Tuesday, October 6, 2015

15

"Only a madman is absolutely sure"  Robert Anton Wilson 

Recently I took the time to read through all my previous posts. I have a running theme of balance and am trying my best to have a, albeit broad, thesis. I thought it important to go back and see how many loose ends I didn't tie up.  To my pleasant surprise and dismay I've done a pretty good job, save one huge point. In my opening post I said the three types of balance I was going to discuss were physical, mental, and spiritual. I spent a few posts on aspects of physical and mental balance and even digressed into other pontifications on balance all while skillfully avoiding the topic of spiritual balance. Part of the reason is there are several discreet definitions to the word spiritual.  The other reason is it is a very personal subject and has different meaning for each person.  I did quite a bit of research on the topic and seem to have distilled it, in least in my own mind, to two distinct types.  More than that I distilled down to two verbs, being and doing.  

The first definition of spiritual that I encountered was defining it as "from spirit".  The Divine, ghosts, the Great Juju.  I'm intentionally staying away from references to any specific religions because I don't want to make this about a specific set of dogma. The important thing is these spirits are a personified outside being and require some kind of communing with be it through prayer, worship, tithe, services, rituals, etc.  These are all acts of doing.  I think that the "being" part of spirituality can also be experienced in a religious context but it is something that is achieved.  I also think we need to be careful of thinking of spiritual and religious as synonymous thus limiting the definition of spiritual.

The second definition I came upon was spiritual as a state unto itself.  An act of being.  The problem I kept finding with this concept is that an act of "being spiritual" requires the opposite, being "not spiritual."  It makes spiritual some kind of mushy other worldly thing and again implies a location.  That idea almost seems to contradict itself.  Trying to just be.  I started to think of the idea of reality as a multiverse of intersecting subjective experiences and thought that maybe an idea of spirituality is just being in touch with our own experience and how it intersects with what Robert Anton Wilson calls other "reality tunnels."              

So how does the idea of balance fit with this?  It seems to me that whatever definition of spiritual you choose to use the balance occurs between our outer self and our inner experiences.  We have an outward experience and integrate it into our inward understanding of reality.  I think an imbalance comes when we rely too much on our internal understanding such that we become inflexible.  Leon Festinger calls this cognitive dissonance in his landmark work When Prophecy Fails.  We try to find some way to get experiences to fit with our understanding even if that means dismissing or discrediting them.  I think an imbalance can happen the opposite way too resulting in a lack of conviction and drive.  Apathy.  Our understanding of the world is ever changing and influenced by previous experience whether we like it or not.  The key I think is being aware of that fact and being flexible to evolve.   

Over the years I have come across the name Trigant Burrow a bunch of times.  He was a psychologist in the early part of the 20th century and is important in the field of group therapy and the a early thinker in the field of neurodynamics I think.  I decided it was time to read some of his stuff.  I quickly found out that his work was way above my pay grade.  I'm just a musician.  I'm probably way over simplifying or even misinterpreting his work.  If so I apologize in advance.  That said there was one big take away even in my limited understanding; his concept of cotention.  Another one of the concepts he talks about are what he calls preconscious.  He wrote a book called Preconscious Foundations in Human Experience.  Again above my pay grade but interestingly many activities like music, art, poetry, as well as "mystical experiences" are manifestations of preconscious processes.  In the book he argues that basically preconscious processes are those that we are born with.  In his theory, over the course of human evolution, we have developed a higher order consciousness in order to adapt to our environment.  This has actually served to suppress the preconscious mind.  

Two concepts that Burrow introduced then are "cotension" and "ditension".  Basically "ditension" emphasizes the division of the observer and the observed (self and other) and is brought on by higher order thought. "Cotension" refers to the way the preconscious mind experiences. Unity, connectedness, completeness, continuity with everything. 

So how does this fit with my idea of spiritual balance or even a definition of spiritual.  In my mind part of what we are attempting with any spiritual experience be it prayer, meditation, even a hike in the woods is to get back to that preconscious mind.  I also see that preconscious mind as flexible.  Babies are born mentally flexible.  Maybe then spiritual balance has to do with a balance of the cotentive and ditentive mind?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it is just acknowledging that a connectedness exists.

Last week there was a total eclipse of the super moon.  The event was outstandingly beautiful and beyond words.  The thing that really struck me though was pictures and posts about it dominated social media.  Many of my neighbors were out watching it.  It was the #1 topic of conversation the next morning.  It felt like, even for a fleeting moment, we were acknowledging a connection with each other and with the whole of experience.  Preconscious.  Cotentive.  To me that is spiritual.             





Saturday, July 4, 2015

14

An Egoist Argument for Being Kind
 

We live in a time where instant gratification is paramount. It rules almost every part of our lives whether it be travel, food, data transfer, phone calls, the weather. We want everything fast. Like NOW fast. The problem with thinking like this is it can also be pretty selfish. Being first is often accompanied by a total disregard for everyone else. In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, "If you're not first, you're last." This seems to be the motto of many modern day Americans. In that spirit I am going to lay out an argument for being kind for completely selfish reasons.  

When I started formulating this argument in my head I kept coming back to several pieces I had read years ago about a philosophical concept called egoism. There are several kinds of egoism and the differentiation of type mostly deals with the variety of motivations for being selfish. One type of Egoism is called Ethical Egoism. Ethical Egoism has always intrigued me. It deals specifically with the idea that we do what we believe is morally "right" in the interest of making ourselves feel good. Basically doing things that we believe to be good gives us warm fuzzies. Additionally it states that actions whose consequences will benefit the doer can be classified as ethical.  

A topic that is so brilliantly explored in many films by the Coen Brothers is the relativity of morality. Each person has a moral code but they are flexible, they evolve, and they ultimately benefit the practitioner. I also think that our ability to evolve morally is an important part of what makes us human.

I am by no means a neuroscientist but we know that we are basically big chemistry sets. All the time the feelings and emotions we have are caused by or cause a release of chemicals in the brain. Feelings of happiness and well being have a specific set of chemicals associated with them. Remember the warm fuzzies we get from being kind to someone?  Chemicals. Also the flexibility of morals allows our brain to release the same chemicals for a variety of reasons. In the crudest sense we are drug addicts looking for a fix.  

So basically here is my contention. We can be kind because we are selfish jerks. We can be kind to make the world a better place because we don't want to live in a world full of a**holes. We can be kind for the chemical high. Whatever you see as the motivation... be kind.   
 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

13

I challenge myself every year to relate everything back to a word or concept. Last year it was clarity. This year it is balance. I don't do new year's resolutions but have found it much more interesting to think of a word or concept and relate ideas back to it. To that end I've been pondering the concept of ontological guilt or anxiety as it relates to balance. It's been a while since I've studied Existentialism but basically ontological guilty is a concept where our ability to choose (free will) brings with it guilt or regret or anxiety. Did I make the right choice?  What if?  Anyone who has experienced buyer's remorse understands this concept on a more concrete level. There are also other sources of said guilt such as Interpersonal guilt which comes from our awareness of our subjectivity and inability to truly understand another person or our guilt about our relationship with nature.

Obviously this is a HUGE concept to talk about here but let's see what I can tackle in roughly 500 words.

To this point I have defined balance as an active state. I introduced a concept I coined the "fluid normal." I talked about empathy as a function of being in the present. I also talked about fear and anxiety being caused by too much willful will and not trusting yourself to the water of fluidity.  I also talked about "yes, and" and life as a grand improvisation. The common thread to all of these is uncertainty which is the very definition of ontological guilt and anxiety. It is part of the function of the human mind to find order in chaos. This is mostly based on patterns. The mind learns what probably will happen. I think this almost happens to the point where we forget that the universe, at least in my opinion, is chaotic. The anomalies are sources of cognitive dissonance and a reminder that we do actually have free will and that we don't have all the answers.

I think part of the response this creates is that we all walk around feeling guilty. It also doesn't help that our government and many religions are fraught with rules that are impossible to follow to the letter. In some religions people are even taught that we are all sinners: all guilty. As a consequence even the most pious person feels "guilty" of something. The #1 overused expression in the English language is "I'm sorry." If a word gets used to much it ceases to have meaning. I fear this has happened with apologies. 

The consequence of all this guilt in my opinion is we are never truly living in the present. I find it a funny paradox because "mindfulness" and "being present" have become buzz words.  Kind of a western neo-Buddhist thought. We try to talk of being present, but all the while different aspects of society pile on guilt. The reason why I see this as a paradox is guilt is necessarily feeling regret about what you have done (past) and feeling anxiety about the choices you will make (future). With all this attention to the past and future I think it is impossible to be in the present.

I'll leave you with one final thought about a source of guilt. I think the core of many of these rules and law are to conquer base human traits. While some of this is important for a functioning society others are completely out of our control. Feeling guilty because you covet a piece of cake, or buy something that you think is too fancy, or have lustful thoughts about someone, or drive a little too fast, or spend too much time on social media, or order the 1/2 lb burger instead of the 1/4 lb.  To me these are all attempts to get one up on the universe. That pursuit is a noble one in my opinion but it has unintended consequences. One that immediately pops to mind is it creates a moral high ground. This is fine but this moral high ground is often used to throw stones. To judge. Basically we are giving the individual, ourselves, license to be yet another source of guilt for others in an attempt to absolve ourselves of guilt. I actually have a little chuckle when I think of this because trying to get an advantage on the universe is a futile pursuit because you're it.  You can't get one up on yourself.  

My takeaway from this and my thoughts as it applies to balance? I try to have my feelings about actions be driven by the intention behind the action. To me this is where the juicy stuff is.                     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

12

Two weeks ago I talked a little about meditation. I didn't post last week because I was on vacation. This week I'm going to share a few techniques I've found useful. I have no expertise or certification in the practice. I have 20 years of personal experience, so take what I say with that in mind. Remember my idea of meditation is really just spending some time alone with your thoughts and noticing; whatever that means to you. I prefer sitting meditation in the fairly traditional sense but I have also found similar benefit in other activities. I used to be a pretty serious cyclist and I have definitely reached a reflective place being on a bike for extended amounts of time. Also, as a musician, there is a certain meditative quality to playing, though in an ensemble setting it is a much more active group meditation. I just got home from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico and while I am by no means a serious fisherman I can definitely see how an activity like that can be very meditative. 

The first technique that I use is a connection with my breath. This can be as simple as just regulating our breath with a simple count on the inhale and exhale. Basically exhale fully. Inhale and count the time it takes to inhale. Match your exhale. Wash, rinse, repeat. In yoga this is called sama vritti breathing or equal breath. There are a whole variety of breathing exercises and I won't go into them here. What I will say is that whenever I find myself in the process of finding a meditative place or needing to re-center myself I go straight to focusing on breath. 

Connection with breath can also be used in movement activities. In yoga this is called vinyasa. Breath syncronized movement. A connection with breath can be part of any activity. I have runner friends that talk about it. I know I used to do it cycling. It can really be part of any activity.

The next step for me is to let my mind do what it does. Some accounts of meditation call it a quieting of the mind. The problem with trying to quiet the mind is the act of trying is getting in the way. What I do instead is "try" to get out of the way and let my mind go where it may. In this place I just notice. One of the benefits I find of this activity is it allows me to experience thoughts as almost a third person observer. One visual metaphor that I've enjoyed is thinking of thoughts as leaves falling off a tree into a stream. As the thought comes just observe it, then watch it "float" away in the stream. At first I thought this metaphor was a little new age touchy feely but I have really come to enjoy it.

Another interesting technique is to do the opposite and try to focus on sounds in the environment. I find this easiest to do if there aren't any prevailing sounds like a lawn mower or construction noise. An activity I enjoy is to try to direct your hearing to different distances from your body. Start with noticing body sounds, then room sounds, then house sounds, then street sounds, then beyond. You can hear some pretty crazy stuff.  You also notice that there are lots of sounds around us all the time that we filter out.

I'll tell a funny story. I get frequent MRIs of my head and spine as part of the aftermath of my brain surgery and monitoring of lesion activity as a result of MS. Anyone who has had an MRI knows they are loud. Really loud.  Also many of the sounds they make are similar to the sounds we've been conditioned since birth to equate with danger. All manner of siren type sounds. The machine even shakes and vibrates. The sounds are also rhythmic which makes it interesting to try to sync breath with them. The techs will "narrate" the MRI basically introducing each scan. I've had so many I just tell them to plow through it and skip the talking. About 3/4 of the way though the 45 minute test they come and inject me with a gadolinium contrast to see if there is any new tumor or lesion activity. In order to do this they have to take you out of the machine for a minute. Now, often people are a little anxious about the whole thing and I can see why but I actually have grown to enjoy them. You are forced to spend 45 minutes alone with your thoughts. So the funny part. The tech comes in and rolls my little bed out of the machine and I am in a pretty deep meditative state and he says "are you actually relaxed in that thing?"  My reply... "yup."   

So I offer to you my thoughts on meditation. It is not a big thing and there is no wrong way. For me the most distracting thought I can have is "am I doing this right?" If there is no wrong way then guess what... you are.       

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

11


“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” –Steve Jobs

This week I am going a little of script. In previous posts I have talked about different kinds of balance. Being non-judgmental. Allowing fluidity to what you consider your baseline or normal. Pondering a ‘fluid normal’ is a fun mental exercise but at some point it feels a little like the “dancing about architecture” thing. Getting your mind to that place is quite a different story. Here are my practical observations.

Let me preface this with the notion that I have always had a severe allergic reaction to dogma. Dogma is merely a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. As the quote above states this is living someone else’s truth or life. We often think of dogma in the context of religion but it can definitely be applied to secular things too. Anything that has a prevailing paradigm has dogma. It is not necessarily insidious. This definition encompasses many of the things we come into contact with. Rather than get on a soapbox I wanted to just preface my experiences with meditation with the idea that anything can have dogma.

So what is meditation? We often think of mediation as some kind of mystical experience that involves sitting on the floor, twisting up like a pretzel, closing your eyes, and listening to tapes of waves crashing while incense and candle burn. We buy stuff, maybe a special pillow or special meditation clothes. We buy books and tapes. We even go places to take classes in how to do it. I have been practicing meditation on and off for 20 years and while that stuff can help none of it is meditation. I find it actually a little antithetical to what we want from a meditation practice. I’ll elaborate later but this is where the idea of dogma comes in for me. Americans are very good at thinking that there are steps and technique in “doing it right”. If we don’t follow those steps we are “doing it wrong” and “failing”. That is the beauty of what meditation is for me. There is no right or wrong. That creates a severe case of cognitive dissonance in a culture that has been taught from the time we were children that there is right and wrong and that’s it.  

Unfortunately that gets us no closer to understanding what it is. I think, at the core, meditation is just being alone with your thoughts. I think one of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it is about learning to control your mind. In my experience it is quite the contrary. It is about learning to get out of your own way. What the heck does that mean? That is where this dogma idea comes in for me. If the idea of meditating is to get out of our own way, dogma is actually putting steps IN the way. Technique. Levels. Steps. Gear. Stuff.

The number one thing I hear from people considering mediation is that they “don’t know how to do it”. So they take a class. They buy a book or a tape. They seek out a guru (who you jivin’). They grade themselves based on how long they can stay sitting. I remember distinctly being in a conversation where everyone was standing around comparing how long they meditate for. I don’t think people were intending to brag but they were measuring and comparing. We’re good at that. So we do things to “push” ourselves to sit longer. Longer is better, right? I’ll be more relaxed and centered, right? Stress melts away, right? I’m get one up on this life thing, right?

All I can relate here is my own experience. By saying this line of thinking is right or wrong would contradict my central theme. All these thoughts are valid and important. Any ‘steps’ are valid and important. But to me that is what meditation is. It is whatever comes up. Noticing. For me it can be a sitting meditation but I also feel like I get the same benefit out of going for a bike ride or walk, listening to music, taking a shower, gardening, cooking, even mowing the lawn or doing chores. I find when I get out of my own way my mind comes up with some pretty wild stuff, like the ‘bacon’ movie or this post.

So what is meditation? Whatever works for you.

In my own meditation, when I notice I’m trying not to try, I start laughing.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Trilogy

Trilogy

Like many restless minds before me I was at the point in my life where I could no longer see the point of it all. I found myself asking the big questions. What is my purpose in the universe? What is the meaning of life? I didn't know how to begin answering these questions so my mind went back to stories from my childhood and tales of ancient heroes. One problem. I didn't know of any dragons to slay, any damsels to rescue, any towns being terrorized by a horrible beast, or any souls trapped in the underworld. So much for that. I decided to look for meaning in the meaningless. The benign. My shoulders slumped but then an old adage popped to mind, "breakfast is the most important meal of the day". Maybe that's it. I know mom is always right. My quest began.

I started where all quests should, at the beginning. Every morning for the past eight years my day has started my getting my son a bowl of his favorite breakfast cereal. Wait. Cereal. Serial. Cereal. Serial. It can't be that easy. Could the meaning of life be hidden in homophones? I set to work combining the two concepts. Breakfast cereal and the Serialist style of composition made popular by Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Webern, and Berg. The twists and turns of dealing with each type of cereal/serial started to give me a glimmer of insight into the strings that bind everything but I still found myself feeling empty. Fine. Everything is connected. So what? With a pounding headache I took an aspirin and decided to go to yoga class. Yoga has always helped me find some stillness.



That day the yoga class was particularly intense (which sounds like an oxymoron to non-yoga folk) so I decided to stop over at a breakfast place close to the yoga studio after class. I had brought a backpack with me that had a book and some manuscript paper in it. A waitress came and filled my coffee cup. I got out my book and started reading. I must have gotten sucked in because the waitress came back and asked if I was ready to order. I hadn’t taken a look at the menu yet so she topped off my coffee cup and left. After a quick glance at the menu I chose what I was going to order. When the waitress returned I placed my order and she topped off my coffee cup. I relaxed back into my booth and started reading 
again. I was feeling very at peace for the first time today.

After about 15 minutes the waitress returned with my order and warmed up my coffee again. I ate my breakfast.  When I was finished I pulled out the manuscript paper and began to think. I was hoping to be struck with inspiration but no ideas were really coming to me. The waitress returned to get my plate, topped off my coffee, left my check and headed back to the kitchen.

By now I was starting to feel the effects of the coffee. I stared at the manuscript paper. As caffeine is known to do it was starting to make my eyes dart back and forth and it made tracking the five little black lines on the paper difficult. I was still feeling the after glow of the yoga class and I was in a state of inner peace but my body was definitely not at peace at all. I’m not sure how much coffee I drank but I was starting the sweat and my feet were shuffling.

Suddenly the humor in the strange juxtaposition of those two feelings hit me all at once. I had a deep sense of inner peace but was very caffeinated. I laughed out loud. Fueled by prana and caffeine I put pencil to paper. In about 15 minutes I had it. The piece I was hoping for. Caffeinated Om.  After I was done I felt a deep sense of satisfaction.  Was coffee and yoga the answer?  Something was still missing.  I was hoping coffee and yoga would give life meaning and it had helped but alas...



As heroes are want to do I decided it was time to return to the source. A physical quest into the deep dark woods. What did I hope to find there? I wasn't sure but I was determined to find out. I bundled up and headed out into the snowy forest armed with only my iPhone and my earnest curiosity. My quest took me deep into the woods. The journey was hard. It was cold and the snow was deep. What I found there changed my life forever but I also got more than I bargained for. I had found the meaning of life but was I ready to see the truth? Was I prepared to see the interconnectedness of everything in the universe? Was I ready to wake up?





as printed in The Chicago Progressive

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

10


“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”  Lao Tzu

Over the course of the past couple of weeks, in various things that I've been reading, I've come across the concept of empathy. I decided to research the topic further and found myself WAY out of my depth. I had assumed there was quite a bit of research on it but not as much as I found. Initially this made me feel overwhelmed but then a question popped to mind. Why is this? I think it might be because we have this idea in our culture of empathy as some kind of magic power. Maybe the volumes and reams of writings on it are an attempt to show that it is not magic at all. The common thread in many of the things I read though is that empathy, in the simplest sense, just means identifying someone else's feelings or emotions and relating them back to your own.

As BrenĂ© Brown so eloquently stated, there is difference between sympathy and empathy. In her words “empathy drives connection and sympathy drives disconnection.” In other words sympathy is being an outside observer. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sian Bielock talks about the concept in terms of embodied cognition in that emotions contain outwardly visible cues and part of empathy is reading and identifying with someone else’s “body language.” In her research she talks about how being able to identify with someone’s feelings actually makes our brain behave similarly to having those feelings ourselves. Think of being embarrassed for someone or being sad for someone that you don’t even know. This is not a detached “feeling sorry” (i.e. sympathy). In these cases you are putting yourself in the shoes of the other person and actually feeling sad or embarrassed on a chemical level. This goes for positive emotions too.  

When I think about what all of this has in common with my concept of the “fluid normal” it is about being present. When I talk about being present I'm not talking about it as some sort of mystical meditative present. I'm thinking it was more of it in terms of the Lao Tzu quote above. Living in the past or the future means you are not being observant of the present. Remember from a past post I talked about how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the brain has a finite amount of processing power. Spending brainpower thinking about the past and future takes away from the attention you can spend on the present.  Spending more brainpower on the present can mean seeing something in another person but more importantly in might mean seeing something in yourself that you can reflect on and relate to others. If your emotional reaction to things is muted, then so will be your ability to be empathetic to the feeling in someone else. 

As a digression, I think smartphones are an empathy killer... but there is probably an app for that.

So then empathy is not magic at all. Quite the contrary. I think we see it as some sort of witchcraft because we are so disconnected with the present that our ability to see ourselves in others is compromised. Remember, we are all sides of the same coin or reflections of each other. There is a great Alan Watts quote, “the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.” To me love in this context is not an “I Love You” kind of love but rather a love of the moment. BrenĂ© Brown talks about it as experiencing the moment non-judgmentally. Think of love then as a non-judgmental acceptance of the moment. This certainly doesn’t mean that you have to LIKE every moment, but the moment is the moment and you can only influence the future by how you deal with the now.  

In all of this the key in my mind is being in the moment with yourself. This deepens your connection with others.  








Tuesday, February 17, 2015

bacon

Due to the long weekend and rug rats with no school I was unable to properly proofread and edit my next post.  As a place holder I offer you a shot of my laptop screen previewing my upcoming short film "bacon".



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

9

Finding Peace in Fluidity


"The web of life is a beautiful and meaningless dance. The web of life is a process with a moving goal. The web of life is a perfectly finished work of art right where I am sitting now." -Robert Anton Wilson


As you've likely figured out if you have been following is this series of essays is that they are really about nothing. Absurdism. A universe without meaning or purpose. Or a universe with infinite meaning and purpose. Yin-Yang. The idea of nothing implies everything and vice versa. Ow. I already need an aspirin and a coffee. 

One of the most disconcerting yet empowering things about acknowledging the fluid normal is just that. It is fluid, ever changing, and we can never know with 100% certainty what will come next. Anyone that has gotten 'that phone call that has changed everything' knows the feeling. Our ideas of what the future holds are based on what we have experienced in the past. It also means that the future holds infinite possibilities. As the adage goes, all that truly exists is the present.  

Hold on a second. Is this turning into some new age, neo-Buddhist, hippie, "you gotta go with the flow man", rant? Nah. Well, not exactly. Let me explain where this comes from for me.

Over the years I have spoken with many people that are either dealing with similar brain surgery or Multiple Sclerosis. In either case the two most common feelings that come up are anger and fear. Every feeling is valid and an important part of wrapping our mind around it but that's the thing. Wrapping your mind around something, even as a turn of phrase, implies mastery. There is no mastery of the fluid normal.    

One of my favorite Alan Watts quotes is "To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float." To me this faith he refers to so not a faith in something external but a faith in yourself. However long you've been here you have been dealing with reality just fine. I think that is the definition of being in the present. Not worrying about the past or the future and having faith or a better word "trust" that you will deal with whatever when it comes, good or bad.    

Man. This is getting all Zen and stuff now. Well, kinda. I'm by no means any kind of authority in anything really. I play the bass gud and write some nice tunes and stuff. That is my favorite thing about some of these concepts. Many philosophies and religions are looking for answers from some external force. Here we are more thinking about the answers, or lack there of, being in you all along.

One of the most noggin blowing texts I've read is a little book called Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. In the book Eugen, German professor of philosophy, is teaching in Japan and attempts to "study" Zen but goes on quite a different journey than he expected. You see, we have this idea that study of something should give us mastery over it. That is assuming that this illusive something is external and can be mastered.      

Two quotes have really stuck with me over the years from this book. 
 
 "Be like a child holding a finger.  It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist.  And when it lets go there is not the slightest jerk.  Do you know why?  Because the child does not think 'I will let go of the finger and grasp another thing'.  Completely unselfconsciously, without purpose it turns from one to the other..."

"The right art is purposeless and aimless.  The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal the less you will succeed.  What stands in the way is you too much willful will.  You think that what you do not do yourself will not happen"

Willful will. So these feelings of fear and anxiety come from the concept of too much willful will. I find the last two lines of the second quote particularly interesting. The concept of 'willful will' and the concept of essentially trying to micromanage everything. Like I've said before the only thing you can really control is your conscious self. The anxiety and fear comes when events don't play out in your head as you predicted them too. Trust yourself to the water or the fluidity of reality as it were and have faith you'll know what to do with the future when you get there.

Or maybe not.     



Wednesday, February 4, 2015

winter

In honor of the winter weather we've been having I put together a slideshow of winter photos from my Instagram.  The photo resolutions aren't great because they are from Instagram but hope you enjoy.



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

8

Finding Humor in Absurdity

"Have no fear of perfection. You'll never reach it."  -Salvador Dali

There are millions and millions of bits of information coming at you every instant. From time to time you are going to do something different than what you intended. You have to. The trick is how you deal with it. I think the first part of this is reconciling the fact that you are taking in and processing a fantastic amount of information and the way you are dealing with the majority of it is just fine. The problem is that since we take those automatic functions for granted the focus then falls on the things we see as anomalies. Remember there is a chaotic (random) quality to the information our brain is trying to reconcile. Compound this with the fact that 'normal' is 'fluid' and we have the ingredients for being self critical all the time. The other part is not necessarily looking at what you perceive as a misstep as an error that cannot be erased but rather something that can be added on to. Yes and and all that.  

In a philosophical sense "absurd" refers to the conflict between our attempt to find inherent value and meaning in life and our inability to find said properties. Absurdity is a human construct. I see it as less of a judgement and more as a recognition. I think it is important to notice and learn to laugh at ourselves. Objective reality (not perceived) (which might not even exist) and the human mind (perceived) do not each separately cause things to appear absurd. It is in the relationship between the two. As a philosophy, absurdism just says that our attempts to find meaning and logic will ultimately fail because of the sheer amount of information and the amazing amount of things we aren't even aware of thus making total certainty impossible. So basically we exist in a universe without meaning or purpose. Depressing. But wait. Is it? If we go back to the idea of an "objective reality" and add the notion that each of us is experiencing reality in a different way, we come to the idea that we are really dealing with a multiverse of subjective perceptions. Crap. That doesn't make it better. Or does it? I think that if we rid ourselves of the ideas of an ultimate truth and that we are imperfect beings we get to a point where we see that everyone's "normal" or experience is fluid. One of the definitions of absurd is  "impossible to take seriously, silly". We laugh at silly stuff. Keep that in the back of your mind and see how it changes your reality.

I think if we learn to laugh at ourselves we start to deal with our judgement of ourselves. Then it all comes down to intention. Since what we experience is random and our perception is subjective and influenced by experience the only way to reach common ground with another person is to strip away the result of the action and look at the intention behind it. Think of getting a gift. You open the box and when you see it you aren't totally happy because it is a wrong color. The disappointment is natural. Acknowledge and embrace it. If you strip away the action and look at the intention however you see that the person was expressing their positive feelings for you. Now think of a car accident. Of course our initial reaction is that of heighten self-awareness. Fight or flight. Do you think the other person, no matter how much you dislike them in the moment, really meant to hit you? Conversely stripping away action lets us see if the intention was malicious and we can be more prepared to deal with it accordingly. This also allows us to be less judgmental of ourselves. Truthfully we are usually our own harshest critical, or at least I am. If we strip away action and look at intention I think it allows us to assess how to more clearly express our intention the next time.

In the immortal words of Miles Davis "Do not fear mistakes, there are none." Of course he is talking about music and probably jazz improvisation more specifically. As I said in an earlier post though life is an improvisation. If we keep "yes, and" as our intention and not fear an illusive and non-existent perfection we lose at least some fear of mistakes. For me that goes a long way to not always feeling like you fell short. A judgment. Oh and reserve apologies for when intention and action were way off. In another wise Miles Davis quote "If you understood everything I say, you'd be me!"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

7

I am going to go off on a bit of a tangent from the last post. This week I started reading a book about embodied cognition by a psychologist at the University of Chicago named Sian Beilock called How the Body Knows Its Mind. I am by no means a psychologist but I am a well read guy and have always been a psychology enthusiast. I am very much enjoying the book. I am not even going to try to summarize her research, you should read the book, but just know that the scientific evidence is mounting that there is a strong connection between body and mind and that we learn more effectively by doing. This notion is particularly interesting to me for two reasons. First, as a child I attended a school based on the principles of progressive education and learning by doing. Second, both of the major health incidents, brain surgery and MS, have affected movement for me in one way or another.  Those incidents have made me reflect deeply on the mind/body connection.  

I attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools from 3rd-12th grade. The school was founded in 1896 by John Dewey. Dewey is considered the father of progressive education in America. The whole idea of experiential learning is central to Dewey's philosophy. Later in life I came to read Dewey and found that he also rejected dualism in favor of the idea of a unified whole. This is a slightly different kind of dualism than I talked about in a previous post but philosophically similar. The dualist idea in this case is that the mind controls the body and the the body is merely the machine that transports the mind. This model has been the prominent for a very long time, still is today, and draws its lineage back to Descartes and earlier. Dewey felt the opposite. He felt it was important to treat the mind/body as a unified whole. When I read this I was a blown away. I had always had a deep down feeling that the mind and body operated as a whole but I didn't realize until I actually read it that that was one of the philosophies that guided my education. The other ideas that have really stuck with me are critical thinking and collaboration. I'll go into those more later.

It is very interesting applying this idea of a mind/body connection when there is an electrical break in the connection. Even when we think of the mind and body as connected we are still looking at series of mechanical systems all working together... or are we? As I said earlier, there have been several instances in my life where this connection has been mechanically severed. I'll focus on two here.  

First. In the case of my brain surgery the resection of the acoustic neuroma resulted in several nerves being disturbed or severed. The first was the one that controlled hearing in my right ear.  It was severed and I lost hearing in that ear. I tell kids when they ask how I lost my hearing that "they had to cut the wire". The nerves that control blinking, tear production, and muscle control on the right side of my face were disturbed. Basically the right side of my face was paralyzed and my eye didn't completely close.  The nerves regenerated though not quite to where they were before the surgery. I still have to use eye drops because my eye no longer produces tears, my right eye closes slower than my left, and my smile is crooked.

Second. There have been several incidences where Multiple Sclerosis has caused movement issues. First a quick and dirty overview of MS. In one of the earlier sections I talked about myelin cells that surround the nerve. These cells aid in the transmission of electrical signals in the nerves. MS is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks these myelin cells. The problem is that once these cells are damaged the electric signals are slowed down or stopped. All kind of things can happen from mobility issues to memory to mood. Nerve signals are the link from the brain to the body. In my case the two biggies were an incident where I temporarily lost control of the lower part of my left leg and the other was seizure type episodes called tonic spasms where my body would lock up. In both of these cases the signals my brain was sending were not making it to my muscles to tell them to either relax or contract.

I know. The initial reaction upon reading this is "how horrible that must have been.".  I'm not going to lie. There are things I'd rather have done for sure. But I also don't want sympathy. The whole idea of the fluid normal is being in the moment whatever it may be. If you can have your ego take a back seat and observe nonjudgmentally, every moment has something to show you. I tried to look at it from a non-dualist perspective.  The gambit creates the human experience.

So how does this relate to embodied cognition? Since I'm not terribly knowledgable on the topic I'm not going to speak to it directly. I do however know a few things that might relate. I've always been aware that the mind/body connection is strong. When we apply this to my concept of a fluid normal though it becomes apparent that since "normal" is ever changing for everyone the connection is not how effectively the mind and body are connected in a quantitative, qualitative, and electrical sense. It is acknowledgment of the mind/body as a whole. You. You don't just exist couple inches behind your eyes. The examples I gave above from my life are extreme but we all have to deal with days where the connection on a mechanical level isn't as strong. But, you see, "strong" is a qualitative judgment and is dualist. Strong/weak. Lose judgment. Lose dualism. What's left? Being human. The mind/body connection must not just be electrical.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

6

Mental Balance

Focus

I left many loose ends in the last post but at this point I want to move on to the idea of mental balance. I'm thinking of "mental" as the mechanical part of conscious operations in the brain. BIG topic I know. Basically I think of it as managing time, organizing thoughts, thinking critically, feeding your mind, and mental focus. There are many more. Mental balance is basically all the things that don't fall neatly into physical or spiritual balance. Here goes.

Physical balance is easy to define. It is a tangible feeling. It is even measurable. Mental or spiritual balance are quite different. They are not measurable though they do sometimes effect physical systems. Moreover they are not clearly defined. Rather than trying to offer a definition I am just going to relate some times that I have dealt with these concepts as they pertain to my life. Like I've said, the mind is fluid. There is a chance my feelings on this will have changed in some way by the time you read this.    

One of the key elements of mental balance for me is focus. I bring this one up first because I see it as a litmus test. I see it as a byproduct of systems working together. For me it is hard to be focused if there is too much imbalance in my mind. The aggravating thing about focus is true focus isn't something you can try harder to improve. It almost requires not trying which creates a paradox because you can't try not to try. My definition of focus is similar to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the "flow experience". Being completely in the eternal present and focusing such that the rest of the world including time and space disappears.  

Csikszentmihalyi's found in his research that the human brain has a finite amount of processing power. Things like breathing, heartbeat, swallowing, etc are called autonomic functions.  They are on all the time and exist on the subconscious level. Things like hunger, thirst, temperature awareness, location awareness, etc are not automatic and require conscious thought to perceive. Csikszentmihalyi found that in what he defines as the 'flow experience' the task at hand can borrow processing power from these things. We have all had that experience where we have been so engrossed in something that we lose track of time. That's flow.

What he also found was that flow or focus is an autotelic experience. Autotelic means having purpose in and not apart from itself. So autotelic just is doing an activity for the sake of itself. No outside motivator like money, fame, power, etc. To me this is also the definition of being present. If we have the rewards of an activity in mind we are necessarily thinking about the future. I don't think this means not having goals. A couple of years ago I issued myself a challenge to write and record an album of string quartets. I was thinking ahead and planning for the future in laying out a game plan. When it came to the actual implementation of the steps like composing the pieces I found I was most successful when I was doing the composing for the sake of it.
  
We live in a world where there are so many distractions. There are all kind of ways that people can bring some focus to their minds. Some people exercise, some read a book, some meditate, some even go for a drive or take a shower. The common thread here is being in a place where you can be alone with your thoughts. Step back. Notice. Observe. Nonjudgmentally.  






Thursday, January 8, 2015

5


Aesthetic Balance

"Nothing is beautiful, only man: on this piece of naivete rests all aesthetics, it is the first truth of aesthetics. Let us immediately add its second: nothing is ugly but degenerate man - the domain of aesthetic judgment is therewith defined." Friedrich Nietzsche

We all make aesthetic choices all the time. We want to relegate this expertise to artists but it is a basic human trait. Choosing your clothes or combing your hair are aesthetic choices.  As the quote states though ideas of beauty are completely a human construct and only in the eye of the beholder. A judgment.  

One of the ways I experience balance as an artist is in an aesthetic sense. While this may seem a little esoteric and hard to apply to everyday life I think there are quite a few parallels. Since my experience as an artist is either as a performer or composer for ensembles the palate is often quite large and at least in ensemble settings you are only a piece of the puzzle. I’ve also found as an amateur photographer many of the same principles to be true when thinking about composing a photo and making choices about light, depth of field, contrast, color balance, etc. The same can be said for any kind of improvisation. Even a conversation is an improvisation.

I have introduced a new word into the mix here. Improvisation. One of the first places I go whenever I encounter a word is the dictionary. The definitions I found for this word made me chuckle out loud. “To compose or perform without previous preparation”... “To compose, play, recite, or sing on the spur of the moment”...  “to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available”. My favorite is the synonym “extemporize” 

So why was I laughing? First I found the notion of a lack of previous preparation interesting. In my mind we are preparing for each subsequent moment with the preceding moment. We have been constantly preparing since birth. The second definition is much like the first. The third however might be the closest to my idea of improvisation. In order for us to do something with whatever materials are readily available we have to have prior experience. I really believe we are all always improvising. Throw other people into the mix and things get really interesting.

Millions and millions of things are happening in every moment. Some of them are so microscopic that we don’t even notice. Some however change the course of events. How we react to them is the key.  

One of the central tenets for improvising actors is the idea of “Yes, and”. In an improvised scene, when you are presented with an idea, you agree with it and add on. Yes… and. When I am working with children in a theatre setting I like to make this a central theme. I also like to use it to teach music improvisation. The exact same phenomenon occurs. Idea, agreement, addition. It just happens to be non-verbal. Lately I’ve been trying to also apply that concept to photography. 

In conversation the exact same thing applies. Stephen R Covey has one of my favorite quotes on this subject. "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." If the intent is to reply then there isn't an acknowledgement of the original idea. The "and" is then based on your original idea... and 'round and 'round we go.

How does this apply to the fluid normal? The fluid normal is just that. Saying yes, and. Taking a moment and reacting to it nonjudgmentally then adding to it. Nature is nonjudgmental. Taking every moment as it comes and responding to it. It is not trying to predict the future and not worrying about the past. It is taking every interaction as the most important one. The curious thing is that the only thing we have direct influence over is ourselves. What that means is that in order to change something it means changing yourself.

There are numerous books that have applied the "yes, and" idea to life. What is important as it applies to the concept of the fluid normal is taking every moment as it is and embracing it no matter what it is. That doesn't mean being happy or even saying yes in the literal sense. It does mean accepting it and reacting to it.