades of boredom”!

We all know what boredom does to us in causing discomfort- is there any payoff for being bored? Yes, there is but only “if it doesn’t kill you” which reminds me of a song by Kelly Clarkson “what doesn’t kill you, make you stronger”. Surviving boredom may open the gates of “creativity”. Who knows the prehistoric man who invented “the wheel” was simply” bored”?

I was scammed- for real

Land of scam artists

I am guilty of being somewhat “non-self-disclosing” and have a strong urge to “confess” so as to emphasize that “scammers” are always “one up” on us, in spite of our caution.

Historically, I have been pretty skeptical of everything “which is too good to be true”. I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life because to hope against “all odds” pun intended, has not been my strong point. I have suffered because of my skepticism, “I have never won a jackpot”. At times, I do have regrets. Self-disclosure is painful, but I would admit, I have lost some money in the stock market though.

Few years back, visiting my parents in New Delhi India, I was “scammed”. The way it happened was that the domestic help which they couldn’t do without because of their advancing age took off – leaving them high and dry. I was pretty anxious to “put things in order” and earn parental respect of a “prodigal son”

Spoiled by my sojourn in the States, I thought I could “order domestic help online” having been heavily addicted to Amazon. Lo and behold I could find someone online, who was willing to send me a maid before the end of the day.

“It was too good to be true” and I jumped at the opportunity. They wanted me to wire advance payment of few thousand rupees- roughly $100. I promptly wired the money- was disappointed because the maid didn’t arrive by the evening and as a matter of fact never showed up. I tried calling my contact number for the maid service, someone would answer and assure me that they were having some difficulty but nothing to worry about and would happen soon. After few angry exchanges they very conveniently “disconnected the phone number”.

Looking back, I recall having been surprised that they could arrange for the maid that fast, but chose to brush any doubt aside as it was more convenient to trust them against my better judgment.

“I was scammed”

“If it’s too good to be true” … guess what? it probably is, not true.
We live in the age of “cons”. They are all around us. At the very minimum “they steal our attention”- I am talking about the internet and social media. You might have hard time believing this but “we are being fed that information which these scammers- I would call them “soft scammers” want us to feed on. They choose their targets well. Many of you would admit that if you search a particular merchandise, the next time you open your browser you would see the same item being advertised. Some of us also start seeing these items even if you were talking to your spouse about it – without becoming paranoid, I would suggest AI – whether it’s Alexa or Google assistant – is eavesdropping. We may not buy these but “we sold our attention”.
Let’s move on to “no ifs and but’s” kind of cons – like Nigerian prince Con or Ponzi schemes.
What I plan to do is, to explore what do the swindlers look for in a victim.
They do feed on the victim’s fear, greed, guilt, concerns, desires, hopes and so on.
I am going to try explaining this with examples from real life.
This lady in her early fifties- let’s call her Martha, lived alone worked in a grocery store making minimum wages. She was divorced and very lonesome. Started using online dating sites and befriended a handsome, rich guy who had “tracks of land in Texas” but was not able to pay taxes. He wanted to sell this property, but the hitch was he had to pay the taxes. He planned to relocate where this lady- my client, lived. “Too good to be true for her” and sure enough it was not true. She finds this hard way after helping him out with the taxes but never hearing from him again. Became despondent, depressed, and was admitted to a psychiatric unit. With proper treatment she was released to her son as she was seen as vulnerable adult and family support was a requirement for her successful discharge.
Thus far it could be seen as an unfortunate story of fraud but,what is hard to understand is that she succumbed to two more very similar cons. When probed deeper- it became apparent that “her desire for a romantic love relationship made her desperate to seek it at any cost” and the fraudsters are scouting for such victims.
Another story focuses on the concerns and fears about the well-being of the family members. A co-worker told me this as I was writing the blog. His 80yrs old mother gets a call from the detention center informing her that her grandson has been arrested and if she wants him to be released, she will have to pay a fine, during this call she can hear some screams in the background. This grandson had had some legal skirmishes in the past. In her anxiety to get her grandson out, she does what she was asked to do. Normal concerns of a grandmother got amplified by grandson’s legal history and the staging of screams in the background.
A cliché “if you want something for nothing”, you might end up getting “nothing for something” but that’s the story of a scam.

Hope in 2022

We build hope give Hope take Hope wish hope-it’s hope and hope all the way.

Hope for better life

We are taught hope is good – and we hope for things to become better even if everything in our life sucks. What’s the payoff? I guess ability to go on with our life. Question is what’s the price we pay?

Let me tell you a story- 

This hobo is traveling in the train- ticket checker comes and ask him to show his ticket. The guy looks in this pocket and that pocket but skips one pocket in an obvious manner. This doesn’t escape the ticket checker’s keen eyes and he questions him why he won’t look into “that pocket “

The hobo’s response is “I am afraid to find it not being there either”

Well funny it is – but really that is what hope is and not finding it there is akin to hopelessness.

The bottom line we would go to any extent to have hope in our life even if it’s “false hope”

We are willing to live in a deluded world if it offers us hope. It could be in God’s benevolence or the promises of a leader.

Where does Hope takes us?

When we are little, we are powerless, puny, dependent, and we hope one day we would be big, independent and stronger. When we are adults, we hope for the day, when we would be wealthy, powerful and famous. When we are older, we hope we would leave a legacy behind us and when we are close to death we hope for an eternity in heaven.

The problem is “hope” always belongs to “tomorrow” and we can only live in today. Too much “dope”of “hope “and we miss the boat of “today”

Maybe a little Hope could propel us to live on, in the face of the absurdity of life 

It’s a known fact that “hopelessness “goes along with “clinical depression” but psychologists have found enough empirical data that people who are depressed are more realistic whereas normal happy people are little less so.

Reminds me of a two act play by Samuel Beckett in which two characters, engage in a no-nothing kind of ramblings while awaiting a mythical Godot, who never arrives. This waiting game acts as a glue to bind their absurd ramblings.

Just a “sprinkle of hope” in 2022 ,would be good enough, so that we can “wait for Godot” and continue to engage in our shenanigans.

So, I ask for just a sprinkle of hope in 2022-just enough to bind the absurdities of life because a little more would entomb our lives into eternal deadness! 

Musings on Eugenics

Fantastic Four

When I think about “ Eugenics” the very first word which pops up in my mind – helplessly so is Hitler and his megalomaniac pathetic outlook on promoting the “Aryan race”. But, fortunately, his medical experiments of unthinkable horror and cruelty conducted at Auschwitz’s concentration camps died out with him.
Let’s fast forward to happier times of Tinseltown and it’s denizens.
Angelina Jolie going for double mastectomy made the headline for being “bold and beautiful “ few years back when she found she was BRCA1 positive. Of course even if it was possible to detect it on her mother’s prenatal check ups , it would have “been a non-event” and would have not affected “the embryonic life of Angelina in any adverse way. But what if ,John Nash’s mother found out he has 22q11 deletion during her prenatal screening and decided she didn’t want to bring forth a schizophrenic child ? Would that not be considered a “crime against humanity” by depriving the world of “a beautiful mind”?
What if we find a gene for sociopathy ?
What if we find that mild sociopathy helps with a successful career in politics? Hope not!

What about diseases like Sickle cell trait -what if we can find “genetic cure” for sickle cell disease and later find that the same genetic abnormality allows“ yet to discover” “ advantageous trait” – not unlike one bestowed on “the fantastic four” superheroes – but then that belongs to fiction-!(as a matter of fact sickle cell trait does offer advantage to people living in the malaria belt, because malarial parasite causes the blood cells of “sickle cell trait” person to sickle and attacked by body’s immune system)
How about Asperger’s, which, I think at least some of you would concede that ,if not desirable, is at the very least acceptable in the Post Elon Musk era than it ever was?
How about Depression? As some of you might know that,Abraham Lincoln suffered from serious depression but it also allowed him immense patience and deep empathy for the downtrodden- is that a good trait or liability in the current socio-political environment? Is it possible to have more Abraham Lincoln’s or would they be utter failure as politicians in the current environment? What if we swap Lincoln with Trump ? Would we have United States of America as we know it now ?

What I am inviting you to ponder with me is, that with “genetic manipulation” to either find a cure for so called “genetic illnesses” or “find hardy crops – better known as GMO’s” we are swapping known “suffering” with yet to discover “scourge”?

Hand to hand combat with anxiety

Anxious Mr. Bean

Continuation of my previous post on anxiety…

We established how we can convert “anxiety” into “fear” by our “meditative awareness”

There are many ways to cultivate this. Let’s consider sports and meditation.

While playing a sport, whatever disharmony exist between mind and body becomes “amplified” and this amplification can help us see “how anxiety makes us miss the ball”. While playing tennis, I have noticed umpteen times ,that “when I am thinking about hitting a ball in “this” and not “that way”-in other words when I am “anxious about hitting it right -I always hit it wrong.Contrarily, if I simply “follow the ball”- and let my mind trust my body, I hit it right.

What I am trying to examine here, is how can we operationalize “hand to hand combat” to deal with anxiety in our day-to-day life.

The first and foremost tool we have is our awareness into how we feel. Anxiety is so “painful” that we want to get rid of it as soon as possible- at times we don’t even care about the heavy price we pay for these escapes – drugs, distractions, obsessions, or addictions.

What if we turn it around – rather than “numbing ourselves to this pain” we become aware of this “pain”.

Let’s try to do this exercise- next time we are plagued by anxiety -we try to find out how does it translate into the “body’s discomfort” – like pounding heart, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach and so on and the circular thoughts “like a snake chasing its own tail” or in other words “obsessive rumination”.

The “key word is awareness”.

The next step is “acceptance of this state of affairs – both mind’s and body’s without any fight or resistance” Just like in the martial art Judo they teach you to “accept the blow as if you were a soft pillow” – don’t be a rock when the blow of anxiety lands on you – become a pillow

Double bind -2

All our life we are programmed to find “solutions” to the “questions” without questioning the questions even if the later are ridiculous.
“Double bind” communications pose such questions which force us to step up to the plate.
If we don’t negate these communications we are left with either “oppression” or “ live in a psychotic world”.
First, I want to elaborate how “double bind” communications are oppressive with examples from our day to day life. The “double bind communications are very effective tools to “control” the employees. Say for example – an ER physician is advised to keep the wait time low but also expected to “prioritize” patient contact time based on the urgency of the clinical situation. It translates to him being penalized if he spends “average” time with all patients without prioritizing or if he spends more time on serious cases and keep less emergent patients waiting longer than the “advertised ER waiting period”. Catch-22
What should he do in this situation?
A very apt example described in Sukaina Hirji’s paper “oppressive double bind” is as follows –
“Imagine you are an untenured professor and the only woman and person of color among the faculty in a philosophy department. You are frequently approached by students, typically women or members of other underrepresented groups, looking for mentorship and emotional support as they navigate their academic experience. While you believe this service work is valuable with a view to increasing the representation of minorities in philosophy, it is also emotionally draining and takes significant time away from your own research. You feel trapped. If you do this sort of mentorship work, you help diversify the field in a way that will be better for you and other members of underrepresented groups. Moreover, if you refuse to do this work, you indirectly help to maintain a status quo in which women and people of color like yourself remain dramatically underrepresented and underserved. But by doing this service work, you compromise your own research and reinforce a system where disproportionate burdens are placed on women and people of color, making them less likely to succeed in the profession.”
Before, we scratch our head to find a solution I want recall the story of the Buddhist monk(from my previous post) who “ snatches the stick from his teacher” – word of caution though “both the problems and their solutions are going to be much more complex to define”
The first step though is “ defining the problem as clearly as possible” and laying out all solutions “even if they seem ridiculous” like in the Buddhist monk example.

“Catch-22”- common link between psychosis, oppression and freedom

The phrase “Catch-22” is picked up from Joseph Heller’s novel with the same name and it alludes to a “problem” whose solution is denied by the restrictions posed by the problem.
A very similar communicative pattern proposed to cause “schizophrenia” in the genetically predisposed individuals per Gregory Bateson is “ double bind”. Double bind theory is about relationships and what happens when important basic relationships are subjected to chronic invalidation through paradoxical communication.
Furthermore, “double bind” technique of communication is also used by the Zen masters to guide their students to a path of “ self enlightenment”
Let’s start with first scenario-unfolding in the setting of WWII. The novel’s main character captain Yossarian’s goal is to stay alive at any cost- to escape from detested sorties, he tries to feign “insanity” but the catch is, that such plea is seen as a sign of “sanity”,since the person is vested in self preservation, whereas those willing to go on high risk sorties are taken to be “somewhat insane”. On one occasion, when he is caught evading his duties he is given two choices by his supervisor “ face court martial or be discharged “after making 80 sorties” – what he is desperately trying to avoid- so again “ catch-22”- his creative solution is “ fleeing to neutral war zone of Sweden” hence freedom.
double bind is used by the Buddhist teachers to challenge their student’s mindset –

a Buddhist teacher holds a stick in his hand and tells his student “ if you say I have a stick in my hand – I will beat you. If you say I don’t have any stick- I will beat you and if you say nothing- I will beat you”. -a perfect double bind -The “self enlightened” student simply takes the stick from his master’s hands and break it into two! Solution is the negation of the problem.
This same technique is sometimes used by insecure mothers to communicate with their children,and in those predisposed to schizophrenia, it may drive them to a psychotic solution, as proposed by George Bateson in his study on schizophrenia.
This communication style is often used in the corporate world to “manage the employees”as captured in Mike Judge’s movie “ the office space”-
Joanna, a restaurant waitress who loathes the management, is required to wear “pieces of flair” (buttons meant to allow employees to “express themselves”). Her boss often hassles her for not wearing more than the required minimum. In the end she “ chooses to express herself by giving him a finger and walking out of the job!

Depression and Learned Helplessness

To study a “ new antidepressant” , researchers have to conduct “animal studies”. Since, we are testing a drug which is supposed to lift depression- the question is “how to demonstrate its effectiveness in animals. Quandary is, that except for dogs, who perhaps because of “being man’s best friends” for eons , other creatures are not afflicted by this malady to the best of my knowledge.
So the problem becomes of “inoculating them with the virus of depression”.
This feat is accomplished by coming up what the scientists call an animal model.
One such model is “learned helplessness”. What they do that they create a situation for the animal say a mouse where in it feels helpless and to conserve its energy, which is a biological advantage, it simply gives up. To explain more clearly they would put a mouse in a big container of water from which it cannot escape however hard it tries ,so it keeps swimming but after sometime it just floats realizing it’s futile to swim , thus conserving energy .
A parallel human situation would be someone in a shipwreck swim for a little bit but finding the land is not reachable gives up swimming and just floats.
Coming back to the animal model they repeat the experiment after injecting the animal, in this case a mouse with the new test chemical “purported-to be new antidepressant”. If the antidepressant is effective the animal would swim for a longer time before giving up.
So what an anti-depressant is doing is “buying time” and hoping help is on the way to address what is causing depression -myriad of causes, ranging from socioeconomic to psychological ,unfolding within the genetic makeup.
More of this next time, as for now,I want to focus on how could one address this learned helplessness by other means say for example exercise and biofeedback. One of the common symptoms of depression is that a person does not have much energy left and he’s lethargic.
I will start off with exercise since that’s easy to understand and to practice. There are twofold effects of exercise -one is causing neuro-chemical changes and the other is an indirect communication to the mind that one is not helpless. The helplessness in a “shipwreck” situation is a biological advantage but otherwise it’s like “ barking at the wrong tree”
The mind may start “ retuning to this “normal”level of activity and may in turn feel “better”. In other words if body sends the message “I am not giving up” mind recalibrate into thinking “the situation doesn’t demand “giving up” or in other words be in the “helpless mode”. The neurochemical changes caused by exercise also mitigate depression.

Of course if it doesn’t work the medication’s are available to break this vicious cycle of depression.