Sunday, August 21, 2011

Echoes, Part II

A comment I received on my post Echoes, or How to Cultivate A Free Mind has been on my mind a bit lately. The reader said what I was really talking about is leading an authentic life. I suppose I was. I think. Maybe. I guess it really just depends on how far you want to take it.

Meaning, suppose you cut out all the foreign input of daily life, the negativity: the news ("They're ruining America!"), advertising ("you're ugly/stupid/uncool... unless you buy this!"), even religion ("repent ye sinners, lest ye burn in everlasting hell!")... suppose you go and do all that stuff I mentioned, gardening or running or writing or painting... well, where does that leave you? You're still going to have to be part of the culture. You have to go to work or school, you're going to have friends, family, neighbors. All of which is going to have you submersed in the Culture, infecting you with its memes.

So then; I think I what I was trying to say in that earlier post was how distressing it is: I have all these ideas in my head but most of them come from far away. They seem so close (I mean, they're right there in my head!), but they aren't mine. I find myself questioning everything-- why do I sympathize with the Left; why do I prefer science to religion; why does this or that irritate me so much while it doesn't irritate him, or vice-versa; why do I like the music and art and books that I do? If I choose writing over running or painting, well, why did I choose that? They say kids are like sponges, absorbing whatever is poured into them. Most of who I consider myself to be, my personality, my beliefs, my likes and dislikes, and my very modes and methods of thinking, were instilled in me by others (or at best, by interaction with others); parents, teachers, friends. They meant well, but in a way, I feel robbed of my very mind-- those patterns are hard to break, or even see.

Take language itself. The English language dictates what I may and what I may not think about, and how I may go about it. The grammar and syntax determines a lot: nouns and verbs, for example. Noun are, and they do verbs. But does it make sense to say the lightning flashes? Isn't there just the flashing? Do nouns really exist? Even if I think they don't, that all is transitory, mere patterns of constantly shifting energy, the language forces me to deny that belief every time I open my mouth. Or try the fact that, if there isn't a word for something, how can you even think about it?

Yet of course every child is going to have an upbringing, is going to speak a language, is going to be educated. Is "escape" impossible? What does it mean to live an authentic life? Everything is in confluence, it's all running together. How do I separate what I'm doing authentically from what I'm doing to ape others, consciously or not? How can one be authentic?

I think what I was saying before was that going out to Nature is helpful in seeing that most of what runs through our minds in that constant internal monologue are merely echoes of what we've heard, especially the more recent things. A reader once commented that worship is whatever we give our attention to, what we focus on. If we have all these endless thoughts, repeating, repeating, it matters what those thoughts are, as they are going to shape our entire lives. So going to the woods is helpful, because there, the input is vastly reduced, simplified, clarified. There's no media, far fewer people, or none at all... less culture. It's an inhuman world out there. It doesn't exist for us, doesn't care in particular about us, wasn't built by or for us; therefore, we are not surrounded by endless layers of humanity. No part of nature is trying to sell you on anything, none of it represents anything; it is simply what it is. Symbols don't exist out there.

So, given the lack of symbols, sales pitches, and content, the mind naturally calms. We entrain with our environment, gearing down to a smoother mode of being. Something more natural. And I think that's what I'm after. Culture isn't all bad. It's just our dominant culture is. Everything is trying to sell you on something, evangelism in news and entertainment as well as in religion. I've seen better, and not in some distant, obscure tribe, but with fellow Americans. I call it Trail Culture.

(This post is second in a series of three; click here for the first post, and here for the third)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: God's Debris

Download "Gods Debris" for free here

I wanted to do a book review for this book I recently read, God's Debris, by Scott Adams. That's the same Scott Adams who writes "Dilbert," though this book has nothing to do with the comic strip. This short book's plot is basically this: a delivery man shows up at a house with a package to deliver, and finds this old man inside, who starts asking strange questions. Thereafter, it is basically a philosophical exchange, in a more or less Socratic form. The book touches on many areas of thought, including probability, gravity, time, evolution, the basis of existence, light, even social skills.

Adams says in the introduction that the old man knows literally everything, and thus he had to try and make the man's facts and explanations sound true; he does this by writing such that the old man gives simple answers, according to the skeptic's premise that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one (a premise that Adams himself tends to doubt, given the complexity of the world we see around us). He says in the introduction that the book is intended to be a thought experiment, namely to "try to figure out what's wrong with the simple explanations," some of which are true and some which aren't.

Frankly, there are definitely plenty of places where I found the facts to be either misguided or misleading, or flat out wrong. Especially in the parts where he talks about evolution, which I have a pretty firm understanding of. Also, the part where he says that, thanks to the immutable law of probability, if we did a redo of the Big Bang, things would happen exactly the same way; chaos theory and modern physics show that to be false. But many other sections seem credible, given my above-typical (though by no means exceptional) grasp of those aspects of science. Some, of course, is pure conjecture, though often a quite compelling sort of conjecture.

And that's what I mostly feel this book is: compelling. There are some truly fresh ideas in here, and the presentation is engaging enough to accept the occasionally contrived-sounding exchanges. The trick is to focus more on the ideas than the plot, which, as I mentioned, is extremely threadbare. The majority of the text is pure discussion, as the book is mainly a vehicle for the expounding of the ideas.

As Adams mentions in his introduction, part of the fun of this book is just to have your head spun around. For me, the most fascinating part were the sections about time and movement. I'd heard similar ideas, about existence pulsing on and off, but I'd never heard it put so clearly and rationally, never seen it given a whole explanation like this, set within a framework other than that of some New Age notion of the universe as the beating heart of God, or something. And what he had to say about light was entirely new to me, enough to qualify as a real mind fuck, a whole new way of looking at things, and I always appreciate that.

I hope you'll read this. It's pretty short, you can read it in a couple hours, depending on how often you stop to think about things; and hell, it's free. And, if you do read it and end up wanting to discuss it with someone, I'd be more than happy to, just send me an email (find my address in my profile).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Easterly Enlightening

The world in its turning advances from night;
the morning’s dim light beginning to spread.
Black fades to grey, then to luminous blue,
as a chorus of birdsong rings overhead.

Seemingly still, we progress to the light,
dawning of day and of joy in our heart.
Heads rise from pillows to take in a view,
a last glimpse of darkness as shadows depart.

Stars drift from sight at the eastern ascension;
the multitude fades in the new light released.
Now clear, the sky sings, all lights coalesce
as the singular sun rises up in the East.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Echoes, or How to Cultivate A Free Mind

"Men do not mirror themselves in running water--they mirror themselves in still water. Only what is still can still the stillness of other things." ~Chuang Tzu.

It's a strange world we live in. The more time I spend thinking about these questions, these things that I fill this blog with musings about, the less I know. Every idea has its flaw or failure. Which, in a world that turns more towards fundamentalism and failure every day, just goes to show the amount of thinking most people do, the scale to which our world is dominated by ideas.

Thoughts echo. As I hike in the backlands this becomes quite clear. Out there things begin to quiet down, since nature doesn't speak with language, which thoughts require. Out on a trail for weeks or even months, you begin to really realize this. But, say while hiking I listen to my mp3 player for an hour, for motivation or entertainment; after hearing the songs, I will have them bouncing around my head for hours, sometimes days.  So one must wonder what the constant bombardment of television, radio (talk and music), newspapers, advertising, school, and preachers have on the mind. Even normal socialization has its impact. When do any of us ever have a chance to truly think our own thoughts, free of influence, free of echoes?

Of course, this echoing keeps us in touch. If a person spent decades alone only to later return to society, he'd likely be so out of touch as to be considered insane (or enlightened; same thing as far as the dominant culture is concerned). We trade ideas, realities actually, with this mutual exchange of mental echoes. We keep similar thoughts bouncing around in one another's heads, so we maintain contact with a "common" reality. They call this consensus reality, and yeah, it's not all bad; humans are a social species, and this is necessary. But all things in balance, right?

It's easy to forget this truth, about the echoes. We are too immersed in them to notice. You get home from a whole day at school or work and flip on the TV, or surf the internet, or read a book, or go to church, constantly bombarded with other people's beliefs, some scripted or manufactured reality imposed from without. Programming. Dogma. Education. Indoctrination. Conformity. You never give yourself a break, never get to think your own thoughts, to have time enough away from the media blitz to really learn what it is you truly believe.

I get out to Nature in large part to let the echoes fade. It's not so much that I go out there for answers; I've tried that road, and the truth is, I no longer believe there are any answers to the questions we ask. Not the big questions, about the meaning of life, God, what we're supposed to be doing. The question "why" is a constant agony, a cruel joke. Even the smaller, more personal questions often seem unanswerable. No, in nature there are no answers, per se, but there is clarity. As the babbling of culture stills, as one's own mind quiets down, I recieve the best result that I can hope for. I subsume into my immediate experience; my former troubled thoughts quiet amid the truth of the world around me.

When I get away from the greater culture, away from its whispering, letting it bleed out of me as I walk in the wilds, I find myself thinking about the things around me, wondering about them; like why there's just that one strip of pines running up the canyon wall that is otherwise mostly scrub vegetation, why there and not anywhere else? Sometimes its just running commentary, like normal, but based on the real surroundings and events, not mental fictions; maybe musing about my weariness, the heat, or wondering when my group will stop to eat. Sometimes I get philosophical, and though I know I carry culture within me, the influence of language and years of immersion in our modern world, I feel that without any immediate or recent influence, only the more strongly held beliefs and ideas bubble up. Well, maybe that's not true, who knows. But with all day on my hands, I can spend time with them, examine them, follow the thread of their logic out, see if I really agree.

Now, I want to say that there's no reason we have to live this way, that we don't have to take a month off in the mountains to be free of the bullshit; but I'm not sure I can. Sadly, taking an hour or two a day isn't enough, the echoes take too long to fade. It's a start, and there is a benefit even with that, but nothing like a real vacation from it all. Like, I think it's interesting, that the less you read, the greater an impact a book has on you. That's my hypothesis, anyway. But it makes intuitive sense, because you are giving your mind time to process it, rather than jumping right into another book. If the echoes are like ripples, you aren't throwing pebbles, shovelful after shovelful, into the pool, but letting the ripples of that one pebble roll out and have their clear effect.

The best we can do, while living in the system, is to tune out as much as we can. Throw out your television. That is job one-- the television is becoming our government, and that is unacceptable. Then, read less. Turn off the radio. Avoid advertising, that is, real-life psychological warfare, at all costs. Increase the time each day spent without cultural input: whether in meditation, writing, running, playing with your kids or your dog, cooking, getting rid of clutter, working out, home improvement, inventing things, painting, gardening, making crafts for fun or for sale, or any of a hundred other things you could name.

Ideas are great, but often over-indulged in. So although one might say that meditation or quiet time is the key, and I do agree that it's useful and recommended, even just woodcarving or something might work. You have to be there with the wood, not off in la-la land thinking about the B.S. you watched on TV earlier, or the guy babbling on the radio you have on in the background. Otherwise, through lack of attention, you're going to fuck it all up. You might notice my list didn't really involve social activities. That was on purpose: we need to disconnect a bit. People are culture carriers, and the point here is to get to know ourselves. But since you are a culture carrier too, I don't know that this will work without extended time away.

Maybe I should have just posted the Chuang Tzu quote, rather than making all these ripples.

(This post is first in a series of three, Click Here for the second post)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Natural Capacity For God

"I devoted myself to Renaissance philosophers and I discovered that the men of secular modernity, once they had emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, had found nothing better to do than devote themselves to cabala and magic."
                           Umberto Eco, in Foucault's Pendulum

Why are we humans always drawn to the occult, to spiritual things, to religions and UFOs, to the unexplained and unexplainable. A friend of mine says humans have a natural capacity or urge for the sacred. He then, being a fundamentalist Christian (strange how I hate to levy that word, 'fundamentalist,' on a friend!), goes on to say that all other religions are falsehoods spread by Satan, who capitalizes on this urge, but I digress. I like how he put that notion of an inborn draw towards... well, we won't name what, but towards something.

Now, I've long been a skeptic, and even went through a straight up "atheist stage" in my late teens. But I thought that was behind me; I'd discovered eastern religion at age 19 and finally had a system or spiritual basis that appealed to my mind as well as my heart. Yet, as I was hiking, looking at Nature with a mind that wasn't daily ingesting books, blogs, movies and even music sprinkled or saturated with spiritual undertones, away from a culture that, though post-Christian, still has Christian underpinnings, after the mental echoes of these things had died away and my mind had cleared enough to think its own thoughts, I realized I'm still an atheist. I wrote an essay on it, which I may post later; for now, I'll just say I was struck with how deep that goes. I began to doubt even all the Zen stuff, the notion of inner peace and balance, higher states of consciousness, all of it.

Of course, there's much I don't know. I don't really know anything. Descartes built a whole system of thought on his phrase "Cogito, ergo sum: I think therefore I am." I can't seem to go any further than that statement, in itself. I know that I am, because I experience things. Beyond that, what am I? What the hell is this world? Don't know.

So there's a sort of confusion in me. My friend is right; there does seem to be a natural inclination towards spirituality. Even now I'm attracted to philosophical and even spiritual books. I'm considering taking yoga, and I still meditate, if rarely now, and erratically. I wonder if all my life I've been trying first one thing, than another, going first one place, then another, looking for something outside myself that would bring satisfaction, and think maybe I just finally need to get serious with the spiritual thing.

But another part ridicules that thought. I just don't know anymore. Nature seems totally blind to us, random and indifferent. When I'm out there for extended periods, and am theoretically at my clearest, it really does seem empty of all meaning, like that poem Dover Beach gets at. So I wonder if I'm just again being deluded by any of the various myths and fairy tales we've been telling ourselves for centuries, a miserable soul grasping at straws.

I'll likely expand on some of these topics later.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Breaking of the Tablets

The tablets are broken, vision lost,
panic replaces the love we had.
The ancient paths, long trodden, have crossed
and double crossed our trusting souls.

Dusty bones dipped in a river
of blood, we swim against the current
as the trees, over-arching,
shake angry limbs at the sky,

the way our hearts rage against ribs
that refuse to open outwards. Rise
or fall, we groan with the soil
in this horror of living tedium,

until we turn up somewhere, wandering
disoriented under the useless stars
that point nowhere helpful in this
empty world of no escapes.

Eventually, we find ourselves
fallen, as all things do, to the sea
and its endless waves, its ceaseless
hunger for all things fresh and flowing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Well, I'm back from the Pacific Crest Trail. Didn't quite work out how I'd thought, but such is life. I'm sort of in a limbo space right now, not sure which way I'm going, and that goes for this blog too; I don't really know if I want to continue with it. Often it feels like mental masturbation. But I'm probably going to be thinking about this kind of stuff anyways, so we'll see.