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When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

“Was and will make me ill,  I take a gram and only am.”


Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.

The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.

The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.


“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point, but lapses into using it later.

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That often-quoted idea came from Karl Marx, and Mustapha seems to have read Marx. Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality.

Psilocybe cubensis

There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley had encountered in his own experimentation with hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name of the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” in that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalised by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

One sensationalized 1950s pulp paperback cover

My current view on Huxley’s novel is less science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs.

On www.huxley.net some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought.

Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion on the population.

Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel Huxley converted to Hindu Vedanta.

The book concludes with some action which could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into a “brave new world” (deep nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for all that) tries to escape that soma-ed society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

“Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”

Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.

The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”

“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.

“Pain’s a delusion.”

“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”

*  *  *

It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.

The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered-everything.“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.”

 

Cross-posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

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A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

Winter is the most hygge time of year. Hygge (pronounced HEW-ga) is the Scandinavian word for a mood of coziness, comfort and conviviality. It is associated with feelings of wellness and contentment. Recently, it has become a characteristic of Danish culture, and in the past year it has spread well beyond Scandinavia.

It seems particularly appropriate to winter and especially Christmas Eve. On a cold, snowy night, this is all about candles, nubby woolens, shearling slippers, pastries, blond wood, sheepskin rugs, lattes with milk-foam hearts and, of course, a warm fireplace.

Hygge can be used as a noun, adjective, verb, or compound noun. Danish doctors apparently recommend “tea and hygge” as a cure for the common cold. You can hygge alone under a thick blanket,  in your flannel pajamas, sipping a hot toddie, but it seems that true hygge is done with loved ones. Couples are good, but four seems to be the ideal.

I had heard about this last year, but it wasn’t until I listened to the ladies of the By The Book podcast  (Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer) who test out self-help books and they recently tried hygge via The Little Book of Hygge.

There is certainly no shortage of books on hygee, but to embrace it only requires some conscious appreciation. I find in it elements of other cultural movements and philosophies. It encourages a kind of slowness and being present but also enjoying the present. Sounds Buddhist, but I like adding that enjoyment part.

There seem to be lots of hygge words that have emerged, such as hyggebukser, which is that pair of pants you love and wear around the house but never wear in public.

The happiness levels of Americans are lousy compared to those of Danes. Why are they so happy? Maybe it is all that cold and snow, which how I imagine Denmark. Their homes are supposedly more homey. They better be homey for when you get out of that cold. They celebrate experiences over possessions.

Some of those books are “How to Hygge” and some have recipes, tips for cozy living at home and healthy hedonism.

Last year, an article in The New Yorker that called 2016 the Year of Hygge, so I guess I am a year late to the party. Though it says that you can’t buy a “hygge living room” and there are no “hygge foods,” I have seen a few books about just those things. Hygge has gone commercial.

Want some hygge food and drink tonight? Try some cardamom buns,  ultimate muesli “ne plus ultra,” and triple cherry gløgg.  That gløgg is a Scandinavian mulled wine with more cardamom pods and star anise and sounds perfect for tonight – and I do love cardamon in my chai tea too.

Is this a possible cure for SAD? I doubt it, but it might help.

Want to feel some hygge? Cuddle up with someone on the sofa, wear cozy socks and clothing, light only candles, turn off the phone and TV and have some cake with your favorite hot drink. Get cozy.

 

spiders

Little Miss Muffet suffered from arachnophobia.

We all have fears. But if you have a disproportionate fear of something that does not pose a real danger,  that is a phobia. Phobias are an intense, persistent and lasting fear that you associate with a specific thing.

I did some experiments for college psychology classes related to phobias. I was in a group for arachnophobia, the fairly common fear of spiders. We were told that past experiences often have a profound influence on our reactions to things in our environment. I couldn’t recall any traumatic events occurring with spiders, but not all types of phobias necessarily develop due to psychological trauma.

The conditioning our group went through started with looking at photographs of spiders. Some people were freaked out by the photos. We moved to spider videos and then to spiders in tanks. I was fine until we got to putting our arm into a tank and allowing spiders to crawl on me.

 

People suffering from phobias get physiological symptoms including tachycardia (rapid heart rate) dizziness, gastric and urinary disorders, nausea, diarrhea, choking, redness, excessive sweating, trembling and exhaustion.

There are different categories of phobias. Situational phobias are fears caused by a specific situation, such as public transport, tunnels, bridges, elevators, flying, driving, or closed areas (claustrophobia) or  open spaces (agoraphobia).

There are many kinds of animal phobias: fear of birds and even a fear of just pigeons, insects, dogs, cats, mice etc.

Besides my fear of spiders (which isn’t bad enough to really interfere with my life) I also have one of the more common phobias – acrophobia or fear of heights. That fear hits me on a tall ladder, cliff edge and many amusement park rides.

I have read that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is the most common phobia. The word glossophobia derives from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. Some people have this specific phobia, while others may also have broader social phobia or social anxiety disorder.

Other common ones are fear of  the dark (scotophobia), phobia of water (hydrophobia), blood phobia (hemophobia), and needle (as in injections) phobia.

There are also some rarer but real phobias.

How about reacting to hearing good news with fear? Those individuals are suffering from euphobia have opposite reactions to good news.

Yellow is a nice color most of associate with warmth, summer, sunlight and positive emotions. But there are people who fear yellow. That is xanthophobia.

Eosophobia can be a disabling phobia because fearing daylight, these people prefer sleeping during the day and become more active throughout the night. Get ready for vampire jokes, but it can seriously affect someone’s work and social life.

Whatever the opposite of turophobia is, I have it. Turophobia is an irrational fear of cheese. Like any true phobia, this can manifest as a fear of seeing, smelling, touching and certainly of eating cheeses.

it is more likely that the thought of cheese causes you nausea. Only the idea of eating cheese will probably make you feel disgusted due to its texture and taste.

Imagine how tough it is to live with ablutophobia which is when the thought of bathing, showering, cleaning or washing can cause shortness of breath or accelerated heartbeat. Many children show this fear at an early age, but become conditioned to these activities. Some never do.

On the other extreme are individuals with mysophobia who have such a fear of getting in contact with contaminated things that have a constant need to clean their environment, such as their working area or any object they touch.

There are conditioning treatments that can be effective for some people with phobias. It is a very gentle exposure to what we fear. You have probably heard about people who have a fear of flying (aviophobia) who watch airplanes, sit in grounded ones and build up to actually going up in the air for a flight.

Today is Armistice Day Armistice Day which marks the armistice signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 between the Allies of World War I and Germany to end World War I – the “war to end all wars.” It is also known as Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

But 1918 was also the year of another kind of worldwide war against the Spanish influenza pandemic. There is no special day to mark this and I doubt that many Americans today know about it or think about it. You may have gone last month for your flu shot, but never thought about the fact that October 1918 was the deadliest month in United States history. 195,000 Americans died in that one month as a result of influenza.

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, 1918

By the time the pandemic had run its course, an estimated 500,000 Americans had died of the flu. It is hard to grasp that number. It is more deaths than the American combat fatalities in all the wars of the 20th century combined. And worldwide, the flu may have claimed as many as 100 million lives.

My mother was born in December of that year and it was feared that she or her mother might get the flu. The start of that flu season was in March with the first recorded case being a mess cook in Fort Riley, Kansas. There are still several hypotheses about how and where the flu pandemic began and no conclusive answer.

Though it became known as the “Spanish flu,” it did not originate in Spain. Spain seemed at the time to be particularly hard hit by the virus. I say “seemed” because the Spanish media covered it extensively, but the United States, the UK, France, and Germany deliberately underplayed the virus’ effect in hopes of keeping up wartime morale. Many Americans thought, as with many military wars, that it was something happening far from our shores.

Recent studies of the incomplete medical records from the time seem to show that this viral infection itself was not more aggressive than any previous influenza. Oddly, it seemed to affect healthy people more than would have been expected. Rather, factors such as malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection which killed most of the victims after a prolonged period.

There was what was called a “second wave” that year of the same virus. We know it was the same strain because those who had survived a first infection had immunity in a second exposure. But after the lethal second wave struck in late 1918, new cases mysteriously dropped abruptly.

In Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in the week ending October 16, but by Armistice day influenza had almost disappeared from the city. No one is certain why. Did doctors get better at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims had contracted the virus? Did the virus mutate extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain?

Could it happen again? That is the stuff of movies, like Outbreak, Contagion and World War Z, all of which make reference to the 1918 pandemic. Certainly our medical knowledge and treatments are much better today. Research done in 2007 reported that monkeys infected with the recreated flu strain has the same symptoms of the 1918 pandemic. They died from what is called a cytokine storm, which is when there is an overreaction of the immune system. That may explain why is may explain why the 1918 flu had a surprising powerful effect on younger, healthier people. A person with a stronger immune system would ironically have a potentially stronger overreaction than a less healthy person.

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

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