Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Emotion, Rationality and Creativity

When we are first presented with a situation our initial reaction will be subconscious, communicated to our conscious mind a black box; this we call a "visceral reaction" or "emotion".  Emotions are the communication mechanism of the unconscious mind. Our minds, while we are otherwise consciously occupied, processes inputs and makes associations based upon pathways that have already been established.

The establishment of conceptual pathways is what we call “learning.” Learning is a process by which we seek to establish categorical and causal associations between things so that we can act to achieve specific outcomes.  (i.e. “What type of thing is this with respect to other things, what are its causes, what will result from it, and what should I do about it?”).

Rational associations (i.e. those which accurately model those found in reality) provide our minds with the best possible chance of arriving at efficacious courses of action.  But, of course, not all learning results in rational associations.  Irrational associations are what we call “superstitions”; rational associations we call “reasons”.

Emotions are unavoidable; they are hardwired into our brains for some very good reasons. Emptions are necessary in order for us to make quick decisions where conscious rational analysis would be impractical. In nature the ability to make quick unaudited decisions (i.e. to have emotional reactions) is a distinct competitive advantage.  We see this principle at play in every animal equipped with the faculty of hearing when they perceive a loud sound. The immediate and unavoidable reaction will be some degree of fear ranging from a mild shift in awareness to a full-fledged flight or fight response. If a gazelles were not immediately startled (cause to feel afraid) by the sight of predators but rather had to analyses the situation rationally before deciding to run, there would be no gazelles to speak of today.

Our minds simultaneously process a lot of information using various subsystems (This is why we can walk and chew gum at the same time, though apparently some people lack this ability) but it is difficult to be consciously aware of our mental processes without setting up some sort of signaling mechanisms and attention sharing. We can pay attention to only one thing at a time, especially if the same specialized systems of our mind are required for processing. (This is why most people will find it hard to read and understand a book while listening to and understanding someone who is speaking to them.)

The intensity and type of emotion one experiences varies from person to person and situation to situation but one’s first reaction to every situation is always an emotional one; this much is unavoidable. Since emotional responses are rich with information we shouldn't seek to avoid them; if we do we'll be ignoring a very important signaling mechanism which could potentially be alerting us to otherwise unforeseen and often complex relationships.  In the workplace emotional responses are most commonly presented in the form “I don't LIKE this” or “I don't think that people will LIKE that”; reasons are not offered and often not explored; the reaction is an emotional one. In such cases the word “LIKE” is a dead giveaway.

The trick is remembering that emotions are the result of both rational and superstitious learning and that learning can be directed by our conscious minds. An emotional response, when time allows it, should be a cue for us to ask the question, “why?” and to open up the black-box in order to discover how we arrived at our conclusions. By engaging in this sort of rational deliberation we train our minds to make produce more rational responses and emotional signals while opening the door for unexpected associations to arise. This we call “creativity” and in its purest form “genius”.  The creative man is one who has trained his mind to consistently and efficiently make quick, unsupervised, rational, and complex associations by a deliberate process of introspection.

The lesson: the path to rationality and creativity are the same: paying attention to our emotions and demanding explanations of them—preferably good ones.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Truth is the Perfect Lie

Another way to answer the "If you say you stopped believing in God you never really knew God" Catch-22 crap:

The fallacy in this argument is easily discovered once we realize that we say that we "know" things when the stories we tell ourselves about them are so convincing that we simply must act as if they are true (i.e. believe). The fact that one discovers an inconsistency in one's own beliefs that changes them does not make one's previous belief any less "real" or one's current belief necessarily so.

Our "realities" are in fact lies about the real world that are so perfect as to be indistinguishable from the truth.

Wisdom starts when we recognize this fact and see that the search for truth is really a process of interrogation where we try to discover the lie in what we tell ourselves about the world. If we love the truth we will be ruthless in our interrogation and will pursue difficult questions no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

Drawing Hands, M. C. Escher, 1948

Look at Escher's Drawing Hands; a hand, drawing a hand, drawing a hand. Faith provides us with an easy way out of an uncomfortable or inconvenient interrogation. It says, "The hand is real! Now, stop asking me questions!"


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dance Your Way to Ecstasy

Have you ever experienced real ecstasy? No, not the drug (though I've heard that's a neat trip too) but the feeling that it offers—that state where you seem to transcend your normal mode of consciousness? I have.

Ecstasy is a sort of transcendent state and the pinnacle of what we understand as happiness. I experience genuine ecstatic happiness as a regular part of my life thanks to dancing and perhaps you do or can too. I don't say this as a simple matter of personal taste and it doesn't have to be dancing that does it for you but there are some important, objective components of happiness that dancing can bring to your life.  We'll talk about how dancing does this but first I'd like to talk happiness and the three components that dancing specifically addresses: Flow, community and sensuality.


In a TED talk entitled “The new era of positive psychology”, Dr. Martin Seligman speaks about happiness and one of its most important components:  something that he calls “flow” or “engagement.”  (His talk is well worth the time and to be found here: http://tinyurl.com/d2vc82 .) Flow is that state in which we are engaged in an activity that makes time seem to stand still. It's that thing people experience when they are “in the zone.”  It can happen playing a sport, at work, doing art, during “spiritual” experiences, making love and yes, while dancing. The amount of flow someone experiences in their day-to-day lives is a good predictor of just how happy they will perceive themselves to be.
Having too much fun!  Photo Credit: SalsaTo.com


There is another kind of engagement that is essential to happiness: social engagement—that sense of belonging and community.  Not surprisingly, people who have stronger social networks are more likely to feel satisfied with their lives.

My Peeps: Photo By a friend.
No, having thousands of Facebook friends doesn't count; we're talking about real social networks here, not virtual ones!  Surprisingly however, we're also not talking about close personal friends.  Most people will only be lucky enough to have one or two truly intimate friends, the kind that you can tell absolutely anything and trust implicitly, and many happy people are actually not very intimately attached at all. We're talking about having a healthy network of people whom you can interact with on a more or less casual level and on a regular basis: friends in the broader but not the broadest sense of the word—a community to which one can belong.


Photo Credit: Brandon Yuan-Sheng Chu
A third, and often overlooked, component of a happy life is physical integration and sensuality.  I don't mean sensuality in the sexual sense (though that counts) but rather feeling connected to one's own body in an intimate way and receiving positive sensual (i.e. from the senses) input from others.  In another TED talk (If you're not a regular patron of www.ted.com, what are you waiting for? Get on that!) Sir Ken Robinson points out that in our culture we are increasingly educating people as if their bodies were simply vehicles for carrying their heads around; that we're educating from the neck up and slightly more towards the right-hand side of the brain.  What this means is that we experience a sort of disconnection with our sensuality.

Have you ever been in a crowded subway car at rush hour and heard the cacophony as people apologize for having brushed up against someone else? “Oh, sorry” they say, as if it was a violation to even inadvertently touch another human being.  If you think about it, it's a little unnatural.

Why I Needed Dancing

It was autumn 1999, the turn of the century (Okay, not really. I know that the century really started in 2001. Don't be such a nerd!) , and I tagged along with one of the few friends that I had to Babaluu, a Latin nightclub in the heart of Toronto's uppity Yorkville fashion district (I like uppity).  In my previous life I was an Evangelical Christian minister. I left the ministry after a change of convictions—but I digress...  When I left I also left behind every social connection that I had; all my friends were clergy or laity and leaving the church meant severing those ties for the sake of my sanity. I was very lonely.  I was nearly 30 and had no secular social skills at all. I didn't know how to behave in a club, and in particular I didn't really know how to talk to women (Being the handsome single minister, up till this time, was all the “game” that I needed). I probably still don't know how to talk to women... but again, I digress.

When I arrived at Babaluu I saw people moving in a way that I had never really felt before. Sure, I had seen it in videos but I   had never really experienced the beauty of a room full of animals that had the ability to move with such grace and with such passion. The music was electrifying, the energy was great and people seemed to be so friendly.  It quickly dawned on me that if I learned to dance that I would be part of this. I would have a community and I even though I didn't have any game I could just walk up to a lady and ask, “Would you like to dance?”  It was a couple years before asking that question and being turned down once in awhile ceased to be a painful ordeal but I persisted, torturing and straining the patience of the best female dancers I could find along the way. (Sorry ladies, I hope it was worth it in the long run. It was for me!)

Dancing gave me something I really needed at that time of my life: moments of pure happiness.  When I started dancing I had no idea that it was a gift that would save my life several times over the next few years. During that time I was cheated on by a lady I loved deeply and was engaged to, was financially bankrupt and homeless  following the failure of a small business that I ran and stayed in a shelter for a few months to in an failed attempt to help my partner keep her house,  had to make sense of the senseless murder of my two nieces (which I helped raise) by my own sister during a postpartum psychotic episode, met another fine woman, got married and watched it crumble after a few months. I had a rough ride but somehow never sank into the quicksand of the depression that stalked me from the shadows every day.  How did I survive? By dancing my feet off!

Would You Like to Dance?

Doing my thing. Photo by Salsa Circuit
You're a bright bunch so you probably already plainly see the conclusion of this piece but I trust you'll bear with me while I state the obvious (I need an ending after all): Dancing makes us happy by making flow, community and sensuality accessible to even the most miserable of us.

Flow: In recent months I've learned to experience flow while dancing by focusing only on the music, the lady I'm dancing with, the space that I'm in and the unique and special thing that we create together at that moment. Nothing else matters when I'm in that state, the rest of the people dissolve into the music, into the experience, and the entire universe exists only for that moment, for that feeling. At those times there's no you and me, only us.   If you're a dancer I highly recommend that you try treating dance as a sort of exercise in meditation.

Community: Through dancing we gain membership in a community. For me, I could feel like I belonged at times when I didn't belong anywhere else. I'd show up at a club and was greeted by familiar faces. Dudes shook my hand, ladies kissed my cheeks, I saw folks I knew in the subway on the way to work and we'd nod in acknowledgement of each other. In a city of millions I wasn't alone anymore. You don't have to be rich, smart, good-looking, funny, or cool in order to belong (though all those things help). Just show up smile and become minimally competent on the dance floor and you're in. “Hey, welcome to our not-so-secret dance society. We're glad to have ya!”

Sensuality: Dancing connected me to my body in a sensual and intimate way. It meant that I began to understand my own body better and feel more at home in it. I could go somewhere and have women smile at me and enjoy my company. It meant that I could be touched by another human being and feel that life-affirming physical contact, like a hug, without fear of awkwardness.

Want to be happy in life? Try dancing. I tell you without an iota of hyperbole, that it was dancing that saved my life time and time again over these last few years of my life. I'll be posting this article in some dance forums on social networks. Some of you reading this will know me but most of you will never have guessed what those few good dances with you meant for me. I thank you for it!

Monday, April 29, 2013

An open letter to Sean Faircloth (and message to Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss and the Atheist community)

Hi Sean,

It’s been a few months since you put me in contact with a screener from The Clergy Project and my official coming out as an atheist. I want to thank you for the role that TCP and you and your colleagues play in helping to create a community of folks like me. It’s so very comforting to understand that there are people who go through the same deep personal, emotional, psychological, practical and social issues that I did and continue to face. I suspect that what follows in this letter this is more of a therapeutic exercise for me rather than anything revelatory for you and thank you for your time in advance.

I've spent the last few months in a concerted effort to rebuild my life and psyche from the ground up; teaching myself that I am not a degenerate, worthless sinner whose only salvation comes from believing the unbelievable. I have a sister who blamed the Church for the anguish that contributed to her bipolar disorder which, in turn, contributed to a postpartum psychotic episode she suffered a few years ago. During that episode she killed both of her children--one was five years old, the other just two months. I helped raise those children and the pain of their loss was a big factor in my decision to come out and be genuine about my disbelief. My journey hasn't been easy; I was indoctrinated from childhood by parents who were also ministers; the shame of sin runs deep and learning to truly love oneself without prior experience is something that’s not easy for a 44 year old man.

I've been trying to figure out how I can not only make amends for promulgating the falsehoods that I did as a minister, but also how to best use my natural love for people, and the love for the truth that drove me away from the faith, to help prevent the kind of psychological abuse that I endured. To that end I've started making inquiries with regards to starting up a Recovering from Religion group here in Toronto (I was surprised not to find one listed on the organizations website) and I've started designing memes, which I hope to eventually run as ad, and I've begun writing anti-apologetic material targeted towards believers.

All this has been very much inspired by the types of conversations that I've had with religions folk (conservative evangelical Christians in particular), over the last few months. Those conversations have been very enlightening and very frustrating. I’m sure that I don't have to remind you that it’s pretty pointless trying to reason with a believer. It is futile to try to reason a man out of a belief that he wasn't reasoned into. It’s also very difficult to get a believer to listen to anything that threatens their faith and as a result most efforts end up being simply ‘preaching to the choir.’ I’m sure you're painfully aware of that challenge already.

In an effort to understand how to help those I left behind I began asking myself “How did I manage to break free? What really was the catalyst?” The answers to that question came to me very lucidly recently and I’d like to share it with you and make a humble suggestion as to how skeptics may be more effective when reaching people like my former self.

After watching two poignant videos this past month—a documentary entitled Kumare (http://kumaremovie.com/) and a serious of deconversion videos posted on You Tube by a former minister (http://tinyurl.com/cudnx5s) —I’m convinced that reason, while having great prophylactic value for the unindoctrinated, is pretty ineffective against the armour-plated defenses that shield believers from reason: the shame of sin, the terror of isolation and a fear of death (the ultimate isolation). If you haven’t seen the videos I mentioned then you'd do the cause a favour by watching them. What’s really been driven home to me was that it was my inability to overcome the shame of sin despite my best efforts that drove me to a tipping point. Once I realized that I admitted the impotence of faith to cleanse me of these feelings and accepted defeat I began a slow painful journey towards rebelling against the idea that I was a worthless degenerate and started to embrace my own self-worth. What a revelation for me!

I'm writing this to you now in part because I recently became aware that Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss would be in town for a fundraising brunch for CFI Toronto and felt the urge to go there and hope for a moment to tell them that they're doing it all wrong when it comes to believers. I think that it’s easy for people who are so steeped in a scientific environment dominated by the intellect to think that evidence and reason will make the difference; they can but only after one breaks through the walls around someone’s heart.

Yeah, it’s mostly my naiveté and zeal as a freshly out atheist that’s got me so riled up but I do hope that perhaps my voice will underscore what you already know and feel: that the way to reach believers is to make them value themselves, to let them know that they need not be ashamed of being human and to let them know that they'll not be alone if they make one of the scariest decisions I can imagine any human being would have to make.

Since I’ll probably not have the opportunity to do it personally I’d very much appreciate it if you would please pass along my sentiments re the above, my warmest regards, and my sincerest gratitude for the fortification that their work provides me to Richard, Lawrence and Dan Dennett. I do hope that this message will, at least, inspire you all, in some small measure, to continue your valuable work and remind you that the way to a believer’s mind is through his heart. I’d say “God bless you for your work”, but that’d just be the leftover god-talk speaking.

With gratitude,
Dennis Augustine

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Here's a wee bit of an idea that I've been noodling. I think there's a good story in there. What do you think?


Grnanox was drunk or high or something. In any case, he was in a pissy mood and, as usual, was about to have it out on me. But this time... This time he really crossed the line, howling hilariously as he saw utter dejection overtake my face. 

You see, the truth isn't, after all, simply that I was abducted from my planet to be this creature's pet. No, I had come to accept that as I spent my days plotting escape or overthrow. No, it's much stranger than that: It turns out that my universe was nothing more than the final project towards his doctorate in Practical Cosmology and Organic Life; a doctorate that he failed thanks to us "filthy beasts," as he likes to call members of my species.

Apparently we were a failure as a piece of science. It seems that the reviewers said that our lifeform exhibited signs that Grnanox had contaminated it. He had been ordered to "conclude" the experiment at once but decided to keep me around just for kicks and to spite the sons of bitches who didn't realize how brilliant he was.

While my mind was crumbling from the implications he sadistically added,  "
Well, at least you fuckers weren't a total waste; you have no idea how popular I was tonight with the ladies once it got out that a sentient species thought I was a deity! Oh God, oh God, they screamed! Ha! You may call me God Grnanox! Isn't that funny beast? Why aren't you laughing? Answer me Lucas. I'm talking to you beast!"

One day I shall kill Lord Grnanox.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Greatest Compliment

I really wanted a drink. Not surprisingly there weren't any to be found in the fridge of the parsonage where my mother lived, so I put on my sandals and ventured into the heat of the Dominican sun, past the wrought iron gates of the churchyard and the whitewashed stone and brick wall to which it clung. I could see myself twenty years earlier at that wall painting on the once proud "Mahaut Gospel Tabernacle" sign.  (How chipped and faded it now looked.) Just a few steps away, juxtaposed to the MGT edifice and the Catholic church, was a modest home with a tiny ragtag bar slapped onto  its face. I ducked through the entrance, intruding upon the proprietor (a middle-aged looking woman with a colorful traditional head wrap) as she stood chatting with another lady leaning against the counter. They looked like they could be sisters.  "Good afternoon," I said, taking the few steps that separated the threshold from the counter. (The place was big enough for three, but just barely.) "Good afternoon," they replied in unison, turning towards the voice with the foreign accent. I asked the shopkeeper if she had any Kubuli beer. She began to say yes but paused and looked at me like I was vaguely familiar. Then, as the light of recognition switched on in her eyes, she squinted and asked, "You're Preacher's son, aren't you?"

Folks there used to call my dad Preacher. In the early eighties he packed up our family and tossed all of the trappings of middle-classed Canadian life into a container and headed off to serve in the land of my birth as a minister at the Pentecostal church in Mahaut. Mahaut is a tough little village near Dominica's capital, Roseau.  Its eponymous river stinks with waste in the heat and runs over into the streets during the rainy seasons; its shanty town houses are hunched up against dangerously narrow streets, forcing you to teeter onto the edge of the gutter anytime more than one car or a truck blows through in utter disregard for life or limb. On an island of less than seventy thousand it overflows with life: trees and flowers, chickens and goats and dogs, saints and hoodlums, hustlers and drunkards, whores and children, all huddled unto a few square miles of mountainside along the Caribbean sea. It's a slum but its people are proud, resourceful, gritty and happy.

My father died in 1989 at the age of 49. The day of his funeral it quickly became evident that the church where it was to be held would be too small; the whole works was moved to a nearby school. The partitions separating the auditorium from the adjoining rooms were removed. People overflowed into the schoolyard and out onto the street where loud speakers were placed with long cables snaking back to the lectern, where sermons, eulogies, songs, laughter and wails of grief were offered up to him. The massive turnout was unusual for such a small island and given that he wasn't a politician or a celebrity. He was a simple evangelical minister, yet he stood out amidst the others; he visited the people in the hospital and when they found themselves in prison; he played dominoes in the local shops, and knew the names of their children; he gave them rides into town, and employed them in the contracting business he ran nearly full-time. People of every type were there and they all revered my father, Pastor Samuel Augustine, not as a minister but as a man.

"Yes, I am Pastor Sam's son," I replied. It was my turn to squint; I didn't remember her. Should I? Perhaps she once attended the church and knew me as a young man, or maybe it was simply that she had caught wind of my arrival through the grapevine and had put two and two together. "I find he looking like him, oui!" the other exclaimed. I do look like him, especially when I put on weight and grow a beard, which I had. The resemblance sort of bothered me in my rebellious teenage years, but now I consider it a great compliment to be compared to him in almost any way. The compliment that followed however, was the greatest I've ever heard bestowed upon a man: "He loved us so much."

I am the Son of Samuel