"Each shift into clear vision was a gift that followed total failure to achieve."
July 15. Matt comments:
I've been listening to some dharma talks by Joseph Goldstein lately, and he mentions that his meditation practice improved when he stopped reading the sutras as if they contained wisdom, or claims about the universe, and started reading them as instructions.
Food for thought: the Visuddhimmagga, from the 5th century, presents something like 50 different ways of meditating (at a time when paper was expensive), but most modern meditation teachers are teaching the same technique -- as if the same instructions will work for everyone.
When I was eight years old, I took piano lessons. They were a chore, and I went nowhere. Forty years later, I figured out my own way to learn piano, and since then I've been having a great time and making steady progress. Here's a piece I recorded yesterday, improvising on F G G# C.
So I wonder if there's something similar for meditation, that for any given person, if you find the right practice, it will click and you'll get good results. I think what all practices have in common is that you're doing stuff with your attention that you don't habitually do. That could be anything from sitting still and focusing on your breath, to walking around and focusing on your peripheral vision, to watching a movie and focusing on your flow of emotions.
New subject, music for the weekend: Viagra Boys – Troglodyte
July 13. Continuing from Monday, it's nice to know I'm not the only one thinking about solipsism. Adam sends this 2013 essay, Absolute Typhos. Typhos is an ancient word for vapor, and was used by the Cynics "to denote the delirium of popular ideas and conventions." The key paragraph:
Live as though the only people that really exist are those you have met face to face; every other person, from politicians to celebrities, internet acquaintances and the populations of distant lands, are then something like fictions or simulations. Imaginary persons. Clumsy masks. That is, it is not so much that the spectacle, ideology, or what you will distorts their appearance, messages, or reality, but that it constructs it wholesale. To live out this quasi-solipsism, I think, will be an experiment that maximizes my own autonomy.
When I'm being philosophically careful, I try to avoid the concept of objective truth. So, "This is real, that is not real" is better expressed as an instruction: "Pay attention to this and not to that." And if we're talking about instructions, and not truths, it's easier to change them.
That's a good place to draw a line, between people you've met and people you haven't met. But there are two lines I like better. One is between what's in front of me right now, and what's not in front of me right now. A classic essay on this subject is "This is IT" by Alan Watts.
The other is between the human-made world, and the non-human-made world. Since I started framing it that way, I can see things more clearly than I ever saw them with the words "civilization" and "nature". Look around where you are right now. It's likely the only thing you can see that was not made by humans, is your own two arms sticking out from your shirt sleeves.
The spectacle is that part of the human-made world that is designed for the human gaze. And yet a lot of it is ugly. Meanwhile, nothing in the non-human-made world is designed for the human gaze, and a lot of it is beautiful. Sunsets, the rings of Saturn, bare tree branches -- how did they come to look so good, when they don't even know what eyes are?
July 11. One definition of a religion is a belief you get stuck in, a belief that you can't unbelieve for even a moment. This post is about the opposite -- putting on and taking off beliefs like hats, and choosing them for practical reasons. Where this makes the most sense, is in beliefs that can't be tested.
Two weeks ago, I said that you might choose to believe there's no afterlife, because if this life is all there is, you live better. But another person might choose to believe in an afterlife with reward and punishment for this life -- also to help them live better. I won't speculate on what puts somebody in one camp or the other.
Another subject where you might choose a belief for psychological benefit is free will vs determinism. If you don't get stuck in either, you can have determinism in the past and free will in the future. Also, I find determinism helpful if I start thinking I'm better than someone else, because there is no better, only luckier. Even moral superiority comes down to a roll of the dice at the beginning of time.
Lately I've been thinking about solipsism. I don't think it's true, or I wouldn't be writing this, and surely it's dangerous for the mentally ill. But when used well, solipsism can cure you of the need to be understood, to be validated, to be treated fairly. You can't compare yourself to others if it's just you.
If you don't want to go that far, here's something milder. The meaning of life, for you, is to be challenged and learn. For other people, the meaning of life is to remain stupid so they can continue to challenge you.
July 7. Six links from Reddit, the first four from Ask Old People. What is something that was really shocking and/or controversial in the past but seems really tame nowadays?
Conversely, What is something that used to be no big deal but would be shocking today?
To those who have been married to their spouses for decades, are you still in love with them the same way you were in the beginning? Lots of stuff about how relationships survive by changing.
Why do so many old people seem to love just sitting in public and watching the world go by?
Related, from Ask Reddit, Have you ever met someone who just had a natural light to them, who just radiated positivity and sunshine? What was it like and what kind of impression did they leave on you?
And a great post on the Psychonaut subreddit, Don't let thoughts ruin your trip. Condensed:
The instant you identify with any thought, you take on its shape. For example, if you identify with a sad thought you will instantly start experiencing sadness. What thoughts want is your attention; the more attention you give a thought the more it grows and has power over you. It's like feeding pigeons, if you feed them they'll keep coming because you're giving them what they want.
July 5. Yesterday I had a visit from a long-time reader, Ryan. This is some of the stuff we talked about.
Of all the predictions I've ever made, my best was about a song: that when people of the people of the future sing "tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999," it will have a new meaning for them, looking back at the golden age.
During the decline of Rome, so I'm told, people didn't know they were in a decline. It happened so slowly that every time the roads got worse, they thought they were just going through a rough patch. Right now, I don't know anyone who thinks we're just going through a rough patch, that in a few years the world will return to prosperity and peace, under the same political and economic systems we have now.
It follows that the present decline is happening faster than the decline of Rome, and that future historians will see it as a relatively fast crash -- even though it's still pretty slow to us. The common people of the future will strip it down even farther, imagining a vibrant civilization destroyed by a single event, probably something that hasn't happened yet.
When we imagine the future, our first thought is that either the whole world will be techno-utopia, or the whole world will be postapocalypse. Then we learn to see it with more granularity, with one country in techno-utopia and another in postapocalypse -- or one city, or one neighborhood, or one block.
Now I'm thinking the techno-utopia/postapocalypse divide will be smaller than one person. Surely this has already happened, that someone has used their smart phone to look up how to butcher a road-killed animal, so they don't go hungry.
July 4. So I'm settling into Seattle, and the main thing that strikes me about the city is how much deeper it is into the apocalypse than a college town. But another big thing is its variety.
There's variety in people, including quite a lot of the mentally ill. In Pullman, I was the weirdest person on the walking path. In Seattle, I'm the most normal person on 3rd Avenue.
There's variety in places. On one frequent trip, I walk past the Gates Foundation and then cross a vacant lot right out of the Fallout games.
And there's variety in sounds. One thing I like to do when I'm high is listen to ambient sounds as if they're music. In Spokane, it was all the same instrument: cars and trucks going 30mph on a nearby arterial. Here there are more kinds of vehicles, at more speeds, plus all kinds of hums and clanks and squeaks and voices. It's like going from drone rock to jazz.
June 30. Three links about animals. Just in my lifetime, coyotes have changed from being timid and reclusive, to being bold and comfortable in cities and towns. This makes them more dangerous, and this page, Coyote hazing, is about how to behave around coyotes to minimize danger and make them feel unwelcome.
A biotech startup has raised millions to resurrect woolly mammoths. (Thanks Myles.) It's nice that the article mentions that it's not enough to bring back a species -- it needs an ecosystem where it fits. Update: here's a video about how mammoths could restore an ancient ecosystem and fight climate change.
Mouse Heaven or Mouse Hell? This is the best article I've seen on John Calhoun's rodent utopia experiments, because where most articles are hungry to draw lessons for human society, this takes the opposite path, going through all the lessons people have drawn, and explaining why they apply to these particular rodents and not to humans. More generally, "Calhoun's work functions like a Rorschach blot -- people see what they want to see."
And on its 40th anniversary, two Hacker News threads about Blade Runner, this one more about its influential visual design, and this one more about its weak storytelling.
June 27. This week I want to write about a completely different thing that the word "religion" points to: the afterlife.
I've been on Ask Reddit for a long time, and it used to be a rare question: "What do you think happens after you die?" Lately it's one of the more common questions, and the answers are not that interesting. Reddit is full of philosophical materialists, so the most upvoted answers are different ways of phrasing nothing, and if you sort by controversial you get Christians saying heaven/hell.
I understand why people believe there's no afterlife. If you think this life is all there is, you live better. And given that the question can't be answered from here, it's prudent to choose a belief with practical benefits.
But I prefer to use that uncertainty to choose beliefs that are more fun. A better question is: "What do you wish would happen after you die?" If you think consciousness is fundamental, then it seems likely you'd have some influence over where your bit of consciousness goes next. Even heaven and hell are usually imagined as reflecting your earthly life in the details, the people you meet or the precise torments.
Some consciousness-first thinkers still imagine only two levels of reality: the universal, and where we are now. So when you die, you go straight back to the one mind. But if I were the one mind, or on the way back there, I'd enjoy making some more levels. So I like to think that merging with the Absolute is one option among many.
A growing number of people believe we're living in a simulation. Ok, then think it through. The simulation is first person. The people outside the simulation aren't watching you from the sky -- they're watching you from you. Or, you are one of the people outside the simulation, and when this life is over you'll remember yourself.
If a world exists with the means to simulate this world, what would they use it for? It makes sense that they would use it to filter their own members. If you live well, you get to join them; if not, then back to the great melting pot. This is not that different from original Christianity, in which there is no place of eternal torment, only hanging out with Jesus or nonexistence.
Western metaphysics is awfully vertical. What if we're not being sorted into higher or lower places, just different places? And consider how peculiar it is to be a modern human, compared to, say, being a tree. A tree probably has little sense of what else it could be, except another tree. But not only can we imagine being a tree, or a hawk, or a sea otter, we can imagine being a space pirate, or a wood elf, or a postapocalypse scavenger.
So if there is sorting going on, we seem to be in a great nexus, or concourse, with a huge variety of options for where to go next.
The problem is, we need other people. There's a Twilight Zone episode where a guy thinks he's gone to heaven, because he can have anything he wants, but he soon gets bored with his own ability to entertain himself, and discovers he's in hell.
Suppose, after you die, you want to go to the Harry Potter universe, and because it's popular, you can gather enough other people to create a world. Ok, who wants to be the muggles? Nobody? Maybe we can just fill them in with NPCs.
I don't think there are any NPCs. Someone always has to play them. In your imagination, you play them; in a tabletop RPG, the game master plays them. And in any enduring world, every feature of that world has to be maintained by someone who continues to get something out of it.
That's a pretty severe constraint. So my best guess about the afterlife is, under that constraint, it's whatever you believe it's going to be, or whatever you can get away with.
Coincidentally, in another context, Tim just sent me chapter 50 of the Tao Te Ching. I looked it up in Ellen Chen's translation, and this is part of her commentary:
Death is a phenomenon from the individual's viewpoint. Cut off from the life of the round and standing alone, an individual faces his opponents and arrives at the place and time of his death. However, in the round, which is the eternal life process, productive, and embracing all opposites, there is no death. There is only intense life-producing activity. A person who transcends his individuality, identifying himself with the eternal life process that has no place of death, also has no place of death.
June 26. I got some long and thoughtful feedback on the last post, none of which I'm going to reply to, sorry. I haven't found a way to write about this stuff that leads to discussions that I enjoy having, and I have a feeling there's some key concept that I'm missing, probably in the area of the collective subconscious. What I'm increasingly convinced of, is that people who argue about politics are arguing on the wrong level and getting nowhere.
June 25. Ok, I'm going to try to step into this minefield without pushing any buttons.
Religion is not a thing. "Religion" is a word that blurs together a bunch of different things. One of them is in the news right now. Some people have fetishized an old book, which if you squint your eyes can be used to justify almost anything, and they're using it to justify an aggressive move in an ongoing conflict.
This conflict is between two ways of being, and two mindsets. One of them is ancient and tested. You can see it in a forest, where trees share nutrients through their roots, and work together to catch sunlight and cycle water. The other is new and radical. It's only possible in a highly social species, and it's only been tried on a large scale for a few thousand years: a collective way of being whose fundamental relationship is one person telling another person what to do.
Social dominance orientation is the psychology term for the mindset of feeling good about a domination-based social order. It's more common in categories of people who have historically been in the dominant position; and even if they find themselves in a weaker position, it may be easier to imagine getting the strong position back, than to imagine a social order where you view every person as just as important as you, and you're sensitive to their needs.
By the way, under a certain definition, I'm against fairness. If there aren't enough cookies for everyone, I still want to give out all the cookies. But there's a kind of cookie that should never be given out: the kind where you can make someone do something they'd rather not do.
In the long term, a system built bottom-up from what people enjoy doing will outcompete a system built top-down from what people enjoy telling other people to do. But right now we live in a clunky hybrid of taken-for-granted power relations and sappy messages about equality. I believe that America is on the leading edge of a global surge in social dominance, as we cast about for better ways of living. I don't have any non-obvious advice.
June 23. Continuing from the last post, Eric points out that there is value in seeking understanding because "if I observe a pattern in one field, it's likely that similar patterns pop up elsewhere." That reminds me of a Charles Fort line: "One measures a circle beginning anywhere."
I got a lot of feedback from people who are moving away from negativity as they get older. I think this is because old people have less stamina, and also because they have the accumulated experience that it works better to focus on what you're for, than to focus on what you're against.
Personally, I've added the Uplifting News subreddit to my daily links, as an antidote to regular news. Aaron writes:
I keep looking for the obscure people who are coming up with real solutions to our problems. They build things quietly and then all of a sudden, when the time is right their solutions take over the world and nothing can stop it.
That reminds me of a quote I read back in the 90's, from an old Soviet dissident: "History is like a mole, burrowing unobserved."
June 21. The reason I stopped writing about social issues is I got tired of fighting. Twenty years ago, when I started writing on the internet, I wanted to slay dragons. Gradually I shifted from warrior to scout, from fighting to trying to understand stuff. But lately I'm thinking, what's even the benefit of understanding stuff? For example, if I have a good understanding of why gas prices are high, or if I have a bad understanding, what difference does that make to anyone?
Now, there is value in seeking understanding just for the intrinsic pleasure of seeking understanding. But if that's my motivation, I might as well be gaming. If I understand ship loadouts in Starsector, that benefits the world exactly as much as if I understand gas prices -- but it benefits me more, because I play the game better.
Another value of seeking understanding is that I can develop habits of thinking that are generally helpful. That's why it's good to study philosophy, not because those dweebs were right about anything, but because you're getting practice in precise thinking.
But if I'm writing for an audience, there's one big factor that affects whether people even notice how I'm thinking. If they already have a strong opinion on the subject, the only thing they're going to notice is whether I'm right or wrong.
So now I can formulate a better rule than "Don't write about social issues." If it's a subject where people already have strong opinions, don't write about it. And if it's a subject where there's no practical benefit to better understanding, don't write about it unless the process of thinking is interesting.
June 15. Some good news links. World's largest organism found in Australia. It's not a giant spider, but a 4500 year old patch of hybrid seagrass.
From a few weeks ago, a Hacker News thread about microbes evolving to eat plastic.
Liquid platinum at room temperature: the cool catalyst for a sustainable revolution in industrial chemistry. In terms of coming technologies, I think space travel and virtual reality are being overhyped, and we're going to see a lot more action in materials science and brain hacking.
U.S. Landfills Are Getting a Second Life as Solar Farms. They're near cities, there's already infrastructure going there, and they can't be used for buildings.
June 13. Last week I heard someone on TV use the word "synchronicity" when they meant "synchronization". This is synchronicity: I was just at the post office to fill out a change of address form, to move from Pullman to Seattle. While I was there, a guy came in with something for the address 140 Windus. "140 Windus," called one postal worker to another. 140 Windus is the house I lived in when I was three years old, and right next door to the house I came back to when I was born, 55 years ago.
June 11. Moving is terrible. Back in the nomad days it was probably lots of fun. But never in history, until now, has it been normal for people to have this much stuff, without being rich enough to make other people deal with it.
So for the last several weeks I've painfully going through stuff, looking at ten thousand things from matchbooks to grain mills, deciding whether to haul it across the state, use it up, sell it on Craigslist, take it to a thrift store, or throw it away. And then there's the cleaning.
I'm now in the terminal phase. The last time I was this busy was my final week of college, when I put a sign on my wall that said "WORK EAT SLEEP" because if I did anything other than those three things, I wouldn't finish.
But this time, something peculiar happened. I wouldn't call it a "flow" state because it's not something I would seek out. A better word is inertia: near the end of my second straight 14 hour day, I reached a state where having one more thing to do was no longer painful. I was like, wow, this must be how highly productive people feel all the time.
One of my projects, before I move, is to go through my Complete Far Side and photograph all the best ones. Yesterday I saw this one, "Life on cloud eight", which fits right in with the last post.
I've heard it said, if you can enjoy being in hell, you're in heaven. But some of us don't even have to enjoy being in hell -- we just have to appreciate second-rate heaven.
More explicitly: whether you're talking about making more money, or having more fun, or being a better person, there's always a way to reach the next level. But the higher you get, the harder it is to stay there, and the more likely you are to notice: the good feeling of achieving a higher level is less than the bad feeling of not being satisfied with the level you're at.
This helps explain a cryptic line I read years ago in a Cynthia Ozick story: "Heaven is for those who have already been there." It also seems vaguely related to a cryptic line I read the other day in this Reddit thread: "Life does not give a rat's ass who lives it."
June 6. I almost didn't make last week's post about enlightenment, but I got some good feedback. Eric writes:
A friend went on a mindfulness retreat once where the exercise was to fully experience a thing that you were eating. The instructor gave everyone a segment of a tangerine to savor. My friend told me that later he tried the same practice at home, and he discovered that it was impossible to savor an Oreo.
I read a similar story about an exercise to stop overeating, where people were told to completely savor one Hershey's kiss. It's not that it was impossible to savor it, but it had never occurred to them to do so. They'd eaten hundreds of chocolates and 100% of the time they had gobbled them down.
I think we're talking about two distinct mental states, one where you're holding tension between what you're doing and something else, and one where what you're doing is self-justifying. And these two states come into clearer focus with that eating exercise.
Coming back around to "enlightenment", that concept, in western spirituality, is framed as an achievement, something you strive for. Paradoxically, the mental state people are seeking is already inside them, but they can only see it by not striving. That idea is thousands of years old, and we're no better at putting it into practice.
Fun stuff for the weekend. Yesterday I saw this on TV and jumped out of my seat to snap a pic. It has to be accidental, because if she tried to do it on purpose it wouldn't be this perfect. If you want to look closer, here's a larger photo. (And that's not a green screen behind her. I saw from another angle that they were at the actual event.)
A Hacker News thread about how awesome it is, if you have some extra time, to cross America by train.
Some good news, Children who play more video games show greater gains in intelligence over time
And a cool video about a strange musical instrument, Inside a Mellotron M400: How the Mellotron Works
June 2. The Buddha, the story goes, was a rich kid who indulged in every pleasure until he burned out and became enlightened. You'd think, with so many more pleasures now, and so many more people, there would be Buddhas popping up on every street corner.
Instead, there are more and more depressed people. And it occurs to me, depression and enlightenment have similar symptoms: not enjoying the things that ordinary people enjoy, and preferring to do nothing all day.
Maybe enlightenment was invented by ancient people as a way of framing depression, so that they could see themselves with more pride and less shame, and so that other people would see them with reverence, instead of trying to kill them for being unproductive.
What I really think is, "enlightenment" is a modern buzzword loosely based on a lost culture. The word has too much baggage and should not be used. Instead, we should talk with precision about the many techniques under the umbrella of meditation-metacognition-mindfulness, and the many specific benefits of those practices.
Personally, I have three goals in mental health: 1) An unshakeable sense of well-being. 2) More overlap between what's good for me to do and what I feel like doing. 3) Better body awareness so that I have better physical health. Over the years, I've made some progress on number three.