Wednesday, July 9. 2008
Yesterday I went to my mother-in-law's house in Winston-Salem to take pictures for selling the house. It was overcast for most of the day, and I busied myself pulling weeds and clipping hedges while praying for the sun to come out and give me the light I needed to make the house look good. I guess hunters must feel like this â€“ preparing and planning and waiting, but still mostly dependent on blind chance and forces of nature outside their control to bring them success.
I have no particular skill as a photographer, and certainly no training, other than a few bits of common advice on composition I picked up from old desktop publishing magazines. I spent enough time creating posters and marketing pieces to acquire some vocabulary and concepts for evaluating images: what was too busy, or too boring, too dense or too sparse. What struck me then, as now, is how much the process is one of just looking at something and judging how it makes you feel. Evaluating images is an introspective process; you look at the image, and at the same time you watch yourself watching the image, and seeing how you react to it. Out of nowhere, thoughts occur: "That corner is dark, I can't tell what's back there, and that makes me feel uneasy." "I keep looking at this tree in the foreground instead of the house." "I like that flower, I wish there were more of them." From these random thoughts you devise experiments: change the light, change the angle, pull that damn frog statue out of the frame. And then you compare and conclude: "Yup, that's definitely better." "Nope, didn't make much difference." Eventually you start to recognize patterns and devise simple rules: "Don't include the light source in the frame." "Get as much light as possible into the room." "Windows are interesting. Walls are boring."
I know I'm only rediscovering what people probably learn in the first twenty minutes of an introductory photography class. But what's more interesting is what it says about how we think:
Saturday, January 19. 2008
I've had some extensive sidebar discussions over my last post on sexual conduct. Read the comments, and then my responses, here.
Let me start by saying: I love these kinds of discussions. I've written and re-written numerous responses, only to discard them after thinking more, or doing more research.
Friday, January 4. 2008
I am not a political junkie. My understanding of the candidates is shaped by an astonishingly small amount of data: a few interviews I hear on NPR, a few commentaries in the Wall Street Journal (especially Peggy Noonan's sly digs at just about everyone) and one or two things written by the candidates themselves and their legions of advisors. Which is to say, I'm pretty typical of the American electorate.
What should last night's caucuses in Iowa tell us about human nature?
Wednesday, December 26. 2007
The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed last week that jousted at another favorite topic of season, our notions of happiness ["The Happiness Myth," by Steve Salerno]. A part of the Journal's practical, curmudeony character is that it has little use for the younger generation's endless mantras of self-affirmation and self-actualization. The editors do believe fervantly in the empowerment of the individual and energetic optimism -- this is, after all, the flagship publication of the capitalist free market -- but those attitudes are also perpetually grounded in a sense of obligation to the whole. To work merely for one's own fulfillment is, to them, self-evidently shallow. The only proper reasons for getting rich are to serve one's family, one's community, one's country, or for the sheer love of work itself.
This was one my mind because I had finished up my lecture series on ancient Greek philosophers, and I was mulling over Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, especially his take on happiness. The Greek word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (literally, "to have a good guardian spirit") and is described as "not a mood or temporary state, but a state achieved through a lifetime of virtuous action, accompanied by some measure of good fortune." I like the fact that Aristotle recognizes that virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness -- even the best of people are not guaranteed happiness, which I think is part of the current generation's malaise. Modern Americans feel guilty and insufficient for not feeling perpetually sun-shiny, which leads them to ultimately self-destructive quests for the next thrill, not to mention undermining the basis of all deferral of gratification and self-control. I also like the connect to virtue, which elevates happiness to more than mere circumstance or pleasure. And for Aristotle, virtue is (like everything) a matter of teleology -- everything has a purpose and an end, even people, and happiness is to found by best fulfilling one's purpose.
"Fulfilling one's purpose" sound suspiciously like Work. This also, I think, is the downfall of the current generation, which often equates leisure with happiness. I'm not the first one to notice the connection between work and happiness, either. M. Scott Peck went so far as to define love as fundamentally a matter of Work. Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiÂ noticed that the activities that make people feel most fulfilled (music, gardening, writing, and intellectual debate, to name a few) combined aspects of work and leisure. There needs to be purpose, direction, and active engagement with experience in order to be anything close to happy.
All of which makes me feel better when I'm itching to do some work on December 26. Happiness is the freedom to work on whatever you want.
Tuesday, October 23. 2007
Working with the Emerson Waldorf School's annual fund has led me to meditate long and hard about the virtues of charitable giving. I remember Augie Turak often said that everyone should being a salesman at some point in their life, because it would give them newfound appreciation for human nature and the process of persuasion. In the same vein, I think everyone should at some point try to raise money for a cause they believe in. It forces you to think about money, and your relationship to money, and how that relationship to money influences everything else in your life.
I was surprised to learn that philanthropy is a predominantly American phenomena. While most other developed nations have more extensive government involvement in taking care of their own people, America is unique in having a culture that gives away a lot of money. That makes sense -- in the same way that we like having a free market of goods and services, we like having a free market of social causes. Rather than have the government decide what's best for everyone, we vote with our dollars, supporting the causes we believe in, and persuading others to do the same.
And yet, giving money is not something that comes naturally. I would like to think of myself as a generous person, and yet looking back I realize that it took me a long time to learn to give. I have vague memories of my mother giving me money to put in the church offering plate, but I don't think I ever seriously considered putting my own money in the plate when I was young. Money was for saving, or money was for spending, but giving it away was completely foreign, something other people did. Even after I left home and was independent, that frame of mind continued for a long time; if someone hit me up for a donation, the same mental barriers that protect me from retail salesmen and Amway pitches would come slamming down: no thank you! Not interested! Go away!
Eventually, though, I was exposed to charity through necessity. Working with the Self Knowledge Symposium in college, I needed to pay for posters, and the only way to do it was to pass the hat. Well, no, actually I would rather have washed cars or sold donuts or do any other kind of fund-raiser, rather than walk around the room and ask my friends for money. But Augie insisted on having a collection from within the group, and for good reason. Giving money, even a dollar or two, has a tangible psychological effect. You might have thought that you really cared about it, before, but once your money is involved, suddenly you care about it more. We got money lots of other ways, of course, and lots more of it, too . . . but I understand now that people's hearts follow their wallets. They value what they pay for, and they value even moreÂ what they give to.
Once that donation-barrier had been broken -- once I had given money to a cause I believed in, and asked others to do the same -- now suddenly the whole world of charitable giving opened up to me. Something had flipped inside of me; instead of grudgingly surrending my cash, I wanted to be a person who gave. The similar parallel attitude emerged in me with volunteerism; the SKS immutably turned me into a lifetime volunteer. I think people who freely give their time to benefit the collective are superior human beings. I think people who don't are, like the Grinch, living with hearts two sizes too small.
I started giving to other causes. I think I started with WUNC, my local public radio station. Then came my schools, and Mepkin Abbey, and some small magazines. They were small gifts, but regular, and eventually, routine. I was in the habit now. It took a few more years until I became a tither -- charity was now a part of my budget. I really wish I could say that my expanding giving was the result of my expanding generosity, but really it was the other way around. The act of giving turned me into a generous person.
Friday, October 5. 2007
Oliver Sacks, the pioneer of the unlikely literary genre of modern neuropathology case studies, has a new article in the New Yorker on the most profound case of amnesia ever recorded ("The Abyss," September 24, 2007.) Clive Wearing, an English musician and musicologist, lost nearly all his memories and his ability to create new memories as a result of a severe encephalitis. Just as in the movie Memento, Wearing's entire universe reboots the moment he loses his concentration. Left in an unfamiliar situation, with no cues to guide his current train of thought and no memory to guide him, he continually experiences life as a series of "waking up" moments. Sachs describes the absolute horror of Wearing's existence, as documented by his heroically devoted wife in her memoir and in several documentary films. The uncanny thing about Wearing's case is that his ability to perform music, and even conduct a group of musicians, is almost completely unaffected by his condition.
Wearing's case is full of philosophical implications. For many years Augie Turak would play excerpts from a documentary on Wearing to his classes, and then ask them: "Does his life have any meaning?" Most students would immediately conclude that it did not. Eventually, however, someone would point out that our own lives were not that much different from Wearing's. We have no memories before our birth; our deaths, presumably, snuff out all memory of what came before. How, then, do we presume to create meaning in the time in between our beginning and our end?
I come away from the story with a different koans, now. I find it remarkable that so much of our capacity to do -- either simple things like making coffee, or complex things like conduct a symphony -- has almost nothing to do with our "episodic" memory of life's events, and that narratives we weave to give those episodes continuity and significance. We can act, respond, create, and enjoy without having a past, or a future. Evidently Andrew Cohen and Eckhart Tolle were correct in saying that "freedom has no history," and that the past and the future were merely mental constructions that were often completely unnecessary. And yet, Wearing's situation is not the "timeless awareness of the present" that so many gurus have praised as the height of spiritual awakening. Wisdom is not merely the obliteration of certain mental facilities.
But perhaps the most profound conclusion is the most disturbing -- the inescapable realization that we don't really think the way we think we think. We like to presume we haveÂ singular identity, and that our faculties for remembering, planning, deciding, and acting are all springing from some singular source that is me. It might seem like that, ordinarily . . . but cases like Wearing show that our mental life is constant interweaving of independent and inter-dependent threads. One part might be remembering and deciding, another doing, and yet another still watching it all unfold. And which part of all that is really me? When Wearing dies and finds himself in whatever afterlife you might expect, will his memories return to him? If you don't immediately succumb to a reductionistic materialism, such questions will stretch your notion of soul in unexpected ways.
But then again, that's exactly what the spiritual teachers want you to do. "Just keep asking the question, 'Who am I?' " says Ramana Maharshi. Wearing's awful example leads back, again and again, to the same question, and our own inquiry becomes like Wearing's own life, a repetition upon repetition, stretching yearningly into the inexplicable.
Monday, August 20. 2007
Psychologists have observed that learning is somewhat state-dependent: that is, if you learn something in a certain physical or mental condition, you will recall that learning better in that same state. If you always practice piano at the same time in the same place, just being in that place at that time will put you in the proper frame of mind to play. And, conversely, you'll have a harder time playing when you play at a radically different setting.
My writing, alas, is really state-dependant now. I find it easy to write at the beginning of the day, and torturous to write at night. I had cut out time in the morning to write because it was the least susceptible to disruption by my work schedule . . . but no time is completely safe from disruption. I was at UNC's FallFest last night and didn't get in until 1:30 am . . . which was a blast, but it's waaaay past my bedtime. And then I had to go to Winston-Salem in the morning to be with my mother-in-law for a doctor's appointment. All it takes is two back-to-back disruptions to smash out my writing time . . . and if you string enough of those together, a healthy habit is toast in no time.
I've always taken great pride in being flexible in my schedule, and willing to work long and hard . . . but I am continually rediscovering that "long and hard" is not nearly as efficient and "conscious and consistent."
Tuesday, August 7. 2007
Why do some people become spiritual, and others not? (For now I'm just going to jump over the question of "what do you mean by spiritual?" Let's just say a spiritual person is someone significantly interested in spiritual matters: meaning, purpose, and the nature of life, death, and consciousness.)Â AÂ minorityÂ get interested in this sort of thing and spend lots of time and energy engaged in it, while most people don't. Why?
The question isn't just sophistry for me. It's a personal koan. I strongly suspect that if I really, really knew why I got into this sort of thing to begin with, then I would also discover the spiritual answers I'm looking for.
I've collected a number of approaches to the question:
None of these explanations work for me. I have found no clear correlation of any kind with spirituality: age, gender, background, economic status, physical or mental health. It seems to come from Somewhere Else . . . which is why I think I'm on to something.
Sunday, August 5. 2007
Absolutely everyone has been commenting on the recent The New England Journal of Medicine study that finds obesity is socially contagious -- that people are more likely to get fat if their friends get fat. The fact that the correlations exists is obvious -- people tends to hang out with people like themselves -- but what surprised everyone was the relative scale of the effect and the clearly causetive nature of the phenomena. We all know that our friends influence us, but we like to think the effects are subtle and on the edges. Our weight is something so personal, and yet so quantitative and unmistakably obvious, that this study's finding shoves it in our face: the influence of your friends matters a lot. Our American sense of individuality is mildly offended by the sudden realization that we are not islands.
All the comments about the study, though, seem to stay focused on health issues -- obesity, smoking, drinking, sex -- and not on (to me, at least) larger issues with a moral dimension. What this study means is that everything has a social aspect, one that is ignored at one's peril.Â One's spiritual life, too, is going to be affected by the company you keep. I imagine the same sorts of correlations exist for religious life -- ifÂ a friend becomes "born-again," youÂ have a much higher likelihood of doing the same. (Or, more ominously: if you have a friend who becomes a suicide bomber, you are more likely to do the same.)
So what should you do about it?
Saturday, June 30. 2007
Our minds do not work the way we think they work. In How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker offers dozens of examples of how our supposedly unified brain actually behaves as a collection of specific modules evolved for different specific survival tasks. I experienced it more directly today, in the form of sunscreen.
As we were getting ready for the beach, my wife offered me sunscreen. Now Iâ€™ve been out to the beach and gotten burned on many occasions. Iâ€™m pale as a cave fish and so is my wife, so we slather on the SPF 30. Experience is working for me: Iâ€™ve learned from my mistakes and am acting to avoid them in future. Good brain!
Out at the beach, I go in the surf with the kids, and wave after wave of salt water washes over my feet and legs. Somewhere back there in my brain, I know that all this water is washing off my sunscreen. My wife even quoted me an article the day before, about how sunscreen breaks down over time and needs to be reapplied. But I watch my wife reapplying sunscreen to the kids, and she turns them into bread hushpuppies, as blowing sand coats the sticky sunscreen. And some other part of my brain said, â€œI donâ€™t want to be a breaded hushpuppy.â€ So no more sunscreen for me.
At the end of the day, we stop by a hotel pool to swim around, and taking off my sandals and shirt, my hubris is made apparent. Iâ€™m burned â€“ not too badly, but visibly. And at this point the two parts of my brain start having their argument:
â€œYou knew this was going to happen!â€
â€œBut it didnâ€™t look like I was getting burned . . .â€
â€œYou idiot, you can never tell at the time youâ€™re getting burned . . . by the time you see it, itâ€™s too late.â€
â€œWell, truth be told, I didnâ€™t want to look like a dork with light breading of silica.â€
â€œWell, truth be told, now you look like a dork with bright red lines across the tops of your feet.â€
â€œIâ€™m ok, really. It doesnâ€™t hurt.â€
â€œNo, really, it doesnâ€™t hurt . . . well . . .
â€œItâ€™s starting to hurt now, isnâ€™t it?â€
â€œUh-huh. You put socks back on those feet, and now â€“ youâ€™re â€“ feelinâ€™ â€“ it!â€
You would think that years of experiencing this same pattern would make a greater impression on me. I put on sunscreen, I wear hats, I wear shirts, I keep to the shade when I can . . . but I still donâ€™t do everything I ought. This would be a deep mystery, if I still believe that the mind was a single entity. But even Richard Rose, who predated Steven Pinker by several decades, could see by direct observation that the mind was not singular. [I tried to find an appropriate quote here, but Rose is frustratingly difficult to cross-reference, since he, like Nietzsche, would rather be vivid and hard-hitting than organized.]
The challenge for the spiritual seeker, or the dieter, or the person who doesnâ€™t want to get sunburned, is to maintain one state of mind long enough and consistently enough to overcome the perpetual shifts in perspective that overtake oneâ€™s consciousness. My wife (whose sense of overwhelming caution has never been overpowered by her fear of appearing dorky) could have helped me overcome my lapse, had I given her license to do so.
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