December 30, 2007

If you’re having a bad dream, there are two ways to fix it. You can try your hardest within the dream to make things right. Or you can just wake up.

– Ken Wilber


I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. Which, depending on how you take it, could either lead to good things or bad things. I’m going to count this towards good things.

One of the new themes in my thought process revolves around the walls we build up around life. Reading The Untethered Soul, I’ve pushed further and further up against the concept of the self and found it more and more wanting. I know that’s something I’ve said before. And I know that it’s something that most people disagree with me on [in addition to vegetarianism and a grand transhumanist future], but I’ll push forward nonetheless, in hopes that someone somewhere can glean something from this little essay.

The image that keeps coming to mind for me now involves building a bigger and better house on a certain piece of property. Assume that at birth, you’re given a certain square footage of land. The work of life is building a house there. But as a child, you can’t build anything all that fancy, especially without the help of your parents, siblings, and other authority figures. Slowly, as you pass through the terrible twos and onto mid-childhood, you begin to create things of your own: you populate the house with imaginary friends, you put up your own pieces of artwork, remodel some of the basic infrastructure of the house. Still, at this point, most of the modeling involves copying the works of others, mainly your parents and your siblings.

Slowly, as you reach adolescence, the focus of your house moves from your family to your peer group. Suddenly, it’s more important that your floor plan match your friends, or that you have the posters of your friends instead of the portraits of your parents. Someday, probably around 16 or 17, you realize that you want to create a home all your own, made how you want it, not how your parents, friends, whoever want you to want it. ‘Liberation’ through self-expression is just around the corner. To show who you are, you require the purchase of goods and services.

Someday, though, you may find that the house you’ve loved for so many years is beginning to show a great deal of wear. The roof is leaking, the gutters could use a new paint job, and you certainly need to oil the hinges on the front door. You slowly make all of these repairs, but no matter how hard you try, more and more problems keep cropping up. As soon as you fix one, ten more take its place. The hydra of home repair!

The story continues on like that for most people, making repair after repair of this home for the rest of their lives. Things calm down after a while, and slowly you begin to except that the house has a few issues. It gives it ‘character,’ you think. Much the same sort of character that you had initially tried to infuse into it by means of snazzy posters and fancy vases.

We all know how the story ends, of course. The homeowner has to move out, to a bigger and better place [call it Heaven, oblivion, another ‘home,’ whatever. I don’t know, and I’m fairly certain noone else does either]. And soon the house falls into massive disrepair. Pretty soon the house is completely gone, all that remains is the rubble. And as more time passes, the rubble itself turns to dust, and the land returns to the state it was in before you moved in.

This little allegory makes a simple analogy between your psyche and the ‘house’ you built. I imagine that most people could relate to the different stages [I can only hypothesize about the later stages via observation of pop culture / the people around me]. I also imagine that most people would agree with me that the house, or their psyche, has changed throughout these different stages. They have thought in qualitatively different ways over the course of their life. You need only read Piaget’s studies of young children’s lack of a sense of conservation of mass to see this secondhand.

However, I would depart from this pretty typical view in two ways. One, I would propose that the lot of land itself in this story is just as important, but most often overlooked, as the house itself. And I would secondly propose that knowledge that the lot is important lends itself to building a better house.

The first point is pretty easy to prove, but it’s importance can be overlooked. Especially as I continue to push this house metaphor far beyond the limits I meant for it to hold. Without the lot, you have no house. In this allegory, the lot symbolizes your consciousness. Where here consciousness is defined as what’s left after you take everything else away. If you could remember your state of being while your in the deepest of deep sleep, what would you experience. If you take away all of the physical inputs to the world, all of your emotions, all of your thoughts, what are you left with? What is the canvas to which all of your experience is painted? It’s the thing that all sentient beings share: I AMness. The ‘simple feeling of being’ as Ken Wilber puts it. Once you forget about yourself, or yourSelf, it’s all that’s left.

And this is the lot. When you get down to it, the you that you identify with can’t possibly be the you that you think you identify with. You aren’t your body: all the cells ‘you’ own have cycled in and out of existence at least 2 times by the age of 21. You aren’t your emotions: the way you feel now probably bears little resemblance to what you felt just 2 hours ago. You aren’t your thoughts: you can’t even control your thoughts, they just bubble in and out of existence while you [really they, being your many selves] continue to make a story weaving all these thoughts together. You certainly aren’t your past: the past is only memories that have no real existence outside of your head. And of course, you can’t be a future that hasn’t even happened yet.

What does that leave you with? Well, not very much and everything all at once. It leaves you with the theater through which all of this drama called your life has played through. It leaves you with the ‘person’ behind the scenes that has watched the whole play, but hasn’t partaken in any of it. It leaves you with your Self, with a capital S, the only part of you that hasn’t changed throughout your entire life. The only part that won’t change, can never change. Only at death do you and the Self part, and then you won’t know the difference, because without the Self, the Observer, you can’t very well be aware of much of anything.

So then, which do you think is more important, all the cells, thoughts, rules, feelings, memories, etc. that you’ve built up over the course of your life? Or the background on which they all rely? A loaded question, sure. And one that doesn’t have an obvious answer. Because obviously both are necessary to have existence as we know it. But the house usually gets all the credit. Never the lot.

I think I’ve proved my first point now, so I will move onto the second point, which may be harder to prove but easier to swallow. How does knowing you are the lot and not the house help things? As the house falls to shambles, or is in transition from one addition to the next, what good does it do you to know that you aren’t the thing in flux, but rather the very ground, perhaps with a capital G, that the house is built on? Well, I would guess that the answer to that question should be quite obvious: if you aren’t the house, then you need not worry while it falls apart, while builders renovate it, or while it stands in stasis. Regardless, if you are the lot, you have no worries.

And without any worries, suddenly you’re open to a whole new world of possibilities. Has that divider between the kitchen and the family room always bothered you? But you couldn’t force yourself to take it down because, well, it’s always been there and you can’t quite recall if it lends structural support to the house? If your realize your identity as the lot, or even if you just realize that the lot is there, you can in fact tear that wall down without the fear of destroying anything. You may well destroy the house. But the land upon which the house is built, that can’t be destroyed.

And again, without those worries, you can build a bigger and better house. You can keep pushing onward and upwards, reaching for better and more innovative architectural wonders, without fear that you might ‘mess up’ yourself, your house.

The trick, then, to all of life’s problems is to realize that you are in fact that lot. The house is just there for a brief little stay. No need to worry about keeping up repair. You may or you may not [it gets more interesting when you decide to keep up], but in the end it doesn’t matter. As long as you identify with the Ground, all worries can wash away.

December 26, 2007

If you mistreat an animal, it becomes afraid. That is what happened to your psyche. You mistreated it by giving it a responsibility that is incomprehensible. Just stop for a moment and see what you have given your mind to do. You said to your mind, “I want everyone to like me. I don’t want anyone to speak badly of me. I want everything I say and do to be helpful and pleasing to everyone. I don’t want anyone to hurt me. I don’t want anything to happen that I don’t like. I want everything to happen that I do like.” Then you said, “Now, Mind, figure out how to make everyone of these things a reality, even if you have to think about it day and night.” And of course your mind said, “I’m on the job! I’ll work on it constantly!”

– From The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

December 26, 2007

If ignorance is bliss, then wipe the smile off my face.

– Rage Against the Machine

December 26, 2007

So don’t look for something that will ‘make you happy’ (how dull and absolutely middle class that is). Rather, look for things that will absolutely excite you. Then you’ll have found what you’re looking for.

– 15 October 2007

December 26, 2007

“You complete me? Impossible!”

– An introverts response to the possibility that a mate could ‘complete’ them

December 19, 2007

Now let’s take another perspective. Instead of our ordinary experience, let’s look at what we might call cultivated experience or disciplined experience, the kind of perspective people who systematically practice a meditative discipline designed to get deeper insights into themselves discover. I don’t mean merely thinking about ourselves — one of the too common but highly inaccurate ways people use the word “meditation.” I mean the kind of meditative discipline where you learn to still the agitation in your ordinary mind in order to perceive internal and external reality more directly.

If we ask most people who practice these kinds of disciplines who they are, they get behind their ordinary identities of father, mother, or citizen because they have realized that their fundamental identity is something like a capacity to experience, rather than any particular manifestation of that capacity. We might say, in a sense, that I am nothing, no thing — that I am not frozen into any one, concretized pattern, but that there is fluidity underneath these patterns. Spaciousness is found — a capacity to experience particulars, to experience change, and to flow with change, although the ordinary identities are still there. And when this is experienced, there is a little more choice about “putting on” personas, deliberately using them and then setting them aside. It’s like having a variety of uniforms, recognizing that they are uniforms, not really you, and putting them on and taking them off whenever appropriate.

Some people call this spaciousness “detachment” — although that word has pathological associations that I am not talking about here. The pathological form says, “I do not care about anything, and so nothing can hurt me.” There is another kind of detachment: a healthy spaciousness that comes from teaching ourselves to be more objectively aware, not to be so caught up in or experience but to pay clearer attention to all events, which makes life more vivid and clear. We then have a clearer understanding of the particulars of the moment along with the spaciousness, this basic capacity to experience that is a more fundamental identity.

As I said, from the perspective of cultivated experience, I am nothing: I am not a thing but a process that is open to change.

– Charles Tart

Symbolic Systems and Me

December 15, 2007

I’ve had a strange idea that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the past few months. I seem to really enjoy symbolic systems with fixed rules and set patterns.

For example, mathematics. If you know the language, math can be a pretty beautiful thing. On top of that, it’s also eminently practical [or at least can be, and that’s really the part of math that I’m most interested in]. You can really play around with it all you want, within certain bounds of reason.

Same thing with the physical sciences. Chemistry, you have a list of certain pieces [the elements] that you can mash together, pull apart, etc. through a set system of rules [laws governing chemical reactivity, structure, stability, etc.]. Physics, you have the four known forces, and you can do whatever you want with them as long as you stick to a few equations and use a few predetermined variables. Not bad, really.

Which brings me to the life sciences. You can’t really do much directly with biology, I’m sad to say. I think that’s half the reason it never really ‘turned me on.’ Sure, it’s amazingly interesting. But I want to be able to turn to the end of the chapter and do some problems. I want to push some pieces around, or crunch some numbers, or something.

Same thing with psychology: yeah, really cool stuff. It sure makes a lot of people make a lot more sense. But if you don’t give me applied psyche, the wonder fades. Again, at the end of a chapter, I want something that I can take away and apply to my life.

And since we seem to be surveying the entire academic field [I didn’t see that one coming!], let’s move on to languages. I really do love learning a new language, again because I can mess around with it. I can play with it. I can make it do what I want to do. But ask me to analyze a piece of literature and FORGET ABOUT IT! The passion is gone. I’ll read it, but all the doing tha had to be done with that piece of work has been done! The author gets the credit, I can enjoy it, but then give me something to do other than parrot back the author’s words.

I’m selfish. I want to be able to play around with the system you’re giving me, not just look at the parts. I guess it’s my way of being ‘hands on’ in the only way I can be: completely in the abstract.

But I wanted to take this thought a step further: isn’t it possible that I would be just as content with a completely arbitrary system [though some would say that the system we already use is in fact completely arbitrary already: who is to say that mathematics has any sort of transcendental meaning, right?]. I could create my very own ‘math’ with my very own random rules, play around with it, and I’d still be happy. Nevermind that it says ‘2+2=apple.’ If that’s what it’s supposed to say, then the nonsense makes perfect sense.

I’m sure this says something incredibly interesting about how my mind / brain works. But for now I’m just going to go back to tinkering around with real [at least as real as they get] symbolic systems. We’ll leave making my own system for another day.

Scientific Hap Hits

December 15, 2007

I’ve discovered something really interesting in the past few days. Well, really interesting to me.

I’ve kind of clarified why it is that I chose to go into chemistry. And what it is that gets me through the hours of studying necessary to do well in the subject. And in the process, hopefully figured out a way to make those hours of studying seem much more like a pleasure than a chore.

I had this realization when I was talking to someone the other day. I don’t know how the topic came up, but I began to discuss how I found real amazement in the little things that I learned. Like the fact that polyester is a polymer of ester. Duh! And d’oh. Something so obvious, but I never really put two and two together. I rarely ever do in the first place, but whenever I manage to, magic happens!

Which is a big part of why I love chemistry: those moments of insight come around nearly ever corner. Chemistry, as our AP text put it, is the ‘central science.’ It bridges biology and physics, and really goes a long way to explain the stuff that makes up our day to day world. For me, biology is too complicated and physics is too hard. I’ll take plain old simple chemical reactions / structures any day!

I was reading my organic textbook for fun last night. For fun! An organic book?! I know, kind of strange. And the strangest part was that I think I actually learned a few things while having fun.

Or take today, for instance. I had to do a final report on nuclear chemistry for one of my classes this semester. In the process of writing the report, I realized how fundamentally lacking my knowledge of nuclear chemistry really was. So I sat down today with my Gen Chem textbook and took a look at the chapter on nuclear chemistry. And suddenly I had before me a treasure trove of interesting new facts that also made sense. Like, take gamma particles for example. They come from nuclear reactions that involve the gain / loss of a subatomic particle. But not directly. Rather, the reaction causes all the protons and neutrons to get uncomfortable, putting them in an excited state that is nowhere near as stable as they had been. In the process of finding a new stable state, they emit a high energy photon, and voila! You have the gamma particle.

And all of this really gets me to thinking that if I’m going to be spending a great deal of time thinking, I might as well spend it thinking about chemistry / mathematics / physics instead of, well, whatever it is that I usually spend so much time thinking about. Because the fact of the matter is, I enjoy learning chemistry. I enjoy learning mathematics. And when I understand it, I enjoy learning physics. But somehow, in the past few years of my life, school has managed to cut me off from that enjoyment by the imposition of grades and ‘homework.’ Ironic, really.

This should be a fun break, then. I’m going to do a pretty thorough review of Gen Chem II, since I won’t be taking it next semester. I’ll probably also work through some of the sections not covered in my linear algebra text. I was about to say that I’m going to get a headstart on Calc III, but then I realized that would be a giant waste of my free time. Better to spend that time reviewing some organic chem, learning / relearning physics, and perhaps revisiting computer programming. Or at the very least, some Maple-fun.

Honest, my life isn’t as boring as it seems! At least not to me!

Keep on keepin’ on!

Oh What An Age We Live In

December 14, 2007

– From XKCD