Think about how you feel right now, and describe it to me.

That’s metadata. How you actually feel is data.

Your consciousness (CPU or main thread) is constantly switching between data and metadata, automatically. It doesn’t want you to experience the data stream for too long; it is constantly looking for meaning in the data stream and switching over to processing that.

Now give full priority to your data stream, and every time a metadata connection comes in (on a bus from a unit which wants a thought to be examined, that is, processed by your CPU), send a 503 (“Service Unavailable”) response and close it. Gently focus all your resources on data, attempting to increase the data connection’s bandwidth and ignoring all metadata requests, or the thoughts which arise about the data, about the metadata, and so on.

Even the act of sending the 503 should be done in the background; this will eventually become a background thread.

Results: You start slowly (over days, weeks, months, years) becoming more aware of all of the data that is coming in, and gaining more conscious control over the decision module which switches between consciousnesses (perception, thought, another thought, and so on). You notice that many thoughts which most urgently want to be processed (have their priority flag set highest) are related to the so-called ego: they touch on the question “How can I (myself, my place in the world, my family, things in accordance with my values, et cetera) profit from this?” “This” being the object or subject of the thought.

You’ll notice that the thought has two parts, one of which is an idea, another one is an entity which has some relationship to the idea. There are “first-person ideas”, where the relationship is between “I”-like things and other things, and “second-person ideas”, where the relationship is between two other things. For second-person ideas, there’s still an implied first-person relationship of which the ego is highly aware. E.g., when talking about other people, there is a strongly perceived personal benefit to the having had (and then having communicated) the thought. The ego’s determination is often felt; it feels good to talk about others; individuals (and the sexes) have different tunings as to how good it feels to have second-person thoughts. (A feeling is like a persistent thought which sets up parameters in the mental environment.) As for third-person thoughts, because the ego and even the mind at large is not immediately concerned with them, they’re kept out of waking consciousness or given few mental resources. To the extent that third-person thoughts can eventually contribute first-person value, they are allowed; I think that emotional state and mental “weather” (whether the brain has more alpha-wave, theta-wave, etc. frequencies of neural oscillations) affects how quickly the ego shuts down what it deems individual third-person thoughts and the generation of such thoughts.

Another thing you’ll observe: when you want something to happen in your head, your thoughts start making it happen, no matter how abstract the language used to talk about it. This language of “background threads” seems a little silly because your brain is not digital and doesn’t work that way, so how do you “move a thought to a background thread”? But the concept is still useful because language does seem to have an effect via the concrete symbols the brain uses for abstract understanding. Maybe you vaguely or ever-so-subtly change something when you try, without knowing what it is, and the result feels completely unrewarding; this is the ego’s short-term thinking evaluating the sustained effort that would be required for long-term mental reconstruction and not believing it as possible or coming up with a positive evaluation as to that course of action. The ever-practical ego says “don’t bother with this” and “give up, you have better things to do.” It’s also tricky. It will actively try and trick you into giving up, making you forget, and so on.

How do you resolve whether your ego is trying to play a trick (by generating mental, emotional or physically-felt discomfort with the continuation of an activity, which leads to explanatory thoughts validating the emotional state), or whether the activity is worth sticking to? This is a lifelong process, an “argument” or interplay between two or more parts of the brain. The “larger” mind takes a longer time to evaluate and usually knows what’s right, but it has a far quieter voice than the insistent ego, which is concerned with the very short-term; it also seems that no thoughts escape the notice of the ego, which can be thought of, in computer terminology, as a module which adds at least two things: (1) an importance flag, and (2) a “surety of importance” flag.

The above is a simplified explanation of what seems true to me, but what can be grasped and expressed with language is always a simplification.

[ And… ego (in the more noble sense of the word, that by which we’re guided towards “productive” activities and behaviors) is involved here, in this writing, as everywhere. Existing within we social creatures, the default ego deems that thoughts expressible in language, and the retention of “word-ified” thoughts, be given vastly higher priority than thoughts which are visual, emotional, or deal with senses and capabilities which we cannot describe and therefore communicate to others. These thoughts do happen in the sea of all thoughts, but they are let go of quickly. If the ego is a fisherman then such thoughts are thrown back. And so, our faculties for having (catching) them decreases as we modify our nets to avoid them; further, we pollute the ocean with chemicals harmful to these thoughts, yet do not care about this, because we don’t catch (retain, eat) them anyway. This all exists within the process of maturation. ]

My thinking at this point is that consciousness is a changing configuration of attention on the output of various “modules” in the brain. It has wirings (buses) into all modules.

Ego is such a module, which can be trained as the others can. Meditation is a space in which to train these underpinnings of the mind, but it is definitely not easy, in the same way that learning to play the piano (with one’s feet, perhaps), is not easy. But it is more rewarding.

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.

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.

From an ongoing discussion with a fellow I randomly met at a restaurant, who had overheard a philosophical conversation I was having with my brother:

I think that God cannot be understood rationally, through logic. Logic can only “point at” God in a completely inadequate way, such as the words “the moon” point to the actual moon, or “anger” points to an emotion of anger. If you have not experienced anger, then the word means little to you. If you were an alien and saw humans being angry at each other, then you might build some kind of logical model for the causes of anger and what it does to an organism that is in a state of anger, but you would not know anger, you would just know about it. Certain things you need to experience for them to really be meaningful.

So I think that we have made models about God, but that they are even less adequate towards understanding the experience of God than “anger” is towards understanding the experience of anger, or “the color blue” is towards understanding the experience of the color blue. Similarly, radio waves are just part of the electromagnetic spectrum. If we could “see” radio waves or X-rays, we would see some other “color” we can’t conceptualize, but we’re limited towards a scientific (model) understanding of it.

So we build models about God, yes. Where do they come from? They come from rare individuals’ actual experiences with different kinds of perception. It seems clear to me now that at key moments in history, individuals’ brains became wired a little bit differently, or something shifted, and they were able to experience directly something which is barely even hinted at by the words surrounding the experience, anymore. Were they actually experiencing God, or merely a part of themselves? Diverse traditions which spring up around these experiences differ vastly. For example, there is the Buddhist concept of “enlightenment”, where the Buddha himself was an ordinary man who, through years of meditation and asceticism achieved what is almost directly described as an altered mental state, a different brain wiring. It seems clear that Jesus also had radical change-of-consciousness experiences, as did other figures in the past. Mind-altering substances often also played a great role in inducing these states older civilizations (e.g. the Eleusinian Mysteries), when found in their natural forms, and do often achieve these states in the present. [The conservative forces (that is, the normal culture) of society deemed such experimentation, when these substances were not already part of the culture, extremely dangerous in the 60’s and reactively outlawed substances like LSD with extremely harsh penalties– not because that substance itself was particularly dangerous or physiologically harmful, but because used widely it facilitated a kind of self-transcendent experience that led to a radical social movement where individuals were questioning, casting aside the strictures of society (that is, their “programming”) and “dropping out,” with groups (see hippies) not-quite-yet beginning to redefine and build up sustainable rules for themselves, or testing rules which made mainstream culture uncomfortable.]

Books I recommend:
  1. Zen and the Brain by James Austin.
  2. Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judiasm by Douglas Rushkoff (about Judaism, but takes a human-centered viewpoint on the origins and purpose of the religion, and the definition of God).
  3. Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Williams (also freely available on the Web as a PDF; I just finished and highly recommend this one).

I also recommend seriously attempting meditation and giving it a chance, to see if there is “anything there” for you. After a very small amount of progress I can understand the greater progress that those who have devoted very great amounts of time to it. It is not something that can be explained in words, just like “blue” cannot be explained.

Ask yourself the question: “Who is the one who is living me now?” constantly, and try to focus deeply on experiencing the answer, not just through your logic, but through direct experience.

Regarding meaning, purpose, programming, et cetera: we are programmed by society around us. Prometheus Rising attempts to explain this. As human beings we have a particular “reality tunnel” as a species. This and our individual reality tunnels are what lead us to picking those things which give us meaning and purpose. Because our reality tunnel is not that much different from that of our parents, you can visualize humanity as “growing” like a giant complex plant on the planet.

Regarding what is real: the universe is empty without us, just like there is no color blue without us. Wavelengths exist (but not at all as we conceive them), but no color, no sound, no smell, no thought. Therefore every being creates these things for itself. You create the color blue by seeing. Does that make you God?

There is objective reality but it is meaningless; we create meaning. The same goes for more complicated concepts, like all ideas, or the idea of God, which is ultimately an abstract model. Does that make sense? Without humans, there is no God. We create God in our own minds, when we create the model, like we create blue.

[ Maybe “experiencing God” is experiencing the process of creation itself more directly as it exists in our own minds. ]

What is it a model of? What’s the objective reality? Keep in mind that you can think anything you want. There are a lot of ideas out there. You can imagine the earth balanced on the back of a giant sticky ten-legged frog standing on a lilly pad floating in space. Then you can imagine that the frog is invisible, or whatever you want to do in your mind. Does that make it real? The only way to know in a rational sense, is to test that model, somehow. Otherwise it’s “as good as” any religion’s model of God, but no more or less true.

Clearly people have experiences of the divine, of the infinite, of God, as real in these moments as “blue”. Does that mean they are perceiving what religion crudely depicts (for the rest of us) as God, or something else about the universe, something about its fundamental nature which we don’t ordinarily perceive? Or something about themselves? I think the religions which have sprung up around these experiences very quickly convert the actual experience into something blatantly inaccurate (and politically tainted), like a game of broken telephone. The biggest mistranslation by far occurs between the individual who had a mystical experience, and those surrounding him or her, because the experience can only vaguely be hinted at with language. Thus, the major religions of the world each tell us nothing about God besides giving us an untestable and crude model, which somehow has the people following it in its thrall, for both social reasons, and for reasons that we cannot (typically, in our society) understand because we have not had such experiences. These experiences (especially when they happen spontaneously) sometimes transform individuals who have them, in ways which make them charismatic (because surety is charismatic, and you are sure of your own experience). But again, language itself can barely touch these experiences, so the logical model constructed for transmission to others is pretty meaningless. Meta-study of the world’s religions (and all human experience, for that matter) would point us in the right direction, but again only in an “understanding wavelengths” way and not a “seeing blue” way.

Regarding free will: as I’ve said, it’s not something we can conceptualize. Free will versus determinism is like quantum mechanics versus large-scale behaviors. Everything can be modeled deterministically except at the lowest level, where the “particles” of choice seem to be unpredictable. When you think of another person deciding something, you can make a model to predict what that person will do. As accurate as your model is, you come to a point where whether the person will do something or not do something, when it’s right on the line, needs to be represented as a probability.

When you think about yourself, you are actually thinking about a model of yourself, not running your actual self. You have a model of yourself in your thoughts, and you run the model, just like you run the models of others. Clearly you end up with the same types of uncertainty as when modeling other people. So you cannot conclude that you have anything other than “free will”, which just means that you cannot know what you or your “self” will do, just as you cannot know what anyone else will do.

With respect to the universe itself, we build models of it, but we also cannot know what it will do, at the lowest level of our models (we can only resort to probabilities). Consider that our minds exist to perceive the universe and give meaning to it. (E.g., we create blue, which does not exist without us.) But we cannot fully model ourselves or each other, thus the necessary perception of having free will, regardless of whether it “really” exists or not. Does our own free will have anything to do with the apparent “free will” of the universe, the fact that we can’t pin down reality (at its lowest level) to anything other than probabilities?

I.e., in a probabilistic universe (such as one you simulated on a computer), could beings in it construct equipment to measure the deterministic behavior of its “fundamental particles”? Assuming that they could, then what would be the consequence(s) to them?

Assuming there were consequences, then it would make sense to “shield” the beings in the simulated probabilistic universe from being able to measure their own fundamental particles, by making the behavior of those particles random. (“Random” in what way? Using sampled natural data from the enclosing (e.g., “our”) universe?)

That’s something interesting to think about, for the time being.

The End of Faith CoverOn The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. I wrote this in response to a discussion with my friend Keith Cascio, and some comments he had made after watching Harris’ TED talk, when I was midway through the book.

What strikes me is the absolute desperation, the deep frustration that Harris injects into his text, in trying to get his points across. He’s peered long and deep into the tortured and bloody paths of history, at the chain of effects that faith-based thinking has had on U.S. policy, and seen the sheer magnitude of the utter waste of human potential, destroyed lives, misery and retarded progress across entire cultures which pervades the world (and our own culture) as consequences of ideas coming to us from our great religions– the “how could people possible be so absolutely dumb” exasperation, outrage and empathy with the victims of this machine is apparent.

I just finished the chapter on drug policy: We spend $4 billion a year prosecuting marijuana cases (at one end of a slippery slope); 50% of all U.S. court time is tied up in drug cases. …Which might seem somewhat tangential, except when we look at the parallels– it is a sort of pervasive religious type of thinking that continues to criminalize marijuana, both from refusal to rationally look at scientific facts, and, coming from Christianity, a puritanical national obsession with “sin” and the idea that other people might be enjoying themselves somewhere inappropriately (fornicating, smoking dope, seeking “alternative” spiritual experiences, et cetera). This is (mostly) nothing new to us liberal west-coasters, though, but it’s “fun” in a perverse way to see such idiocy taken on, while simultaneously sobering: this is the state of our world, and we’re in a somewhat more enlightened part of it.

Now, your concerns [about sloppy metaphors]. I conjecture that Harris has been so long steeped in his (justified) outrage towards the illogic of the world, so frustrated by the dimness and stupidity of those around him who “do not see” and either intentionally or not cause great human suffering, that he has become a little bit “tainted” by it. He has come to use hyperbole for emotional impact, because he has made a (probably subconscious) calculation that no progress will be made if he does not beat the sheep around him over the head a little bit with talk of wolves. His deepest fears (e.g., a nuclear-armed Islamic state, which he argues will show little restraint) lend a sense of urgency to his arguments: “they must be made to be able to see; I will reach for and use sensationalized (and even iffy) metaphors in the service of my argument because it is the only way it is going to get across and have some sort of agency in the world.”

[The following is regarding a statement Harris made in his TED talk: “The distinction between a healthy person and a dead one is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science.” Keith took objection to this, arguing that the comment represented sloppy thinking because the precise point of death is in actuality not at all clear-cut.]

We draw lines everywhere: between life and death, between being a child and being an adult, between sanity and insanity. Sometimes we know the lines are artificial, but they’re based on easy measurements, and so we accept them. E.g., you become an adult legally at 18. Same with life and death. There is the reality (some state of the body) and the definition (alive or dead, according to some guidelines, which we are apparently trying to make as precise as possible, erring to the side of caution). It’s nothing new that defining death is messy. E.g., I don’t remember if I shared an article I read recently about new techniques for reviving patients in cases of drowning along with hypothermia (where cold had preserved tissue and prevented oxygen-starvation damage), something that had not previously been thought possible. New medical technologies will keep pushing back the threshold of death’s door until someday, only the brain’s health will matter.

(Also, the definition seems to imply that if you are “potentially revivable” [with complex current technology] then you are not “dead”. What if said technology couldn’t revive you? Then do we move the time of “death” backwards to some newly determined point? Is a cryogenically preserved body alive in the face of potential future technology, or dead because it can’t be revived now? Messy.)

To Harris’s imprecise statement to which you take objection, I am willing to write it off as hyperbole. At the same time, though, note that he’s not comparing a living person to a dead one, rather a healthy person. I’m having a hard time thinking of an example where the line is blurred, since presumably we would need to create a definition of “health”, and it would include criteria which unambiguously classify persons into “healthy”, and once there, they could logically not be classified as “dead”.

What if the statement were: “the distinction between day and night is about as clear and consequential as any we make in science”? Or “solid” and “liquid”? Are there cases where we’re not sure if something is one or the other? Sure. We tighten the definitions as much as we can so we can operate using logic, but in reality there are ambiguous cases along the edges, everywhere. Any scientific field is full of them (e.g., classifying animals into species, physical effects into mathematical laws which mostly describe them, etc). So I don’t see the problem with the statement, other than reliance on the fuzzy term “healthy” (which is just hard to define, but conveys a strong image, thus: rhetoric).

After completing the book, I wrote this follow-up:

There is a chapter on torture about which I’m not sure how I feel. Something feels incomplete about its conclusion, but I need to think about it more, because Harris himself warned that the chapter’s conclusions will not feel right, rather that logic demands a scientific yardstick for assessing and decreasing human suffering and in this, explicit torture in rare cases might be justified (e.g., to prevent war and dropping bombs which will with certainty kill and maim large numbers of noncombatants). I sense the empathy which led to his conclusions, and I appreciate the sharp outlines of the position he’s willing to stake, but I do not have faith that there is not a corner of the argument that he has not missed. [And note that this is not the kind of faith that Harris attacks in the book.]

The final chapter is about Eastern religious traditions (their relative value), and shows an open-minded rigorousness of thought which I appreciate.

It’s hard to quantify what people know, but I think it’s safe to say that some fraction of the public are profoundly ignorant across multiple dimensions. I think we have a particular failing with respect to the public’s knowing what science is and what it isn’t, what it’s for, etc. Like the Christian preoccupation with sin, there’s also a general deep religious fear of science, and therefore a certain way that it is cast (e.g., there’s that old anxiety that science is somehow antagonistic to beauty), so as in effect to discourage genuine inquiry and understanding in many areas– a problem in practice, probably more than in principle, of faith in its most general.

Book CoverThis book examines, from a scientific point of view, the neural mechanisms which support attention and the sense of self, and how meditation harnesses those mechanisms to change the brain, slowly, over time. What I learned fills in a piece of a puzzle I’ve been working on, lately, and I’m still refining my understanding of how all the pieces fit. The book starts with the idea that we have two ways of focusing on things, in general; these correspond to different styles of meditation, or two “schools” in the Zen tradition:

(1) “Top-down”: We pick something to focus on, like a small object or spot, and can put varying degrees of attentiveness towards that spot. One style of Zen meditation involves training that focusing-in ability. The book looks at what structures in the brain are responsible for focus and which allow us to move our focus around, at will; to willfully narrow focus on something we select. This top-down kind of meditation is one in which that focus-muscle is exercised by holding focus on a chosen spot (or even something non-physical, like an idea or concept) for long periods of time.

In my own words, I observe something interesting happen when I do this: The more intently I focus on one thing, the more the background fades out. Those “word thoughts” which happen all the time start to come up as usual, but then are quickly washed away by the flood of my attention towards this one thing. For example, I was looking out the picture-window in the living room, focusing on the top of a tree. I looked at its shape, its color, its form. I didn’t consider any particular aspect of it, just made the top of that tree the spot I was focusing on attentively. I noticed how my thoughts stopped being able to bubble up, how that tree became all-consuming to my mind and almost completely blocked out other thoughts. After some amount of time had passed, I began to feel very comfortable, and I believe this is because my mind had let go of any negative emotions or discomforts related to a typical smorgasbord of thoughts, which had been percolating subconsciously. By placing my focus onto the top of this tree, after a while I had let go of most everything except… the top of the tree.

I noticed that for some time after this, and after having exercised my focus-ability similarly for just a short duration (less than 15 minutes) the day before, I was able to be much more present to the people around me. I could apply my focus to a person’s face, while listening to them, if I chose. I observe in general that other people seem almost pleasantly surprised, and may think very kindly towards, someone who pays them such full attention. Others are usually not used to this kind of non-mind-wandering attentiveness towards them and on what they are communicating. Further, although admittedly this could have all been “in my head”, I felt a subtle mental “tiredness” after practicing focus in this way the first few times, as if my ability to do so had been so weak that these short practices had strained (and strengthened) it.

(2) The other “school” of meditative training in Zen, which is initially a harder path, relates to “bottom-up” focus. This is the background awareness which causes us to turn involuntarily towards a noise, or towards something that moves in our otherwise-still visual field. Or to simply “notice” something in our peripheral vision. What part is paying attention to the larger visual field, and understanding what is happening in it? It is some part of us that is subconsciously aware. And further, beyond mere visual changes that we notice, some part of the mind is actively processing, in parallel, the entire scene. It is subconsciously drawing inferences and creating insights, each of which might call our attention and awareness in a given direction. Because the part of the brain which does this processing and associating is not dominant (our symbolic, language-processing half is dominant, as well as our Self-related, “I am here” -type of thinking, and connected with those the explicit “sharp” attention which we can consciously direct), we are generally cut off from these wordless insights (about what is happening around us; about what might be worth turning to look at) without becoming ever aware of them. Or else, the insights are stored, but generally don’t bubble up into conscious awareness. (Something may even call our attention in a given direction, but we may not yet “know” why.) A bottom-up meditative style means casting focus on the whole picture, and being receptive to what that massively more parallel kind of awareness is ascertaining. We’re used to that awareness “firing” (triggering us to look at something), but we don’t spend time strengthening that awareness of “everything” or being “in” it. It’s hard to learn how to “look at everything all at once” explicitly, let alone remain in that state for an appreciable period of time, but this is what the bottom-up style of training requires.

An eventual goal of meditative training, or perhaps a side-effect, or a marker of progress along the path, is the achievement of a momentary state of consciousness where attention itself becomes so saturated with insight and input and meaning that awareness relating back to the ego-based Self– to the idea that “I” am here– drops out completely, leaving a direct and vivid awareness of the world, in the “language” of the non-dominant parts of the mind we don’t get to experience by themselves. In Zen, this is called “kensho” or “satori”, although the two mean slightly different things. These states are usually not encountered during meditation itself; meditation merely is the “weight-training” that strengthens the mind’s attentional systems so that they can be more present to the world around us, to the present moment, and not stuck in cycles of thought; these peak experiences are usually triggered by natural scenes of beauty and sublimity, and are very rare.

The book describes the rough neurological basis for how the two attention systems work. It talks about neuroplasticity and how meditative training actually alters the structure of the brain, so that practice is accumulative over a lifetime. It emphasizes that although there are different schools of Zen, those that emphasize top-down attention; and those that emphasize bottom-up attention, that a balanced approach, training both methods of focus, is most productive. The everyday benefits of meditative practice are a decreased Self-centered-ness, and consequently a greater awareness of what one is doing, what one is casting attention towards and engaging in, with less fear, worry, et cetera, and more confidence stemming from greater understanding of reality. Learned tasks which should remain on autopilot can more easily remain such, allowing us to appreciate what is actually around us. (As in: “I will let me body take care of this, and I will watch and appreciate what it is doing.”) By focusing what comes into our awareness, then, we become more interested in others and in the world itself than on how the world relates directly back to the ego-based Self, and on our momentary thoughts (especially those we unnecessarily put into words, mentally) which give us little insight. In general by being able to examine our own thoughts we can recognize that the “I” is something separate from the thought: we are not our thoughts. What is doing the thinking? Why does this thought cause this emotion? What is experiencing the emotion? Oftentimes the cause of the emotion is Self-centered; it is then possible to objectively decide that some attachment which generally leads to that emotion is not useful, and because we have increasing power over what we decide to pay attention to, it’s possible to let the thoughts which bring about negative feelings dissolve, or be understood within a sandbox that allows us to not have to suffer and be servants to them. Rather than “detachment” from life (it’s difficulties and joys), meditative training allows us to be far more involved, far more intimate with it– but in an examined, intentional, increasingly wise and aware way– rather than a blind, uncontrolled, unengaged or absent way, or where one is present mainly just to one’s own Self-related thoughts, or thoughts that come from the ego. Detachment does not mean disengagement– on the contrary, it allows deeper, wiser, more productive and satisfying engagement.

“Zen” has many meanings; at its most basic, it’s simply a form of meditation (that’s what the word literally means), but I believe there’s a popular misconception about what meditation is. I used to think it was just mental relaxation. Or visualization, which the aim of relaxation. I didn’t expect to get much out of it, and I already felt like a pretty calm, relaxed person. That was before taking a basic meditation class, where I realized that the calm one feels in an ordinary mindset (with thoughts wandering, even if one doesn’t feel like these are emotionally-heavy ruminations) does not compare to the magical “empty, clear and light” state which descends during basic meditation. Even that takes patience and self-discipline. What this book argues, though, is that meditation is much more than even that (a temporary mental state, which may leave one feeling refreshed or renewed). It is rather a sort of weight-training regimen for the attentional systems of the mind, which trains both the narrow and the wide systems, and which influences detectable changes in the physical brain as long-term practice proceeds. Further, because meditative training also trains the habit systems which control how we re-focus and re-adjust our attention, it brings us the ability to tune ourselves (largely our reactions, regarding which we were less consciously aware) voluntarily to be in greater accordance with our values. This in turn accelerates a general lessening of fear and an increase in confidence in all areas of life.