insights & outsides

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I have a friend who’s a writer. I read her Facebook posts, which are more entertaining than the norm. She happened to make a few cheeky jokes about death. (Foreshadowing). A short time after that, I saw her post about the death of her friend. The jokes stopped; she became very somber. There were a number of posts about him, a loyal following. Then there was a pause for a few beats, and then – what else could she do? – she returned to her old style, but with a touch more warmth this time.

It’s easy, and even fun in a way, to posture about topics that are larger and more dangerous than we are. From our protected perches we can safely make our jibes, without feeling vulnerable. All it takes is for a little ray to break through, however, to put us in our places, and make us feel small. Though we don’t like to dwell on it, there are many ways in which we can be hurt – an almost infinite variety.

Some of them don’t give us a chance to avoid them. In fact, the very worst one doesn’t.

[Edit: After I wrote this, another woman I knew better had her husband die also. This isn’t a typical occurrence, I should add – I don’t know that many people on Facebook. I don’t think I knew either one of them well enough to say very much to them, but I am sincerely sorry for their loss. Their husbands were nice people, though I only met one of them; for the spouses, this must be extremely hard, and I hope they get the support they deserve.]

Death is always unnerving. What is there to say? You think, I don’t want it to happen to me, but then you also think, Neither did they. On one level, you can minimize the risks, but on another level, you don’t get to choose. It’ll come, ready or not.

So we do what we can with the time that we have, understanding that only some of this is under our control. We try to make a difference – to make life better for others and for ourselves, with our work. I don’t particularly like to think about it, but then not thinking about it doesn’t make the problem of a well-lived life, which is to say our life before death, go away. Pretending we’re never going to die is problematic also.

Ultimately, our legacy will be in the love of the people we knew, and the work we did.

I hope that the people I love know that, in the same way that I feel privately loved by them.

Since work, the other half of this equation, is what the greatest number of people will know us for, it is, in a way, our public half.

Our task, when we are working, is to concentrate our attention on a point, and stay there until we finish. This is the best and most efficient way to work; since so much of our success comes down to how effectively we work, the details matter.

To do this, you have to know where your awareness is, moment to moment; and for that, to know where your awareness is on the micro-scale, you have to track it, inhabit it, live with it, from the inside. You have to be there, mentally, when you go off track, have enough awareness and flexibility to put yourself back on track, and then stay on that track that you didn’t want to be on, a moment ago.

The mind wants to jump. In its purest form, when I meditate, it doesn’t want to stay on my breath. If anything, it runs in the opposite direction, even to things I didn’t enjoy that much a short time ago, just to move out of the present, to some imaginatively colored Other. But learning to be here, where I am, in the space that I am in the time that I’m there, is my practice.

I’m starting to understand that learning to stay in one place, mentally, is the key to happiness. By definition mind jumps are signs that the mind isn’t happy, and wants to be somewhere else. That desire to be somewhere else, never satisfied, is an engine of unhappiness.

So training myself to be happy means learning to stay in one place mentally, not resisting, and not leaving until the work is done.

I won’t ultimately get to choose exactly how long I get to practice this, but I can choose to do it while I have the opportunity, and to do well by the people I know. When my time is up, I hope that my work, my friends, my family, and my mind will be my legacy.

Out of the Shadows

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These days, I often think about meditation. Of all the genuinely transformative experiences I’ve had over the past year, it beats all. I just don’t know anything else that has that kind of effect, that dramatically –  or so much payoff for trying.

I started to use meditation as a ‘circuit breaker’ on bad days. Whenever I had a sustained bad mood – a kind of proto-depression – I’d found that these 10-minute meditation blocks hobbled them. In fact, it really only took, at most, 3 stacked together to at make even the most emotionally disruptive events, manageable; anything above that was gravy.

Compared to other methods – say, eating out, or seeing friends, of hopping on the Internet – meditation was by far the simplest and most effective. Everything else was like putting money on a square you had very good reason to think would win, while meditation was a straight withdrawal. In other words, while those were indirect, this was direct; and once you know the direct route, why choose another?

But if short blocks brought this much benefit, that piqued my interest about what longer ones would do. I’d read somewhere that the fireworks, the really spectacular effects, started to kick in around the two-hour mark. I had aspired to meditate for two hours when I started, too, but it was just too unfamiliar, too dissonant in context to the rest of my mental experience, for me to reach it. I had to start smaller, and build up.

People have different ways of talking about what it’s like to start meditation, but for me, it was a lot like starting running. In the beginning, it’s a brute slog, getting used to it. You’ve spent so much of the rest of your life un-meditating – doing things to forget about other things in your experience, riding roughshod over your emotions, sublimating everything to something else  – that meditation feels like sand on your tongue. Your initial reaction is to reject it, while doing it (the after-period, by contrast, always brings some noticeable benefit). You start there, and you spend a long time becoming familiar with it, with how it acts on your mind.

Then you scale up. Because if a little does this much good, what will a lot do?

As a sort of experiment in self-discovery, I recently hit the 2-hour mark: two 30 minute blocks dropped earlier in the day, and one hour-long block at the end of it. I’m starting to recognize this buttery, creamy quality to consciousness that has been massaged by meditation, that I notice and like when I start my day off with it.

At about the 1 hour 40 minute mark, something unexpected came through: a sort of chunk of self-loathing that suddenly broke free. I saw I was very hard on myself in some ways that are hard to verbalize, and I didn’t need to be; we all need to work, and work hard, but being extremely negative about our efforts is not helpful. And as soon as I saw it, it was gone; it was the seeing, that was healing.

The mind is, to all appearances, completely transparent, in your moment-to-moment experience – yet some things really are trying to hide. I didn’t see this until I felt like I’d pulled it out into the light of awareness. In fact there were a series of ugly mental images that preceded it – like landfills, basically – and then this surfaced. And then it was clear.

I see the connection to psychotherapy now. Your mind isn’t as transparent as you might think, as your self-confidence would lead you to believe. A lot of the memories that surfaced in the second hour were emotionally loaded, all right, but very odd; none of the usual suspects appeared, like ex-girlfriends or some sort of bully-like elementary school memories. Instead it was a bunch of agita-inducing no-name dreck, like the minutes before meeting strangers at a run.

Still, it felt like a breakthrough. And this was just two hours, still a small fraction of the day. What happens when you double that, or triple it? What happens when you meditate for an hour, day after day? What happens to your self-awareness, in that scenario?

I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

The Prize of Prizes

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You can tell a lot about a culture from its heroes. When I think about the prototypical action hero, it’s a stylish guy in sunglasses, with a gun. What does that mean? It means power, basically: the power to alter his surroundings, the power to muscle through inertia and make things happen, even when powerful entities resist him. At heart, it’s a fantasy about being able to change the world according to one’s will, opposition be damned.

But for my money, instead of lurking down here at the street tough level, it’s better to go several levels up, to awareness.

Because awareness in, a sense, the grand prize, the doer and accomplisher of everything. It is that which is most efficacious. Returning to our movie logic, a dramatized version of our culture’s desires, all problems can be solved in one of three ways: with money, by force of personality, or with a gun. Rephrased, with a carrot, with ourselves, or with a stick. Yet awareness hovers above them all, solving both problems before they even have a chance to establish themselves. With a sufficiently high level of awareness, all problems at the lower levels become trivial.

Take money. I need money to live, and to accomplish my desires. With enough awareness, generating money becomes trivial. If I know a company backwards and forwards, I can project its future performance; the better I am at this, the better I can do this. Then I predict its stock movements; then it’s trivial to double down on those, and profit. Or say I know the state of the weather, perfectly and completely, across the nation – even if it’s just for this moment, just this month. With this knowledge I can again predict movements in commodities prices due to the lag between current state and market information, leading me back to the same place. Awareness in this sense is like a mint; with enough of it, I can basically print cash.

So much for the carrot. Now let’s take the stick. With enough awareness I can nip problems in the bud, before they become problems. I can de-escalate them before they ever manifest, by paying off someone here or pulling aside someone there. Crank the levels of awareness even higher, and there’s sure to be an even simpler, $1 dollar solution somewhere in there, maybe something as simple as placing a phone call or sending an email to someone who would eventually cause me problems. Awareness easily sweeps past this, to the extent that someone with enough awareness doesn’t even appear to have any problems – because they’ve all been resolved in their earliest, almost formless state.

Finally, ourselves. If force of personality is the third leg here that the other ones depend on, awareness of ourselves is the ultimate prize. Most of us have very poor awareness of ourselves – the impression we are making, even things as simple as our posture. Massage this with enough awareness, and charisma naturally pours outwards. Awareness is actually most applicable to ourselves, since we can create a feedback loop, possible in no other way, between ourselves, action, and change, redoubled upon itself. When our awareness grows, our power grows with it.

This is a riff on movie dreams, on where our desires, as evolved by the market, have placed us, in imaginary space. By examining them, we learn what we are seeking through them, and – extrapolating back out – how we can find those things more effectively, in the real world. Just like these movie traits have their real-life analogues, awareness does, too.

Think about your work habits for a moment, about how productive you really are during an 8-hour day. There are bound to be some physical distractions, but they are small, and the bulk of our day is still free to work – if we are free to apply ourselves to it. What, then, is the biggest obstacle to our productivity? What we call, amorphously, ‘slacking off’ – reading an article here, lurking on Facebook there. The all-important follow-up question here is, what’s behind slacking off? At the core level, it’s really an emotional issue – not being satisfied with our place in the moment, rebelling in some inchoate way by doing something which is not in it.

Awareness helps here, too. When we become aware, deeply aware, of what we are doing in our ‘breaks’, we see counterproductive ways of operating, why we do them, and how we can grown beyond them. It’s not yelling at ourselves (which, after all, our parents and teachers did for us, in our most formative years), but spotting a misguided attempt at socializing, and then redirecting it.

By accumulating all of our small awareness-corrections towards a larger goal, we can make the ultimate fantasy possible, that which the man in sunglasses has been harkening to all along: conscious, unbroken progress towards our goals, systematized and with all the self-handicapping ironed out. That is what makes awareness the ultimate prize. That is why, with enough awareness, everything else becomes easy.

Aesthetic Tech

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I’m liking the city more, and what the tech scene has to offer. I liked it before, but I like it now too. People in the flyover states – am I qualified to use this ironically and non-insultingly? I think so; that’s a joke, underlined – sometimes treat tech in SF as being kind of trendily dumb and for hipsters. Yet in general, in tech, the city tries hard to stimulate new ideas, and be a leader, on merit.

What we’re seeing, increasingly, is a fluid move towards information design. We’re evolving, from the fish to the dinosaurs in those old silly panoramas, towards the primacy of the aesthetic experience. It’s moving out of the art galleries and trickling down, in a very real way, from the thought leaders to the trendy but still smart second wave, to the hipster third wave, down into phones and websites. But it’s a real thing, and only going to become more pronounced over time.

Increasingly, people who can afford it will inhabit a world of effortlessly smooth information. All the friction will be thoughtfully, deliberately buffed out. Only the best will be a reality: beautiful experiences for the beautiful people, with all other consumers aspirationally following.

We’re seeing the death knell of proud, dumb ugliness. People get that their devices are sort of asymptotically approaching this point where every interaction enhances or at least aims at supporting the ease, fluidity and pleasure of the Platonic mind. Being ugly on purpose, just spitting in your face as a purchase because smart people can figure it out or whatever, has stopped being cool. And good riddance, too – that led to terrible devices, and experiences.

This new world is better, and brighter. This might come across as Panglossian and naive, as a techie’s buy-in to the mindset of a consumer electronics company. But really, it goes beyond that. It’s the bright birth of a new era in aesthetics, and the proclaiming of its eventual spread everywhere. And that’s really, truly wonderful, moving away from a world that wallows in ugliness and kneels before the desirability of beauty, in its most intuitive forms.

It’s the future, and it’s coming to your phone.

An End to Suffering

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I’ve attended many talks at Dawn Mountain in Houston and, by this point, done a fair amount of Buddhist reading. So, for people who haven’t had that experience, I thought I’d share some of the fruits of it, in essay form.

I think this is especially useful for people of a general background (I include myself in this) who have developed callouses at some places against some of their particular cultural incarnations, and so have developed blind spots in certain areas that are probably endemic to any culture and religion, but are particular to theirs. Buddhism as presented at Dawn Mountain has a different ‘angle of attack’ and so tends to split open awareness in places where it’s generally grown very dim. Such has been my experience, anyway.

Moving on.

What people want – what women want, what men want – is to not suffer.

Good. Now we know what they want – we have a goal to work towards. We can search and replace ‘what I want’ with ‘not suffer.’ Next question: how do I not suffer?

Well, we have to know what is causing our suffering, to stop it.

Suffering is caused by desire, in this model (use the model that works best for you). Our desires are the real culprit, here. There are contributing factors, but the root cause – the one that sprouts all the other ones (at a micro and macrocosmic level) – is suffering.

So when we want to end our suffering – which is the answer to what we want – we should look in the direction of our desires, which are manifold and out of control.

Turns out this issue is related to the state of our minds, in general. In fact – allied with it – is that our minds are constantly, endlessly hopping around, preventing the foundation of happiness. That is the cause of our suffering, that nonstop round of desire.

So we have identified what we want, to not suffer, and what causes it, desire. In this model. That’s a good place to start, to experiment with self-improvement.

What’s next, then – what do we do about this rampant desire, the cause of our suffering?

Meditate. Or, in less mystifying words, come to know ourselves, and our minds – what they really are, what they have inside them. Self-examination, introspection.

So much of what we do is just an attempt to do end-runs around issues that are really internal, that we could mostly solve by reasoning with ourselves. Not everything, perhaps. But many things. You can start with meditation, and go from there.

Here ends the 5-minute intro.

Information’s Sleep

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Every time a leaker like Edward Snowden makes the news, a particular question occurs to me. The person, whoever they are, steps forth with sheafs and sheafs of information; it gets disseminated, and then there’s a cat-and-mouse game where the authorities try to figure out what to do with him. The usual.

But there’s always the information itself, and the odd fact that it usually seems to land with a thud. Here it is – the worst has happened, from a national security point of view – and yet most people can’t be bothered to summarize it at the most basic executive level, or form any kind of opinion about it. It’s just there, it’s information – but beyond that, the level of caring for the object that’s at the center of the radiation blast is extremely low. In the end it’s basically a shoulder shrug and a so what.

There’s a lesson in this, about information.

Information needs a delivery system to nurture and sustain it to survive. There are all these sci-fi movies about lonely planets littered with the ruins of ancient civilizations, where the peon natives scrape the dirt beneath gleaming buried porticos; in a way, we live in one.

There are entire collective advanced ways of viewing the world, in recent memory, encoded in bookshelves, art, cultural practices, that keep getting mowed under and trash compacted because they’e lost their ancestors and there’s not enough of a core to keep them alive. So they die. Eons of this, repeating itself endlessly.

You could stock your mind easily with furniture a century old, reading material, hobbies, practices; or go farther back, a millenium back, sleep on a bed of many-centuried stories, mix and match as much as you want. A lot has been lost – that science fiction angle – without the chain of people to pass it on, but there’s so much of it that you can still reconstitute entire lifestyles in a reusable form. We live in those ruins, and soon we will be them.

As we age, we become aware that those new things that are ceaselessly made, that are being threshed include us, include the cultures we were born into, losing the heat of being cool and starting to sink under the waves.

It’s a little awe-inspiring to read a book, say, written a few hundred years ago, and realize what a fully realized world there was there, and then ponder how it’s vanished now. And that’s just one leaf on a tree that’s shedding all the time, even now, this very moment. Things from the 80’s that brought up interested questions that will never get answered, because the layers are pushing them every farther away.

There will be a time when Justin Timberlake is 70 years old, with people saying he should retire, and some new culture-makers proclaiming, in a condescending, backhanded fashion, he’s still got it! Of course he won’t – the very fact that you have to be sold on this, that it’s not immediately apparent, means he’s a goner. And that’s just a glaringly obvious target at the top of a very large iceberg, melting faster every day.

All of our cultures are dying; we are, too. Our task is to reclaim as much of that as we can, and make it beautiful for the time that we have it, before Saturn – that is to say, time – eats us all again.

Veins of Experience

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I was reading a blog about an artist and I thought, the part I loved about the blog, was, this is about ideas – great ideas, scintillating ideas. Because how often do we have those? So often, we painstakingly set up a dull idea, and then even more slowly, unpack it. There’s no speed, no velocity – no hum caused by taking those ideas and accelerating them until they circled faster and faster, and then dipping down into them and wearing them like a jacket.

For ideas, for this kind of mind-tourism, you want richness, succulence. I was asked today about my favorite book, and I said Under the Volcano, a nice answer because it’s short and I hope my listener might, theoretically, read it too (unlike War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time).

But then, in thinking about it more, I realized a better answer would probably be The Savage Detectives. Because that book’s frenzied but passionate portrait of a group of poets coming together, writing a manifesto, and then bringing a half-sincere college movement to life is far more rough and tumble and heartfelt and yet, at the same time, ephemeral and purely mental, in a way that’s a perfect split between the academy and the working class.

What we really need, ultimately, are better ideas.

I live in a city which is, in a way that’s beautiful and really not the lie you might imagine it to be, a kind of idea capital. Ideas are pored over and sifted with great care, and true sincerity. With a fine-grained comb these ideas are lifted up, taken out, held up to the light, and sorted; and, slowly, but with real intention, the best ones are kept. And that – when you’re at the center of it, cumulatively – leaves an impression.

I’m reading another book now called the Flamethrowers now, about an artist, a young woman, living in NYC in the 70’s. NYC will probably always be the ancestral city for me, the place where my parents met – in a very real sense, the location to which I owe my existence. And in this book, set in this city I love, the prime directive is experience: not physical things, but abstractions, really, filtered out and back into your mind, as discrete units.

Experience as the great determiner. Experience, in some ultimate sense, as you.

In the end, what I want – what I really want – is to have the most exquisite experiences. I want to be transformed by these experiences that come down from All That Is. Call it art, call it commerce – ideas are the blood; they make you live.

When I was a kid I remember I would flip open a notebook and record ideas that I had for businesses, for inventions – write them all down and then tear through them, one at a time. This was how I would remake the world; but really, the direction was the other way – this is how these ideas would recreate me. I follow; they lead.

So the goal, really, is to open a vein for your best ideas. To live all the time, for as long as you can breathe, in the Visionary Mode.

That, as Conan would say, is what is best in life.