Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

How To Argue Badly And Fool People

In the last few months I followed a handful of Twitter accounts about neuroscience. Occasionally I’ll read a post that is intriguing, offering the latest insights into the mind and the workings of the brain based on scientific evidence. But recently @NeuroNow posted an argument that disturbed me. The writer of the article was the millionaire New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.

In the article, he criticized “Are We Really Conscious?” by Michael S. A. Graziano, an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. He says Graziano’s post will generate conversation, and he wanted to contribute. When I read the contribution, I was frustrated and decided to add my two cents to Chopra’s two cents.

Chopra writes: “[Graziano] states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science.” Quite falsely, he says, so surely Chopra must have a better explanation for consciousness, and surely he will cite this explanation to refute Graziano’s point.

Wrong. And this is Chopra’s appeal; he uses authoritative-sounding language to hide the fact that he has no explanation at all outside of his hodgepodge of pseudo-mystical solipsism. Let me show a handful of examples so the next time you think of taking Chopra seriously, you can avoid his little traps.

Graziano says that human beings are not a special act of creation, but a twig on the tree of evolution. Chopra writes, “Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig.” The word “actually” makes him sound really authoritative doesn’t it?

Saying our nervous systems make us unique in evolution is nonsense. Our nervous systems are similar to other primate nervous systems. Also, one could argue that every species is “unique” in evolution. The fur, ears, incredible sense of smell, loyalty, and limited intelligence make dogs unique evolution too. Being the apex predator of the sea makes sharks unique in evolution. All of this is meaningless, yet the sentence makes him sound like an expert while sidestepping the real issue.

Graziano’s position, roughly, is that electrical and chemical activity in the brain forms experience, and that what we experience as “mind” is the actual electro-chemical activity and not some metaphysical observer. We know that chemical or electrical changes in the brain manifest in experience because we can test this. But Chopra says this is wrong, and says that Graziano’s argument is like solving the question on gender equality by saying that women don’t exist. Yes, he actually wrote that.

This is a crude attack, meant to turn you against Graziano and blind you to his argument. I mean, how could you listen to someone who says women don’t exist? Well, Chopra’s analogy is an immoral ad hominem attack, that to my mind, has no logical connection with Graziano’s actual argument and merely aims to paint Graziano with a broad brush of sexism for no reason other than the fact that Chopra wants to refute him. This fact alone should let you safely cross Chopra off your reading list forevermore. Chopra seems so sure Graziano’s opinion is wrong because he really, really wants it to be. If Chopra had a coherent, alternative Theory of Mind, he would present it with evidence. But he doesn’t. Battling science with emotions and slander, however subtle, is just distasteful.

Graziano argues that a computer and camera can determine that grass is green, and that what we perceive as green is similar in principle (recognizing contrasts in the spectrum of light). Chopra states this is “flat wrong.” He says that the experience of colour is dependent on a human nervous system, photons have no colour, and that a camera and computer have “no perceptual ability whatever.”

This is a favorite manoeuver of Chopra’s: to retreat into solipsism to refute empirical evidence. He’s basically saying that experience only exists to human beings, and if you push him on this point, I suspect he would stand firm. He is of the type who believe a tree makes no sound if it falls in a forest with no observer.

This is another semantic trick. What we call “sound” is a human experience, filtered through a human nervous system, and it’s called “sound” because we’re the only species that uses human words. So what we call “sound” is technically a human phenomenon, translating vibrations in the atmosphere through the ear into internal experience.

But if a tree falls in the forest with no human around, the tree still falls, and the atmosphere is still disturbed. The vibrations still ripple out across the woods, and it’s those vibrations that become “sound” to our ears and minds (should we be present). The fact that there isn’t a human present to call it sound doesn’t mean the phenomenon we call “sound” isn’t going on. It obviously must be going on, and we know this because of our huge and expanding knowledge of the physics Chopra tries to ignore.

And to say a camera and computer can have “no perceptual ability whatever” is the same argument. Chopra thinks that “perception” must only be a human being having a subjective experience. But the light still goes through the camera’s lens, and the computer creates a representation of the external world for processing. Chopra here suffers from the same species-centric chauvinism as before; he seems to support the idea that humans are the only species to have real experiences, and everything outside of the human experience isn’t real. This is a bad argument of definitions and philosophy, not science, and certainly not neuroscience.

We can confidently infer that light from an event travels through a lens and can be interpreted by a computer, recreated in detail, and we know the information is in the computer. But Chopra refuses to acknowledge that this has happened until a human puts his or her eyes on it, and then he attributes the phenomena to some vaguely miraculous human perception. This is not science, it is fairy magic, and I’m disappointed and troubled that a so-called “neuroscience” article would print such an anti-scientific, ill-considered worldview. Like so many of Chopra’s ideas, it is purely an argument from ignorance.

To Graziano’s claim that we should be skeptical of the validity of our inner feelings, Chopra cites Sam Harris as a defender of subjective experience. But Chopra has almost never agreed with Harris in the past. Harris is a materialist and a (real) neuroscientist, and I bet he would gladly tell Chopra that the mind is a product of the brain. Appealing to an authority he has never sided with in the past—one who seemingly has the exact opposite worldview—shows desperation.

Graziano says the brain builds up models about items in the world, and the models are often not accurate. Chopra says this point “is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable.” Chopra seems here to believe the brain is not a product of evolution, subject to flaws, trial and error, and so forth; that the brain is a special and perfect gift from heaven. He can’t really believe this, can he?

Both human eyes have a blind spot (which is easily proven with visual tests) yet we never notice it. The visual information in the blind area of each eye is picked up by the other eye, but even looking through one eye we don’t “notice” it unless we know how to look for it. Our impressions of the world are incomplete without us even acknowledging this. Also, as Dennett points out, the mysterious affliction known as “blindsight” shows that brains unreliably report the world.

And what about light and colour? We know (from scientific testing) that light comes in different wavelengths we call colour, but our eyes cannot see this fact. Instead, our perception adjusts to the context of light to give us a general “best impression.” This is the brain inaccurately representing the external world and should be all the proof we need that our brains can be unreliable. Also, dreams. Also, any time someone has ever made a mistake.

            “Almost all other theories of consciousness are rooted in our intuitions about awareness. Like the intuition that white light is pure, our intuitions about awareness come from information computed deep in the brain. But the brain computes models that are caricatures of real things. And as with color, so with consciousness: It’s best to be skeptical of intuition.” – Michael S. A. Graziano

Chopra says, “neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.” This piece of incoherence, when you strip it down, is just a juvenile, terrible argument. He’s basically saying that molecules can’t do much, so how can something made of molecules get anything done? Think about that. His argument goes as follows, by analogy: I need a car to drive to the store, but molecules can’t drive to the store, and my car is made of molecules, therefore my car can’t drive me to the store.

In the final paragraph Chopra revisits his human-as-center-of-all-experience argument, saying “information” requires a mind. This is a squishy, semantic argument only, even if it sounds authoritative. Any data about a tree is “information.” But the attributes of trees exist even without humans around to call that data “information,” and so much of Chopra’s argument uses this obfuscation that it’s shocking.

I literally can’t tell if Deepak Chopra is maliciously trying to confuse the point to promote his brand, or if he’s genuinely, absolutely confused. Either way, it seems wrong that he’s allowed to call himself a doctor, and it’s especially shameful that he and his religiously addled ideas should be promoted by a Twitter account allegedly supporting neuroscience. There is nothing scientific about the man or his theories, and just because he’s found out how to word things strongly doesn’t make him right. After my first read of this article, my thought was that he’s flat wrong. After reading it again, and checking to make sure my quotes were accurate, I’ve come to believe he’s “not even wrong.”

Paper or Plastic?

Most people still prefer paper books to eReaders. Sometimes I ask people why and they shrug and motion with their hands as though there’s something tactile about it, but they don’t put it into words. For some people, ‘hand-feel’ is important.

I’m used to paper books, but I don’t think there is any mysterious X-factor about them that doesn’t translate to eBooks. Print books are just more sensuous. If you like the experience of reading itself (in addition to the content you’re reading), printed books win because every one is different. The cover, the font, the weight, it’s empirically more interesting. If you just care about the content, go eReader.

My Kobo looks the same no matter what content I’m reading. It’s small, sterile looking, doesn’t have the smell of pages, and will never give me the satisfaction of seeing a tiny gap where a bookmark holds my progress. Plus, a Kobo looks dumb on a bookshelf.

I prefer paper to plastic when the book is one I’ll want to reference again. It’s a hassle to find a passage in an eBook. With print books I can usually remember approximately what page I read something on, and where on the page. But on an eBook every page is in the same place, the display screen, and often the page count is misleading, so I waste time scanning for passages.

Where eBooks are a clear favorite though, is for travelling. Taking a slim, effective Kobo on a trip beats taking a suitcase full of books that’ll have to get checked because I’m still reading Infinite Jest. The other clear advantage is a built-in dictionary. It’s truly great to be able to find a definition without pulling out my phone.

Both are great, and I use the one the best one for the job.

Autopilot

From the first moments of our lives we are conditioned through pain (negative reinforcement), reward (positive reinforcement) and habit. Before we say our first words most of us learn to avoid things if they’re too hot or too sharp, and we’ve learned these things so deeply we don’t even have to think about them. When it comes to staying safe, autopilot is a trusted friend that will last a lifetime.

You don’t walk into a room conscious of every facet of the experience. You aren’t necessarily paying attention to your ankles as you turn a corner, or the way the denim over your left knee flexes against your skin. Even if you decide to pay attention to these experiences, there are always other inputs you’re ignoring. You don’t have to be conscious of every little thing because we’ve evolved competencies at a great number of safety maneuvers, like blinking, that automatically keep us protected.

Fortunately, just being alive in the physical world forces us into these good habits, and much of our learning in this capacity is the result of pain. If I rested my hand on a cold burner and then turned it on, it wouldn’t take long for the signals to engage my brain to pull my hand away. In fact, it would take a tremendous effort of will to keep my hand there despite the pain.

Positive reinforcement works too, but it can be difficult to give yourself enough pleasure to make it work. Pain is acute and causes a quick response, but to cause an equally acute pleasure can be a bit dangerous; the pleasant brain state has to be severe enough so the accompanying behaviors are imprinted with pleasurable reinforcement. This is what makes some drugs so dangerously habit-forming.

Mental habits are a bit trickier to pick up, but pain and pleasure can still be used to install programs that seem just as automatic as our physical safety features. You can eliminate a word from your vocabulary very easily: put an elastic band around your wrist and snap yourself so it hurts every time you say the word. It won’t take long until you find yourself speaking more consciously and deliberately, and you’ll quickly gain more control of your vocabulary. (Pick a word you use frequently if you want to see effects quickly.)

If you have an aversion to pain, and don’t have a quick and safe way to administer pleasure, an effective but more difficult way to learn something is by installing a habit. Consciously decide to do something every day, stick with it, and soon the habit will become engrained. Self-programming can be a real pain, but that pain might be the reason it works. You spend extra willpower now so you can use less later.

For example, I meditate every morning on the same cushion in the same part of my home. Those mornings when I wake from a dream or I’m otherwise mentally distracted, I sometimes catch myself unconsciously grabbing the cushion, setting it in place and having a stretch to get ready for my session.

I sometimes appreciate the value of this habit when I can fully remember what I was distracted about while I put the cushion in place. I was working out some story problem or thinking about something for the day’s work, and I sometimes don’t even remember grabbing the cushion because it was so far from my conscious mind. I was just “going through the motions,” and I’ve trained daily to perfect those motions so I can literally do them without thinking.

The goal is to make the habit unconscious, so that all things being equal, when my mind is on autopilot, my unconscious or subconscious mind will simply follow through with the routine and I won’t have to engage consciously in any debate about whether or not I should go through with it.

If you want to pick up a new behavior or habit, grit your teeth and commit to doing it for a week. Keep in mind that if it’s a bit of a pain, if it sucks and you catch yourself trying to talk yourself out of it, it’s probably because you’re body and mind just aren’t used to the behavior. Tell yourself it’s just for a week and get on with it. Odds are that by the end of the week you won’t find it nearly as hard to continue as you previously thought. You’ve begun training your autopilot, and from now on it will take over some of the workload for you.

The Art of Belief

How does a man like Orson Scott Card, who writes Ender Wiggin so honestly and tenderly in Ender’s Game, speak out so vociferously against homosexuality? It seems strange that a smart, contemporary artist could be so opposed to the freedom of people to love whoever they love. I tend to think of artists as open-minded and liberal, favoring freedom of expression (in all its forms), and I tend to think of bigots as ignorant. It’s disarming to think that those traits can coexist within one person.

It’s hard to accept, but some people we want to despise have admirable talents. On the other hand, many people we respect probably have horrible beliefs or habits we choose to ignore. And while people with one set of priorities and beliefs might respect and admire Joey Artist, another group of people with differing beliefs and priorities will almost surely despise him.

Beliefs are very strange this way; a person can be seemingly rational and open-minded but hold an isolated belief makes them completely irrational in certain scenarios. If a fully conscious person takes on an ignorant belief system, we have a hard time separating them from those beliefs. But when a person is indoctrinated early, that judgment gets a little stickier.

Is it strange that an anti-Semite like Wagner can compose some heart wrenching operas and a passionate actor like Marlon Brando or Klaus Kinski can turn out to be an asshole in real life? Well, we do live in a world where a college-educated man can make himself into a bomb to kill people because they interpret a book differently. Take out one or two bad traits from any of these people and our opinions change radically. Beliefs are contagious like viruses and we sometimes don’t know how susceptible a person is until it’s too late.

The arts are especially strange in this way because fearful or hateful or awful people can leave behind great and beautiful works of art. We might hate the person and everything they stand for, but the work remains. There is no anti-gay message in Ender’s Game, yet people organized boycotts of the film because of Card’s beliefs. If we could surgically remove his offensive beliefs, the movie probably wouldn’t change but the public reaction to it would.

I somehow find it easy to love artists that I hate. Uncompromising auteurs that don’t care about being nice people are compelling. Sometimes I share so little emotional ground with an artist like that I find him repulsive, yet I need to see his art. Being creative, he tries to give us a piece of himself, something he values so much he devotes his life to its expression. This may or may not have anything to do with the one particular belief or habit we find so terrible.

And it might give us a glimpse into that person’s internal conflicts and enable us to empathize. There is a reasonable argument to be made that it’s more important for us to regard art made by people with beliefs other than our own. What better way to try to understand those beliefs? It probably doesn’t work very often, to be fair, but you see my point.

A genius might become hateful if his subscribed beliefs tell him to be hateful. It’s hard to imagine that Orson Scott Card has analyzed his own bigotry in any rational, ethical light. More likely he was taken in by certain congenial beliefs within a larger framework, a belief structure, and then he allowed the rest of that belief structure to warp some of his views of reality. What makes someone susceptible to these distortions is the whole je ne sais quoi of human psychology.

Beliefs shouldn’t come sold as a package deal (as in religion); they should be purchased individually by experience and good evidence. Any ready-made belief system can tell us what to think for better or for worse. Without the belief system, we’re free to have no opinion. This is truly a good thing because it means that in theory we can look at new evidence impartially.

I want an artist to create for art’s sake. I don’t want a polemic disguised as art. If the artist creates a work of depth and originality, I will appreciate that work for what it is, regardless of who created it. On the other hand, I might buy a nice guy a beer, but I won’t lie about liking his crappy art. My opinions about a person don’t come as a package deal either. I may have several opinions about one person, each based on some kind of evidence. For example, Orson Scott Card is a great writer, but a terrible human rights advocate. Also, there is a chance he’s the second most talented “Orson” in history.

Deepak Chopra’s Cosmic Confusion

In all of history, no topic has been the subject of more bullshit writing than the spiritual side of life. We all live through the lens of our own experience, and it’s commendable to try to explain internal experiences, but because consciousness is such a mysterious and strange aspect of life, an unfortunate majority of opinions about it are sadly misguided.

Deepak Chopra, for example, says that matter is an illusion and consciousness is all there is. This is wrong. I’ve voiced my disagreement with his opinions before, but I assure you I’m not holding a grudge; I’m simply voicing my reaction to the ongoing dissemination of his ideas, which I find pernicious. We should all strive to understand our selves, so I don’t hold his efforts against him, but I would love to share a coffee with the man and let him in on the following:

Matter is real. It is one of the fundamental facts of the universe, as all sane people know. Even most insane people know this. Under some very special conditions, matter gives rise to organisms. As those organisms evolve, some gain tremendous complexity and computational powers to employ for survival, and very few attain what we would call consciousness. Referring to a persistent fact as an “illusion” isn’t helpful.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

Some of the functions of consciousness remain a mystery, but we have no evidence to assume that consciousness is all there is. What we know as consciousness today has only been around for the tiniest sliver of the history of the universe, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. How can Chopra’s theories explain prehistory? If consciousness is all there is, does he believe that there was absolutely nothing in the universe until the first conscious being was born? What gave birth to that being?

Chopra’s philosophy seems like redressed Hinduism, where matter is maya (illusion) and we are all facets of Brahman (God). He redresses it with the ill-fitting jargon of quantum physics, a perplexing topic that arose from the exploration of matter. Chopra is certainly no authority on this dense and confusing field of study, and most quantum physicists disagree with his interpretations.

Chopra and his ilk love to refer to materialism as “reductionism” as if materialism reduces our significance in the universe. But this is bush league word play. Pay attention to how often they use that word and you’ll realize this is a cheap tactic in a mind game and has no relation to how the world is described by materialism.

And besides, not one facet of our internal experienced is “reduced” by materialism. Whatever explanation we throw at it, we all have an internal experience. Belief in God or spirits or a soul—even the belief that we are all biological puppets—doesn’t change the fact that consciousness as we know it arises from the brain. Beliefs don’t change our qualia and don’t change our perceptual apparatus. It only changes our explanation of these phenomena to ourselves. But those explanations are just words.

I’ve experienced the feeling of being in the true presence of divinity. It was a fully conscious experience and it came stamped with an undeniable feeling of authority. I came out of the experience thinking, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God’.” In no way does this experience prove that there is some sort of external divine intelligence; it only proves that such a conscious experience is possible. Such a feeling is possible. It’s a beautiful feeling, but it says nothing about the fundaments of the universe, and the experience would have been totally impossible without matter (my brain, for example). I spend time every day cultivating that experience, and I need no belief of any kind to justify it. These are purely pragmatic concerns, denuded of metaphysics.

I’m sure these facts have been laid out for Mr. Chopra over and over again, yet he keeps on with his message, adjusting his pseudo-scientific jargon ever so slightly but failing to learn or change or grow. It makes me question his motives. The fact is that his name has become a brand, and to admit his prior confusion hurts the brand. After all, what does an enlightened spiritual guru need with a net worth of $80 million? He doesn’t need any of your money, and you don’t need any of his nonsense.

New Holidays

I’ve written before about my inability to connect with a lot of popular holidays. In Canada, we’ve just had two of these in Valentine’s Day and Family Day, a statutory holiday inaugurated in Ontario in 2007. While I respect, for the most part, the emotions these holidays are meant to evoke, I find these celebrations arbitrary and unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily take the day off.

Holidays motivate the economy in dependable ways and give people an emotional framework to relate to one another, but the attendant values promulgated for each are not usually values that I hold. I have trouble getting into the spirit of many holidays and find myself feeling like I’m basically just along for the ride.

In case the ruling Illuminati ask me what holidays I’d prefer, I have a few ready.

Reading Day

There is already such a thing as Canada Book Day (April 23rd) and the intentions behind it are similar to what I would propose, but on a larger scale. People remind themselves of the importance of books and more importantly, of reading, arguably the most important activity in the development of human intelligence. But I want a day off. A whole day to read, talk about books, and remind ourselves as a society that we can connect with each other across cultures and generations through words. The economical benefits of a day devoted to books could compete with the economical benefits of Valentine’s Day. A book costs $20, a Valentine’s Day card costs $5, and chocolates go equally well with either.

Day of Silence

In the interest of global sanity, I’d like to see everybody take a vow of silence for one day a year. Such a thing already exists in the GLBT community as a protest against discrimination, but what I’m after is silence for the sake of silence. One can learn a lot about oneself doing this practice; the habits we unconsciously carry out through language come into the spotlight when they are not an option. When we stop worrying about filling the awkward silences between us, we start to observe the emotions that drive us to inane chatter. Besides, with so much noise in our society, wouldn’t it just be nice? Again, here, I want a day off.

Day of Debate

Get together with friends and enemies and have a civil conversation with the goal of analyzing your own beliefs. It’s so easy to feel complacent in our beliefs and we spend a lot of time finding arguments for beliefs we already have. That’s why debates are important; our opposition, if they’ve done their homework, are bound to point out something we hadn’t considered. A day like this might help our myopic, partisan culture to share ideas in a productive way. Granted, most debates don’t solve anything on the spot, but sometimes when we hear an argument against our position, it takes root and develops over time. And naturally, one cannot be expected to work on the Day of Debate.

Yoga Day

This would be a day to cultivate yoga practice around the world. The physical and mental health benefits of yoga are undeniable, but the practice turns off a lot of people because of a maelstrom of misconceptions. I currently know of no particular day dedicated solely to yoga (the closest I found was World Healing Day), but one day per year devoted to serious education and practice would help dissolve these misconceptions and turn people on to this gentle, invigorating, ancient art.

Fast Day

Corporations would try to kibosh this before it got off the ground, but the health benefits of one day of fasting per year would probably have such a dramatic trickle-down effect on healthcare that it might be worth considering even from a purely economic standpoint. Unless you’re working a demanding physical job where you need calories, you can survive one day of fasting. It flushes out the system, gives the digestive tract a break, and points out all those instances during an average day where we reach for food simply out of habit.

Weekend of Absolute Hilarity

I joked about this previously but I do think it’s a good idea. I try to have a few of these per year. Just do what it takes to laugh your stress away. It’s a cliché, but who doubts that laughter eases our emotional tensions and leads to better health?

Arbitrary Emotions

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, if I remember correctly. I’ve never been totally comfortable with this idea. Celebrating wars makes no sense to me. There are certain events in history I’m happy not to dwell on, and politically motivated mass murders are among these events. Veterans have my gratitude and respect continually; picking one hour of one day to remember them seems arbitrary to me. Maybe I’m cold because I don’t feel compelled to parcel out my emotions on a schedule.

Events like this mean to bring us together, to concentrate mass intention at one place or time. I’m not sure what this accomplishes. When I remember my lost loved ones, I invoke their company with my own memories and thoughts. Memorial events seem to honour the pain of loss. The fact that someone is dead doesn’t make him or her more worthy of appreciation. Maybe these energies would be better used avoiding wars.

“The pioneers of a war-less world are the youth who refuse military service.”

– Albert Einstein

Remembering 9/11 with a few minutes of silence on each anniversary is a strange way to remembering something horrible. It’s as though we want to believe that the numbers of certain dates have meaning, but they don’t. Sure, the attack was likely planned on 9/11 for symbolic reasons, but what is the significance of remembering this event exactly 365 days later, 366 on leap years? Astrological resonance?

Likewise, February 14th is a day like any other; it has inherently nothing to do with romantic love. Being born into a culture that celebrates Valentine’s Day is just the luck of the draw. We have as much control over when these days fall as we have over where we are born. Why is this something to celebrate? Pride in something that happened to us doesn’t make sense. In fact, I see no value in pride, but a lot of opportunity to over-inflate the ego.

I don’t understand the Pride Parade because I see no reason for pride. Is being gay an accomplishment, or something you’re born into? Being proud is not the same as being unashamed. I am unashamed of my pants, but I am not proud of them. When your buddy in high school bragged and high-fived you because he had sex with some girl—that is a level of social development we hope we grow out of. They should call the parade something else.

So what is the point of this arbitrary calendar of emotions? Are we flexing society’s emotional muscles to stay in shape? The Conspiracy Theorist in me wants to say that this government-set calendar is an attempt to sync the emotional lives of people together to make them more nationalistic, more dependable shoppers, and more predictable in the face of disasters and drastic political decisions.

On the other hand, sharing emotional moments probably helps people empathize better. Maybe the point is to flex the empathy muscle. Now that I think of it, if we all celebrated our own holidays on our own schedule, there would be a better chance your Memorial Day celebration would buzz-kill my Weekend of Absolute Hilarity.

Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

The Pareidolia Files

Pareidolia is the psychological tendency we have of finding patterns in randomness or imposing a self-generated meaning to chaotic perceptions. The more complex the signals we receive, the more opportunity we have to bend our interpretations to our own plan. This usually happens unconsciously, but not always.

Millennia ago people looked at stars in the night sky and saw dragons and archers and scales and the pattern in which they appeared might determine a bad day. Later, people would release a flock of birds, and depending on which way they flew, someone might get decapitated. Even today most of us can see a face in the moon. The slippery part is that once some interpretation is communicated, it can confound future perceptions. If I tell you that Apollo is going to ride his fiery chariot across the sky tomorrow morning, you’re more likely to see what I’ve described than if I just let you watch the sunrise without any primer…not literally, of course, but you know what I mean.

Room 237 PosterI was recently entertained by Room 237, a “critical documentary” about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the movie, over footage of The Shining and other films, we hear a variety of interpretations about what The Shining really means. Some of these interpretations provoke some thought. Many sound ridiculous. Room 237 is a great look at the phenomenon of pareidolia.

Some of the “evidence” used by these theories are completely hilarious. Continuity errors become clues about The Holocaust; a can of baking soda confirms that The Shining is really about the genocide of American Indians; a child who hasn’t seen the movie draws a picture and quotes one of the lines and the mother seemingly decides her child actually has the ability to “shine” (though presumably she’s been watching the movie dozens or hundreds of times in the next room while the kid is playing, driving it into his subconscious).

It’s good to recognize pareidolia when it happens. Many people develop elaborate gambling systems to beat essentially random outcomes (in roulette, for example). These people waste their time as well as their money. It’s possible to consciously combine some types of qualitative data in unique ways and come up with astonishing, novel ways to think about things. But in truly random data, pareidolia can only mislead us.

There is a related term called Apophenia. It’s tough to find a big difference in the definitions of Apophenia and pareidolia. Both involve finding patterns in chaos. When we look at the etymology of the words, things get interesting, albeit fuzzy.

Pareidolia comes from the Greek word para, meaning “above,” “beyond,” or “beside of,” and eidolon, which means “representation” or “figure.” So you can understand that pareidolia is seeing something beyond what is actually there.

Apophenia, however, is a little different. The Greek prefix apo means “away from”, as in apology, where you distance yourself from previous words (apo = “away from” logo = “words”). But the second part of Apophenia, the phenia, is not so clear. Wikipedia claims it was mistranslated from phrenia, as in schizophrenia, but it is also very close to phany, as in epiphany. Mistake?

How would we know? Either etymological route tells us Apophenia is an experience that is far from that which is shown. On one hand we might find a hidden meaning that is pure confusion. On the other hand, we might find a deeper truth than what is apparent. Well allow me to exercise Apophenia on the chaos of this etymological mess. Apophenia means recognizing patters that others don’t, for better or for worse.

So, after all that, you’re wondering if Room 237 is worth watching. Well, it depends what you want to get out of it, and of course, how you interpret it.