I want to describe a state of mind that I experienced when hot air ballooning. Earlier this summer, in the city of Graz, I had the opportunity to accompany the Kindermann family on an early-morning ride. I observed their careful preparations. The Kindermanns and their associates laid out two balloons on a field, and then deployed what might be called the mothers of all blow-driers/fans. The balloons gradually rose from their flatitude. One of the men and I held the openings so that the moving air would not miss it. I felt important doing this. Then the Kindermanns rolled in the big guns. They angled a pair of flame-throwers at the balloon’s opening and let them rip. The flames seemed angry and hot enough to melt molecules. I was so stunned by the display that I failed to ask if I could get behind the blasters. Now there’s an example of regret from a guy who does not believe in regret.
Once the balloons were inflated, we (3) clambered into the basket, which we shared with gas tanks and navigational equipment. Not enough room to swing a cat. Psychologically, I did not experience any emotional state. Neither fear, nor apprehension, or euphoria. I barely noticed the moment of lift-off, that’s how smooth it was. Once in the air, the emotionless state continued. Only my perceiving faculties seemed to be operating. All through the ride, which lasted about an hour, I was perceiving, perceiving, perceiving. Most of it was visual, including a vertical view of the psychology building at the university and a bit later the house in which I was staying. And then, of course, there were the vistas of the city of Graz, its promontorial namesake crag, and the Slovenian Alps in the distance. All this was entering my mind, which absorbed it and contemplated it. It seemed to me, though, that the contemplation was not what we ordinarily consider “thinking.” I would rather describe it as the operation of a meditative state. Once I came to my senses (or rather, to my “thinkings”) when back on the ground, I tried to express to my friends what I had experienced. I had felt one with my perceptions. There was no analysis or evaluation, just taking in the record. I wonder if practitioners of meditation enter similar states when contemplating a lotus blossom. And then I wonder, do they have to work on that for years? Go, take a ride in a balloon, and the meditative experience is handed to you! And boy, what you see is way cooler than stalk and petals.
Back on the ground, the stalker (follower) was waiting for us with his truck. He helped deflating and rolling up the balloon (still dazed, I did not, which is my second regret). Then the Kindermann family gently guided the two newbies through the baptismal ritual. We knelt, had a hair singed with a cigarette lighter and extinguished with champagne. Then we received a diploma with our balloonist name and a review of our duties and privileges. When ritual is well done, as this one was, it also has a meditative quality, and it provides a bridge back into so-called Normalität. I recall the day with contentment and gratitude.
Arthur Koestler created the felicitous term bisociation in his epochal work on The act of creation. I find it particularly delicious that the term is itself an example of the meaning it is intended to convey.
Confieso que he vivido.
~ Pablo Neruda
It is time to revive the human potential movement of the 60s (sans drugs). Or, forget the movement and discover your own potential. Discover how habit dominates your life. Consider trite examples: you brush your teeth the same way every morning and night and you take the same route to work and back every day. Choosing a different brush or route seems irrational because it seems useless. Why make any changes if the habit has worked so well? This is a reasonable point of view, but it is myopic. It overlooks the hedonic payoff that comes from variability alone. Aristotle said that familiarity makes us happy because it gives us a sense of security. Yet, there is a different kind of happiness that comes from novelty and freshness. It ought to be possible to find a balance. If we do nothing, habit and Aristotelian happiness will naturally prevail. This happiness is self-limiting because it also begets boredom. Introducing variance into experience requires action and overcoming fear of uncertainty. We need to pull the curtain aside and take a step into the (temporarily) unknown to reap the rewards of fresh experience. Why have your hair cut by the same person month after month, year after year, throughout a lifetime? Why eat the same food day after day, till the day you die? Fear, convenience, self-hypnosis, shoot me now. You know the concept of the bucket list. It's a good start to think in its terms, but set aside the notion of death. What about today? What about this week? Make a list for the near future. What new thing can you do and experience today? Take small steps. Who says you need to bungy-jump? Eat Senegalese food. Look at pre-modern art. Talk to the person whom you thought you did not need to give the time of day. Surprise the kids by dressing 'weird.' Learn that the earth will not stop revolving and that it feels good.
Personally, like (and besides having begun to write like a teenager), I have sampled Ethiopian food (terrific) and put bitterballen and knakworst on my list for the next visit of the Low Countries.
The pope's arrival in Brazil puts me in a dreamy state again. What is the psychology of the jubilant crowd? They cannot be responding to the person who became Francis, because chances are they know little about him. Note that the situation is different with the Dalai Lama, whose message is well familiar or Mick Jagger, whose music has been overheard. Francis does not (yet) transcend his office. Hence, the crowd appears to be responding to the office, what it represents to them, and perhaps individual predecessors of that office who shaped their understanding of what the office can mean to them. Wojtila comes to mind; Ratzinger less so. Freud may have been onto something when he took the catholic church to be a prototype of the psychological group (the army was another one). I part with Freud, though, by suggesting that it is not Jesus whom the masses confuse with a benevolent father figure, but the pope. Pope, or papa, literally evokes paternal imagery. That the pope remains officially childless deepens the mystery. It is not, I assume, the only case in which the catholic church attempts to strengthen a particular claim by making it paradoxical.
Big Pharm aggressively hawks its wares on TV. They are talking to us because they want us to ask our docs to change our predictions so we no longer take what the other guys are advertising on TV. Meanwhile, we’re paying for all that. What a racket! We are paying for being told to switch from one marginally effective product to another. Shouldn’t we receive money for doing that? You have noticed that the stuff seems to get ever more dangerous. It is no secret that the incremental effectiveness of drugs is slowing down, and often, these small increments have to be bought against an ever-lengthening list of risks. Commercials have become farcical: “Take Damitol to relieve your gas, but watch out: there’s a risk of skin rashes, liver failure, uncontrollable vomiting, nausea, palpitations, headaches, footaches, and suicide. Don’t take Damitol if you’re pregnant, over 50, under 30, male, Republican, recovering from anything, or a professional golfer. Use caution when operating heavy or light equipment, reading, writing, or doing ‘rithmetic.” When I thought I had seen it all, Pfizer declares on the channel where I watch reruns of Law and Order, that a possible side effect of Chantix is “unusual dreams.” When was the last time you had a usual dream? What IS an unusual dream? And more importantly, how dangerous is it? But hey, anything to beat the smoking habit. For a scary personal story about Chantix, see here.
A small irony
A small irony. Henri Tajfel is remembered, among other things, for being one (among others) who invented the minimal group paradigm. He sorted participants into groups on the grounds that they presumably were over- or underestimators of dots or that they presumably favored either paintings by Klee or Kandinsky over paintings of the other. His signature finding was that even categorized on such flimsy grounds, participants favored anonymous ingroup members over outgroup members when distributing token rewards. Turns out that Klee and Kandinsky are known for their collaboration during the Bauhaus period. Perhaps that makes Tajfel’s finding even more poignant; or it has the two gentlemen spin in their graves. Now who created the painting on the right?