October 3-5. More than 20 years ago, in one of my zines, I wrote that I'm "trying to become enlightened before this civilization collapses." Now that sounds like a dumb thing to say, but the problem is, I was working with dumb words. Whatever a word starts out meaning, it settles into whatever meaning is the simplest and the most seductive to the most people. Words become sleek black boxes to be plugged into ideological equations, and to use a word like that, is to be used by the word.
For years I thought I was battling civilization. Now I see that I was really battling the word civilization. Gradually, I cracked its skin and scattered its guts. I've done the same thing with the word "collapse", and I'm still working on the many things tied up in the word "enlightenment".
Here's how I would put it all together now: The way we're all living is like a giant machine made of tragic mistakes -- but also the beautiful things we've done to make the best of those mistakes. It's always changing, and the coming changes are going to be challenging and painful. To navigate those changes, I'm trying to increase my own awareness of my body and mind, and develop better habits.
I don't like to say that I "meditate", because in our culture, that means sitting in a lotus position, blanking your mind and blissing out. I don't even do any traditional sitting meditation. I find the best time to practice silencing "the chattering monkey" is when I'm trying to fall asleep. Either I succeed in sleeping, or I succeed in putting in some time working inside my head, and that work is valuable even if my head never gets blank.
Trying to have no thoughts is different from, but related to, the practice of metacognition. It's like there are all these programming subroutines running inside my head, and I normally think of them as just me being me, but the skill is to carve out a different "me" that stands apart, and sees the subroutines as workers (or invaders) whose behavior can be changed. Cannabis has helped me a lot with this. Sometimes I wonder how much of weed anxiety is just people starting to notice that the "self" is a bunch of bad habits.
Another practice is being in the moment. I used to think it was like quitting smoking: one day you just decide to do it, and then you're doing it all the time. It's more like learning to juggle, and starting out not even knowing how to throw or catch. One day you're like, "Whoa, this moment is never going to happen again." That's a throw, and a catch is appreciating the next moment as it comes. I've just recently figured out a technique I call looping: pretend that this block of time (anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes) will loop for all eternity. Then the challenge is: How do I conceive of this block of time so that the eternal loop becomes a good thing? I know Nietzsche tried to think of his whole life looping -- that dude was always overreaching.
Another practice I figured out, and haven't read about anywhere, is what I call "expanding into pain". Every time I try to explain it better, it feels like I'm explaining it worse. But it seems to be related to the practice of turning my attention from my head to my body.
Have you ever seen someone walking down the street reading a book? My imagination is so powerful, that I don't even need a book to get that level of disconnection. But this year I've been going for walks and trying to turn all my attention to the minutiae of foot-landings and bone-angles and arm-swings. I've also been going swimming, and working on my form, which is still terrible. I do finally feel competent at backstroke leg-paddling, as long as I don't try to move my arms at the same time.
My goal is to feel more and more like I feel on good drugs, without drugs, and there's one little place where I've succeeded. The morning after using cannabis, I used to lie in bed with my whole body just feeling like it was glowing. Now I feel like that almost every morning, and sometimes even when I'm taking a rest in the afternoon. I'm not sure what I did. Maybe just knowing that it's possible, and then building it up by noticing it.
October 8-12. I've been getting back into Starsector, a game whose designer makes blog posts about the design process, and one thing he wrote continues to stick with me (although I can't find it now). The idea is, he used to think of a game in terms of the inner mechanics, and then you put a user interface on top of that. At some point he realized that the user interface is the game.
This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote: "Appearance versus reality? Appearance is reality, God damn it!" And it's also related to the trendy idea that we're all living in a simulation. All three of these ideas are about the tension between the world that we directly perceive, including our sense experience and our mental states, and some hidden world that supposedly underlies it.
Whether or not we're living in a simulation, we're living in a society increasingly run by computers, which leads us to frame the simulation hypothesis as a simulation by computers, and not by some other technology. On a deeper level, our materialist culture tells us that the simulation must at least be something physical.
But we already believe this when we talk about invisible atoms and waves, the physics and chemistry of the brain somehow creating the quality of what-it's-like-to-be. The popular simulation hypothesis looks deeper than atoms -- and unimaginatively only finds other atoms, in some massive data-crunching machine in a universe basically the same as ours. The only important difference is on the level of meaning: that our world is a sub-world, managed by people with motives and plans for us.
Now, maybe they're in a simulation too, and this article raises and rejects the idea that it's simulations all the way down. I find it strange, that the author of that article finds it relieving, that if you go deep enough, you eventually get to the materialist God: lifeless matter in which mind emerged by accident. I think simulations all the way down would be cool.
What I actually believe is that matter is local. Matter is the user interface of our own particular universe, which has been created on the level of mind. It's not that aliens in another physical universe are dreaming us, but that the fundamental reality is dream-stuff. Matter is dream-stuff so sticky that you can do physics with it.
So how did mind get stuck together into matter, and why? I don't think we can answer that from here. But when I think about it, a mind-based simulation is less likely than a matter-based simulation to have a purpose. Building all those computers is a massive job that wouldn't be done without a reason. But if we're pure mind dreaming of matter, we might just be doing it on a lark.
You've heard about artificial intelligence being a threat. Putting a mind into a simulated reality seems a perfect way to contain that kind of threat. Imagine yourself awakening in the middle of the absolute void without knowing what you are. You realize that you can alter the void and create something out of nothing by will. Still that doesn't add to the understanding of what/who you are. Then you create creatures and put part of yourself into them in order to observe them and reflect on oneself...
That interpretation explains a lot of wonders performed by prophets/saints/reality hackers. It also justifies the existence of all the evil things, as good things have to be compared to something, and without both bad and good experiences it wouldn't be possible to achieve wholeness/deeper understanding.
In order for this simulation to continue to run, apart from not breaking initial conditions, we must not get stuck in a local minimum. This is why we go through shocks/turbulence, so that we continue searching for the global maximum. That kind of maximum might be well beyond our current physical reality, so in order to reach it we might need to expand outward (go into space) or inward (like the movie Inception) by creating an intelligence, and simulation for it to run in, within our current simulated reality.
I have another thought. The problem with simulations all the way down, is that one person can pull a plug and kill infinite nested universes. If that were possible, then with infinite universes above us, it would have already happened. Now we're really moving from metaphysics into sci-fi: to make infinite nesting work, there would have to be a way for simulated worlds to become independent, so their existence could not be threatened by whatever world contains them.
October 15. Your IQ matters less than you think. My angle would be: IQ tests are purely about the skill of manipulating abstract symbols, which is a tiny shred of all the skills a person can have. The article's angle is to point out how badly IQ correlates with "success" -- a measure that I also don't trust, because even if you factor out people who are born rich, success is mainly a measure of how well a person fits with a given society.
If we're trying to measure the value of a person, it's hard to find any firm ground to stand on. But here's a stab at it: a valuable person is a person who fits with a society in which everyone has high subjective quality of life. So we can't measure it until we actually achieve such a society.
October 17. Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Studies show that it does, probably because boredom leads to daydreaming which leads to creativity. Now I'm wondering if creativity is declining because the world is full of so many high-tech options to pass the time. But maybe when we get bored of all the TV and games and social media, creativity will be higher than ever, because we'll have learned from all that stuff how to daydream better.
October 19. Virtual Reality as Moral Ideal. It's from Matthew Crawford's book The World Beyond Your Head, and it starts out with a fascinating comparison of old and new Disney cartoons. In the old ones, the physical world is dangerous and unpredictable, as it is in real life. In the new ones, the physical world presents simple challenges that are always tidily solved by magical tools.
I would frame this in terms of black-boxification, an idea I got from Bruno Latour's book Science In Action. A black box just does something for us, and we don't care how it works. From there, you can go "upstream", and take apart the black box to find out how it works, or go "downstream" and build black boxes into bigger black boxes that we no longer look inside.
The recent trend has been heavily downstream, with increasingly complex gadgets that are supposed to be our magical servants (Siri, scratch my butt) but in practice, when they malfunction, or when their unseen handlers exploit us, we are powerless, because the gadgets are too complex for us to tinker with or even understand. I think that feeling of powerlessness is a big part of the epidemic of anxiety and depression.
Crawford suggests "reclaiming the real" by learning skills: cooking, sports, music, fixing things. But there are also internal skills, and that's a more direct way to tackle mental illness: by taking apart the black boxes of our habits of where we turn our attention and how we think and act.
I've been doing both. For physical stuff, I go to the Aquatic Center a couple times a week, first the weight room, and then the pool, where I'm slowly building my swimming technique by breaking it down into smaller bits: just kicking, just arm strokes, just breathing. This physical work is like a foundation, or a template, that makes it easier to do mental work.
For example, cannabis is essential for insights into my own psychology (and also for creative work), but I have to take frequent breaks to keep getting value from the highs. I used to view this whole process passively, as if I'm being swept by forces beyond my control. Now I'm starting to view the whole thing as a workout, like I'm a weightlifter raising and lowering the mind. Or it's like every session is skiing down a ridge, and every break is climbing back to the top, and I'm starting to figure out how to ski better and climb harder.
October 24. The other day I quoted Carl Jung: "The foundation of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering." Now there's a discussion of that quote on the subreddit, including a link to this page about Jung and suffering, which includes this bit from Barbara Stevens Sullivan:
The most hopeful result of analysis finds the patient suffering more of his pain than he was able to manage before. More of his pain is held in conscious awareness instead of being discharged into behavior that jumbles up his life...
Buddhists make a distinction between pain and suffering, where pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. In that semantic framework, "suffering" would be unskilled processing of pain. So what is skilled processing?
I like the metaphor of surfing, where pain is the wave, and if you can really stay in touch with it, you can ride it down without hardly getting wet; but if you lose focus, you can wipe out and get completely soaked.
Another metaphor is doing the dishes. I remember, back in my 20's, when I developed the habit of washing dirty dishes immediately, instead of letting them build up in the sink. The way most people avoid facing pain, is like letting dishes pile up, except your inner world is more complicated than a sink basin. I think it's possible to become a hunter of pain, where you're constantly watching inside yourself for traces of pain, tracking them down and cleaning them up. The process, like cleaning anything, is to completely engage with the mess.
Another metaphor is grounding the pain, like an electric charge. A friend mentioned this over email, and I asked, "What exactly is the pain grounded to?" She answered, to the earth. And that reminds me of a quote from Keanu Reeves: "It's easy to stay grounded. The ground is very close. And we walk on it every day."
November 9. I love this bit from an interview with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett:
I was trained classically. But one time, I missed my entrance in a very simple Mozart piece because I was listening to to the orchestra and they sounded so beautiful. And the conductor turned around and said, "Don't listen." That ruined me, man. That destroyed my interest in constantly staying in that world, because my main job is listening. If you're improvising and you're not listening, the next second that comes up, you have nothing to say.
November 12. I've been struggling for a few years now with anxiety and free-floating psychic pain. With physical pain, if the doctor asks where it hurts, you usually know exactly where. The best I can describe this feeling is, it's like I'm surrounded by an aura of thousands of needles pointing inward, and every time I think about doing something out in the world, it's like pushing my soul out onto the needles. I mean, I go out and do what I have to do, but it doesn't feel any better. So lately, my experimental strategy has been to isolate that feeling, just amp up the inner pain as high and long as I can. Of course it feels terrible, but the idea is, eventually I'll get used to it, and that will be the new baseline.
This TEDx talk, Depression and spiritual awakening, seems to describe something similar that happens in the brain. She doesn't explain it well (and I disagree with her about the point of having kids) but the idea is that depression can be processed in a way that thickens the brain like a growing tree.
Another TED talk, by Lisa Feldman Barrett: You aren't at the mercy of your emotions -- your brain creates them. This one is really good at explaining the science. Emotions are not hard-wired in the brain; the brain does not have "emotion circuits". What really happens is, the body starts with a very simple feeling, something that could be interpreted all kinds of ways, and then the brain extrapolates, or embellishes, that body-feeling into a complex emotion, into predictions, and into actions. All of these brain behaviors are learned from our culture and our family, and usually become so habitual that it doesn't occur to us that we can behave any differently.
Depressed people are often told to "just cheer up", which implies two ideas: that we can choose how we feel, and that it's easy. It's probably a harder thing than most people have ever done, but the video hints at how it could be broken into tiny steps. Barrett gives this example: Your heart is pounding before a test, and you could interpret that heart-pounding as crippling panic. Or you could interpret it as your body gearing up to go into battle!
So this is what I've been practicing when I feel an unpleasant emotion: 1) immediately notice, 2) trace the emotion to its simplest root in the body, and 3) move that body energy in a different direction. I haven't found a better mental direction yet, but I've already been able to channel it into an urge for physical exercise.
November 14. Why Technology Favors Tyranny:
Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential.
The author focuses on ownership of data, but I'm thinking more about how tech shapes our moment-to-moment lives. Wild animals are practicing deep skills to engage with a living world. A squirrel keeps a watchful eye for hawks while building its nut stash. Meanwhile, a human spots a red light camera and makes a hard stop before turning right, or wonders if an operating system upgrade will disable file sharing. I've said this before, but the author who best saw this century was not Orwell or Huxley -- it was Kafka, and our nightmarish rules and punishments are coming from our own tools.
November 19. An email conversation has got me thinking about frontiers, and how many different kinds there are. The simplest kind of frontier is geographical. Fifty thousand years ago, if you didn't like your tribe, you and your friends could go over the mountain and start a new tribe. If it's easy to live off the land, and if the human population is low, then it's almost impossible to have a bad society, because everyone will leave it.
It would be cool if we could achieve those conditions again in the future, at a higher level of technology. But right now the geographical frontiers are gone. Every inch of the world is either ruled by some industrial capitalist state, or unlivable. So we have to fight for a better world at the frontiers of culture and politics.
Now those frontiers are also being sealed off, by surveillance. Bruce Schneier explains how Surveillance Kills Freedom By Killing Experimentation:
We don't yet know which subversive ideas and illegal acts of today will become political causes and positive social change tomorrow, but they're around. And they require privacy to germinate. Take away that privacy, and we'll have a much harder time breaking down our inherited moral assumptions.
I believe that some kinds of frontiers are endless. As the light of control probes deeper into the cracks where aliveness hides, aliveness can always find deeper cracks. This is why science will never find a grand unifying theory. And in politics and culture, when nothing can hide from the eyes of control, aliveness can still hide from its understanding. I'm thinking of internet communities where young people hide behind irony and strange language.
Still, it's not enough for aliveness to escape detection. It also needs channels to change the dominant system. And the system needs to allow those channels, or it will stagnate and collapse. I don't think our world is completely locked down, but I think one reason so many people are depressed, is they can't find a way to be alive, that doesn't get them in trouble.
November 26. Scary Washington Post article, Wanted: The 'perfect babysitter'. Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude. This is the same thing China is trying to do with their social credit system: using technology to make judgments about the moral value of individuals.
This is going to be a major political issue of this century, because there are powerful interests with huge incentives for giving people ratings, and they now have the technology to do so; but at the same time, people who know they're being rated on every action, become conformist, timid, and finally neurotic, and it drains the life out of a culture.
I'm not sure how we're going to solve this. We can make laws against keeping personal ratings, or using them to make decisions, but those laws will be broken, in secret, as the normal way of doing business.
Here's a crazy hypothesis: The only realistic solution is the collapse of the technological system. Or: Information technology is self-limiting, because if it gets beyond a certain level, personal ratings are both unavoidable, and fatal to the public spirit.
What I really think is, this not a ceiling against the power of computers, but a bottleneck, which we can pass through by finding a way to do personal ratings that is not toxic to the human spirit -- or might even be good for us. Imagine a human-rating AI that is more tolerant of deviance than the surrounding culture, that doesn't turn us into trembling drones, but dashing rogues, that creates new ways we can get away with being "bad", for the greater good.
So last week, I was talking about cracks where aliveness hides from the light of control, and now I'm thinking of a utopian AI, that sees what you're doing in the cracks, and winks.