"Look at the sunset from the sun's point of view."
- Steven Wright
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October 9. Two comments on unknown knowns. From Voidgenesis on the subreddit:
This made me recall personal experiences of learning to play piano. My conscious awareness was mostly located in my dominant right hand. As I became more skilled and the left hand got involved it was as if someone else was controlling it much of the time. That in turn reminded me of all the neurobiology research showing that the mind is not a coherent construction, but composed of many different modules competing for access to the central self aware part (or frantic confabulator depending on your perspective). If attention is a neurological illusion then it tints the whole original conceptual framework.
And from Matt over email:
Perhaps the reason no one challenged your claim that attention can home in on something without us knowing it, is that people intuitively grasp how attention is more cloud-like than laser-like.
We can be thinking about an anxiety-inducing project at work, have a song stuck in our head, briefly be annoyed at another person on the train, and have a memory surface all within the space of seconds. It's easy to fail to realize that a part of our mind began replaying a song it heard from someone's smartphone before we boarded the train. We may suddenly wonder why we're thinking about so-and-so from college only to trace the memory to the fact that we've been replaying a song internally. We may or may not know why the song entered our thoughts at all.
If there's any activity that can be said to cause the most suffering, I'd say it's this: thinking about something without clearly knowing that you're thinking about it or knowing the negative effects that's having on your body.
October 7. A few more thoughts on attention. First, I was surprised that no one challenged me on category 2, "where your attention is, and you don't know it." How is that even possible? Isn't that the definition of attention, that whatever your attention is on, you know it? Maybe it's like "Yeah, when I'm focusing on that thing, I'm aware of it, but I didn't notice I was focusing on it that much."
I'm also thinking about the metaphor of fish not being aware of water. When I first heard that, it seemed profound. Since then, in some circles, it's become a cliche, and the usual interpretation is that the aware-of-water are better than the unaware-of-water. But notice, the best known presentation of the metaphor is probably by David Foster Wallace, who killed himself.
Taking it literally, an actual fish would have no reason to be aware of water, and becoming aware of water would add an unhelpful cognitive burden. Taking another shot at what I wrote last week: maybe the recent surge in depression and anxiety is caused by the cultural trend of assuming that more awareness is always better, and now we're struggling with conscious awareness of too many things that are better handled subconsciously -- or even mishandled.
October 4. First, some loose ends from this week's posts. From Monday, two links on fame. Homo Narrativus and the Trouble with Fame argues "that fame has much less to do with intrinsic quality than we believe it does, and much more to do with the characteristics of the people among whom fame spreads." And The Myth of Commoditized Excellence is about how movements start with good ideas, but to grow beyond a certain level of popularity, they have to be polished down to bullshit.
And Mark writes, "Your Oct 2 post is probably the best you've ever written." That's interesting, because almost all my other posts have been written straight to a computer screen, sober, and my Oct 2 post was written longhand on two puffs of good weed. Unfortunately, cannabis only buffs my creativity for a couple days after a break, and then the high becomes less illuminating and more numbing, until I take another break. Of course everyone's brain is different, but I wonder how many everyday stoners, or non-users, would benefit from a schedule of 1-3 days on and 2-5 days off.
For the weekend I just want to recommend a film. I saw it back in 1995 when it came out, and this week I rewatched it. If you like the story "The Yellow Wallpaper", and if you've ever made it through a Tarkovsky film, check out Todd Haynes' Safe. It's long and slow, with a similar story updated to 1980's California: an affluent housewife (Julianne Moore) gets a mystery illness, but instead of going into a creepy bedroom, she goes to a new age retreat center.
The ending is carefully ambiguous, and we never get a clear answer about what's wrong with her or whether she'll recover. And the atmosphere is a lot like a horror movie, except that every character is trying to be nice, and the horrifying thing is the alienation of modern life.
October 2. Continuing on the subject of attention, this subreddit thread has helped clarify my thinking, and now I can define four categories: 1) where your attention is, and you know it; 2) where your attention is, and you don't know it; 3) where your attention is not, but you know it could go there; 4) where your attention is not, and you don't know it can go there.
This is a lot like Donald Rumsfeld's speech about knowns and unknowns. He was talking in the context of war, and information technology has put us in the biggest attention war of all time. We are fighting for four things: to see, to not see, to be seen, and to not be seen. Turn the TV to the game, mute that ad, look at my tweet, and don't track me Google.
There's a lot to be said about being seen and not being seen, but I want to focus on seeing and not seeing -- especially not seeing. This is the age of raising awareness, and it's gone so far that we're overwhelmed. Our ancestors could have not imagined how many demands we have on our attention, or how hard it is to choose among them.
I think this is why some people are pushing back against mindfulness. The last thing we want is even more shit we're supposed to be paying attention to. But the way I see it, the mind is like a web browser, and mindfulness is like changing your preferences. It's difficult, but it's an investment: by giving some attention to your own filter, you can learn to filter more stuff out, and free up some attention for whatever you decide is important.
September 30. Continuing from last week, over on the subreddit I got some surprising pushback from an idea I thought was non-controversial: that it's better to ground yourself in your own stream of experience, than in how (you think) other people see you. So I probably need to explain myself better.
I see my role, as a writer, as reaching out into the unknown, looking for ideas that maybe nobody has had yet, or that nobody has put into words, and whatever I find, I put it out and see what happens. If people like it, that's great; if they don't like it, that's still okay. But what I don't want to do, is figure out what people want, and give it to them.
This subject reminds me of this essay from 2016, Confessions of a Failed Self-Help Guru. It starts with an anecdote about Deepak Chopra, getting ready for a presentation, asking if his pants make him look fat. The point is, no matter how enlightened your intentions are, that's what happens if you go down the road of grounding yourself in how other people see you.
Lately I've been thinking about fame. It started when I read about how Haruki Murakami reverse engineered his fiction for the American literary market, and that's why we've all heard of him and not other Japanese authors who are more creative. William James identified two opposing human drives, one toward surprise and one toward recognition. Fame is all about fit with social machinery that feeds recognition.
Now I'm thinking about popular music, and how much better it was for a few decades in the late 20th century. It's not that one generation was more creative, but that the mass culture became receptive to surprise, so that wild and raw music, which is always around, briefly became popular and influential, before slipping back into obscurity.
September 25. Quick loose end from the last post. Instead of talking about two different definitions of the self, it would have been more clear to talk about two different things that the word "self" points to. (That seems to be common for important words, that they point to different things and we don't notice.) I don't want to call them the true self and the false self -- that feels pompous. But I will say that it's a stronger position to define yourself in terms of your moment-to-moment experience, than to define yourself in terms of how other people see you.
One more link on the subject of attention: To Pay Attention, the Brain Uses Filters, Not a Spotlight
Moving on, a smart and very depressing article, Public Opinion in Authoritarian States. The main idea: "for many of the most effective authoritarian systems, controlling the thoughts of the ruled is secondary to shaping social cleavages in the population."
Then it goes on to explain how ordinary humans do not choose their political positions out of rational thinking or even self-interest, but for social reasons: they want to believe the same stuff as their in-group, and the opposite of their out-group. And even in a supposed democracy, the ruling interests understand this and use it to control us.
Finally, going into the weekend with something happy, The Village That Turns Bombs Into Spoons.
September 23. So the other day, after writing about pain, I started wondering about boredom. What exactly is it? Is it the opposite of pain, or another kind of pain?
Then I started thinking about attention again, and came up with this: boredom is the absence of anything that earns your attention; pain is the presence of something that demands your attention without earning it. So having to listen to your boring uncle at a family dinner is not actually boredom, but pain.
Now I'm thinking about attention as a dimension of power — or really two dimensions. Power can force you to give attention you don't want to give, like ads, and it can give you attention you don't want, like surveillance. I chose technological examples because high tech is the new frontier for the abuse of power. Old-fashioned abuses of power, like groping, are really uncool now.
Then I'm thinking, those two dimensions of attention can also make two different definitions of the self. I've written before about the "not that" meditation, where you ask yourself, "What am I?" And whatever answer you come up with, you keep saying "not that" and looking deeper. The deepest I can get is that I am an experiencing perspective, and on top of that I have a stream of actual experiences, and on top of that, expectations and desires about where the stream is going.
The other definition of the self, you can see developing in little kids, when they take great pleasure in hiding and popping out. "Where did she go? There she is!" They're learning to see the self as an object in other people's streams of experience.
This is not a new idea, and I'm not sure where I'm going with it. I just think it's strange that a concept as important as the self, which we think we understand, can have two attention-based definitions that don't overlap.
September 19. A reader wants me to say more about anxiety and depression being disorders of attention. Of course that's not all they are — sometimes there's actual brain damage. But I think a lot of us can go a long way toward mental health, just by practicing different habits of where and how we turn our attention.
Lately I've made some progress on managing anxiety, with a practice that I call expanding into pain. Every self-help guru will tell you, expansion is good and contraction is bad. What they don't tell you is what exact thing you're expanding, because it's really hard to explain. Another thing they don't tell you is that expansion feels terrible. If it felt good, we wouldn't have to be told to do it.
But for me, the pain is the key to the practice. I usually do it in the morning, when I'm still lying in bed, making the mental transition from the world of dreams to the world of earthly responsibilities. I'll be thinking about something that feels bad, and the practice is, never mind the thing, focus on the feeling, and amp it up, as strong as I can, as long as I can.
I'm sure a brain scan would reveal some action in the amygdala or wherever, but what it feels like, is that the world is made of needles and knives, and I'm expanding my astral body into them. I've started to call it my morning stretch. And after doing it enough, it becomes like a muscle that I can flex at will.
So if I'm out in the world, in some anxiety-causing situation (typically driving, which is so dangerous that if your attention lapses for half a second it can ruin your life) I can expand into it, and it's like the martial arts move, where someone throws a punch, and you move toward the punch, so that it hits you before it builds up any power.
Or it's like, anxiety is paying interest on pain, but if you catch it in time, you only have to pay the principal.
September 16. I'm in a weird place mentally, and also I'll be on the road this week without my laptop, so I might take the whole week off from posting.
September 12. Going early into the weekend with some happy links. The Future of Wind Turbines? No Blades. Do you ever drive past a dusty field, and see tiny funnel clouds? You might think those things only happen in dust, but the dust just makes them visible. They're everywhere, because air likes to do that, and this new design can harvest that motion.
Why industry is going green on the quiet. It often makes sense economically, but they don't talk about it because people are cynical about greenwashing.
Is the Modern Mass Extinction Overrated? It's an interview with a conservation biologist who argues that we might be gaining as many species as we're losing, if you count plants and insects, and hybrids adapting to climate change. More generally, the best way to increase biodiversity is to work with change, and not to try to keep things exactly as they were in the recent past. Related: Bring Back North American Elephants.
Glasgow Police Stop a 3000 Person Hide-and-Seek Game at an Ikea. I'm thinking, a hundred years in the future, if the human population is falling, there will be cool abandoned buildings everywhere to play hide-and-seek in.
September 9. I'm feeling uninspired this week, so I've gathered some one-liners that I've jotted (actually typed into Notepad++) over the last few months, while high:
Cannabis resets the kind of memory that causes boredom.
Ninety percent of wisdom is been-there-done-that.
Indecisiveness is grief: your options are your pets.
Anxiety and depression are disorders of attention.
A religion is a social organism that feeds on spiritual experience.
The presidential race is a reality TV show. They're all performers pretending to be authentic, and trying to avoid getting voted off.
Confidence is that which enables you to move on from mistakes as if you'd meant them.
September 6. A few health links. Burning Sage Kills 94% of Airborne Bacteria. They burned it for an hour, and "The room remained almost entirely disinfected for over 24 hours, and seven strains of disease-causing bacteria previously present in the room still could not be detected 30 days later."
The Fundamental Link Between Body Weight and the Immune System. Basically, your immune system decides which bacteria will be permitted to exist in your gut, and different gut bacteria digest food differently. So your immune system can make you fat or thin. I'm the rare person who can lose weight much more easily than I can gain it, which must mean that my immune system hates bacteria that are good at extracting calories from certain kinds of food.
That's probably why I hate fasting. Earlier this week I did a 36 hour fast, partly inspired by this new study about the benefits of short term fasting. Back in my 20's, during the excessive self-control phase I mentioned the other day, I did a four day fast, and I never reached the no-hunger plateau that other fasters report. For me the hunger just gets worse and worse. I'm sure the science is right that it's good for my body, but the only benefit that I personally experience, is that I don't have to floss.
Brain food: a nutrient vegans lack. It's a very short article about choline, and "an impending choline crisis brought about by the trend towards plant-based diets." Some fast food places are rolling out plant-based burgers, but those are highly processed, and not good for you. If you want to reduce your climate footprint, you can go a long way by just switching from beef to chicken. And I'm looking forward to burgers made from mealworms or other insects.
And some music for the weekend. In 1983, the Scottish post-punk band Altered Images recorded this cover of Neil Diamond's Song Sung Blue, and it sounds like children's music on acid. A great original by the same band: I Could Be Happy.
September 4. Over on the subreddit, Voidgenesis makes a serious attempt to answer Monday's questions. I think the root of the problem is that humans have pushed our power so far beyond our understanding, that it's hard to even figure out the right thing to do, let alone feel like doing it.
I've been thinking a lot lately about thinking vs feeling. After my social media post, Jeff sent this video, The Science of Internet Addiction and Brainpower, which frames the prefrontal cortex (thinking and willpower) as the angel on one shoulder, and the reward circuit (doing what feels right) as the devil on the other. That's fair enough if you're trying to quit Facebook, but as a general idea, it's dangerous.
In my 20's, I went so deep into forcing myself to do stuff I didn't feel like doing, that I started having nightmares about being dragged to death. Ever since then I've been skeptical about the value of willpower, and I've been struggling to integrate feeling into my decision making.
I'm still not sure what the difference is, if any, between following your gut, following your heart, and whatever feelings push us to do obviously harmful things. If only there were an actual angel and devil, so we could just look and know which voice was right.
September 2, Labor Day. Continuing from last week, Eric comments on what the author of the intentional community piece might have meant by restless dreamer syndrome: "What that phrase conjures for me is the person who floats into a group looking for some ideal experience, then wanders off when it is time to do some heavy lifting."
The more I think about this subject, the more questions I have. Why do we have so little faith in the dominant system, that we expect a better experience from a system that's new and untested?
How can there be a scarcity of people willing to do useful work, in a species that has done such an excess of useful work that we have turned forests to deserts and destabilized the climate?
Why do small communities always have a shortage of workers, while the big economy always has a shortage of jobs?
What if a community actually succeeded in building a way of living that was clearly better? How could they avoid being violently taken out by the dominant system?
Why is there so little overlap between what we feel like doing, and what's good for us to do? Why are humans the only species in the world that has this problem?
August 30. Posted the other day to the subreddit, a smart Aeon essay about why intentional communities fail. My comment in the thread picks on one detail. In the list of reasons that communities fail, one of these is not like the others:
Malarial infested swamps, false prophecy, sexual politics, tyrannical founders, charismatic con-men, lack of access to safe drinking water, poor soil quality, unskilled labour, restless dreamer syndrome, land not suitable for farming.
I can find no reference to "restless dreamer syndrome" anywhere else on the internet. The author just made it up, and she neither defines it nor explains why it's bad for communities.
To me it sounds like the voice of a culture that has gone astray from human nature, disparaging two aspects of human nature that it no longer has a place for: nomadism and imagination. Even utopian communities can't make a place for those things, because the surrounding society has property laws that prevent communities from being nomadic, and because they set up rules that limit the ongoing contributions of imagination and creativity -- which is basically another form of nomadism, social or spiritual rather than geographical.
So a deeper reason communities fail is because they imitate the settled nature of the dominant culture. The Aeon essay has a similar conclusion:
Perhaps a more useful construct than intentional community is the idea of 'shadow culture', defined by Taylor as a 'vast unorganised array of discrete individuals who live and think different from the mainstream, but who participate in its daily activities'. Shadow cultures have the potential to hold distinct values, but also utilise the infrastructure and opportunities of mass society.
And the next comment in the thread, by MakeTotalDestr0i:
The most resilient intentional communities are gutter punk types because the conditions they live in are extremely variable. They build community and break apart in geography only, not as much socially, but continue existing and reforming over and over in different places with somewhat varying groups of people but usually enough crossover that there is a consistent feeling of continuity.
Two good books on the differences between settled and nomadic culture are Morris Berman's Wandering God and James C Scott's Against The Grain.
August 28. Spinning off from Monday, my comment on traffic noise led Kyle to send me this video, John Cage about silence, in which he says, "If you listen to Beethoven, or to Mozart, you see that they're always the same. But if you listen to traffic, you see it's always different."
John Cage is famous for a piece that's supposedly four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. When I dug deeper, it turns out that description misses the point. The music in 4'33" is not silence, but whatever subtle ambient sounds the silence reveals.
So then I looked into Cage's solo piano. From 1948, Dream sounds like someone randomly hitting keys, and it's also perfectly beautiful. That's really hard to do. This summer I've been playing lots of piano on a digital keyboard, and I might start by randomly hitting keys, but then I'll narrow it to set of keys that sound good together, and then I'll find a riff and just jam on it. What Cage does is to avoid falling into any seductive pattern, to stay in the chaos of early experimentation, but keep it sounding good.
This is basically the same as meditation, where you avoid falling into patterns of thinking, and just keep your mind loose and wide without getting bored. Quoting my favorite song: "The choice, every part of this groove is quiet."
Digging deeper, even John Cage's "Dream" is like a pop cover of Erik Satie's Vexations. It's half a page of sheet music, in a weird notation, with instructions to "play the theme 840 times in succession." It was forgotten until Cage published it and organized the first performance, which took 18 hours.
According to this New Yorker essay, A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece, Vexations is so anti-earworm that "Even after hundreds of repetitions, players are forced to sight-read from the beginning, as if learning for the first time." And from Wikipedia:
Maybe Satie's intent was nothing more than to prove that any harmonic and rhythmic system was only a matter of habit for the hearer: so that after listening 840 times to a chordal system that is at odds with any habitual one, and set in an odd metre, one would possibly start to experience this new system to be as natural as any other."
August 26. This is the best article I've seen yet about social media, The machine always wins. It might not have any new ideas, but it's a great presentation of what we already know, including the similarities between social media and slot machines.
I've never used Twitter (except to view sports highlights) so I was surprised to read this: "On Twitter, if the replies to your tweet vastly outnumber the likes and retweets, you have gambled and lost." Apparently, if you agree with something on Twitter, you normally just like or retweet, and if you add a comment, it's normally because you disagree. That unwritten rule means that Twitter is a platform for shouting back and forth, and not for exploring or learning.
Imagine a social media site with this code: clicking the downvote button counts your downvote and then closes the tab; only if you first upvote, can you post a reply. Ideally every thread would be building up from the original idea. Of course, someone could easily get around that rule, but I wonder if it would be enough to shift the culture.
The article's next paragraph concludes that Twitter "is a terrible place to idly propose provocative theses." So now I'm thinking, how do we make a good place to idly propose provacative theses? That's basically what I've tried to do with this blog. I've done it by not enabling comments, by avoiding hot-button subjects, and by writing in a dense style that you have to slow down to understand.
I'm also thinking about the psychology of getting drawn into conflict. The other day I had my best meditation session yet, after reading some instructions that used the word "entangled". Entanglement is what you're trying to avoid. It's okay to let thoughts emerge, it's okay to bump into them (I imagine bumper cars), but the practice is to go as long as you can without your attention getting caught on any one thing.
I should also say, although I was sober at the time, cannabis has been a big help in learning to focus widely and accept whatever comes up. My session the other day was not that different from the night, a few years ago, when I laid on the back patio in Spokane and heard the traffic noise as a symphony.