in-between

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They say your home is where your heart is

But what if your heart is always

in-between

Climbing up mountains
Running down with rivers
Dreaming under stars

Home is with those you love
But what if you love the wind,
the rain
Sky splattered with clouds or stars or airplane trails

What if you love the road,
the leaving,
the returning,
the hundred-thousand steps

in-between

Where, then, is home?

All content copyright Anni Kruus 2017

Impromptu musings on Ana Mendieta and phenomenology

“…the human body provides the fundamental mediation point between thought and the world. The world and the subject reflect and flow into each other through the body that provides the living bond with the world.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception

Ana Mendieta was a Cuban artist and a refugee in America from the age of 12, escaping Fidel Castro’s regime with her family. Her artworks in land-art, video, sculpture and photography are all centered  around the relationship of the body and landscape, our physical connection the earth. The artist herself states that the intention of the work is to repair the bond the she lost to her homeland as an adolescent, to address the displacement and feeling of otherness as an immigrant in the US. The mythical link of femininity and nature – the presence of the concept of Mother Earth; but also effects of colonialism and the violence that women’s bodies in areas of civil unrest are subjected to, are powerful readings of Mendieta’s Silueta series.

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The Silueta are sort of land sculptures preserved in photographs – and there is a vast collection of them, created through Ana’s career. She would create silhouettes of her own body in grass, dirt, snow etc. sometimes using plants to enhance the outline, sometimes digging, and later, blood. Sometimes she would be present in the flesh, and sometimes the work would be a performance rather than a sculpture. What connects all of the Silueta is the raw, corporeal connection to the Earth, performed countless times in different locations like a compulsive search for a connection with one’s surroundings, a desire to return to the roots of one’s being.

What strikes me as fascinating is that seeking of tangible relationship to Earth, especially today when we live most of our lives through digital media. At the time of their making, the Silueta were very much a commentary on feminism, violence and cultural identity. Those critiques are obviously still just as relevant. However, these earth-body works can also illustrate the ever-growing concern of the state of the environment and the detachment to nature in our everyday lives. The force with which Mendieta inserts her body into the landscape, becoming part of it has the effect of being shaken awake from a slumber; do I remember how it feels to lay on grass, make snow angels or be buried in fine sand on a beach?

Although Ana Mendieta’s work is political and serious, springing from a chaotic experience of displacement, there is also joy and a sense of security in it. In phenomenology, the approach to the world is to observe whatever sensations and experiences are present in consciousness. It is sort of an immersive way of studying the surrounding world and phenomena through direct experience. As such, this is not a particularly scientific method of discovery, but one that focuses on the subjective realities that each of experience.

The body is the vantage point from which the world is apprehended, and through the combination of physical and sensory input, one’s experience becomes part of the fabric of reality. There is also an interesting parallel to vipassana meditation, which I practice irregularly. The whole point of that school of meditative practice is to simply observe whatever rises in consciousness whether it be a physical sensation, a sound or a worry – none of those are more or less important pieces of reality at that moment; they just happen to draw our attention. Especially the practice of walking meditation seems to be connected to the notion of body as a mediator between things we understand as internal or external to our minds. The meticulous, conscious act of lifting, moving and placing one’s feet one at a time creates spatial awareness and builds one’s understanding of space and place from the bottom up unlike the all-too familiar reality in which we live most of our lives in: the constant hurrying from point A to B while looking at our phones and being irritated by slow walkers blocking the way to the soon closing train doors.

Going back to Silueta, as physical imprints, immobile and quiet, they speak loudly a message of grounded, self-aware existence. Despite the morbid link, which the crime scene like outlines of bodies of Silueta have, to the way the artist passed away; by falling from the 34th floor onto the roof of a below deli, the work is more about action, overcoming and strength; and less about defeat and victimhood. Albeit mere shapes of bodies on the ground, their raised hands and sheer physicality of being dug, drawn and shaped in the earth, they seem oddly full of live.

A Girl Like Me

Today, the 8th of March, is the International Women’s Day, and so I thought I would say something about my experience of womanhood. It isn’t an easy task by any means, and the more I think about my gender, the less I can separate that experience from the rest of my identity. I was born a girl and I have always seen myself as a girl. Before I became aware of feminism as a concept I never noticed sexism in my life. In Finland, and other Nordic countries, children tend to be raised in a very no-nonsense manner where gender stereotypes aren’t enforced particularly forcefully. I danced ballet and played princess, but I also roamed around the woods and played basketball. All kids participate in same activities at school; boys do sewing and girls woodworking. Stereotypically, I have never been into ball games, maths or hammering things; but instead I loved figure skating, literature and designing clothes. So in many ways, I’m a textbook example of a girl.

Except that I was never really interested in boys.
At school, it was sort of necessary to have crushes on boys to be seen as normal, so I went along with it. My old diary entries are filled with childish pining for this or that boy or celebrity, and it was thrilling to slow-dance at parties or be kissed on the lips. But all of my friends were always girls. My home or school environment wasn’t overtly homophobic but you could still sense that most people found it kind of weird or gross. I remember when in secondary school, one of the girls in my class was openly bisexual. I felt wordless admiration at her courage but as I’ve always been a perfectionist people-pleaser, I didn’t allow myself to relate to her. None of this was conscious by the way. It’s only years later that I’ve pieced it together.
I don’t know what age I became aware of at least being more into girls than guys, but even that knowledge I only relayed to a few selected friends. Even though I never consciously kept my sexual orientation a secret, I think the biggest fear holding me back was that if I was to accept being gay, then that’s what I would only be known as: that lesbian. For a teenager with body image issues, anxiety and frail sense of self-worth, being labelled distinctly different from everybody else would have been a nightmare. In reality, it probably wouldn’t have been that that big of a deal at all, but when you’re 16 it’s all about life and death. When I came out at 18 most of my friends just shrugged or said something like “oh finally”.

So what is it like being a woman now?
Funnily enough, since I came out I’ve had more everyday challenges when it comes to being a woman. I’ve had to face the suffocating heteronormativity of our society where if I am nice to a male person, it is more often than not taken as a sign of attraction on my part when in truth I’m just naturally a caring person. Like any other girl wearing a skirt, high heels and lipstick, I have to suffer through catcalling and comments from random strangers. When I’m out alone in the dark, I’m always ready to kick, scream or run. I constantly blurt out the line “I’m gay by the way” because that works better than “I’m not interested”.
To me, the differences between sexes or genders are pretty insignificant, and I don’t identify as a woman as an opposition to men. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man any more than I know what it’s like to be a straight woman. Perhaps my entire experience as a woman is simply my experience as myself, as the person that I, and only I am.
I’m an outspoken feminist and openly gay, but if there wasn’t discrimination and prejudice against women and sexual minorities in the world, I don’t think these parts of my identity would be as important as they are. I shout equality for women and gays from the rooftops because so many cannot. I get irritated when I’m made to feel like I should apologise for either not being a man or being romantically or sexually interested in men.
It’s only really adversity that makes me think about my gender and how it is entangled with my sexuality, which is somewhat depressing I suppose.
Shouldn’t I find my womanhood empowering?

I don’t know. But regardless, I do know that I like being a girl. A girl like me.

Moral high ground and other thoughts

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The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996

It is also not attacking someone presenting fallacious ideas. It is not punching a Nazi.

There is a nearly infinite number of things, of current events that one could try to break down and discuss. The Muslim ban, alternative facts, Sally Yates, and whatever else is going on at the moment. A slight sense of dread rises every morning as I check the Guardian newsletter on my email. At least one of the headlines is always about Trump – and it’s never good. If it wasn’t crystal clear before, it sure is now, that his appointment has had and will continue to have global consequences to the lives of already disenfranchised people.

The reinstatement of the so called “global gag rule” takes away family planning resources from vulnerable women in economically unstable areas across the globe. US government dollars will no longer support family planning programs if those programs mention abortion as an option for their clients. The “pro-life” movement has always been a disgusting hate group in my eyes since they unambiguously value an unborn, unconscious, barely sentient foetus more highly than its actual living mother who may simply have been unlucky with contraception, or you know, raped. There are pregnancies that become life-threatening for the mother, and there are situations where the child is unwanted for other reasons. To force a woman to carry a child against her will is a vile act of oppression. And it’s not like making abortions inaccessible or even illegal will stop them – it will only make them more dangerous.

This was not supposed to be an abortion rant.

Let’s get back to punching Nazis.

Richard Spencer who is a nefarious and vile piece of human garbage, and an outspoken ethnic cleansing advocate, got smacked in the face during a TV interview after Trump’s inauguration. And the Internet loved it. Apparently that was the second time his face took a battering that day. I can’t say that I feel sorry for him as he really is as much of a Nazi as a human being can possibly be.

However, at a time when a nation that once represented the good guys, and rode the wave of freedom and democracy, is now being lead by a narcissistic orange 2-year-old, those of us on the side of universal human rights, religious freedom and free speech have to preserve the moral high-ground. It’s frustrating, I know.

As an isolated incident this isn’t interesting in any way. People get punched for saying disagreeable things all the time. Many European countries condemn the kind of hate speech that routinely pours out of Richard Spencer’s mouth, and perhaps that’s why it is easy to think that he got what he deserved. And honestly, if anyone deserves a beating for stupid shit they say, it is Richard Spencer.

But.

In the wake of the Trump presidency where facts are challenged by “alternative facts” issued by none other than the White House, and an Attorney General gets fired for following the constitution rather than the unrestrained temper tantrums of the President, the pillars of democracy have to stand their ground. One of those pillars is the criminal justice system whereby individuals are punished by the institution after they have been found guilty by the proper process – not by street vigilantism.

We must remember that in their eyes those abortion clinic burning dipshits (official term, trust me) think they are doing the right thing just as much as we think we are doing the right thing when we assault a Nazi. This is why civil societies have law enforcement that takes care of stopping and punishing for criminal acts. Needless to say that it is nowhere near a perfect system but if the alternative is that each person acts as a judge and deals justice as they see fit I will happily take the first option.

If we commend random beatings of well-known Nazis on the street, we are unwittingly commending suppression of any speech by violence. As a liberal, feeling victimised by the rise of the far right and the likes of Donald Trump, it is easy to feel entitled to going rogue and taking down the bad guys that have sneaked into our governments. But if we do that, then we are no better than our opponents. In a free society, all opinions can be voiced. It doesn’t mean that they are all equally valid, but a society based on principles of the enlightenment and democracy can withstand a multitude of voices without turning to censorship and propaganda.

Violence is but a short-term solution to silence harmful and discriminatory speech, and the better and only way to counteract it is speaking up against it. Debating and arguing with our antagonists lacks the excitement and sense of power that simply breaking their noses and as many teeth as possible provides, but it is the only viable way forward. Violence breeds martyrs, and martyrs can be powerful.

I could go round and round this topic for hours, but I just want to say this.
It is more important than ever, for those of us who oppose totalitarianism, austerity and theocracy; injustice and bigotry, to stand our ground and not let ourselves be dragged back centuries. We must not give in to our lizard brains’ impulses to simply rip our enemies to shreds, but to speak up and do our very best to spread factual information and promote equality.

Women’s March in London gave me a sliver of hope where I didn’t see it before. About 100 000 people gathered in London to display solidarity for women in America, and to show our own government that we are serious. As cheesy as this kind of talk sounds, I believe that bringing hope to people’s lives in any shape or form is invaluable. Millions of people across all continents came together to peacefully protest the values of those in power. If nothing else, it created a sense of unity. Things like this don’t necessarily effect immediate change in the world but they do have value for they prove to each of us that we are not alone, and that we are not mindless slaves merely following the whims of those in power. We can make a change, and we ought not to let ourselves be silenced.

Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.

Christopher Hitchens

Trumpocalypse?

fuuuck

Rage over reason

So it happened. I don’t even know what to be most worried about because there are so many possibilities with the looming Trump presidency.

I’m not in hysterics over this like some of my fellow liberals but at the same time I wonder whether it isn’t so unreasonable to be concerned about the spread of misinformation and anti-intellectualism after all. Right-wing populism has been on the rise all over Europe for a few years now, and it seems that the US has finally taken the game to the next level by appointing this sketchy businessman boasting with his skills in tax evasion, as its head of state. And not only am I concerned about the state of the world that has allowed such a pseudo-political circus to take place across the pond, I’m also equal parts frustrated and disappointed with the Trump-apologists who have started popping out like daisies in the springtime. Trump may not be an actual evil incarnate but let’s not forget that he is terrifyingly unqualified for his new job.

The talk in social media seems to be circling the very real human rights concerns that especially Trump’s casual sexism and racism in the media during his campaign has sparked. We have all heard about the pussy-grabbing; the plans to prohibit abortions; the famous wall that will protect America from Mexico; and as if all of that wasn’t divisive enough, the new president-elect has also been openly endorsed by the KKK – a.k.a. racism personified. Make of that what you will.

And just before I get any further let us pause, and remember that I know as well as you do that nobody is perfect. But I would argue that the standard to which we hold ourselves and one another should always, always exceed the standard to which Donald J. Trump has been held throughout his campaign. Without even venturing to his policies, or what they might be compared to his opposition, I think we need to realise that his conduct in public has been absolutely subpar and disgusting. It is entirely possible that he only played the role of a loud all-round bigot to get the precious anti-establishment and anti political correctness votes that earned him his victory. But even if the hateful clown act was just that – an act, it has made the actual racists and sexists of the country feel even more entitled to overt bigotry.

So yes, my heart goes out to anyone in the States who is afraid of what living under Trump administration will do to human rights and equality.

And yet, there are bigger issues ahead.

Now, any of you who think that a glaringly unqualified president of the United States of America is solely the problem of Americans, listen up.
Trump is openly a climate change denier. Need I elaborate?
Cancelling millions of dollars worth of payments directed to U.N. climate change programs, lifting restrictions from the use of fossil fuels like oil and coal in the American soil and looking for a backdoor to get out of the environmentally crucial Paris agreement are all serious threats to our planet and all of its inhabitants. Surrounded by a number of fellow anti-science ignoramuses Trump does have an opportunity to do some real damage to the already precarious climate of Planet Earth. This will obviously not concern you, if you, like Trump, think that the whole global warming nonsense is only a Chinese hoax, and I mean it’s cold in New York so you’d actually welcome some climate change right about now ha ha ha … Not even remotely funny.

If a US size economy goes back to burning oil and coal like it’s the 1980’s it doesn’t matter where you live, it will effect you, your children and their children.

Someone with a clearly narcissistic personality is only ever interested in money, popularity and success right in the moment, and if you’re part of the elite of elites with so much money that nothing really matters there will always be a personal air conditioned, nitrogen – oxygen bubble for you and your offspring while 99% of the humanity burns, and in that case, you don’t really have to care. See, Trump and people like him are so grossly well established economically that they have never had to face real adversity. Of course, the Obamas are pretty well off as well, but no one is as privileged as a rich white man in this world.

And here I want to say a few words about Hillary Clinton. I honestly don’t care how much you dislike her as a person, or as a politician, or as Bill Clinton’s wife (in which case, repeat after me: A woman is not her husband’s accessory) – your disregard for the planet must be severe if you opted for Trump over her. I keep hearing that she is a cold-hearted, war-mongering, lying bitch who gives zero fucks about anything but money, but really – ask yourself, would you have voted for her if she was a man instead. And on the other side of that particular coin, if Trump was a woman, do not for a moment pretend that he would have got anywhere near the Oval Office.

Okay, so Clinton has lied – as opposed to Trump? Oh PLEASE.
Clinton likes money – as opposed to Trump? Yeah, right.

All I’m saying is double standards.

And it might come as a surprise to you, but when you work in politics in high-profile jobs, your hands can get dirty. There are many smart people who supported the Iraq war at first but changed their minds later, as humans tend to do. And anyway, as I recall, it was George W. Bush who started the war, not Hillary Clinton. When Obama got into the office he had a royal mess in his hands, and when Clinton became the Secretary of State, she also became partial to said mess. One could spend a lifetime and a half reading in on Clinton-related controversies but the truth is that we only know what happened, and not what could have happened if someone else had been in those shoes during that time.
You don’t have to like Clinton to see this.

All that said, I think Democrats made a huge mistake in nominating Clinton over Sanders, and I hope that in the course of the coming years they take a hard look in the mirror and come back as a united front in the midterm elections in 2018.

In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out Biden-Obama memes while drowning your sorrows in wine and death metal.

Trump’s First 100 Days – List of things that Trump is going to do
Cognitive Dissonance – Episode 325 – Tom and Cecil go through the aforementioned list of things while also making you laugh
The Most Powerful Clown – Listen to Sam Harris’ soothing voice as he tells you that we’re fucked
The Lesser Evil – Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan tell you why Hillary is better

And one final note: do not forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. So even when the vast majority of the American electorate didn’t care enough to actually go and vote, most of those who did, chose reason over rage.

In support of Mind

Not only haven’t I published anything in this blog for months, I also haven’t really written anything for months. I know I owe no explanations to anyone but the fact of the matter is that I do suffer with depression, and whenever something in my life changes it takes me quite a while to stop feeling overwhelmed. Doesn’t matter if I perceive the change as positive or negative – the mere reality of it creates confusion, and to some extent, stress. So what’s changed? Well, I got a job in late Spring, simple as that. It’s not a dream job but it’s taking up some of my time. Hence why I haven’t been able to write. I am constantly trying to get back to it though.

The reason I’m writing today is that in a week’s time I’ll be running my second half-marathon. My first one took place in May, and that one I ran by myself, for myself. This one, The Royal Parks Half-Marathon, I’m doing for charity. As alluded to in the title, the charity of my choice is Mind, a mental health organisation here in the UK. There were lots of other great causes to choose from but I find that mental health is one that really demands more awareness. I can’t think of many physical illnesses that would come with a social stigma comparable to mental health issues.

And stigma isn’t the only problem with getting help for mental illness. Oftentimes we downplay signs of depression in our own lives because the symptoms don’t seem serious enough to validate asking for help. Yes, suicidal ideation, drug abuse and self-harm are very clear red flags, but it doesn’t have to get that bad before you deserve help.

Here are five lesser-known signs of depression. Remember that each of them is a normal human experience every now and then; it is only when they come bundled-up over an extended period of time and have a noticeable effect on your ability to live life that you might have a reason to get worried.

1. Irritability
Personally, this is a big one. I have always been somewhat hot-tempered and especially as an adolescent I was often moody to an extreme. With age I’ve gained more patience, and at least I’m not as explosive.
When depression gets the hold of me, other people become hugely irritating in my mind. Your choice of words, tone of voice, the speed at which you respond to my messages, etc. can all set me off without a warning. I get snappy, rude and cold – and the worst of it is that I’m often completely oblivious of having offended you, and if I do apologise, it tends to take a while to occur.

It isn’t only interactions with other people that can push me over the edge; I easily get annoyed at my tech not working, or when the bus is late, or when things don’t go exactly as I wanted them to go. The irritation is so strong that I can feel it as physical tension all over my body, and it often boils over in angry tears.

Irritation is a normal feeling, but when it becomes your reaction to everything and everyone, there is probably something else than the universe having turned against you, going on.

2. Short attention span
This one is also right up there in my personal hall of fame. As a uni student I literally had to start tricking myself into reading and writing. I would take books to the gym with me and read them on an exercise bike for example. If I tried to read at home I would either get distracted or fall asleep. Even interesting lectures wouldn’t keep my attention for long unless I was either doodling in a notebook or playing Solitaire on my phone.

In general, it can be difficult to take on any task if you are suffering from depression. You might be motivated and have a footlong  list of things to do, but concentrating your mind on any one of them seems impossible. To an extent, being distracted and procrastinating are normal human qualities as our minds naturally wander. But extreme distractibility can be a sign of an underlying issue.

3. Difficulty making decisions
Big decisions can keep any of us up at night, but when you become paralysed when faced with everyday choices it is time to stop. Sometimes, when I’m asked whether I want to do a or b, my mind simply goes blank and I cannot summon the power to choose. Not to mention when I’m presented with an open-ended question where I don’t even have the luxury of picking a ready-made answer.

This flavour of indecisiveness is not the same as looking at a particularly mouth-watering restaurant menu, unable to make up your mind on what delicacy to order. Depression seriously makes you doubt that you are even capable of making a decision, any decision. It leaves you feeling like you’re just floating with nothing solid to hold on to, in the fear of choosing incorrectly – even when the choice is between a white shirt and a black one.

4. Excessive fatigue
It is a true challenge to get enough sleep in the hectic modern world where most of us are completely consumed with work. So naturally many suffer from persistent lack of quality sleep. But what if you still feel exhausted after getting a solid eight hours a night? Depression doesn’t necessarily make you feel sad or hopeless; it can simply suck every bit of energy out of you leaving your mind foggy and body heavy with sleepiness. Every time you sit down to read you find yourself drifting off to sleep, and no matter how many cups of coffee you ingest the drowsiness persist.

Sometimes sleepiness can merely follow from unwholesome habits such as a poor diet and physical inactivity. But if you’re otherwise taking care of yourself by eating the greens and moving around, extreme fatigue can be indicative of depression – or some other chronic illness.

5. Physical aches and pains
Personally, I haven’t really encountered this one but I have known quite a few people with daily headaches that just resist treatment. Like tiredness, aches and pains can arise from a multitude of conditions but when you’ve ruled out the most obvious causes, it might worth looking into your mental state.

Mind and body are not separate entities and so we shouldn’t overlook the interconnectedness of our mental and physical states. And it surely is time to erase the idea of mental phenomena being somehow less than real and painful. The stigma around mental illness arises from the perception that because it is in the mind, it doesn’t really exist in the same way as physical illness does. Of course, this is an ancient myth, and in reality the chemical imbalance in the brain is just as measurable as the depth of a wound.

I could ramble on and on, but I’m aware that most readers have already given up. If you made it this far, please consider taking a detour to my fundraising page and making a donation. I’m not asking for a substantial sum – £5 would be fantastic!

Resources:
Mind
Donate
NHS Mental Health info

Next stop: meditation station

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I have been trying to compose a piece of writing recounting my recent stay at a week long meditation retreat. However, to my great frustration the task has proven near impossible. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that every time I’m asked how the experience was I fall short of words. An appropriate expression doesn’t seem to exist, which is not to say that it was so fantastically amazing that words are not enough to describe; merely that it was unlike anything else, surprising but unsurprising, transformative in some ways but not others.
Purely practically speaking, it was a week spent in silence, sleeping less and eating less than usual. A week that felt like two weeks  – paying attention to every minute had the effect of making every moment last longer. Eventually even the constant chatter in my mind quietened down.

Sitting down to meditate, to establish a state of mindfulness is a whole lot easier said than done. The nature of the mind is to be anything but still; it wanders from plans to worries to daydreams, getting agitated by an itch or an ache along the way; making judgements about its own thoughts and feelings, abhorred by the boredom and lack of stimuli that the practice of meditation provides.
It is no wonder that our minds are racing at the speed of light most of the time since being able to multitask effectively is a crown jewel for a successful human being in today’s world. Ironically, we also tend to be deluded to thinking that it is only our minds that are totally chaotic and scattered, and that most other people must only think coherent thoughts and experience nice, neat, medium intensity emotions.
Of course it isn’t quite so; every human being has their own special cocktail of psycho-physical phenomena to deal with, and absolutely everyone sometimes thinks things they don’t want to think and feels feelings they don’t want to feel. Let’s take this moment to dismantle the idea that we are not able to learn mindfulness because our  minds are waaaayyyy to busy for that. We can if we want to.
Another related insight that I picked up is that in some ways I have less, but in some ways more control over my mind than I thought I did. In other words (that actually make sense), I have no control over my thoughts or feelings or whether or not they draw my attention; I do however have some control over the way in which I let said thoughts and feelings affect my behaviour.

My most persistent challenge seemed to be tiredness, and for whatever reason I really struggled to stay awake during sitting meditation – in fact, I once nearly fell over since my brain had kindly decided to switch off. I spent a lot of time at a halfway point just outside of sleep but not quite awake either. If you can recollect what it feels like in your body and mind to daydream, that’s the state I was at; just without any actual daydreams.
There were a couple of things that helped keeping me somewhat awake: recalling multiplication tables and steadily moving my hands up and down. As a last resort I would  sometimes stand up and continue the session on my feet.

Now a quick interlude to explain a mental noting method which should help clarify what I’m about to say in the following paragraph.
Imagine being able to slow down a cognitive process at will, like a video recording, and observing each individual step from the intention to do something to completing the action. In everyday life these processes are so quick that we don’t recognise them as series but merely as individual actions. Take the act of drinking water from a glass and break it down to intermediate steps, i.e. you lift the glass, drink some water and set it back down.
Or, you experience the sensation of thirst; you perceive a glass of water in front of you; you intend to take a sip from the glass. You move your hand toward the glass until your fingers touch its surface; you wrap your palm around the glass securing a solid grip with your fingers. You feel tension throughout the length of your arm as your muscles engage in the movement of lifting the glass off the table; you bend your elbow and wrist to direct the glass to your mouth, and stop once your lips make contact with the surface of the glass. You open your mouth, tilt your head back in tandem with the glass, which you lean against your lower lip until you feel water dripping onto your tongue. You note the cooling sensation as the water fills your mouth; you swallow as it reaches the upper edge of your throat, … and so forth.

In a nutshell, I was once again hovering at the edge of sleep at a sitting session. I remember thinking that I should stand up as it might help me stay awake – and then I drifted off. I thought about it again with more resolve, but somehow it felt as though I’d hit a dead end, and there was something keeping me from standing up. It’s all a bit of a blur but I know that I tried to make the decision to get up – and failed.
It felt like when your arm goes numb because you’ve slept on it and despite wanting to move it you can’t because your nervous system is all perplexed about the location of said limb. I had that same bizarre sensation of trying to locate the part of my brain that is responsible for making decisions but it just would not respond. This is not about struggling to move, but about an earlier stage of the process – you know, the process that I explained earlier. In the drinking scenario I mainly listed physical acts as consecutive steps but I could have added the intention of doing each thing as separate steps in between those acts.

This may well be total nonsense to some, but to me it was a very poignant lesson indeed. Do you ever walk into a room and then come to a sudden halt because you have no idea why you went there? Breaking everyday actions apart into a multi-stage processes helps understand why we sometimes just malfunction. The brain is a complex machine that runs multiple processes simultaneously. Not being able to do whatever it is you are meaning to do is not de facto a product of laziness or lack of motivation, but a genuine sign that you don’t have enough energy. After all, even the most insignificantly minuscule cognitive processes use up some amount of energy even though we don’t actively pay attention to them. Like apps running at the background on your phone still decrease battery life. Perhaps this is something we all sort of know to be true but it’s a lightyear’s difference to actually witnessing a simple process like standing up downright fail. You can study aerodynamics all you want but even all of that knowledge won’t make you a prodigy at snowboarding; you do actually have to get on the board and feel what it’s like in the real environment.

Some resources:
Calm – a meditation app for your phone. Download from iTunes or  Google Play
Sam Harris: Waking Up, chapter 1 – audio of the first chapter of Sam Harris’ book concerning meditation and spirituality in an atheist context
Satipanya Buddhist Trust – the organisation behind the retreat that I went to

Check your advocacy

feminismikollaasi“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

– Patrick Rothfuss

As passionate as I am about some of my own views I think it is also important to think about advocacy in general. Regardless of the cause, communication is key in making a difference. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who merely fires off tag lines like a pinball machine while dodging difficult questions. What I mean by this is as soon as I hear things like “check your privilege” or “meat is murder” I automatically switch off. It’s not that I even disagree with either of these particular statements; I just don’t think that they are appropriate for anything else than for banners for a protest. The problem with catchy one-liners is that they are so easy to throw around that they quickly turn into static noise without substance. Once at a meeting with a visual merchandiser we talked about how there was now a bunch of buzz-words that they weren’t allowed to use in marketing anymore because the consumer market had started to resent them. Similar inflation can happen in any topic of public discussion where specific words or phrases are excessively used across media outlets. This is especially true to Twitter and clickbait headlines where a very compact expression needs to pack a punch and catch people’s attention. Replacing independent thinking, rationality and well-constructed arguments with 120-character statements just kills the conversation for me. There is no shortage of social justice memes to choose from – and all of them send me spiralling down into desperation with equal intensity, but let’s tackle a recent favourite, “white feminism”.

The phrase “white feminism” is generally used to represent one’s distaste of feminist speech that focuses on white women and ignores racial issues thus excluding women of colour. Technically anyone can be a “white feminist” regardless of their own skin colour or gender if the feminism that they promote is racially biased or exclusive. Fundamentally, the critique brought forward by this phrase is valid, but compressing the message into an easily misunderstood, and possibly provoking term seems counterproductive. I would predict that most people who hear “white feminism” assume that it describes all white women, implying that the fact of their skin tone automatically makes them racist. Because this is exactly what my first impression was. Needless to say that such a rhetoric doesn’t exactly encourage people to take into heart the very real issues related to ethnicity in the context of women’s rights. It is not surprising that upon being or feeling accused of something before having so much as a chance to voice their opinion, people tend to shut down or lash out, and not listen any further.

That said, I do think that there are times when when using more aggressive and inflammatory language is appropriate. Debates, speeches and protests can get very heated and emotional, and in instances where provoking reactions in your audience is precisely the goal, then it can be effective to boost up your message with evocative vocabulary. However, more often than not this kind of language only appeals to those who are already on your side, and you end up preaching to the choir. If that is what you want, then by all means. To be honest though, I still can’t see how using the term “white feminism” would be beneficial to the feminist movement. And I shall explain why.

There is a time and a place for big words when we are trying to emphasise the difference between our stance and that of our opponent’s. We want to draw a clear line between us and them and build up group mentality. That’s all fine even though personally I tend to frown upon the practice of blatantly demonising the other – unless they are a glaring bigot in which case they tend to do the job perfectly well by themselves.
I find that the problem with “white feminism” is that it drives a wedge within the feminist movement. And I think that this problem is both in the practice of ignoring racial issues, which is what this term is supposed to convey, and in using said term to discuss this issue. Obviously, women of colour tend to be at a bigger socio-economic disadvantage than white women. Many of these women live in third world countries or war zones of course, and my knowledge of the history and politics involved is nowhere near a level where I would feel comfortable discussing that particular struggle. There are many factors regulating the quality of life in conflicted and unstable areas. At any given time culture, tradition and religion are some of those things, and we can all disagree on how big of a part they play in the mistreatment of women. In my books, that part is significant.
It is all too easy to let oneself fall into the apologist void of “it’s part of their culture, and we must respect it” in the fear of being labelled a racist or islamophobic or whatever is the next trendy accusation. I couldn’t care less from which angle you look at it – the tradition of female genital mutilation is torture, not culture. This atrocity is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are numerous more covert ways in which girls and women face discrimination in the name of tradition.

Debating  the significance of scarves and veils that cover more or less of a woman’s head has been all the rage for a while now. Are they signs of oppression? Are they empowering? Is it totally “white” and ignorant to even consider that they might be problematic?
I suppose they can be either one like just about anything else. I wouldn’t even bother weighing in on this if I could be sure that the decision of what to wear was always the woman’s, and only hers. But alas, I can’t. The problem really isn’t the veil itself but whether its use is part of misogynous tradition. There are those who think that we shouldn’t criticise any culture of anything because it is their culture. What such people are really saying is that those who have had the misfortune of being born into a culture where casual violence against women is condoned, are inherently different from those who were born into as peaceful a society as can be found on Earth today. To say that white people shouldn’t interfere because they don’t understand the culture, and women of colour don’t need to be saved anyway, is equal to knowing that your neighbour beats up their partner and not taking any action to help. Just because the victim of violence hasn’t come to you for help doesn’t mean that they want to be beaten.

Just to clarify, I am not saying that white women need to save coloured women. I am not saying that the burqa is oppressive and the mini skirt empowering. And of course, Islam, which I keep referring to, is not a race. And of course, race itself is an arbitrary concept however culturally relevant. I may have strayed away from the topic of feminist advocacy into straight up advocating feminism, but hopefully I have made at least half a point. Perhaps what feminism in Western countries currently suffers from is detachment from severe oppression. Are we, the fortunate ones, so used to freedom of expression, economic independence, contraceptives and certain amount of social security that we have forgotten what life as a woman used to be like? The notion that women of colour don’t need to be saved by white women is correct in that we shouldn’t victimise and infantilise those who live in adverse conditions. But as there is a power imbalance like there is one between the sexes, shouldn’t we try to do something about it by sharing resources when we can.

Finally, I think that there are more and less important feminist agendas that have to be dealt with. Those accused of “white feminism” are in that moment focusing on a less pressing issue that mainly concerns more privileged women who are mostly white. Is this outright wrong? Is it unethical to try to improve your own situation if someone else has it worse? As far as I understand, this seems to be at the core of the judgement of “white feminism”. That because in general white women are better off than women of colour, they should pay less attention to issues directly and exclusively related to themselves. This is certainly true when it comes to overall representation and visibility of racial issues in feminism. There is diversity lacking in the public discourse for sure. But I also think that if we want to make genuine progress in women’s rights across the globe people can’t be chastised for sometimes thinking about themselves and their own situation. We can all agree that being whistled at when crossing the road is nothing compared to being forced to marry a man four times your age when you are still a child. These issues can and must be worked on in many levels simultaneously. Feminism is after all about equality, and anyone who departs from that is not a feminist regardless of what they claim.

The point about advocacy – and this applies to any cause – that I wanted to make is that the choice of words really matters. I matters whether you want to bring more people to your cause or not. By using popular internet memes instead of your own words can easily alienate the very audience your message ought to reach.

An unlikely pair

unlikely pair
I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

Myths about atheism

5film3As an atheist and a follower of public discussions of religion one runs into strange misconceptions and myths about atheism and atheists. In my personal life I have only heard a couple of these but because I am interested in debates and that kind of stuff I’ve been exposed to a lot more prejudice indirectly. Also, as Scandinavian living in England following this discourse which is mostly happening across the pond in the States I will say that between Finland, UK and US there seems to be an increase in negativity towards atheism the further westwards you go.

1. Atheists hate God and worship Satan

The term ‘atheism’ is built up from three parts where theos is Greek for any god, -ism indicates a system of principles and practices, and a- expresses not or without. Atheism at its core, stripped out of all additional meanings simply stands for an unbelief in any god. It’s not defiance of a god, nor a pretence – it is simply a lack of belief. Satan is just as fictional to atheists as is God, and so it is safe to say that atheists don’t tend to practice devil worship either.
When it comes to feelings towards the concept of the Abrahamic god in particular there are undoubtedly many who would say that they despise him. Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist to emphasise his disgust toward Yahweh and the kind of dictatorial theocracy that the Abrahamic religions promote. Richard Dawkins has endured his fair share of religious outrage for the following passage in The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

At the most, some atheists hate the fictional character, God and his influence over non-fictional beings.

2. Atheists worship Richard Dawkins

At least Professor Dawkins is real, but no, he is definitely not the High Priest of Atheism. This myth encompasses a set of misjudgements about atheism. Being the opposite of theism – or religion, atheism is often seen as a unified movement comparable to any other political or religious ideology. Public advocates of atheism are easily taken as spokesmen and representatives for all atheists, and as a consequence an illusion of a likeminded group of people with common agenda, beliefs and values arises.
In reality the only thing that all atheists have in common is the unbelief in god or gods. Our morals and values do not come from a set ideology but are as varied as our favourite colours and foods. Atheists don’t have an agenda. Some of us might but again, simply not having a religious faith does not lead to any particular direction. In fact, another thing that atheists do share is perhaps a strong aversion to dogma and authoritarianism. The Atheist Agenda is kind of like The Gay Agenda – we just want to live our lives without being subject to organised religion and being attacked for our non-belief.
When it comes to Dawkins, there are many atheists who adore him and there are many who don’t. The only consensus is that atheists are not an organised movement with a single figurehead whose views we all subscribe to. There are numerous public atheist whom I look up to but I don’t need Richard Dawkins or anyone else to speak for me. That I can do for myself.

3. Hitler and Stalin were atheists therefore atheism is evil

First of all, we don’t actually know for sure about the religious convictions of either one.
Secondly, even if they were non-believers neither one proclaimed that it was their atheism that inspired them and justified what they were doing. A crime committed by a religious person is not always motivated by their religion, nor is a crime committed by an atheist necessarily motivated by their lack thereof.
Most importantly, there just is no way that this argument holds water even if we granted that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists, and that their evil came from atheism. In the grand scheme of things the centuries of religious wars, violence and persecution would still massively outweigh atheism in the overall amount of suffering inflicted upon humanity. From this line of thinking it would automatically follow that religion is even more evil than atheism.

4. You can’t disprove God therefore atheists are wrong

You can’t prove God therefore theists are wrong?
There is a sliver of truth in this claim and a more accurate denomination for most atheists is probably agnostic. However, agnosticism is such an elusive concept that it doesn’t really serve a purpose in describing one’s views. A theist is likely to interpret an agnostic’s stance on the existence of God as 50/50 – that there is an equal probability either way. Perhaps this seems trivial but there really is a huge difference in being 90% convinced of the non-existence of God compared to that halfway position that agnostics are easily prescribed.
It is important to remember that we are agnostic about many things. The most famous example of this is the cosmic teapot analogy coined by Bertrand Russell. It is simply to say that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, which obviously doesn’t automatically mean that there has to be a one. This illustrates the logical fallacy inherent in the claim that because something is scientifically unfalsifiable it must be true.

5. Science is the religion of atheists

One sometimes encounters the claim that knowledge based on science requires faith in the methods of science and is therefore just as believable as religion. The distrust in science today probably stems from the tsunami of pseudo-science spawned by the shady corners of Internet. Not everything that claims to be science is in fact science, and this creates confusion. One study trying to prove anything is never enough to be a basis of reliable information.
Scientific truths are different from dogmatic truths in that they are fair game for review and critique. Scientific theories face rigorous scrutiny and multiple attempts to disprove them. This ensures that the knowledge that earns the gold star of being true has passed through such a volume of close examination and nit-picking that it’s nearly bulletproof. But only nearly, because even after being accepted it can still be tested and disproved.
Moreover, trust in the scientific method is founded on the fact that good theories make accurate predictions regardless of who is conducting the experiment. Science observes and seeks to explain how stuff works and when it succeeds things like eyeglasses, computers and skyscrapers get developed.
Science doesn’t require blind faith, it doesn’t have an inbuilt agenda and it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.

6. “You just haven’t endured hardship. When you do, you will find God.”

Not only is this dismissive and presumptuous, but it also reveals how limited and childish religion can render its follower. I have nothing against those who feel better at the thought of an omnipotent, celestial being watching over them, but to insinuate that faith in supernatural is the only way to overcome obstacles and be fulfilled is stupidly unimaginative.
Personally I have found much more comfort in looking up to the early morning sky and spotting Jupiter; in learning that all elements that make up my body were forged within dying stars; and simply knowing that whatever happens there are real flesh-and-blood people in my life who will stand by me and physically hold my hand if I need it.
Surrendering to a metaphysical force is a gateway to ignoring responsibility and agency in one’s own life. That said, I’m not drawing a direct line from religious faith to infantilism. It’s a path that can be taken but certainly not by everyone.

7. Atheists are arrogant and look down on believers

This would be just as valid if it was reversed. Neither claim is based on evidence but on prejudice. Some people are arrogant, some people are funny, some people like cats. Atheism in an of itself doesn’t lead to arrogance – it is simply a way of abbreviating the statement: “I don’t believe in god”. Trying to force atheism to mean something other than it does will always reach a dead-end. I’m repeating myself but atheism is not a belief system like Christianity or Hinduism are. There are no atheistic traditions or core ideas because it is not a religion.
When you learn that someone is a Hindu you can immediately make some assumptions about them based on your general knowledge of Hinduism. These assumptions may or may not be accurate in the case of every single individual but they are reasonable because they originate from a set of known beliefs and values, which said individual has just identified with.
Learning that someone is an atheist merely informs you of something that this person does not believe in. The rest is up to you to find out.

Imagine being bald and never even growing any hair, and then a group of people insist on braiding and combing and curling your hair. You’re trying to draw their attention to the fact that you don’t actually have any hair nor are you going to. Your grandma is like “don’t be ridiculous, everyone has hair”. Someone gets offended and starts yelling at you “so you hate everyone who has hair!”. No guys, it’s fine, you have hair and I don’t. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t shove it down my throat. Literally. Pls.