Monthly Archives: November 2012

I had a dream that I was dining at a large table with Krishnamurti and his followers, and had the opportunity to ask him a couple questions. Krishnamurti was a spiritual leader who renounced his position with a quotable speech:

I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path.

Everyone at the table was encouraged to ask, and since I had two questions in mind, I meant to ask them both during my turn. I asked the first, but I don’t remember what, in my dream, the second was. Even so, I remember raising my hand to ask additional questions, although after the first two he had told me to slow down and give other people a chance.

My first question had to do with the difference between his style of meditation and the Buddhist/Zen style. I had just wanted him to compare them. The answer he gave: His style “achieved union with the godhead,” he said, which he called by a word: it was something like “mu-mind” but not that. I understood him to mean that within this state of consciousness, one comes to know the shallow and illusory nature of the world we think is real. On the other hand, I’ve come to understand (abstractly) that Zen meditation is about achieving an understanding of reality which does not seek to withdraw focus from sensory input and into an internal mental landscape, but rather the opposite: it seeks to amplify and stabilize focus so as to achieve “raw” knowledge of the perceived world and its reality minus a “layer” of everyday interpretation by the mind in terms of “personal relevance” of what is perceived (the “ego layer”). These two methods, (a) fully withdrawing consciousness from perception, and (b) amplifying consciousness on perception, seem to have opposite characteristics.

What was this about? I had read about Krishnamurti in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which I finished recently. I then read the full text of his speech, and was left with the impression that he was quite a strange individual, perhaps a product of his (sheltered, atypical) upbringing combined a powerful meditative experience of awakening combined with the rather strange (it seems) nature of the group he was being groomed to lead. But I find myself drawn to unusual people, because they are the ones who most often seem to have something to teach, either through their ideas or by observation. Yet, strangeness makes it harder to relate– the teaching becomes more symbolic.

Truth is a pathless land? It seems to me that truth is a land crisscrossed by paths, all leading somewhere, but where? The well-trod paths have eroded the truth they wind through. Walk on one and you will likely focus on the path itself more than any truth to which it leads or through which it leads. Walk your paths mindfully, and switch among them freely, according to your own will. Wander off of them frequently to see what lies where few have gone. Perhaps all such paths traverse but a tiny corner of truth, and in its mathematical infinity, truth reduces such paths to zero. But this is becoming overly abstract.

Why do people believe things?

We believe because we are weak.

Let me refine that.

We believe because we have limited energy.

Much of what we believe, we believe because we believe we are weaker than we are.

We believe because the elevation of an idea to a belief feels so good. It’s the end of a search.

[ Shortly after I had written the above, I encountered this relevant blog post, Born Again, Briefly, by the s.f. writer Greg Egan, describing his own experience with belief. ]

This was fascinating:

Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, which became a Newsweek cover story…

…counterpointed with this:

This Must Be Heaven, in which Sam Harris debunks it.

Reading the feedback: Despite a lot of junk comments online, there are more strong and rational voices out there than I had thought long ago, now that there are spaces for them to be heard. The death of traditional media forms is like an old tree falling and clearing room for light to shine down and a multitude of new views to start taking root. Small voices, but often voices of great clarity, beating back the fuzzy molds of wish-based thinking.

(In fact, Newsweek announced the discontinuation of their print edition almost immediately after publication of this story.)

It seems that internal experience can be incredibly powerful and compelling, and believe that when we can learn to accept the metaphoric nature of mental hyper-realities as expressions of our own reality tunnels and a playing out of the thinking process (that this is how the brain actually thinks, in the ocean depths below the surface ripples of normal consciousness), we will some day learn how to harness our actual mental capabilities, as they exist before our ego programs clamp down on them, in new and startling ways.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Heaven is not “real.” Gods are not “real.” But our cultural ideas about all these things came from people’s actual experiences with what to them are real (filtered through the limitations of language, which is a blunt instrument, and through which experiencers struggle to communicate the reality of what they’ve experienced): landscapes of thought which reveal metaphysical truths that make everyday beliefs based on what we’re told to be true, simply given to us to accept by society around us and which are therefore expedient to believe, or on the conclusions of abstract logic (e.g. word-based thinking) seem vastly distant in comparison. But such experiences are themselves nothing more than thinking, in unchained glory. This is the brain trying to make sense of some aspect of reality, modeling concepts not necessarily bound to three dimensions and time, within a hyper-concrete exploratory experiment different from (because of the feelings of awake-ness/awareness, “reality,” and “conclusiveness” attached, to begin with), but at the same time not all that much different from, dreams.

A decent article on evolution and art (and artists).

Before reading this I felt that “peacock’s tail” combined with theories of evolution of altruism/cooperation combined with “spandrel” (which is limited as stated; we need to invoke exaptation very early on as well), all taken together, created an explanation I was satisfied with. Or rather, provided enough material such that I believed an explanation (of any complexity, perhaps not even expressible-via-language complexity) could be formed drawing from all of these; that belief was satisfactory.

[ In thinking about many things what stands out in my mind is how limited words are for talking about things which are obviously due to a combination of many things, and how attracted theorists are to “simple” explanations.

If any one phrase is worthy of being attributed to me some day, I want it to be this:

No thing is ever only one thing.

Let that guide our thinking. ]

To me art is:

  • a form of thought, as is speech/words
  • communication: “this is what I am feeling / thinking / understanding”
  • showing off we consider valuable and which gives joy/satisfaction to both performer and audience: “look what my mind / my body can do”
  • a more complex form of play

Art can also become or gain significant overtones as:

  • a profession
  • a status symbol
  • money

Distilling this down, roughly art has varying aspects of: money, communication, and play.

A thought I had the other day was that I have trouble when creating art for some project. I’m generally not happy with the result. I do better when I am creating art for my own reasons and which involves no other person/thing (i.e., it’s not “coerced”). I would like to make it a principle of responding to any requests of me to make something specific with this statement:

I only create art for myself.

[ Do my own emotions or thoughts “coerce” me into creating art? No doubt. But then there is selfish purpose in art, which is the creation of understanding within my own mind. So it may be self-coerced, but it is less tainted by the desires of others and more likely to contain meaning. Just as thought itself is self-coerced. And here art-making can be largely an extension of thinking. ]

Chaim Potok touched on this theme heavily in My Name is Asher Lev in describing Asher’s difficult relationship with the commercial art world he nevertheless relied on to survive. I.e., he felt loathing for the idea of his art becoming transmuted into money.

I am a fictional character you make up.

I am a fictional character I make up.

I was going to write about a dream that I recently had, and my analysis of the dream, which led to an understanding of something that I considered a useful principle. Something that I had realized as I jotted down and thought about my dream. I felt reluctant to post the details of the dream and analysis here because it contains things that felt “private”, and that led to further thoughts about privacy and identity. The principle is that, what I say to you, “the world,” will become attached to my identity. You assume that, because I am writing in the first person and describing something as if it happened to me, that it is truth, even if the “thing that happened to me” was a dream, vaguely recalled, and that what happened after that was my analysis of the dream. Idle thoughts. Idle visions. Dreams are just thinking. Interesting that absolutely nothing physical happened in the world (apart from particles moving around in my head, and fingers typing on a keyboard). But we become attached to thought. Why is that? “This person had this thought, therefore she is such and such a kind of person.” This is understandable, too, because thought can turn into action. What people say reflects what they think. What they think affects what they might do. A great deal of the way we feel about people is due to the ideas they express. We are overly attached to the creation and management of a self-image, perhaps because we over-value our selves. Yet, it’s hard to see how things could be different.

I thought about how authors of works of fiction were much more free of this particular constraint. If I were writing a novel, I could have my protagonist describe a dream he had had. I could have my fictional protagonist post a fictional dream (on a fictional worldwide network, on a fictional planet…) Or kill someone. Or do something embarrassing. Readers could think what they wanted about the character, but the character “himself” is completely free of concern. He has no future. He has no past. He is completely static and unchanging, embedded in an imaginary world.

What does that imaginary world represent? And how are we all that different? We may like the character, or we may not. He may be a hero or a villain. We imbue him with identity in our imaginations. We want this or that to happen to him. A good writer will “bring a character to life.” But the character himself is not alive. If he dies, we may feel disappointed, or even sad. But we can take a step back and recognize that the emotion is for something inanimate, not real. We have invested the character and the story with personal meaning, but we realize it’s a story, just like any story, which reflects varying amounts of reality. What reality is specifically reflected is not stated directly by the story. It’s up to the reader to find personal relevance, and to let the story advance meaningful thought through its alignment with aspects of reality.

A good fiction writer is drawing from life experience, from some real understanding of the shared reality we all inhabit, otherwise her stories would be uninteresting. Therefore the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts, actions may reflect real dreams, thoughts, actions experienced by the author. Or may simply be real dreams or episodes described accurately from the author’s life. We often say that a novel is “autobiographical” if it reflects a great deal of that reality. But even then, there is that freedom enjoyed by fiction authors, which is the intentional mystery within the writing, because the writing is meant to communicate truth, not to be truth. A story is therefore a space within which to explore ideas, whose consequences are not tightly bound to particular real people in the real world.

(One of my favorite books is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins, which is said to be the author’s most autobiographical work. Clearly almost every aspect of the rollicking and fanciful story is fiction, but a certain personality is conveyed by the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts and actions: A fictional personality which is supposedly similar to Robbins’ own “fictional” personality.)

When we think further about this, there are many kinds of stories. Fables. Allegories. Allegories which characterize real people, and which have real effects. And all stories, we could say, are things that we learn at least small things from. So of course, the concept of “fiction” is not so simple.

But my points are these: (a) My own identity, in your mind, is a mental construct. That’s not too novel of an idea; it’s easy to realize it. You could probably conceive of the idea of “waking up” from this reality and realizing it was all a dream… (b) Likewise, my own identity in my own mind is also a construct, but a much “bigger” one, a realer one, to me than is anybody else’s identity. That this “I” I experience is a fiction is also not a new concept, even though it’s something I might talk about, at great length, some other time. (We have no reference points, like “waking up from a dream,” for understanding that “I” is the same thing– a construct of the mind. What if you woke up from a dream and your “I” wasn’t there? Or was somebody else’s “I”? Assuming you blinked your eyes all the memories in your head suddenly changed to someone else’s, how would you even know it? Interesting things to talk about, but why not try to experience them? My understanding thus far is that pursuing such experiences are one goal of Zen practice. I had a momentary experience in which my “I” disappeared. It was just for a few seconds, and it wasn’t particularly shocking. I was meditating by concentrating outwards and all of a sudden there was no “I”. Yet nothing else had changed.)

Finally: (c) We play with the concept of identity all the time. We drink to shrink it, to become less attached to it, to inhibit our worries about its preservation. We watch movies and plays and read books to conjure up different identities. We wear costumes or just different styles of clothing. We meditate to try and detach from identity, to become more (and ultimately completely) free of its constraints. Identity is of very great concern to ego; I would guess that the solid awareness of “I” is a “module” in the brain which is used by the ego in its modeling. And we dream. Dreams do funny things with identity.

Back to my dream. Let’s say I’m free of identity. I will say what I want, as if this “I” is the “I” in a novel; I am not attached to it. This is what I jotted down soon after waking up, so the grammar is not my best.

I’m on a bus. A number of us will be riding together, and we want to sit at a table. There are tables on this bus, and a few chairs. At first we spot a table on the ground floor, but then we move to the upstairs area. We find a table, but there are not going to be enough chairs, since one or two more people will be joining us. I go downstairs and ask some women if I can borrow a chair (it’s actually more like a cushion) from their area; I say that if someone comes and needs a chair, I’ll immediately bring it back. They seem a little skeptical and try to tease me a little or give me a hard time, but eventually just let me take the chair. I trip on something on my way out of their area, and bring the chair upstairs.

I’m drawing something with solid lines; a woman is watching along with some other people. I think we’re upstairs now. I take out a ball-point pen which has a thicker ball at its tip and go to make a drop of ink/paint (it’s a paint pen) inside an enclosed area lower down on the drawing, and because the paint in the pen touches the boundary of the surrounding ink, the surface tension of the paint bead breaks and becomes an ugly blob; I no longer have the thin white border of the paper around the paint bead I’d wanted. I shrug to the woman, saying oh well, look what I just did to my drawing… I guess that’s what’s expected when you try to use “paint pens” for something so delicate. I try to put a humorous spin on it to show that I know what I’m doing but that there are just some inherently hard materials, so that even though I’m confident in my abilities, it won’t always come out perfectly. For fun I continue to manipulate the paint bead, adding more paint, “messing up” my drawing because it’s ruined, but I’m just playing / experimenting. What starts happening is that I’m building up an object in three dimensions. The bead becomes larger and larger until it turns into a ball; it is semi-dry and gel-like; it feels like very soft rubber with a just-cured house-paint-like surface. I manipulate the bead and now I’m creating an abstract 3-D weird teddy-bear-like thing, maybe five inches tall. I show it to the woman and say something about the novelty of this. I’m impressed by what’s coming out: this giant “gummy bear,” but not exactly that. Earlier on, I’d commented that I’ve never done anything like this before, and I now have a sense of wonder as the thing is developing, as in, wow, I never knew you could do this with these paint pens! The woman is intrigued, too. I feel attracted to her; she’s cute but feels out of my reach at this point, since I’ve only recently met her. For some reason I feel a wave of attraction and confidence, perhaps triggered by her admiration of my skill and absorption towards the weird thing I’m doing, the experimental nature of it, the demonstration of confidence and skill. I need to look at something behind her, and in doing so put my face close to hers and kiss her near her mouth, just the very corners of our mouths touching. I have the thought, in a flash, that she would welcome a real kiss now, but I decide to wait, to go back to what I was doing, to not break that absorption. I feel good because now I’m much closer to this woman, there is possibility of a deeper connection forming, but I don’t want to focus on that now; I still want to focus on following the art and take her on a journey somewhere, not merely declare that this is the destination. I want to remain in concentration on this creative process and what it represents, to draw her admiration out, deepen it, make the connection more real. I’m not just an artistic man who momentarily wowed her, rather I’m a real being with depth who can sustain this level of curiosity and inquiry over a long period of time. We turn back to the art, together.

Analysis: Confidence in oneself is a very attractive thing, perhaps the most attractive thing, and an aspect of a romantic relationship which is possibly the most important to me is where a woman is attracted to me because of my true confidence and abilities. It takes artistic skill to win her over. Confidence exists in performing artistic activities without fear, demonstrating ability as a side-effect. Good qualities are shown here: curiosity. Fearlessness. So much fear exists in art, but why? But it’s fear of the unknown. Fear of experimental art forms, of fully engaging curiosity and doing something out of one’s own box, which is also society’s box. We are drawn to people who do what is new and novel and challenge our existing conceptions of what is possible with what they have done and will do. There is a certain freshness, qualities of mind of youth, that exist here. Many people can be curious and creative, but their products are often not worth much in the eyes of time: they are constrained by existing forms, by the need to make things that fit in with accepted patterns. I want to be curious and simply not care, which will result in the creation of products of greater value, while still being surprised by what is coming out, because they are generated by a deeper part of me, one that I do not control. So I do not look at myself or admire myself. There is no ego, no joy in identity. I simply create; my body and mind are the things that create, but I am not them. And that draws the admiration of others. This feedback loop makes me want to be my best. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you do not win. But in the process, you always win. And we can never expect that what we create is going to be the same as before. It’s always new. It’s important to do what is difficult, so that our mistakes can be guided into what is new and valuable. To have the confidence to keep going, even after a so-called mistake, just for curiosity’s sake, to see what it will turn into.

There are layers, here. These are the thoughts of my changing “I”, in this small moment.

I have many times read about the illusory nature of “self” versus “other”: What one perceives as “me” and “mine” versus “everything else that is not me” is a mental construct. I know this. Logically this makes sense. But where does this logical understanding get us? Understood abstractly it quickly fades into irrelevance within the day by day concerns of life, our continuous striving and rumination. (See the Einstein quote below. Maybe you get a nice feeling from it for a moment, but then what?)

But my realization is this. We are not completely imprisoned by this manufactured duality. I can give flesh to the abstract idea. A repeated subtle, intentional, push of perception seeking to see something, searching for confirmation of a logical belief/understanding, does have a worthwhile effect.

When I look out at the world, I can tell myself, this is all me. This is my extended body. Just as I can feel my real body and “be inside” it by focusing on all the sensations and emotions that exist in it, so too can I feel the world by focusing on everything I see, hear, sense, understand. When I look outwards, I can have the mindset that what I am doing is fundamentally the same as looking into myself.

Do it. Try it. Try to do it as often as you can. It starts subtly decreasing barriers. All the people around you, they’re not truly strangers, they’re just another part of your self.