Lunar Calendars

Today is the full moon.

In the Jewish tradition, today is Sukkos, when we hang gourds from a little roof over a make-shift shelter out-of-doors so we can take our meals surrounded by The Harvest.

In the Chinese culture, it is mid-autumn, also a harvest festival and the second most extensive holiday of the year.

In the ancient past, there was a hero named Hou Yee who was excellent at archery. His wife was Chang-uh. One year, the ten suns rose in the sky together, causing great disaster to people. Yee shot down nine of the suns and left only one to provide light. An immortal admired Yee and sent him the elixir of immortality. Yee did not want to leave Chang-uh and be immortal without her, so he let Chang-uh keep the elixir. But Peng Meng, one of his apprentices, knew this secret. So, on the fifteenth of Autumn in the lunar calendar, when Yee went hunting, Peng Meng broke into Yee’s house and forced Chang-uh to give up the elixir. Chang-uh refused to do so. Instead, she swallowed it and flew into the sky. Since she loved very much her husband and hoped to live nearby, she chose the moon for her residence. When Yee came back and learned what had happened, he felt so sad that he displayed the fruits and cakes Chang-uhe liked in the yard and gave sacrifices to his wife. People soon learned about these activities, and since they also were sympathetic to Chang-uh they participated in these sacrifices with Yee.

And so it came to be the custom that everyone eats mooncakes.


Imagine being dead

“Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories.” So here you are, holding onto your imagined or real-life photographs that contain your memories, and the memories of those memories. What do you do with them? Toss them out? Live with them? Accept their nostalgia or pain and accept, too, that photographs are images that do not necessarily represent what’s truly real? — Sally Mann (in quotes), Diane Mehta (the rest)

A Prescription for Forgetting

In fact, I was the opposite: tortured, fact-based, skeptical, provocative, thorny, and closed-minded about new age or Eastern-facing Western philosophies that seem created from a spreadsheet. I wanted to breathe. I like oxygen, photosynthesis, the blood-linked real-life company of my father and son, the sound of my keys turning in the lock of my house. I like my new green Adirondack chair and my biased unreal photographic memory of that week in Ooty, where my parents bought me a striped walking stick with a carved lion head that I used to pretend I was a mountain climber.

Maybe it’s true that if I discard every memory and every attachment, I will find my true nature, but it is also possible that then I will have no nature at all, and nothing to live for.

Ecstatic octopuses

Octopuses are loners, but when they are drugged with MDMA (“ecstasy”), they are drawn to reach out to one another.  This is the finding of a research project at Johns Hopkins.

The strange thing about this is that the organization of the octopus brain is so different from the human brain that it is quite surprising we would share any neurotransmitters or any biochemical targets of the small molecule MDMA.  Octopuses are playful, they plan and remember, they strategize, they use tools—all these mental feats that until a few years ago were thought to belong uniquely to humans.  But they evolved all these behaviors and abilities quite separately from vertebrates and mammals and primates and humans.  Octopuses evolved directly from shellfish like the clam that have no real brain but only a cluster of nerves called a ganglion.  If they evolved the same neurotransmitters we did, this is a mysterious case of convergent evolution.  The many cases of convergent evolution that have been studied all involved a common function, not a common mechanismFor example, birds and bats and fruitflies all evolved wings independently, because wings are useful for flying.  But neurotransmitters are thought to be arbitrary signal molecules which acquire a meaning according to the way they are interpreted.  It is as though we had ET visitors from another galaxy, and found to our surprise that the language they spoke sounded a lot like Hungarian.

The octopuses given MDMA were moved to seek out cage containing another octopus, and to hug the cage because they weren’t permitted to make contact.  Perhaps if the researchers had taken MDMA themselves, they would have had sufficient empathy to realize that they were being cruel to the octopuses.

Science Daily article

International Day of Peace

Human tribes have been warring for at least the last several thousand years. We are descended from the tribes that were able to field the largest and most cohesive armies. That is to say, we all have war in our genes.

But as humans filled the globe and as the technologies of destruction made war ever more deadly, the human race has been gradually coming to its senses. General Sherman taught us that “war is hell”. General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history, came later in life to teach that “war is a racket.” And General Eisenhower prophesied, “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.”

Nowadays, David Swanson teaches us that every war has been founded on lies. That is to say, if our leaders or our news media were telling us the truth, it would not be possible to brainwash enough people into the insane proposition that they ought to participate in mass murder.

So, what can we do, you and I, citizens of the greatest military power in the history of the world (fact) and the world’s biggest bully (my opinion)—what can we do to promote peace? My belief is that the spiritual truth, “peace begins within you” can be misleading.  Working on ourselves to achieve inner peace is of unquestioned value, but we cannot wait until we have individually tranquil inner lives in order to begin the collective work of organizing an end to war. The few who benefit from war are exquisitely organized, working together in what we might call a conspiracy, if the word hadn’t been discredited by our own CIA. We must be organized. We must take concerted action. We must resist the temptation to wage war in the name of peace. We must be firm in our resolve, but never coercive. We must be persistent in our vision, but not necessarily patient. I think that our cause is too urgent for patience. We should demand peace, now.

Don’t neglect the capitalist connection. The major reason for our country being the world’s greatest war monger is that war is profitable for banks, for defense contractors, for fossil fuel companies. There was a sweeping movement in America of the 1920s to take the profits out of war, culminating in a bill introduced in Congress in 1935 to take the profits out of war, and it nearly succeeded in passing.  In 2007, a War Profiteering Act passed the House, but not the Senate. You can bet your bippy that if for the largest international corporations peace were more profitable than war, we’d have peace.

Get out and organize peace demonstrations. Talk to people you know and people you don’t know. Tell them you think war is insane, even as it is pushed as “normal” by almost every politician and every news pundit. And meditate on peace, pray for peace, visualize peace. Yes, there is real evidence that collective intention has power even apart from its psychological effects on the individuals involved. Go figure.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

United Nations page for International Day of Peace


Placebos work even if you know you’re getting a placebo

The placebo effect is a perennial mystery in medical theory and practice.  It is typically about as powerful as anything Western medicine has to offer.  That is to say, just about any medicine you take, half the benefit can be obtained from taking a pill that has no biochemical activity at all.  This in itself points to the fact that the mind has a powerful effect on the body, far greater than biochemical models can account for.

Western medicine has recognized the placebo effect, but rarely has there been any research to explore ways to enhance it.  If just handing a patient a pill can do as much as all of the biochemistry that we understand, then imagine the healing that might be available if we really studied the mind/body interaction and learned to optimize the healing powers of the mind.

The standard explanation for placebo effect has been that the patient expects to get better because an authority figure (doctor, representing the power of medical science) has given him good reason to think he is being treated.  But there’s something even more mysterious going on.

The placebo effect works even when the patient is told, This is just a placebo.  In this study of lower back pain, it worked better than the “treatment as usual”, which presumably includes both placebo and biochemical benefits.

The placebo effect has been growing much larger over time.  What’s going on?

Perspective piece by Ted Kaptchuk (Harvard Medical School), who has done the most to research this field.  New study by Kaptchuk of cancer side-effects

Time Magazine article

Image result for placebo effect

כָּל נִדְרֵי

I wait all day to fill myself with emptiness
For the silent cacophony of the unseen
If I knew what I wanted, I would not want it
What I must unlearn is unbearable.

Faith is with me yet, undaunted
The bliss that consoles all will make its appearance
Not knowledge, no, but
Release from the need to know.

Even now, all is well.

— Josh Mitteldorf