Thursday, June 30, 2011

Perspectives on Male Sexuality

These two posts have been hanging around in my tabs for a while, but I found them interesting and wanted to share them - I'd be curious to hear what any of you think about these. One post (the first one) features men talking about male sexuality, the second one is a female perspective on male sexuality.

This first one was posted a month ago at the Good Men Project site by Rachel Rabbit White - then there is a follow-up from her own website. This is part of her "The Man Project," an effort to explore male experience.

As an aside, this post was part of the Sex Week series at the GMP, I'll link to the other articles below this post.

What’s Missing From the Discussion About Male Sexuality?

May 31, 2011 By Rachel Rabbit White

Rachel Rabbit White started The Man Project to hear about the aspects of male sexuality that don’t get discussed.

Never ask a guy to braid your hair. A study just came out that suggests men feel angry when made to perform a “traditional feminine task” like, apparently, hair braiding. The researcher suggests this is because men are expected to gender perform in ways that women don’t have an equivalent; they must constantly “prove” their masculinity. While it’s not easy equating the ways that sexism effects men and women, rigid gender roles don’t help anyone.
But I am writing about this male phenomenon as a woman. And most of my sex positive blogging peers are also female. It almost seems there is some silent rule: men aren’t allowed to write about sexuality, as though a guy with a sex blog is the intellectual version of a flasher. It’s another way sexism harms men.
In these sex positive discussions, there is so much I want to hear from the male side, so much about masculinity that needs exploring. And this is how The Man Project was born. I asked men who are vocal about sex and asked them what was missing from the discussion about male sexuality. After talking with a handful of men from varying backgrounds—literature, art, porn, television—here’s a sampling of what I found. Feel free to weigh in and continue the discussion in the comments section below.
How do you feel about your masculinity? Is this important to you?
David J: I think there’s an interesting cultural struggle around masculinity going on. At least judging by the advertising that’s targeting my demographic, like the Old Spice commercials. There’s this sense that masculinity, as it’s traditionally articulated, is problematic. So, masculinity isn’t something we seriously address. Also, it’s not something that’s presented to us in a serious way, it’s presented to us comically.
So, my friends and I, when we act traditionally masculine, we are both performing and making fun of masculinity–but we aren’t examining it. And we end up expressing our gender that way. It’s not, “I’ve thought a lot of masculinity and other forms of gender expression.” Instead, it’s, “The way I relate to my masculinity is by making fun of masculinity. And other than that, I don’t really know how to deal with it.”
Michael: The one thing that absolutely bugs me in the gay world is the question of, “Are you a top or a bottom?” It’s really, “How masculine are you?” If you want to see how masculinity and femininity are played out in the straight world, you only have to see how it is played out in the gay world. Top and bottom is really nothing but masculine and feminine. In ancient Greece and in Rome, homosexuality was accepted—but only if you were the top. The proscription against homosexuality was not about men having sex with men. It was about men not acting like women.
Why is the sex writing, sex positive sphere dominated by women?
Michael: When I was selected to be the co-host of Sex Inspectors, they didn’t come out and say, “We want someone who is gay,” but they did more or less. I think the idea was if a [straight] guy talks about sex to a woman, there’s a sense that there is a hidden agenda. Which is a nice way of saying, “He is predator-like.”
Grant: We think there’s something gross about reading about a straight guy and his sexual experiences. Women are given great sexual latitude to do a number of different things—bondage, kinks, even lots of different vanilla sex. Men are really sort of reduced to just wanting to fuck something, and that’s it. Sexually, we are forced into a box and not allowed to express ourselves in many more ways than society allows.
David S: I think the critique and developing analysis of women’s sexuality came out of the feminist movement to a large extent. So, that would explain the critique of traditional thinking about women’s sexuality in general. It’s too bad because I think traditional gender roles in sexuality are just as limiting and damaging for men.

There is this idea that male sexuality is different, simpler than female sexuality. It’s just a button to push. Thoughts?
David S: I used to run a workshop on male sexuality for women. One of the most common things that women would ask is, “So I’m with this guy, we have amazing sex and then in the morning, he is like gone.” I think guys think they are just gonna have a fun time. Because sex is as powerful as it is, sometimes a big door opens up inside you. Suddenly, your emotional guts are all over the table. Sex, touch, it is powerful in that way. Suddenly, you are dealing with the fact that you never got touched as a child, suddenly you are dealing with the time something happened and you were embarrassed. Suddenly, all sorts of larger issues, even existential ones leap up, and there you are in the middle of them.
I think women are more prepared for this, less frightened. For some guys, in this deeply intimate exposed place with a person they hardly know, they wake up in the morning and start putting a wall up, really fast. One of the sad things about sex, particularly for men, is that the culture shoves a version of sex down your throat that is just a poor, pale version of what is really possible.
Buck: I think and act and interact totally different from how I did when I was female and had little testosterone in my body. Even though I was a very masculine female. But I was much more sensitive, I cried easier. I looked at things differently, my sexuality. My sex drive was intense for a woman. But I would say it is much more intense now.
What about male stereotypes like guys being “less in touch with their emotions”?
Eon: In a breakup, for example, I think women have a lot more coping mechanisms that society supports. Men are expected to not care and move on. I don’t know what’s going on at the Moose Lodge and I’m sure that some of those brothers are helping each other out. But in general, it’s hard to help another man emotionally. It’s a pride thing and a societal pressure not to.
Danny: There has been so much discussion over how women are treated, or how women feel when they perform in pornographic scenes. But heterosexual men seem to have been left out of this discussion. Maybe even gay men too. “How do male performers feel about performing in sex scenes?” It’s not a question often asked. I think it’s just assumed we want to fuck anything that’s put in front of us. I assure you that’s not the case.
What about the one, guys are just “thinking with their dicks”?
Zak: So, guys can be extraordinarily smart in order to get their dick to have what they want. Like, right now we’re talking on a telephone. You’ve got Skype. My guess is that both of those things were invented by guys who thought that if they could invent something cool, it would make them rich and famous and get them laid. So Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t maybe thinking with his dick but thinking really helped his dick out.
Women are a complicated target. You have to really do all kinds of crazy shit in order to impress them or to get them to know you. And so, you know, men invent computers and airplanes and socks and healthcare because, like, you can’t have sex with women when they’re dead! We’ve really got to keep them all alive.
Eon: In my youth, the idea was that no girl would want to look at a dick—the dick is just lucky to be here. But I think both men and women want to be ambitious and explore the world in a similar way. [What’s missing for men is] the inability to make the one partner both of these things, wife and sexual adventurer.
What is missing from the discussion around male sexuality?
Grant: I want to suck a dick. I don’t want to conform to a lifestyle or necessarily move to Chelsea. I just want to suck a big one. If women [want to experiment], it’s cool, but for guys it’s, “Oh, so you’re gay?”
Also, here is what I want to see changed: the way men use language. They talk about banging girls, finger-banging or fucking. It’s something mechanical that sort of gets done. I hope for them it’s actually a little more complex than that, a little more considered. But anything other than some sort of Anglo-Saxon term for what you do to a woman as a man is viewed as somehow weird, or creepy, or it makes you a sensualist.
David J: The message we are getting today is that our sexuality is problematic and destructive. I think that culturally there aren’t enough symbols of non-destructive sexuality for men to really adopt.
Rachel Rabbit White is a “sex journalist.” Follow her on Twitter for more conversations about masculinity, sexuality and sex positivity. And to see more from these interviews, visit her blog.

More from Sex Week at the Good Men Project:

Benoit Denizet-Lewis: The Dan Savage Interview

Amanda Marcotte: What Women Don’t Tell You

Ed Fell: 10 Secrets to Satisfying Sex

Andrew Ladd: A Billion Wicked Assumptions

Charles Allen: Why I Hate My Giant Dong

Emily Heist Moss: Does Size Matter?

John DeVore: Multiple Inches of Love

Joshua Matacotta: Do Gay Men Fear Intimacy?

Bhatia and MacKinnon: The Psychology of Erectile Dysfunction

Wilson & Robinson: Can’t She See I Need It?

Robert Levithan: Sex at 60

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This is a follow-up post, of sorts, to the above article - it is a guest article by Elly of Quiet Riot Girl that was posted at Rachel Rabbit White's blog.

Metro or Bi? Digging Deeper into Modern Masculinity

3rd Jun. × ’11
This is a guest post by the cheeky, entertaining and always whip-smart Elly of Quiet Riot Girl. Photo by Mona Kuhn
“Contrary to what you have been told, metrosexuality is not about flip-flops and facials, ‘man-bags’ or ‘manscara’. Or about men becoming ‘girlie’ or ‘gay’” says Mark Simpson, the man who coined the word “metrosexual”. “It’s about men becoming everything. Quite simply, metrosexuality is men’s “desire to be desired”. Men in contemporary society are now able to admit to wanting to be beautiful and to be appreciated as “objects of desire” in a way that was previously reserved for women.”
One of the things I love about Rabbit’s blog is this is a place where men and expressions of masculinity are taken seriously. That sounds strange, when we are forever told (mainly by feminists) that it is women who are not considered adequately in our culture–as people, as sexual beings.
But I find that wherever I look there are discussions about ‘‘the objectification of women’s bodies” or “sexual violence against women and girls” or “pornography and women”. It has reached a point where I have to ask, without irony, “what about the men?” Simpson, an English author and journalist, has spent his entire career asking that very question.
Simpson coined “metrosexual” back in 1994, but it really became a media-fuelled phenomenon in 2003 when “metromania” hit the USA. From Barack Obama to David Beckham to Giorgio Armani to Eminem to The Situation, the metro man is everyman. As Simpson explains, “metrosexuality is the male desire to be desired by everyone, including and sometimes especially by other men. This was once regarded as pathological, perverted and definitely something to keep to yourself. Now it is so commonplace it’s almost ‘normal’. Perhaps even – eek! – ordinary.”
But, it’s not as though men just became narcissistic. Simpson says it’s clear that men had a capacity for sensuality and vanity – a desire to be desired – but for most of history it has been closeted. Men were to be warriors or laborers or empire builders. They weren’t meant to be beautiful. The Victorians codified a sexual division that decreed women were beauty and men were action. But now that men have been encouraged to get in touch with their vanity and sensuality it seems there’s no stopping it!
Metrosexuality differs from other incarnations of male self-love, in that it’s reliant on consumer capitalism. In other words, if you want to look hot: buy more stuff. But that narcissism, ever-apparent for the metro-man who needs mirrors like Narcissus needs the pool, is not necessarily a negative, argues Simpson.
“The rise of male behaviors, practices and tastes characterised as metrosexual are made possible in large part by the decline of stigma attached to male homosexuality. While this stigma made life difficult for homosexual men, it also had an instructive, not to say repressive, effect on all men.” In contrast metrosexuality means masculinity is no longer black and white, “no longer always heterosexual and never homosexual or always active never passive, always desiring never desired, always looking never looked at,” says Simpson.
Nicole Lesser, photo
Back in the 90s, Simpson identified “lesbian chic” — you know, those women celebrities snogging each other on magazine covers and at film premieres-as an example of increasing acceptability of female “bi-curiousness”. It is this blurring of sexual orientation amongst men that some people have found hardest to swallow. I asked Simpson if metrosexuality blurs the boundaries between gay and straight, and enables men to express bi-curiousness, why is it still not acceptable for men to be openly bi?
“It’s still early days, remember. And we’re only just beginning to move away from the commonly held nostrum of the last thirty years or so that all women are bi, but any man who touches another man’s ‘pee pee’ is gay” says Simpson. “ Metrosexuality is definitely a form of bi-responsiveness. But a lot of people want masculinity to remain repressed. Some men are scared stiff of having those options. They don’t trust themselves. This is crucial in understanding how metrosexuality has impacted men’s sense of self, and also why it is still a controversial concept, especially in conservative corners of the globe.”
In the end, it all comes down to one plain fact, Simpson explains, “Frankly, everyone knows that men love cock. Though we’re not meant to mention it. And as a result of this secretiveness there is an unconscious idea that if men taste cock then they won’t want pussy. It’s untrue of course, in most cases – Professor Bailey and his kinky sex-lie detector tests notwithstanding – men love cock AND pussy. Just look at straight porn! It’s salient that this fear doesn’t generally manifest itself with female bi-curiousness. Because, the assumption seems to be ‘she’s always gonna want cock’.”
But despite this homo-anxiety he triggers in many men, the metrosexual won’t stop shoving his pretty sexually-undefined ass in our faces. He symbolizes men gaining pleasure from looking at themselves and each other, you just can’t be 100% straight and metro. In the metrosexual noughties, some male stars have come out as bisexual. James Franco, Duncan James from the UK Boy-band Blue, and Tom Hardy for example. Simpson says about Hardy, “There is something quite inspiring about this married Hollywood star’s ownership of his bi-curious past and his ambi-sexual persona. It’s a good advert for metrosexiness: ‘Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling’.”
Some recent research backs up Simpson’s theories. A 2010 report by academics at The University of Bath suggests that “the majority of male students in the UK think nothing of giving one another a big wet one on each other’s lips in all sorts of social situations”. The researchers found that 89% of white undergraduate men at two UK universities and one sixth from college said they were happy to kiss another man on the lips through friendship. Doctor Eric Anderson, the lead researcher, claimed that heterosexual men kissing is a result of the decline of homophobia.
The young men interviewed came out with some lovely quotes which illustrate how comfortable they are with expressing their “metro-love” for one another. Matt, telling a story about breaking up with his girlfriend, “I was really lonely…So one night I asked my housemate who is one of my best friends if I could sleep in the bed with him. He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Come on,’ opening the covers to invite me in.” Matt continued, “He kissed me, and then held me. It was nice. I sent him a text the next day saying, ‘I’ve got the best friend in the world’.”
Sam, comparing university with more conservative approaches in his home town, “I never kiss any of my friends back home,” he said. “And I can’t imagine it going down too well.” When asked about how his friends showed him affection back home, he said, “Punching and rubbing their knuckles into my head.”
Pete stressing that when he kisses a mate, it is not because he is drunk: “Alcohol might make it easier for some guys, I guess. But I don’t think that’s why guys kiss.” He added, “I can tell you why I kiss my friends. I kiss them because I love them.”
“I kiss them because I love them” is a little bit different, a little deeper, than the stereotype of the metrosexual, preening and plucking and prancing in front of a mirror. The achievement of Metrosexy and its potentially subversive power lies in the way Simpson manages to take all these aspects of metrosexuality and make whole, a rounded picture of how contemporary masculinities are being formed and changed, made less heteronormative, through our consumer culture.
Quoting that early metro icon, James Dean, who famously denied being homosexual, Simpson characterizes metrosexuality as a man’s way of saying, “I don’t want to go through life with one hand tied behind my back.” And why should he?
Editors Note: “No-Homo”.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Secret Lives of Men - The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Christopher Germer

In this episode of The Secret Lives of Men, Dr. Chris Blazina talks with Christopher Germer, author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. I read this book a year or two ago and found it incredibly useful.

I think we have a tendency to be hard on ourselves in ways that can be very self-destructive. We need to be more compassionate and accepting of who we are, which is not to say that we should just live with painful thoughts and feelings. But when we are harsh and critical with ourselves, we really are only making the problem worse.
In this intelligent, concise book, Christopher Germer presents an exciting synthesis of mindfulness and self-compassion that is much needed. Drawing upon decades of practice as a clinician and meditator, Dr. Germer offers a rich and insightful guide to emotional healing. Germer shows readers how to use mindfulness and self-compassion to open up to their pain and treat themselves with kindness. Ideal for recommendation those who stuggle with issues of shame, guilt and self blame.

Listen to internet radio with Secret Lives of Men on Blog Talk Radio

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“TWO SPIRITS”, Story of Murdered Navajo Teen, to Air Nationally on PBS: Independent Lens

This looks like a good film - and it's important to get the message out about hate crimes against transgender and intersexed people. This was posted at (and the film supported by) HRC Back Story, an LGBT equal rights organization.

PBS began showing the film on June 14, so it may be too late to see it on television, but I think we can watch it on the Independent Lens website.

“TWO SPIRITS”, Story of Murdered Navajo Teen, to Air Nationally on PBS: Independent Lens

By Charlie Joughin
June 9th, 2011

TWO SPIRITS is a film about Fred Martinez, a Navajo teen who didn’t want to have to choose between being a boy or a girl– he wanted to be both. According to the ancient Navaho culture, it was a gift to be born with a male body and a feminine nature. In an earlier era, he would have been revered. Instead, he was brutally murdered at the age of sixteen for embracing his identity and living the life he was born to live.

From the director of the film, Lydia Nibley:

Making the film TWO SPIRITS began when I sat with Fred’s mother at his grave and she poured out her heart to me.

The experience transformed me from someone who had very little awareness, to someone who fully embraces gender diversity, because I see how much it adds to all of our lives.The tragic story of a mother’s loss of her child to a brutal murder has challenged us to answer the question she raised, “Why are people killed for being who they are?” And learning that there was a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female, and that there is a place of honor in many Native American cultures for people across a spectrum of sexuality and gender expression, has been a gift.

Vote for the film for PBS’ Audience Award here and give it 5 stars:

Visit Two Spirits for information on ways you can help spread the word about this truly remarkable story, or to purchase your copy of the DVD. You can also purchase the video for download on iTunes.

HRC is proud to be an Outreach Partner Organization of such an amazing film.

About the Film

Two Apache warriors with headdresses and war paint to their faces, gently touch foreheads. Zuni leader We’Wah, a two-spirit, is pictured in this black and white portrait from the 19th century when she visited Washington D.C. Historic, sepia-toned photo of Navajo couple from the collection of the Museum of New Mexico

Two Spirits interweaves the tragic story of a mother’s loss of her son with a revealing look at the largely unknown history of a time when the world wasn’t simply divided into male and female and many Native American cultures held places of honor for people of integrated genders.

Fred Martinez was nádleehí, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture. He was one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered at 16. Two Spirits explores the life and death of this boy who was also a girl, and the essentially spiritual nature of gender.

Two Spirits tells compelling stories about traditions that were once widespread among the indigenous cultures of North America. The film explores the contemporary lives and history of Native two-spirit people — who combine the traits of both men and women with qualities that are also unique to individuals who express multiple genders.

The Navajo believe that to maintain harmony, there must be a balanced interrelationship between the feminine and the masculine within the individual, in families, in the culture, and in the natural world. Two Spirits reveals how these beliefs are expressed in a natural range of gender diversity. For the first time on film, it examines the Navajo concept of nádleehí, “one who constantly transforms.”

In Navajo culture, there are four genders; some indigenous cultures recognize more. Native activists working to renew their cultural heritage adopted the English term “two-spirit” as a useful shorthand to describe the entire spectrum of gender and sexual expression that is better and more completely described in their own languages. The film demonstrates how they are revitalizing two-spirit traditions and once again claiming their rightful place within their tribal communities.

Two Spirits mourns the young Fred Martinez and the threatened disappearance of the two-spirit tradition, but it also brims with hope and the belief that we all are enriched by multi-gendered people, and that all of us — regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or cultural heritage — benefit from being free to be our truest selves.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Apologies for the Intermittent Blogging

Apologies for the scarcity of posts of late - between real work and internship work (and eating and sleeping, etc), I have not been able to get consistent yet. Once my schedule stabilizes a bit, things should get back to a relative normal. Please hang in there, I am not fading away.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Newsweek - Invasion of the Bodybuilders
Chris Hemsworth as Thor

I have a theory - and I suspect that I stole it form someone else, but I don't remember who or where I saw it, most likely it was some evolutionary psychology person.

My theory goes like this: When times are tough economically or otherwise, the cultural ideal of masculinity tends toward the big, strong, stoic type - for example, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger during the economic turmoil of the 1980s (add also Dolph Lungren, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude van Damme).

When things are more secure and stable, the more sensitive, emotional, and intelligent version of masculinity becomes more desirable - which in part is why we elected Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And these types of leaders always generate a backlash from the traditional values segment of society, which does not always lead to a return of those values in leaders. Part of what made George W. Bush popular in his first presidential campaign was the "compassionate conservative" schtick, which turned out to mean nothing, but it got him votes as the kinder, gentler Republican.

In the mid to late 1990s and into the mid to late 2000s, when things seemed to be going pretty well (even though we were at war in two countries, it didn't seem to hurt the economy too much), the masculine ideal began to become more balanced, more feeling, and more compassionate. Think of the Spider Man films with the skinny but sensitive Tobey McGuire as the webbed hero. We even elected a president who sort of fit this role - much was made of Obama's intellect and compassion, his presumed gentleness, as well as the shirtless pictures of him where he actually had muscles and abs, but not too much muscle.

Then comes the housing collapse and the subsequent financial crisis that still plagues the U.S. and most of the rest of the world. And you know what? Macho men are staging a comeback. The first obvious sign of this in the popular culture (the blogosphere has shown this trend for a while, look up retrosexual) was Stallone's The Expendables (2010), a film full of washed-up 1980s action stars that cost $80 million to make and has grossed $266 million so far, despite poor reviews from critics.

Over the last five years or so, there also has been a resurgence in the superhero film genre - the Batman reboot with Chris Nolan directing and Christian Bale as the brooding hero led the way, to be followed by various other reboots (Superman, various X-Men films, the recent Thor, etc) - not to mention the epic masculinity spectacle of 300.

Now this trend is hitting it's full stride, as this article from Newsweek lays out. Yet, they also not that next summer we can expect to see the return of the “emo” super-dudes: Spider-Man’s next reboot features "waifish" Andrew Garfield; brooding Brit Henry Cavill is yet another new Superman; and "Hollywood’s reigning Sensitive Male," Mark Ruffalo, goes green as the Incredible Hulk.

This article touches on my theory, further confirmation that I stole from someone else - because Newsweek did not call me for background on this story.

Seems we are in a period when different and opposing memes of masculinity are fighting for supremacy.

Invasion of the Bodybuilders

Macho men are back with a vengeance—and they’re making the U.S.A. feel good again.

Photo Illustration by Jimmy Turrell. Source photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros-(c)DC Comics (Green Lantern), Columbia Pictures-Photofest (Spider-man), Rodrigo Palma-Sony Pictures (Garfield), Larry Busacca-Tribeca film festival-Getty Images (Cavill), Matt Sayles-AP (Bale), Industrial Light & Magic-Marvel Studios (Iron Man), Jaimie Trueblood-Universal Pictures (Johnson), Bam--Lionsgate (Conan), Mark Fellman-Marvel Studios (Thor)

Reynolds, the Rock, and other bulked-up stars are dominating theaters this summer, but the box-office war is far from over.

It’s easy to mistake this summer’s behemoth leading men for overactive gym rats. Actor-model Jason Momoa packed on 30 pounds to his runway-ready frame to revive Conan the Barbarian. Chris Evans endured months of nausea-inducing workouts to bulk up for Captain America: The First Avenger. Even Ryan Reynolds got into the game, undergoing a radical pectoral transformation for The Green Lantern.

They’re hardly alone in favoring bench presses over Brechtian technique for their close-ups. The multiplex exploded in April with the arrival of Fast Five, a shoot-’em-up heist film that showcases the musculature of Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson during their rampage across Rio de Janeiro. The following week, the comic-book adaptation Thor featured Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian god of thunder with biceps the size of canned hams.

But even while guys chugging Muscle Milk seem to have the cultural zeitgeist in a headlock, a war is brewing between the he-men and action moviedom’s 98-pound weaklings. A new crop of machismo-challenged heroes—call them the “emo” super-dudes—is headed for screens next year. Spider-Man’s franchise reboot rests on the shoulders of waifish actor Andrew Garfield, best known as a nerd in The Social Network. Brooding British thespian Henry Cavill (famous to Showtime fans of The Tudors) is on tap as the new Superman. And Hollywood’s reigning Sensitive Male, Mark Ruffalo, will portray none other than the Incredible Hulk in Marvel’s The Avengers. What could his Hulk possibly smash?

Every generation gets the idol it deserves, as the conventional wisdom goes, with marquee actors often standing in as avatars for the collective imagination. Thanks to his Charles Atlas physique and Brylcreemed hair, Adventures of Superman star George Reeves became the television embodiment of Cold War–era American idealism. At the other end of the spectrum, surging with steroids and excess testosterone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone became touchstones of excess in the ’80s. (The Governator recently became a symbol of excess again for reasons unrelated to the size of his quads.)

It wasn’t long ago that superheroes were swathed in Prada suits in sizes much smaller than XXXL. Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. weren’t initially known as action stars, and still managed to translate their brooding shtick into box-office gold.

But in 2011, at a time of global economic uncertainty and with the U.S. embroiled in three wars, the pendulum has swung the other way. Today’s alpha males are signaling a cultural shift: a “might equals right” moment. “There is a huge vogue for these heroes at the moment,”says movie historian David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. “The country is very insecure about an awful lot of things. And wanting to watch guys with buffed-up egos and bodies, the toughest guys in the world—it could be a response to that.”

As Captain America screenwriter Stephen McFeely sees it, “There’s little tolerance for guys in fake-muscle suits—people know the difference. We want to know our actors might be able to kick our asses.”

Movie studios didn’t magically decide that size matters. To hear it from Fast Five producer Neal Moritz, the current crop of musclebound stars surfaced only after the number of actors who could actually act while, say, firing a machine gun and running through a jungle had dwindled dramatically. “Holly-wood has always looked for macho guys to be in big action films,” said Moritz. “The problem is they aren’t the ones who spend time studying drama and becoming great actors. But now we do have actors like Vin Diesel and The Rock, guys who have incredible charisma and can run and jump and fight—and as an audience, we’re going to believe the things they’re doing.”

Acclaimed Irish actor Michael Fassbender can speak to both sides of the divide. He bulked up to portray a Spartan warrior in the 2007 action epic 300—a seminal work in the macho-cinema canon—and slimmed down to play Magneto, a super-mutant whose mind in his real weapon, in this summer’s X-Men: First Class.

Fassbender explained that onscreen assets are never flaunted without merit. “It’s whatever goes for the character,” he said. “In 300, these guys are carrying copper shields and doing battle for, like, eight hours. Magneto’s thing is manipulating metal. He doesn’t need those muscles.”

Still, other heroes bank on their chiseled masculinity. Director Kenneth Branagh saw hundreds of potential Thors before hiring Hemsworth, who packed on so much mass for the role that he initially couldn’t fit into his costume. Discussing what he looked for in his leading man, Branagh could be describing the trend that has given macho men a temporary leg up on emo boys.

“We wanted an old-fashioned leading man,” the director said. “A good-looking lad you’re happy to watch think. An oak-tree presence. Someone who really occupies the space.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Alva Noë - Gender Is Dead! Long Live Gender!

This was an interesting post from Alva Noë the other day that was posted at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog - the day before, NPR posted an article by Linton Weeks called 'The End of Gender?" The two pieces work well together . . . .

In the end, both authors agree that gender matters - even more so in kids. And they cite two of my recent favorite books on the neuroscience of gender: Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender and Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

[And kudos to Mr. Noë for choosing the U of O cheerleaders. Go Ducks!]
Imagine yourself as a cheerleader ...

Imagine yourself as a cheerleader ...

Conjure before your mind the image of a physics professor. Imagine what his life is like. Now pretend, for a few moments, that you are that person. Try to get a feel for what it is like to be him.

Now let's start anew. This time think of a cheerleader. Picture her; imagine what her life is like. Now pretend to be her. Imagine what it is like to be her.

When psychologist Adam Galinksy and his collaborator at Northwestern University asked subjects to carry out this sort of exercise, they made a startling finding. After the exercise, subjects were asked to characterize themselves. Those individuals who had imaginatively adopted the perspective of the professor were more likely to describe themselves as clever than those who had been assigned the cheerleader persona. And those who had adopted the cheerleader perspective, were correspondingly more likely to describe themselves as gorgeous.

But that's not all. The exercise had actual effects on how people performed on tests. Those who had identified with the professor performed better on tests of analytic intelligence than those who had identified with the cheerleader!

This study, and many others like it, is described in Cordelia Fine's brilliant new book Delusions of Gender. She offers a fair and detailed review of research on the psychological and neurobiological foundations of gender difference. Her finding is clear and persuasive: Whatever cognitive or personality differences there are between men and women cannot be attributed, except in a few isolated cases, to intrinsic biological or psychological differences between men and women, at least not in the current state of knowledge.

Which is not to say that there may not be differences.

Witness the study just described. The differences in performance on the test were pronounced; this is a real behavioral difference, the sort of different that could easily make a difference, for example, to performance on the job. But what caused the difference? Not anything in the make-up or constitution of the tested individuals. The controlling factor was an accidental fact about which imaginative exercises individuals had been assigned in the pre-test situation.

This is a glorious and beautiful finding, for it reveals something deep and pervasive in human life.

Human beings don't just fall under categories. We don't just happen to be professors, or cheerleaders, Americans or Pakistanis, gay or straight. We think of ourselves as being these kinds of people. And with these thoughts comes a whole matrix of associations, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, interests, anxieties and expectations.

Consider this question: Were there heterosexuals in Ancient Rome? You might say: Of course! After all, there were men and women whose primary target of sexual desire was people of the opposite sex.

But in another sense the answer to this should surely be: Well, not really. After all, Ancient Romans didn't think of themselves as straight. Not in our sense of the term, at least. After all, the whole matrix of ideas — gay, straight, queer, and so on — did not exist, and neither did the particular loading of values that these ideas bring to mind for us here now.

In some thin descriptive sense, people might have been heterosexual back then; but in a thicker sense, there was no such thing as heterosexuality.

Categories like heterosexual, professor and cheerleader exhibit what the Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking has called looping effects. It is only if you have the relevant concepts, that you can come to think of yourself as classified as this way or that. And once you can think of yourself as being a person of a certain kind, you can also, through choices both conscious and unconscious, either make it the case that you are a person of the kind of question, or that you are not. You can, in this sense, construct your identity. But you couldn't do this without the availability of the category in the first place. As Hacking writes:

"Looping effects are everywhere: Think what the category of genius did to those Romantics who saw themselves as geniuses, and what their behavior in turn did to the category of genius itself. Think about the transformations effected by the notions of fat, overweight, anorexic."

I don't mean that we decide to be straight, in the way we decide to be a professor or a cheerleader. What I mean, rather, is that being straight isn't only a matter of acting or being disposed to act this way or that. It's a way of thinking about yourself. And with this way of thinking about yourself comes a whole complex of associated qualities, limitations and also expectations that loop back on to the way we act and are disposed to act.

And so with the concepts male and female.

Consider another study Fine reports on in her book. Students at a private college were asked to perform a spatial reasoning task. Before the test one group of students filled out a form on which they were asked to report their gender. The other group was not asked this question but was instead asked to name their university. In this way, one group was "primed" to consider themselves in the light of gender identity, whereas the other was primed to think of themselves under the category "private college student."

Men primed to think of their gender showed a marked improvement in performance over men who were primed to think of themselves as students at a private college. Exactly the opposite was observed in women. Women primed to consider their status as students at a private college significantly outperformed women who'd been primed to think of themselves as women.

It is as if the mere questions — male? female? student? — by reminding the students what kind of person they are, determined how well they could perform on the test.

The significance of studies such these cuts in different directions. It suggests that you won't find a legitimation of our self-categories in neurobiology. If biology is the measure of all things, then many of the categories we use to group ourselves into kinds of person — man, woman, gay, straight, black, white, professor, cheerleader — are, in fact, unreal. You don't find them in nature as it is apart from our attitudes and beliefs about that nature. At the same time, what could be more real than the way we experience ourselves as being?

Question: Would you want to free yourself from your self-categories, if you could?

* * * * *
Here's the other article - which includes a brief bit about Andrej Pejic, the androgynous runway model who worked both the male and female runways at the Paris fashion shows earlier this year.

The End Of Gender?

Look closely and you may see signposts.

• Kathy Witterick and her husband, David Stocker, are raising their 4-month-old child, Storm, without revealing the child's gender. According to the birth announcement from the Toronto couple: "We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place?)"
• Andrej Pejic, an androgynous Australian model, worked both the male and female runways at the Paris fashion shows earlier this year.
• A recent J. Crew catalog drew national attention when it featured a young boy with his toenails painted pink.

Androgynous male model Andrej Pejic on the runway in Rio de Janeiro, June 4.
Androgynous male model Andrej Pejic on the runway in Rio de Janeiro, June 4.

Could we be heading toward the end of gender?

And by "gender" we mean, according to Merriam-Webster, "the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex." In other words, the cultural expectations that go along with saying that someone is a boy or a girl. In other other words, not someone's sex — the person's gender.

"Sex differences are real and some are probably present at birth, but then social factors magnify them," says Lise Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It. "So if we, as a society, feel that gender divisions do more harm than good, it would be valuable to break them down. "

As history shows, one enterprise in which Americans excel is the breaking down of divisions.

Gender Neutrality

Perhaps you have a friend or family member who is more comfortable with a new gender. Or maybe you have had dealings with someone of indeterminate gender in the checkout line. Maybe you have seen the old "It's Pat" routines from Saturday Night Live.

Because there is a growing societal awareness of gender consciousness and of a certain blurriness of genders, the question "Is it a boy or a girl?" may not just be for expectant parents anymore.

And so what? Does gender matter? In a country with the ideal of treating everyone fairly and equitably, do we really need to know if someone is a boy or a girl? These questions are driving decisions and actions around the country.

• In Muskegon, Mich., officials at Mona Shores High School declared this year's prom court would be gender-neutral — with no "kings" and "queens" — after denying a transgender student the homecoming-king crown last year.

• In Johnson City, Tenn., East Tennessee State University recently announced that it is exploring gender-neutral housing for students — following the lead of Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and other colleges. These are not just coed dorms, but dorms for anyone regardless of how they express their gender. The roommate you choose can be gay or straight or whatever.

Four-month-old Storm Stocker (right) gets a hug from older brother Jazz in Toronto. Storm's parents, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, are keeping Storm's gender a secret.
Steve Russell/AP

Four-month-old Storm Stocker (right) gets a hug from older brother Jazz in Toronto. Storm's parents, Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, are keeping Storm's gender a secret.

• Around the beginning of this year, the State Department began using gender-neutral language on U.S. passports — replacing "father" and "mother" with "Parent One" and Parent Two" — to make it simpler for nontraditional parents, beyond the male/female combination, to get passports for their children.

Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is talk of gender-neutral this and gender-free that: baby bedding (Wild Safari by Carousel); fashion (Kanye West in a Celine women's shirt); Bibles (the New International Version).

Gender neutrality, writes one blogging parent, is the new black.

'High-Stakes Social Constructions'

A female-to-male transsexual and advocate for transgender rights, Dean Spade writes often about gender issues. Spade is an assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, which offers free legal guidance to transgender, intersex and gender-nonconforming clients.

In a 2008 paper, "Documenting Gender," Spade examines the gender reclassification polices of public agencies and departments in the United States. In the past 40 years, Spade observes, society has come to recognize the existence of a group of people, currently known as "transgender," who identify with and live as a different gender than the one assigned to them when they were born.

In an interview, Spade makes a passionate pitch for the elimination of gender categorization in most government record-keeping. "I really don't think that data needs to be on our IDs or gathered by most agencies and institutions," Spade says. Tagging someone as female or male "enforces binary gender norms and it pretends that gender is a more stable category of identity than it actually is."

Spade says, "I can see why we might want institutions to be aware of gender at a general level in order to engage in remediation of the sexism and transphobia that shape our world."

For example, Spade says, gender-based affirmative action — that rectifies discrimination against women — might be called for in certain programs and institutions "so we might want institutions to do an analysis of who is getting to participate." But, Spade adds, in order to gain a general idea of the gender makeup of a particular population, it is not necessary to then turn around and post that information on a particular participant's personal record.

Developing policies to counter the impact of sexism and transphobia, Spade adds, does not require a belief that gender categories are "real — stable, unchangeable, natural. We can engage such strategies while understanding that gender categories are high-stakes social constructions deployed in ways that endanger and harm socially determined groups."


To chronicle her adventures in gender-neutral parenting, Arwyn Daemyir writes a blog called Raising My Boychick. She describes herself as "a walking contradiction: knitting feminist full-time parent, Wiccan science-minded woowoo massage therapist, queer-identified male-partnered monogamist, body-loving healthy-eating fat chick, unmedicated mostly-stable bipolar."

She describes her boychick, born in March 2007, as a "male-assigned at birth — and so far apparently comfortable with that assignment, white, currently able-bodied, congenitally hypothyroid, co-sleeper, former breastfed toddler, elimination communication graduate, sling baby and early walker, trial and terror, cliched light of our life, and impetus for the blog. Odds are good he will be the most privileged of persons: a middle class, able bodied, cisgender, straight, white male."

The adjective cisgender — as opposed to transgender — describes someone who is at peace with the gender he or she was assigned at birth.

Daemyir lives in Portland, Ore. She and her straight male partner are expecting another baby in September.

For Daemyir, gender-neutral parenting is not an attempt to eliminate gender, "because the 70s'-era gender neutral parenting movement proved that's not possible."

But, she adds, she has concerns about the ways we designate and segregate gender in public, "starting with the idea that there are two-and-only-two genders — a construction, and a myth, in our society that excludes many."

To that end, Daemyir supports, among other changes, non-gender-designated single-stall bathrooms and an option for unisex washrooms and locker rooms. "Right now, when an establishment only has one toilet stall, of course it is non-gendered. Why, when there is room for two, must they arbitrarily be designated for 'Men' and 'Women'? When a place has room enough for several large rooms of toilets and free-standing single-stalls, why must they all be gendered, when it would be as easy to make some single-gendered and some not, giving people the ability to make choices that are most comfortable or convenient for them?"

Daemyir does not think that eliminating all single-gender areas "is beneficial or safe either, necessarily, but ... we over-designate many of these things when it's simply not necessary, and actively harms a particularly marginalized population — people with non-binary genders."

Eliot, the neuroscience professor, is not so sure about total change. "Perhaps I'm too old-school — or fussy — to argue for the elimination of men's and women's bathrooms," Eliot says, " but certainly employment forms and loan applications should not require gender information. Also, if parents did not buy into the gender stereotyping of children's toys and clothes, kids would stay open-minded longer during childhood. The goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious."

Why Gender Still Matters

Gender matters to Leonard Sax, a family physician, psychologist and founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Sax has written several books on gender, including Why Gender Matters and Girls on the Edge.

When NPR asked Sax whether he sees signs of the end of gender in contemporary society, he responded with a lively defense of gender distinctions, an edited version of which appears here:

The tidbits you mention — the Toronto couple, or the J. Crew fashion catalog — are of interest only to a small segment of media people, and without resonance in the larger society.

As opposed to the tidbits you cited, I would observe:

• The new head of New York City Public Schools, Dennis Walcott, has called for more single-sex public schools in New York City.

• The newly elected mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, has called for more single-sex public schools in the city of Chicago.

• Tampa public schools are opening a girls' public school and a boys' public school this fall. Not charter schools, but regular public schools under the authority of the district.

Ignoring gender won't make it go away. On the contrary: Ignoring gender has the ironic consequence of exacerbating gender stereotypes.

The determined lack of awareness of gender difference which you describe ... puts both girls and boys at risk — but in different ways. Not merely academically, but physically — increasing girls' risks of knee injury and concussion — and spiritually — increasing girls' risks of drug and alcohol abuse; increasing boys' risk of disengagement and apathy.

If you don't think gender matters in the classroom, you haven't been in a third-grade classroom recently. I have visited more than 300 schools over the past 11 years.

You will find that white, black, Spanish-speaking doesn't matter on this parameter; affluent or low-income doesn't matter; urban or rural doesn't matter. Gender is far more important, more fundamental, than any of those other parameters. On many parameters relevant to education, such as attention span, a white boy from an affluent home in Bethesda or McLean has more in common with an African-American male from a low-income home in Southeast D.C. than he has in common with his own sister, a white girl.

Many third-grade boys today in the United States have told me "school is a stupid waste of time." I have never heard such a comment from a third-grade girl in this country. Do you think that doesn't matter?

— Linton Weeks

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Dear Woman" Gets the Much-Needed Will Ferrell Treatment

Screen shot 2011-04-06 at 9.24.52 PM

When Arjuna Ardagh and Gay Hendricks posted their [ridiculous? condescending? smarmy?] "Manifesto for Conscious Men" on Facebook a while back, many men who are not SNAGs (sensitive new age guys - this manifesto and the ensuing video are manifestations of Boomeritis*) found it disturbing and wrong-headed, even while granting that their intent was probably good (although, months later, it seems like a marketing ploy for workshops and a potential book, so maybe their intent was $$). I posted my less than enthusiastic response here.

Then they released a saccharine video called Dear Woman that went viral and generated a LOT of comments (nearly 3,000 remain after many were deleted), many of them homophobic, misogynistic, and/or violent - now THAT is some shit that deserves an apology.

On behalf of myself, and any other men who were offended by those comments, I regret that Arjuna and Gay were treated that way. It's one thing to disagree - and constructive disagreement is a fine way to hone perspectives - but the conversation must remain civil and each side should be respectful.

To add to the chaos, actual, honest-to-Gloria-Steinem feminists (The F Word: Feminist Media Collective) were appalled and somewhat grossed out by the "fauxpology":
This is just about the creepiest apology I have ever heard. Though it reminds me, in an uber-triggering kind-of-way, of men in my past who have desperately wanted to pretend to be my ally by telling me over and over again how magical and mystical and miraculous women are and then talking over me when I try to explain that that ain’t it.

Ok menz (and let me clarify, this video, in no way, speaks for all men, but rather for Gay Hendricks and Arjuna Ardagh [credit to Zosia Bielsk at The Globe and Mail for doing this research for me].

In fact, I believe that most men I know may or may not die of laughter interspersed with vomiting were they to watch this video) – because it’s just too easy to stop at simply making fun of this crinkled brow + fuzzy hat = goodguy! video on accounts of creepiness (though this is a very valid reaction), I would like to explain to you why Dear Woman is offensive and why I do not accept ‘your’ fauxpology.

I guess maybe they missed their target audience for this stuff? Another feminist blogger, Teen SkepChick, offered this perspective, which is similar to some of what I argued in my rant:

I was tempted to ignore the pigeon-holing as just flowery language; a work of prose intended to make the point that men need to shut up and listen. But on their website, Conscious Men state that they “worship women.”

Here’s the thing, I don’t want to be worshiped. I do not claim to speak for all of woman-kind (or all of Skepchick-kind, for that matter), but I have to say that the concept makes me uncomfortable.

There is simply no reason to worship women, no more than there is any reason to worship men. Women are not inherently holy, nor good stewards of life. We just haven’t been given the chance to screw things up. If women had run the world from the beginning, I would be willing to bet that we would still have wars and still destroy the environment. (God may have been female, though.)

We’re not a gender of saints, and we are not a gender of sinners. We have racists, environmentalists, fundamentalists, atheists, liberals, conservatives, coffee-drinkers and scone-eaters. We have dark skin and light skin and harbor irrational prejudices, just like men.

Feminism – as I understand it – is not about proving that women are better than men, or about women’s dominance over men. It’s rooted in the concept that women and men deserve equal dignity. And we will not achieve anything close to gender equality if men are not involved in the fight.

That is exactly the thing that needs to be said more often, especially by feminists who have been demonized by the MRAs (men's rights activists, who also sometimes call themselves Zeta Males). Many of the most offensive comments on the video were from those guys (who give the rest of us men a bad name).

Anyway, enough seriousness - humor and satire are always welcome and, done well, often able to deflate the self-righteous moralizing. Enter the new version of Dear Women.

Dear Woman Funny Or Die

So Will Ferrell and some buddies (Will Forte, Tim Heidecker, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel and Jon Daly) got together and made a parody video - funny as hell. It's nice to see that manly feminism is thriving in this postmodern era.

Yeah, I feel much better now.

* Wikipedia: According to Ken Wilber, "Boomeritis" describes a pathological belief system that afflicts Baby Boomers in particular. Boomeritis, in his view, is characterized by relativism, narcissism, and aversion to hierarchy. He believes that this attitude carried over to the so-called Generation X. [He's wrong about the Gen X part.]

Andrew Olendzki - Burning Alive

From back in the Summer of 2009, Andrew Olendzki offers a fine teaching on the Buddha's "Fire Sermon" - published in the always wonderful Tricycle. Because I don't he expect many readers here are Buddhist, here is the Fire Sermon, which is quite short among the many teachings of the Buddha:
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Alternate translation: Ñanamoli
SN 35.28, PTS: S iv 19, CDB ii 1143

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Gaya, at Gaya Head, with 1,000 monks. There he addressed the monks:

"Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

"The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame...

"The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame...

"The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame...

"The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame...

"The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

"Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the eye, disenchanted with forms, disenchanted with consciousness at the eye, disenchanted with contact at the eye. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: With that, too, he grows disenchanted.

"He grows disenchanted with the ear...

"He grows disenchanted with the nose...

"He grows disenchanted with the tongue...

"He grows disenchanted with the body...

"He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, 'Fully released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'"

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, the monks delighted at his words. And while this explanation was being given, the hearts of the 1,000 monks, through no clinging (not being sustained), were fully released from fermentation/effluents.

©1993 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Transcribed from a file provided by the translator.
This Access to Insight edition is ©1993–2011.

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How to cite this document
(one suggested style): "Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon" (SN 35.28), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 30 June 2010,
This is essentially a teaching on attachment - our craving for things, experiences, feelings, thoughts. As long as we crave, according to the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths, we will suffer. When we stop offering fuel for the fire (in the form of attachments), then it ceases to be our experience that "all is burning." Olendzki focuses on the three fires of greed, hatred, and delusion in this article.

Burning Alive

ANDREW OLENDZKI advises us to turn down the thermostat and cool the fires of our minds.

Burning Alive
Ephemeral Moments 06 4436, David Gibson, archival pigment print
on 100-percent rag paper, 24 x 16 inches

“Everything is burning!” said the Buddha almost 25 centuries ago. “Burning with what? Burning with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion.”(Samyutta Nikaya 35.28) These words seem prophetic today, as our planet is slowly warmed by the fires blazing in our furnaces and engines, by the explosion of our bullets and bombs, and by the raging delusions around which our entire world seems to be organized. There is not a single problem we face as human beings— other than the tectonic (earthquakes), the astronomical (meteor strikes), or the existential (aging and death)— that does not find its origin in greed, hatred, or delusion, whether of people or their institutions.

Like a fire, greed is more a process than a thing. It is the state of combustion, the activity of consumption, the procedure by means of which organic resources are quickly reduced to a heap of ash. It is insatiable by nature, since the moment one desire is gratified another flares up, demanding also to be sated. Greed drives an unquenchable compulsion to consume, and as the guiding hand of our economic system, its reach is rapidly becoming global. As it burns it throws off a compelling light, dazzling us with the pleasure of its shapes and colors. We delight in playing with this fire.

Hatred is a hotter, bluer, more sinister flame. It seethes among the coals, preserving its heat over time, until blasting forth suddenly with a surge of the bellows. It can simmer as discontent, smolder as suppressed rage, or lurk hot underground as a molten river of loathing. When it does flare up, the fire of hatred scorches all in its path indiscriminately, often searing the innocent bystander with the ferocity of its angry flames.

Delusion is subtler. Like the lamp behind the projector or a reflection in a mirror, delusion shines with a soft light and illuminates indirectly. It shows things as other than they are— as stable, satisfying, personal, and alluring. Its optical tricks are endearingly creative, so much so that sometimes we hardly know where the light leaves off and the darkness begins. Delusion leads us to revel in wielding the fires of greed and hatred, oblivious of the harm inflicted both on ourselves and on those around us.

The Buddha identifies these three fires as the origin of both individual and collective suffering. Things do not become the way they are by chance, for no reason, or because a deity makes them so. It is the quality of our intention that shapes the world we inhabit, and our world is burning up because of the fires smoldering in our hearts. Resources are being depleted because people greedily consume them and lust for the money produced thereby. People are being killed, raped, tortured, and exploited because they are hated, because other people do not regard them as worthy of respect or basic rights. And the world blindly, stupidly, deceptively plods along this path to destruction because people do not know—or do not want you to know—any better.

And you know what? This is good news. Why? Because the causes of all the trouble have been exposed, and by knowing them we stand a chance of overcoming them. Just think if our problems were due to continental drift, or to an approaching meteor— then we would really be cooked. Fire is actually a very fragile phenomenon. Diminish its heat, starve it of oxygen, or take away its fuel, and it cannot sustain itself. In fact, it is entirely dependent upon external conditions; change these conditions, and it will go out. The Buddha put out the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion in himself and showed us all how to do the same thing. Perhaps we can use this knowledge to quench the fires that are heating our planet and devouring our world.

Something empowering happens when we begin to see these problems as internal rather than external. We have access to ourselves. We have the ability to make internal changes when the mechanisms for change are within our reach. A slight shift of attitude, a minor adjustment of priorities, an occasional opening to a wider perspective, the glimpse of a good greater than the merely personal— these all contribute in a small way to turning down the heat. And since we are faced not with a single enormous fire but with billions of little fires, each one ablaze in one person, miniscule changes in one mind here and one heart there can add up to a dramatic reduction of greenhouse defilements.

All it would take is a gradual increase in generosity and an incremental reduction of the need for gratification to begin to turn down the heat of greed’s fire. Planting a tree rather than cutting one down engages a different quality of mind, an attitude of giving rather than of taking. Appreciating when we get what we need, instead of demanding always to get what we want, removes fuel from the fire instead of stoking it. The flames of hatred are banked when we shoot a picture instead of an animal, when we fight injustice rather than our neighbor, when we include someone different in our circle, or even when we relinquish our hold, ever so slightly, on something that annoys us in a mundane moment of daily life. Just as heat is pumped into the system each and every moment through inattention, so also can heat be consistently and inexorably extracted as we bring more mindfulness to what we think, say, and do. A tranquil mind is a cooler mind, and the Buddha has described the movement toward awakening as “becoming cool” (siti-bhuta).

The solution to all our (nonexistential) problems is very close at hand. Look within, reach within, each and every moment—and turn down the thermostat just a degree or two. The fires consuming our world are not sustainable. If we do not feed the fires, they will go out.

Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D
., is executive director and senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. He is the editor of Insight Journal.