BOOK REVIEW: Shamans, Mystics and Doctors by Sudhir Kakar

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing TraditionsShamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions by Sudhir Kakar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

In this book, Freudian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar examines a range of alternatives to mainstream psychiatry / psychotherapy that are pursued across India. They are largely traditions that predate psychiatry, and which weren’t developed primarily as a path to mental health, but rather as methods to develop mind and spirit – but which came to fill a void. Included in this exploration are a Sufi Muslim Pir, a Balaji Temple exorcist, an Oraon bhagat, Tibetan Buddhist / Bon healers, cultists, tantrics, and Ayurvedic doctors. The chapters are organized by the type of healer, and the ten chapters are split between shamans (Pt. I,) mystics (Pt. II,) and Ayurvedic healers (Pt. III.)

This book is at its best and most interesting when it’s describing the author’s visits to various temples, shaman huts, and other places where healers reside. He tells what he learned and experienced at these places, which ranges from reassuring (shamans and healers getting at least as good a result as their mainstream psychotherapeutic counterparts) to mildly horrifying (people chained to cots, or being blamed for their condition — i.e. being told their faith is inadequate.) I found many of the cases under discussion to be fascinating, and learned a lot about how mental illness is perceived by different religious and spiritual traditions.

While Kakar is trained in a Western therapeutic system, he maintains a diplomatic tone about these indigenous forms of therapy – some of which are quite pragmatic but others of which are elaborately pseudo-scientific. I found this book to be insightful about various modes of treating the mind that are practiced in India

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BOOK REVIEW: (Mis)Diagnosed by Jonathan Foiles

(Mis)Diagnosed: How Bias Distorts Our Perception of Mental Health(Mis)Diagnosed: How Bias Distorts Our Perception of Mental Health by Jonathan Foiles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Out: September 7, 2021

I’m fascinated by the challenges of mental health diagnostics. From the Rosenhan experiments (mentally well researchers checked into psychiatric hospitals) to the perpetual disappointment with new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM,) a lot has been written about the difficulties of diagnosing disorders that largely express themselves through subjective experiences. Foiles’ book looks at how this challenge (combined race, gender, and gender identity biases) leads to differential diagnoses between various demographic groups.

The book serves as a call to action to be more aware of biases, and how they play into diagnoses. Though, in some cases it does a better job of that than in others. The six chapters present six faces of the problem: race and psychosis, race and ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,] sex and Borderline Personality Disorder, and changing (though skewed) views of gender dysphoria, trauma, and intelligence.

Overall, I felt I learned something from the book, but sometimes it wasn’t as strong in supporting assertions and objectively presenting evidence as other times. For example, Chapter three examines how borderline personality disorder was (at least until recently) overwhelming seen as a female disorder. It went on to say that now it’s believed to have the same incidence in males, but that men present with different symptoms. To a neophyte, this sounds a lot like: “The Smiths eat meatloaf 50% of the time for dinner on Wednesday. Until recently, it was thought that the Joneses only ate meatloaf 10% of Wednesdays, but then it was discovered they also had meatloaf 50% of the time – but the Joneses meatloaf was made of ingredients such that it usually looked like chicken pot pie.] What?

For the most part, I found this book intriguing and informative, and would recommend it for those interested in the issue.

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POEM: Information Age Ailment

Screaming streams of information
pelt all corners of the mind.
Neurons are constantly
flickering with flinches. 

Meanwhile, the body 
whispers its secrets
in the hushed tones
of a prayer uttered 
during a shootout. 

Subconscious [Haibun]

Couriers carry communiques from town to town in the country of me. These secret messages are unprojected, but couriers sometimes sneak peeks. Then, a summary can be read in an expression - a precis that could elsewise not be divined. An expression read from aspect of eye is a hint, and is as reliable as any hint  -- which is to say, not very. A hint is subject to misinterpretation. It presupposes a common language, a lingua franca that doesn't exist because one side has no language and the other is afflicted by the arrogant assumption that all things are understood via language. 

shooting signals
snap through the unmapped
spaces of my mind

POEM: Floating in the Nowhere [PoMo Day 21 – Narrative]

In the lunatic asylum,
it's quiet after the meds round.

R's mind was in the madhouse,
but his body was in a lifeboat,
or maybe vice versa,
he couldn't tell for sure.

He only knew that he was floating,
and, sometimes, it was too choppy,
and if life got too happy,
he felt that it was fake.

The open sea 's a harsh place,
but no worse than the where he carried
everywhere he ventured
inside his dense brainpan.

A fatal, futile option
was selected with a button
that may -- or may not -- have resided
within his very soul.

So thirsty and so lonely --
side-effects of something.
It might have been the meds,
or, perhaps, the salty air.

He chose to think he wasn't
bounded by a nutshell;
though his brand of crazy
was quiet before the storm. 

One day his kidneys gave out.
Who could've ever imagined
that such a thing could happen
in such a place as that.

POEM: Seashore Mind [PoMo Day 15 – Villanelle]

The waves are churned to foam.
The sight mesmerizes.
My mind is miles from home.

My seated self does roam --
chaos that surprises,
like waves are churned to foam.

Like one w/ Capgras Syndrome,
hustler mistrust arises.
My mind 's wary of home. 

I focus on the chrome,
but my ear recognizes
the waves that churn to foam.

I've vagabond chromosomes,
but still the thought chastises:
"Your mind is miles from home!"

I'm sitting all alone,
and my mind surmises:
Like waves churned to foam,
your mind 's so far from home.

POEM: Mental Weather

My mind experiences unforecastable weather.

Adrift in horse latitudes
Tortured by a polar vortex

Low pressure systems
High pressure systems

Storm fronts & storm surges

Partly sunny / partly cloudy
Partly cloudy / partly sunny
[Depending upon whether I’m in a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of mood.]

Lightening strikes
Wind shear / wind chill / wind chimes
Droughts, often followed by flash flooding
Breezes, blizzards, and breezy blizzards
Flood crests

Due points and do points [if not a dew point]
Topical depression — though no tropical depressions

Hail storms

Sun Dogs & rainbows

POEM: Insight: Or, The Benefits of Meditation

Once, tsunami waves crashed ashore,
catching me off-guard.
In wonder of just what’d hit me,
I’d sit – soaked and scarred.

The more I’d sit, watching my world,
the more I’d see storms howl.
I’d still get drenched, but, sometimes,
I could reach my towel.

Often, when I’d witness my mind,
I’d see the squalls approach,
and I could pack my things and go
before the surge encroached.

I never learned the magic to
turn the winds away,
but I could see the distant clouds
and shelter from the fray.

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

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