Thursday, August 30, 2007

Closing Down

Well, I closed this blog down a while again. And then brought it back. But I think it's time to close shop again. Having two blogs is just so unwieldy. And unnecessary. Especially when my readership is about, oh, 7 people, max.

But don't worry, I'll still be posting over at Thinking about Thoughts. And hopefully more regularly too.

You know, like I always say I will.

But to close things off, I end with a quote:

Your school got it's name when some guy said, "Hey, what is this school all about?" The other replied with sort of a stutter. He goes, "Ah... ur... science?" Urscience. Think about it!


This is me, signing off.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

'What's Yer Major?'

The nearing of school brings me back to last year and all the introductions. "Hi, what's your name?" Now you know what to call the person. "Where are you from?" Now you know the general mannerisms to expect from the person. "Oh yeah, and what's your major?" And now you know how to judge them in their entirety.

Funny how those three things were really all you cared about. At least at first. Beyond those first moments of traveling from stranger to acquaintance, there were many more opportunities to grow even closer, even to the point of close friend and occasionally, best friend.

But at first, all you needed were three pieces of information. Name, Hometown, and Major. There you had it.

In occasions that didn't involve freshman [i.e., clubs, sports, other misc. organizations], you might need to add the person's grade. Though I don't even know if they call it 'grade' anymore in college. Isn't it just class now? I'm in the sophomore class. Yeah, that's right.

And with that really fine mesh, I'd judge a person. 'Oh, he's a ESS major? I don't even know what that is. Like, English as a Special Study? Oh, nice, he's a chem major! But wait, he wants to be an MD. And thinks I want to be one too? What a presumption! Man, where are the pure scientists? Another BIO major. I swear. To. Freakin'. God!'

And quickly I'd find that those judgments were pure bunk. But I'd make them anyway. And I'll probably continue to make them.

I wonder how you identify yourself in the real world. Just by name? I guess the profession gives away your area of expertise. Then you're Bob the Builder. Or Joe the Pharmacist. Or Brian the Author. And no-one even needs guess at who you are. It's built into your title.

This is a shoddy way to live. As I heard once, labels are for cans of soup. And yet, they're all we've got in the beginning.

And here we are, at another season of "Hi, what's your name?"

Life's a series of introductions. Might as well get better at them.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Creating Your Own Religion in 11 or More Easy Steps - Introduction

I've been throwing this idea around in my head for the past few days now, and I think it's time to shed some light on it for the general viewing public.

A recurring idea in all my ruminating has been how little I've actually progressed in the past 4 and a half years that I've spent actively trying to move forward in any sort of corny, humanistic, Da Vincian, Vetruvian Man kind of way. Self-study, something advised by everybody from the Ancient Greeks to the Stoics to the Buddhists all the way up to the latest self-help guru, is the order of the day. And I've been spending the past 4 and a half years totally avoiding that proscription for growth.

I mean, sure, I've picked up some neat-o things along the way. Like eating vegetarian [Buddhism]. Or occasionally meditating [Buddhism]. Or starting to do things now, realizing that you don't have to be perfect the first time, or even the hundred and first time [Ze Frank]. I've even learned some mind hacks that make learning just a little bit easier, like using the natural learning cycle 60 minutes as a cap for studying length.

But I haven't really improved in any sort of Super Man, Nietzschean way.

And now I know why.

It's because you can't learn second hand. Well, no, that's not right. You can learn second hand, but you can't live second hand. You can try to. But that just ends up with half-starts and pseudo-finishes. All the great men and women in the world have gone out of their way and created their own belief system. Either that, or thoroughly embraced an existing belief system and made it their own.

In other words, they went out of the way and thought about stuff. And in the process discovered greatness. Not because they were looking for it, but because they weren't. Because they were just looking for a way to make this world make a little more sense and hurt a little less.

And so, I present to you my attempt at creating a belief system. Well, almost. This series will be satirical, in the best way possible. It will trace the steps I'm following, but not the actual results I'm getting. Because that would be a little dry.

Without further ado, let the blaspheming begin!

For your [pre]viewing pleasure, here are the preliminary ELEVEN (+) STEPS TO YOUR VERY OWN FAITH:

  1. Become fed up with the 'real world'
  2. Discover a Higher Power
  3. Receive a Revelation from said higher power
  4. Write down some sort of Holy Text to follow obsessive compulsively
  5. Said text must contain religious edicts that no (wo)man can hopefully follow in practice
  6. Create a mythology around the reception of your Revelation and the writing of your Holy Text
  7. Gather a group of fellow followers
  8. Conscript a band of Saints [not necessarily anyone directly involved in your Religion] to exemplify the ideal practitioner
  9. Develop completely unrealistic but completely unresistible expectations for what you can get in This life and the Next
  10. Draw a symbol that will strike either Fear or Loathing in the hearts of those unlucky enough not to follow your Religion
  11. Confabulate a name, preferably ending in -ism, down to earth enough not to be confused with Scientology but cool enough not to be confused with Mormonism
I'll take them one post at a time, using as many examples from Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Modern Religious [i.e. Mormonism, Scientology, etc.], and other sources as possible.

Until then, umbkby.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Art of the Mundane

I've been slowly having one of those profound but obvious epiphanies over the past few days. Nothing new, but still something that seems like it might just be important to live a beautiful life.

But first, a random side note about living a beautiful life. That's something else I realized over the past few weeks. That living a beautiful life shouldn't be easy. Okay, I should probably define a beautiful life. But I don't know what that would be. I could say living a 'good' life, where we define good in the Platonic sense. As in, living life to it's fullest. Yeah, that's a beautiful life. And that doesn't come easy. It seems like that sort of thing should really be 'natural,' that we should automatically come out on top. But if it were so easy, then more people would end up living that sort of life. And if you take a little sneak peak at the world, I think you'll see that very few people are living the life that they really want to live. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. But I would say that few people are living up to their maximum potential. I mean, you can't even know your maximum potential.

So, yeah, there you have it. Living a masterful, beautiful, good life isn't easy. I would imagine that's half the fun of it, though. If life were so easy to live so well, then where would we find the challenge. Kind of that conundrum of 'If you could only be happy, like dopey happy, all the time, would you want that?' I mean, sure, it sounds great. But being in the sunlight 24/7 sounds good too, until you get sunburn and the cancer.

But back to my original premise. Which I haven't told you about yet. Hehehe. I'm so good at reeling them in the reader, huh? But whatever, here it is -- the big cahoona, the ultimate truth to life, the universe, and G-d:

To master life, you must master the mundane.

Buh buh buuuuuh! Okay, sounds really lame. I know. You don't tend to think of mastery and the mundane in the same sentence. But if my idea sounded completely intuitive, you wouldn't still be reading right now. So let me explain.

Basically all roads [scientific, religious, philosophical, sport, etc.] point to one and only one Rome: the only way to gain mastery at anything is to do it. And then do it again. And then do it about 99,998 more times. Or at least, that's the rule of 10,000 hours to mastery. I think the science is there. I didn't really look it up. But it sounds pretty impressive.

So, if the secret to mastery is doing something 1E5 times, then why don't more people reach some level of mastery? Well, the simple truth that I'm realizing, for me personally, is that I tend to make something much less mundane than it should be. If I want to get better at running, I should probably just hit the roads and get out there and run. I mean, duh, right? Then why haven't I been out there every day for the past two months? Because I'm expecting some sort of special formula? Because I think that running is a special occasion that only works when all the variables are set to 'go'?

If you want to reach the point of running at your best, you have to make it just 'another one of those things.' Like eating. And defecating. And drinking water. And breathing. It shouldn't become more important the better you get at it. It should become less important. It should just fade into the background of your life. Because that's when you know your full mental energy, not just your fancy smancy prefrontal cortex mental energy, is allotted the task. We're all masters of breathing, of eating. Why? Because we don't really think about it. Tiger Woods isn't a master of golf because he worries about it more than the average golfer. He's a master because he thinks about it less. The best runner in the world probably doesn't see running as a big deal. The best writer doesn't see writing as an amazing activity. The better at something you get, the more you realize it isn't magic that makes it all work. It's just something that you're body/mind does. Just do it, for Jehovah's sake!

But let's address that one too [because you know, this post isn't quite long enough yet! Oh, yeah, I have more!]. Recently, while riding a bike, I was advised by someone that the best course of action to learn how to ride a bike is to 'just not think about it.' I don't think that really works. You can't 'just not think' about something that you haven't learned yet. That's like telling a 3 year old child to 'just not think so hard' about reading, because to an adult, reading should just flow naturally. You do have to go through a certain period of thinking intensely about the activity. And chances are that period of time is really going to suck. Or at the least, is really going to challenge you. But then, it'll be just like riding a bike [score!].

Urh, I don't think I have much more to say about that. It really adds up to the small, mundane things you do every day that adds up to amazing lifetime accomplishments. Don't wake up in the morning wondering what the most stunning thing you can do. Wake up and wonder what the most mundane step towards your goal is. And then start taking it.

The rest of this post will just be more asides that this topic makes me think of. It's probably overkill, but I've got the time and the inclination, so here we go.

This topic, the art of the mundane, also makes me think about my vegetarian diet and how so many people keep commenting, "Oh, are you still a vegetarian?" To me, that question is kind of like asking me if I'm still breathing. Why wouldn't I still be a vegetarian? Until someone can show me the statistics that say not eating meat is worse for the environment, harms animals more, and is less healthy, I don't plan on changing my mind on this one. It just seems like such a no-brainer.

But so many people do relapse. Maybe they really do just love meat that much that they can't abstain from eating it. Or maybe the vegetarian diet just hasn't entered the domain of 'the mundane.' When I go about thinking of what to eat, the idea of eating meat doesn't even cross my mind. It's right up there with the option of running headlong into a car on I-95. Why would I do that again? And when you don't have to waste mental energy on making a decision every time [ie, when that activity becomes mundane], then you've really reached the point of a habit. I guess that's the definition of a habit. What do you know, maybe this whole post has been about habits and I didn't even know it. Well, that would make all of this much less interesting. Good thing you had to get this far before I realized that! ;)

And on a even more completely unrelated note, I've become fascinated by setting goals that aren't time based, but physical quantity based. For example, when running, I've found I like running a certain distance / route more than running for a certain amount of time. While reading, I'd rather read a certain number of pages rather than for a certain amount of time. When practicing from my guitar method book, I'd rather do X pages than X minutes. And most noticeably for me, when I meditate, I'd rather meditate for Y breaths rather than Y minutes.

Okay, maybe I'm just playing a game of semantics. But I feel like time is such a subjective thing, it's hard to plan around it. Writing this post felt like it took no time at all. But in reality, it took about 20 to 30 minutes. So, that would probably have scared me. But instead I set a word count goal [500 words... don't worry, we're well over 1000 now!], and here I am, at the end, pleased with the result.

This may just be a fad. Or maybe it's another one of those habits of mine that will enter the lair of mundanity. Who knows?

I hope you've enjoyed this journey into the mind of Dave. Please leave all trash at the door.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Self as Guest Star

The idea of the narrative of the self has been making a big comeback in psychology, apparently. Well, I don't know if I can call it a comeback; I honestly don't know if it ever left. But I've come across two article-essays in the past few days that have coincided with some thoughts I've had about the self-story, which is enough consilience for me to write about them.

When I was out for a run a few days ago [okay, that's one part of this story that I need to write more about], I had a sort of mini-epiphany, the sort that everyone has throughout the day but quickly looses as 'real' life gets in the way. We're all telling each other stories. All the time. And sometimes we tell other people stories about ourselves, to the point that we start to think those stories about ourselves ARE ourselves. I realize this isn't anything new or shocking. Just read any Buddhist text, or Stoic treatise, and you'll find this very same idea. But when you have the thought on your own, independent of a reading of those texts [haven't been on my recent reading list], it makes you take notice.

There's even one theory that the self it-self originated because of the stories we tell others about ourselves, and more importantly, about others. As social animals, it's vital to know what's going on in someone elses head. So we create a model of what that person must be like, based on certain assumptions about how they have acted in the past and how are acting now. Eventually, we start doing the same thing to our thoughts. We make our own narrative string about ourselves with Mr. Fles as the main character. And in the process, we make something out of nothing. In a way, the self is a spandrel [something that occurs not because it was intended, but because it's consequence of some other intention], a vestige of a skill we needed to live with other social organisms. I wish I could remember exactly where I read that [because God knows I didn't know up with that on my own!]. I think it had something to do with all the research about mirror that has come out in the past decade. But I digress.

Daniel Dennett, the freaking amazing philosopher who wrote Breaking the Spell, wrote a nice little piece about the self as an illusion in The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity. He begins by explaining how the center of gravity in an object is an IDEA, not a THING. You can't point to a certain atom in an object and say 'That's where the center of gravity is.' Yes, the center of gravity is inherent in all materia, but it still has not physical locality. As Dennett explains:

This is a well-behaved concept in Newtonian physics. But a center of gravity is not an atom or a subatomic particle or any other physical item in the world. It has no mass; it has no color; it has no physical properties at all, except for spatio-temporal location. It is a fine example of what Hans Reichenbach would call an abstractum. It is a purely abstract object. It is, if you like , a theorist's fiction. It is not one of the real things in the universe in addition to the atoms. But it is a fiction that has nicely defined, well delineated and well behaved role within physics.
I hope you can see where I'm going with this. The self can be placed under the same category as an 'abstractum.' The self has no physical correlate. You can understand the complete workings of the brain and the entire nervous system, you can know all the neurochemicals, all the electrical activity, but still you cannot point out to me the location of the self. That is because the self isn't some grand unified homunculus in the body. There isn't some soul sitting behind the eyes, guiding everyone's actions. This is pretty old news. It goes back at least 2000 years to Siddhartha Gautama. And in neuroscience it's almost a cliche. The 'divided brain,' etc. And it's not just the brain that's divided: it's the self that eminates from that brain. Just read anything about Gazzaniga's split brain experiments and you'll quickly realize how little continuity there really is within the human mind. We're all just a hop, skip, and a jump away from schizophrenia.

So if it's all just a bunch of disparate parts, how the heck do we put it all together? With a story. A story that the brain tells itself in order to form some sort of coherent picture of the mind emerging from the brain so that the brain can understand the mind sufficiently to make predictions. And the best way the brain knows how to do that is to confabulate, to tell stories.

We all know we don't experience reality objectively [or at least one would hope]. No matter how much we pay attention, every experience we have will be colored by our past memories, present states, and future expectations. That's just a part of the human condition. And try as we may, we can't escape it. So basically, even if we know that the story that is our self is complete crap, there's really nothing we can do about it. I don't know if it's really possible to live without a narrative thread [I know I live with one right now, in fact, I've just started a new 'chapter' known as the summer after my freshman year of college {boring title, I know. But I'm working on it!}]. In which case, the only real option is to choose an empowering narrative and live it to the fullest. Realizing that it's just as real as Santa Claus, God, and the Easter Bunny. So be a warrior, a bum, or a victim. Though the last two may not be optimal for living a fulfilling life.

Funny how it ends up that way. Comforting though to realize that there's no point in trying too hard to follow a certain plot.

And on a random note, want to be absolutely certain that you'll never die? Just keep asking yourself, 'Am I dead now?' The answer will never be no!

If you want some more coherent / interesting readings on the self as narrative, check out this NY Times article on narrative psychology. This stuff is picking up some major steam in the mind community.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Webs We Weave - An Old Story Realized Anew

Hm. Well. I don't know where to begin exactly. I haven't written anything in a while [make that blog cliché count number 1 billion]. But I feel the urge to write right now, so I guess I will.

I have a lot of things to talk about. And I could talk about them all at once [that is, after all, how they appear in my consciousness. I mean, I sometimes wish that my mind would just nicely segregate all my thoughts into different compartments, so that maybe I could focus on the task at hand. But it seems more like the mind works through montage and mixture. Which, to be honest, makes for a much more interesting time than any other solution].

So I'm sitting here cross-legged on a towel, typing on a labtop on a futon [not to be confused with a zabuton, nor to be confused with a zafu, which I would really like to get but don't currently have the money for because of a lack of a job [the lack of which I can thank to minimal effort on my part and maximal ignoring on the part of those that I would like to employ me]]. Typing words that will eventually be read [though it won't seem as if it's an eventuality to you, it'll just seem like something that's happening] by you.

So, here are some of the thoughts on my mind right now. I've been listening to a lot of Tool, APC [A Perfect Circle], and NIN [Nine Inch Nails]. In fact, I've discovered the wonder of mix tapes [where mix tapes, in our time, means coming up with different playlists]. I've even come up with one titled "Fight the Man." I'll give you a partial song list just in case you're interested [or interesting, in which case I wonder if you've already left]. Counting Bodies Like Sheep, Judith, and Pet by APC, The Hand that Feeds, Only, and Right Where It Belongs by NIN, and Opiate by Tool. A fun list of songs, if I ever saw one. I highly advise listening to them all together. They'll give you a giant dose of identity crisis and social consciensce shock, all in one listen. A good time had by all.

And listening to them, I have had a slight case of identity shock. Though I can't thank the songs for all of that [I do love music, but I don't put THAT much faith into it!]. A lot of it has to do with being in Chi again. As you may recall from my post about the greatness of being back in Chi here. Not suprisingly, this doesn't come without some drawbacks. Well, I wouldn't call them drawbacks, per se. Just sort of, I don't know, intrigues. Yes, that's a better word. One you don't hear nearly enough these days.

Let me explain. Now, if we weren't social animals [which I only wish about 10 tens every day, the other times I marvel at our sociability], then the social webs that we weave wouldn't really matter too much. One could go about ones day without thinking about anyone else, and more importantly, without thinking about what the other person is thinking. And even more importantly, without wondering about what the other person is thinking while you're not even in the vicinity of the other person. Makes your head hurt, doesn't it? Some scientists claim it's this sort of thing that caused our heads to swell to giant proportions. Don't diss gossip. It lead to the atomic bomb.

Anyway, being back in Chi leads to all those webs recrystallizing right in front of my eyes. And it's kind of scary. Because half of them I thought were severed. The other half I didn't even know existed. And the OTHER half [wait, does 3/2 = 1?] I seem to find missing. And yet they're all here or not here, without me making any effort.

And then I listen to my music about how the self is an illusion, and I realize it's true. And I feel free from the web that I have spun MYSELF, if only for a moment. I feel as if I could start anew. Just firebomb the heck out of all those webs and start over again, more consciously. Because let's be honest, half of those webs weren't woven by me. And the other half...

But the trick is that I don't have all that much control over the webs that other people have. Because even if I firebomb MY webs, the webs of other people are still quite sticky. And there's nothing wrong with that. Everyone has this really beautiful, colorful, multiphonic world going on inside their heads. Every person has their own webs, their own timelines. I can only see mine, I can only control mine, but that doesn't mean the other ones aren't there.

And it's moments like that where I wish I could build a time machine. Or just step out of time. Or maybe grow a pair of cajones and do something about all of this. Where I feel like shedding this skin and remaking a new identity. One that doesn't worry too much about this, and worries a little more about that. One who, well, is me. But better.

Yeah, this may sound all sorts of convaluted and sad. But it actually gives me some sort of game plan for this summer. Because, to quote John Mayer, 'I just found out there's no such thing as the real world. Just a lie you've got to rise above' [more on him in a later post]. I realized that really, life doesn't start later. It starts right now. The curtain isn't going to magically rise. It already has, on the day the mind first started drafting this particular drama.

Amazing stuff. Yet nothing new. Nothing is ever really new. New things only happen once every billion years. Everything else is just a reworking.

Here's to the reworking of this montage!


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Home of Consciousness

I have to tell you, home is an amazing place. Amazing at bringing you back to where you were. To the point that you feel like you never left. But yet you don't seem to remember ever being here.

The cliches never end: You never return home. Home is where the heart is. You can take the home out of the boy but not the boy out of the home. So sure, I got most of those horribly wrong. But what can you do, right? I mean, horribly wrong is okay now. I'm home.

Add to that the summer, and this feeling couldn't get any ODDER. I mean, this is me, back at Chi. At my old crib. At my old desk. Thinking old thoughts. Going through old memories. This is almost priceless.

I don't know if I could bottle this feeling. I wonder if I could bottle this feeling. And sell it to those that are homesick. Because the homesickness is half worth the pain just to have this feeling. This feeling of being home. Among familiar faces. Among familiar friends. Among familiar places.

I read recently that primates are some of the only animals that willingly leave their home clan to move out and explore the world. Wolves don't do it. Parrots don't do it. I don't even think that dolphins do it. But we do. And maybe we're wrong on this one.

Sure, we can't grow without leaving home base. We stand no hope of moving beyond our limited thought of ourself. But there's just something so comforting about this place. Home

The nostalgia will probably lift.

Until then, thank you.