After a full term of awareness class, how do I feel different? The end of term has come, and I am more aware than usual of how arbitrary and relatively unimportant it seems. I tend to put a disproportionate amount of mental effort into worrying about endings and transitions, like the end of classes and the end of my masters program, but this year some portion of my brain has been like, “screw that; let’s chill out.” It’s funny because my stress level is as heightened as it usually is in the end of term, but several months of moderately-disciplined awareness practice have allowed me to realize the pointlessness of this stress– and so my mind hasn’t responded with its usual burst of frenetic productivity. The stuff will get done (because there’s a deadline, and I don’t miss deadlines), but I’ve recently been more cognizant of my own mental depletion, and have decided to spend more time sleeping or doing something entirely unproductive than half-heartedly continuing to work. In the past, I tended to push through my exhaustion like a marathon runner just to get everything done… this year I asked for some extensions instead. I’m not personally proud of this decision, but I know it’s healthier– and I’m sticking around for a PhD, so it’s not like the finish-line is anywhere in sight.
Also on my list is to engage in some serious reflections on impermanence, but that’s boss-level mindfulness so I’m going to wait until I have more mental bandwidth to handle it. Though I did put my feline skull on my dresser as a grinning, morbid reminder.
A key takeaway from class discussions, supplemented by my own practice, is a newfound personal desire for more sincerity and emotional honesty. I have appreciated everyone’s contributions in class, and my classmates’ honesty and openness in their journals. Yet I often tend towards cynicism, which I find to be a reasonable but emotionally lazy response to our absurd universe (and our especially absurd point in human history). So… I haven’t exactly decided what to do about this desired mental shift, but my emotional awareness practice has been helping so I plan to continue it.
Finally, I’ve gotten better at appreciating moments of mental stillness– and finding a deeply-intrinsic sort of happiness as I dwell in them. It might not sound like much; the moments are brief, and this isn’t a strictly “new” phenomenon for me… but it feels significant. And the placebo effect is a well-tested means of curing all sorts of mental ills, so I am pleased to be able to better harness it for my own purposes. Overall, I feel a little more content with myself– which was one of my key learning objectives for this class.
Thank you, professors, TAs, and classmates. I’ve enjoyed going on this journey with everyone.
As I’m increasing my awareness of my own mental states, I’m frustrated by how complicated I feel sometimes. Especially since at a certain fundamental level I’m just another animal with simple animal requirements. For example: I have a thesis to write this weekend. I haven’t been working as hard as I need to work yet, but I know it will get finished. There’s simplicity in the fact that I have a deadline and I won’t let myself miss it, since I never miss deadlines and I’ve gone through this many times before. But then I’ve got emotional baggage around the fact that this is the end of my current program, and I’m dissatisfied with some of my data (but I don’t have time to fix it), and I’m also feeling disappointed about entirely unrelated events and thus disinclined to get my work done. During the Qigong session, I especially recognized how all these mental anxieties translate to bodily anxieties and tensions, and I’ve been continuing to observe this more acutely during my daily emotional awareness meditations. But why does everything have to be so complicated? It’s clouding up my existence in destructive ways. I know I need to improve in self-compassion, but frankly I had higher expectations for myself. I’m unnecessarily getting in my own way. I’ve been trying to view this as practice, like the Venerable Tenzin meditating on the Tokyo subway, but in the moment it’s hard to overcome my annoyance.
I’ve also been conducting an unscientific study of what I think about most of the time, based on not-at-all random samplings from my thoughts at the moment of remembering about this study. The results are in:
· When I’m doing something that requires attention, I usually (~80%) think about whatever I’m supposed to be thinking about. I have lots of brief and tangential thoughts, but then I revert back to the task at hand.
· I spend a surprising amount of time thinking about communicating with people: emails, conversations, social media posts, etc. I also spend some time considering past communications, and wondering how those could have gone better, or analyzing whether I conveyed everything I had to say.
· I spend a moderate amount of time thinking about stories, mostly fictional.
· I spend a bit of time thinking about how to solve problems and/or organize things, like papers I’m writing, engineering things I’m working on, or giant global challenges that are unrelated to anything I’m doing.
· When I’m in familiar places, I spend a small amount of time noticing things in my surroundings. I do this much more in unfamiliar places.
From Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi:
“These many forms of educational persuasion, like uplift suasion [the notion that Blacks can diminish racism by becoming more model citizens], have been predicated on the false construction of the race problem: the idea that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. In fact, self-interest leads to racist policies, which lead to racist ideas leading to all the ignorance and hate.”
The rest of the book provides solid evidence for this fact, from the persistence of hypocritical and pseudo-scientific justifications for White supremacy, to President Lincoln’s political decision to “end slavery to save the Union” rather than to abolish a national atrocity, to President Nixon’s War on Drugs which eradicated decades of racial progress with a handful of policies.
None of this surprised me, but the sheer weight of the evidence made me realize that I, too, harbor a deep-seated wish that, through a combination of solid facts and compelling arguments, everyone can just get along and recognize our mutual humanity. But things rarely work like that; as usual, it’s all about power and self-interest.
I was surprised that our classroom discussion went in a different direction. I do agree that an individual can set the “emotional tone”—thus shaping events in particular directions, and encouraging others to work their way into positions of power, and eventually legally mandating integrated schools or gaining independence from colonial powers or whatever the end goal. In a similar vein, Quinn Norton gave a talk on how the Battle for Seattle inspired a bunch of young engineers who went on to become early participants in Twitter, and how Occupy Wall Street sparked a shift in how we discuss inequality in America and inspired a new generation of policy-makers from non-traditional backgrounds.
So it still makes some sense, on the micro-scale, to fight against prejudice and injustice and structural inequities. And to stay educated and even, within reason, to strive to educate others. At the very least because then I’ll know how to be more respectful towards those different from myself.
It doesn’t feel like enough, though. I’m impatient; I’d rather figure out how to go for the jugular.
Due to this week’s book (Stamped from the Beginning), I’d like to write something about racism in America but I’m not sure where to start. It makes me feel sick and scared and disappointed and angry. But I’m White and have been lucky enough to only occasionally experience prejudice, so I don’t think I can imagine what it’s like to continuously wonder whether my race has anything to do with how people are treating me. So maybe I’ll write about this next week.
For this week, something completely different: I’ve always been bad at time. In addition to the numerous timepieces that have spontaneously malfunctioned in my presence, I don’t have much intuitive sense of how much time has passed. I think it’s something I can notice when I pay particular attention to it, but generally I forget and then have to constantly check the time or set a timer. I often fail to respond to emails for weeks without realizing it– I don’t forget about the email, I just get confused about how much time has passed without replying. So I like timers, because they let me offload my need to keep track of time so I can worry about other things.
I thought about this when buying new watch straps yesterday, since I haven’t worn watches in years and now all my friends seem to be switching to smartwatches. Smartwatches seem even more intimidating because they offer so many different things to keep track of (sleep, exercise, messages, scheduling, etc), so I might be tempted to try and optimize everything without actually knowing what I’m optimizing towards. I’d be like those Industrie 4.0 factories that get super excited about gathering all this data but then don’t know what to do with it. Probably I’ll get a smartwatch eventually, just like how I waited a few years before getting a smartphone for similar reasons. (Why would I need to check emails everywhere? Ah, the early 2000s…)
So anyway, time. An anthropologist told me about the notion of local time bubbles (I forgot the proper name), of how different cultures can have different conceptions of how time passes and how things must be planned. I thought about this when my Iraqi friends (who hadn’t spent much time in the US) came to visit this week, and they brought their own little time bubble of calmly doing the things they had time to do and then forgetting about the things they didn’t have time for. I felt a little guilty because I had very limited time, so I wanted to plan my friends’ visit down to the minute in order to maximize fruitful interactions with people. Which is what I would’ve appreciated if I were the one visiting, but my friends seemed happy regardless. They preferred to stop and appreciate things and take some selfies rather than rush around.
I think I’m too indoctrinated in my own cultural time bubble to fully assimilate into anyone else’s, but I’ve made deliberate efforts when visiting other countries. Germans (with many exceptions) show up very promptly to things, so I prioritize showing up early; Ghanaians (with many exceptions) like to hang around, so I learned to bring a book and not plan back-to-back meetings while studying abroad in Kumasi.
I’d be curious to hear from classmates: do you change how you interact with time when you’re with different people, or in different places?
I sometimes joke that the only way I know how to keep in touch with my friends is to initiate ambitious projects together… but this is actually a serious problem of mine. The projects usually turn out wonderfully, because my friends are usually wonderful people. But then they end, and I go home and start looking around for more NASA grants to apply for or Fab conferences to organize so I can spend time with my friends again.
I’ve come to realize this is an unusual strategy for socializing. Plenty of deep, long-term friendships aren’t structured through an LLC, and they don’t rely upon grants or VC funding. Why don’t I take my friends to the bar or hang out in the living room? What’s so hard about just chatting with people? It probably started when I got involved in theatre tech back in high school, and then I can blame my MIT undergrad experience for convincing me that building and creating things is light-years more worthwhile than merely “hanging out.” And on the rare occasion that I do manage to casually hang out with people, talking about grand plans for the future and world-changing ideas feels more exciting than discussing the mundanity of whatever’s inside our heads.
My baseline personality falls on the antisocial side of the spectrum, so I require a bit of energy and initiative in order to go socialize. I then try to rack up socialization points by going to parties where I have lots of friends, so I can maximize friend-interactions given my limited social bandwidth. And batch processing is more efficient, so I mentally applaud my ability to be super social and attend all the parties, but then I get home and wonder why I still feel lonely.
According to experts, as well as Buber and our class discussions, deep friendships also require vulnerability and emotional connection-- which isn’t a natural side effect of doing crazy projects with people, or chatting with dozens of acquaintances at parties. So I need to spend more dedicated time towards getting to be better friends with my friends. But after so many years of optimizing my schedule around building and coordinating as many projects as possible, can I ever convince myself that it’s worthwhile to spend time just hanging out with a friend or two, chatting about ourselves?
I quite enjoyed Martin Buber’s I and Thou, though I was too busy having some serious I-Thou relations with a sunny California beach to actually finish the book. (But I will eventually.)
I was particularly intrigued by how Buber alluded to time:
One cannot live in the pure present: it would consume us if care were not taken that it is overcome quickly and thoroughly. But in pure past one can live; in fact, only there can a life be arranged. One only has to fill every moment with experiencing and using, and it ceases to burn. And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human.
As we discussed in class, the I-Thou world is eternal and timeless; you realize time has passed only when you have to get up and use the bathroom. But it’s unsustainable, because life involves responsibilities and transitions which require starting and stopping and chronological arrangements. I’ve always had trouble with transitions specifically and keeping track of time more generally. Once I get into a zone of intensive focus, I find it difficult to get out– sometimes when having in-depth conversations with people, and often when I’m consumed in writing or problem-solving.
Like Buber, I find modernity to be an increasingly It-world. When American Frederick W. Taylor defined his system of “scientific management” in the early 1900s (which led to Taylorism and large-scale factory production), he stated his priorities clearly: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” Manufacturing, of course, is all about precise timing and minimal variability. So we verged too far away from the You-world… and where does that leave us now? What would be an ideal balance, and what’s actually feasible?
In my own meditation, I’ve started finding a groove of stable emptiness and contentment more frequently. Usually my default state of mind is one in which thoughts pop up regularly and I am naturally inclined to entertain them, so it takes effort to wave these thoughts away. But sometimes, I fall into this groove where my baseline state seems to be one of emptiness. Once there, my thoughts continue popping up at their regular rate, but I feel more inclined to ignore them and remain focused on the pleasant sense of emptiness. This state only lasts for a couple minutes at a time, but afterward I feel happy and accomplished.
Thanks to Tenzin for the tip on more successfully contemplating death! He recommends meditating on impermanence and change, and not starting right off the bat with the ultimate end-of-life thing. So I tried doing this during my emotional awareness meditation, and it did feel more manageable but I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Joi recommends reading sections from Tich Nhat Hanh’s book on a more detailed how-to, which I’m writing here for future reference.
I was intrigued by our class discussion this week on whether unhappiness is advantageous for getting things done. Because the way Goldman describes it in Destructive Emotions, one benefit of disciplined, long-term meditation is to increase the baseline level of happiness. It’s not that you stop experiencing negative emotions, but rather brain scans indicate that you can recover faster (since there’s less anticipation and dwelling on negativity) and thus your brain overall stays more positive.
Here’s the graph I’d mentioned from page 340 (though there’s a sample size of only 1 happy geshe” and I know nothing about neuroscience):
So what happens if you shift your baseline enough that your actions are no longer driven by negative emotions, and then you can’t find a way to replace your motivation with more positive drivers? I used to more regularly associate my own worries and stress with being a more productive person, because being stressed out seemed to be the main reason I got so many things done. A lack of urgency seemed to make me lazy. Then I learned this was a psychological problem and also bad for my health, so I’ve been trying to stop with mixed results.
Relatedly, what if becoming a happier person means that I become less creative and ambitious? I find it hard not to buy into the tortured artist/scientist stereotype—and if angst and creativity are directly correlated, then won’t I be more creative if I’m more angst-ridden?
On the macroscopic side, this all relates to the Work of the Future research initiative that I’m probably joining this fall; what might happen in a society not entirely driven by the pressure to work for a living? How will people define their lives if their current work becomes obsolete and/or readily automatable? This should theoretically free everyone to do even greater things, things involving the sort of creativity that’s uniquely human– but instead we’re all freaking out and foreseeing societal collapse.
I was really hoping that the government of Bhutan would provide some answers, what with their Gross National Happiness indices. But I just learned the same government is now acting terribly towards its Nepali refugees, which goes to show there are few policy-makers who really know how to maximize the happiness of everyone within their borders. Isn’t this something worth pursuing, though? Or is it really more important to industrialize first, and then worry about overall wellbeing once roads and sanitation and basic healthcare have been taken care of?
Note to self: don’t contemplate morality until after breakfast. I got a feline skull from my grandpa (who’s a medical doctor) the other day so I could try meditating on death, but that got really intense really quickly– and it didn’t help that I’d just been reading about the incredibly toxic nerve agents that (presumably) Russian and North Korean operatives have been using to poison people in other countries. My meditation on death first thing in the morning made me feel exhausted and overwhelmed. I ended up feeling too tired to do anything except go back to sleep, which was ironic since I was hoping to instead feel enthusiastic about being alive and motivated to go about my day. At least I woke up later well-rested, and the next day I sat in the sun and did my regular meditation and felt great afterward.
But this did mix up my sleep schedule, which is the main aspect of “disciplined practice” that I haven’t managed to be disciplined about yet. Part of this, as mentioned, is going to sleep earlier and generally cultivating some better habits. When I get up at the same time every day for more than a week, I start waking up before my alarm and then feel much better rested– but I’m not really used to routines, so I can rarely keep to a tight enough schedule for this to happen regularly. Instead, my bedtime and wake-up time tend to vary by an hour or two (or occasionally 3 or 4) from day to day. This is much better than my life during undergrad, when my physics lab partner and I liked to joke about which time zone we’d woken up in. (California was a good day, but after a stretch of all-nighters we might find ourselves in Hawaii or even Japan.) Then I spent a while travelling after graduation, which gave me a very low bar for having any sort of sleep routine. Going to sleep regularly isn’t something that many of my friends or housemates tend to do either, which often means I need to pull myself away from social things in order to get to bed early-ish. But I realize that having too much variation isn’t particularly healthy even if I do get enough sleep, so I hereby resolve to put more effort into getting to bed at a regular time.
On a different note, I’ve been thinking about a passage from the Destructive Emotions book about how there’s little linguistic distinction between “emotion” and “cognition/reason” in Tibetan– there’s just one word (shepa) that roughly means “mental event.” I used to imagine my rational thoughts were something totally distinct from my feelings, but I’ve recently started to view thoughts and feelings as much more intertwined. Except for certain thoughts around problem-solving that aren’t tied to any particular feelings, I’ve been finding that most of my thoughts are indeed wrapped up in emotions when I really pay attention. Particularly in the context of making decisions– I like this Barking Up the Wrong Tree blogpost which says that following your emotions (“trusting your gut”) is the key to success in making weighty decisions, whereas rational decision-making is better for simple decision-making. I’m intrigued by the fact that this blogpost wouldn’t make much sense in Tibetan, as the critical reason vs emotion dichotomy becomes a non-issue if cognition and emotion are both classified broadly as “mental events.” The ideal Tibetan mental state of equanimity is then something altogether distinct from the Western ideal of a rational being; one of the monks in the book describes this state of “very subtle consciousness” as a lower level of calm in the metaphorical mental ocean, underneath all the turbulent “gross consciousness” at the surface. But I’m only part-way through the book, so I’ll have a better sense of how Tibetans describe and define mental states after reading some more.
A few exciting things happened this week, which brought some bouncingly enthusiastic feelings into my emotional awareness meditation. So it was harder to settle into focusing on my emotions as compared to last week’s emotional steady-state. When I did settle in this week, I alternated between a feeling of unbridled freedom (a sort of buzzy sensation in my head, and sometimes the pit-of-my-stomach-dropping sense of physically falling), and a claustrophobic constricting feeling in my chest of being somehow trapped. The buzzy feeling is sometimes linked with happiness. The actual sensations are much more nebulous and subtle, though I can’t describe them without exaggerating. I have to focus carefully in order to notice them at all, and then I focus on magnifying them and trying to sit with them for a bit to really feel the emotions.
I’ve also been finding more buoyancy during my mindfulness meditations, along with more brief moments of internal silence. The silence is still disconcerting when I find it, and comes along with a sort of ringing or rushing sound– I’ve started to think of this as the sound of my body going about its subconscious business of keeping me alive. Sometimes I can maintain this silence for a few moments, while I notice thoughts emerging and then dismiss them before they can really form and distract me from the silence. So I want to say that I’m improving in this practice.
I haven’t done this much concerted self-reflection before; I feel both narcissistic and scientific about it. I’ve even been thinking about my own thoughts and reactions to the extent where I’m getting distracted from some other things that I ought to think more about. But I’m also noticing inefficiencies and pointless obsessions in my spontaneous thoughts, so hopefully I can be more deliberate about my thoughts after I spend more time exploring/observing them. I still can’t observe my thoughts without affecting them.
I need a very deliberate effort to pause or slow down my constant stream of conscious thought. I can happily pay attention to other things without my thoughts getting in the way, but I tend to distract myself whenever there isn’t another specific focus of attention. I have some friends who can “space out” and just think about nothing… how does that work?
Reading about the desired state achieved through samatha, I was amused by its incompatibility with the modern capitalist paradigm. If society is full of equanimity and a general lack of desire, where are the “animal spirits” that will drive the market? Without growth and an insatiable desire to accumulate wealth, what happens to the forces of human development? Bhutan has supposedly done some research through their Gross National Happiness metrics, and EF Schumacher writes a bit about “Buddhist Economics” in Small is Beautiful, and now I want to go back and read more with my newfound (albeit cursory) knowledge of both Buddhism and economics. I think the key point is to stop growing once you’re satisfied, which may or may not be compatible with progress and technological innovation and all the other modern amenities that, to take one example, have reduced infant mortality by like two orders of magnitude.
(Ironically, I just learned that Buddhist temples in China were among the first institutions to develop a coherent systems of debt and credit– because usury was frowned upon across most of the ancient world, but temples were holy and therefore above common laws and practices. Not sure how that computes.)
In 17.100 we considered often-contradictory paradigms for describing socioeconomic phenomena. According to Max Weber, America’s “spirit of capitalism” emerged from a Protestant work ethic of constantly trying to prove that you’re the sort of person who deserves to be in heaven– and eventually this religious Calling turned into a secular “iron cage” in which society keeps striving without any particular end in sight. The process of samatha seems to involve becoming internally aware of such societal and/or personal cages, and then freeing yourself in order to make your mind more “serviceable”. The focus of this practice is on economies of scope, not economies of scale. Can that ever lead to a compelling economic paradigm? (Perhaps the geopolitical situation of China as compared to Tibet, and now Bhutan, speaks for itself.) Relatedly, I was also amused to read an article on the wildly-successful meditation app Headspace, founded by a former monk and valued at $250M. “At the end of the day,” said investor Mamoon Hamid, who decided not to invest in Headspace, “we want to create the biggest company around this concept without being shackled by your Buddhist-monk tendencies.”
In internal news, I’m now meditating every day. I’m having some moderate success, I think, due to the fact that I’m constantly meta-thinking about how my thoughts are emerging throughout the day. It’s a little distracting since I’m supposed to be thinking more about my research, but I haven’t ever considered my own thought-patterns in such detail before so I’m concluding that it’s a good thing. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a feeling of buoyancy during one of my mindfulness meditations this week. I was expecting to find something darker and heavier while exploring unfamiliar pathways of thought, but instead I stumbled upon the opposite.
I’ve finally started finding some stillness while doing my mindfulness meditation, but it was kind of disconcerting. Like, the feeling when I step outside of a noisy nightclub and the abrupt lack of noise leaves my ears ringing. I suppose it’s busy inside my head the rest of the time. Coming out of a period of meditative stillness (albeit brief), I still had to spend a minute or two adjusting to mainstream life inside my head before I could make it downstairs for breakfast. I didn’t feel more focused after stillness; I actually felt distracted.
This made me think about transition periods, along with Pheobe’s post about how her creative output is higher after lengthy late-night work sessions. I also focus best on whatever I’m doing through sustained, high-energy bursts of getting work done or reading or chores or whatever. I don’t like changing gears, and will happily work (or procrastinate) for hours once I’ve settled into a rhythm. (This is why I don’t respond to texts/emails/notifications immediately—I prefer to turn my phone on silent and quit any noisy apps.) Nighttime is quiet and, I’d agree, most conducive to super-productive-time.
Given how my attention is quantized, what’s the best way to deal with stillness? I’m now trying to appreciate it in chunks, but what about bringing that stillness into the rest of my life? How does the whole meditation-shifting-your-neural-pathways thing work, anyway? Hopefully I’ll find out.
I keep meaning to become more aware: to take up meditation, to go through life more actively rather than reactively, and ultimately better understand what’s going on with my own flesh and bones and electrical signals. But I keep not getting around to awareness for a variety of half-baked reasons, notably the fact that I’m not very disciplined in the morning. (Also, I’ve never had the chance to get credit for meditating before.)
If I know I have extra time, I just don’t get out of bed. I’ll snooze my alarm until I have exactly a little less time than it takes me to get dressed, scarf down breakfast, and speed-walk to wherever I’m going arrive exactly on time though a bit winded.
So why don’t I go to bed earlier? I’m rarely productive when I’m at home alone for the last hour of the day– I usually spend this time catching up on the news, scrolling through social media, replying to unimportant emails/messages, provoking arguments with strangers, reading blogs, learning random things on Wikipedia, reading about job opportunities that I’ll never apply for, etc. What am I looking for in these early hours of the morning? Connection? Beauty? Truth? I don’t think I ever find it, or at least I’ve forgotten by the time I wake up and feel annoyed about not having gone to sleep a bit earlier so I can wake up a bit earlier so I can spend some time in the morning being more aware of myself and what I’m going to do that day. If this ever happens, perhaps someday I’ll figure out what I’m seeking while aimlessly surfing the web.
In the afternoons and evenings (and occasional mornings) before this class, I’ve been trying haphazardly to do a mindfully-be-aware-of-my-thoughts-and-ignore-them meditation, mostly because I’m very bad at it and have a compulsion to master things that I can’t do well. Which leads to frustration and a lack of awareness, and then I spend most of my meditation being too meta and I feel like I’m not getting anywhere… Maybe I should try an electroencephalography reader and gamify the process. Also, after Joi’s glowing review of Qi Gong, I’m curious about more physical disciplines after which I might actively feel better.
In terms of disciplines for this term, I’m intrigued by my friend Vinay Gupta’s description of the Nath Sampradaya practice, as a 3-way-combo of mantra, mindfulness, and emotional awareness meditation. 10 minutes of each, and then repeat– with the eventual goal of getting to a sort of enlightened acceptance of death, and with an extraordinary ability to act effectively without fear of failure. I’m paraphrasing, but I like Vinay’s combination of ancient mysticism and daily effectiveness in building more resilient ecosystems. Some folks conveniently made an app for this, but it seems broken (I’ll email them).
Then I fear I’m not seeking awareness and stillness for their own sake, but rather for the ulterior motive of being a more decisive and productive human. Is this cheating? Can I appreciate stillness while actively trying to get somewhere? Or shouldn’t I just stop trying to get somewhere and appreciate wherever I am?
In conclusion, I’m glad I can get credit for thinking about this. I’m not sure when I’d have made time otherwise.