Appendix to the tobacco post

This is an appendix to a post that can be found here.

It’s important to note that the following is not meant to be a proper scientific analysis or applicable to every part of the world. It’s merely a proof of concept that’s meant to show general trends and offer food for thought. And in that I believe it succeeds.



Prescription opioids
availability: *****
toxicity: ****
ease of secrecy: *****

Prescription opioids are ubiquitous.1

When addicts switch to intravenous use because of the increased tolerance and need for economy, the problems accompanying intravenous use present themselves. It’s the unsupervised and unprofessional use of needles that creates most problems of opioids, in addition to overdose, such as infections and diseases.2

Like heroin, opioid use is hard to tell on lower doses and many people can have careers while being addicted.3 But, again, intravenous use leaves marks on the body.

Alcohol (ethanol)
availability: *****
toxicity: *****
ease of secrecy: ***

Anyone with sugar and yeast can produce large quantities of alcohol fast and reliably. The act of distilling, however, requires some knowledge.

Smuggling creates the incentive to distil as pure alcohol as possible. This process, if done improperly, can create extremely lethal methanol.4 Also, alcohol is statistically speaking the worst possible generator of social problems (and health problems) with which the addict and their family is left alone.5

Generally alcohol is used in parties, but alcoholics can learn to hide the effects to a degree in other times too.

Psilocybin mushrooms
availability: *****
toxicity: **
ease of secrecy: *****

A single dose of psilocybin mushrooms is relatively heavy compared to other common drugs, around 2 grams.6 This is compensated by the fact that psilocybin mushrooms are not often used more frequently than in monthly or even yearly intervals. Moreover, these mushrooms are quite easily cultivated7 by the user or collected from a forest. They grow naturally in every continent except Antartica.8

Toxicity doesn’t much change under prohibition because you can’t adulterate the mushrooms (the product looks like mushrooms) and there’s no risk of an overdose.9 But psychedelics can catalyse very challenging states of mind which can lead some to have panic attacks — to which it can be hard to seek help if it would require the admittance of a criminal act.

Psilocybin mushrooms are not addictive so they’re used so rarely that the use is easy to keep a secret.10

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
availability: *****
toxicity: **
ease of secrecy: *****

LSD is measured in micrograms. If a common dose was considered to be 150 micrograms 10 gram of the substance would provide around 67,000 doses.11 LSD can be blotted on paper and it is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. That is why LSD can be reliably mailed to anywhere.

Toxicity doesn’t much change under prohibition. LSD is almost exclusively sold as unadulterated12, but sometimes people are sold different substances as LSD. Moreover, psychedelics can catalyse very challenging states of mind which can lead some to have panic attacks — to which it can be hard to seek help if it would require the admittance of a criminal act.

LSD is not addictive and it’s used so rarely that the use is easy to keep a secret.13

Amphetamine
availability: ****
toxicity: ****
ease of secrecy: ****

Amphetamine is a common prescription drug all over the world and the illegal laboratories producing it are widespread. If a common dose is considered to be 47.5mg, a 10 gram piece of smuggled product would provide about 211 doses for the black market.14 Each dose offers 6-8 hours of intoxication.

Within Europe, amphetamine’s purity varies between 5-50% increasing the risk of overdose and dangerous adulterants. In the streets amphetamine is often confused with the similarly looking, except more dangerous, stimulant called methamphetamine.15

The intoxication is very hard to point out as the user is merely stimulated and attentive. The doses measured in milligrams are inconspicuously ingested (usually orally or nasally) and easily carried with oneself.

Heroin (diamorphine)
availability: **
toxicity: *****
ease of secrecy: ***

Although diamorphine is a ubiquitous prescription drug, the general availability is quite low because of the intense worldwide demand. This is because heroin is the most powerful of opioids. Nevertheless, diamorphine is easy to smuggle as 10 grams would provide 667 doses for the black market with each dose giving 3-7 hours of intoxication. In this case I consider a common dose to be about 15mg.16

diamorphine’s mean purity varies between 20-60% which greatly increases the risk of overdose in intravenous use.17 And that’s how diamorphine is generally used most notably because it’s the most economic way of using a scarce substance. It’s this unsupervised and unprofessional use of needles that creates most problems of diamorphine, in addition to overdose, such as diseases and infections.18

Diamorphine’s effects are relatively inconspicuous at lower doses. Many addicts tell they can have perfectly safe professional lives, in the health care business for instance, while being addicts.19 The intravenous use leaves marks on the body, though.

Cannabis
availability: ****
toxicity: *
ease of secrecy: ***

If we take a common dose of cannabis to be around 0.2 grams20, and the average yield of a cannabis plant with a 400 watt light around 100 grams21, a single plant produces 500 doses. Because most cannabis users seem to use cannabis recreationally 1-10 times a year22, a single plant provides the user enough produce for 100 years. And enough to give to friends, too.

Adulterating leaves is unrealistic and there’s no risk of an overdose.23

Smells while growing or smoking can be problematic. Nevertheless, cannabis is only mildly addictive so the use is commonly very infrequent which calls less hiding.24

Tobacco
availability: **
toxicity: *
ease of secrecy: *

If a common dose of tobacco is considered to be 0.7 grams25, a 10 gram piece of smuggled product would provide 14 doses for the black market. Each dose offers about an hour of intoxication.

Adulterating leaves is unrealistic and there’s no relevant risk of a lethal overdose when smoking.26

The smoke sets off fire alarms, the pungent smell sticks to everything and the act of smoking is itself extremely conspicuous. And traditionally you have to re-dose hourly.


References

[1] Hughes, Arthur, Matthew R. Williams, Racher N. Lipari, Jonaki Bose, Elizabeth A. P. Copello, and Larry A. Kroutil. “Prescription Drug Use and Misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health,” n.d. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR2-2015/NSDUH-FFR2-2015.htm.

[2] World Health Organisation. “MANAGEMENT OF COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS OF DRUG USERS,” n.d. http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/idu/drug_dependence/hiv_primary_care_guidelines_searo.pdf.

[3] Grinspoon, Peter. “Up to 15% of Doctors Are Drug Addicts. I Was One of Them.” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-grinspoon-addicted-doctors-20160605-snap-story.html.

[4] Collins, Ben. “Methanol Poisoning: The Dangers of Distilling Spirits at Home.” Item, June 13, 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2013/06/13/3781104.htm.

[5] Amsterdam, Jan van, David Nutt, Lawrence Phillips, and Wim van den Brink. “European Rating of Drug Harms.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. doi:10.1177/0269881115581980.

[6] “Psilocybin, Psilocin, and Magic Mushroom Dosage.” The Vaults of Erowid. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_dose.shtml.

[7] “Bulk Psilocybe Cubensis Growing for Noobs – Very Easy TEK.” Shroomery — Magic Mushroom Demystified. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://www.shroomery.org/forums/showflat.php/Number/10981397.

[8] “Psilocybin Mushroom — Occurrence.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilocybin_mushroom#Occurrence.

[9] “Psilocybin — Toxicity.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilocybin#Toxicity.

[10] Passie, Torsten, Juergen Seifert, Udo Schneider, and Hinderk M. Emrich. “The Pharmacology of Psilocybin,” n.d., 361.

[11] “LSD Basics.” The Vaults of Erowid. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://erowid.org/chemicals/lsd/lsd_basics.shtmlkkk.

[12] Originally published as “Strychnine and Other Enduring Myths: Expert and User Folklore Surrounding LSD,” by David Presti and Jerome Beck in Psychoactive Sacramentals, ed. Thomas Roberts (San Francisco: Council for Spiritual Practices, 2001), 125-37.

[13] Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). “Chapter 15: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders”. In Sydor A, Brown RY. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 375. ISBN 9780071481274. “Several other classes of drugs are categorized as drugs of abuse but rarely produce compulsive use. These include psychedelic agents, such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which are used for their ability to produce perceptual distortions at low and moderate doses.”

[14] “Amphetamine.” PsychonautWiki. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://psychonautwiki.org/wiki/Amphetamine.

[15] “PROBLEM AMPHETAMINE AND METHAMPHETAMINE USE IN EUROPE.” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2010. http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/publications/578/EMCDDA_SI10_Amphetamines_242746.pdf.

[16] “Heroin Dosage.” The Vaults of Erowid. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://erowid.org/chemicals/heroin/heroin_dose.shtml.

[17] “The Price and Purity of Illicit Drugs: 1981 Through the Second Quarter of 2003.” EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY, n.d. https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/price_purity.pdf.
Darke, S., W. Hall, D. Weatherburn, and B. Lind. “Fluctuations in Heroin Purity and the Incidence of Fatal Heroin Overdose.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 54, no. 2 (April 1, 1999): 155–61.

[18] World Health Organisation. “MANAGEMENT OF COMMON HEALTH PROBLEMS OF DRUG USERS,” n.d. http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/idu/drug_dependence/hiv_primary_care_guidelines_searo.pdf

[19] Grinspoon, Peter. “Up to 15% of Doctors Are Drug Addicts. I Was One of Them.” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-grinspoon-addicted-doctors-20160605-snap-story.html.

[20] “Cannabis & Marinol Dosage.” The Vaults of Erowid. Accessed May 30, 2017. https://erowid.org/plants/cannabis/cannabis_dose.shtml.

[21] “How Much Marijuana Can One Plant Produce? A Pound!” I Love Growing Marijuana, January 21, 2014. http://www.ilovegrowingmarijuana.com/marijuana-cannabis-yield-how-much/.

[22] Hakkarainen, Pekka, and Karoliina Karjalainen. “Pilvee, pilvee. Kannabiksen käyttötavat, käyttäjät ja poliittiset mielipiteet” 82 (February 17, 2017): 23.

[23] “Rescheduling of Cannabis.” Institute for Cannabis Therapeutics, March 27, 2010. https://www.oregon.gov/pharmacy/Imports/Marijuana/StaffReview/ReschedulingCannabis-NOTES_3-10.pdf.
Calabria, Bianca, Louisa Degenhardt, Wayne Hall, and Michael Lynskey. “Does Cannabis Use Increase the Risk of Death? Systematic Review of Epidemiological Evidence on Adverse Effects of Cannabis Use.” Drug and Alcohol Review 29, no. 3 (May 1, 2010): 318–30. doi:10.1111/j.1465-3362.2009.00149.x.

[24] Nutt, David, Leslie A. King, William Saulsbury, and Colin Blakemore. “Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse.” The Lancet 369, no. 9566 (March 24, 2007): 1047–53. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60464-4.

[25] neo.enviro. “How Much Does a Cigarette Weigh?” View Know Do, January 26, 2012. http://viewknowdo.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-much-does-cigarette-weigh.html.

[26] Mayer, Bernd. “How Much Nicotine Kills a Human? Tracing Back the Generally Accepted Lethal Dose to Dubious Self-Experiments in the Nineteenth Century.” Archives of Toxicology 88, no. 1 (2014): 5–7. doi:10.1007/s00204-013-1127-0.

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Tobacco is weird and banning it could be a good idea



The thing about using logic and first principles to reason, is that sometimes you can disturb even yourself. Logic, like mathematics, has a life of its own that we can merely follow down its rabbit hole. That’s why mathematicians perhaps a bit counter-intuitively consider themselves to discover things, not to invent them. And regardless of our emotions, no matter how inconvenient, once achieved, the conclusion will just sit there staring at us in the face. What I’m going to say is the result of me following a surprising line of reasoning. So…

If we were to prohibit tobacco, there are few key differences that make that drug different to all other drugs. And, consequently, the prohibition of tobacco, unlike other drugs, would appear as generally a good idea. If you’re interested in why that is, I invite you to read along.

Drug prohibition isn’t usually a very good idea

To offer some background for my views on this matter, I feel most drug prohibitions have failed what comes to increasing the overall well-being of society or keeping drugs out. It’s striking that we can’t even keep drugs out of actual prisons.1 So I find drugs are going to play their part in societies whether we want them or not. And our choice of dealing with them through criminal justice system — rather than treating drug addiction as a social problem and a health problem — has borne some bitter fruit.

By funding organised crime instead of regulated, tax-paying businesses, we’ve created global super cartels. The cartels have been estimated to be worth 13 billion dollars a year.2 For reference, that’s equal to Starbucks’ revenue.3 In Mexico, where the bulk of our drugs come from, during the years 2007–2014 the cartels have been directly responsible for over 160,000 homicides.4 I myself come from Finland; in Finland it would take over 23,000 years for us to produce that amount of murder.5 It’s over twice the civilian casualties of the Iraq war during same period.6 Those facts are on us Westerners who’ve decided to outsource our drug production to the mafia.

Many countries tried to prohibit alcohol, too, but it had the same effects. Except the bulk of the organised crime was not centred in South-America; instead of birthing El Chapos the new policy birthed our very own Al Capones and the violence and corruption that go with it.7 In the streets people were dying because impure alcohol concocted in someone’s bathtub could be incredibly lethal. With these problems of poisonings, overdoses and addictions users were beyond social safety nets — they were criminals, after all.

So because of this line of reasoning I’ve been extremely sceptic towards all prohibitionist policies. “We’ve already seen what a prohibition can do,” I’d reply. “You fund organised crime, you make drugs impure and dangerous, and you take away help from the problem users. We should tax and regulate drugs instead.” So my opinion would basically echo the opinion of the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan and other eminent politicians who have come forth against the drug war in the past years.8

Predicting drug prohibition’s success from three variables

So, to get back on my original point, I find the most pertinent question, above all other questions, when discussing drug prohibition, to ask if it’s even possible to prohibit the substance at hand. That is to say, can it be expected for imprisoning users and patrolling borders to diminish the overall use and problems involved. So how can we know this beforehand? I think we may know this by taking a careful look at the drugs themselves.

I argue that given any drug, there are three key variables with tremendous predictive value of how much prohibition will exacerbate the harm caused by a drug. We could give the following system an extremely boring name, something like the Three Variable Predictive System (of drug prohibition efficacy), or 3VPS. So the three key variables are as follows.

1) High availability / low availability


  • Is it a prescription drug opening almost an unlimited supply for the black market or does it have to be smuggled into the country?
  • Is a typical dose measured in micrograms (millionths of a gram) in which case it is, in effect, invisible to any means of detection and easily sent anywhere in the world via a letter; or is it measured in grams which would make smuggling more of a challenge?
  • Is the drug easy to produce for a layperson, like growing a potted plant, or does it require expert knowledge and equipment such as a laboratory?

2) High toxicity / low toxicity

  • Does the manufacturing process include risks of brewing lethal adulterants into the mix by accident?
  • What does the drug look like; is it a clear liquid or a white powder easily cut for profit by adding cheaper (and possibly toxic) adulterants in the mix; or is it something highly verifiable like a plant?
  • Is the drug generally so impure that it greatly complicates proper dosing and the risk of an accidental overdose?
  • How is the drug administered; for many intravenous drugs it’s the unsupervised and unprofessional act of administration that poses the greatest risks for the user in terms of infections and diseases.

3) High ease of secrecy / low ease of secrecy

  • Is the drug highly addictive needing to be administered daily, or even hourly, greatly increasing the risk of being caught; or is the drug rather being used to seek visionary and/or peak experience in monthly or yearly intervals?
  • Does the drug leave noticeable cues into your appearance like needle marks or smells?
  • How conspicuous is the user under influence; is he merely stimulated or relaxed, or is he visibly intoxicated?

So, if by using 3VPS we assessed the most common drugs giving 1-5 points to each variable, and then applied a total score, the resulting graph would look something like the following. The details of what produced this chart can be found here.

So the higher the column, the more problems in relation to the already existing harms a prohibition entails for the substance. We can see that the 3VPS makes the prediction that prescription painkillers and alcohol are clearly the two most problematic substances to prohibit. The problems of alcohol prohibition are already well-known, but for prescription painkillers the forecast is also very accurate: prescription painkillers, in fact, do kill more Americans each year than all other drugs combined.9

But the real anomaly on our graph is tobacco. 3VPS seems to make the prediction that prohibition doesn’t noticeably exacerbate the problems related to smoking tobacco. Prompted by 3VPS I gave it an availability score of 2, toxicity score of 1 and ease of use score 1. Let’s zoom in what produced those numbers.

Tobacco’s weirdness broken down

The prohibition availability of tobacco is low but not the worst possible. If a person smokes a pack a day, that would be 14 grams of tobacco.10 Or 420 grams a month. This is a lot of product compared to most other drugs that you measure in thousandths or hundredths of a gram. For criminals to keep up with the demand, with volumes that are hundred or thousand times bigger than with other drugs, would make the whole business unprofitable in comparison. You can grow tobacco yourself too, but to fully supply your habit you need a lot of production space for the plants.

The opposite of tobacco what comes to availability would be alcohol. With normal household equipment you can produce great quantities in very short periods of time. As long as you have sugar and yeast, that is — or something that has both components already, like apples.

The prohibition toxicity of tobacco is the lowest possible. You can’t dilute or cut something as intricate as a leaf and there’s no risk of an overdose. It could actually be argued that the indoor tobacco grown in someone’s home is many times over more safe than the one grown with Third World pesticides in a farm somewhere.

The opposite of tobacco, what comes to toxicity, would again be alcohol. The distilling procedure with which you produce spirits can produce methanol in addition to ethanol. Methanol is lethal for humans in very small quantities. Cocaine and amphetamines are good candidates also as they’re normally cut with unknown ingredients to the point of less than 10% purity.11

The ease of secrecy is the lowest possible. The smoke sets off fire alarms, the pungent smell sticks to everything and the act of smoking is itself extremely conspicuous. And traditionally you have to re-dose hourly which is a fraction for that of other drugs with durations ranging around 6 hours.

The opposite of tobacco, what comes to the ease of secrecy, could be said to be psilocybin mushrooms. Mushrooms are generally used rarely, in monthly or oftentimes yearly intervals, which is explained by the fact that they’re not considered addictive.12 And they’re often used in secluded settings or in otherwise special occasions which makes it almost impossible to tell if someone is in the habit of occasionally taking them.

Smoking is mainly driven by addiction (unlike other drugs)

So, as far as I can tell, unlike other drugs, there are good reasons to believe that we can successfully prohibit tobacco. And I also find that there are, in fact, proper reasons to prohibit tobacco — reasons that are again unique for tobacco and beyond mere health concerns.

Yes, tobacco is unprecedentedly unhealthy: According to World Health Organisation, up to 50% of smokers will die because of causes directly related to smoking.13 That’s over 6 million people every year to which you add 890,000 people dying because of second-hand smoke. Or, as the WHO puts it, it’s “the single greatest preventable cause of death in the world today”. We can see from the paper produced by 40 European Union drug experts in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that tobacco scores right next to methamphetamine in its total harm to the user and the environment.14




But what does society get in exchange of this? Drugs are, after all, used for reasons other than the fun of being an evil criminal! Stimulants like cocaine are used for their euphoric effects usually in parties. Alcohol or opioids as depressants relax you and temporarily numb away your worries. And psychedelics, like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, are often used to induce spiritual experiences with great personal importance for the experiencer.15

Nicotine is a central nervous stimulant that binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the brain boosting certain cognitive functions such as attention and memory.16 But that’s not the reason it’s most often used.

Nicotine is extremely addictive.

When heavily dependant users of cocaine are asked to compare the urge to do cocaine to that of having a smoke, 45% say the urge to smoke is as strong or stronger than for cocaine. When the same is asked of heroin addicts, you get 38%. And 50% for alcoholics. Except… From all users of cocaine only 8% are dependant. From all users of alcohol only 15% are. From smokers 90% are daily users and 50% clinically dependant.17

According to a large 2011 population survey in the USA with 21,157 participants, 70% of American smokers wanted to quit.18 That seems to indicate that most smokers don’t actually want to be smokers. So we are not talking about free citizens practicing their natural rights; we are talking about victims of addiction who then, worst of all, go and pass the torch to a new generation of kids in an endless, self-perpetuating cycle of tragedy.

Smoke is very bad, vapour is better

So we could prohibit tobacco, and if my reasoning is correct, make the world a better place as a result. But I feel it’s important to also note, that tobacco is not synonymous with nicotine. Yes, nicotine is terrible, but it’s only a piece of the problem that’s tobacco.

American Cancer Society explains that tobacco smoke comprises thousands of chemicals from which we recognise at least 70 that cause cancer (not to mention other diseases).19 There’s cyanide, formaldehyde, arsenic, lead, radioactive elements and many others. They further explain that most of this stuff is directly related to burning tobacco leaves, not nicotine itself or other tobacco products. Smoke, any smoke in your lungs, is extremely toxic.

So, nicotine is extremely addictive, and definitely causes cancer in its own right — but the mere act of removing the smoke would have truly a remarkable effect for the well-being of society. So I feel pertinent to present a third option for your consideration between prohibition and not-prohibition:

that is, using nicotine in a more responsible way.


E-cigarettes are electronic devices that, instead of creating smoke, create water vapour by heating flavoured liquids. This is basically a more fancy version of boiling water in a kettle and then breathing it in. So, roughly speaking, instead of spreading around toxic smoke and nicotine, you spread around water vapour and nicotine. It’s still not healthy, but at least it has about 69 cancerous chemicals (that we know of) less.

In sum

So, I introduced the Three Variable Predictive System, or 3VPS, in my effort to break down what qualities of a substance will lead to a failed prohibitionist policy. Those are high expected availability, high expected toxicity and high expected ease of secrecy in a post-prohibition environment. This led me to believe that tobacco, in these regards, is unlike any other drug.

I showed that as other drugs are used also to catalyse meaningful experiences, tobacco is mainly used because of its addictive properties — which then are, depending on the exact definition, either about the same or many times worse than those of hard drugs. I showed that tobacco is one of the most harmful substances used, so breaking this insidious cycle of intergenerational addiction is called for.

And in the end I put forth a possible compromise between prohibition and the current state. According to experts, the most harmful part of tobacco is the smoke, not nicotine. So, if nothing else, vaporisation is a more responsible and modern way of injecting nicotine into one’s body.


References

[1] Howgego, Charles. “Prisoners Say ‘spice’ Use Has Tripled, Fuelling Violence, Illness and Debt.” The Guardian, June 1, 2016, sec. Society. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/01/prisoners-reveal-regular-spice-use-tripled-legal-high-violence-illness-debt.

[2] “How Much Are Mexico’s Brutal Drug Cartels Worth?” CBC News. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/how-much-are-mexico-s-brutal-drug-cartels-worth-1.1333213.

[3] “Starbucks Corporation Fiscal 2012 Annual Report.” Mumbai, 2012. http://s21.q4cdn.com/369030626/files/doc_financials/2012/SBUX-2012-Annual-Report_FINAL-from-RRD_web.pdf.

[4] “The Staggering Death Toll of Mexico’s Drug War.” FRONTLINE. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-staggering-death-toll-of-mexicos-drug-war/.

[5] “Homicide 1754-2015.” Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy, January 16, 2017. http://www.findikaattori.fi/en/97.

[6] “Documented Civilian Deaths from Violence.” Iraq Body Count, n.d. https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/.

[7] “Prohibition in the United States.” Wikipedia, May 26, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prohibition_in_the_United_States&oldid=782400657.

[8] Germany, SPIEGEL ONLINE Hamburg. “Lift the Ban! Kofi Annan on Why It’s Time To Legalize Drugs – SPIEGEL ONLINE – International.” SPIEGEL ONLINE. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/kofi-annan-on-why-drug-bans-are-ineffective-a-1078402.html.

[9] “Prescription Drugs Are More Deadly Than Street Drugs.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wicked-deeds/201404/prescription-drugs-are-more-deadly-street-drugs.

[10] neo.enviro. “How Much Does a Cigarette Weigh?” View Know Do, January 26, 2012. http://viewknowdo.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-much-does-cigarette-weigh.html.

[11] Jones, Andy. “London, This Is What’sActually in Your Cocaine.” Vice. Accessed May 27, 2017. https://www.vice.com/sv/article/london-theres-no-cocaine-in-your-cocaine-940.
“PROBLEM AMPHETAMINE AND METHAMPHETAMINE USE IN EUROPE.” European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, 2010. http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/system/files/publications/578/EMCDDA_SI10_Amphetamines_242746.pdf.

[12] Amsterdam, Jan van, Antoon Opperhuizen, and Wim van den Brink. “Harm Potential of Magic Mushroom Use: A Review.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 59, no. 3 (April 1, 2011): 423–29. doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2011.01.006.

[13] “WHO | Tobacco.” WHO. Accessed May 27, 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs339/en/.

[14] Amsterdam, Jan van, David Nutt, Lawrence Phillips, and Wim van den Brink. “European Rating of Drug Harms.” Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. doi:10.1177/0269881115581980.

[15] Griffiths, RR, WA Richards, MW Johnson, UD McCann, and R. Jesse. “Mystical-Type Experiences Occasioned by Psilocybin Mediate the Attribution of Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance 14 Months Later.” Journal of Psychopharmacology 22, no. 6 (August 1, 2008): 621–32. doi:10.1177/0269881108094300.

[16] Heishman, Stephen J., Bethea A. Kleykamp, and Edward G. Singleton. “Meta-Analysis of the Acute Effects of Nicotine and Smoking on Human Performance.” Psychopharmacology 210, no. 4 (July 2010): 453–69. doi:10.1007/s00213-010-1848-1.

[17] Hilts, Philip J. “Is Nicotine Addictive? It Depends on Whose Criteria You Use.” The New York Times, August 2, 1994, sec. Science. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/02/science/is-nicotine-addictive-it-depends-on-whose-criteria-you-use.html.

[18] “Quitting Smoking Among Adults — United States, 2001–2010.” Accessed May 27, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6044a2.htm?s_cid=mm6044a2_w.

[19] “Harmful Chemicals in Tobacco Products | American Cancer Society.” Accessed May 27, 2017. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/carcinogens-found-in-tobacco-products.html.

The forgotten wisdom behind organised religions—and why we should all practice it

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“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” — The Bible


I’m not sure if I had ever known love, like I do, if it weren’t for my past experiences with the psychoactive substance called MDMA, or ecstasy as it’s commonly referred to. It blew my eyes open to a whole new mode of being, something that ended up rewriting my priorities in life. Since then I’ve pretty much left MDMA in the past for reasons summed up by Alan Watts rather eloquently: when you get the message, hang up the phone. Instead I have incorporated the Buddhist practice and philosophy in my life to further cultivate that noblest of things, which is love.

Love as a word has become a meaningless slur. It has strong positive connotations, very true, but no meaning. Yet love is something very distinct, something very powerful at the heart of most of this world’s religions. If you look closely enough, love is the ultimate form of meaning in our lives, yet it’s so hard to convey — especially in a secular world with the attention span of the Internet. It’s misinterpreted by the fool and deemed irrational by the clever. This is my attempt to tell you what true love is. And for this I’d prefer to take you to the beginning, a night some years ago when I was going out to dance with friends and a pill in my pocket.

How I came to find love


It was a rave in the middle of the city. We waited the queue, went straight to the bathrooms, popped the pills and headed to the dance floor. Pretty much on schedule, an hour or so, the effects came rushing in. Things started to feel heavy; the music was pulsating through the room and I no longer felt good to fight those waves with my aggressive motions but rather flow through it smoothly, tenderly even. I’d found a new kinetic language that I still use to connect with myself and others to this day.

And I guess this girl saw what was happening. I opened my eyes and there she now was, this tribal angel graciously flowing in sync with me, smiling, looking into my eyes. No. Looking into me. In that moment I was already stripped of all my guards, all my notions of an outer appearance and was connecting with my being in its entirety; expressing my soul rather than a social mask invented to please.

Well, how did I react in this moment? Under all that ecstatic rapture of MDMA coursing through my blood-brain barrier, the substance eminent in its promise of treating war veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I still managed to have a panic attack. My chest… I couldn’t breath. I had to get out of there. I forcefully dragged myself from the spot, went upstairs and finally took a seat from the outskirts of the venue. I was asking why? I was supposed to have fun, enjoy myself… Why?

One of the therapeutic effects of MDMA is that it creates love and through it dissolves fear. Some things, so painful that we don’t even allow them to move into our conscious mind, can now be seen, addressed and dealt with. And in this blissful consciousness then be re-written in our minds as something less painful. So the thought occurred to me. Well, not a thought really, but rather an epiphany.

I didn’t really love myself.

That was it. I had, during my life, during countless of subtle choices created a persona, because deep down I believed that whatever there really was inside was bad and unlovable. And now showing that something to someone made that scar ache so intensely that I had no other option except to acknowledge its existence, and MDMA gave me the courage to admit it. I went out to party and here I was in the verge of the biggest existential epiphany of my life. God damn you, drugs. Not even once, they say.

The rest of the party I just sat there with my newfound eyes of love, quite baffled of it all. The venue was exactly the same, but I was different, thus everything was different. I used to think most of the girls in this club scene superficial, shallow, intimidating even, all these bad things. I saw them now but that wasn’t what I saw. I saw them teetering across the room with their high heels, adjusting their dresses, correcting their hair. I remarked those subtle yet nervous glances they shot around the room. Such fragile creatures just wanting to be noticed, just wanting to be accepted. They had gone through so much work in choosing the clothes, putting on the make-up, walking in those painful shoes just to have someone hold them and love them.

And at that moment I loved them. This was love. My god…

Religious philosophy as the vehicle of love


So what is love then, that ultimate truth conveyed by prophets for the last millennia? When Jesus said, “love your enemies”, did he perchance mean that I should like them very, very much? Maybe eventually marry them? No, of course not, that’d be stupid. To love and to like are two different things — a distinction, I believe, the Buddha managed to explain far better. Please let me offer some context.

Buddhism is a practice established to alleviate suffering through meditation and philosophy. The Buddhist observes his or hers mind quietly while focusing on the breath. Illusory notions such as good or bad are to not be identified with. Rather than condemning the thought “there’s a very bad itch in my neck, I better scratch,” one simply observes it. One tries to observe the raw reality, not these pre-conceived notions and labels we’ve learned to instinctually assign to it. What does it really feel like to have an itch? What does the emotions evoked by it look like? In our mind? Or what about in our body? What am I actually experiencing right now and how does it effect me? The meditator comes up with a very clear view of the nature of the mind: one sees the true value of certain experiences, how they’re formulated and where they lead.

Buddhist philosophy argues that we suffer because we’re ignorant, mainly of three things:

Impermanence — We expect things to last forever and remain unchanged when, in fact, things are always changing. Change is not something to be feared but embraced. Things are valuable exactly because they’re not forever, because we need to pay attention to them now, not tomorrow. But things are also not that important because they’ll never be forever. If you’re depressed now, it’s hard, but it’s impermanent, and the world will look very different soon enough.

Unsatisfactoriness — Nothing in this world can make us permanently happy and content. We are, by our nature, insatiable wanting machines. Still we spend our lives running after things believing our peace and happiness is dependant on things rather than our way of thinking about them.

No-self — This last is told to be the hardest of the three to comprehend. One way to understand this would be to understand the problem in identifying with our thoughts. If we are unmindful we feel we’re angry and it feels like it’s us that’s decided to do unskilful things in the next few moments. But that’s an illusion. If we’re mindful enough, in an enough meditative state we can clearly see that there is anger inside of us, but that anger is not us. We’re not angry, we’re merely perceiving anger. In this mindful anger you have the possiblity to say: “I’m sorry. There seems to be so much anger in me that I can’t see straight. Let’s have a break of whatever we’re currently doing.”

Most if not all things on this planet are, fundamentally, acting under these illusions. They’re recoiling from pain instead of perceiving it with equanimity, they’re running after transitory feelings of happiness always ending up disappointed, and finally they continually try to prop up and defend an egoistic self that’s never the same from one moment to the next. We try to be happy and at peace, but life is hard, and we end up doing unskilful things. That’s the human condition.

Buddhist love: Metta


So here comes the biggest revelation of love: when one thinks that, “I need to have myself someone who loves me, and then I’ll find lasting happiness”, that is the ultimate illusion comprising all of the above three. Love is not about grasping transitory pleasures in hope for egotistical fulfilment. This romantic love was invented by artists of romantic era Europe in the 20th century, from where all your classic fairytales come from. The love, which I’m referring to here, religions usually have their own names for it, but because of my Buddhist background, I’ll use the Pali word, Metta.

Metta is not primarily an emotion but rather a trained habit of mind, which then leads to the feeling of it. Metta is simply the result of deeply understanding the human condition. When you look within and see your own human failings, see suffering, where it stems from, how it affects us, you understand yourself. You laugh at your own silliness: “Oh that’s why I acted so foolishly ha!” And when you understand yourself you finally understand others. It follows that if you truly understand someone, you see that given the same experiences, the same situation, the same temperament and knowledge, you yourself would’ve acted exactly the same. There’s no longer self-righteous judgement, but understanding. Only illusions can be hated.

So is a, say, violent person who wishes to inflict harm upon you, happy and at peace? No, he isn’t, he is suffering. Wishing to inflict more suffering to this person is not going to make anyone suffer less, not even yourself. It’s the exact opposite: suffering breeds suffering. Thus we should wish all the best to our enemies, not as a pious sacrifice, but because that’s simply how the world works and we’re no longer ignorant. The less that person suffers, the less of our enemy he will become.

Moreover, how we feel about others is intimately related to how we truly feel about ourselves. Our minds are full of visitors and not all of them are exactly pleasant. There’s pride, jealousy, bitterness. And, according to mainstream psychology, we can only recognise these things in others by first finding a reference point to them in ourselves. So in order to see pride there always has to be a certain portion of it in ourselves as well. So is it a wonder, that when we feel contempt towards other’s failings, it’s such a wearing emotion? Hating others is always in some form hating parts of ourselves as well.

But it may be worth mentioning that having Metta towards the human failings of yourself and others isn’t about turning blind eye towards them. Unskilful actions are still a problem to be dealt with. A mother who refuses to see anything wrong with her child ever is not a loving mother, she’s a delusional mother whose self-worth is attached to the silly notion of having a perfect child. This is simply a form of egotistical fulfilment. Metta on the other hand evokes a certain softness which empowers us to not recoil in pain and sink to the level of biases, defence mechanisms and delusions, but to accept reality as it is. This is where true transformation stems from. So having Metta fundamentally changes the relationship we have with ourselves as well as others.

Finding Metta


So as said, love is not something one goes out to find in the world — unless we’re talking about that fickle form of love that the Greeks called Eros, sexual passion. Love is something one practices to experience. And the more one experiences love, the more one can see love and receive love. It has no direction, but it just is. I prefer the metaphor “eyes of love”, because it perfectly captures what it’s about.

One of the easiest way to get this path started is to go somewhere in this world where it’s perfectly legal to enjoy 160mg of MDMA and experience the dissolving of ego in a, for the lack of a better word, spiritually conducive and serene setting. Preferably go through this experience with a safe and trusted person. Then in the future work to reflect on that past experience: remember how it felt, and how it was brought about by your own neurotransmitters, how that experience can be, in some ways, part of your everyday existence, if you want it to.

But there are subtler ways as well. Buddhists have many forms of meditation, and one of these forms of meditation is specially designed to cultivate Metta. I, personally, find it especially helpful on bouts of depression, times when I can’t seem to accept myself as I am and feel a complete failure as a person. It’s a peculiar feeling to be in that dark hole one moment, practice Metta, take a walk — and 15 minutes later see the world around you transfigured into a place of warmth and acceptance, like a mother’s embrace. The effects can be quite dramatic, but alas, oftentimes they’re more subtler and slowly compounding than that.

How to do Metta meditation


Here’s how Buddhists do Metta meditation: Lie down with your eyes closed in a pleasant spot that’s not too hard or too cold. Open your body, have your face upwards, hands on your side, and legs next to each other. Take some time to relax and feel your body. Feel your chest moving, air flowing, the clothes against your skin. Be in the present moment. Now that you have established some initial mindfulness in the present moment, let’s establish some more.

Notice your breathing again. This time focus on the rims of your nose. Notice the air moving back and forth. How it changes the feeling of temperature in your nose. Try to let go of the breathing. This is not a breathing exercise but an exercise in your awareness. Try to see the breathing more and control the breathing less. Where does the breath end and where does it start? Or is it a continuous flow?

Your mind may wander a lot. You just spent 5 minutes thinking about that thing at work, or what you’re planning to do after this meditation, but gently bring your awareness back to the current moment, to the breathing. Don’t try to struggle, notice the struggle. How does it feel to be struggling? In your body? In your mind? Let your breath be the anchor where you bring back your awareness when it starts to wonder. And don’t worry if you notice yourself wondering: noticing one’s inattention is actually a moment of learning, not failure. Those are the moments your practice goes forward. You can also help this with counting, if you want to. Just note the numbers from one to ten in accordance to your breaths to have a bit of extra control of your awareness. And then start from the beginning again.

When thoughts or itches come back, just lightly pay them the compliment of your pure, undivided attention. Our awareness is like mental acid: it slowly chips away whatever you put into it. But lying doesn’t work, you’d only be lying to yourself. We need to accept whatever is in our awareness, trying not to recoil from it or cling to it. Let go of that in-order-to mind: “I’ll now look at this thing here in order to achieve these things x, y, and z…”

You may do this 30 seconds, 5 minutes or an hour. No matter what you choose, the goal is to be more grounded in the present moment and calm that monkey mind a bit who wants to be anywhere but. So we can do our practice. It’s a lot like standing very still on a murky pond; after a while all that sand drops to the bottom to reveal wonderfully clear waters. Well, now that we’re mindful, now we can start cultivating Metta itself.

What we’re gonna do next is to choose four people: yourself, someone who’s very dear to you (but not a lover), a neutral person to whom you don’t feel anything special, and finally, someone you don’t like at all. Go through all these people in that order and repeat the following phrases: “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease.” While you’re thinking saying these things, imagine those people in front of you. Try to feel the message and the intent of what you’re saying.

You really want to your best friend to feel healthy and safe. What does it feel in your body to really feel these things for an important person? You may feel something at this point, or you may not. Your compassion is a muscle in need of training, and your awareness is a skill in need of refining. It’s all OK. But if you feel something, that feeling is what we’re trying to cultivate here. Now bring that feeling to the second person, the neutral person, and send them Metta. And finally go to the person you dislike and do the same. At this point some people may even cry. And others may not. It’s all good.

Now, here’s some tips and tricks you can use. First of all, if the sentiments you’re sending feel somehow very impersonal, you can substitute them with something of your own. What do you wish for yourself and your loved ones? What would happen if you wished those same things for others as well? If you feel it hard to send Metta for someone, try imagining them as a child. Try imagining hugging that innocent child. What kind of experiences did it have to go trough to become what he or she is now? And if you find it especially hard to send love to yourself, make yourself the last person to send Metta to. In that way you’ve already established a lot of Metta the time you get to yourself, and it’s a lot easier at that point.

Ideally, during the practice, you’ll feel something growing inside of you. You’ll feel how that something changes how you see yourself, your enemies, the world. To me it has a softness, a warmth and a feeling of safety in it. And there’s compassion. In that state we’re not directed by fear, what would happen if we don’t do something, we’re directed by love, what we feel needs to be done. And that actually feels terribly good, not hurtful.

Now you’ve practiced Metta meditation. Remember, it’s like going to the gym. Some times you feel this terrific burning in your muscles and you feel like you could take over the world. Some times everything goes to hell and you’re wondering why you’re lifting these weights. Anybody who does muscle training knows what I’m talking about. But they also know that every time you get home from that gym, you’re stronger. The same applies here.

And you can always come back to this text and remind yourself that what was it that you were actually doing and trying to achieve. We tend to forget these things. There are books on meditation that I’ve read three or four times, and every time they teach me something new or forgotten. There’s only so much intricacies we can learn or understand in a given time with a given experience.

Good luck on your meditations, friend, and may you feel loved and at peace.

Economists got value wrong: value isn’t completely subjective

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Some time ago I had a discussion with an economist friend — a very intelligent man, you can find his own blog here — about some of his most basic economic premises: that is, what is value and how is it created. Nevertheless, on this occasion I felt there was a failure to discern nuance in such an extent that it could be called, as a certain Nobel winner of economics coined the phrase, theory-induced blindness: that one is so inured by a an authoritative theory that one can’t discern the simple reality behind it anymore. Thus I’m swayed to give it a closer inspection.

“Free trade, in which both parties in their own volition give something away to procure something of greater value in return, is a guaranteed demonstration of value being created.
Economical analysis does not discern psychological motives or goals. It takes the individual’s personal, and momentary, preferences as a given, and then only estimates what kind of means are used to achieve those goals. It’s not in the sphere of economics to judge a person for drinking beer instead of milk.
It’s important to understand how preferences change over time. A man may regret his choices of yesterday, and he may, again, go and repeat them later today. That doesn’t mean, though, that he wouldn’t experience value at the time being.”

Two sentiments were made that I don’t agree with:

  1. Trade always creates value without an exception, and…
  2. we can estimate value without taking any kind of moral stance.

Trade creates value, there’s no way getting around that


I start by saying what I agree with. I believe, that as a general principle, it most definitely is true that when people trade freely, it creates value. For example, let’s look at the thousand year period in Europe, when time was frozen still, and no social, political or scientific progress was made. An average person was born into a world that, to him, comprised one village. There he toiled the fields in slavery as a subject of the local baron until the day he died. I mean the Middle Ages, of course. And why was this so? Because the game of life was utterly rigged by a single, toxic idea promoted by the prevailing ideology of the time, Christianity:

Making profit is avarice. This was best epitomised by Jesus when he said: “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Imagine a world where you can’t take a loan, start projects and create a better life for yourself and your village, because that would go against the very moral fabric of your world. The only people who were free of this rule were the jews. So for most people this created a zero-sum environment: if you wanted to make things better for yourself, the only way to do that was to take by force. And that’s exactly how the world worked.

The kings and the noble knights we know from fairytales are just that, a myth. These people were actually better called warlords. Just like the ones fighting for power in today’s conflict zones in parts of Africa, for instance. War was the way of life, not something you declared. There were no maidens and no glamour. Simply violence.

This only ended when the people in power realised that war, as a matter of fact, was totally stupid. And not only stupid in a moral sense but stupid in a purely selfish way as well. This is because war isn’t cheap. War costs money. And, as we now know, it’s actually far more efficient to let your enemies have their infrastructure and businesses and simply trade with them the things you want instead of going to war. Instead of zero-sum environment this created a positive-sum environment: you’re not only sharing pieces of a limited cake, you’re making the cake itself bigger!

When people trade, they generally are better off. That’s the reason we’re no longer in the Middle Ages. All that surplus wealth gave us those few extra hours of leisure during the day, for us then to go sit in a coffee shop and invent philosophy and science — both which then, alongside a growing economy, gave us everything else we take for granted in a modern world.

But does that mean, that no matter what, a transaction always creates value, or that it should, by definition, be thought to create value. No. It doesn’t.

But does trade, without an exception, create value?


It is generally regarded that we people aren’t perfectly coherent agents, but rather we have a myriad of conflicting desires in different levels of worthiness. You’d want to be the kind of person who never eats that extra piece of cake. You’d want to be the kind of person who can quit smoking. You’d want to do a lot of things, read books, go to school, fall in love to the right people instead of the wrong ones… But you also don’t.

That is why we use the better angels of our nature, when they’re in power, to put systems in place, that then make it easier for us to do the right thing later; the thing we know is better for us, but which we simply don’t find the willpower for in our default environment. If you want to quit smoking, you will maybe have to quit going to that local pub with your smoker friends, for instance. The biological truth is, organisms don’t exist in a vacuum, but every organism is one half it’s genetics and one half it’s environment. Depending on where you plant a flower, it will be something very different. And that brings us to this next point.

Let’s think that free trade always without an exception creates value. The beauty industry, which spends billions of dollars in assuring young people that they’re disgusting, creates value. The cigarette companies which spend billions of dollars in getting people addicted to a substance they can’t get a day without, and which kills 50% of its users in related diseases, creates value. We attack people psychologically through their environment by creating false images of success and by getting their brains hooked on chemicals, and that is value according to some economists.

But we can also assume that value doesn’t have any real world manifestations as, say, more stable, happy and fulfilled people. We can postulate, that by definition, whatever we choose is always of value. We can do that. But what on earth would be the useful application of such a theory? A man loses his temper and in the heat of the moment kills his wife — apparently he just created value for himself. It’d be totally looney, so that interpretation I’ll just leave at that.

we can also assume that value doesn’t have any real world manifestations as, say, more stable, happy and fulfilled people […] We can do that. But what on earth would be the useful application of such a theory?

Theories of value: subjective and objective


So what we were discussing there in the earlier paragraph was called the subjective theory of value. The proponents of it claim that value is inherently arbitrary, just like your enjoyment of all things, like shoes, is. If you’re willing to pay your month’s salary for a nice pair of Manolo Blahnik heels, who’s to say your tastes are somehow wrong? It is then taken as a given that your purchase must be of value, to you, more than the money you paid for it.

The opposite of this would be an objective theory of value. If you’re a religious person, you might think it’s God that gives things their true value outside of market forces. But, for seculars, the most eminent proponent of the objective value theory was probably Karl Marx, who tried to show, that products and services are actually worth only the work and resources required in making them, but not a cent more. No profit, remember.

This has the obvious problem of not adhering to the basic laws of price and demand. You can’t value the Mona Lisa simply by its wood, fabric and paint. There’s only one Mona Lisa, but there’s countless rich art connoisseurs vying for it, and the market price goes up. So there’s no objective value at least in the sense that Marx wanted to.

But is there truly nothing objective about value? Nothing that our science and philosophy could say on the topic? In any situation?

Theories of morality: subjective and objective


Just like in economics, where we have the two competing theories for value, in ethics we have two competing theories for morality: moral relativism and moral objectivism. Is morality completely and absolutely a subjective experience? Or is there something we could say about right and wrong, maybe not the last word, but some kind of general idea that’ll get us in the proper direction?

Well, what is ethics? Ethics is the branch of philosophy that studies morality, the extent which something can be considered good or bad. Morality itself seems to bound itself in biology. We are not born as blank slates, but we are part of the same human species, we aim to live meaningful lives and experience well-being instead of suffering. And these things can’t be completely arbitrary.

You and me are genetically 99% related — unless you happen to be a platypus, of course. If our moral experiences are a genetic adaptation, they have somehow increased our fitness in evolutionary terms. That would make them intimately connected to our well-being, which is a system to guide ourselves towards fitness as well. It could then be said that morality is a cognitive heuristic for creating… What? Value, I say.

Value from the perspective of ethics and biology


If we put supernatural thinking and gods aside, if we say that something ought to be done, because it’s right, how does it differ from saying, that everyone seems to be better off if we do a certain thing rather than the other? A fast thought experiment: imagine a culture where every newborn is rendered blind by piercing its eyes with a needle. Could you really say that you have nothing against that morally? That’s it’s just a one way of arranging one’s culture, and it’s not in any way worse than ours? Or would you be tempted to argue that because that clearly and only entails colossal amounts of human suffering, everyone would really be better of, if the practice would end — that ending the practice is the right thing to do?

if we say that something ought to be done, because it’s right, how does it differ from saying, that everyone seems to be better off if we do a certain thing rather than the other?

We don’t, of course, know what is the absolutely right thing to do in life. But we also don’t know what life is, exactly. There’s no black-and-white way to conclude that someone is dead, for instance, so it’s left to the doctor’s own judgement. That’s why dead people sometimes come back to life. Or what is intelligence exactly? Opinions vary. But just because there’s ambiguity, nobody’s saying we can’t study health or intelligence. We accept ambiguity as part of science.

then that same notion also guides us what comes to value. In this sense reaping profits from addicts doesn’t create value, it diminishes it.

So if we accept that morality has something to do with human flourishing, that it’s good to have people who live happy and meaningful lives, and in reverse, it’s bad to inflict meaningless pain onto others, then that same notion also guides us what comes to value. In this sense reaping profits from addicts doesn’t create value, it diminishes it. In this sense, making people hate their bodies with the sustained effort of psychologically scarring add campaigns, also does the same. We don’t know the specifics or morality, but we can also avoid the nihilistic cop-out that there’s nothing to be said at all.

Buddhism: skilful action


At this point I’d like to point out how Buddhists look at morality. You’d be hard-pressed to take it, but there’s actually no morality in Buddhism, as you and I understand it. Buddhists believe in karma yes, but rather than as an arbiter of righteous justice they take it as a natural force: if you create suffering, that suffering will come around to you in one way or the other. Just like if you hit your head in a wall, you will experience pain. It’s not right or wrong to hit your head in a wall — it’s stupid.

But then there’s the concept, I feel, would make thinking about morality lot more clearer to us seculars as well. The concept is skilfulness. Rather than saying something is right or wrong, which implies a lot of irrational things, like, moral judgement and superstition, skilfulness is simply how much a given action will affect your long-term well-being and fulfilment in life. For example, if you get a good long night’s sleep, you’ll enjoy life a lot more than what you’d get from that extra hour. Or if you succumb to a moment’s passion and regret it for the rest of your life, that’s not skilful action.

We try to act like we’re these impartial, rational adults and we always know what’s best for us. But we aren’t. In the end of the day, we’re all looking for well-being. And as we’re all part of the same species, it’s not completely arbitrary what brings us that well-being. If you buy yourself a horse, and you read online that horses like to run outside and eat grass in order to be happy, you have no problem believing that. Running outside and eating grass are both skilful actions for a horse.

So, at the end of the day, we’re all looking for well-being, and some of us are better at it than others. When we’re children we try to find well-being by eating popcorn in our beds. Our mothers try to warn us that it’s not a skilful action. We do it anyway. And then the rest of the week we’ll find itchy and scratchy popcorn all over our sheets. We should stay mindful of the fact, that some things are simply better. Or more skilful, that is.

What creates the divide between objective and subjective? Politics.


It might be worth looking into why people are so divided between these two moral outlooks. The strongest theory for human morality in empirical science, at least that I’ve come across with, is the Moral Foundations Theory. It argues that we humans have evolved six distinct modules in our minds to judge the morality of a given action. They’re like moral taste receptors in our brain, which then go on and dictate to which kind of moral violations we are sensitive to, and in reverse, for which we aren’t. Here they are explained below with the ones that interest us marked in bold:

  • Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  • Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
  • Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
  • Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  • Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
  • Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

Here are few diagrams about how our sensitivity to certain types of morality affect our political leanings. The diagrams are for the three major political groups: there’s the left wingers (called liberals in the USA), there’s the right wingers (called conservatives in the USA) and then there’s classical liberals (called libertarians in the USA).

As you can see, for the left the highest value of all is to try and protect people from harm. Free market adherents, like classical liberals, on the contrary have very little sensitivity to that axis of morality; they are, on the other hand, tremendously sensitive to not being oppressed, not having their individual liberties stifled.

So as you can see, as moral and thus political creatures we’re hopelessly biased. A left winger, like Marx, has a huge stake in believing the objective value theory, because he has a moral need to protect the less fortuned from themselves. But, then again, the classical liberal has a huge stake in believing the subjective value theory, because he has the moral need to protect his rights from the left wingers, who want to inhibit them for the reason already stated.

So this is why it’s so hard for us, as political creatures, to differentiate nuance on this topic and realise, that maybe both of these outlooks are a bit one-eyed. And for the record, I don’t know what is the correct balance between care and liberty, but what comes to human flourishing, the general happiness and well-being of people, there probably is one — or even several. We simply have to find out what they are.

My argument in a nutshell


Value, for it to be a meaningful concept, must be bound to reality somehow. Morality, for it to be a meaningful concept, must be bound to human well-being somehow. If value is to make people better-off, value has a moral dimension to it. If that, indeed, is the case, no matter how ambiguous, science has something to say about the subject. Thus I’m arguing that value can’t be this arbitrary thing without any objective merit, but some things are simply more skilful than others. And thus, no matter how politically incorrect it is to say, some opinions are more enlightened than others.

But I am willing to concede, that as a general rule of thumb, the subjective theory of value can work as a useful fiction. Especially in politics. We can’t act like we’re all overgrown babies. That would not be a fulfilling society to live in. At some point people will have to take certain responsibility of their own lives. But, while we do that, we need to make sure that we don’t let that theory blind us from the reality we actually live in.

Born into the wrong sex – what is sex anyways?

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The world is quickly turning more tolerant. People can more freely express themselves, and problems, we didn’t think even existed previously, are now finding novel answers. One of these topics people are conversing is gender dysphoria. Can people be born into the wrong sex, and what is sex anyways? These are the questions I’m going to explore. First of all, before anything can ever be discussed, we need to explain our terms. What do we mean by sex and gender identity? It has roughly two dimensions: the biological and the cultural. Let’s start with the biology.

According to our scientific understanding, humans are roughly divided in two, those with XY chromosomes (men) and those with XX chromosomes (women). These chromosomes carry different genes. Since females by logic are the bottleneck of a population’s reproduction, males are the expendable sex more readily sacrificed in war, in hunting, or in the competition for mates. Theoretically, this would create different selective pressures for both sexes and affect their individual evolution and genetic makeup. And this is exactly what we observe in species with the XY sex-determination system.¹ Both sexes have their gender specific chromosomes that dictate which genes can activate. They receive different hormones in the womb and throughout their lives, which affects their physical development, brains, and thus minds. And women really do portray more empathy and care, as men produce more autistic individuals with shallower emotional understandings and more technical, narrower interests.

So, on average, some traits tend to cluster in the brains of men, and some traits tend to cluster in the brains women. Hence these traits are traditionally called masculine or feminine in the biological sense.

But this isn’t to say that we should force people into boxes. That’s not how our brains are at all. Most brains aren’t completely binary, but they drop somewhere in between the polar opposites, in some cases to the altogether adjacent side even. That’s how statistics work. Or some people may drop straight into the center with a very fluid gender identity. So although most men are more like men, and most women are more like women, there’s still this beautiful mosaic of gender trait combinations out there², which enriches the cognitive diversity and intelligence of humanity as a whole. And at the end of the day, if it’s possible, it’s always more accurate to treat people as individuals, not as representatives of their perceived group.

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This is what a real man looks like

Maybe you’ve heard someone saying that gender is a “social construct”. This is the cultural side of the matter. They probably didn’t mean that biological sex doesn’t exist. They simply meant that there’s a very real cultural component to our idea of sex. For example, do you really think that wearing skirts, bra, high-heeled shoes, long hair or make-up has something inherently to do with women? Globally we will find cultures with men doing all of these things with the obvious exception of bra. Just 300 years ago these things were the norm even in the west. You can google up the former King of France, Louis XIV, and one of the first things you’ll find will be his legendary portrait, Louis with high heels, long curls and pantyhose, showing of his gorgeous legs. On the year 1701 they had a very different idea of what it meant to be a man. The social construct of gender isn’t static, but it reflects our culture.

They probably didn’t mean that biological sex doesn’t exist. They simply meant that there’s a very real cultural component to our idea of sex.

Although I said we should treat people as individuals, that’s not how human culture tends to work. At least not our western culture as it is now. Being a woman or a man is a very narrow box. Women are more accepted to portray traits seen as soft or weak. Men, on the other hand, are pressured to be unemotional and dominant. There’s tremendous value in being both of these things, but when one sex is barred from pretty much half of the human experience, that can be a problem. Nevertheless, these are the roles we’re expected to play in order to smoothly flow through society. Why is this?

What the brain is, fundamentally, is only a prediction making machine: if the machine does its job, an organism can react to its environment before the changes in it kill it. So, when all people are visually categorised into these two opposing teams, both portraying a clearly defined set of abilities, it makes it easier for us to predict the future states of our environment. It’s an intellectual shortcut. And if there’s a way how our species is lazy, it’s intellectual laziness. We hate thinking.

So now we have a shared idea of what we mean with gender and sex. Can someone be born with the wrong either or? We just discussed how people may have more opposing brains, like a man can have more feminine brains, for example. But does it mean he was born into the wrong body? Who says that feminine brains have to reside in a female body or the other way around? Look at this idea closely: because certain traits are found, on average, in the specific sex, so presumably these traits must always be found in the specific sex. Downright silly! As I already argued the complete opposite, there’s tremendous value in diversity. And now comes the idea that I believe is missing from the discussion of gender dysphoria.

We humans are symbolic creatures. Fundamentally, our world consists of stories we tell to ourselves. For instance, some psychologists argue that the story we tell ourselves about our past affects us more than our actual past.³ We’re creatures of narrative. That’s why a psychoanalytic treatment can actually traumatise a person further regardless of the actual experience, if the analyst manages to implant or reinforce habits of thought inside the patient’s mind, which tend to victimise, make one feel powerless and broken, creating these self-fulfilling prophesies. The world will truly become a dark place if that’s the meaning we learn to assign to it. But on the other hand that’s why cognitive therapy or practices like meditation work so well: train new, better habits of mind and things really change.

Or we may have a story about politics. Is your narrative about the one of global super capitalism, which has tried since industrialisation to destroy democracy and worker rights while simultaneously polluting the planet? Or is it perhaps the story of kings and nobles abusing their peasant peoples until free market capitalism was invented, which brought everybody supermarkets and iPhones, until even the poorest of us in the west had a material well-being surpassing the kings of our past? Same history, two stories. This is the power of narrative.

Symbolism is stories associated into objects and ideas. What stories does the nazi swastika tell?  Or what about colours? Red symbolises love and emotion. Maybe that’s why it was such a girly colour when I was a kid, and I got mad as hell when I once had to wear a pair of red pants – just like someone would get mad from having to wear a swastika. Symbolism’s power is so strong to us that it even connects to sexuality. People can have the strangest fetishes, which is by definition, finding inanimate objects arousing. When our brain creates a strong enough symbolical link between an object and a certain set of associations, it will turn us on. It doesn’t matter how those associations are triggered.

So symbolism defines us, and in part, binds us. Gender has tremendous symbolical value. We believe, that the sex we belong in, dictates the range of responses we can act on in any given situation. We might think that if we want the right to portray masculine traits, self-esteem, leadership, we need to have a sizeable, muscly build and a low voice. Or, unless we’re female, we can’t show the empathy and warmth that resides inside. Maybe we’re afraid we wouldn’t feel authentic, or that people might reject us. But, supposedly, once we fulfil these superficial criteria, we can actually start living; that our deepest desires are contingent upon our clothes or appearance.

Also, we’re partisanic, tribal creatures. We all want to belong to a team. Nationalists want to belong to the team of their country, sports fans want to belong to the team of their sports club, metal music fans portray their team membership one way, and business students portray their team membership the other. Our clothes – or the way we talk or walk –  are always a uniform soaked in symbolism, expressing our felt team membership. We have political teams or more philosophical teams, like being a feminist or a vegetarian. We get sad and frustrated unless we belong.

So because of this I can see the reason someone wants to change their sex or gender identity. But has he or she actually born into the wrong body? Now that I don’t believe. What about a woman with non-existent breasts and no curves to talk of. Was she born into the wrong body not feminine enough? Or a short man? Is he really a tall manly, man in a short man’s body? I believe this is all just projection: my suffering emanates from this single point, like my genitalia, and when I fix it, I’ll be happy and my problems solved.

The thing is, we can either go through the sex change operations, which I believe is anyone’s right as a free person, or we can do the mental or spiritual work in accepting ourselves, in changing the stories we tell ourselves, and trying to affect the symbolism we have adopted. I eventually learned to not get mad for having to wear red pants as a child.

So ultimately, when feeling constrained by one’s sexual identity, what is it except being a mental prisoner of this silly two-way gender paradigm? Paradigm, that as we remember, has very little basis in reality: there’s endless variety of different combinatory brains on a biological level (though some setups are more common than others), and on a cultural level there’s even less so of anything permanent to grasp. We could instead throw away with the roles, and just be whatever we are, when we are. If one day you hope to be a loving, nurturing force, do it. If some other day you feel like taking charge, being of value to the people of your life this way, you’re welcome. We are multifaceted creatures, and in accepting our beings fully resides a tremendous source of creativity; so argues the eminent creativity expert of psychology, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who’s studied our time’s most creative individuals in the field of business, technology and arts.⁴

So ultimately, when feeling constrained by one’s sexual identity, what is it except being a mental prisoner of this silly two-way gender paradigm?

Once I have breasts, once I have a dress, once I have a low voice, a beard or such, then life will be good. Or once I’m treated like the opposite sex, then I will finally feel loved and respected. This kind of thinking, extrinsic goals, psychology argues, is connected to anxiety and depression. On the other hand, intrinsic goals, such as growing as a person, practicing skills, doing meaningful work or developing a good philosophy in life, are correlated with happiness instead.⁵ It shouldn’t be about what we look like or what we own. We create our stories to either give us heaven or hell, and heaven or hell, quite logically, then resides in affecting those stories.

So, can we free ourselves from binary thinking? Can we change the stories we tell ourselves, which seemingly pressure people to go through invasive surgeries in order to feel the right shape? Can we not treat people as the sexual representatives for half the population on earth? Can we learn to wear red pants? I believe so, and If anyone has no objections, we might as well start now. But being born into the wrong sex, I would argue, is a cultural belief, not an actual, biological occurrence. And problems emanating from belief can be cured through belief. Maybe they should?

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_differences_in_humans

² Joel, Daphna, Zohar Berman, Ido Tavor, Nadav Wexler, Olga Gaber, Yaniv Stein, Nisan Shefi, et al. “Sex beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, no. 50 (December 15, 2015): 15468–73. doi:10.1073/pnas.1509654112.

³ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Chapter 7: The Mirror of Retrospection. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.

⁴ Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Chapter 3: The Creative Personality. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.

⁵ Ph.D, Peter Gray. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today. Accessed May 22, 2016. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

Some personal thoughts about love and its relation to spiritual practice

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I haven’t been writing much of anything in the last two months. Well, I have actually, obsessively, but only of one thing. About love, the romantic kind, to be exact – about a single person even. But because romantic love usually comprises others, and people usually value their privacy, there’s a natural reluctance to publish things of that category. But if I am to write what I think, this is the only thing that there is for me to write. I just have to do it as discreetly as I can.

Stephen Chbosky once wrote in his novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” And at that time, a few years back, it seemed like a bunch of pretentious bullshit. Why wouldn’t someone accept all the love that’s given to them? It’s like saying, we only accept as much money as we think we’re worth – well hell no! If someone hands me a million dollars, I won’t think twice about it. But I took those words with me, don’t ask why, and at some point I started to realise the truth behind them.

We are all marooned in our own little worlds using crude language to communicate signals to other people, who may or who may not be, simple figments of our imagination. The imaginary component of our lives, what we take on faith alone, is much. If we can only recognise anything, which is first a part of ourselves, that means that the world will always be a total reflection of our own heart; the landscape of reality subtly shifting in accord to our mental landscape – while the world seemingly stays together like always.

So Stephen Chbosky was saying a multitude of things, but the most important being now, that love is simply not a bag of cash to be had from someone else; something that will save you once you manage to find it. And though I’ve known this intellectually already, this is something I’ve had to come face to face with very directly during these last two months.

I am in love. And she’s perfect. And it’s terrifying.

We’re talking about a girl, who’s so smart and passionate, that she could take on the world, if she wanted to. A girl so wise and caring beyond her years, that I can’t wait to know what she’s like when old and wrinkly. Someone so wonderfully odd and out of tune with the drab reality of bourgeois existence, that every moment with her is an inspiration. A girl with a sense of humour, that no matter how deep in the pit I am in, even her casual remarks make me explode in mirth.

But that simply makes it all the more harder, because the more things matter, the more losing them would hurt, and the more of a testament to your own failings would they prove to be. Or at least that’s what our ego will try to assure us of.

I used to believe the buddhist view of suffering, and I still do though less vehemently so, that it’s caused by three fundamental misunderstandings of our reality, which goes as following:

1) Everything will prove to be unsatisfactory.
2) Everything is impermanent.
3) There is no true, permanent self.

And the answer to this would be non-attachment. We must not attach ourselves to happiness, to impermanent things, and in the end we should realise, that there’s nothing to attach with, because our sense of self, as it is, is an illusion. We should simply flow through existence. And this is what I’ve been more or less practising for a couple of years now.

I’ve seen some very peaceful states. But I’m not sure if that’s everything there is.

Here comes the obvious question: how can romantic love, attaching yourself to another person, fit into this picture of non-attachment? Well, it doesn’t. But after hearing enough stories of monks, that have been practising their monastic disciplines for decades, simply to succumb to earthly ways the moment they disrobe, I’ve found it increasingly hard to believe, that all the required lessons of the human experience are found in monasticism alone.

Jonathan Haidt, an eminent moral psychologist paints a picture in his book, A Righteous Mind, that losing our individuality and experiencing unity, is a fundamental human desire resulting in many positive changes in one’s psyche. And the legendary psychologist, Viktor Frankl, famous for his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz, even dares to argue in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that love is the highest aspiration of man.

I find these two views, asceticism (buddhists) as opposed to romantic love (the scientists), to be two sides of the same coin, as meditation is to the psychedelic experience. Meditation is slow and gradual, and it will provide insight, there’s no question about it; slowly it will corrode cracks onto the doors of perception in the span of years. But take psychedelics, or love, and in that moment, things will happen, and the doors are temporarily burst wide open; it may or it may not be pleasant.

During these two months I’ve visited both the sweetest ecstasies and the darkest pits of the human psyche, and I’ve witnessed many of these theoretical concepts firsthand.

I’ve felt the reverend gaze of the beloved painfully burn in me, because love like that has simply been a foreign object in my body. I’ve witnessed my mind whisper after seeing a happy picture of her: “Look how happy she’s without you. She doesn’t need you”. And in a moment of despair, when I’ve felt disgusting, I’ve come up with these intricate theories, how she can’t really love me back, how it obviously must either be pity, or maybe a girl like that simply doesn’t give up easily, not because of me, but because she herself is not a quitter.

I’ve also experienced what it’s like to have a mountain of weight dissipate from my chest after I’ve finally overcome my terror, achingly opened my mouth and finally voiced what’s in my heart – simply with words. But I’ve also witnessed those situations where one’s presence has conveyed everything there is to convey. Oh words and what a bittersweet relationship I have with them.

But I’ve also meditated on the vista of her face and witnessed the creation of life, felt the connection with the chain of evolution spanning from the primordial soup, experiencing something timeless so many have on their turn before me. I’ve seen stars and galaxies sparkle on her skin. Seen her as human, not an object, not a girl, but a being with an inner world completely as intricate and serious and far reaching as my own soul. And I’ve felt loved in my totality, completely naked and vulnerable.

So love seems to burst us open, like many spiritual practices do and maybe even more so, and I believe there can be tremendous value in the whole spectrum of experience that ensues. But just because something has spiritual potential or significance, just like certain entheogenic drugs, it doesn’t mean that you can buy your way to any kind of enlightenment. The potential is there, but we need to do the work before, while and after the experience to integrate it into the fabric of our lives.

So I don’t know what this post is, maybe an ascetics ode to something as hedonistic as love. Maybe an exercise for me to once again open the literary flood gates of my mind. Or a way to think clearly. But nevertheless I’m humbly grateful – sometimes a bit fucked up – but as soon as I get back to my sound mind again, grateful.

Buddhism: an interesting thought experiment about enlightenment and death

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Some time ago I spent a little over a month in this Buddhist forest monastery in Thailand living the monastic life of that school.¹ As there’s pretty much nothing to do there, practically everything earthly is forbidden, and you can only meditate so much on any given day, you need to come up with some adjustments to your living. Lucky for me there was no shortage of Buddhist literature, so I decided to spend my time delving into the Buddhist concept of no-self. Now of course as a Buddhist I was somewhat familiar with the teachings already.

But as many people know, one of the central tenets of the Buddha was, that there is no self, that it’s an illusion; that we regularly fight and suffer for this imaginary concept, which is us. Many of these Buddhist claims are deceptively easy to understand rationally, like, everything is impermanent for example, but there’s a very real difference between knowing and understanding. The other actually affects your outlook and actions, and the other doesn’t. That’s why Buddhists spend so much time sitting down meditating: wisdom comes from direct experience.

Well, this one morning when we were doing our chores, it finally hit me, this epiphany, this sudden mental storm and a feeling of understanding what this whole no-self-business meant. I came up with a very neat philosophical thought experiment. It actually had such an impact on me, that this certain uneasiness pervaded me for some time – this anxiety that I later recognised as the fear of death, because the experience of losing myself was so concrete to me at the time. But back to that experiment. You’re free to hop on, if you feel like it. Are you ready?

The experiment

Imagine you’re a part of a medical procedure: we’re taking parts of your brain and swapping them head-to-head with another person. All you need to do in this experience as a test subject is to tell us what you feel through the procedure. Can you do that? Perfect!

At first we change the first fifth of your brain. You feel quite normal. You notice that your favourite ice cream is no longer banana flavoured, but it’s suddenly chocolate. Well that’s weird. We continue and change a second fifth. Now you notice that you remember something you didn’t before, some foreign memories. The third fifth of your brain is changed. You’re subtly transformed. Suddenly the environment and people around you make you feel different. Everything’s physically the same around you, but still changed; you notice different aspects of reality. The fourth fifth of your brain is now swapped. You’re very confused about this increasingly psychedelic experience. Finally the last piece of your brain is being replaced. You get a little while to adjust emotionally. How do you feel?

Well the experience itself was very disorienting, but you’ve managed to get yourself finally together. You feel like yourself again, all though you still think very differently. But it doesn’t matter as they’re your ideas, and you feel they come from within you. All you feel like doing is fulfilling your desires, no matter if they’re not the same ones you had an hour ago.

But now the doctor brings forth the other person. He explains that your brain now, as hard as it is to believe, is completely inside that person. You are not you anymore, in short. And you notice all the familiar mannerism in that person. But now something unexpected happens: they electrocute the other person – and your original brain – to death. A violent surge of current leaves behind only a charred, smoking cadaver. You died. But there you are looking at your dead self. What do you think?

“I’m so glad that didn’t happen to me.”

This demonstrates that there really is no us, as we imagine it. That the idea of us is fundamentally flawed somehow. All though it might be convenient to talk about “us”, it obviously gets shit done, there are some contexts where the conventional truth will bring about only suffering. The Buddha talks about the “ultimate truth” in addition to “conventional truth”, and that’s the plain where we don’t exist as individuals.

Aftermath

Well, let’s finish this story now that we started it. You get sent home to your new life. You decide to pick up meditation practice as inspired by your recent experiences. You want to understand what’s going on, how can you be both dead and alive at the same time. For years you sit there crosslegged, eyes closed and focusing on your breath. You start to notice that it’s not you who does your thinking. Ideas and urges simply pop up from the void. You try to find someone from within your headspace, where is the little man controlling you, but it seems that no one’s home. There’s just things happening, but there’s no one specifically doing the happenings.

You review the scientific literature and find out, that your emotions are deterministic for one, meaning that scientists will decipher your intentions from their brain scans well before you are consciously aware of them yourself.² You get familiar with post rationalisation, meaning that we humans are rationalisation machines who first have an intention, and then our internal play writer simply writes something as an excuse with very little regard to anything called reality or truth –  and obviously we don’t even know it’s happening.² Finally you find out about the phenomenon, that when the connection between our brain’s left and right hemispheres is severed, both our brain develop their own selves, their own personalities, their own memories.³ And the same thing would probably happen in reverse if you combined two brains together, that there is no feeling of two selves left but only one – because that’s how consciousness works.

You stand there on the bustling city street, while hats and trench coats pass you by. The earth pushes you up, the air keeps you nice and cool, and the midday sun warms your face. You finally realise that you don’t exist. No one does. There’s only these observer moments, where you (conventionally speaking) observe certain phenomenon in your consciousness. And the phenomenon, the feelings and actions you observe from other people, are no different than the feelings and actions you observe from within yourself. They all spawn from the same unknown darkness.

There’s no need to take things personally anymore. There’s no need for that righteous anger, that indignation, that’s always been so integral for your persona. Life’s simply a flowing experience to be observed and understood. And behind all those mental objects, all that stuff that we mistook somehow to represent us, what’s left there, it’s universal. The canvas behind our experience, the raw existence, qualia philosophers call it⁵, it’s the same for us all. In a very real sense, we’re all one, and the universe is all one.

So the next idea is how could something like death even exist? Mental objects arise and disappear all the time, but it doesn’t feel like dying. It feels intuitive to think about consciousness or life as some kind of basic power of the universe, like gravity for example. And if a glass falls to the floor and finally breaks down, is that the death of gravity? Of course not.

So you stand there and think to yourself: Now look at me, all enlightened and shit. The Buddha would be proud.

 


 

1. Wat Pah Nanachat, http://www.watpahnanachat.org/index.php

2. B. Libet, C. A. Gleason, E. W. Wright, & D. K. Pearl, 1983

J. D. Haynes, 2011. Decoding and predicting intentions. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 1224(1): 9–21

I. Fried, R. Mukamel, & G. Kreiman, 2011. Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Neuron, 69: 548– 562; P. Haggard, 2011. Decision time for free will. Neuron, 69: 404–406.

3. Zaidel et al., “The Callosal Syndromes”; Zaidel, Zaidel, and Bogen, “The Split Brain.

4. M. S. Gazzaniga, J. E. Bogen, and R. W. Sperry. 1962. “Some Functional Effects of Sectioning the Cerebral Commissures in Man.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 48.

5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia