Chewing on and trying to digest Martha Beck.

I’m struggling a bit with Martha Beck these days.

I’ve gone back to continue reading her book “Finding your way in a wild new world”, which is the oddest mix of things, yet turns out relatively coherent.

Despite the non-informative title, the content of the book seems to be hear 4 or so years of research into what she calls “ancient technologies of magic”, by which she means – according to my interpretation – various psycho-physical meditation, orienteering, tracking and general optimisation techniques that she was able to pick up from various cultural sources, few of which she mentions explicitly.

Given that she has a PhD in sociology, for me the most annoying part of the book is actually that in the name of being accessible and writing for the people (or sth. like that) she doesn’t give any sources – she doesn’t say where specifically she picked up the various strategies. I find this risky especially where she refers to “indigenous wisdom” and such – did she get it from an anthropology paper, first or second-hand from someone who learnt these techniques, or from a Western movie about Indians? Did she study buddhist scriptures, spend time at a monastery, or read some articles on psychologised Western pop-Buddhism? In the latter case I know she has a degree in Chinese culture, so presumably, luckily, not.

Why do I care? For one, given that the techniques she presents are actually interesting and at least one of them works for me – although not necessarily to accomplish magic, I would be really extremely excited, if she had given her sources of information, to go to these source and learn more, in more detail, with more context.

Second, I tend to distrust white Americans (or Europeans) passing around “indigenous wisdom” (and getting paid for it, and not mentioning where they got it from). I distrust this – I’ve seen enough nonsense floating around, some of it blatant, some of it unfortunately not recognisable as nonsense unless you have the time and energy to fact-check a lot of stuff.

Having been brought up between two cultures and traveled a bit, I do know that it’s not always easy and banal to translate subtle things – emotions, psychology, spirituality, meditation techniques – from one context to the other, even when the contexts are relatively similar. The thing will take on a life of its own in its new context, and sometimes that life will be really different from its original function.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem – I think it’s productive to take inspiration from other cultures, and anyone should be free to pick up ideas and modify them – even if they got them kind of wrong; in the end, something creative and useful may still result. But it irritates me when this is done “behind the scenes”, without acknowledging the pathways and sources, when the author is leaning on them so extensively. Keyword would be “cultural appropriation”.

(Of course giving that information would have been far, far more work and made the book longer and less “seamless”.)

To be fair, the goal of Martha Beck’s book isn’t scholarly (again, kind of a pity for me and other folks who can only read research papers for fun and get inexorably bored reading anything popular :D) – her goal is, as far as I get it, to enable folks that she identifies as “menders” – people embodying the healer archetype (if you know that concept) – to use these “technologies of magic” to set their life straight and do good stuff in the world.

I think that’s a valid goal and it’s likely to be achieved –a range of people will find fascinating and in part useful stuff in that book. Not everyone is an academic pedant and will want to fact-check the authenticity of everything she writes, if it works – myself also, apart from these doubts and complaints, I’ve been quite content to just try her stuff in practice and have fun with it.

It was quite fun.

I can’t say whether I’ve accomplished any magic so far, but one of the meditation techniques seems to accidentally have really improved my eyesight in a stunning way. You could call that magic 😀 … even though the point of the technique was to drop into the non-verbal mind.

So should I summarise my understanding of some of her stuff? As she does in other books, she brands her own vocabulary for things … he own newspeak. I’m a bit tempted to describe what she seems to be doing there in “normal language”, well or in my philosophy-and-neuroscience-affected language (however normal that is for you).

The four big techniques she lists she calls Wordlessness, Oneness, Imagination and Forming.

By Wordlessness I understand that she means operating from a non-verbal place, which in practice means focusing on the perceptual, sensory layers of experience. Filling the mind-space as much as possible with sensations, sense-impressions, the observation of sights, sounds, smells, feelings – anything that comes to the body in a format different from words. A good way to do that, apart from silent contemplation, is to get involved in some non-verbal activity (anything, really, from cooking to sports) and focusing on that layer of it, until words drop out.

For me personally this is fairly natural; my brain tends that way anyways – doing it deliberately is just extremely relaxing and liberating.

According to my knowledge, this is also a typical first step in Western applications of “mindfulness” techniques to mental health – asking people to focus on sensation, and go back to focusing on it when we notice we’ve jumped on a verbal-hypothetical thought train.

She gives additional techniques for that, apart from meditation, that clearly work. Such as play, pleasure, and also pain – anything really that gets humans focussed on the sensory here-and-now.

For me a major and easy way to get deeper into that state has always been physical challenge, learning or perfecting any sort of new physical skill – and fully leaning into the physicality of it.

Her other stuff is less obvious – “Oneness” seems to span a range of things between empathy and telekinesis (and spoon-bending is part of it). I won’t summarise the book here, just light up a few points that made me think – her argument seems to be that “feeling like things are part of your body”, or like you are “one” with them, or something like this – is continuous with gradually developing the rudiments of various psychic powers.

I’m very, very familiar with that kind of approach from a bunch of New Age-ish sources, and I would give a lot to actually read or hear about it from a different type of source (like her alleged Indigenous sources, or whatever).

The next two techniques, Imagining and Forming are basically, as far as I can tell, versions of the familiar techniques of visualising, with some hints on how to make your imagination flow if it doesn’t, and some hints at how to take action with ease.

One kink in her visualisation stories that I like is that she has a way to engage proprioception and focus on felt experience over external details; and also that she puts in a sort of paradoxical move of releasing attachment, going to sleep, or whatever.

My energy has run out before coming to any substantial points, maybe because discussing this stuff properly takes a long post. I’m evaluating some of this stuff – I don’t throw it away because enough of it seems sufficiently coherent with experience and bits of wisdom that I’ve come to trust elsewhere; trying to sidestep the cultural appropriation and some other cringeworthy aspects that stun me a bit in a social scientist (such as the thorough, unquestioned spirit of pioneer “hooray” individualism that seems to underly all of the writing, with no gestures towards systemic or collective factors in life, society or economics … apart from mystical Oneness).

The most cringeworthy remark is perhaps something alone the lines of, “money is never a problem / excuse, because I’ve coached heroin addicts and they somehow manage to get hundreds of thousands of $ for their heroin each year” – ouch.

Again, I appreciate the aim of motivating people to make the best of their life situations and find creative ways around economic and other obstacles; but that example is perhaps useful to motivate folks who have all economic basics and genuinely use money as an excuse to not do things worthy of being done, but I think it’s offensive to those who don’t –perhaps intended empowerment, but coming far too close to victim-blaming for my taste.

Especially given the social position of the person it comes from (Harvard PhD, married to another Harvard PhD, daughter of a professor).

Some things like this offend my sensibilities, while I’m also struggling inwardly because I think a lot of her stuff has value. I wonder if the fact that this woman is quite successful comes from the fact that – despite social science, feminism and all that – she never explicitly (nor implicitly? not that I’ve noticed) challenges any of the presuppositions of the US-style mentality of “any individual on their own can work hard and achieve absolutely anything they want, and things like money, race, gender, etc. are cheap excuses” – motivating some folks, but encouraging those in more (systemically) disadvantaged positions to blame themselves, and encouraging everyone to do the same (or at least not to take systemic barriers for a reality, because if they just tried hard enough, anyone could overcome them – on their own and by sheer determination).

This model somehow goes together with individual compassion and charity, with “wanting to help people” – on a completely individual, voluntary, and a-political basis. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but somehow it still feels wrong in the context of everything it omits.

Overall, I respect Martha Beck’s work and have found it personally useful; however – that’s probably why I’ve written all this – I’m still struggling to integrate this weird contrastive mixture of aspects that are fairly brilliant and useful with aspects that I really can’t digest and that make me want to take distance from this approach and work. Cognitive dissonance.

“Take what’s useful and leave the rest?” – hard when it is in some ways an organic whole, and I’m looking for my relationship to it. Could I find, if I searched, similar compendia of life wisdom and trickster’s moves on how to run your own mind and body and life, but from someone who takes social context and responsibility seriously in a different way? Do folks from other racial, ethnic, social positions ever write stuff like that (or is “having support to write books” a very exclusionary criterion)? Is it findable, without all the marketing hype? Does it look different?

Cover image credits: https://www.toonpool.com/cartoons/Shaman_166893

(I searched for “shaman caricature”, that keyword seemed opportune.)

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