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Reflections — Max Langenkamp

A journal for the Spring 2018 class Principles of Awareness

Published onFeb 20, 2018
Reflections — Max Langenkamp

May 10th, 2018

We had a QiGong session with Dr Peter Wayne last week, and it was incredible. I had been curious about the practice from the beginning but had no idea where to begin. Dr Wayne reframed my conception of Tai Chi and demonstrated a set of practices that heightened two new kinds of awareness; bodily awareness and awareness of the other.

First he made the point that Tai Chi (synonymous with QiGong) was about learning to ask questions, but with the body rather than the mind. It was about physical exploration of your body, and the different tensions felt while moving in certain ways were the questions to be explored.

We then began to do a series of simple exercises— moving around left to right on our feet, allowing the fluid in our mind-body matrix (as he put it) to slosh around, beating simultaneously the front and backs of our body — that really made me feel aware of the minute feelings in my body. Actually, it was somewhat painful; my left hip (an old source of discomfort) experienced a twinge/pinch and my left shoulder also felt limited in its mobility. It was interesting to actually embody this somewhat intellectual notion of the pain that comes with increased awareness.

The other significant moment that stood out to me was when he made the group pick a partner after walking aimlessly in a circle for a while and one of the partners would place his or her palms on the others shoulders (both were facing the same direction) and simply wait in silence. The result was a fascinatingly intimate moment as physical awareness of the other manifested itself. Rarely do you touch someone who is not your romantic partner for more than a couple of seconds. This appeared to me as a new mode of awareness to cultivate. In fact, in recollection, this is not wholly different to the practice of Judo I had done for about a year. When sparring or grappling with other people, you were forced to cultivate a sense of the other’s bodily awareness.

Overall, I was very grateful for the session, and aim to incorporate some of the exercises that Dr Wayne outlined into my own practice.

April 30th, 2018

We’re always looking for something to worry about.
For me, after the worry and anxiety of performing well enough to stay in the top group of students in high school, there was the worry of getting into college— something mercifully shadowed less of my life than many others I know. Now, there is a new set of worries; questions of whether or not I belong here— as many an MIT student is wont to ponder— of what I would be best suited to doing in the future. Outside the realm of academics/career concerns, there is plenty also to be worried about in the social sphere: will my friends and I still feel the same way towards each other as we do now? Will I find a romantic partner I can relate to deeply on an emotional level?

Now of course, these kinds of thoughts don’t bother me most of the time, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people— at least in the western world— experience thoughts akin to these. A pessimistic perspective could contend that going through life is like exchanging one set of worries for another equally pressing and difficult set of worries. That we will always find something to expend effort worrying about.

I think this is not unlike Dukkha, the first noble truth of Buddhism; the fundamentally unsatisfying nature of life. The sooner we can acknowledge and begin to accept it, the less we are buffeted by the winds of our baseless worries. Now if only I could get a firm Buddhist stance on romantic human relationships…

April 26th, 2018

My friend Alice was talking to me as we walked towards our late night radio show session, and she brought up this idea that the potato chip, with all its cumulative use of offshore labor, according to some cultural historian, could be made to symbolise the ‘rape’ of the indigenous culture. The natives get taught to value what the colonialists value— material possessions, in many cases— and often lose their cultural perspectives in the process.

I began to debate and question Alice’s proposal; could it not be that much of the infrastructure and systems currently in place in many of these countries exist and are only possible due to the influence of colonialism? I talked and prodded, but after Alice pointed out that I had a ‘weird perspective on colonialism’, I realised that I did not, in fact hold strongly any of the convictions I was arguing for. I do believe in the significance of cultural heritage and the benefit that diversity of perspective brings to civilization.

It was more that I was following my instinct of recoiling against whatever I saw was the most popular prevailing thought, and questioning, doubting the validity of such a claim. Such a pose can sometimes be dangerous, and may seem heretical in the wrong company.

April 20th, 2018

I’ve noticed a tension in Buddhism that I haven’t been able to satisfactorily resolve. Generally, the more I’ve read about and listened to lectures on Buddhism, the more I’ve come to admire and adopt the associated practices and philosophy. One of the major shifts in outlook I feel I’ve had since graduating high school and spending time in the liminal period of a gap year is a large emphasis on the importance of compassion towards others — something that’s honestly more visceral than rational — among other changes I’ve undergone. Suffice it to say Buddhism has been largely influential on me.

But, I’ve come to feel that Buddhism — or at least the responses I’ve heard from very knowledgeable practitioners— does not have a satisfying response when it comes to romantic human relationships.

As a young adult male who has had and continues to have romantic relationships with the opposite sex, I could not help but look to what Buddhist scripture has had to say about the matter, but could not find much online, or in my novice Buddhist book, Walpola Rahula’s ‘What the Buddha Taught’. After questioning and interacting with both The Venerable Bhikku Bodhi and The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi (not sure when you are supposed to use the full title and when you can drop it), the outline of the answer that I got was this: the teachings of the Buddha are largely flexible. According to Bikkhu Bodhi, the layperson can achieve three out of the four steps to enlightenment, and only the last step requires the monastic life. The subtext here is obviously that leading a monastic life and having a romantic relationship are mutually exclusive. When pressed further, he said also that the Buddha would provide advice to different people based on their current situation. Yet the question to me still remains, why doesn’t the Dalai Lama, or any Buddhist monk for that matter, have a wife? The feeling I get is that feelings of romance have roots in mental delusion and are a kind of fleeting/transient pleasure. It also seems like these experienced practitioners are reluctant to lay down such a firm ultimatum for fear it could drive people away. This last part is a bit of conjecture, I’ll admit.

April 14th, 2018

Consistent routines are really important for my mood stability. One emergent pattern I’ve noticed when I’m feeling especially upset or strange for no obvious reason is that some pattern of mine (what I’ve heard called the three legs of stability - sleep, food, exercise) has been disrupted.

I’ll notice after going out, as we college students are apt to do, and my sleep will be neglected. Often, after I wake up, I then won’t feel especially hungry and eat a couple of morsels of food and then go about my day. No wonder then, that I begin to feel easily upset and unhappy for no apparent reason.

This happened earlier today, and I’m surprised I let it happen to myself so often, especially when the impact is kind of harsh.

April 8th, 2018

How do you know the causes that you’re working towards are the best use of your resources? When you get evidence that there’s a more ‘effective’ cause, are you then obliged to change what you’re contributing towards?

I currently volunteer for a group called Camp Kesem that provides a free summer camp for children from 6-18 whose parents or close relatives are afflicted by cancer. It is truly a wonderful community on campus, and I sense that the experience that we come to provide is truly transformative for these children’s lives— by providing an environment to hear and tell stories that are typically considered taboo in society, these humans are left with the very powerful sense that they are not alone in their struggle. And yet I feel somewhat uneasy.

Camp Kesem, along with every charity that aims to benefit directly those in the US, is not on the Givewell’s ‘Top Charity’ list. The thing is, I think Givewell’s methodology for evaluating charities is very solid, and, using axioms like the idea that all human lives are equally valuable, I think I would come to a similar conclusion. The emotional aftermath following the helpless decline of a loved one is certainly often filled with profound sadness and great suffering, but could you neglect to prevent several easily-preventable deaths (e.g. distributing malaria nets) for the chance at alleviating someone’s suffering? This is the question I wrestle with. Along these lines, wouldn’t many of the things we take for granted in the developed world would not exist (homeless shelters, churches, kids’ clubs that survive off donations) if we all gave our money to Givewell?

I talked to the Co-Founder of Givewell, Elie Hassenfield, after a talk he gave, and he made an interesting point when I pointed out my aforementioned problem. If we all gave our money to these causes, Elie said, the most pressing problems would very quickly be over, and it is not true that these community organisations would not exist. He also said that he separated out different portions of his wage in terms of what he’s willing to donate, and had different mental ‘buckets’ for what would go to different causes, and there could be room for community donations.

I feel like the Buddhist approach would emphasise the importance of just making sure that you are being compassionate (that is the most important aspect) and to not worry so much about the maximum efficacy of your compassion.

I would appreciate any thoughts on a way to handle this.

March 29th, 2018 2.0

One of the more positive things I’ve taken away from this course so far is power of a light attitude of humor when doing things.

I was showing a snippet of my detailed personal journal to Andre a couple weeks ago, and one of the questions he raised was what I was trying to achieve with the level of detail and discipline that I would fill it in with. He didn’t explicitly say this, but a thought that I had was that perhaps it could be seen as a strong desire to be more mindful, but that was actually taking away from the moments by making me so often think about the immediate past that I’m not paying much attention. Or perhaps that I was striving to know myself in this faux-empirical way that was really just a muddied portrayal of the subjective moment.

In some ways the second point is true. My original intent was to analyse the data of my past to see emergent patterns in a scientific way that I couldn’t see in the moment, but that’s proven very hard with how subjective each daily recording is. What I do appreciate is the forced recollection of the day, which I see as a way of improving my memory of past events by reinforcement. This, I think of as a way of being more cohesive as an entity— you are more aware of what has come before— and a noninvasive way of being more conscious. I don’t know if this makes much sense outside of my head. I might try and explain this thought later when I’m less tired.

Another question I still have: why doesn’t the Dalai Lama have a wife? Is it fair to characterise the buddhist perspective on romantic love as something that is more transient and a part of the earthly desires to be transcended? How unhealthy is the Western fixation on romantic partners/ its ideals about monogamy?

March 29th, 2018

Whether you like it or not, your attitude towards those around you, even those that you currently cherish, change over time in ways that you can’t really control. This is something that’s hard to accept for me; it’s bad enough that much (if not all?) of what happens to you, good or bad, is out of your control, but that this bastion of identity, your mind, with its convictions, predilections and aversions, is subject to uncontrollable whims is a tough thought.

Maybe I’m speaking too broadly here, but sometimes I find myself inexplicably drawn towards a new person, only to find that I lose interest and want to move on. This sometimes happens with people I’m more emotionally invested in, though typically to a lesser extent. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’m complaining about, but it’s something like the fact that I’ll feel these negative irrational emotions towards people I care about and be somewhat helpless to explain it to them.

Sometimes I will just have the strong urge to be on my own and stew for a bit in a pool of solitude. A Pool of One’s Own, you could call it.

As with many things I like to dwell on, it’s not a big deal in hindsight, and typically becomes a nonissue if I can just resist the temptation to act on my immediate instincts.

As a side note, I realise that I like to write here about the things I fear and the things I’m curiously discomfited by.

March 15th, 2018

Many of the beliefs and convictions I hold are difficult to extensively defend. In debates with friends who are adept at reasoning, many of my points end up spiraling downwards into an appeal to authority. For instance, while I was hosting my radio show The White Tiger very late last night with my friend Alice, I had the conviction that we should play a very particular song (Feel No Ways, by Drake) because of the significance of the cross-genre blending of the samples and how there was a wonderful symmetry between Drake as a bridge between the RnB and the Rap world and the fact that the two main samples were from equally distinct genres. This video inspired me, if what I said doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Or if you want to see what I consider a marvellous breakdown of an otherwise normal pop song)

But so as I was elucidating this point, Alice questioned the significance of the symmetry and how contrived it was; whether the analysis was ‘reaching’ or whether it was something intentional. I responded that it didn’t really matter; the symmetry was there, whether or not the producer Jordan Ullman intended it was not the issue at hand. But this whole contention reminded me of the whole series of arguments about art and the significance of intentions, and how frustratingly irresolvable different approaches to art are. It all falls into the mire of relativism (“everything is subjective, there are no absolutes”) and everyone is forced to shrug and glumly nod.

I don’t have yet a generally satisfying response to accusations of this sort, only to point out how dissatisfying a response that is.

March 3rd, 2018

Perhaps one of the scarier things in my mind is the rift between my thoughts and the thoughts of those that I care. My old English teacher had this phrase he’d like to throw around — ‘private residue’ — which referred to what was left when you had tried your utmost to communicate what you could with language. ‘Private residue’ is in part related to what scares me, but there’s more to it.

I realise that my projections of other people’s thoughts, no matter how calibrated they become, can only be so accurate. Even when I think I’m being thoughtful and aware, I will still act on wrong assumptions and be surprised by the reactions of those around me.

I can’t fully explain what about this notion is so scary. It’s probably something like the guttural xenophobia/fear of the unknown that we animals possess within. I fear what I don’t know, or can’t understand, because not only can it hurt me, it can also be hurt by me. This is especially true with those whom we are emotionally very close to.

Of course, one can say that persistent good intentions and communication will mean that misunderstandings are dealt with maturely et cetera, but it’s the abyss of possibility that disturbs me. The lack of control and understanding.

What’s also interesting is how humans (perhaps largely me in this case) are more compelled to write about disturbing thoughts and feelings than those smaller kind nice things that go through our head sometimes.

February 27th, 2018

In Darren Aranofsky’s Mother!— one of the first movies I ever reviewed— there was a line during the climax of the film that really resonated with me.
*Spoiler alert* during the final scene when Jennifer Lawrence’s character is dying and decaying into a mess of a charcoal heap, she looks up at her husband, ‘him’, and laments the fact that she wasn’t ‘enough’ for him. He replies,
“It's not your fault. Nothing is ever enough. I couldn't create if it was.”
This whole idea of a lack of satisfaction with how things are as the reason for creation was really fascinating to me. It itself seems to imply that our will to create comes from a desire that is probably insatiable. We create only when we feel that things around us are ‘not enough’.

And yet it is still possible to create something that does satisfy you, albeit perhaps temporarily. I think this thread of thought is not too different from that which lead to the First Noble Truth within Buddhism. (Please excuse me if my understanding of the principle is slightly flawed). The First Noble Truth, or dukkha, is roughly equivalent to the claim that life, at its core, is incapable of satisfying. There are numerous ideas involved with the word dukkha, as I understand it, associated variously with ideas such as transience, the inability to endure, and ‘suffering’ (though there is some debate over whether ‘suffering’ is an accurate translation).

Before I enter a long winded tangent, let me describe the thought I had last night. This idea of creating things extends to almost everything that we do. Whenever we take part in some type of interaction, we craft it and its outcomes. Similarly, with relationships with other people, it is very empowering to think that you can collectively agree on the type of interactions that you want to have with each other, and set about crafting that kind of relationship. Do you and your friend want to exercise more frequently? You can collectively agree to find ways of encouraging each other, and make it such that you both meet for a weekly run so that it is part of your ‘friendship routine’. It’s a simply idea but I think it’s actually quite profound in a way.

By crafting our relationships with others, we can provide a path of more deliberate living.

February 19th, 2018

One of the more interesting realisations I’ve had in the last few weeks came during a point in the class discussion last Tuesday.

Our assignment the previous week was to explore possible mindfulness practices, and I was somewhat stumped. I could close my eyes, listen to my breath… but then what? How many different possible mindfulness exercises were there? Was it not just all the same essential thing?

The answer, as the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi kindly pointed out, was both no and yes. Apparently there are 20 different kinds of silence. After doing some cursory browsing, I stumbled across a range of techniques; “loving kindness to remove ill-will, hate, and anger, equanimity to remove mental clinging, and patikulamanasikara(meditations on the parts of the body) and maraṇasati (meditation on death and corpses) to remove sensual lust for the body and cultivate impermanence (anicca).”

I’ve decided to figure out a ‘syllabus’ for the next couple of months to explore these different sets of techniques and examine the different impacts each has on me over the course of a week.

Hane Lee:

As a contrast, in science and engineering, we try to create absolutes in these fields by eliminating subjectivity as much as possible. While I do appreciate this pursuit of objectivity and recognize that it is necessary in the field, I often find it frustrating. Subjectivity is abundant in science; when there seems to be none, it is probably disguised or shrouded.

That said, I do agree that it is also frustrating to see subjectivity in art when it is imposed or unbalanced. However, I appreciate art in that it preserves subjectivity. You are free to express your subjectivity in any way, and you are also free to respond to other subjectivities out there from your own. They may not translate nor converge, but they can coexist.

I would say that mire of relativism is also what lets you contend that the symmetry is there. You may explain how it is, but you don’t have to justify it.

I have such problems all the time when I play piano. “What was the composer’s intentions on this one note, this micro-stroke?” is such a common question in music academia. My teacher who goes against many of those grains once pointed out that the composers have done their part by writing the score; however the music is interpreted from the score is completely up to our intentions.

Max Langenkamp:

I do think in many fields of science, the illusion of objectivity is pernicious. The whole culture around ‘p-gaming’ or repeating experiments until a significance level is reached is clear evidence of this. I’ve heard Karl Popper deals well with the Philosophy of Science and how we might better go about thinking about these things. He’s high on my to-read list.

Aashka Dave:

There are definitely times when I feel this in reverse! For instance, I’ll say something that I mean in a very light or pragmatic sense, and it’s misinterpreted by the person on the other end; they respond in a way that isn’t really warranted (ex: overly sarcastic). That sort of thing sticks in my head for a long time, and often leaves me thinking “wait, how did we both get that so wrong?”

I often tend to sit on thoughts until I’ve figured out how to phrase them to avoid situations like this, but that’s not necessarily helpful for me or the other people in a conversation. What’s often been helpful for me is knowing the general nature of the person I’m talking to: if I know they have a personality that will be okay with us both figuring out the conversation as we go, then I’m more likely to be much more open about sharing our private residue.

Max Langenkamp:

Yeah; I think trust is a really important foundation to have when you’re talking about issues dear to you. You have to trust that the other person will interpret charitably and not prematurely dismiss what you’re saying, as is so easy to do.

This is in part the challenge of having an earnest conversation.

Aashka Dave:

Curious reader asking: why is your show called The White Tiger?

Max Langenkamp:

My cousin passed away earlier this year after a prolonged struggle with brain cancer. One of the last things he and his dad did was this art project that centered around the white tiger as a symbol. After he died, it came to represent his life to those that knew him. At the memorial service almost everyone got a t-shirt with a white tiger stencil that had been drawn by him.

The radio show is my small attempt to pay tribute to a great human.

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Anna WB:

Fascinating! Have you decided which types of silence best resonate with you?

Max Langenkamp:

I’m still trying to understand the different types of silence. At best right now, I feel comfortable with the distinction between internal and external silence. Do you have different categories you like to use?

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