RW108 - Consciously Erect

This week, Dan and John talk about

  • John having a slipped disc (Aging)
  • John neglecting his body (Aging)
  • Reading the Greeks on the quest for mindfulness (Depression)
  • Dan’s mindfulness practice (Dan Benjamin)
  • Fighting the unwinnable war of your own life (Depression)

The show title refers to John’s new conscious posture after having been diagnosed with a slipped disc.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

John having a slipped disc (RW108)

John is ailing because he has a slipped disc in his back. He met a chiropractor and a physical therapist who were wonderful people. He has not had an MRI or any conventional doctor’s appointment. Although the chiropractor was a young man, he was very confident in his trade and said that John is presenting as having a slipped disc and he said something about L5 or some made-up word. Over the years, John has made quite some research into the chiropractic field and found that it has a pretty hilarious origin story. Chiropractic doctors acknowledge that you are a physical being with muscles and bones and putting force and pressure on your body seem right and sounds good. The hilarious parts are its philosophies and theories. John has always been suspicious of this because his best friend’s dad growing up in the early 1980s was an orthopedic surgeon who was angry at the rapidly expanding chiropractic medicine. Conventional doctors just didn’t think it was real.

John does feel an improvement after having been at the chiropractor. He and the physical therapist are working together and there is a lot of work to be done to strengthen his back. They are quite honest with him that you can’t just pop the slipped disc back in and be better, but you have to go through rehabilitation. It is going to hurt for a while! John hasn’t had the experience of walking in being in pain and walking out feeling great, but he has been slowly making progress. 10 days after the incident, the sharp pain has turned into dull pain. There is certainly a lot of hyperbolic talk about having been instantly cured when people look back on it. A year from now John might tell the story in the same way. With a slipped disc you are not consigned for having back problems for the rest of your life although it is not uncommon, but John hates to get wake-up calls and he has gotten a lot of them lately. This is another enormous wake-up call that tells him it is time to spring into action, but although his back hurts all the time and he has a small amount of nausea from the pain, John has a very high pain threshold and the nausea makes him realize that it is a real thing. It is a long-term project to get strong again and get himself into the position to have the core-strength and to develop new habits.

During the second meeting with the chiropractor they went out for a walk and the chiropractor said that part of the reason why John’s spine has bulged out is that John sits slumped and walks slouched. John told him about his signature palms-facing-back caveman walk that he gets a lot of shit for, and the chiropractor told him to stand up straight with his shoulders back and his chest out, which felt like he was standing 7 feet tall (210 cm) and 5 feet wide (150 cm). John can’t stand like this, because he spent his entire life trying not to be this big. He slumps over in order to not block other people standing behind him and in order to not hover or tower over people.

If John is talking to somebody in a tête-à-tête while he is standing with his shoulders back and his chest out, he cannot even hear them because they are all the way down there. He was trying to give a 5 foot tall (150cm) person a hug yesterday and apologized for not being able to bend down. He was basically pressing their face into his belly button. John makes a lot of hay out of being big, although he is actually not that big, but standing up straight is how your body and your lunges and all your muscles want to be. John has tried standing up before when he was walking down the street and he realized he was all slumped down. It is like sliming when you are feeling sad: All of a sudden you are tripping down the street. From now on John has to do that all the time.

John went to IKEA that afternoon against his will. There are all kinds of people at IKEA and now he was not only a head taller than everybody else, but with his chest out and his shoulders back all he needed was a pith helmet and a riding crop. He felt like the big white dude taking up a lot of space. He couldn't do his normal snaky-wending-through-crowds-thing, moving faster than other people without inconveniencing them by just slipping in and out. There was no slipping in and out, because he was a fucking wall and he is not agile in that posture. What was fascinating is that when he became fully erect, his palms naturally rotated into the normal position facing his legs. By making himself small, his shoulders bent forward and his hips rotated forwards somehow to affect this strange, almost reclined position. Now that he is standing with his palms correct, he can’t put his hands down to his sides anymore because he is not used to his chest being this wide. He got those little wings now because his arms are a foot out from his legs and when John’s daughter was pushing his arms against his legs and letting go, they were springing out again.

John neglecting his body (RW108)

John has neglected his body architecture his whole life, which is another example of him feeling that he is going to live forever. Knowing he should have a better posture, it still didn’t seem like something he needed to deal with right now. Now he does need to deal with it and he needs to re-learn some habits he has been practicing for the last 30 years. For the last 5-6 days he John been walking around consciously erect even in his own house. He drove his Jetta to one of his appointments and the chiropractor watched him like an Optimus Prime folding down into a smaller shape and he told him not to do that anymore. As he finally got into the car with the seats all the way down, back and reclined, his head was still touching the ceiling. If he sat up erect, he would have to lean to the right with his head going up into the sunroof hole. His chiropractor told him that he can’t drive this car, because there is no room for him in there. John is not the biggest person among his friends, but big enough to not be able to drive a Jetta. Now he is driving the truck in which he can sit all the way up even wearing a top hat because it is a different style of vehicle.

John has to make a lot of alterations in order to reset some of these patterns, the primary reset being to start working out again. It is not the same work-out like when he was 25 and wanted to slim down and get buff, but now it is much more to stay strong. Chiropractors can’t help themselves but telling their story all the time, like in conventional medicine you are given pain medication, but he didn’t need to sell chiropracting on John anymore. Still, there is always that little bit of proselytizing, partly because there is no third option. Conventional doctors will either send you to a chiropractor or a massage therapist, or they give you medicine and recommend surgery, but there is no third magic way where they stick a needle in there and let some air out.

All this deep tissue stuff felt great and was believable. He started working on John’s thighs, huge muscles which are all screwed up and which have a ripple effect on his back, but right at the end of the second meeting he put John on the table and did some adjustments which felt more like a chiropractic rather than some treatment that was strictly based on working on the muscles. John had the same suspicion with conventional doctors, too. He was so resistant of taking bipolar medication because he thought that those guys were just as voodoo. In that case John was wrong. He is not resistant and he obeys when he is there, but he is a little bit doubtful about all human beings and all their funny games.

This podcast originally started off with John and Dan being young, but it has now become a geriatric show. After 30 years of sitting in a chair you are probably not in a very good shape and you should get out into the sun and exercise, which is true for everybody working in an office. Then you look at your office-mate who is sitting on a ball and is working at a standing desk and you are thinking ”What a nerd!” There was no reason for John’s back going out except that he hadn’t maintained his core, which is not hard in the sense of building a house from scratch, but it is hard because it is boring and arduous. It is so much easier to not do it.

John doesn’t know how many wake-up calls he can stand, because he is sick of them now! You can ignore them over and over until you are lying on a sodid bed (?) surrounded by filth. John is going to continue to go to the physical therapist and he will keep working on his structure. If the relationship with the chiropractor starts to evolve into one where John will be getting more and more adjustments, being employed as a regular maintenance, he is probably going to switch to something that is more rooted in PT. Enough of what is happening in a chiropractic adjustment is opaque to him and if he is doing a maintenance thing he likes it to be something he understands, like strength training or stretching.

John found it very interested how disdainful they were of yoga. Many yoga poses involve putting your spine in that unnatural posture that is equivalent to slouching in a chair with an overarched back. This will get John off the hook of so many people in his life including his daughter’s mother and Jason Finn, who are always hustling him to go to hot yoga. Hot yoga is a cult, he can’t do it! Six months from now John is going to have to have pursued a course of action and he is excited to do it, but from where he stands, he would be more excited to have done it already. Once you have done it, you are glad to have done it, but the problem is just the middle part where you have to do it.

Reading the Greeks on the quest for mindfulness (RW108)

John went to see his psychiatrist for the first time in 4-5 months. He brought up the conversation about happiness that he had with Dan a couple of episodes ago (in Episode 94) and at first his psychiatrist gave John the mental health professional stuff, like ”Happiness can be thought of as the absence of sadness” and John was like ”Horseshit!” His psychiatrist realized that there was no way to talk about this without John getting mad and so they started talking about the Stoics. John had read about them in college in the context of the Greeks and he can identify with them. Even as an undergraduate he was aware of how easy it was to read the greeks and to decide that you have become a stoic because the works of Marcus Aurelius have changed you and now you are his devote. John didn’t ever want to be someone’s devote and he didn’t ever want to pick a doctrine in college and become it, which is what happens to people who ready Ayn Rand and find that all their questions are answered.

We can learn a lot from the Stoics about mindfulness and we can think about them in the context of contemporary mindfulness, Heraclitus and Epictetus specifically! This comports with John’s self-identity, because he is not going to read The Secret and he is not going to his sister’s mindfulness-retreat in Costa Rica, but he will read the Greeks if that is the way in to understanding mindfulness. John is reviled by the idea of mindfulness-practice and that contentment is his mental illness. Active presence in the now feels like a complacent surrender, while his own hopscotching between the present and the past and his active engagement with every failure he has ever gotten a splatter of paint on him from, feels engaged.

When John was suffering from depression, the voices were telling him that he understood the world better than people who weren’t depressed. He wasn’t actually depressed, but he just saw clearly. This is why depression is so hard for people who don’t have depression to understand and why it is so difficult to treat, because people who are depressed don’t seek treatment for it, because they think they feel bad for good reason. They see things more clearly, they have a better understanding of the world, the world sucks and they suck and they are right to be sad. When somebody who is not depressed tells them that they just need to get out into the sun they will roll their eyes at them. If they are told they need to take medicine, the depressed person thinks that the medicine is going to blind them to the truth and it is going to dull their perception and turn them into zombies.

In the early days of depression medications there were some drugs that turned you into a Stepford Wife, which is why it is so hard to get into someone’s head when they have a mental illness. John is not going to ever understand what happiness is if he is flagellating himself for every thing he has ever failed to accomplish, including saving the world in every minute and with every action of the day, and if he is obsessed with all the things that are yet to be done and if he is trying to judge himself through the lens of history. John couldn’t possibly be happy or even take any pleasure in anything, because it is all covered with slug from this big pyre John is burning, this big signal fire.

Living in the moment? What a bunch of sugar claptrap! His psychiatrist knows where John is coming from and he doesn’t think that Oprah is happy, either. He was scrambling and he came with Epictetus! John can put his hands on that. He loved reading the greeks! In college there were these marble busts of these old wise people of antiquity. Their writing has survived and it feels really contemporary and accessible. They are not just these marble busts, but they are revealed in their writing. If you try to read an academic paper about The Godfather published at the University of Washington right now, you wouldn’t be able to read it because academic language has become such unintelligible gibberish even to the people who write it and read it for a living. They are locked into a gibberish-spiral that none of them can get out of, because their lexicon has become their job and when you are trying to get out of it and write in a popular or readable format, you are no longer speaking academic and your work might not be taken seriously. It has become a crazy universe and that is the type of writing you would expect from the Greeks. You expect it to be as impenetrable as Hegel, but it is not! It is chatty and John always loved that stuff. You have all those little epiphanies, like ”Wow, Socrates really handed it to that guy that time! That is a good put-down, I’m going to use that!”, as well as the little aphorisms and stuff.

The idea of reading something and using it as a self-help manual honestly had never occurred to John and if he would start talking on this program about Seneca, no one would be listening to this show anymore. Still, John is hoping he can find something there that will snap him out of his prejudice and at least allow him some toe-hold in believing that there is a path to mindfulness for him that does not go through the great swamps of fake Buddhism that have polluted thinking in a sector of American culture. You imagine it was true for the Native Americans although you have no basis to think so! Since the 1970s we have all seen the rise of American spirituality as being a smorgasbord of just the parts of all these various ancient religions that resonate with the people in Sausalito, California. John doesn’t want that touching him and he doesn’t even want Yoga-pants on the floor of his bedroom, but he is also an old-school comparative religionist. But if he can approach it from that direction and be William James about it? The initial idea of that was to ask what all religions have in common and what we can distill from them that is non-denominational and that seems to be true across every religion. Mindfulness just got attached to all the voodoo-stuff, because everything good is corrupted by its practitioners. John spent his life doing things the hard way and re-invent the wheel, but mindfulness is where it is headed!

Dan’s mindfulness practice (RW108)

Years ago when Dan was working at a start-up, he was super-stressed, because he had to fly back and forth from Florida to San Francisco all the time. A team of developers in Orlando reported to Dan, but everybody else he worked with was in San Francisco. Any mistake or problem that ever happened on the technical side was his responsibility. After doing this for a couple of years, he had developed a crazy anxiety and crazy levels of stress. The doctors told him that he will have to take Nexium for the rest of his life, because no-one can ever stop and some of Dan’s friends have been taken it for 8 years. Instead, Dan was seeing a therapist who introduced him to some relaxing breathing techniques with some CD from Dr. Weil, which worked for him. After that he started researching who talks about breathing and came to Buddhist meditations like Vipassana and he started with an actual meditation practice.

Through this Dan learned about the actual religion of Buddhism. He listened to a couple of podcasts, he found a local Sangha, a Buddhist community and eventually it was something he was very interested in, much more than the religion he was born into. Dan never really connected to Judaism at all. He was connected to the culture through his family, but the religion itself never resonated with him and he never felt a connection to it. Buddhism made sense to him in a lot of ways and his meditation practice became a big part of his life. Not having time to meditate is like saying that you are too sick to go to the doctor, it is called falling off the cushion. Dan was doing a minimum of one hour of meditation a day, sometimes twice as much, and it had tremendous lasting effects on his life and was a complete game changer. With an established mindfulness practice, you are way more engaged with the world.

Fighting the unwinnable war of your own life (RW108)

To whatever degree there is truth available to people, there is no one path to it. You have to strip away all the method and get to something universal. It is a state of mind that you can achieve if you seek it, but John does not know what it is like and can’t imagine to seek it, just as somebody who has never had a kid doesn’t have the capacity to understand what it is to be a parent, and as someone who is depressed doesn’t know what it is like to not be depressed. John does not know what it is like to be mindful and therefore he cannot want to be mindful. He actively resists it because he is committed to having squeezed every last bit of wisdom out of being focused on phantasms.

John inherited a sense of duty and like the American war on terror or the believe that within America or in the world you can achieve equality, it is a borderless goal. There is no such thing as winning the war on terror. We have started an endless war! Likewise, the ideal of equality for everyone is unattainable. It is an endless war and it is always a work in progress, which is great, but there is also no victory, because every small victory pulls you to all the battles left to fight. The point of WWII was to get to the center of Berlin and Tokyo, at which point you would stop fighting. You get to the head of the Hydra, cut it off and the war is over. The global war on terrorism that George Bush started will never be over. There is no point at which there will not be terrorists that are attacking American interests somewhere. As long as it is posited that way, it will justify the military for the next 100 years.

In John’s own mind there has been an unwinnable war his whole life: Every victory he achieves just shines a light on how much more there is to do and how what he had been working toward, what he thought was the goal, what he thought was the Berlin he was trying to get to, wasn’t that at all. There is always a bigger Berlin further on down the road. It is a pathology and an unachievably broad goal that John recognizes in the world all around him. One of the best critique of modern liberalism is that the goals are so impossibly broad that they are almost classifiable as magical thinking. You can’t do these things! Your goals have to be concrete short-term goals instead. You have to be able to say that you did something good and not that everything you do shows how bad we are.

What everybody else describes as success in John’s life just haunts him because of how small he is and how ineffectual he has been at accomplishing his big impossible goal to help the world and to make the world better. Whatever his gifts are, they came attached to an obligation, a responsibility to use those gifts to make the world better. He has not done that and there is so much more he can do and so much more he should be doing in order to turn what he can do into what he should have done. The things he has done just seem small like mouse poops.

What John is really looking for is to just be present, which is a completely different language. It appears that he would just need to pull over into that rest area and all will be good. John knows that is not true, because the unwinnable war in his head is unwinnable. It is a pathology and it is reinforced by the fact that this is a typical human misadventure. The war on terror is a pathology. Universal human rights are a dream-state. How does John not model himself on this tendency for human beings to make the mistake of setting a goal that they haven’t thought through all the way? What is the end-game of the war on terror and the current leftist desire to make a better world? Is it a gradual improvement of the quality of life for everybody? In that case we should be celebrating in the street every day because life globally is incontrovertibly better than what it was 5 years ago, let alone 50, in terms of any kind of big metric like poverty, hunger, disease, rights, legal rights or social rights, but you wouldn’t hear at any point in a contemporary progressive speech that we are doing good! The ideology makes you think that we are utterly failing and that is also basically the voice inside John.

People close to him have tried to congratulate him or compliment him millions of times, but it falls on as deaf an ear in John as if you walked up to a protester and said that there is more clean water in India available now than in any time in history. Great, but we are talking about police accountability! It is all part of the same plan: Is life improving? Are we doing a good job? Is the human project on a path to something? Are we on the way to somewhere? Honestly, that idea might be pathological: Maybe the goal of the human project is just to sit mindfully in the rising tide of shit we are creating until we mindfully suffocate on our own bacteria? Maybe when Jondie Foster’s dad arrives in his time-dimensional spaceship, he can fill us in what the intergalactic congress really thinks about us.

Human beings are not just an organism that is expanding to the point where it is going to choke itself. As a sentient or a self-conscious organism we can affect our own growth and development and make it into something good. ”Sustainable” is a word that applies and there is a connection between sustainable and mindful, at least in feeling. Humans on Earth are ultimately going to have to pursue sustainability rather than growth as a highest good, which is going to involve some hard changes! We think that we can make a beautiful transition from growth over to sustainable, but it is going to be hard and ugly for generations in between. That may be where John is! To get from his current all-against-all world to sustainability, the rivers will run with blood. Maybe not. Maybe he just reads Seneca and starts sitting and staring out the window. Maybe he should go back and read the cynics, because they are closer to his native state. John feels a little inarticulate today trying to describe his state of mind, because he is not wholly on top of it.

Like most people, John thinks that his mental state is reality and everything else is a kind of terra incognito. He has thought about his reality as a condition before and he still does it somewhat regularly. He always walks through yet another door and finds a whole other parking garage of his reality that he had not subjected to this test. He has to wheel this all out and realize that this is not some universal architecture either that you are going to live according to, but is a set of believes and emotional half-truths that John is basing his actions on and judging his actions according to. It is all malleable and he could new-broom-sweeps-clean it, he could change these things as he is trying to change his posture, because ultimately they are a posture. If John can stand up straight, put his shoulders back and breathe deeply, so too can he stand up straight out of the weight of all this slouchy ideology, shake it off and take a deep breath.

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