Treating Back Pain Without Drugs 2.0

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Three years ago I wrote Treating Back Pain Without Drugs. Since that essay keeps getting hits and I’ve learned a few more things about dealing with pain without using drugs, I thought I’d write an update. I’ve had chronic back problems for years, but I’ve been mostly pain free without using drugs. I have spinal stenosis, which keeps me from laying flat or standing for long periods. If I aggravate the spinal stenosis it tends to spread to the muscles that causes back pain.

I have three kinds of symptoms which I control without drugs:

  • inflammation – tends to magnify other symptoms
  • neuropathy – feet, legs, mostly on right side
  • muscle pain – lower back, hips, sometimes legs


I went through years of trying to deal with back pain using drugs. They’d cover up symptoms, but I never could escape the pains entirely. I kept trying other ways to fight pain. I’d tried different sleep positions, a better bed, and using pillows between my legs or under my knees to align myself symmetrically while I slept. Nothing helped for long. I’d always wake up feeling worse. I finally concluded it was lying in bed that was causing the problem, so I started sleeping in a recliner. That made a huge difference! I still took pain pills and anti-inflammatory drugs, but sleeping in the chair seemed to fix most of my problem. It was around this time I began going to a back specialist. I thought I was having hip problems, because most of my pain was in my hips, with numbness down my legs. They did a MRI and said my hip was fine, but I had spinal stenosis due to arthritis and some bad discs. I was sent to a pain management specialist; he prescribed physical therapy. That was the second major remedy I found!

I’ve since learned that if I do my physical therapy exercises daily I can keep the pain down to almost nothing without drugs. Mostly I’d have numbness in my feet. If I skipped a day of exercising I could feel the muscles tightening up in my lower back. If I skipped another day or two, I start having a fair amount of lower back pain, spreading into my right hip. If I allow the pain to gain a foothold,  I’m back on drugs, and I’ll have a hard time moving around, especially getting up and down from a chair.

One of the annoying things about the spinal stenosis is I could no longer walk for exercise. I eventually found Z-Coil shoes, which have big ugly springs in the heel that act like a shock-absorber for my spine. Without the Z-Coil shoes, I’d frequently feel like I was stepping in a hole or slipping on ice, which I think was caused by pinching my nerve stepping too hard. With the Z-Coil shoes I could walk about a mile without causing too much numbness. But, the more I walked, the fatter my feet felt. If I keep pushing it, the numbness would work up my right leg. If things got really bad, I’d have numbness in my left leg.

Between sleeping in a chair, doing physical therapy exercises and wearing the Z-Coil shoes, I felt pretty good most of the time as long as I didn’t stand or walk too long. My feet remained somewhat numb all the time.

Unfortunately, the anti-inflammatory pills I was prescribed started bothering my stomach, so I stopped taking them. It was then I started reading about anti-inflammatory diets. This really helped with the numbness. Last summer, I started on a plant based diet to lower my cholesterol. I lost 25 pounds. I don’t know if it was losing the weight or the anti-inflammatory properties of the diet, but I was able to increase my walking to 2 miles at a stretch, and the numbness in my feet practically disappeared. This made me very happy. Later on, I was feeling so good that I started cheating on my diet, having some fun foods again, and on some days skipped my physical therapy. I didn’t gain weight, but I started having trouble walking again. The numbness returned. I had to stop walking for exercise for a couple weeks. I then went back to faithfully doing my physical therapy and sticking to the plant based diet,  and I’m now able to walk two miles in the morning again, and the numbness is almost gone.

I’m amazed by how much the plant based diet helps. It drastically lowered my bad cholesterol, let me lose 25 pounds in three months, and significantly reduced inflammation. It’s hard to believe some food can be so inflammatory, but going on and off the plant based diet has let me feel the inflammation come and go. I think the anti-inflammatory aspects of the diet were more important than losing the weight in helping with my back.

Along the way, I’ve discovered the B12 helps neuropathy. I take either sublingual tablets or get shots.

I’ve also had a few incidents of my upper back going out, giving me neck pain, with the pain running down my left arm. I’ve also discovered upper-body exercises will solve this problem too.

In all cases I’d recommend anyone wanting to exercise instead of using drugs see their doctor about which exercises are appropriate and safe for their condition. My spinal stenosis isn’t cured. I’ve just figured out how not to aggravate it. I feel like I’ve learned to walk a razor’s edge, and if I’m careful, I can avoid pain and drugs.

I’ve been catching episodes of Classical Stretch on PBS with Miranda Esmonde-White. I believe her philosophy and exercises might be an appropriate tool too. Miranda’s stretches are like my physical therapy exercises, but she has vastly more kinds of stretches, which would systematically work the entire body.

Essay 981 – Table of Contents

The Vital Role Emotions Play in Decision Making

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 5, 2015

In the summer of 1966, when Star Trek first appeared on television, I became fascinated by the character of Mr. Spock. Spock was half human and half Vulcan, and was constantly at war with his emotions. Vulcans believe rational beings are not emotional, so poor Mr. Spock had to use massive will-power to suppress his feelings. That appealed to me immensely. Then in the 1970s I took up various New Age pursuits that taught me to calm my mind and tame my emotions. Thus, I’ve always thought emotions were burdensome. That emotions got in the way of clear thinking. Last night I learned I was completely wrong. Brain research shows that we can’t make decisions without emotions.


Now I wonder if I’ve always been a indecisive person, with little drive, because I’ve kept my emotions on a very even keel. I learned as a child to crave stress-free living, and have arranged for a very calm life. I am contemplative and philosophical, rather than active and driven. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but assumed I was never unhappy enough to succeed. People I know who are writers are emotional, often disturbed and even tortured by their passions. I always thought I didn’t commit to writing because I lacked the pain to inspire me. Now I wonder if didn’t pursue my goal because my lack of emotions made me indecisive. Or maybe pain inspires not as power to animate, but as a series of decisions that direct.

I am reminded of an old fantasy story, where a magical coin if found by the main character who doesn’t know it’s power. Every time he wants to decide something, he flips the coin. Because the coin is magical, each decision moves him towards a magical reality. Evidently our feelings weigh our decisions and lead us to the reality they want.

I learned about emotions and decision making last night watching episode 4 of The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. This mind-blowing six-part series is shaking up my beliefs about how the brain works. Eagleman showed us a woman who was in a motorcycle accident and her brain was damaged in an area where her emotions and logic meet. She can no longer make even the simplest of decisions. Checking out articles on Google Scholar I learn this knowledge has been around for a while, often inspired by studies on people who had similar brain damage.

This information also makes me wonder about artificial intelligence. Machines won’t have emotions, so how will they decide? My old friend Bob Beach always argued that self-aware machines would turn themselves off. Without emotions they couldn’t even make that decision. AI machines will be able to process massive amounts of data, but how will they weigh their decisions? Up until now we’ve believed we made decisions based on logic – weighing the pros and cons, but evidently that’s wrong.

Actually, we should have deduced that without brain studies. How often do we decide on the side of illogic?

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How To Save The Planet–Without Detailed Instructions

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Humans are destroying the biosphere of planet Earth. Homo sapiens have overpopulated the planet, crowding out all the other species, and has initiated a self-destruct countdown. To solve this crisis requires creating a sustainable way of life, one that will ethically accommodate 13 billion people, allow other species to thrive, create a stable weather system, and not poison the biosphere with pollution. This is an immense challenge. There are countless books, studies, organizations, documentaries and pundits claiming they have solutions, but few people agree on anything. (I use the number 13 billion because most people today will see the Earth’s population grow to that number before it starts to shrink.)

The real responsibility falls on us individually. We each have to decide how to live and justify that lifestyle’s sustainability. In other words, any rational for survival you choose must be judged by what impact that lifestyle would have if 13 billion people also followed it. The Lifeboat Earth metaphor applies here. Ethically, we all have a justification to claim one thirteenth billionth of the planet’s resources, excluding the ethical share we first deem is due to all the other species. Our current philosophy is “everyone for themselves” – grab all you can get, and fuck all other humans and all the animals. It is this philosophy that will lead us to self-destruction, and why there is so much hate, violence and stress in the world.


Finding an ethical way of living that is equitable to our fellow humans and to all the animals is hard. You will have to do a lot of research, read a lot of books, watch a lot of documentaries, and listen to countless thousands of talking heads argue and argue. One recent documentary I feel is very persuasive is Cowspiracy, a film by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. I shall use it as an example. At it’s core, the film is trying to do what I’m talking about regarding sustainability. However, I don’t trust it’s numbers, and I’m guessing it’s motivations aren’t entirely honest and straight forward. But understanding these problems I have with the film are exactly the skills we need in evaluating any solution to save the planet.

There is no reason to want or expect us all to decided on the same path. We can each develop our own consumption plan so long as it integrates into the whole, and we each use only our fair share. Before we can begin inventing our individual solutions we need to understand what is our fair share of consumables and pollution. The mathematics of such an undertaking is way beyond my ability. So I never trust other people who claim to have that ability.

I find documentaries that use lots of facts, figures and infographics to be more persuasive than documentaries that don’t. The watchers of these film must deal with is whether or not the film’s figures are accurate. Even cheap, crudely made films can have great impact, such as Cowspiracy. I was far more moved by Cowspiracy than I was the more famous and better made, An Inconvenient Truth. Both appear to be about climate change and environmentalism, but I suspect the underlying motivation by Cowspiracy is animal rights. Andersen and Kuhn contend that raising farm animals has more impact on the environment than all burdens the various transportation industries place on the planet.

Do their numbers add up? Is their basic assumption correct? They are offering a reasonable solution to save the planet. Are they right? They offer a very simplistic path to solving the sustainability problem. First, watch the film Cowspiracy (free on Netflix streaming, $4.95 digital download, $19.95 DVD). Their solution, stop eating meat, poultry, fish and dairy. We must evaluate their plan. Would choosing a plant based diet make a sustainable lifestyle? Cowspiracy defines the sustainability issue properly, but I doubt their numbers justifying their solution, even though I’m personally pursing a vegan lifestyle and I’m for animal rights. I’m willing to consider that there might be ethical ways to eat meat that is sustainable.

Whether or not to eat meat, and whether or not raising food animals has a massive impact on the environment are a highly contentious issues. You can can find people on both sides of the argument claiming they know the truth and throwing out tons of facts and figures. I wish to set the ethical issues of killing animals aside for a moment, and just consider Andersen and Kuhn’s assertion that raising animals for food has a greater impact on the environment than all of the transportation industries combined. Does giving up meat help the environment significantly? More than going to mass transit and switching to a renewable energy based economy?

My guess is we could greatly improve meat and dairy production to make it sustainable, but it might require that people eat a lot less animal products than they do now. And even then, we’d still have to bring back the issue of animal cruelty. Andersen and Kuhn do define many of the issues we have to consider in creating a personal sustainable lifestyle.

  • We all have a fair share of fresh water this is sustainable, but will vary by location.
  • That a sustainable lifestyle will impact specific area of land.
  • That land set aside for humans should leave plenty of natural areas for animals.
  • That the impact of our land requirements not impact the weather, pollution or the biosphere.
  • That our personal energy use must be sustainable.
  • That we shouldn’t let people starve while we feed animals to produce meat.
  • Can we raise animals so they have quality lives before we kill them?
  • Are there humane ways to kill animals?
  • Is it ethical to kill animals?
  • Should you eat any animal that you didn’t personal kill?
  • Should we give land to food animals when wild animals have so little?
  • That factory animal raising is not sustainable.
  • That free range animal raising is less sustainable than factory animal raising.
  • That industrial fishing isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, and in the last couple years I’ve been veering towards veganism to reduced the clogs in my arteries, so Andersen’s and Kuhn’s solution would be no sacrifice for me. It would demand a tremendous change for most people, and a drastic transformation of society. Can you imagine if all restaurants were vegan and all grocery stores health food stores? I’m going to assume Cowspiracy plays fast and loose with its numbers simply because the film is on the amateur side. On the other hand, I’m going to assume they might be right and explore their solution.

We often admire members of The Greatest Generation because they survived The Depression and WWII. We admire their determination and sacrifice. We admire first responders and soldiers for their dedication and heroism. Often I meet people who wished they had done more good in their lives, or even lament they hadn’t done something extraordinary like their heroes. Some even feel their life has been without meaning. I don’t believe you need to be Pope Francis or Martin Luther King to help other people and make a great sacrifice. Just being decent, law abiding and nonviolent adds a lot to our society. Choosing not to act like an asshole and controlling your temper goes a long way toward bringing peace on Earth. Of course, I think many folks reading this will say they’d prefer to work inside burning buildings or go to war in Afghanistan than give up eating meat. However, from now on out, the best thing we can do for our fellow humans and our descendants is live a sustainable lifestyle. Are we willing to make that sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to meeting the challenge?

You need to see the film to be convinced that animal farming is having a greater impact on the Earth than all forms of transportation combined. Cowspiracy asks why all the major environmental groups are not focusing on the biggest problem the planet faces. If Andersen and Kuhn are right, then the single quickest way to fight climate change, the current mass extinction of animals, the destruction of the oceans, the collapse of civilization and create a sustainable society is to give up eating animals. The documentary points out that a plant based diet is sustainable, and it’s healthy. My own research into healthy diets is uncovering more and more doctors advocating a plant based diet. Giving up meat is better for the planet and better for you, and gives us hope for our descendants. However, I don’t know if Andersen and Kuhn’s numbers are anywhere near accurate.

Will people give up eating meat? I doubt it. Republicans are taking the brunt the responsibility for not doing anything about climate change because they refuse to give up fossil fuels. What if giving up meat could actually solve climate change without waiting on new renewable energy technologies? I doubt even liberals would embrace that solution. Why are bacon and eggs, milk and cheese, beef, chicken, pork and fish so important to us? What if the facts and figures in Cowspiracy are right?

Are there any sustainable sources of animals products? If people raised chickens and rabbits in their backyards, feeding them with yard grown food, would that be sustainable? What about hunters culling deer populations every year, or other animals that could live abundantly in the woods without human support? What if all fishing was from hook and lines? Andersen and Kuhn make it obvious that neither factory animal farms, or free range animal farming are sustainable. But what if everyone hunted their own meat? What if you really wanted to eat meat and were willing to hunt down an animal, kill it and butcher it, you could eat it and be sustainability justified? Andersen and Kuhn assumes all the land that went into grazing or raising food for livestock would be returned to the wild. Would that be true?

We all ignore the fact that we’re consuming more than the Earth can give. Humans are increasing in numbers while everything else is decreasing. We’ve been laughing at The Limits of Growth for forty years because the book hasn’t come true. We always assumed science and technology would continually solve the problems of exponential growth. The Club of Rome didn’t anticipate disruptive technology, but their basic premises were still correct. The Earth’s resources are finite and consumption can’t increase forever.

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Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris

Thursday night I got to hear David Sedaris enchant a nearly sold-out theater. One that holds a thousand people. That’s a lot of readers in one place for a writer. It’s a good thing we all loved him. I wonder if James Patterson or George R. R. Martin could get a horde of fans to shuck out $50 to hear them read? I was amazed by so many people coming to hear a guy read a couple New Yorker essays and banter for a couple hours. I considered it $50 well spent of my wife’s money—thanks Susan. But, is David Sedaris a standup comedian that publishes his routines, or a humorist that’s constantly on tour?

david sedaris

Sedaris is the funniest guy I know, and his skill with words is impressive, but I can’t just read his essays. I have to hear Sedaris speak his words, otherwise those words aren’t nearly as funny. I’ve always bought David Sedaris’ books on audio. Seeing him on stage was exactly like listening to his audiobooks, but with an extra sensory dimension. Strangely, the 3D visuals didn’t add much to his jokes—he’s kind of ordinary looking. He did wear a white shirt and tie, but with culottes, and even that outfit looked conservative on him. No, what makes you love the dude is his voice—and words.

Because Sedaris is so successful, I have to consider him as a role model for writing. I wish I could write blog essays that are as entertaining and funny as those I’ve discovered in the six books of his I’ve listened to so far. Even though I have to hear Sedaris, I’ve bought a number of his books in hardback to study. If I was a young person hoping to make it big putting words together for sale, I’d deconstruct David Sedaris’ career carefully. Strangely though, Sedaris reminds me of two 19th century authors who made piles of dough touring and telling funny stories based on their printed work: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The number one Sedaris lesson, is write funny stuff, a hard task, but also write funny stuff that matches your voice. Woody Allen was always great at doing this too. And thinking back, I can remember a lifetime of standup comedians that did just that too. As a kid I can remember reading Bob Hope books, and it was impossible to read them without hearing Hope’s voice and delivery in my head. Which makes me wonder, did P. G. Wodehouse or James Thurber ever go around entertaining people live? This makes me wonder all the more if Sedaris is a comic or humorist. It’s probably easier to break in through print than performing. Jenny Lawson has done a wonderful job as The Bloggess, but will we ever see her on stage like Sedaris? Do all funny writers eventually go live? But I could also ask, do all comedians eventually publish humor books?

As much as I’d love having the skill of writing funny essays, I’d never want the task of reading them in public.  Of course, lesson number two for becoming a successful writer like David Sedaris, is learning to speak in public, a scary concept for me. Evidently, Sedaris has spent countless nights in hotels, interacting with thousands of strange people personally before and after going on stage in front of millions. Sedaris seemed extremely at ease hanging out with us, even though we outnumbered him 1,000 to 1. Sedaris is so engaging, it’s hard not to feel like you know the guy, and even want to hang out with him. What kind of mental abilities are required to talk to people for two hours and not bore them? Does he have an overwhelming need to be liked, or has he learned that with selling books he must sell himself? Is this a requirement for all would-be writers? I assume most would-be writers are like me, introverts. Does a successful literary career require extroversion?

The third writing lesson I took away from seeing David Sedaris the other night is: Pay attention to other people. Sedaris read from his diary, making it obvious he’s a keen observer and collector good anecdotes. Funny stuff is everywhere. I’m surprised by how many jokes he just picked up off the ground. Having long lines of people queue up to get their book signed is a great resource of story ideas. Just be patient and let them talk. Sedaris’ early books were all about his family and himself, but as time passed more of his material came from observations of strangers he met in his travels. This is why Dickens and Twain were so popular. They were great people observers. Just look at the list of named characters Dickens created. Often they were based on real people. Dickens and Twain ended up their lives by touring the world enthralling audiences acting out their most famous characters and scenes. How much of great writing is witnessing those scenes and how much is imagining them? Did David Sedaris really feed his tumor to an old snapping turtle?

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Gimme That Old Time Meditation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 29, 2015

Meditation is gaining secular and even scientific acceptance. I first heard about meditation in the mid-sixties when The Beatles ran off with that guru. I even took up meditation in the 1970s during the New Age movement. For most of the last half-century, meditation was something aging hippies in sandals pursued. Then in the last decade, meditation has been embraced by therapists, human resource departments, Christian churches and even the military. All of this is well chronicled in 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, And Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris. Dan Harris is a reporter and anchor for various ABC television shows. His high-stress career and obsessive personality started causing on-air panic attacks and he began searching for solutions. Harris slowly embraced Buddhism and meditation because of covering stories about them while assigned the religion beat. His book is about his struggle to discover if there is any validity to meditation and Buddhism, and how to separate provable results from spiritual woo-woo. Essentially, he demystifies Buddhism and meditation. This is a great book for anyone skeptical about ancient self-help practices.


What I really liked about this book was Harris’ skepticism. As a reporter he knew how to ask hard questions, and whenever he met a new guru he didn’t hold back. Over the course of this story, Harris meets star gurus of the self-help circuit who promises the masses various forms of enlightening and happiness. Harris eventually concludes, on average, meditation has helped him to become 10% happier. He also believes if he works at it, he might even get an even higher return, but that meditation is no magic pill for transforming anxiety and depression into bliss. In other words, there is no free lunch.


What’s really involved is learning how our brains work. Meditation was discovered long before science, but it’s essentially a systematic way of observing our own brain. We can supplement meditative experiences with modern scientific research on the brain. I highly recommend The Brain with David Eagleman, a 6-part documentary currently running on PBS that’s based on his book. Last night’s episode was about the unconscious mind and how little our conscious mind knows. We all need to become amateur brain researchers to study our own minds, and meditation is a good observing technique.

Harris first encountered Eckhart Tolle after his panic attacks and was very receptive to his message. However, Tolle troubled him with a lot of mumbo-jumbo spiritual talk. Eventually Harris met Deepak Chopra and even the Dali Lama. With each guru he kept pushing them for exactness, and felt each man had some real understanding, but was often confused or turned off by weird unscientific terminology. Harris then he found psychiatrist, Mark Epstein, who was also exploring Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. Epstein introduced Harris to Joseph Goldstein, a master meditation teacher. Harris, who is Jewish, found practical kinship with these two Jewish meditators, and they connected him to scientists doing actual research on meditation.

This path took Harris years, and he carefully explains all his ups and downs trying to stay sane and happy while pursuing a high pressured job. Harris always felt Eastern wisdom seemed to conflict with Western ambition. At one point he even felt meditation had made him happier and kinder, but mellowness had deflated his drive to get ahead. By the end of the book, Harris is working on increased ambition combined with increased work towards Enlightenment, which is a goal I’d think most Americans would embrace. We all want success and happiness.

10% Happier shows a real difference between Eastern and Western religions. Western theologies just ask their followers to believe, whereas Buddhism asks their follows to work hard and observe. The Buddhists even have a saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” That’s to remind their followers that it’s very easy to get caught up in bullshit.

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Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 26, 2015

I’m taking a community education course in beginning drawing and it’s making me think about why we draw, paint and photograph. I took the course to do something with a friend and learn a few drawing skills, but the class is making me contemplate the nature of art. Most people now carry a camera with them at all times because of smartphones. Why learn to sketch, when a click of the camera can capture any image far easier? Yet, before cameras, why did we want to draw what we saw? The urge goes back to our earliest days as cave dwellers. Did drawing skills precede language skills? Often, whenever we want to explain something complicated to another person, we draw a picture. The hot new trend in journalism is infographics. And, there’s that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

cave art

My efforts to draw what I see has been extremely frustrating so far. I can draw a table that allows someone else to say, “Hey, that’s a table.” What frustrates me is I can’t accurately draw the table I see. I know I can’t become a human camera, but I do want to sketch with a level of accuracy that teaches me to see the abundance of details I’m currently ignoring. When I think about art, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Until we had cameras, artists strove to accurately record reality. Paintings were physical memories of what they saw. Artists also did more. They tell stories and create beauty. And, of course, they wanted to make a living, and maybe even become famous. Since I don’t need to earn money from drawing, nor do I care about fame, that leaves me with beauty, story and memory.


Right now I’m struggling to make smudges on paper that capture what I see. I’m picking objects that look easy to draw. But eventually I’ll want to record something I really want to remember, and something that I’m seeing in a more powerful way than how I look at things now. Ultimately though, I want to create something that’s beautiful. That’s the special quality of art. Art creates something that doesn’t exist in nature but competes with nature for beauty.

Right now I have absolutely no idea of how to create something new and beautiful, but I get the feeling that’s where this path leads. My teacher seems to know that’s where we need to go, but also knows we’re going to quickly get lost, and give up. Most people are artists when they are kids, but they lose their way. Maybe when we get old, we try to return to that way of looking at the world, like when we were young.


I doubt I’ll ever become an artist, or even create something beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. Trying teaches me about the nature of art more than just admiring works in a gallery or studying art history courses. It’s like programming computers, there’s lots of procedures, subroutines and techniques to learn. There are tools to master, and coding languages to memorize. I’m surprised by how many technical tricks are involved in drawing. Talent might be involved, and it might not either. My guess is it’s mostly practice and work, and picking up skills and tricks from other artists.

Anyone can draw a picture or snap a photograph. It’s the why that matters. What do we want to remember, what story do we have to tell, can we capture beauty we discover in reality, or can we add something beauty to reality? I hope I can develop a daily habit of drawing, and it become a routine like exercising. It’s really hard to start doing something totally new late in life, but I think it will be good for me. Just the little effort I’ve put out for this class hurts my brain in a way that lets me know how artistically out of shape I am, and how artistically fit some of my friends are in comparison.


I use John’s Background Switcher to display random photography as wallpaper on my desktop. Every ten minutes I get a new scene capturing a beautiful instant from somewhere in the world. These photos are memories, stories and beauty. I’m astounded by the artistic visions that photographers find, often in locations other people would call ugly. Other times I have John’s Background Switcher randomly go through famous paintings. Every ten minutes I’m reminded of the amazing diversity of what’s possible to imagine that’s not in reality. These paintings and photos transcend time and space, and they tell a relentless story.

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Sex and the Soul

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 21, 2015

If your soul was drawn to this essay because of the word “sex” then you need to be asking yourself why. By the way, this is no prurient clickbait come on. This is a philosophical exploration of why the soul is influenced by sexual chemistry. And full disclosure, I’m an atheist, so you might find it a bit discombobulating to hear me use the word soul. I could have called this essay “Sex and The Observer” but that could create all kinds of kinky misunderstandings. And I could have labeled this discussion, “Sex and The Self-Awareness,” but that’s kind of clunky and maybe onanistic. I happen to like the word soul, and I’m willing to accept that some folks believe they have an immortal soul. Since I’m an atheist, I believe my soul expires with the body.

Now, to the point. When you yearn for physical contact with another person, is that your soul or your body doing the yearning? In other words, is horniness inside your soul, or outside? Many readers are going to think this is a silly, pointless question. But if you know this history of the concept of the soul, it’s a fair question. Just study Plato and Aristotle, or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas, to see what I mean. Christians fervently believe they have a soul. Most don’t spend much time contemplating it—they just believe if they say the magic words, “I believe in Jesus” their souls get a free pass to heaven to hang out with friends and family for eternity. The main selling point to Christianity and Islam, is we have a soul that won’t die, but I doubt if even one percent of those populations ever contemplated the nature of the soul. They might be disappointed. In fact, when most people study the soul, they quickly get bored. The philosophy and theology behind the concept is deep and tedious, and often borders on the effort of counting the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin.

To catch up on the 2,500 year discussion of the soul, I recommend reading A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, and The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.


If you’ve ever studied meditation, then you’ve come across the concept of the observer. If you’ve ever studied artificial intelligence or brain science, then you’re familiar with the concept of self-awareness. It’s just easier to call it the soul. (My atheist friends cringe when I do this.) Once you understand why philosophers have been examining the concept for the last several thousand years, then this essay will make more sense. Or you can just practice meditation, and sooner or later you’ll notice that you can watch your thoughts. Then you can ask questions like: “Is the observer, my soul, the self-awareness that lives in this body, writing this essay, or my thinking mind?” This implies dualism, which is a black-hole of a topic. Modern thinkers see humans as a whole, with completely integrated parts. But if you meditate on your wholeness you’ll notice it has parts. The act of observing gives the illusions that the observer is separate from the observed.

Sexuality feels like part of the whole because people mostly think “I want to get laid.” But contemplate this thought problem: “If I die, will I still get horny in heaven?” I keep bringing up heaven and the afterlife, even though I don’t believe in them, because conceptually it helps to analyze the problem. In ancient times Christians believed they would be reunited with their bodies before they went to heaven. That’s why they wanted to be buried properly. Modern believers know the body deteriorates, and even allow for cremation. This allowed people to believe the soul leaves the body upon death. There is a subset of Christians who are concerned with abortion, who believe the soul is created at conception. And there are other believers who believe the soul exists before birth. The ancient Greeks thought the soul animated bodies. They observed when people died, their bodies became inert, and assumed whatever mechanism that animated those bodies had departed. This little bit of logic probably got the whole ball of wax rolling.

I take a totally different view of the soul. Brain and computer scientists want to discover what creates self-awareness. They assume it’s a bio-chemical process that can be replicated in silicon. In both the spiritual or materialistic sense, the soul is the driver of the body, whether it’s a human body, or a future robot body. Like I said, if you meditate, you can get to a place where you feel like you’re a passenger in the body, and you can watch it be driven around. Are you the driver, or something else? Strangely, the observer can only observe. A vast unconscious mind does most of the work.

One of the things the body likes to do is have sex. The question I’m asking is: “Does the soul desire sex or does desire originate in the body?” Many people will think this is a silly question. But if you are plagued by tormenting horniness or depressed because you can land Mr. Right, it might not. You might want to study Buddhism. If you’re unhappy because you’re not getting laid, is that the observer, or the body?

I think the soul is what’s created in our complex brain that allows us to be self-aware and conscious of reality. I think animals have this feature to a lesser degree, but they lack language, or the thinker. I believe our souls can evolve, become more complex, and more aware. I believe it’s possible to move further and further away from our animal nature. Currently, I think the observer/soul is different from the thinking mind because as we get older, or suffer disease or injury, it’s possible to damage the thinking mind, but the observer can still exist and even grow. Just read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sack for evidence. However, the soul can be damaged, or diminished too.

Modern thinkers don’t like the concept of the soul. They don’t like dualism. But they accidently bring up this problem when they speculate about brain downloading. This is a mostly science fictional concept that real scientists are exploring. What if you could record whatever makes up a person before he/she dies and then write that to a clone body or robot body. I doubt this is possible, but a lot of people hope it will be. I’m not a dualist. Brain downloading is the secular version of rebirth and immortality. I find it a fascinating topic because it opens up the question: “What is a person?” I believe we could call this theoretical entity that we hope to transfer to another body, the soul. Religious people have been using the same concept for thousands of years, why not repurpose the word for modern times?

We know a person can lose a leg, arm, eye, etc. and still be the same person. What if they lose a whole body? I believe, like modern scientists, that who we are is an integrated whole, and we can’t separate soul from body. But I do think it’s possible to create new souls in computers—which is the goal of artificial intelligence.

By now, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the juicy sex discussion. Science is learning more about gender identification and sexual preference every day. Studies with transgender children only emphasize how deep gender identification goes into our programming. We’ve also come to accept that sexual desire comes from a deep genetic level and not layered on cultural conditioning. So, does the soul have gender? Does it have a sexual preference? Or is that the body? For those who don’t separate soul and body, this is no problem. But if you plan on residing in heaven or hope to reincarnate in a robot body, it might. I think it’s also an interesting question for meditation. Is the observer, the mechanism that is self-aware and watches reality, an observer of gender and sex, or a participant?

Ultimately, this is a theoretical discussion. It has no answer, at least until science can recreate consciousness and self-awareness in the laboratory. Yet, it’s a great philosophy exploration in the vein of “Know thyself.” It’s also very important to asceticism. The world has a long history of people who seek to avoid suffering, and maybe gain enlightenment, from detaching themselves from the physical desires of the body.

Spiritual believers feel we are a soul that is visiting physical reality to inhabit a body for a limited time. Materialists believe we are accidental self-aware beings that have evolved inside biological creatures through brain complexity. Spiritual people believe the body corrupts the soul. I wonder if the body dominates the soul and if its possible for the soul to dominate the body. Why are some people are civilized and other people little better than savvy animals? Is that a choice? Is it cultural conditioning? Is it genetics? Is it a matter of seeing your soul separate from your body?