Thursday, February 7, 2013

Healthy prostates and virtual experience

So I thought I would talk about frequent masturbation today. No, seriously, I want to talk about frequent masturbation. And dependent origination. Not for the entirety of this particular post, but for a good part of it. The masturbation part, that is.

One of my favorite YouTube channels (how's that for a transition?) is the Vlogbrothers. These guys are totally cool and very gay friendly. If you haven't checked them out before, you should. They are awesome! And what really got me thinking about the Buddha's teaching on dependent origination was a recent video of theirs, which you may watch below.

This video brings up something very interesting, and that's the question of whether a real experience is fundamentally different from a virtual experience. That's a very Buddhist question, particularly when you consider the Buddha's teachings on dependent origination, also known as dependent co-arising. There are a number of suttas on this topic, but this one linked here I will use for reference.

From a strictly biological perspective, when we "perceive reality," we are really experiencing the past, because no matter how fast our neurons work, by the time we are "conscious" of an event or experience, that event or experience is already over! Adds an entire new dimension to the concept of living in the present moment, doesn't it?

And what we experience as "reality" is just sensation turned into electrical stimuli in our brains via various chemical reactions and the movement of nifty neurotransmitters. We can create "false" realities by manipulating these chemicals in our brain, which is what a lot of humanity does when it consumers alcohol or other mind-altering substances. We tend to label these experiences as not real, but the fact is our brain responds to these experiences, and ergo our mind, as though they are just as real as a real experience.

As the Maha-nidana Sutta explains, everything exists because of what precedes that something. Why do we die? We die because we are born. Why are we born? We are born because of what the Buddha called "becoming," which is a process initiated by clinging, and this is preceded by craving for the thing we cling to, and that's preceded by feeling, which is preceded by contact (as in sensory contact), and that is preceded by name-and-form because we have to label everything, and that is preceded by consciousness, which is, whoops! Consciousness is preceded by name-and-form!

Work that one out sonny!

The Buddha's teaching on dependent origination is critical to his entire teaching, and the simplest way to explain it is nothing arises out of nothing, something never becomes nothing. Which, if you think about it for just a second, is basic physics. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but only change form. The Buddha said all you have to do is interrupt that chain anywhere along the line and you've done it - you've attained Nirvana and then you will go from being something into being nothing when you die. Because what is the origin or death? It's birth. And what is the origin of birth? It's because we are becoming. And why are we becoming? Because we are clinging, etc.

Which brings us back to our brain and eventually masturbation of the male variety.

If what we experience is nothing but how our brain processes various stimuli, which result in various feelings we have about that experience, is something we really experience truly different from something we virtually experience?

Consider the prostate gland. While the data isn't universally conclusive, the preponderance of data suggests that frequent masturbation in men contributes to better overall prostate health and a lower risk of cancer. Wait, let me back that up. What the studies really are saying is ejaculating several times a week contributes to better overall prostate health and a lower risk of prostate cancer than ejaculating less frequently, as in just a couple times a month. And what causes ejaculation? Well, there's either sex or masturbation. Yes, you can throw in there nocturnal emissions, but they hardly count even as sex.

There are a few studies that seem to present conflicting data, such as this one that suggests that wanking too often in your 20s may increase your risk for prostate cancer, while wanking in your 50s decreases that risk. But this article debunks that by pointing out the methodology employed in these studies is flawed.

So I'm sticking with the frequent masturbation is good scenario.

Hence, does the prostate gland care if you're having real sex or just doing the rattlesnake shake? No, it does not! All it cares about is expelling some happy juice on a semi-regular basis. And for that matter, we can add the experience of orgasm to this. Is the sensation of orgasm created from masturbating fundamentally different from the sensation of orgasm during real sex with a real person? While I am extremely hesitant to answer that question, the basic premise would suggest no, there really is no fundamental difference.

Regardless of the stimuli, it all becomes part of the sequence of events the Buddha outlined in his teaching on dependent origination. Our suffering, our dissatisfaction with the transitory nature of our experiences, feelings and of our very lives is wrapped up all the same whether we cling to real or false things.

So no, John, there is no difference between seeing the London Tower Bridge in London while standing along the Thames and seeing the London Tower Bridge in your video.

But I'd rather see it in London than in your video.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Groundhog Day Dhamma

OK, stop throwing shade. I know I'm a day late on this. But when was the last time you knew of a gay man showing up on time for anything? I thought so. I was caught by surprise anyway to learn that it was already Groundhog Day. Somehow I envisioned this momentous event occurring a bit later. Had I known I would have thrown a special fete and bought a new shirt or something. Well, I did buy a couple CDs yesterday.

Anyway, while I was on a stationary bicycle at the gym trying to burn off some portliness I had accumulated during my absence from exercise the past six weeks because of a broken foot, I happened to see on the television screen on the stationary bicycle next to me (yes, those mini TV's are ubiquitous at just about every gym these days) Bill Murray in the scene from the movie "Groundhog Day" when he wakes up the day after Groundhog Day and realizes that he's finally broken the cycle of the same day being repeated over and over, leading him to nearly lose his mind.

Wow, that was a seriously long sentence.

But the point is when he wakes up on the morning after Groundhog Day, he realizes that he can move forward now. The joy it brings him is sublime. He experiences a satisfaction so supreme that he remains motivated to continue walking the same path that led him to cease being the self-centered and selfish prick he had been at the start of the movie.

I have always thought that this movie presented the principle theme of the Bhaddekaratta Sutta extraordinarily well.

o_O What has a movie featuring a corpulent rodent and an insensitive man who continually alienates himself from others because of his lack of compassion and empathy to do with the Buddha's Dhamma, you ask?

A lot more than you may think. And this movie is also instructive when you think about some of the other teachings of the Buddha I mention frequently in my blog posts.

Bill Murray's character, Phil, is a crass and insensitive television meteorologist who has the hots for Andie MacDowell's character, Rita, his producer. But Rita wants nothing to do with Phil because he is crass and insensitive. In fact, Phil's relationships with others are so poisoned by his flippant selfishness that his co-workers tolerate him solely because on air, his audience loves him.

People who are unlikable do not become unlikable in a moment; rather, such a person creates this persona over time with the way he or she manifests his or her intentions into actions or words while interacting with others. It is usually a gradual process, much like slowly adding salt to a large glass of water. If you add one salt crystal to the water, you will not taste it. But if you continue to add salt to the water, it will eventually become so salty it is undrinkable.

Phil is a glass of water so salty that no one wants to take even the merest sip. And the point is Phil has done this on his own through his interactions with his co-workers. As expected, he continues to behave the way he does with the expectation that others will accommodate his selfishness and self-absorbed ego as he and his crew travel to cover a weather forecasting "rat," as he calls Punxsutawney Phil.

And then a curious thing occurs. When Phil wakes up the following morning, he soon realizes that it is Groundhog Day all over again. The next day, the same. And the next day, and so on. Phil becomes frustrated because like many of us, he has always expected the world around him to accommodate his actions and character. But the world suddenly refuses to budge.

Slowly, Phil begins to adapt, shown when he learns to avoid the puddle he always steps in every morning. And he begins to see an opportunity to change, although his motivation remains selfish: he wants Rita.

Nothing wrong with starting a new path when motivated by selfish reasons. The point is to strike out a new path and stop doing everything the same way while still expecting different results. Much like the Buddha's teaching to his son Rahula, Phil reflects on his actions and the likely consequences they bring. He seeks a specific result - that Rita will fall in love with him - and so he gradually modifies his actions and his speech until he develops the behaviors that lead him to his desired result.

Along the way, something completely unintended occurs: Phil develops compassion. This is shown through his futile efforts to save a local homeless man and prevent his ultimate death. Phil believes, based on everything else he's been doing, that he can find a way to create a different tomorrow for this homeless man, but despite his repeated efforts, the man always dies.

Phil learns to let go. This is extraordinarily important. Because if Phil doesn't learn to let go, then his initial selfish motivation to change won't fully transform into real human compassion. But he does let go and his desire for Rita is no longer motivated by greed. Phil learns at last how to live within the moment, becoming fully aware that how he behaves right now is creating his future.

You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
               is left behind.
The future
               is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
                  right there.

Just as the Buddha taught, Phil eventually realized the opportunity he had to change the direction of his karma, to ultimately erase his karma. We all have that same opportunity to do that. Every day is a new opportunity to become more aware of the present, another chance to relinquish our grip on the past, and recognize that what we think, say, and do in this moment will shape our future.

This is Buddhism. This is the path I strive to follow.