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.
July 5. 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 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 wonder 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. 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.
July 13. 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.... 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 saw them with the words "civilization" and "nature".
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.
Dr. Jeffery Martin is surely not the only one trying to reframe "enlightenment" in terms of brain science and not metaphysics, but he has a great term for it: Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience.
Like "inner peace", that's a description that doubles as an instruction. Inner peace means the voices inside you are being nice to each other instead of fighting, and persistent non-symbolic experience means you're stripping the symbolic overlay from your senses, and trying to stay in that state. I like the way George Carlin said it: "The nicest thing about anything is not knowing what it is."
And on the subject of what's not in front of you not being real, Kevin sends this bit from a New Yorker article about a tribe in the Amazon:
...the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience - which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. "When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipio - 'gone out of experience'," Everett said. "They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light 'goes in and out of experience'."
August 4. My big project this week has been reading through the last five years of my blog archives to prep for a podcast interview. These are some good short bits I found:
In squirrel heaven, would there still be winter?
"Laziness" means holding out for activities that you find intrinsically enjoyable.
A ritual is an engine for turning activity into motivation.
Your mind is like a web browser, and mindfulness is like changing your preferences.
Right now, the phrase "women's voices" implies voices of the oppressed. Only when it no longer has that meaning, will we know who women are.
Every time the human-made world drifts farther from human nature, there's another group of people who can't deal with it, and they're diagnosed with some disorder that makes it their fault.
Money is zero-sum. If you hang meaning on it, then meaning is zero-sum, and it gets sucked up by people at the top. The poor become NPC's in the quests of the rich.
What a delicate balance, to be alive enough to set a good example for others, but not so alive that they kill you.
On social media: At the zoo, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.
On space travel: The deeper humans go into outer space, the deeper they will go into their own minds.
On Communism: Someone should write a manifesto that refers to humans as players.
On lying: Most liars are not thinking, "Ha ha, I'll fool them all," but "Oh shit, if I don't tell these people what they want to hear, I'll be in so much trouble."
On disinformation: Nobody ever believed anything unless they got something out of it.
On imagination: Maybe humanity's great mistake is trying to make our dreams physically real.
August 8. Three bits of practical psychology. The first I'm pretty good at, the second I'm working on, and the third I haven't touched.
Last week I did a dogsit, and it struck me again how similar dealing with dogs is, to dealing with your own mind. If there's some kind of thinking you know is bad for you, then when you notice yourself slipping into it, it's just like noticing your dog messing with some hobo trash, and saying "leave it!" The quicker you can do that, the better your mental health.
I've added a quote to my quotes page. When NFL pass rusher Michael Bennett was asked which offensive linemen were easier to beat, he said, "If you go looking for ducks, you'll never find them. You have to assume they're all ducks." Spelling it out: if you go looking for the situation where it's easy to feel good, you'll never find it. You have to assume you're capable of feeling good anywhere.
A while back I said there's no good definition of enlightenment, but I thought of one, or at least a metaphor. It's like riding a bicycle, but with metacognition. You go from short bursts of awareness of what your attention is on, to being there all the time and steering around. Another metaphor is those magic eye images, where once you learn how to shift your perspective in that way, it becomes easy.
August 10. At the end of the new interview, I talk about something that I haven't mentioned yet on the blog, and I want to give it a more careful explantion: bibliomancy. Bibliomancy is a form of divination in which you ask a question, or just state a context in which the result will be framed, and then riffle the pages of a book and drop your finger at random. You can do it with passages, but I like to do it with single words.
Divination is the practice of drawing meaning from randomness, anything from tea leaves to Tarot. The results can be interpreted multiple ways, including these two: 1) You're not getting actual meaning or information, only creating it out of your own imagination. 2) You are tuned into some kind of intelligence that can help you, but only if there's plausible deniability that anything weird is happening.
That's why you don't want to do it too much, or talk about your results. Under objective materialist metaphysics, this idea is crazy, but under mind-based metaphysics, where reality is made of perspectives, it makes perfect sense: the phenomena know who's watching. That singing frog cartoon is how it really works. If that guy had kept the frog to himself, he would have had a cool singing frog.
Also, if you're schizophrenic, do not try this. If hearing voices is something you might struggle with, don't start a practice that may come to seem like you're talking to an entity. And if you do it, and you get a jump-out-of-your-seat result, don't get all wide-eyed. Just because you don't know how it works, doesn't mean it's important.
The way I think it works is, divination is an engine for synchronicity. You're tapping into the hidden interconnectedness of all things, and the hidden interconnectedness of all things doesn't think you're special. It's not going to give you the lottery numbers. If you bother it too much, it will either stop working or mess with you. It's sensitive to your intentions, and you may find that it has a sense of humor.
Don't give it too much power over you. A king doesn't ask his advisor, "What should I do?" But he might ask, "What do you think of option one? How about option two?" Suppose for the first option you get "eddy", and for the second you get "flood". (That kind of matching is not uncommon.) You might say, a flood is bigger, so I'll do option two. But an eddy has more precision and elegance. The message might be, if you choose option one, do it in the manner of an eddy, and if you choose option two, do it in the manner of a flood.
Even if you're not getting any special knowledge, it can still be helpful to inject randomness into your life. Some tribal hunters use divination to decide which direction to go for the day's hunt. At the very least, it makes them unpredictable to their prey. I think there's a lot of room to use random decision making in sports.
You could also use it for creative work. I'm pretty sure that Philip K Dick used the I Ching to decide where his crazy plots were going to go next. But the status of the I Ching as a sacred ancient text makes no difference. A comic book might work just as well. It doesn't matter how much you like the book you're using, or what it means to you. The best book is the book with the best variety and distribution of words. For ease of use and clear results, I recommend a pocket thesaurus. A dictionary is a bit harder to interpret, but has room for more complexity.
August 15. Why aren't smart people happier? No, it's not about how smart people become unhappy because they know what's wrong with the world. It's about how they're not all that smart. The author argues that what we call "general intelligence" is still really specific, that all those different cognitive tests are testing the same sort of thing: the ability to solve well-defined problems, with clear boundaries and indisputable answers. Not included, all social problems and many problems of well-being.
My broad definition of intelligence is being better at anything the brain can do. And something that could be added to the standard definition of intelligence, taught and tested for, is the ability to zoom in and zoom out, to fixate and to get out of fixation. I imagine people doing it like yoga: go small and big with your sight, your hearing, your proprioception, your thoughts.
I also think cognitive tests should not be timed. You could say, what would stop someone from taking hours and hours until they get every answer right? Nothing, and that's the point. By not timing tests, you add patience, persistence, and perfectionism to your definition of intelligence, and I'd rather live in a culture where those skills are valued, than the skill of doing stuff fast.
On a tangent, I have an idea for a competitive cooking show called Apocalypse Kitchen. In a normal cooking show, you have a massive pantry, all the best gear, and a very tight time constraint. In Apocalypse Kitchen it's the other way around. You might have a bag of flour, a dead rabbit, some dandelions, and a propane camp stove, and you have all day to make a good meal.
August 19-22. Why doing your best is sometimes the worst thing you can do. "When I am caught in a loop of misguided striving, I imagine myself as a mechanical bug knocking around inside a box, bouncing off the walls until the battery runs out."
I was just thinking about something similar. "Always do the right thing" is not good advice. It assumes that there is always an objectively right action, and that we know what it is. In practice, there's so much uncertainty that trying to never do anything wrong leads to paralysis.
I try to follow a much easier rule. You can go a long way just by not doing stuff that you're 100% sure is wrong. And if you can manage that, the next step is to either expand not-doing to stuff you're pretty sure is wrong, or focus on smaller things.
That's what I'm working on lately. A hundred times a day I'll do some little thing clumsily and have to do it again. So I'm trying to be slow and smooth. On that subject, Wesley sends this William Burroughs essay, The Discipline of Do Easy.
DE is a way of doing. It is a way of doing everything you do. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.
As this article explains it:
Discipline's a word we shirk in a fun-loving culture. Actually though, doing things just so is wonderful! If you can. And you can through practice.
By hurrying through everything we think we must do to get to the fun stuff -- like watching TV shows half-comatose -- we miss out on all the awesome.
August 29. Why No Roman Industrial Revolution? The idea is, an industrial revolution is really unlikely, because early steam engines are going to be too inefficient for anything useful, and without a use, no one is going to make improvements. The exception was England, where they used primitive steam engines to pump water out of coal mines. So the engines got better, and that might have been the end of it, except that England also had a large textile industry, with loads of raw cotton from the colonies, and the only thing missing was simple rotational motion for spinning. That created an incentive to keep making the engines smaller and more efficient, until they could haul their own fuel, and that's when industrialization really took off.
August 30. A quick note on language. I don't believe in student loan "forgiveness" -- because borrowing money to go to college is not morally wrong. I believe in student debt cancellation.
This isn't the first time the human brain has got its wires crossed between tokens of exchange, and right and wrong actions. I wonder when Christians started using the metaphor of paying off debt, for forgiveness of sins. Was that invented in the 1500s, or was it there from the beginning?