Wednesday, January 28, 2015


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


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


Mental Balance


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


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.