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  • Scientists Find the Areas of the Brain Involved in Masochism

    Masochism activates areas of the cortex involved in empathy, emotions and self-awareness You don’t come across scientific papers about the neuroscience of masochism very often. In fact, BDSM is still a taboo subject in science. Researchers only work on issues for which they can get funding. In the USA, Congress has been reluctant to give money to government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to do research on sex, much less on “perversions” like BDSM. That’s why I got so excited when I found this study, done in Germany by scientists from Heidelberg University: Contextual modulation of pain in masochists: involvement of the parietal operculum and insula. S. Kamping, J. Andoh, I. C. Bomba, M. Diers, E. Diesch and H. Flor. Pain 2016, Vol. 157 Issue 2, Pages 445-45. PDF. They used functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), a powerful brain imaging technique, to compare the brains of masochists and non-masochists. A clever experimental design combining fMRI with masochistic images and pain let them reach some interesting conclusions. Questions about masochism Here are some questions answered by this study: Are masochist less sensitive to pain? Does a masochist’s brain respond to BDSM pain (for example, a spanking?) and other forms of pain the same way? Are there brain areas specifically activated by masochism? Is masochism addictive? Experimental design There were 32 participants in the study: 16 masochists and 16 non-masochists (controls). The masochists were 8 men and 8 women, while the controls were 4 men and 12 women. The masochists were recruited through the internet and in local BDSM meetings. They were further screened using a questionnaire about masochistic activities: they had to consider themselves masochists, prefer the submissive (bottom) role, and more than 50% of their sexual activity had to involve pain. Excluded from the study were people with mental disorders or chronic pain, and those for whom masochist behavior caused “clinically significant distress” or impaired their social functioning. These exclusion criteria are reasonable, but they may have biased some of the conclusions of the study. For example, I found that masochists with chronic pain successfully use sadomasochism to control the pain caused by their disease - see my survey of 136 masochists. These people seem to be less sensitive to pain than non-masochists, contrary to one of the findings of the study. The painful stimulus was a laser light applied to the dorsal part of the hand. This produced an intense “pinprick-like” pain of short duration. Participants rated the subjective intensity of the pain using a scale of 0 (no pain) through 10 (“worst pain imaginable”). Laser intensities that gave pain ratings of 3 to 4 were used in the rest of the study. Another component of the study was masochistic pictures, which were used to evoke erotic feelings in the participants (masochists and controls). Apparently, the scientists didn’t trust themselves to choose the most exciting BDSM pictures, so they recruited 18 additional masochists to pick the 10 best ones. Additionally, three other sets of 10 pictures were used, evoking neutral, positive and negative emotions, respectively. Pictures were selected for their arousal and valence. In this context, arousal means how much an image captures our attention. Valence refers to whether the picture evokes in us attractiveness (we like it) or averseness (we dislike it). Joy and sexual arousal are emotions with positive valence, whereas fear, sadness, disgust and anger have negative valence. In this study, it was expected that a masochistic picture like a flogging would have positive valence for masochists and negative valence for controls. It would be interesting to know how this is reflected in the activation of different brain areas. The main part of the study consisted of using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to image the brain of the subjects while they were viewing the pictures through goggles and received the painful laser stimulation on the hand. fMRI is based on the fact that when neurons in a brain area are more active, there is more blood flow to that area. Powerful magnetic fields and radiofrequency pulses are used to locate molecules of hemoglobin carrying oxygen in the blood. This way, areas of the brain with increased and decreased blood flow can be identified while the brain does things like feeling pain or getting sexually aroused. Increases and decreases in the blood flow tell us which areas of the brain are more and less active, respectively. Unlike positron emission tomography (PET) and other brain imaging techniques, fMRI does not require injecting substances to the participants. However, the subjects have to be held immobile inside a huge apparatus that produces the magnetic fields. The fMRI results are shown in tridimensional images of the brain in which brain activity is color-coded: yellow, orange and red show increasing activity, whereas cyan and blue show decreasing brain activity. Grays mean no changes. A primer about brain areas To understand the fMRI images, we need to know a bit about the brain areas involved in pain and emotion. So please bear with me while I run you through the brain anatomy that is important for the results of this study. Cortex means ‘crust’ and is the outer layer of the brain. It is overdeveloped in humans, giving us our extraordinary thinking capacities. During the evolution of apes and hominids, it grew so much that the only way it could get wrapped inside the skull was by developing numerous wrinkles, called gyri. Each gyrus is separated from the next one by a groove called a sulcus. Apart from them, there are three deep crevices in the cortex, called fissures. The deepest one runs from front to back and divides the brain into the right and left hemispheres. Inside this fissure there are two portions of cortex facing each other. Its deepest part, forming an arch around the center of the brain, is the cingulate cortex. The front part of the cingulate cortex is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is in charge of making decisions (Engstrom et al., 2014). As we will see, it’s important in pain and masochism. A second fissure is the central sulcus, which cuts around the sides of the cortex and divides it into frontal and posterior cortex. Roughly speaking, anything forward of the central sulcus has to do with action and anything backwards it has to do with sensation. Thus, the vertical gyrus just forward from the central sulcus - the anterior central gyrus - is the primary motor cortex, which contains a map of all the muscles in the body and executes the last step in processing movement. The vertical gyrus just back from the central sulcus - the posterior central gyrus - is the somatosensory cortex, which contains a map of the whole surface of our skin and is where all tactile and pain sensations terminate. The somatosensory cortex is where we feel where pain is located in the body. The third fissure is the lateral sulcus, which runs front to back on the side of the brain. The cortex continues inside this fissure and expands inside each hemisphere, forming an island of cortex, which is why it is called the insula - which is Latin for island (Gogolla, 2017). The area of cortex around and inside the lateral sulcus is called the operculum. As we will see, it plays an important role in masochism. The insula is a fascinating brain area because it is where a bunch of our emotions come together. It is responsible for the salience of our sensations: how much a sensation matter to us. For example, pain, itch and sexual pleasure are sensations with high salience. In humans, the anterior part of the insula is much bigger than in other mammals, even the apes. During human evolution, the function of the anterior insula became different between the brain hemispheres (Craig, 2011). While the posterior insula tells us how we feel at each moment, the right anterior insula is able to imagine how we would feel under certain circumstances (Craig, 2009). It is able to create hypothetical feelings. Hence, it is crucial for empathy - imagining how another person feels - and theory of mind - representing the mental state of another person. The unpleasantness of pain is processed by the insula, whereas the location of pain is determined by the somatosensory cortex. The drive to do something about the pain comes from the ACC. Pain sensations from the body travel up the spinal cord and enter the brain, making relays in an area of the brain stem called the parabrachial nucleus, which connects with the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety. The pain pathways continue to the thalamus, which is an area in the center of the brain that serves as a relay for all our sensations, except smell. In the thalamus, pain neurons make synapses with neurons going to three areas of the cortex: the somatosensory cortex (where is the pain?), the insula (how bad is the pain?), and the ACC (what am I going to do about the pain?). I tried to condense that as much as possible, but we need this information to make sense of the findings of this study on masochism. Hey, who said that neuroscience was easy? Some interesting findings about the masochists The masochists showed interest in masochism when they were 17 years old, on average. The earliest was at just 7 years of age and the latest was at 36. Their first masochist activity was when they were 25, on average, with the earliest again happening at 7 and the latest at 47. This shows that masochistic desires can appear during childhood, even before full-blown sexual desire develops during puberty. A lot of people become masochists when they are teenagers. However, some come to it later in life, perhaps because they are introduced to BDSM by their lovers. Responses to masochist pictures Masochistic pictures produced similar levels of arousal (excitement) in masochists (4.3 ± 1.4) and controls (4.2 ± 1.8), on a scale from 1 to 9. However, they had positive valence (attraction) in masochists (6.2 ± 0.9) and negative valence (rejection) in the controls (3.4 ± 1.2), again on a scale from 1 to 9. Masochists also liked more the images that were more arousing, as shown by a high correlation between the arousal and the valence of the images. All the other images (neutral, positive and negative) were rated similarly for arousal and valence by the masochists and the controls. This confirms the assumption of the investigators that masochists like to watch things like floggings or canings, while other people dislike these images. Still, these images are equally impactful to everybody. Masochists dislike pain outside an erotic context When pain was applied without showing any pictures, masochists and controls rated the pain similarly for its intensity and unpleasantness. Without pictures, fMRI showed similar activation of the brain by the pain stimulus in masochists and controls. In both groups, pain activated the brain areas involved in pain: thalamus, primary somatosensory cortex, insula, operculum and ACC. These areas were activated to the same degree in masochists and controls. This refutes the popular belief that masochists like any kind of pain, in any circumstances. Masochists only like pain when delivered in an erotic setting. Brain areas activated by masochistic images In this part of the study, the participants were shown masochistic images without the pain stimulus to see what brain areas were activated. The masochists showed a higher activation of the right ACC and the right anterior insula in response to these images. I find this fascinating. It shows that what the masochists are doing is imagining the feelings of the submissive partner in the picture using their right anterior insula. The activation of the ACC perhaps represents their desire to be in that situation. Masochistic images decrease pain in masochists In this experiment, participants received the laser pain stimulus while viewing the masochistic images. They were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain. Masochists reported less pain intensity (2.2 ± 1.5) than the controls (3.5 ± 2). They also reported the pain as being less unpleasant (1.6 ± 1.2) than the controls (3.2 ± 2.3). These decreases in pain intensity and unpleasantness were as strong as the effect of opioids like morphine. Therefore, when they are able to eroticize pain, masochists feel pain as being less intense. This indicates that they activate the pain inhibitory pathways that connect the brain stem with the spinal cord, probably the ones that use endorphins. The decrease of pain unpleasantness probably has a different mechanism. This was explored using fMRI in the next experiment. Brain responses to combinations of masochistic images and pain Doing fMRI while viewing of masochists images and enduring pain stimulation showed differences between masochists and controls in the activated brain areas. Masochists showed a higher activation of the operculum - the part of the cortex next to the insula -, the superior frontal gyrus and the middle frontal gyrus, two areas of the frontal cortex. The superior frontal gyrus is involved in self-awareness. In masochists, there was also less functional connectivity between the operculum and the insula, motor cortex, right thalamus and right ACC. This did not happen in the controls. Since the motor cortex and the ACC are involved in the planning of actions, this could mean that masochists do not feel a need to respond to pain. Negative signals from the operculum to the insula may represent the decreased unpleasantness of pain in the masochists. One surprising negative finding was that fMRI showed that in the masochists there was no activation of the reward pathway of the ventral striatum. This pathway connects the ventral tegmental area (VTA) with the nucleus accumbens, where it releases dopamine. It has been wrongly considered the pleasure pathway, because animals and humans compulsively stimulate it when implanted with electrodes in it. It is also the part of the brain where drugs like opioids and cocaine produce addiction. Today, we know that this pathway does not produce pleasure, but motivation and responses to rewards (Salamone and Correa, 2012). In any case, the fact that this reward pathway is not activated by masochism shows that it is not addictive. Conclusions The take-home message is that masochism is an erotic activity that depends on the fetishization of certain relationships, situations, objects and actions. In this BDSM setting, the responses of masochists to pain are dramatically changed, so that they feel less pain and find it less unpleasant (and likely pleasant). This validates the experiences of masochists when they talk about a BDSM “scene” and “sub space” - an altered state of consciousness brought about by experiencing pain in this setting. The masochistic experience is not similar to the effect of opioids and other drugs, and does not produce addiction, because it does not activate the dopamine pathway of the striatum (VTA to nucleus accumbens) that mediates the effects of addictive drugs. Instead, it involves the activation of cortical areas of the brain that mediate emotions, empathy, feelings and self-awareness. Therefore, masochism is a complex cognitive and emotional experience anchored in a certain culture and values, and which drives intimate and profound relationships.

  • Being Monogamous and Altruistic Is Driven by Oxytocin in the Brain

    The neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin drive altruistic punishment, social bonding and monogamy The faithful prairie vole and the promiscuous montane vole Let me introduce you to the prairie vole, a small mammal that has attracted considerable attention in scientific circles. They are rodents with short tails and small ears that are found in North America, from west of the Rockies to east of Appalachia. What is so notorious about them is that they are strictly monogamous: a male and a female form a bond for life. However, a very close cousin of the prairie vole, the montane vole, is completely promiscuous. Males mate with multiple females if they can. Females become fertile in the proximity of males. Oxytocin induces monogamy Some scientists decided to find out how the brain of the prairie vole is different from that of the montane vole (Young et al., 2011). They found that female prairie voles have more oxytocin and oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, which are areas of the brain important in emotions and decision-making. Oxytocin was first recognized as the peptide that induces uterine contractions during labor. More recently, it has been shown to be crucial for many forms of social bonding. For example, it increases in the blood when a dog is being petted, in both the dog and the human! Back to our friends the voles… scientists genetically modified montane voles by increasing the production of oxytocin in the brain. These montane voles became as monogamous as their cousins the prairie voles. What about the male voles? Well, in them monogamous behavior seems to be determined by another peptide, vasopressin (Gobrogge et al., 2009; Donaldson et al., 2010), which is quite similar to oxytocin. Altruistic punishment Oxytocin also attracted the attention of researchers of a totally unrelated field: economics. Some unconventional economists decided to put to the test a basic belief of capitalism: that market decisions are rational. They found that they are not. Human transactions are based more on trust and empathy that on dispassionate decisions on what is to lose and what is to gain. For example, in all cultures, people engage in something called altruistic punishment (Fehr and Gachter, 2002): they will go at great length to punish individuals that they perceive as being unfair and untrustworthy. The ultimatum game One way they determined this was with an experiment called the ultimatum game. There are two players. Player one is given a sum of money, say $10, of which he has to offer a certain amount to player 2. If player 2 takes the offer, both get to keep the agreed amount of money. However, if player 2 rejects to offer, both of them lose the money. The results of the ultimatum game are consistent between people of all sexes, religions and cultures. Below a certain amount (about $3-4 if the total amount is $10), player 2 decides that player 1 is not being fair and rejects the offer. That means that he is willing to lose 2, 3 or even 4 bucks to punish player 1 for being greedy. That’s why this id called “altruistic punishment”. When levels of oxytocin were increased, player 1 tended to be more generous in his monetary offers. Testosterone did the opposite of oxytocin (Burnham, 2007; Zak et al., 2009; Dreher et al., 2016). In fact, men are more inclined to altruistic punishment than women (Zheng et al., 2017). The female sex hormone estradiol had more complex effects. When offers in the ultimatum game were framed as fair, estradiol increases acceptance in men but reduced acceptance in women (Coenjaerts et al., 2021). Oxytocin, vasopressin and social bonding Oxytocin and vasopressin are now called the social hormones because they strongly influence social behaviors like bonding, trust and empathy (Stein, 2009). However, we should not fall into the simplistic belief that oxytocin makes us good. It has been observed that this neuropeptide is involved in some nasty human behaviors, like xenophobia and intolerance. This is because oxytocin increases both bonding with the members of our group and exclusion of anybody perceived as a stranger (Radke and de Bruijn, 2012). Monogamy entails both feeling close to our spouse and rejecting member of the opposite sex that are not our spouse: bonding and exclusion. On the other hand, the role of vasopressin in monogamy may be related with possessiveness and territoriality: the male perceives the female as part of his territory and defends her as such. Likewise, altruistic punishment has a good side - like deterring crime-, and a bad side -like road rage and other confrontation when we think that somebody is taking advantage of us. References Burnham TC (2007) High-testosterone men reject low ultimatum game offers. Proceedings Biological sciences 274:2327-2330. Coenjaerts M, Pape F, Santoso V, Grau F, Stoffel-Wagner B, Philipsen A, Schultz J, Hurlemann R, Scheele D (2021) Sex differences in economic decision-making: Exogenous estradiol has opposing effects on fairness framing in women and men. European neuropsychopharmacology : the journal of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology 50:46-54. Donaldson ZR, Spiegel L, Young LJ (2010) Central vasopressin V1a receptor activation is independently necessary for both partner preference formation and expression in socially monogamous male prairie voles. Behav Neurosci 124:159-163. Dreher JC, Dunne S, Pazderska A, Frodl T, Nolan JJ, O'Doherty JP (2016) Testosterone causes both prosocial and antisocial status-enhancing behaviors in human males. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 113:11633-11638. Fehr E, Gachter S (2002) Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415:137-140. Gobrogge KL, Liu Y, Young LJ, Wang Z (2009) Anterior hypothalamic vasopressin regulates pair-bonding and drug-induced aggression in a monogamous rodent. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 106:19144-19149. Radke S, de Bruijn ER (2012) The other side of the coin: oxytocin decreases the adherence to fairness norms. Frontiers in human neuroscience 6:193. Stein DJ (2009) Oxytocin and vasopressin: social neuropeptides. CNS spectrums 14:602-606. Young KA, Gobrogge KL, Liu Y, Wang Z (2011) The neurobiology of pair bonding: insights from a socially monogamous rodent. Front Neuroendocrinol 32:53-69. Zak PJ, Kurzban R, Ahmadi S, Swerdloff RS, Park J, Efremidze L, Redwine K, Morgan K, Matzner W (2009) Testosterone administration decreases generosity in the ultimatum game. PLoS One 4:e8330. Zheng L, Ning R, Li L, Wei C, Cheng X, Zhou C, Guo X (2017) Gender Differences in Behavioral and Neural Responses to Unfairness Under Social Pressure. Scientific reports 7:13498.

  • Musings About My Ego

    Where does the ego come from? Why is it bad? Is it possible to get rid of it? Asking my Zen teacher We all sat on our zafus facing the center of the dojo - the meditation room. This was the opposite of what we normally did when we practiced zazen - Zen meditation - which we did facing the walls. At one side of the dojo, there was an altar with a statue of the Buddha, flowers and incense sticks. At the other end, sat Dokusho, our Zen teacher, wearing his brown kesa. This was mondo: a formal question-and-answer period with the Zen teacher. I joined my hands in gasho - the formal salute -, bowed and got up from my zafu. I walked to the center of the dojo to face Dokusho. I bowed to him and kneeled to ask my question. “How can I get rid of my ego?” “You don’t want to get rid of your ego. You need a strong ego to practice Zen. Otherwise, your determination will weaken and you’ll stop practicing.” I was surprised by his answer. This is what is supposed to happen during mondo. The answers of the teacher are meant to shake your assumptions, to force you to look at things from a different point of view. But I also felt relieved. I didn’t have to understand what the ego was, something that I could not fathom. I didn’t have to live in self-doubt, constantly questioning if I had too much ego. I just need to be strong and determined, and keep practicing Zen. That happened many years ago, sometime in the 80s, in Madrid. Ever since, I had often wondered if Dokusho was right in his answer. As it often happens in Zen, he was both right and wrong. Shame, pride and other social emotions Eventually, I stopped practiced Zen and left Buddhism. I had learned a lot, but I could no longer agree with some of its basic teachings. But that is a story for another day. But I never abandoned my quest for self-understanding, for transcending my limitations. I just turned away from lofty goals like achieving Nirvana to more mundane endeavors. I wanted to stop suffering, help others, understand myself, and reconcile myself with death. One of the things I realized was how sensitive I was to shame. I had shame attacks. The smallest social gaffe would trigger a paralyzing and painful feeling of shame. My mind would go over and over what had happened in an endless loop. I also had a small voice in my mind that would say, always in Spanish: “How stupid!” It left me with the feeling that what was stupid was me. The fact that the voice only spoke Spanish, when most of my internal dialogue happens in English, told me that it was something from my childhood. I put these experiences together with a conversation I overheard at a meeting of the Mind and Life Institute, and perhaps with some things I’ve read, to create a theory about the origin of the Ego. It goes like this… Shame and pride are two opposite emotions that evolved in humans to control our social interactions to maximize cooperation. I am convinced that we carry shame in our genes, given the fact that it triggers physiological responses like blushing and universal behaviors like hunching, freezing and withdrawal. Pride also triggers behaviors like standing tall and strutting. Shame punishes us, not only when we do something wrong, but also when we fail to perform our duties or fail when trying to do something. Conversely, pride is a reward for our success. I also think that our brains are programed so that shame and pride are triggered by other people, especially those in our close social environment. We may try to get rid of our shame and boost our pride, but we are largely unable to do that because these emotions arise automatically. This makes sense from the evolutionary point of view. If these emotions evolved to increase social cooperation, they should be controlled by others. If we could control them from inside our minds, they would lose their power to enforce social behavior. There is a host of other social emotions that work together with shame and pride to control social interactions: Guilt happens when we harm somebody or our community. It is different from shame in that it does not produce blushing. It is triggered by wrongdoings, not by failures. Indignation leads to blaming, which triggers guilt in the person who is blamed. Contempt, likewise, triggers shame in the person it targets. It leads to shunning and social isolation. Ridicule is another trigger of shame. When somebody acts proud undeservingly, that person is ridiculed to “bring them down a peg or two”. Humor accompanies ridicule. When people laugh at you, that makes you feel ashamed. Humor serves to bond together a group that is pouring contempt on somebody. However, humor also offers an exit from shame when the person being shamed accepts his decrease in social status by laughing with the group. How shame and pride build the ego We are subject to the pull and push of pride and shame since the day we are born. Power struggles with our parents, toilet training, squabbles in kindergarten… they all teach us that to be loved we need to succeed and not disappoint. Soon, we start to internalize these drives. We start to feel proud of ourselves and ashamed of ourselves. That is how the ego is created, as a core for the emotional memories and habits of feeling proud and shameful. Emotional memory is a type of memory that makes us feel a particular emotion upon receiving a particular stimulus. Often, a stimulus would trigger an emotional memory, but we don’t understand why because we have forgotten the event that created the emotional memory. Emotional memories are very persistent and difficult to control. Emotional habits are those that we create by reacting with the same emotion over and over again. If you let yourself feel angry at the least provocation, you will eventually become an angry person. But if, instead, you choose to be patient, patience will become easier over time. Likewise, shame and pride carve pathways in our brain, so that more and more events are interpreted through those emotions. We are not our ego. Our ego does not belong to us. We belong to our ego. It’s hard to escape from a black hole I had a vision of my ego as a black hole. It was huge, with gravity so strong that it captured everything that came into my consciousness. Every sight, every sound, every taste, every smell, every feeling, every idea, was interpreted based on its value for the ego. It twisted and warped everything that came into my mind. Like a black hole, not even light can escape it. From its early beginnings in childhood, the ego grows and grows throughout our life. It’s the base of our values, because passing judgement is what the ego does best. It convinces us that we cannot live without it. When it feels threatened, it warns us that we are in danger, that nobody will love us, that we will do things that make us ashamed, that we will stop doing things that we need to live and prosper. Dokusho was right in that we need a strong ego to succeed in life. If we have a career, like I did, we need a strong ego to motivate us and give us the energy to put the hard work to succeed. Every time we slack off, the ego brings out its whip of self-shame to make us try harder. It feeds from our work environment, sucking in every praise, every diploma, every raise in salary… But also all of our defeats: the job we lost, the lover who broke up with us, the competition we didn’t win, the paper that was rejected… Both pride and shame feed the ego equally. It uses these emotions to build an image of who we are, and it shows it to us to prod us forward. Why is the ego bad? The problem is that often the ego takes over our lives. It grows and grows until it becomes so big that occupies the entire space of our consciousness. Because the nature of the ego is craving - of success and praise - and fear - of failure and disapproval - the ego makes us constantly unhappy. Its victim is that innocent child that wanted to play and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. The teenager that looked at the world in wonder and wanted to know for the simple pleasure of knowing. The young adult that wanted to love and be loved. Successful people are deeply unhappy because success has built an ego so strong that they are forever their slaves and cannot break free from it. They paid a heavy price for their success: an insatiable ego that has taken over everything in their lives, leaving no room to breathe. The ego causes us to live false lives because it sets goals in function of what others and society expect from us, instead of what we really want. It creates mirages and imbues them with craving, so that we chase after them. It takes over our perceptions: the moment something comes into our consciousness it is judged in term of the cravings of the ego. That way, we start chasing fame, money and status symbols that we don’t really need. We see our lives through the distorted optics of winning and losing prestige. Yet another problem is that we start believing that we are our ego. It takes so much space in our mind that we see nothing else. Then, anything that threatens the ego becomes an existential thread to our entire being. We cannot let go of the ego because we feel that then we would die. But the ego is just a bunch of emotional habits that create an image of who we are. In reality, we are the entirety of our mind, both the conscious and the unconscious. We are much larger and powerful than our ego. The trap of the ego The problem with many spiritual practices and philosophies that are supposed to free us from suffering is that they can’t help but falling into the black hole of the ego. The ego pats us in the back after every meditation, every yoga session, every church service, every political demonstration, and tells us that we should feel proud of ourselves, because we are so spiritual, so illuminated, so saintly, so politically engaged… Some philosophies, like Stoicism, even provide intellectual support for the ego by giving us a false model of our mind in which there is one part of it that controls another part. The superego and the id. Rationality and instincts. The conscious and the unconscious. The ego welcomes these ideas because, of course, it sees itself as the part of the mind that is in control. Meditation practice can bolster the ego when it becomes the part of the mind that forces it to pay attention to something, like the breath, or the chakras, or whatever. That’s why I prefer meditation practices that open the mind to everything that happens, instead of trying to focus it. Another problem is when consciousness is worshipped and made the center of everything, because then the ego disguises itself by calling itself consciousness. Instead, meditation should open us to our unconscious, breaking the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious by letting sensations, feeling and ideas flow freely. The trap of the ego makes it very difficult to do transformative work or follow a spiritual path. Any such work needs to challenge the ego and the distorted view of our lives that it creates. But, instead, the ego protects itself by distracting us from that work with false objectives like how many hours of meditation we are doing or how much money we are donating. Following a teacher, guru, religion or sect traps us into the game of the ego by making us dependent on the approval of these people, instead of giving us inner freedom. Jiddu Krishnamurti warned us about that. The wounded ego Unsuccessful people also have egos. But theirs, instead of accumulating successes, accumulate failures. They suffer from low self-esteem because of a lifetime of failures that fill them with shame. That creates a state of mind of continuous freezing, incapable of genuine happiness. That frozen state also deprives them of the creativity that they would need to achieve any future success. It doesn’t matter if you are actually successful or not. What matters is how you see yourself. These people often try to numb themselves with alcohol, drugs, gaming or some other kind of addiction. The ego-driven craving sets the stage for that. Wounded egos are very sensitive to shaming. They quickly take offense at anything that remotely appears like a put-down. The mere presence of successful people reminds them of their failures, and this manifest as envy and schadenfreude. People tend to avoid them and that hurts them, too, because shunning is a form of contempt. They crave praise and suck it up like sponges. They constantly demand recognition for the things they do. The dilemma of the ego We face a tragic dilemma. We either build a strong ego that leads us to success in life - but that at the same time makes us unhappy - or we become ego-less happy fools that would never succeed. In ancient Greece, some philosophers saw this dilemma and chose the latter. They called themselves the Cynics: the ones that lived like dogs. They lived like animals, enjoying the present and the simple pleasures of life, avoiding worries, money, fame and anything that could become a trap of the ego. They made a point of being shameless. However, most people would rather have a strong ego than live like a dog. The Way of the Warrior I have a glimpse of a way out of this dilemma. It’s called the “Way of the Warrior.” I think it’s a horrible name, because it speaks of war and “warrior” sounds like something the ego would love. However, it consists of learning to do things in ways that do not feed the ego. I first encountered the Way of the Warrior while reading books by Carlos Castaneda during my youth. Castaneda presented a doctoral thesis at UCLA on anthropology in which he related his experiences with don Juan Matus, a Yaqui sorcerer of northern Mexico. He published it as the book The Teachings of Don Juan, that was an international success and was followed by a series of books on the same subject. Don Juan gave Carlos Castaneda a variety of psychodelics like peyote, psilocybin mushrooms and Datura. Besides this use of psychedelics, don Juan taught Castaneda a way of life called the Way of the Warrior, which consisted of losing self-importance, erasing our personal history, taking responsibility for our actions, and using death as an advisor. The first two things seem related to erasing the ego. When I finished reading the whole series of Castaneda books, I became convinced that they are works of fiction, which is the present consensus among the experts. However, the Way of the Warrior made a strong impression on me and became part of my personal philosophy. I encountered the Way of the Warrior again in a book that was highly recommended by my rock-climbing buddies: The Rock Warrior’s Way, by Arlo Ilgner. He incorporates the philosophy of Carlos Castaneda, Stoicism and Zen Buddhism into a mental training for climbers that enhances focus, performance and enjoyment. Specifically, he analyzes how the ego decreases the climber’s performance by taking away performing the moves in an “impeccable manner”: with complete focus and commitment. I incorporated his advice into my climbing and felt a great improvement. The best thing is that it helped me to avoid “phantom fear”, a crippling anxiety that filled me the day before I was going to do a challenging route. Even better, while I was reading the book I felt that this advice could be applied, not just to rock-climbing, but to most aspect of my life, writing in particular. Mushotoku: focusing on the doing instead of the praise Circling back to Zen, the Way of the Warrior reminds me of the Zen teaching of mushotoku: “Mushotoku is the attitude of non-profit, of not wanting to gain anything for yourself.” Taisen Deshimaru. Taisen Deshimaru was the teacher of Dokusho, who traveled from Spain to Paris to study with him. Mushotoku addresses the craving that is inherent of the ego by focusing on the action itself and not on its goals. This includes the self-praise we derive, because there cannot be any gain for the self. Doing things with mushotoku requires a high level of mindfulness and meta-attention: paying attention to how we pay attention. For me, doing this is tricky. A part of the mind is trying to control other parts of the mind. This is difficult to do without causing internal divisions and struggle. In particular, it’s easy to become self-judgmental, which takes us back to the game of praise and shame that the ego plays. Self-compassion Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity. Self-pity comes from a wounded ego, which thinks that is not treated as it deserves. It is based on self-importance and not taking responsibility for our actions. It’s demanding from others the care we are not willing to give to ourselves. Self-compassion, instead, is a commitment to taking care of ourselves by being aware of our needs and limitations. In its quest for success and praise, the ego often compromises our well-being. The ego trap in which we fall while pursuing lofty professional, spiritual or political goals makes a virtue of self-denial , until we find ourselves living a life devoid of playfulness, joy and rest. Self-compassion requires a special kind of mindfulness that lets us listen to our bodies and our unconscious, which tells us what we need. It knows that we are fragile and mortal, that strength and health are not to be taken for granted, that our time in this world is limited and has to be used wisely. It limits the ego by advocating for our entire self in front of it. It laughs at our failures with good humor and uses our natural curiosity to learn from them. Instead of the mirages of grandeur of the ego and of dejection of the wounded ego, self-compassion relies on the truths of our natural limitations and the randomness of the world. Self-compassion evolves naturally into compassion for others when we realize that everybody is as fragile, limited and subject to the randomness of life as we are. Bad luck strikes everybody, and it is cruel to make people pay for it. Importantly, when we are used to battling our ego, we see how people around us are slaves of their own egos. When they become confrontational and angry, they are just defending their egos. The same way as we do. Conclusion It may be impossible to live completely ego-less. But we could decrease the ego to a manageable size, so that it doesn’t fill consciousness so completely and cloud our mind. I may become more aware of how it hurts me, which would be a beginning to decrease my suffering. Slowly, I could free more space in my mind for joy, curiosity, playfulness and wonder. Musings About the Ego was first published in Sex, Science & Spirit.

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  • Driving You Crazy | Sex,Science&Spirit

    Where to buy it Spanish version only. Universal Book Link ​ Driving You crazy Description Cecilia has disappeared. Her lovers Julio and Laura are heartbroken. The three form an idyllic polyamorous trio. Laura is pregnant with the child they hoped to raise together. They suspect that Cecilia has been kidnapped by her father, Don Francisco, who always rejected the lesbian relationship between Cecilia and Laura. To find her plan to find him and make him confess his whereabouts. But we are in the Spain of 1980, and Don Francisco is involved in the preparation of the coup of 23-F. He also has business with the prostitution mafias and with the drug traffickers of Galicia. Luis, Cecilia's brother, is a lawyer with a shady clientele. No one knows whose side he is on. In this dangerous and desperate search, Julio and Laura will have the help of a diverse group of friends: a communist mechanic, a Chilean exile, an autistic sadomasochist, a meiga apprentice and a Buddhist monk. Meanwhile, Cecilia languishes in the secret sanatorium where she has been locked up for conversion therapy. It is an institution run by eccentric doctors, a cruel nun they call the Lioness, and an unctuous priest with a dark past. There, Cecilia will meet other patients who will tell her about the misadventures that have led them to that confinement. This historical thriller culminates in a thrilling finale in which it is not known who will have to rescue whom. Playlist You can hear the songs mentioned in the novel in this Spotify playlist. Novel excerpts No posts published in this language yet Stay tuned... ​

  • Cecilia Domesticated | Sex,Science&Spirit

    Where to buy it Spanish version only. Universal Book Link Cecilia Domesticated Book 3 of the trilogy Cecilia's Liberation . Description Cecilia lives in a world turned upside down, full of confusion. She has an injury that prevents her from making love, but that does not prevent her friend Lorenzo and her ex-boyfriend Julio from screwing at her. Lorenzo must be stopped, of course. She's not going to cheat on Malena, her best friend. He is not going to betray her like Laura betrayed her. Of course Malena seems to be strangely indifferent to the situation. ​ Julio... that's something else. Cecilia is still madly in love with him. So when Julio proposes a domination-submission relationship, why not accept? Lorenzo and Malena try to warn him that he is going to get into a very careful mess, but to enjoy Julio's body again and the perversions of his mind is an irresistible temptation. And if that serves to cheat on Laura, all the better. ​ However, Laura is not stupid and has taken her precautions. Like a spider, it has been weaving its web with patience, for months, and when Cecilia wants to realize it, it is impossible to escape. His friends, Lorenzo, Malena and Chino come to the rescue. Cecilia, Julio, Laura, Lorenzo and Malena find themselves trapped in a maelstrom of intertwined emotions, a paradoxical game in which you can only win by giving up. Pasajes de la novela ​​ ​ ​ No posts published in this language yet Stay tuned...

  • Games of Love and Kink | Sex,Science&Spirit

    Where to buy it Buy it for only $2.99 at Gumroad using discount code m6y48ui . EPUB and MOBI formats. ​ To buy it from other eBook distributors ($4.99 ), follow this Universal Book Link ​ Also available as paperback in Amazon ($19.99 ) Please, upvote in Reedsy Discovery . Playlist You can hear the songs that are mentioned in the novel in this Spotify playlist . Games of Love and Kink Book 1 of the trilogy The Liberation of Cecilia Description Cecilia and Julio fall in love while skiing in the Alps, but their love is doomed. She is conservative and religious. He is progressive and an atheist. On their way back to Spain, the other students stop the bus in France to watch erotic movies. And so they discover that they share a secret longing for kink that binds them even closer. ​ We are in Spain in 1976, just after the death of dictator Franco. Cecilia is guarded by her father, a government censor, and her brother Luis, a fascist militant. She is being indoctrinated by the fundamentalist organization Opus Dei . Back in Madrid, Cecilia tries to forget Julio, but the changes inside her are as irrevocable as the ones that Spain is undergoing. ​ Defying her family, Cecilia discovers love under the guidance of Julio. But her father makes good on his threats of locking her up. Separated from Julio, Cecilia risks losing him to his classmate Laura, a stunning, wealthy blonde. ​ Torn between Cecilia and Laura, Julio proposes an open relationship. Cecilia initially hates it, but then discovers that it brings new dimensions to her freedom. But if she goes too far, she risks breaking her heart. Novel excerpts Read some excerpts from this novel in the blog. Click on the links below. Cecilia's First Spanking Kinky Games in the Park of Montsouris The Erotic Revolution Groucho's Punchline The Birthday Present No posts published in this language yet Stay tuned...

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