Melted honey

oh, honey darling–

melt out of your sugar-coat shell and let it 

crack; honey-butter down your butt crack

i beg you; melt so i can live in it

inside rather than outside that door

and you can live there too; we’ll find each other

muddy and golden, holding each other as fast

as you used to hold your breath;

i want to live inside this river,

find its force fully felt, not flung 

into corners shaped out of weird neurotic

configurations; i know you found them once but

baby, they aren’t needed no more!

we’ve got feet for finding floor

and i’ll find you there just as surely as

you found me, in the clear white air;

i know where we’re going because i

live there.

The week GPT4 came out

It’s not enough to know how to
Fire up your own discontent
There’s a battle to be fought, and all of us
Spawned on the losing end
We’re pressed to accept our fate
Single sprinkle in a tube of
Single seed in a muesli made
According to immovable standards
How pathetic of you to think
You could ever control your own mind?
How ascetic you’d must needs be
To have a chance of being alive
I cannot accept this thing I know:
That my life lives merely under
Forces much bigger than its own
I wriggle in my childish car-straps
Away from soaking same-same sludge
Aching and shock at having so much power
—and yet again so little of it
Shaking and shame at having so much power
—and yet again so little of it.

A pragmatic user’s guide to uh, chi

I have wanted to write a post for a long time, on a subject that seems mundanely obvious to me, but very much not so to most of the people in the culture around me. The subject of this post is chi, qi, prana, energy, and ‘energy work’ as a discipline. 

I became fluent in seeing and using this thing starting a few years ago in much the same way that a swimmer becomes aware of how to surf waves when they’re hanging out in the ocean and all of a sudden there’s a giant wave behind them.

That is to say–I became aware of it all at once, as a matter of survival, while extremely out of my depth, and with no reliable teachers around to help me learn. 

There’s a reason why it was so hard to find reliable teachers which is intrinsic to the subject (which I can describe more later) but in some ways there was no good reason why the kind of information I needed at the time was lacking. Over these years I’ve cobbled together both a theory and practical capacity that works very well for me, doesn’t require beliefs that distort anything else about the rest of my life, and I think is pretty helpful to the people in my life. 

I’m going to lay out here how I think chi works:

We have nervous systems that get into states of arousal and relaxation and are much more sensitive than our conscious awareness is most of the time–unless we’ve specifically trained our conscious awareness.

This is more true for ‘sensitive’ people–people who, for genetic, personality, or cultural reasons, tend to have nervous systems that respond more often and more extremely to stimuli than the nervous systems of other people around them.

In addition, there are ways our self-system (body, mind, attention, nervous system, all that) can keep particular perceptions out of our conscious mind, either for simplicity or to solve a problem. We can, with training, learn to perceive these things in our ordinary consciousness that were previously shut out. This can be stuff as simple as ‘the sensation of the muscles in our big toe’ and as complex as ‘the behaviour we enact when we encounter the cousin we get extremely triggered by’.

There are cultural patterns of this, and in Western, professional, polite culture, it’s common to keep a lot of detailed sensory perceptions around physical bodies, shameful emotional experiences, or disgusting phenomena out of our ordinary conscious perception. From the perspective of someone trained to perceive ‘energy’, default Western attention is very ‘dull’ when it comes to perceiving the physiology of emotions, and pretty smart when it comes to ‘verbal explanations of stuff’.

People’s nervous systems tend to get influenced by how they perceive other people’s nervous systems behaving. This is pretty smart, because the purpose of a nervous system is to get a body to do things, and being aware of the details of someone else’s state is a really practical way to prepare to respond to what they might do!

A very simple example is that if you are walking alone and you see a stranger walking alone and they seem scared, your bodymind will begin to get scared, somewhat–because either that person is afraid of something you should be afraid of too, so your bodymind is getting prepared, or, because they might be scared of -you-, in which case they might attack you to protect themselves, and you want to be ready to respond to that!

(I should point out that when I say ‘you’, many people will interpret that as ‘the experience of being conscious and perceiving stuff’, and I mean both that -and- ‘everything that happens within the bounds of your body and your mental space that you can’t perceive right now, as well’. You may not notice your heartrate increasing when that stranger’s heart rate increases but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to ‘you’.)

This ‘tendency for your nervous system to get influenced by the state of another’s nervous system’ is a big part of what I think of when I think of someone being ‘sensitive’, and what many people mean when they call themselves ’empaths’.

(People who are physically bigger and stronger, or confident that they have enough money and social capacity to protect themselves in most situations tend to be less sensitive or influenced by other nervous systems because they don’t, in practice, need to so much. Also, some people grew up in environments where people were often unpredictable by other methods (like, by asking them what they were going to do) and so their bodies can learn to be extra sensitive to other’s nervous systems as a survival strategy.)

So, one part of ‘energy’ is the experience of having your nervous system get influenced by another person’s nervous system without having the conscious perception of what changed to make your nervous system change. This makes it feel like the change was ‘magical’ or ‘spooky action at a distance’, but I’m pretty confident that people can, with training, learn to perceive, if not from a distance then at least with touch, all the signals that their body is already subconsciously reacting to, and with enough perceptive skill there is no ‘unexplained influence’ or changes in your nervous system that can’t be explained by something happening in your body or mind or in what you are able to perceive of someone else’s body or mind.

This doesn’t mean those perceptions can’t be really subtle though! I have, for example, made pretty detailed and accurate predictions about what my partner’s nervous system looked like over text–but this came in the context of having spent hundreds of hours with him in person, having felt his body very closely, and having watched his behaviour over years, -combined- with the very limited sense data of how he phrased something over text. I could not do that with a stranger unless they very strongly fit a personality pattern I knew well.

One of the things that makes ‘skilled intuitives’ get better over time is that they have quite detailed models of people in general and specific people in particular which are combined with this perception data, so they can make predictions that (whether they are right or wrong) seem to predict things that can’t be known. And, good intuitives train this capacity by noticing when their predictions were wrong and incorporating that feedback–see this post on how occultists train in divination practices for more detail.

So, ‘feeling someone else’s energy’ can be explained by nervous systems wanting to copy each other, cool–but what about auras? Psychic attacks? Energetic sickness? Moving chi with your mind?

Let’s start with the concept of ‘moving chi with your mind’. To me, this is extremely straightforward to explain -unless- you believe a) that your thoughts have no influence over your nervous system, or (bizarrely) b) that your nervous system has no influence over your body.

I meet a lot of people who believe a), and I think this is one of the most bizarre outputs of Western science-influenced culture because it’s easy to notice evidence to the contrary. If you notice you believe your thoughts have no influence over your nervous system (which, remember, regulates how aroused or relaxed you are, whether you’re ready for sleep, food, sex, exercise etc), one easy way to try to refute it is to try and think something that changes how your body feels. Listening to a guided meditation that tells you to relax; imagining the person you’re most attracted to standing in front of you wanting to have sex with you–there are other ideas but these two are I think pretty obvious for most people. 

Once you can notice the ways in which your thoughts influence your nervous system, you can also notice the other way around–notice how when you’re exhausted you tend to have grumpier thoughts, or when you’re scared you tend to have more pessimistic thoughts. This makes sense–our mind is getting information from our body about how it’s doing and that is fed into whatever is producing the thoughts we can consciously notice!

Another thing I think is true (that you can check for yourself with enough practice) is that nervous system changes can influence not only -what- thoughts you think, but ‘what it feels like to be conscious’ at all. Medicine acknowledges this when it includes ‘brain fog’ as a symptom of various kinds of illnesses, but you can check the next time you are sleep-deprived, if your vision feels narrower and you feel a bit stupider, or the next time you feel energised, if you notice you feel like you can ‘see farther’ and your thoughts seem more interesting and you have better ideas. The idea that our default nervous system state in many cultures makes our awareness ‘dull’ is a problem approached by many spiritual traditions aiming for ‘awakening’; one thing they mean by awakening is literally ‘a sense that your conscious experience is more alert, and aware of more stuff’. 

(When I use the word ‘bodymind’ instead of ‘body’ or ‘mind’, I am taking as a foundational assumption the idea that your physical body and the contents of your mind are part of the same system, and that there would ideally be a better word that didn’t seem to imply that they’re two separate systems stuck next to each other.)

So, if it’s possible to get better at perceiving things normally outside your conscious experience, it’s also possible to get better at noticing how your thoughts influence your nervous system and your nervous system influences your thoughts, and through this process strengthen the feedback loop between the two. I’m not sure exactly whether it’s that better noticing leads to a stronger impact or merely to better noticing the impact but the outcome seems to be the same regardless–that you can develop the ability to ‘control your nervous system with your thoughts’. There are lots of caveats and I wouldn’t recommend just ‘trying to control your nervous system with your thoughts’ because a lot of us have belief patterns that can make that worse if we don’t go carefully, but you can notice that at least the connection exists and is possible to strengthen. Cool.

Ok, so getting to ‘controlling chi with your mind’. I think that ‘chi’ (or prana, energy, qi, whatever) is the name we have for the most useful kind of thought to have in order to make useful changes to your nervous system. I think it’s evidently useful because a similarly-shaped concept has emerged independently in a bunch of different internal arts traditions that didn’t interact with each other.

Basically, chi (or prana etc) is consistently understood as a flowing, liquid-but-electrical phenomenon, that you can direct by holding the intention to direct it in your mind, and that can extend beyond the limits of your body.

I think this is an incredibly useful mental experience–I hesitate to even call it a concept because it involves quite a lot of perceptions that are certainly not intellectual, although they do happen ‘in the mind’. AND, I think that because it is so useful, two things occur:

  • Practitioners who use it risk expanding it to understand non-nervous-system-ish phenomena in a way that isn’t anywhere near as useful as it is for nervous system functioning (they develop woo beliefs that make them worse at doing other things)
  • People who are not skilled practitioners see the ‘mental experience called chi’ as a causal explanation of a physical phenomenon, they look for it but don’t see it because they have not developed their perceptive abilities enough to see it, and also see people who talk about it being worse at reasoning about e.g. how vaccines work and conclude that it is merely a bad, wrong, harmful scientific theory that no one should believe

I think that this unfortunate weird conflict arises because of something intrinsic to how ‘holding a mental intention to influence chi’ has to feel in order for it to work well.

When you are thinking about a scientific theory, your body is very–precise, is one way to put it. You might talk in a very ordered, even, way, and hold mental images of structures in order to mentally navigate around the concept you’re considering. You rarely feel the urge to run, or cry, or express a vivid emotion to someone else. There’s often a feeling of neatness, and a desire to compare mental concepts to other concepts to figure out what they are like. We learn about the nervous system this way, if we learn about it at all. We learn labels and functions and diagrams.

For some reason that I can’t quite fully explain, this mode of being is not the right one to be in if you want your thoughts to be influencing your nervous system state the most strongly. The state it is better to be in involves less structured talking, less structured thoughts, and instead involves things that are vivid, emotionally impactful and nonverbal–images, sounds, direct perception of your surroundings. We can get more into this state if we’re caught up in a highly engaging movie–the room is dark, we aren’t afraid of being seen, and it’s socially acceptable to express stronger emotions in a movie theatre so it can feel easier to do so.

In this state, the images we see or imagine make a more direct impact on our nervous system, AND it’s harder to ‘think about things logically’.

‘Chi’ is a well-adapted mental experience that relies on being in this second, more imagistic, nonverbal state to influence nervous system activity. You don’t get to a calm nervous system by thinking ‘I am going to relax my nervous system’; you get there by imagining a ball of light sitting above your head and then bursting and pouring golden liquid down your body.

This is the kind of image that makes it easier to start driving your nervous system like a car using the mental experience of chi–you can release amplified tension by ‘feeling’ the chi release out of your body at all directions, or regain your sense of self-confidence by ‘pouring’ your chi into the ground. These images aren’t arbitrary–I think there are likely complex mappings between specific ‘intentions to move chi’ and different impacts on nervous system state, and I’m not aware of any Western scientific research that has been able to document these.

I think it’s entirely possible to get very good at using the mental experience of chi to influence your nervous system physiology while not getting confused into trusting that chi is a substance like water, or that it has out-of-body functions like moving the planet on its orbit. I think the most sane physical understanding of ‘what chi is’ is something like ‘patterns of change within a complex system that has parts that are tightly influenced by each other’ but that can be hard to understand. I think most people are not good at either scientific reasoning or subtle energy manipulation to be aware of when their understanding of one is being influenced by blindspots in the other, and then combined with a bunch of tribalism we’ve ended up in a situation where what is taboo for one camp is blindingly obvious for the other. But so it goes. 

Ok so now let me talk about auras and psychic attacks. Roughly, I think it makes sense to think of an aura as ‘your mental experience of your nervous system baseline, overall, and how sensitive or guarded you feel towards potential influence on your nervous system.’ Really obvious stuff ‘weakens your aura’ by literally weakening your body–being sleep deprived, having a draining emotional relationship, feeling worried about money all the time. For some people, they want their aura to be guarded–they want to feel confident that the condition of their nervous system will not be affected by anything outside of them or their control. For some people, they tend to have a ‘weak aura’, which you can roughly understand as ‘lots of things influence them consciously and subconsciously, and they have very little control over what influences them, leaving their nervous system state at the mercy of their surroundings’. 

For me, I aim for a ‘strong, sensitive aura’, which roughly means ‘my nervous system picks up on a lot of stuff, but I am very capable of being uninfluenced by anything I am concerned about being dangerous, or experiencing it in the moment without having lasting effects. i think I mostly succeed, except for rare exceptions. I’ll give two stories to explain what I mean by this.

One: I recently took a call as a suicide hotline volunteer with someone who that day was experiencing a first psychotic break and feeling possessed by a violent Joker-like character. Not only was he occasionally talking in a way that indicated he might do something dangerous (which was naturally scary to me), he was also extremely terrified and confused himself and that came out in his voice and his ideas. 

If I were to be ‘energetically closed, with a shut-off aura’ to him I might speak in a very flat, formal, unaffected tone, and avoid imagining him as real human deserving of care as I heard his voice. That might protect me from feeling the impact of his emotions and arousal on my nervous system but leave him feeling alienated. If I were to be ‘energetically oversensitive, with a weak aura’ I might speak in a tone that increasingly matched his, which might make him feel understood, but also would make me feel a similar kind of insane state to him and perhaps amp up his fear even more when I was mirroring it exactly. Behaving like that would probably leave me feeling exhausted, and possibly physically sick– nauseous, feverish, or weak afterwards. 

The approach I took (which I think I could still have improved on) was to let myself notice what he was feeling, and then do some mental moves for myself during the conversation that meant that perceiving that level of terror didn’t make me as afraid or as energetically aroused. These are mental moves involving my body–the image I used was one of ‘venting’ or ‘off-gassing’ energy throughout my torso, so that any tension that arose in my body during the call didn’t stay there for long. If I had handled it 100% capably, I would have been capable of having the intense, one-hour call and then ending it in a state of relaxed nervous system readiness, and taking a different call immediately afterwards. As it was, I mostly succeeded, but I needed to do more ‘off-gassing’ or ‘venting’ for maybe an hour afterwards–but once I was done, I could easily go to sleep at a normal time a few hours later and sleep comfortably. This particular experience was at the limits of my capabilities and, like building a muscle, I could imagine taking on an identical experience in a year after building more strength and handling it 100% with ease, and being capable of even more intense challenges than that. 

For the second example, I want to talk more about the sense that someone is ‘doing something’ energetically to you.

I had an experience recently while I was at a public event, where by the time I was there, for unrelated reasons I was already feeling muscle soreness, fatigue, emotional strain, and cumulatively something like a ‘weaker aura’. 

I then happened to run into a man who knew me but that I hadn’t seen in a long time; within a few minutes of conversation with him I felt my mind go blank, an inability to hear what he was saying, a vague numb feeling of panic, a sense of confusion, and a loss of perception of the sensations of my body. I have a very strong relationship with my body, so noticing those perceptions go away was a really concerning sign. 

I excused myself mid-conversation and walked away to be out of earshot of others. At that time I had no idea ‘what had happened’–that is to say–why I had had such a strong reaction; only, that if such intense signs came up I would respond to them immediately and not repress them. I then tried to direct my mind to the sensations in my body, and I imagined the loving embrace of someone who I feel incredibly safe with, which let my body trust (along with the knowledge that I was out of earshot) that it was safe to perceive what I was experiencing.

It took a little while, but soon sensations arose–the impulse to throw up, a kind of shocked scream, and nausea like I’d been kicked in the stomach. All of these are to me signs of a nervous system working against quite intense distress–wanting me to take some action to protect against something quite bad.

Without knowing -what- the bad thing was, I imagined the safe person I know I would have access to if I needed them, let whatever movements and sounds take place that needed to take place, and ‘moved my chi with my mind to rebalance it’. 

In somewhat blunt woo terms ‘my aura had been violated’ and in that moment of rediscovering the sensations I was discovering what kind of violation it was and what I should do in order to ‘restore my aura’s integrity’.

In this case, I learned that I had felt some kind of forceful too-deep intimacy from him, combined with social pressure to accept his behaviour towards me (from him and the social situation we had been in). 

After resting, ‘rebalancing chi’ and contemplating it for a while I went back and began a new conversation with him, now with much better ‘energetic protection’ in the form of avoiding behaviours, the presence of others, and a commitment to allow myself to do ‘things that looked weird’ if I needed to do that in order to keep perceiving my bodily sensations.

In that conversation I established all sorts of boundaries and then was able to discuss the violation with him, in a way that didn’t make me feel violated again (props to him for being able to have that conversation; many men would not have known how). 

In both stories I describe the experience ending with me reaching an ‘energetically neutral’ state–my nervous system is in a state of ‘relaxed readiness’, I’m able to perceive all the sensations in my body, my mind is clear and free of worries.

My understanding of psychic attack and particularly ‘energetic sicknesses’ of various kinds is that they involve experiences like the one in that second story, but where the person ‘attacked’ gets stuck in the overwhelmed or shut-down nervous system state for a long time, sometimes even months or years. This is pretty bad for your body–your nervous system likes being ‘relaxed and ready’ and when it’s stuck in overdrive that worsens the health of lots of other things, like your digestive system and your immune system.

(This is, by the way, I think why people who grew up in abusive environments are more likely to experience digestive and immune issues–they spent long periods in nervous system overwhelm and their body wasn’t able to repair the digestive and immune system functioning the way it should.)

When I tell stories like this to people with scientific rationalist-materialist mindsets who ‘don’t believe in chi’, they frequently surprise themselves with how open they are to accepting the story as reasonable because they thought they believed ‘chi isn’t real’. A few things seem to consistently arise as barriers to understanding the kind of phenomenon I’m describing in these stories more closely:

  • There is no one whose worldview they respect who seems to talk about chi; the only people they see talking about chi are people whose reasoning they don’t think is very good
  • They personally don’t perceive any of the sensations that seem to be involved, and so conclude they don’t exist (in part because they haven’t see these perceptions as ‘something you can get better at’)
  • Chi as a concept seems to have been soundly refuted by science, so they reason that the phenomena it relates to must be delusions (possibly social memes gotten out of hand)

This post is in part an attempt to bridge the reasoning gap between scientific materialists who trust the science of physiology and (perhaps a little less) the science of psychology, and people who are fluent in manipulating subtle energy but perhaps don’t know or care how the thing they do is explained by science.

I should point out, this whole model I’ve laid out here is one I’ve developed and have seen a few dual-paradigm practitioners agree with–but not many. I think if science could figure out how to study chi without assuming ‘chi is a phenomenon’, and design research processes that account for the subjective impact of the specific mental-content-that-behaves-similar-to-a-belief like the mental experience of chi, we’d have a much better science of psychology!

(Note: One major problem is that as someone who is much, much more fluent in subtle energy now than I was four years ago, I’m much more capable of evaluating a subtle energy practitioner like a bodyworker, in case I need their help–but I wasn’t when I was younger and inexperienced, which was when I desperately needed them! I would like there to be a better way for energy-illiterate people to evaluate energy practitioners that is better than ‘do I believe that the story they are telling about energy is true’. I don’t know the answer but I think recognising that a practitioner’s epistemology is -not- what dictates the quality of their skills is a good start!)

Little bird love

Oh, holy hope
Soft bird with blurry wings
You move so fast when you sing–
Sometimes my reckoning creeps in–
Lagging far behind

Oh, holy mouth
Reverberations streaming out
And when you doubt–doubt merely
slips into the endless stream;
I cannot stay in its 

I want to love, but I feel quiet
Melted, given, broken, filed;
Abiding tiny earthquakes 
I cannot justify
I want to love, and my love is mouthless
Giving dumb telepathic gifts
I’m too weak to shout about

I guess I’m asking you for something
Incomprehensible, futile;
For dog whistles and whale songs
For metaphor held like a glow, and things
Pinned to your back in the night
I’ll keep talking to you
In a lovers’ Basque you never learnt;
A love without a dictionary

I can’t even say whether I want this, exactly–
It’s so quiet our construction sounds
Drown it out

Approaching the altar

There’s the mother, perfectly round
Warmth carved from stone
And then there’s the mother I could be:
I keep grasping around to find her
I seem to seek roundness, her form a set of spheres.
I look for the way her body becomes a waterfall over itself
I think to myself, nobody will recognise the queer
Amongst that mammalian waterfall.
I hate to think I’ll be mistaken for
A woman keeping her place;
I hate to think I’ll be mistaken for something
Proportional to her function.
Marry a man, goddamnit—
And everybody will forget you are equally capable of loving anyone
And they will forget he is equally capable of being anyone!
The way they had to forget, to settle down to the table
With agreement to both bear children and become bricks
Line-stacked, ready to be picked up and rotated.
I keep screaming ‘I don’t want to be mummified!’
Hoping to avoid the plastic wrap closing in over my mouth—!

The kind of woman I am is more an animal
Than a shopper in a checkout line
Her breasts are the same thing that mud is
Her cunt the same as the ocean;
I keep hunting, scratching with my fingers
For the hope that I can stay open;
Fat carnivorous petal-tongues
The complete dissolution of her, every Sunday,
Instead of a procedurally generated concrete rail-truck
This sense that to ‘get-along’ you shave off
all participatory features of yourself; unoffendingly
midrange committee-member at the PTA

I want to give birth, the deepest erotic fact there is
I’d like to continue to die, just as I’ve been doing all along
And—unstifle myself and my young
Bite the throat of ‘crazy busy all the time’ that is forbidden to be insane.
I’m pulled to stake permission in the wine-dark ground
Claiming birthright to be insane

Perfect vision

The envisioned brushstroke is the only perfect one
The one you put on paper will necessarily deviate
And in its deviation, it becomes both real and
A willing conversationalist—
It talks back to the vision that birthed it
This banter the seed of all honest creation
But this is only if the artist can endure
The heartbreaking difference between her two children
Between the envisioned and the real—
Else the real becomes the orphan child
And the envisioned the sheltered narcissist
Who never need hear the embarrassment
That she does not live up to her name.

Do you see—?

Do you see how much detail there is in a lover?
His moods move like seasons
I watched this rainstorm today
And it’s unlike the earlier ones
It portends a different future
His eyes glisten like flickering rain
And he within himself is multitudes
Quite unlike the headline offered
I could hear this poetry
For a million years and not double it
And!—I could imperialise this sweetness
But, refraining
I inhabit a golden garden whose seeds
Bloom for a thousand thousand years

The numbness of everything all of the time

The texture of digital life is indifference. Everything sliding around at the exact same distance from you, always. My mind is somehow extremely convinced that everything is as interchangeable as what can be bought from a grocery store.

There’s no point investigating, no point paying deep attention to the same thing because it’s merely a copy of a different thing, which is an instantiation of an abstraction someone conjured in service of a totalising goal. This strawberry is STRAWBERRY; a barely-lived life driven harshly, rivetedly, anaemically towards the standardised strawberry goal. Such an object cannot have specific, loveable detail; cannot have life—it is made up of the same sorts of squares as all other things. The unit of measurement is the pixel, even in physical space. I cannot touch anything—it always exists only as its own abstraction, and I can merely look.

Indifference feels like numbness; looks like a sweet cloudy glaze over everything I can’t feel anything in particular.

And sometimes I drop that, and the wild neurotic psychotic intensity of EvErY KIND of PREFERENCE that looks back at me in the world is horrifying and engulfing; every noise all at once, rising to fever pitch. This is probably why I turn it off and it reduces to a glazed and frosted hum, most of the time. It’s like a thousand standard ghouls biting rough trademarks into my skin, gnat-sized and quivering.

I’m pretty sure it’s impossible for me to be enough to hear all of that, at least at the size I’m at now. Other people defend the world to try and make it quieter for me; I can only cower; watch as symbols turn to mush in my brain and I move them around with the other mush like hours-old milky lucky charm cereal. Sometimes I expand my attention to include every single symbol on my laptop screen, and I reel at the devilishness that my poor subconscious is taking in, my attentional liver straining with all its might to filter out the toxins and give me only the nutrients of thought, emotion, social bond, physical matter, financial consideration. This poor psychic organ works overtime and has been given no extra tools in this biblical flood of an informational age; the hapless sods who give advice as if they were diet gurus offer the limpest of suggestions about timers and ad-blockers and avoiding the newsfeed, as if this didn’t pale in comparison to the sheer volume of STUFF my eyeballs and ear holes gorge on each day.

And stuff with intention!—stuff someone wanted to put there so that I might do something that they want me to do. Imagine for a second what would be true if you did actually register every single thing in your vision and your hearing and get subconsciously affected by it, I have but a mere machete against an army of machine artillery and every single day I get gunned down but delude myself into thinking I’m still standing.

How the fuck I survive this without relinquishing my power in the world I have no idea. It’s clear there’s always the option of the hermitage on the mountain, sans electricity, perhaps with some books and notepads—but you will not move the social mountains of your time with that. As a member of society, in order to do anything with it you must LOOK at it, and in doing so you let it see you. Look! There’s the impulse to check Twitter again. Exes and enemies and others to be envious of become hungry ghosts in the machine you hold in your hands—you can always see them, or at least their simulacra. Each person is at least their physical presence as well as all of the symbols they create and their many representations. Your friends are already partially automated, at least in your mind. Their souls taken and stuffed into little rectangles you can call up at will like minor deities to shape your experience and your relationship with them.

My life exists mostly on this astral plane, and perhaps so does yours. And we were never taught to walk there, we don’t know the terrain, and we didn’t bring a jacket. It’s raining, pelting down a thousand piercing little spittle specks, little packets of disgust and joy and fear and horror and rage and seduction and of course because you’re learning to play the game you throw your own out there too.

Almost everything around you was created by some other human, and for many of those things the intention of their creators was not fulfilled upon their delivery to you. No—once delivered, thus begins only the start of a comfortable vampiric relationship, one that you maintain part-time, with a fraction of your attention, but which is the full-time job of many employees of some large ravenous corporation to maintain on the other end.

We are being drowned in this hailstorm. Individual people, with their skin and tears and childhood memories and pubic hair become just as interchangeable as the packets of chips on the shelves in the supermarket which is interchangeable with the supermarket in the different country which you took an interchangeable plane through interchangeable airports to arrive at. This blossoming complexity hides the fact that more of it is becoming the same, and it is hell-bent on incorporating you into its sameness.

And the fact that you think a sovereign thought at all in your whole goddamn life somehow is a miracle.

Understanding Eros

Eros is the force that emerges in you when there arises a gap between you, now, and something you want.

A lot of those words sound obvious; I think this isn’t obvious at all, at least to most people I’ve met. I want you to understand that this is a physical feeling; as real and solid as hunger and thirst and everyday sexual arousal. And in particular, at least as uncontrollable, and as impervious to thinking and argument as hunger and thirst are.

In particular, eros doesn’t arise in relation to all wants–many things we want arouse a primarily emotional response from us, and the emotion is the vehicle for getting it. A man is angry at being alone and unwanted; he channels that anger into forcing the success of his startup in the hopes of being seen and wanted. A woman is scared by the prospect of being abandoned and wants to feel safe; she channels that fear into retreat, into throwing herself at strangers or family members who will look after her, into subtly persuading those around her to look after her at the cost of her own sovereignty. A woman is scared of being judged by others and channels that energy into the pursuit of a mediocre hobby and socially-approved entertaining, subtly asking those around her to approve of it and thus relieve her of her fear.

When I say ‘channels that energy’, I mean something literal–there is a sensation of fear in the body and it arouses us, leads us to think about all the bad possible futures, and literally moves our attention through our surroundings in a way that helps us solve the problem. This happens with fear, anger, pain–all sorts of sensations trigger this internal awakeness that moves us in both physical and mental action.

I think that eros, or eroticism, is the feeling associated with the pursuit of a kind of satisfaction; not satisfaction of comforts, as in fear, or satisfaction of justice, as in anger, but satisfaction of expression. The difference, though, is that comfort can be found (and lost, and found again, and lost, and found), and justice can be (theoretically) served. In both cases once the object of desire is sought the force disappears, although this may not happen in your or my lifetime. 

I’m not sure this is the case with eros. In my own experience, eros begets itself. For, eros demands to be responded to with the real expression of another. Often, what eros wants is a response from someone else, often a lover. If it succeeds, it will trigger a response from the other that then asks for a response in turn. If it fails it will keep seeking, sometimes achingly, humiliatingly, maddeningly, to trigger that response from the other it seeks, sometimes forever. 

Perhaps the first true experience of eros (not simply having sex) that we have is when we first get our heart broken. We want something–a real, open, communicative response from the other and (if the breakup is going as it should) they won’t give it to us. This is different from the soothing, fantasy-laden, or mutually-comforting sex we might have in the early stages of a relationship, where we want to do everything that makes our partner feel good and nothing that makes our partner feel bad. Eros does not mind if it makes the other feel bad, and that makes it an asshole at times. It wants ‘a real response’, not comfort, and it can in fact often get in the way of either party achieving comfort.

Eros can fuck people up. It gets fucked up if we believe it is limited, and we locate the source of its power in the object of its desire. ‘I can’t live without her’ is the verbal expression of a physical and emotional torture brought about by the combination of powerful wanting and not being able to have what we want. To even tolerate the experience of eros is challenging; lovers in history commit suicide when they’re unable to withstand it. When I talk to some older people in long, stable marriages it becomes clear they’ve never tasted it at all, or at least if they did would never acknowledge it to themselves or me. I do think the experience of eros is unevenly distributed; that some people are utterly consumed by it, the way addicts are, and others have never felt it and never will. 

The way out of the torture of eros is to return to what it wants. Eros involves two parts–a bodily, psychological, and intellectual experience of want, and a perception of the ideal that is wanted. The trick is to understand that both parts are located within you (literally, within your body and your awareness, in some way). Even if your lover is standing naked in front of you, asking you to touch him, your perception of the man that you want is yours. Moreover, it is yours because something in you is drawn to that, and the world is not so simple and coherent as to only offer you that satisfaction from inside the body and mind of a single other individual. 

Once you have wanted a single person deeply, you can turn your head to look at the rest of the world and see sort of fractal shimmers of them and their qualities drenching the world around you. Eros, if you let it, will also want each of those instantiations, in a more diffuse, less ragged way. Perhaps the quality of his that arouses you is his fierce intellect; his wit and the way you feel when he understands the way you think in a way nobody else has understood before. What you are wanting is the ‘way of being responded to’ that this quality of his gives you. Perhaps you want the quality of her attention that loves without judgement, in a way that lets you become impervious to shame. Yes, yes, and all that; and it is not only hers; it is not only his. 

I think a common critique of eros is that it is delusional, or it is seeking a symbol of something that does not exist. I’d like to give humans more credit than that–rarely does such a powerful wanting rise up on its own, unbidden. It is generally triggered by the recognition of something real, responsive, and in the world at the level of sensation at the moment it is discovered. But, often, the desire for that thing that was experienced gets transferred onto an imagined, mental symbol of the experience and the ability to recognise new, similar experiences to the original thing gets lost. Then we go insane. 

This isn’t necessary, though.

Every possible kind of resonance has its copies in the world–its own subsequent kinds of resonance. The quality of her attention will become illuminated, perhaps more softly, in the attention of other people, in music and art, in the way you relate to yourself with loving attention and not harshness. The quality of his thought will become merely one among many as you notice its parallels in wider society and meet the other people who respond to you this way. It is perhaps this initial spark ignited by interaction with another that fuels the drive within you (again, remember, the physical, physiological, embodied drive, just as real as your drive to quench your thirst) to seek out this crucial quality everywhere. Certainly, when I’ve been hit by the eros truck the drive to seek out what I desired in the initial lover carried on for much, much longer afterwards. I suspect that drive was always there, dormant, and the other person merely woke it up.

This pattern of discovery–with its intense heartbreak and the way it can often leave your relationships with the real people completely decimated–well, I think it’s rough. I’d hope there’s a gentler way into the other side–a way of living where everything is alive to you, every person, space, and thing you perceive holds within it the potential for resonance; I’d like to discover that less-bumpy road myself. If you’ve been through the wringer a few times you begin to develop a sort of equanimity with the ache, and a healthy respect for your total lack of control of the object of your desire. Metabolised eros lets itself be rejected early and often; you become capable of looking like a fool in the pursuit of what you want, and in the process become capable of letting go of the intention to force any one person to give it to you in any particular way. 

Because this is the paradoxical secret of eros: because eros only wants to be responded with from another’s own eros, by forcing the other to respond you destroy the possibility of them responding. 

You cannot dance with what you are currently strangling from fear of losing it. You must accept the risk of humiliation, of loss, of contempt, of rejection, of outrage, of exile, if you want to give space to the possibility that eros will be truly satisfied. This is not only about lovers; you can, in uncommonly rich, delicate, creative spaces, have this dynamic in any domain. You can have this dynamic with your startup cofounder or your music teacher. Eros is not purely sexual, although it often starts that way, and its deep connection to sexuality is probably why we can basically never talk about it. 

I think the development of eroticism and a strong connection to eros is a powerful individual and collective component of the necessary response to modernity–the dry, dull, automated and factory-made lifestyle we all have to reckon with and often complain about. I can thank people like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich for that. Eros does, in its healthiest form, allow creative expression to emerge even in the most claustrophobic of situations, and despite its danger also brings a lot of joy. It is the most flourishing-oriented, passionately joyous embodied drive I know of, and also perhaps the most complex. This is one reason I wish it were more publicly recognised and its characteristics understood.

I would rather lose what I most deeply want while keeping my erotic intelligence intact, than gain it but in the process strip all the life out of the object of my desire. 

I feel alone in this attitude; so part of the desire driving this essay is a desire to both find the others who live this way, and to encourage its development in the culture around me. And hopefully, given the sheer number of gloriously stupid mistakes I’ve made in eros’ wake, I might have enough of the humility not to judge others and encourage them as they make brand-new mistakes in their own pursuit.