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Humanity Just Wants Equilibrium
Welcome to Weed Church
Hi. Thanks for reading. It’s been awhile since the last dispatch, and that’s because I’ve been very busy. I’ll link some stuff below here and hopefully the other stuff I have been busy with will result in other fun things I can tell you about.
I’m really proud of this piece here for Belt Magazine about the Reznor family. Some folks thought I was trying to be weird about Trent Reznor or like “cancel” him which is utterly insane, given that he’s one of my favorite artists to ever live.
This piece for Defector was decent too. I don’t like it as much as the Reznor one because I’m not allowed to use religious allegory for Defector as much as I’d prefer. Who cares.
Finally, this might be my favorite thing I’ve pubbed since my last post here, and the one that readers of this blog will like the most.
Without any further adieu, let’s get to this dispatch.
Nataraja, the “Middle,” and the Quest for Cosmic Equilibrium
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats
There’s a concept in market research that I often think is a useful framework for understanding human behavior. It’s called “movement from the middle,” and it’s shorthand for a pretty recognizable phenomenon: most people don’t like change, thus you need to reach for low hanging fruit to implement it.
It’s usually illustrated in the industry using political terms, which is also perhaps the easiest way for the layman to understand it after the past 7+ years of American democracy. “Movement from the middle” is a phrase that essentially means “you can’t turn a MAGA guy into a lib overnight.” The approach is especially popular in mass communication strategies across various industries, from PR for public figures to marketing for global CPG brands. It may seem silly to compare such a wide swath of activity, but it’s not so silly when you think about the fact that the average candy company is aware it’s not converting those obsessed with health food. Thus, instead of wasting a shit load of money and energy targeting Yogis with messaging about how candy is actually some kind of return to a holistic natural state, candy companies just do what you or I would do and say “fuck it” and go after the easy stuff.
It’s not laziness or lack of ambition, but the place where reality meets the imagination. If someone’s job is to convert regular people to something new — a behavior, an opinion, a product, a religion, an emerging science, etc. — then that person’s job is also to imagine limitless possibility. Why wouldn’t someone want this? At the corporate level this is a slight exaggeration (plenty of corporate brand managers know that this is all a game and act accordingly), but there are True Believers in any field, whether it’s politics or selling impulse buys at the checkout lines in supermarkets. True Belief is what allows for someone to become blinded to the Dharma of others. True Belief is the obstacle to empathy.
True Belief is also the enemy of equilibrium, because it is in this devotion that one loses their sense of right and wrong. The prism of Belief creates wrongthink, where objectively bad actions (namely wars, violence, emotional abuse, etc.) are justified in pursuit of utopia as defined by the Believer. This creates an unresolvable tension in the spirit, where one can observe the ways their worldview is causing damage but is unwilling to acknowledge their role in creating the problem.
Unfortunately, we’re all True Believers by default, we’re just waiting for our orthodoxy. Belief is one of those things that is inherent to human existence, and why political projects dependent on lack of Belief always fail miserably. Non-believers hate spirituality and call it “identity politics” because in the Holy Spirit one can find the undeniable truth that human beings that are alive today are more important than a sacrifice for the future Body Politic. That’s why the whole thing is slightly incompatible in the West.
I think about that often with regards to American politics, and particularly punditry or political science. Any proclamation of what a society needs to reach equilibrium is a faith-based observation, not a factual reality, because we haven’t found it yet. There are scattered piles of rubble for all those civilizations before us that tried. By all means, one should pursue this mission (we haven’t found a way to stop yet!), but one must be realistic about the observable outcomes of these ideas and why those outcomes may incentivize people to avoid change rather than embrace it.
Because that’s what “movement from the middle” is really about: change. People hate change and know that any change in idea or opinion will inevitably lead to a change in behavior. Going back to the example from the beginning of this dispatch, even the ignorant know that becoming health-conscious will inevitably result in less candy being eaten — and the candy company knows too, and thus is incentivized to keep people from achieving that consciousness.
To put “movement from the middle” back in political terms rather than the sillier candy example, I worry that our definition of the “middle” in America is unavoidably tied to the political compass, and thus is always an extremely esoteric concept to discuss. In politics, the “middle” is centrism, which is often quite muddled. The “centrist” may be someone seeking justice through existing systems as a form of equilibrium, or it could be someone who is pursuing stasis. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but stasis is a conservative concept whereas equilibrium is not. Stasis seeks to preserve at all costs, while equilibrium embraces the way chaos can lead us to a more balanced understanding of the universe, thus destroying an inadequate version of yourself and resurrecting as an improved Self.
In marketing and market research, the strategy is to find people who are open to these ideas and lead them to the source. The proverbial horse that one must lead to water. But if the horse doesn’t want to drink it, you can’t make them without breaking the horse first. Is that what you want? To break a living being? I don’t, but I fear that there’s a plurality of people in this country that don’t particularly care about what gets broken on the way to their dream life.
That’s why I find comfort beyond the material in the concept of utopian equilibrium, something I’ve come to associate with the Nataraja. For the uninitiated, the Nataraja is an emanation of the great Lord Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer. The iconography on display is loaded with hours of Purana study (or an afternoon on Wikipedia, which is better than nothing), but for this dispatch the broader meaning is enough. Nataraja is the emanation of all that is within Lord Shiva, and therefore within humanity. Their dance is not one of joy or misery but of inevitability, and Nataraja portrays Shiva’s power for destruction, joy, sadness, resurrection, and divine spark; our power for the same.
Later versions of Nataraja featured male and female genitals and, starting in the Kushan Empire around the first century CE, was portrayed as what modern science might call intersex or perhaps transgender. That’s because it was a syncretic merger between Shaivism and Shaktism, two overlapping faith systems whose primary difference was masculine creation (the god Shiva) and divine feminine nurturing (the goddess Shakti). It gives me great comfort to know that Believers were subverting Western chauvinism more than 2,000 years ago, and that by doing so I am merely taking part in tradition.
That’s equilibrium. That’s where the center resides, but the center can’t hold as Yeats told us in The Second Coming. If collapse is as inevitable as creation, then the fervor to be the Preserver of what exists is a net negative for a society. But a pendulum swing to the Destroyer can also have disastrous consequences that are inherent to the name. It’s not weird to resist either of these forces, and trying (but failing) to figure out how to be at peace with one’s total impotence to alter the inevitability of Preservation and Destruction is usually the name of the game. That’s the sum of theology, from what I can tell, but I’m still learning.
Sometimes it seems like the only place I’ve ever found utopian equilibrium is in commercial craftsmanship, perhaps best exemplified by tattooing. Any good tattooer runs their shop with the customer’s needs in mind, but great tattooers struggle to let the customer dictate the tattoo. That’s because aside from not doing well with authority, great tattooers have tattooed thousands of human hides and know the intricacies of the human shape, the pressure points that are tough to tattoo, the designs that simply don’t read well on skin. Good luck convincing the customer of that, who strolled into the shop knowing exactly what they want (despite their inability to reproduce that thought visually / their personal lack of tattooing experience). So, the Cosmic Dance begins, where an artist uses tricks at their disposal to make the piece something that satisfies their inner creative chaos, and the customer draws hard lines in the sand about what they are or aren’t willing to put on their body.
It doesn’t always work. Some tattooers will tell you it never really works, or works so rarely that one shouldn’t get their hopes up for artistic fulfillment when entering the profession. Others couldn’t dream of doing anything besides tattooing, because they’ve seen it work so wonderfully that it becomes like a new faith for them. The phrase “tattoo magic” has stuck around for awhile because it feels divine when creative spark meets irrational human desire and the outcome leaves both the creator and the marked with equally joyous uplift.
The customer is pleased because their dreams have come true, no matter how niche or difficult the request. The tattooer is pleased because despite the customer’s esoteric inner monologue, somehow they were able to find the perfect traditional and timeless symbol that matches the stranger’s preferred iconography. It works specifically because there is no illusion created or lie to make someone think they like something. It works because both of them were saying the same thing the whole time, and it took divinity to merge their thinking into something coherent so that they reached equilibrium. The Word is not always words.
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