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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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On civilization and personal integrity

Yin yoga is the practice of being still amidst discomfort. For several minutes at a time we lie on the ground with our arms, legs, heads propped up in various positions and at various heights. As we wait for the minutes to pass, we yield our bodies to gravity, and our own weight, pressed against the props, puts increasing pressure on our joints, slowly pulling them apart. As the pain and intensity builds, we sink deeper into ourselves, breathing, releasing, and ultimately seeking to experience the sensation in its entirety.

At the end of five minutes or so, the pose is complete and we return the force of will to our muscles. Some poses can be incredibly painful on the way in, others are only painful on the way out. The feeling is similar to when we fall asleep with our arms at an odd angle; upon waking it is as if hundreds of tiny needles are being thrust simultaneously into our flesh. Whatever the sensation, pain or pleasure, relief or loss, when the time arrives we release the pose. This is the practice of Yin Yoga.

In many ways, practicing Yin is like practicing personal integrity. Personal integrity, in another word, honesty, is the art and skill of knowing who we truly are and what we truly desire. It is painful to practice personal integrity because we exist in a society which is bolstered by a civilization, and the notion of civilization itself is to deny our most fundamental desires and instead focus our energy towards an idealization of humanity which seeks to magnify some traits and disguise, or even erase completely, many others.  Civilization is built on the idea that some humans are barbarians, more animals than they are humans, but that others are loftier, closer to God or closer to some other kind of Ideal, in the Platonic sense. Society reveres the lofty and despises the barbarous. Thus in order to achieve success in a civilization, it is necessary that we deny the part of our selves which is animal. The practice of personal integrity is then opposite of civilization. It seeks to acknowledge all of our selves and accept it without reaching towards an ideal or comparing our self with others.

Civilization is important. Society, even without a civilization, is important because humans are profoundly social creatures. We are all connected to each other and need each other to survive. Our connection exists on many levels, too. We have an emotional connection to our parents, particularly to the woman who raises us from infancy whom we come to know as Mother. But we also connect to each other practically. Even the solitary old curmudgeon is connected to his landlord for a place to sleep, his grocer for food… We are all connected to, and rely on, each other for our survival and for our happiness, so we need society. But civilization is also hurtful.

It is not hard to understand that any systematic denial of our rawest and most fundamental desires will ultimately lead to suffering. One of the most human desires that we all have is connection. I might call it love. We crave to love and be loved by others, at least by one other. Love, however, is multifaceted. We can love with our minds, we can love with our hearts and we can love with our bodies. Perhaps there are also other ways to love. Civilization tells us that to love with our minds is acceptable. To love with our hearts is unavoidable, but to love with our bodies is shameful. A woman should love her husband and love her children. If, perhaps, she should fall out of love, the civilized thing to do would be to suppress her own feelings for the sake of the children. The woman who does this loves her family with her mind. She rationalizes love into her life and she makes choices that mimic the choices a loving woman would make. This woman, however, does not love her family with her heart. Civilization expects us to backwards engineer the fruits of love, but it does not care if love itself is actually present.

The divide between a Civilized Man and a human grows even stronger when we consider loving with our bodies. A civilized man loves only one woman and his body is only attuned to and aroused by that one woman alone. All other sexual response is shameful. This includes desire for someone outside of marriage, or more recently outside of long term monogamy, and it includes sexual desire by women. Civilization’s ideal human is male. I believe that part of the reason why men are revered more so than women is because a woman’s body does not permit the systematic denial of humanity that is necessary to rise to the highest peaks of society. She bleeds, she cries, and she births life from inside her own body with even more blood and even more tears. She is frightening and she is terrific and she is a powerful reminder that we are not the ideals that we try so desperately to fit ourselves to, but that we are human, raw and beautiful and helpless to the forces of the universe.

To practice personal integrity therefore is painful. We must acknowledge so many things about our selves that we would rather believe are otherwise. Personal integrity means acknowledging that we are less than the ideal we defined for ourselves. It means acknowledging that our bodies desire things that are not appropriate, or are shameful, and it means accepting those desires as part of who we are. As a consequence, the practice of personal integrity is also the practice of vulnerability. As creatures who are part spirit and part flesh, when we acknowledge the physical side of our existence, we acknowledge that our minds are powerless to control that flesh, and powerless to control the environment within which it operates. All these things are painful and frightening, but they are also rewarding.

As in Yin, personal integrity exposes us to painful realities, but it also provides us relief. As long as we deny parts of who we are, we carry that denial with us, and we also carry the parts that we deny even though they are pushed from our consciousness. But when we take the time and care to experience those parts of us that we deny, fully experiencing without attempting to escape them but instead surrendering fully to the implications of our selves, we are able to release them. Whether we seek to mold our selves into the shape of the ideal, or accept our selves with passive surrender, we are who we are. The civilized ideal, however, is heavy with unfelt emotions and pent up shame while the self which experiences personal integrity experiences every moment exactly as the universe provides it. It is a lighter and freer self.

Bad Science

An article published in this week’s issue of The Week (March 23, 2012) claims to have explained “why women seek conflict.” I didn’t know until I read this article that women did, in fact, seek conflict. Women’s overwhelming marital and career strife can often be boiled down to an aversion to conflict; when their overbearing husbands or bosses criticize them or deny them the authority they deserve, preferring to keep relationships smooth, women back down and simmer quietly inside rather than correct their superiors-by-default.

However, according to The Week, and “researchers,” “women tend to want to engage around conflict,” while “men…find conflict threatening.” I am sure that this research was motivated by the innumerable cases of unruly women in bars breaking bottles over each other’s heads and wrecking the furniture, or perhaps the rising incidence of women getting out of their cars at stop lights to threaten the driver in the next lane who didn’t get out of the way fast enough. On the other hand, it could simply be the many cases of domestic violence wherein women, in their desperate need for conflict, pester and nag their poor peace loving husbands into a fit of rage, so that they will, most unwillingly, beat, rape and abuse their wives into an ecstasy of emotional rapture. This one must certainly have been the motivation.

The study consisted of filming 156 couples interacting with each other and then reviewing the films with the man and the woman in the relationship and asking them to describe their feelings. Their finding was that women felt more secure and validated when their men were distressed. There are a number of problems with this study and the conclusions it claims to achieve. The most basic are simple math: 156 is a very small sample. Maybe with a good theoretical model built on well established behavioral findings, one might be able to draw conclusions from 156 observations, but generally speaking, good data sets should have thousands of observations in order to draw reliable conclusions.

Supposing, however, that the sample size was large enough that the statistics measured were robust, we next must face the problem of causality. Most periodicals that publish on academic findings make the error of implied causality. Put simply, we hear a lot of language that says things like “eating red meat increases your risk for heart disease.” What this means is that if you are a data point in a research project and your data point gets put in the bin of other data points that all eat red meat, then that same bin would be full of a lot of data points who have heart disease. The key here is that it doesn’t mean that you will have heart disease. That’s because red meat doesn’t cause heart disease, but its consumption is correlated with heart disease. A less reported correlation is with firemen and fires. Whenever you see a building on fire, you tend to see firemen running about. More firemen running about is correlated with more fires, but no one would say that firemen cause fires.

In this study, we face the same difficulty of establishing causality. We know that firemen don’t cause fires because we know that we build fire stations in order to respond to the fires, that is, we have a theoretical model explaining why the firemen and the fires appear at the same times, so we know which causes which. However, in the study on conflict, women’s feelings of security were correlated with their men being distressed, but which caused which, assuming there even exists a causal relationship. One possibility, one that many divorced women will happily ascribe to, is that conflict arises in a relationship when the party who is usually submissive asserts her opinion. A woman feeling more confident and validated in her point of view is more willing to stand her ground. This upset of the typical balance of power leads to conflict as men who are not accustomed to being stood up to must reassess their position, which leads to distress. In this perfectly plausible story, women are indifferent to conflict, but their positive feelings about themselves or their relationship initiate conflict which leads to the correlation.

Another explanation could be that men do not care for their women until they scream — the squeaky wheel explanation. Men are often more assertive about their desires and more willing to fulfill their own needs without checking in with their women or friends whereas women tend to consider more how the whole group will be affected by her decision. Thus, a woman is likely to quietly sacrifice her own needs if she feels that the relationship as a whole will benefit while men are more likely to sacrifice a woman’s needs if she doesn’t make a big stink about it. Thus, a woman feels ignored and uncared for in the status quo and the only times she receives attention from her man is when she puts on a show. In this case the woman certainly is seeking conflict, but the explanation is not that the conflict makes her feel good, or that she has some intrinsic pleasure from fighting, as the article would suggest, the explanation is that the behavior is encouraged by her mate. This is the exact same social process that leads to whiny children, too.

Finally, the article suggests that men ought to be more tolerant of women’s inherent need for conflict while women should be more understanding of men’s desire for peace. Pardon me while I cry shenanigans here. This implication on the surface sounds like science is finding answers for our every day problems, but lets look a little closer. Remember that time when you found yourself sitting down reading the Sunday paper and thinking “Gee, there are so many women in the world with insatiable needs for conflict!”? Right. Thought not. The article begins by creating the idea that it is common knowledge that women desire conflict. It then goes on to use this false presumption to motivate a statistically weak study on relationships that supposedly demonstrates this “fact.” Finally, the language that it uses to describe its solution to this invented problem describes women as hysterical, emotionally warped creatures that are more something that we as society have to deal with than something we would want to be around. At the same time, the men in the study are described as fundamentally harmless, peace loving creatures — both traits that we as a society value in others.

So what is this really about? This article is a devious attempt at using bad science to further vilify the feminine in our society. It’s a really good strategy, too. Because if our society holds anything more sacred that the Pope, it’s science. Science never lies.

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