A Train Without Rails

One way to really waste your time is reading on and on about mindfulness. And there is surely no end of long long long books books books offering a thousand lifetimes’ worth of answers about mindfulness. Complex, marketable, secular answers. Let’s set those answers and those long books on the shelf for now. When I was 18 years old, a scientist in Madison posed a question in the first half of a brief article. That question was Are questionnaire-based self-reports of mindfulness valid?

Now I’m 25 years old. Unresolved is ‘the questionnaire question’, but absolutely certain to me this morning was my own mindlessness. Here’s a small sample of the day’s distractions, brought to you from first-semester chemistry (via self report…validity to be determined):

 

11:15am Distracted by goal-flavored thoughts about writing a memoir of high quality, visualizing the steps associated with such a venture
11:15:30am Writing-thoughts bubbling up to account for the possibility or inevitability of memoir-thoughts
11:19am Anger-thoughts about institutional life, hot heated word-thoughts offering critiques of abusive power structures and their creations, which stemmed from thoughts about writing
11:24am What’s the best way to steal a lot of stuff from Whole Foods?
11:26am Anger-Argue thoughts about my old job, and the gross inability of my former boss to do her job (or live her live generally)

 

My intent for that 15-minute period was to simply write those thoughts that were most distracting for me. So when I noticed that my attention was unstable even for a moment, or that my mind’s eye had been occluded by some material other than coursework, I wrote down that material non-judgmentally and as it presented itself. It can be hugely valuable to understand and observe our consciousness without responding to or agreeing/disagreeing with it.

Do you have a wobbly attention span? Are you seeking more FOCUS? Go back to the shelf, pick up those conversations about secular mindfulness, and have some Mental Training™ today!

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field notes (9/24/17)

It’s worth questioning the distinction between the eater and the eaten. My sense of self is always adjusting in my head, and there are pretty much 2 assumptions that always underlie these feelings-of-me. The tight link between these two assumptions could most definitely be compared to an ongoing relationship. There is first the breadwinner: the thought of myself as a bag of skin. A self-contained, 3 dimensional bag of blood and bones, with a set mass and defined perimeter. This conception floats around in my head with a deep emotional attachment to another thought, which is a loving housekeeper and servant to the first. This is the thought of myself as something that eats. My separate-self must ingest or imbibe other objects in order to maintain the organization and mass of my bag of blood and bones, and this bag is comprised completely of these other objects. These beliefs – I exist in a bag of skin, and I consume various items to persist in this bag of skin – are wed in certainty, and forever monogamous. Right?

But every now and then these two concepts get separated during my thinking process, which opens the door to all sorts of extramarital troubles. This occurred just moments ago. At this morning hour my priorities are simple: coffee and cats. Getting some cuddle time with the boy cat, who is a quite the handsome fuzzy fellow, is always a plus. So here I sit with him. Moments ago I observed him become briefly entranced by the sound of a bird outside. Cuddle time interrupted. His head twisted towards the window, with an undeniable erectness and stiffness emerging in his spine, and his paws suddenly tightening. No doubt an image of killing projected brightly into his brain. This distraction-via-outside-stimulus got me thinking. Why was he looking out the window? Or, What compelled him to respond to the bird, but not to me? 

This brought into my caffeine-soaked brain tissues a series of thoughts. A hungry cat is nothing special, but to wonder about it started to produce some strange thoughts.The formation of these thoughts was rapid, fleeting, and took on (as they normally do) a sort of dialectical and verbal nature. A common sense nature. Well, he’s a cat, so of course he looks towards the sound of a bird. Cats like bird. He’s hungry. If only he could stuff that bird into his mouth he could persist in his current form.

So immediately there was the image of my cat as an individual object, worthy of categorization and distinction – and also the image of it as an eating thing. Our long-term couple described above. These star-crossed assumptions comprised a sort of single, coherent reality. And yet there was a whispering and wondering – a suitor sitting at the end of the bar, asking – about why this cat turned his head. At first the circumlocution seemed without cause, and without direction: A cat looking towards a bird-sound is a natural thing. It is programmed into the cat via its experience and is therefore expected. Cats grow up experiencing birds, learn to associate them with pleasurable things, and then adjust automatically to the stimulus.

Then my thoughts stopped for a moment. They resumed.

But he has never clutched a bird – held a bird – caught a bird. He has also likely never seen this type of bird in the flesh: after all, he has been an indoor cat all his life.

Suddenly the two assumptions referenced above came to mind [Cat-as-separate entity, cat-as-an-eating-thing], and their union was threatened. The realization that my cat had never previously observed or experienced the consumption of one of these birds outside wedged itself uncomfortably in my mind, at first trying to be distilled and clarified in the presence of my presumptive framework. But soon it all fell apart – if my cat had never had this experience, one might think that cat-as-separate entity (and that eats) would not be motivated to respond to this stimulus. Surely if I feed and cuddle this cat morning after morning he would be more naturally inclined – based on his experience – to direct his attention towards me, bird-sounds notwithstanding. But he looked at the bird. The bird’s call, upon accessing the inside of cat’s brain, elicited a very specific response. Just for 1/2 a second. The bird was in him, despite never having been in him.

This is true of most stimuli. But.

There are roughly 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli that could have gotten this cat’s attention, and it was this single one that did it. So the existence of this cat in front of me must be presupposed by another thought, or assumption – that perhaps this cat can respond to birds without having experienced them. And these animals, remember, are assumed to be two separate objects. That means that this cat, in its essence – in its skull (which, remember, is contained in its bag of blood and bones) – comes pre-programmed with bird-ness inside of it. In the absence of any contact this one object still has a sharp and distinguishable resonance with the other. The cat’s behavior is non-distinct from the bird’s behavior.

Suddenly my two primary assumptions went from holy matrimony to a state of conflict and near-divorce. So if part of this stimulus, or some type of framework to respond to this stimulus, comes pre-programmed in the cat……then some inside-bit of the cat’s head is specifically and uniquely tailored to the bird-sound. And that bird-sound is only one of 13,109,553,920,105,377 stimuli surrounding the cat. So perhaps cat and bird are non-distinct, and the act of eating ought to be considered not a linkage of two separate objects, but a continual adjustment of one single object. The cat and the bird are a single object, and the void space between them is the hand that will soon serve a growling stomach.

The loose definition of a living being as being bound by a bag of skin had, as an assumption, offered no prescriptive value to my experience of watching my cat listen to the bird. But soon the loose definition of a living being as bound as a bag of skin had lost its value as a representative tale, and was replaced by ambiguity. Now I cannot tell if the bananas and Cheerios in the kitchen (yet uneaten) are truly separate from myself – after all, they will both be inside of my bag-of-skin in a matter of minutes. The breakdown of the separation between self-and-other offers no clear route ahead, and is more of a fancy folly than a scientific analysis. The circumlocution around these concepts has become tiring. Just ask yourself if it’s possible that the surrounding room-house-street-block-city might not be a part of your extended anatomy, and one that is as alive as you, rather than that you are a single bag of skin operating independently within that non-living framework. #EndRant

they stole my idea

once as a freshman in college I found myself scribbling about the ways that consciousness might arise randomly under certain circumstances. our brain surely evolved under completely random circumstances – so we are at least one random arrangement of atoms that has a sense of self. so maybe other arrangements of atoms pop into existence every now and then that also have a sense of self – and maybe those arrangements are not necessarily brains, or even living.

it’s easy to think that brains are necessary for consciousness. but maybe not. sure, we’ve got a brain with tons of chunks and parts – but if none of those parts are in and of themselves conscious, and if we are relatively complex life-forms that evolved randomly….then perhaps less-complex (non-living) forms that evolved under the same random processes might briefly or spontaneously become conscious.

for example – should consciousness be introduced when a physical system has _________ characteristics, and should those characteristics be emergent in more systems than simply brains, then it’s possible that little selves are emerging and disappearing all over us very quickly all the time.

then i stumbled upon the Boltzmann Brain concept online and realized my idea was not innovative whatsoever. but it’s cool to think that someone reached the same odd conclusion/paradox so long ago.

it must be done physically

“It is as though we had an uncut diamond. We could not really say that it was worthless, or say it was something other than a diamond. But unless skillfully cut and meticulously polished, its diamond-nature might not be visible. The beautiful color and clarity which make it so highly prized would remain in the realm of potential. Of course, we might sincerely believe it to be a diamond. We might even tell others, “This is a diamond and worth a lot.” Yet it would seem peculiar to say, “I don’t need to cut and polish this diamond. I know that it is a diamond, and that’s good enough for me.” Rather, we must cut that diamond and polish its many facets carefully in order that its lovely nature might be shared and enjoyed by all who see it. So it is with our practice. We don’t wish to make diamonds out of mud – we wish to properly appreciate what is already inherent.

But it must be done physically. Our whole practice rests upon a physical base, just as our lives begin physically. First we learn to bring our bodies into harmony – we learn to sit physically. Once that happens, we stop panting and gasping, and start to breathe easily, smoothly, and naturally. And as body and breath settle down and no longer create disturbances for us, we find that the mind itself is given the opportunity to settle into its own smooth and natural functioning. The racket and babble of our noisy minds give way to the clarity and naturalness of our true selves. In this way we come to know who we really are, and what our life and death really is. ”

Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Why Practice?

field notes (06/19/2017) [*50th entry*]

Had the crow experience of a lifetime this morning. Will try to recount it in the fullest detail possible.

Last night I didn’t sleep well. For a week or two I’ve been without much coffee but during the day yesterday had a few cups – normally these many cells process that caffeine quickly but it seems likely that was why I tossed and turned. At 4:41 a.m. I gingerly crawled out of bed to meditate – felt pretty distracted, with lots of intrusive thoughts – and then at 5:00 kept hearing crows. Sounding close but not necessarily outside of the house – at least 2 or 3 of them.

After a while they broke my attempt at a meditative trance and I had to go see them. Grabbed my bag of snacks (corn) and went out onto Selby. Thought I was hearing them a block west and ventured out – expecting to see them in the tall roost-spot past Pierce on the north side of the street. No luck. Turned left down Pierce and quickly realized there were about 3 or 4 crows a block in past Augustine’s. Walked up the street- their cacophony was remarkable and chattery almost to the point of annoyance. The thick, lush green trees – and dark-ish sky, perhaps on a 2.9/10 brightness setting – made it hard to see the little avian monkeys. Their caws were in bursts of three or four and extremely consistent. As I approached I made a few ‘kawwwhhh, kawwhhh’ noises and shook my keys. Then I walked directly beneath the trees, over a manhole cover next to a basketball hoop (east side of the street). I grabbed handfuls of corn and poured them onto the manhole cover. They clicked and clacked and rained their clattery sound onto the ground and to my surprise the crows were rather responsive. It seemed clear as I did this handful after handful – at least 5 or 6 of them – that the birds were watching, and one rearranged itself (seemingly to get a better view).

I continued to alert them with noise and the 4-or-so crows quickly became 10. The most I could count (as they were moving) was 10, but I believe a few were in my periphery. Continued south to the middle-end of the block and laid down a few noticeable ‘lines’ of corn – perhaps 12-18 inches long, 3 or 4 inches thick, and just about 1 layer of corn tall or heightwise. Yellow enough to be bright and visible but not voluminous enough to deplete my entire supply. I laid out one or two of these on the ground and another on a blue recycling can – the crows were extremely loud at this point, and many more were flying in (primarily from the west end of Pierce, above the trees).

Wow – it was exciting. Always I am hoping that they are comfortable or at least unalarmed by my presence, which is to some obvious extent intrusive and loud, and if they are not unalarmed or comfortable my second hope is that they will comfortably leave. Or fly away. What sucks is the possibility that crows needing rest, or really just trying to roost in one spot, or that are otherwise unwilling to take off and fly away from me, are irritated by my presence. So this morning as they screamed and gathered I kept wondering if I was bothering them – scaring them – enraging them – etc. But as they were summoning one another (within a matter of 5 minutes there were 2 dozen large birds) and screaming together over my head, which has certainly never happened in the absence of food before, I must think there was some positive reward response associated with their screams. (Later tomorrow I’ll get back over there to see if they snacked on any of it – do crows even eat corn? Don’t ask me!)

Waving my keys on my carabiner (this is a sort of Pavlovian stimulus that I introduce when I feed the crows anywhere) I walked south into the intersection of Pierce and Hague. Wave wave wave keys, drop drop drop some food, caw caw caw, sing sing sing. A common and monotonous attempt at engagement – and, for my neighbors, probably a sickening morning regularity. There were so many crows (or corvids? Ravens? Hm.) above me that I didn’t know what to do or think. Just black mass after black mass, dipping and swooping like planes, but never getting close or suggesting outward aggression. Unless I am completely ignorant to their own aggressive strategies. Together they could have shredded my scalp (or worse) and instead they simply screamed like an avian chorus and made me super duper happy. I kept laying out seeds and lovingly cooing “hello, babies!!!”

Walked back northward after a while. Those few moments with a zillion birds around me felt like a zillion years. Really admired the big fat one that was atop the roof on the NE intersection of Pierce & Hague. It was short, squat, and had the same inward neck-thrust (head upwards, body fat) as a few ravens on youtube – at least, that was what my memory suggested. For some reason this one bird (on a roof instead of trees or in the air) caught my attention as I was walking through the crowstorm back towards Selby. I walked past Selby and onto Dayton a bit, seeing yet another fatty (maybe the same one from the roof) doing the inward-neck-thrust-guttural-call from atop a tree. NE end of Dayton & Pierce. Hm.

Went home. Scattered corn around the house as I arrived – also put a few round masses of the yellow stuff onto the roof. Then crawled back into bed with a cute girl as the crows kept hollering outside.