30 October 2010

Inner Reign

My introduction to meditation came through a Unitarian Universalist lecture in which the speaker asked his audience to close their eyes and count to thirty, slowly -- focusing on nothing but the counting. The author's and my own experience confirmed that in trying this, the counter will be distracted by passing thoughts -- thoughts that pop up from nowhere. The lesson he took from this is that we are not always in control of our own minds -- but, he added, perhaps we should be.

The idea of holding the reins, of establishing dominion over my own mind, appealed to me. Already a freethinker, I began studying Stoicism and Buddhist meditation in the pursuit of mindfulness. Henry David Thoreau introduced Walden by stating that he wished to live "deliberately". I like that choice of words, for to act deliberately implies a level of control, of focus. Maintaining such deliberation is difficult, for while we possess the capacity to order our lives, we seem to be primarily emotional, instinctive creatures.

A common strength  I derive from freethought, Stoicism, and anarchism is power: power over myself, conviction that I believe and act as I do because I have ruled deliberately over my mind and established rules based on reason and empathy.  Marcus Aurelius advised himself to be like a citadel, which the waves crashed against but did not break, and I see my mind as a sanctuary and a castle, guarded by stern guards who do not permit unconsidered thoughts and malice to enter. In meditating, I see myself pacing the halls of such a fortress, throwing out flaming torches or dismissing aggressive courtiers. My aim is sovereignty: self-possession.

One of the difficulties in maintaining sovereignty is recognizing the emotional games we play with ourselves. I take note of them when I spot them at play in my own life, and this post is an introduction of sorts to a series of musings and articles on 'inner reign', on spotting  games like self-righteousness, tribal mentalities, and the like. At the same time, I will endeavor to steer clear of the abyss of puritanism. The goal is to be free and at peace, not possessed by the unattainable. 


25 October 2010

Reduced Shakspeare Company

After witnessing William Shatner rap Marc Anthony's funeral speech for Julius Caesar, I thought I'd seen everything. A related video led me to the Reduced Shakespeare Company's "Othello Rap", and then to this comic abridged performance of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliette, which makes one of English literature's great tragedies a laugh act. Part of this stems from their delivery of the lines -- flavoring Shakespeare's elegant tongue with some modern English, and reacting to odd turns of phrase -- but much of the humor is physical. The entire play is presented by two people (not including a narrator), and they duck behind the background scenery to quickly change parts. They gesticulate wildly and dance about, and break the fourth wall with gusto.

I laughed throughout, and am now engrossed in their version of Hamlet.

10 October 2010

Cold Reading: a Personal Encounter

I first encountered cold-reading as a young teenager, during a series of 'revival' services starring an evangelist named Steve Grimsley.  Grimsley was tall, thin, and appropriately grim: he wore dark suits and maintained a dour look upon his face at all times. He was a gifted performer, possessing a richly compelling voice and using elegant movements (particularly his hands) to maintain attention upon himself -- ensuring that our eyes were on his jet-black hair, wrinkled face, and riveting stare.

At the time I did not know he was a cold-reader. I regarded him as a genuine Man of God, a prophet. My religion rarely felt real to me, and I count that first revival with him as one of THE times that it did. He seemed to know things that no one could know -- without having done research. A professional, he started every service by ensuring that everyone in the congregation "knew" he hadn't done any research. He would ask if he or his wife had ever spoken with his volunteers  before,  and would ask the pastor if they had ever discussed the volunteers' affairs.  The pastor would solemnly shake his head no.

Then, touching the volunteer's forehead with the index and middle fingers of one hand and raising the others to the heavens, he would pray for a few seconds before beginning his "act".  He addressed the volunteer by name, then told them things about their life. He would say he saw people or things around them, and eventually started telling them what they should do to stay on-course.

The first and most vivid example of his abilities came when he told a woman he saw a fence around her home, and she nodded yes. He then guessed that it was high, and she nodded again.  Pentecostal services are highly emotional, and so it is not surprising to me in retrospect that a congregation of people wound up and willing to believe saw in these pedestrian predictions a miracle.  The woman did indeed have a fence "around" her home: she lived at the base of a short hill, at the top of which was a tennis court with a high fence. The fence cast shadows on her lawn.

To us, the believers, he seemed to be describing her house, and we imagined he saw it in all its detail. He offered abstractions, and we filled in the blanks. To the skeptic,  his brassiness is incredible. He expected people to be impressed by the fact that he figured there was a fence near her home? Fences are commonplace. There is a fence across the street from where I lived at the time, and a fence across the street from where I live now, and when I babysat during the summer and stayed at someone's house, by golly there was a fence near there, too.

The art of cold reading is to start off making broad statements, then narrow them down based on the person's responses, or manipulating their responses to give the reader new leads. Two of his other "readings" involved a prophecy that the pastor's daughter would play the piano,  and that another girl was rebellious against her father.

The pastor's wife --  the first girls' mother -- was the church pianist, and the girl herself was interested in music. She sometimes practiced at church. It was not a hazardous guess for him that she would one day play the piano. (Ten years later: she does not play the piano, nor does she play any of the other musical instruments she was interested in at the time.) As for the other girl -- well! It's certainly risky to guess that a teenager is feeling rebellious, isn't it?

At the time, I was as willing to believe as the rest. There were others who kept themselves outside the church on purpose (one older teenager would frighten adults and scare younger kids by telling them he didn't want be to saved)  who scoffed. "Break out the tarot cards," one said to me, "Here comes the Magician!".   Later, when I left religion for freethought and humanism, I looked back at Steve Grimsley and laughed. Having compared him to other 'mentalists', I realized that he was painfully transparent, but with Pentecostal congregations he had a captive audience ready to be amazed by trivialities.

Incidentally, I was never 'read'. He terrified me, and I stayed away from him.  I shook visibly in my seat, causing the chairs I gripped to vibrate, but when he approached me he only attempted to 'pray me through to the Holy Ghost'.  I have mentioned that encounter previously.

If you are interested in  learning how to recognize a cold-reading, here are some resources.