Monday, March 2, 2015

Why Walk?

Darwin and Wallace Stevens were known to take long walks. On the way from my car to the office this morning, walking over the asphalt, the snow, and the ice, I had a thought that I have had at least hundreds of times before. It’s an unpleasant, anxious thought: should I be focusing on what I am doing right this instant, or should I be thinking about what is coming up, about being in my office, hanging up my jacket, and what I will do to approach the day?
            On the one hand, I have the voice of the Buddhist, and all that it has influenced, plus the analogous traditions—the Stoics, for one--, which says to Be Present. And, when that voice comes to mind, I have so many agreeing thoughts: if I am always thinking about what will come up, I am never paying attention to what is happening; accidents happen when one is distracted, and I hate clumsy people, always falling and injuring themselves; I can think about what I will do in the office once I get in there; actively looking around, being inquisitive and engaged in what is happening now, is the best preparation for the future.
            These thoughts ring true, but they also trouble me, because they are, though coherent, incomplete, lop-sided, because on the other hand, I have the voice of a dozen books, and my own experience: mental preparation and rehearsal is one of the surest ways to ensure success; failing to plan is planning to fail; staying trapped in this instant means I am subject to the vicissitudes of fate and the will of others; if I wait to get into the office before thinking about what I will do there, if I only see myself there when I am physically there, instead of seeing myself there in advance, anticipating the moment, then being there feels like another instance in a strange series of incompletely anticipated and understood events, and I just sit down, stare at my screen, wondering in bewilderment what I should do next; this is how I have lived almost the entirety of my life. The lack of directedness towards a goal seems to infect the attainment of the goal with a meaninglessness. Or, maybe better put, absence of intentionality in achieving a larger goal results in all the steps to achieve it, as well as the achievement itself, being devoid of significance. Events just happen, regardless of how much energy I expended to make them happen; the vagueness of my intentionality, its insufficiency, makes it almost more that they happened to me than I produced them. (Of course, in reality, there is some truth to this, as the asphalt and the presence of the office have as much to do to my making it to them as my effort, but this is larger philosophical issue that has limited application in this context.) And, moving away from this method, to a more imaginative, forward-thinking method seems to have been responsible for many or most of the improvements in my quality of life.     
            This last thought in particular, concerning how responsible thinking ahead has been for my quality of life is tricky, for in the one sense it is true in an unpleasant way: imagining, fearing, and working to prevent worst case scenarios made me excel in my last job, in which I always feared product contamination, and was maniacal in attempting to prevent it; but in the sense of imagining  positive outcomes and working to achieve them, this has been an activity I have only engaged in for brief periods. It seems to me as if those brief periods have been very influential on the rest of what would come, but then I must consider how, also, paying attention to the present, not making stupid mistakes, paying attention to details, has maintained my quality of life.
            And in this maelstrom of competing ideas—and I call it a maelstrom because it is an anxious place; I do not feel hopeful in it that I will resolve this conflict--, I see the solution in the form of a minor daydream: I see myself walking outside, along a footpath. I imagine, in a passing instant, Darwin, and Stevens, and Thoreau. I realize that long walks are an answer to this question, because in them one is able to do both: to pay attention to the present, to observe nature and its details, but, in being out for an hour or so, they are able to routinize and minimize the attention to their steps and the path for periods; they are able to think about the future.
            Not only are they able to think about the future, I think, deliberately, as their attention to the path is minimized, but they are able to think about it unconsciously, as the path becomes their focus again. And, not only are they able to focus on the future, as if it were in isolation from the present, but they are able to think about the future as an extension of the present. I think walking itself is conducive to this mode, this relationship—what is the difference between the step one is taking, and the step one is about to take? They are on a continuum. It is only technically true that something might prevent Thoreau from reaching the next tree or the next bend; in reality, he reaches it so nearly every time, that the exceptions stand out and are remarkable, but for that very  reason are, in a way trivial. We almost always reach our mark when we are walking. And, if this isn’t so, then we are in some treacherous territory, and our thoughts ought to be on that very fact about our lives, not anything more speculative. And, isn’t that a pleasant model for thinking about the future? If one can walk around as one pleases, then they should do so, and think about more ambitious plans. If they can’t, then they have their work set out for them. In this way, walking around freely is an expression of what we have achieved, or our ancestors have achieved for us, and, in claiming that privilege, we wonder what’s next.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

No words

I need to write more.

I have written my whole life, and now that I do technical writing for a living, I do nearly no personal writing.

This is a problem for a few reasons. One is that I am going through a lot of changes that I am having trouble understanding. I changed job positions within the last year, and I have changed my workspace three times. The first time, it was changing buildings; then I went from working in the Control Room to working in an office; then I changed offices. In the first office, I shared it with Chris. Then Chris got fired, and I was with Angela. Now I am in an office alone.

I am very aware of a seemingly incessant need for feedback. I think about Facebook, twitter, grades, or recognition at work. This is not very new, of course: I spent hours every day on IRC as soon as I was able, and that habit moved from IRC to texting and Facebook. But, lately, it seems worse. It seems like need for appreciative feedback is at the center of everything that I pay attention to, except for grooming. Interactions with B, online interactions, school work, and work, are all about my ego.

Even grooming is a kind of co-dependency: either wanting to moderate or be moderated.

I think my difficulty working is because I find more ego-gratification in Facebook and thinking about things related to B’s shop. Thinking of making coffee is distracting. It reminds me of the satisfaction I had in Houston, being an expert at my job.

What can I do about this?

I feel guilty writing. I feel guilty not writing. I hate putting words down. As soon as I do, they are wrong; they are out of context; they create false contexts; they are imprecise; they imply.

I drink maybe too much coffee. My brain is too slow and too furry. It has pricks and insinuations. It is dull and numb and already sees the problems with the previous sentence, semantically and grammatically and stylistically in the composition in the paragraph. And that one was worse.

Is the problem related to work? When I wrote creatively, I found a spiraling problem of wanting to be more exact and concise. Am I doing something similar at work?

At work? At work? At work? At work? At work? At work? At work? At work? At work?

I think of the biopic I saw of Salinger. I think of his dedication to writing, even when no one was reading it but him. Was anyone reading it but him?

I think of Wayne White and DFW and who else?

I think I have aphasia or hypochondria.

Words don’t mean what they once did. I learned how to process words one way, and now I use them another. I was for the mouth feel and shades, and now I want everything spelled out.

I take Tech Comm classes. I took one and will take more, at least another.

Maybe I really do need to write? But I hate adding words? What will I do with even this that I’ve written? Is it a first draft of something? Will I put it in a box? It’s not even on paper. Will I store it on my desktop? Why would I write when I could think?

This problem of feeling mentally inadequate for feeling that I get benefit from writing has plagued me for years. Why can’t I just have words in my head without writing them down?

Why do I hate the words I write so much. Is it my ego? I think it is my ego. I think it is my ego. I think it is my ego. I think it is my ego. I think it is my ego. I think it is my ego.

It’s because I want to create sentences that people will say things about. I want sentences put on walls. Let’s not talk about paragraphs.

nwords. Schmears.

I check updates.

What is personal writing.

I think about learning another language. Math. Python. 2x2x2 algorithms. I have been mimicking a coworker’s mannerisms. My brain won’t stop mimicking. I mimic. I repeat myself and others.

Should brains stop repeating what they see at some point?

The I try to follow up plosives with others. I try to practice a musical instrument. I try to think in patterns, to pull shots, to use a refractometer.

I seem to run my sentences by the reader even when there isn’t one.

Maybe I need talk therapy.

Self-help fails.

So do birds and drawing and bass and math and python and coffee and homework and work.

I check updates. Dates dates dates dates dates dates dates dates.

Maybe I need Morita therapy or just ditch-digging.

Wayne White said some painting was ditch digging. Agape.

If I drew a map, you would. Written like Richter. I think it started with SIPOCs.

I want to know what everyone else is thinking, but I don’t want to hear them talk. Talking is just too much. So many words I don’t understand anymore.

I like graphite and birds. Kingfishers. Fat and intense like me. What are your thoughts on eating Indian food?

Padgent? Is that a Padgent? More Power to him. Padgent? Padgent? Agape.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why Religion?

Why Religion?

I have been using a rosary[1] as a thought aid for the past few weeks.

I use it for two reasons:
  1. Using it helps me focus by giving me something to do with my hands that I can relate to my thoughts, especially when thinking about the future.
  2. I have always liked rosaries. Before I ever touched one, I imagined what using one would feel like. My mirror neurons were excited by watching the ritual in movies [2]. 
I will use this essay to explain these two experiences.

The first is universal, I think. I have a coworker whom I have never seen reading without a toy in his hand. He is an incessant fiddler. I think most people have the impulse, and I think the reason more people don't engage in the behavior is because of their primary education [3].

One variety of thinking I engage in is a hybridization of sport psychology pep talk, mantras and, affirmations. I repeat lists of characteristics that I strive to embody. I recite declarations of how I will spend my time [4].

Another variety is more applied and specific: I walk through the steps of a project, using the beads, as if  they were trees to reach out and touch, or a cane to plant before each step, to propel my vision forward.

Prior to using the rosary, I rarely was able to do any kind of planning without pen and paper. But I realized that I did not need to record each thought. I just needed to relieve the anxiety that I felt when a I had to set one down in order to pick up another. I never trusted myself to remember it [5].

A difficulty in thinking about the future is that each thought I have is essentially an imperative. If I am reflecting on a movie I watched, or thinking about a subject I enjoy, such as electrical theory or having sex, the images flow one from another spontaneously. Even if I am thinking about something difficult to imagine, as long as it exists outside of the context of what I must do, then as I proceed from one thought to the next, I can focus mostly on the thought at hand, with only peripheral attention on what thought I just had and what thought is upcoming. Of course, some things are harder to think about than others. For example, math[6]. However, when I am thinking about the future, each thought is a step, and each step is one I must take. 

Writing down the steps as I go, of course, helps alleviate this anxiety. Putting the scruple on the paper takes it out of my shoe. But often the steps are fairly obvious. There is no need to worry that I won’t recall it easily when needed. Yet, I do anyway.

Here the rosary helps. I use the rosary because each thought is a bead, and something about having it physically recognized by moving my thumb and index finger over that wooden bead comforts the part of my brain that wants to keep its commitments. For that instant, the bead has taken responsibility for that thought, and I can move to the next one. Also, envisioning actions I will engage in because of what  the result while be, while I am moving my hands for no reason other than to improve the vision, alleviates some of the self-consciousness of my physical actions. I feel after using the rosary as if I am my intentions, and my self-consciousness is dissipated. 

That was an explanation of the first part. Now for the second:

I believe religious thought is largely based on the problems of thinking about the future, keeping our commitments, and experiencing relief from the feeling that our thoughts exist only in our head.

Religion answers a lot of questions, especially questions pertaining to the future. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be attractive to people. While I think that it answers many of those questions poorly, we take what we can get [7]. Some questions it answers are,  What happens to me when I die?Why should I do what I feel is right?, and How can I induce others to do what I feel is right? 

Humans don’t need religion for the present. We’re great at instant gratification. And if that’s not working for us, we will even delay gratification for a little bit, if it seems promising that we will get to eat or have sex as a result of our patience and labor.

But, for the extremes of delayed gratification and self-restraint, the kind that we would call self-sacrifice, civic-mindedness, and ambition, most people need a strategy for handling the future in their mind. While some are particularly talented at this, most require mental tricks. Religion is such a trick [8].

 I am not talented at thinking. I strive to be reasonable and to employ effort and critical thinking, but I am mediocre, and I require tricks.

Prayer, and having one god or many take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions, is a very common trick.

Ask a friend who has gone through AA and is sober how they accomplished the amazing feat of beating their addiction, and they will tell you, “I didn’t do it; god did.” The peace of mind of refusing to accept the responsibility of such a task allows one to creatively and energetically go about the business of seeing that task through. The certainty that one’s god will deliver the result that is best for them, if only they show proper diligence, is an amazing mental trick.

And individuals who don’t use a deity have tricks that are similar [9].

What this kind of thinking accomplishes is to alleviate anxiety about the outcome of one's actions by removing the responsibility for the outcome from the actor. Another way to alleviate this anxiety is to be confident that one's actions will have the desired result, or that, because one is engaging in effortful, mindful, and useful activities, then they will be able to salvage some meaningful and interesting outcome, even if they don't accomplish their goal.

By using this traditionally religious aid, I arouse in myself feelings of religiosity. Even though I do not have any god that I worship, I do have a feeling that is almost indistinguishable from what I felt when I was a Christian. It is a feeling of devoutness, of seriousness, and of sincerity. It is not quite worshipful, but it is a combination of humility and gratitude. And it gives me a feeling of comfort when I am thinking about the future. 

[1] I don’t actually use a rosary: I use a 27 bead mala, which is of Hindu and Buddhist tradition, but it’s essentially the same thing: beads on a string.

[2] I also liked watching people cross themselves.

[3] I think we evolved primarily to manipulate physical objects. Our ability to reflect on past events and fantasize about potential future events is remarkable; our ability to rationally invent and commit to goals, and systematically plan and strategize how we will achieve those goals, is amazing. But these abilities take a lot of energy and, for me, can be very stressful. As you might know if you’ve read a little about the prefrontal cortex, it is a glucose-guzzler, and when strained, prone to (figuratively) over-heating and shutting down. Our brains much prefer to rely on their older, more efficient areas. When we use those areas, we feel our actions are more intuitive and natural, requiring less effort.

[4] Such as being diligent at work, conversing thoughtfully with my girlfriend, or doing homework.

[5] This is essentially what David Allen would call an open loop. It is a commitment left open, a loose end. The mind hates them and recursively reminds us about them.

[6] For those of us who think about mathematics as numerals, and calculations as the manipulation of those numerals, doing mental arithmetic can be difficult and stressful. It seems for people who have more of a feel for numbers, especially if they have synesthetic traits, the experience can be relaxing. I occasionally enjoy thinking about certain mathematical relationships, if I can put my finger on a spatial quality to them. Numerous authors have explained why numbers can be difficult to remember: they're abstract; they are all representations of essentially the same concept, only in different quantities; arabic numerous are arbitrary symbols, and so on.

[7] See David Sloan Wilson's The Neighborhood Project, in which he discusses the idea that individuals and communities will hold beliefs if doing so is advantageous to them, especially if it promotes salubrious actions. To quote his book, "Reflecting is the processing of the information to give it meaning. Meaning results in sustaining action. All creatures have evolved to listen and reflect in ways that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. The cycle of listening and reflecting leading to sustaining action has been perfected by countless generations of natural selection."

[8] An argument I see frequently is that humans are hardwired with excellent morals. The argument seems to go, We have empathy, and we know right from wrong, therefore religion must be what's wrong with the world. This is magical thinking. Religion is our contrivance, and it was apparently independently invented over and over again throughout history; otherwise there is an unbroken chain of it. In either case, the idea that this one aspect of human culture is the ultimate corruptor and that, sans that, we would not have greed, callousness, and bloodlust, is, from what I can tell, without evidence. The motivations to invent and perpetuate religion are our motives. The evil that is in religion, is in us. While religion certainly has evolved, ratcheting up its effectiveness in some areas, just like any corporation will, what fuels it is us. Maybe if all religion were abolished tomorrow, it might have a harder time starting over, given our improved education, and maybe in its absence, people would have a great chance of being virtuous. But, religion is not what causes us to be selfish, short-sighted, afraid, hateful, callous, or petty.

[9] See Lanny Bassham’s With Winning in Mind, in which he describes a precise and thorough recipe of commitment, vision, and planning to accomplish goals in defined periods of time, or Rhonda Byrne’s mythmaking in The Secret, or a plan similar to Bassham’s in Moran and Lennington’s The 12 Week Year, or even, in a different vein, Betty Edward’s classic, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. All describe planning, commitment, and vision. And perhaps what David Allen stresses more than anything is the use of artifacts to create external representations of your thoughts. These books are secular, but we can have them because we already have answers for where we came from and what happens to us when we die (compost). When those questions were answered by the person with the most vivid imagination, coherent story, and authoritative presence, then every other technique for living had to fit into the framework of those larger answers. Having children also serves multiple purposes along these lines: increasing our arousal and sense of purpose, and externalizing some of our future thoughts and commitments onto another person who can keep them, to name two.