May 2017 - ?

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May 10. With the weather getting warmer, I'm going barefoot as much as possible. Last night I dreamed that I was in some kind of office and realized that I'd forgotten to wear shoes, so I was trying to go discreetly outside to put my shoes on and come back in.

Suddenly I understand what's going on with kids who dream they're naked at school. Just as I know there's nothing wrong with not wearing shoes, they know there's nothing wrong with not wearing clothes. The dream is about being in an insane world, a world full of rules that you can't reason out from anything practical or ethical -- you just have to learn the rules one by one, and there's always a fear that you'll get a big one wrong. It's not a shame dream -- it's a Kafka dream!

May 12. Yesterday I ate some cannabutter and noticed, and not for the first time, the simple and difficult solution to depression and motivation. My inner dialogue, on the boundary between conscious and subconscious, is extremely inefficient, like a clunky machine that half the time works against itself. So it's just a matter of going in there and fixing it, which requires moment after moment, hour after hour, month after month, of practicing metacognition.

That's one reason I think sitting meditation is overrated. Of all the stuff in your head that needs to be fixed, most of it will never come up when you're trying to do nothing, only when you're going about your normal day, so that should be the main focus of inner attention. Gurdjieff was saying that more than a hundred years ago.

I also want to point out that the practice of metacognition has to be completely non-judging, because if it's even a little big judging, you fall into a recursive loop: judging yourself for judging yourself and so on.

May 15. I've half-joked that it's better to follow sports than politics. For one thing, you have more influence over sports, because it has never happened that a single voter has swung an election for national office, but it has happened that a single fan has swung a baseball playoff game by interfering with a fly ball.

But now I have a more serious argument. Wherever you turn your attention, you tend to internalize the rules of that world. For example, if you grew up in a family where people got what they wanted by being pushy, or by complaining, or by using a particular flavor of subtle communication, you're going to expect that same strategy to work in the larger world.

In politics, what strategies lead to success? Bullshitting everyone all the time, using subconscious mind control tricks on the voters, making secret deals with big donors, and generally being as cynical as possible. The more you follow politics, the more you will expect that those strategies are universally effective, and that being honest and selflessly serving the greater good will lead to failure. And I think the corporate world is almost as bad.

But in sports, not all the time but more than in any other public event, success is a function of being really good at fully transparent skills. Since I cut back on following politics, and started following a few sports closely, I've been asking less often, "How did the world get so fucked up?" and asking more often, "What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life?"

May 19. Subreddit thread about determinism. I want to briefly hit the subject from another angle:

Determinism is a hyper-rational philosophy that oddly leads to compassion. A determinist will never solve a problem by saying "that guy's an idiot" or "those people are trash," because how did they get that way? By the coldest of logic, everyone has been doing exactly the best they could have done from the day they were born. Then the question becomes: How can I use my illusory choice to change the world so that people doing their best is good enough?

May 22. On a recommendation, I read the book The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer. It doesn't tackle my main problem, which is how to do things I don't feel like doing. Instead it's all about how to quit smoking and other bad habits: by looking curiously inward at your own cycles of compulsive behavior and reward.

I was hoping the book would answer my question from a few weeks ago, about whether daydreaming is bad for us. Brewer thinks it's bad, but his arguments against daydreaming are anecdotal, speculative, and imprecise. The closest he comes to a good answer is in another context where he describes two kinds of feeling good: one that brings "restlessness and a contracted urge for more," and another that "results from curiosity" and is "open rather than contracted."

Brewer treats the brain's default mode network as the Great Satan, probably because that simple view fits Buddhism as he understands it. This article has a more balanced view: Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus, and it describes a practice called positive constructive daydreaming.

Near the end, the book has a promising metaphor about our internal compass. I would extend it like this: deep inside we all have a compass that can sense the subtle magnetism of the right thing to do in almost any situation. But we can't read it because we're surrounded by artificial magnets that constantly give us wrong directions. I'm tempted to list some of them, but I'll just speculate that seeing past them, to the truer magnet, is a skill that anyone can learn in 20-30 years.

June 5. Following a tangent from a few weeks ago: What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? I'm not the best person to answer that, but I'm also not the worst. That would be someone like Elon Musk who has always been successful. Whatever it is that makes someone good at life, for a lucky few it's so intuitive that they're not aware of it and couldn't describe it.

This is true for everything. If you've had to grind through the details of getting good at something, then you can tell others how to do it, but if you can't remember not being there, then you can't see the path.

Also, if you can't remember not being good at something, then it's tempting to dismiss people who are not good at it, to see them as inferior in some absolute way. "Idiot" is a word used by people who take their brainpower for granted. No one who has struggled with low motivation would call someone "lazy". Even people who were born rich tend to believe that money comes from virtue, when they themselves got it through luck.

So as a general rule, talent feeds disparagement and hard-learned skill feeds compassion.

Are there moral talents? There are attributes considered moral by this culture, that are subject to talent. This leads to a weird paradox, where a naturally good person might be less good than a naturally bad person who becomes good.

June 7. Taking another crack at Monday's subject: If someone is better than you at anything, there's always a deeper reason. We understand this for intellectual and physical skills, like being good at math or baseball. But our culture thinks differently about emotional skills like courage, kindness, honesty, drive.

This subreddit post mentions a bunch more, taken from this page of 24 character strengths. We imagine that people with these kinds of skills have somehow earned them, when usually they were born with them (or with simpler component skills), or their family helped them develop the skills at such a young age that they don't remember not having them.

Of course you can improve "good person" skills as an adult, but what arcane factor separates someone who does this from someone who doesn't? We imagine that it's just some deeper level of being a good person, and so on, turtles all the way down.

It doesn't occur to us to think of good character as a matter of luck. We actually have a taboo against the idea. That's why the Big Five personality model, which says the traits are mostly fixed for life, won't say that high conscientiousness is better than low conscientiousness, or that low neuroticism is better than high neuroticism -- but those judgments saturate our culture.

On a personal note, it feels liberating to think of character as a matter of luck. Since I sent my first photocopied zine out for review, strangers have been attacking my character, and I've been doing the most obvious and least effective thing: defending my character. I'm so deficient in wisdom and creativity that it took me 20 years to figure out the better move. There's an old Billy Bragg song with the line "Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy." I always thought it would be more radical the other way around: "Just because I'm lazy doesn't mean you're better than me." But the even more radical move is to concede both points.