One of the chapters in Julia Cameron’s book “The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation Into the Writing Life” is entitled “This Writing Life” and so it is wholly appropriate — as I settle in on the upper floor overlooking the garden waterfall where a crow, a robin and a chipmunk are simultaneously frolicking — because it asks the reader to stop procrastinating and start writing.
“Writing is alchemy”, she says, perhaps a premonitory echo of my having written the outline for a major piece, a riff on a phrase in Joseph Farrell’s book on transhumanism. One term he used piqued my curiosity and gave me a key that would let me in to a fascinating and troubling shift in our barely-visible culture. See http://www.thesullenbell.com/2016/08/20/engineering-human-evolution when you’re done metabolizing this.
If you want to write, you have to read. Perhaps it is better said “if you want to write well, you have to read widely”. Or, if you want to write something that is of interest and value, you have to do your homework.
The carpenter came by yesterday. He’s already put in the hand grips and bannisters that will allow me to get into and out of the 800-square foot space in which he is constructing a half-bath that will serve the household, the visitors to the garden patio, and the grandkids sleeping over. After the carpenter comes the electrician and then the plumber and then we empty the storage unit with the desks and chairs, the mountain of books, the bookshelves, and so on. Two windows look out through the tunnel under the bedroom deck onto the first three feet of airspace over the patio; the prominent image in that frame is the potting shed which will become the prime office of the resident gardener. Once my office is set up, some time around Labor Day, I’ll have my full computer, the ability again to process digital photography, the music playback/storage/production capacities, and a library amassed over decades. I’m just getting warmed up here. I envision a portable high-quality wireless speaker with which to entertain myself, the birds and the chorus of frogs.
Diamond (pages 31-32) says that writing is about change in our lives and how we can help it along, lean in to it, cooperate with it. She offers up an exercise through which we can document and reflect on our life and the environments and situations in which we found ourselves, in which we lost ourselves, in which we gained new understandings, new directions. Speaking from the perspective of her experience in screenwriting, she speaks of “entrances and exits”. The writing challenge she lays out at the end of that chapter is to write about those times in your life (past, present and future) when you had to “metabolize”.
Metabolization suggests change and acceptance. The first thing it brings to my mind is Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity prayer”:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
Is the serenity prayer a passive-aggressive insistence that insures the success of the hidden powers of social engineering and the collective? Keep calm and carry on. Hold still; this will not hurt you.
The textbook definitions of metabolism use the word biotransformation, or “the physical and chemical processes by which living organized substance is built up and maintained (anabolism), and by which large molecules are broken down into smaller molecules to make energy available to the organism (catabolism).” In other words, “the sum of all biochemical processes involved in life”, which obviously focus on food, nutrients, fuel for the cells, but must also include breath.
This obviously also intimates that we may reject, toss back, or excrete that which has been forced down our throats.
If we include breathing, we must also include spirit. Where in the body does the spirit live, the ki? Is it in the brain? It is associated with the breath. Is it in the lungs? The diaphragm? The belly?
“The human body is not an anatomical structure that is fixed in space and time. The human body is more like a river alive with energy, information and intelligence. It has a cybernetic feedback loop and can influence its own evolution and its own expression. It has the ability to learn from mistakes and the ability to make choices. The human body is an astronomical amount of raw material that comes from everywhere. In the last three weeks, a quadrillion atoms have circulated through our bodies that have circulated through the bodies of every other living species on the planet. We could think of a tree in Africa, a squirrel in Siberia, a peasant in China…. In less than one year, we replace 98% of our physical bodies… a new liver every six weeks, a new skin once a month, a new stomach lining every five days, a new skeleton every three months. The bones that appear so hard, solid and permanent are dynamic structures. Even the DNA, which holds the memories of millions of years of evolution, comes and goes every six weeks. The physical body is recycled elements — recycled earth, water and air — matter in all of its solid, liquid, gaseous and quantum mechanical forms.
Any time I explain the quantum mechanical model to my friends and colleagues, they ask me this question: “If it is really true that the human skeleton replaces itself every three months, then why is the arthritis still there?”
The answer I give is that, through our conditioning, we generate the same impulses of energy and information that lead not only to the same behavioral outcomes but also lead to the same biochemical processes, and that these biochemical processes are under the influence of our consciousness, our memory and our conditioned responses.”
“Quantum Physics and Consciousness”, by Deepak Chopra, M.D., in The Emerging Mind, ed. by Karen Nesbitt Shanor, PhD, Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, CA 1999.
If, however, we are a brick factory that continually re-builds itself, that is subject to rapid and ongoing changes that may be manipulated or stimulated in some way, there is still that certain something that keeps us centered on a core intent and belief. While core intent and belief is malleable or plastic, it is under your own control and it can also be hardened against external interference.
While we are arrogantly reminded that “The Mind Has No Firewall”, the spirit is nebulous (by definition, it has none) and thus is not subject to short-term hacking. Long-term engineering is another matter.
Political systems, pharmaceutical companies, the new sciences of epigenetics, and transhumanism are topics for another time and approach, as is the teleportation of information. We have the ability, however unused and undeveloped, to project or transmit information to others, just as we have micro-antennae that are tuned to receive. What’s playing on your channel?
Julia Cameron’s metabolism exercise focuses on the personal. In my case (and yours to the extent that you want to play along at home on your own writing pad), metabolization involves birth, family, maturation, adolescence, learning, geography, the behaviors of parents and siblings, the deaths of family and friends, interpersonal relationships, employment and career, geographic relocation, marriage, children and grandchildren, health, aging, and the decay and disease of physical and perhaps mental capacities.
For some, lather, rinse and repeat may be appropriate.
If you are writing, you can zero in on any sub-topic, any selected span of time, any place, any individual, any situation.
The questions may be “Did you change? How did you change? What happened to create the change? What happened after the change?” Or how did you metabolize the inputs, turn them into energy or re-direction? What did you bring to that time or moment, and what did you take away?
There are three constants in life, says Steven Covey: change, choice and principles. As a child, and even up through the age of 25 (give or take a few years), you don’t get much choice, and your principles were not firmly cemented in place.
Socio-cultural context and physical/geographic environment have a good deal to do with the shaping of an individual. There’s a great degree of emphasis (too much, in my opinion) on development in utero, though in my case, I did try to return meditatively to that time when I was within ten days before birth. I’d have fitted my mom with a body cam if they’d been available then and I had the option, but we can’t go back, can we? She died of causes only hinted at, and there was no autopsy that I’m aware of; I wonder if in fact my father’s attitudes over the years were because he didn’t want a third pregnancy but got one anyway. The female is in charge of birth and its control and most often the mother who carries a child into the ninth month has created a bond that most men can only guess at.
So there I was, without her, five days out, in the land of pretzels and beer and coal and railroads and Pennsylvania Dutch farmers’ markets, in the era of Hopalong Cassidy, eventually with one male friend whose father ran a chocolate factory and another female friend whose father was my pediatrician and who drove a Cadillac in which we drove to ice shows at Hershey. My two most prominent memories were of sitting in a vacant lot pulling up and eating wild scallions, and of packing a suitcase, loading it into my red wagon, and running away. What was I metabolizing back then? What happened in my first 10-12 years that still generates influence on my life?
I was pulled up by my roots and transplanted to a rural area tucked in just to the west of the Appalachian chain under the ridge across which ran the Appalachian trail itself out behind the plot of land we shared with a pileated woodpecker, a swamp, a pond and a deer trail. I was given the responsibilities of cleaning out the chicken roost, stacking the wood, breaking down the loose kindling, mowing and raking, and being told where and when to go to school.
Getting an education in grades 4 through 10 requires a ton of metabolization, especially when you change schools five times. It wasn’t as bad as being a military brat, but it’s hard to develop long-term relationships, themselves miniature training grounds for growing up and taking a seat in society, with anyone. If you are in an extended family that is spread around over a wide geographic space, or is distant from one another for other reasons, then you have to assimilate the arts of bonding and dialogue in other ways.
As an adolescent, you get to begin to assimilate world-view from your family, your teachers and, to some extent, the media. You begin to think about the world and your place in it. Your teachers begin to assess you with the tools of testing, psychometrics, and the challenges of a curriculum. In the classroom and out of school, you begin to gain a sense of what you are good at, and what perhaps you should avoid. Teachers, coaches and parents are quick to tell you; perhaps you have other ideas. If you are lucky, you are able to find a key teacher or instructor with whom you might start an ‘apprenticeship’ of sorts, even if it only lasts a short while. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have been graced with a parent who showed you, over many years, how to go about things, how to master a skill, how to build a toolbox, something of the external world. And then there you are, out in the world. Perhaps someone has had your back; perhaps you grew up with a pre-ordained life, a silver spoon in your mouth. Perhaps you jumped or got shoved out of the nest, brandishing six-plus years of having assimilated or absorbed or experienced more than can be written anywhere except in your journal or in your DNA. You do understand how epigenetic change happens, don’t you?
So there you are outside the previous safety zone with a clear idea of where you are going (or not), how you are going to get there (or not), who is going to pay how much to put your through your learning curve and just what they expect to extract from you thereafter. I had the option of getting a lot of help from the US government in return for at least one tour of duty on point in some Southeast Asian jungle but I grew up in New England where the poet laureate wrote something about a fork in the road. I did three tours of duty in an ambulance stateside. When someone asks me if I served my country, I can honestly say “yes”. I didn’t know where I was going, but I got there anyway.
Certainly the whole of life gives you the necessaries for metabolization. Changing jobs, let alone careers, means re-wiring your brain and your situational awareness. Reading the unexpressed intent of your boss is an art form; most of my jobs entailed working for large groups of directors. Physical and geographic relocation rewire your brain in different ways, both on the wider scale of terrain, weather, and road nets as well as inside the limited space of household. My wife and still learning that we keep that particular thing over here now; it is no longer with those things over there.
Moving at large in the world, politics and people are what you get to deal with. You look around with innocence and wonder and you get introduced to learned and important people who are conning you all the while, treating you like a disposable or dispensable plaything or tool. They use you if and while they can, blindside you, and then sweep you away. And then you get your own kids. Some of us promise our kids something different and sometimes we are able to deliver. Sometimes some of us promulgate a continuation of the grand hoax while they feed them junk food and junk thought. And we watch astutely as we necessarily hand them over the the guidance and direction of others who mean well and are well-prepared, or who are prepared by people with a hidden agenda, or who simply don’t have the slightest fracking clue what in hell they are doing with the tender minds and spirits of the special human being you’ve brought far down the path.
And then we discover the new diagnosis and we get to metabolize a drawerful of pharmaceuticals, half of which bring side-effects for which there are more pills. And then we discover the bureaucracies through which we learn to navigate.
There are really nice people out there who will help when illness and disease come to your doorstep; if and when you find them, treat them well. Love them. Thank them. Learn from them.
Keep learning. Believe in yourself. Learn to pray. Learn to meditate. Read voraciously.
If you stop metabolizing, you’re finished.
“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.” — Ram Dass
the neurologist and psychiatrist imprisoned at Auschwitz
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Epictetus
To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.
The philosophy of Epictetus is well known in the U.S. military through the writings and example of James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam, became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and later a vice presidential candidate. In Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993), Stockdale credits Epictetus with helping him endure seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese military prison—including torture—and four years in solitary confinement.
Faith and The Stockdale Paradox
Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. He shouldered the burden of command, doing everything be could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken while fighting an internal war against his captors. He deliberately disfigured himself so that he could not be videotaped as an example of a well-treated prisoner. He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. (His story is told in a book written by he and his wife called In Love and War.) He instituted rules that would help his fellow prisoners deal more effectively with torture. He instituted an elaborate secret internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation imposed by their captors. Personally tortured over twenty times during his 8-year imprisonment, he lived out the war with no prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would ever survive to see his family again. When asked years after his release how he dealt with this uncertainty, he said “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted that not only would I get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.” He went on to explain that it was the optimists who never made it out, the ones who said “Oh, we’ll be out by Christmas”, and then Christmas would come and go, and then Easter too, and Thanksgiving. They died of a broken heart.”
The lesson, he explained, was this:
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, whatever the difficulties,., and, at the same time, you must also confront the brutal facts of your current reality and act on their implications.
from the book Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, cited in the sixth chapter of “Summon The Magic: How To Use Your Mind to be a Better Athlete (or anything else you want to be)”
“… I really remembered Mark Van Doren’s quote. He said, “An intelligent person is one who, should a catastrophe strike, say doomsday… he could re-found his own civilization,” and I said, that’s what I’m here to do. And we had our own laws. I mean, I wrote them. And we had our own customs, and traditions, and proprieties.”
“… Every individual is connected with the rest of the world, and the universe is fashioned for universal harmony. Wise people, therefore, will pursue, not merely their own will, but will also be subject to the rightful order of the world. We should conduct ourselves through life fulfilling all our duties as children, siblings, parents, and citizens.
For our country or friends we ought to be ready to undergo or perform the greatest difficulties.
The good person, if able to foresee the future, would peacefully and contentedly help to bring about their own sickness, maiming, and even death, knowing that this is the right order of the universe.
We have all a certain part to play in the world, and we have done enough when we have performed what our nature allows. In the exercise of our powers, we may become aware of the destiny we are intended to fulfill.
We are like travellers at an inn, or guests at a stranger’s table…”