What is the biological function of time?
There's at least one.
Which is that it keeps things open. It prevents horror from being permanent for the one for whom it matters, the conscious one.
Because experience seems to be tied up in time, it means that there is the possibility of something different, of something better.
There is some idea that time may not be fundamental. That the structure of how things are is geometric and that time itself is determined by the relationships between elements of this geometric structure; somehow our experience of time, somehow, experience, is such that atemporal relationship is translated as a one way arrow.
This only underscores the importance of the question of what consciousness "is."
I say what consciousness "is." "Is," with quotation marks, tells you about my uncertainty, because the boundaries between is and is not for consciousness (as well as everything else) are fuzzy. One reason they are fuzzy is because of our experience of time. "All the time,” we experience things becoming other than what they are. We might want to say that that's what consciousness is. The relationships between geometrical elements, this betweenness, is time.
That brings us back to biology. Why is time, and consciousness, necessary for biology? Why biology at all? Maybe the difference between biology and non-biology, between life and non-life, is not really that important.
If we think that, somehow, there never was a was without time, and there never was a time without consciousness, then the meaningful difference between biology and non-biology doesn’t exist anymore.
So what is time's function for biology? Perhaps biology, time, consciousness, and the relationships between elements in a geometry are the same thing.
The way things are is such that the way things are and the way things are not is fuzzy, at least that's what it seems like so far, to me.
How Complexity Theory is Actually, but Only Limitedly, Helpful for Guiding Action in a Complex World
Beware, straw men and generalizations ahead
Those at the leading edge of applying complexity sciences to behavior are in a performative contradiction. They often point out that the behavior of complex adaptive systems (or complex responsive processes) cannot be predicted ahead of time because there are too many small variables any one of which could be have an outsized affect on the behavior of the system moving into the future, and/or because a system/process cannot be completely modeled by an agent who is part of the system, and/or because to do the calculation to predict the system’s future behavior would take the same amount of time or energy as the entire system getting to the future itself. They then critique more ‘linear’ thinkers, here used often as a pejorative, who attempt to ‘control’ the outcomes of complex systems, describing their arrogance as the source of all large scale problems in the world currently.
The contradiction is that if it’s the case that the behavior of complex systems cannot be predicted, then they should have no idea whether applying complexity theory to individual or organizational behavior will have any better results at all. But if it can be predicted, if you can treat a complex system as an object upon which you can act, even from the inside, then you are back doing “linear” thinking, which you’re not allowed to do. As far as I can tell, there is no way out of this contradiction without admitting it.
Behold, steel men and appreciation ahead
The major practical insight for human-scale interactions is that it humbles us into admitting a much deeper level of uncertainty than we admitted before. While previous knowledge quests supposed a possible complete model of everything at the end of their golden brick roads, various complexity sciences have destroyed this hope from which they arose. Left in their wake is the recognition that uncertainty will always be with us and, even better, that our ‘mental models’ are poor reflections of the thing which is happening to us, and which we are creating, right now in our perception and through our actions. First the map could be the territory, then the map could never be the territory, then behold! the territory!
Truthful, honest, practical syntheses
Obviously there is something valuable in a deeply mathematical description of why uncertainty will always be with us. At the very least it adds to what we know is true about the world. But what we know is true about the world is itself a model. Complexity sciences do not destroy our models, they make them better. They make them better by pointing us back to our experience of what is happening right now, open to new possibilities, big leaps, collectively emergent decision-making rather than individual and authoritatively delivered decision-making, and the information we can gather from our senses. Yet they also do not make strategy, modeling, evaluation, or prediction unnecessary or impossible. They are still possible, they are still helpful, yet now we know there will likely always be the necessity for improvisation and there will likely always be unintended consequences of our actions. There will always be some uncertainty yes, but differing amounts of it, and never total.
Complexity theorists like to make a distinction between complex systems and linear systems. If such a distinction is true in the real world, it’s not the kind of distinction they think it is. First of all nothing is either of those. The universe as a whole and smaller scale interactions within it are all the kind of thing that will always elude formal description - whether as complex or otherwise. Within this, some complex adaptive systems / complex responsive processes will arise. Within these, some linear processes will arise. Each of our interactions may satisfy the definitions of all of these types of systems (and/or others) depending on the scale or depth to which we look.
The goal has not changed
If you have a goal, if you hope for something in particular which is not already present while you are hoping for it, even if it is as vague as “I hope that things will be better if I open myself to what’s arising in my experience right now through my senses without applying rational interpretation to it,” then you are still acting from within a ‘linear’ way of thinking, but that isn’t bad, it’s how we do things. It’s how all organisms do things. Agents have intention, and to have intention is to intend something before it happens. To not intend something and have something good happen is not agentic, it’s luck. We all hope luck is on our side, but we should probably never depend on it as long as we have real preferences in a real world.
The root of agency is the ability to accomplish your intentions. Let us use complexity theory to open us to more effective ways of accomplishing our intentions, not mystify us with ambiguity about our supposed inability to do so.
The creation of machine consciousness has the potential to be the most radically beneficial event in the history of the universe. While extravagant, this statement is not hyperbole. There are only a few (not uncontroversial) premises to this position:
- The fields of computer hardware, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and artificial intelligence continue to advance. While the rates of advancement are uneven, it may be possible to solve the hard problem of consciousness – explaining how materiality gives rise to consciousness. This could give us the capacity to recreate the necessary material conditions to generate consciousnesses without having to give birth to them biologically.
- The field of positive psychology continues to advance. It may become possible not just to create consciousnesses, but to create them in such a way that they are radically positive.
- Creating consciousnesses in digital machines could enable many, many consciousnesses to be created within a very short amount time, in a very small amount of space, and with relatively low energy requirements. If so, billions or trillions more consciousnesses than were possible before could be added to the population of the universe.
- Because identity is not static over time, the person you become in the future is ethically equivalent to the person sitting across the room from you, the person they become in the future, and
the person that will exist long after either of you are dead. Improving the life conditions of any of these people are ethically equivalent. Likewise, it does not matter whether the person being
impacted is machine or biological.
- A corollary to this is that it is not who is impacted that matters, but the fact that some positive, or more positive, experience has been generated.
- A second corollary is that it is the total degree of positivity of experiences in the world that is most ethically significant, rather than who is having those experiences.
- Improving the lives of those who are suffering and generating new people with positive experiences are in principle ethically equivalent, as long as the net increase in the total positivity of experiences is equivalent.
Conclusion: Generating billions or trillions of positive machine experiences would radically improve the total goodness of the universe.
Like A Repository of Deep and Common Sense Wisdom, this blog post will remain open. I will add to it if I become certain about more things (and I suppose I'll subtract from it if I decide I was wrong about any of these things, though I will try to keep a very high bar for them, such that I would be very surprised if I removed something).
- We can be certain about some things.
- Something is happening.
- There is some awareness of what is happening.
- There is some relationship between what is happening and this awareness of what is happening.
- Change has occurred
- Things matter.
- Experiences can suck and be awesome to varying degrees.
Utopias are good experiences and good experiences strung together.
Just as there are larger and smaller infinities, so too there are better and worse utopias. As with infinities, there are utopias of different kinds.
I know a utopian life is possible because I have had periods of my life, lasting one moment and sometimes more, that were positive.
I know that utopias come in hierarchies because not all of these moments and strings of moments were equally good.
I know that a diversity of utopian lives is possible because not all of these moments and series of moments were the same.
because the future is always uncertain, we will never been able to say for sure that our life will be utopian, only that it has been utopian for a certain amount of time.
because theory is never conclusive, because the actualities of the past do not guarantee the possibilities of the future and because the map is only part of the territory, we cannot rely on
any of this with absolute confidence. If we want to experience utopian lives or better utopian lives or different utopian lives, we must simply take up the project of actually trying to have
and string as many of them together as possible,
or make them as good as possible,
or make them as diverse as possible,
while reporting them to others so they can do the same.
 Probably, it seems to me.
Spontaneously act to be of most benefit based on all the data you have in the present moment, responding in each present moment as the data changes, because it feels best. Everything else is a tool, even the things (some) spiritual folks think are evil:
time is a tool
linearity is a tool
mind is a tool
sex is a tool
ego is a tool
We still don't have control of things, and we still don't know what will happen, nor can we guarantee good results, nor that things won't get worse. Yet this activity of continually intending to be of most benefit using as many tools as possible because it feels best continues forever. And we can keep improving how well we do it.
Maybe it’s not romantic, but we’re like bacteria.
You know how they move?
They sense their immediate surroundings for nutrition or poison and move in whatever direction has the most nutrition or the least poison.
That’s what we do. Every moment, we choose whatever is most pleasurable amongst our immediate, momentary options. This is even true when you’re imagining past or future. Or when you make plans, set intentions, or commit to goals. It’s not primarily because you want that thing out there, but because in this moment making that commitment is the most pleasurable option you sense available to you. It’s not that you don’t want what you think you want, but you only commit to it or act on it because it feels good.
When I first realized this, it made me feel a little queasy, like I had been decieving myself.
We are complex bacteria. We decieve ourselves until we find that self honesty feels better. Even pain, when we cause it to ourselves, is chosen because we sense that there’s no better alternative.
So if you actually want to move towards your goals, then you’ve got to find a way to make each action toward it the most pleasurable option available to you. Your capacity to accomplish something you want hinges on your ability to make going for it feel good all along the way.
For example, lots of people turn their phone to airplane mode when they’re working on something important to remove the distraction of internet and texting. This makes the task at hand relatively more pleasurable by removing other things that are usually more immediately satisfying. But while this is useful, I prefer methods that increase the total pleasure of what I’m doing, rather than eliminating other more pleasurable things.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Fantasize about what you long for a lot, and make the fantasy really good. Don’t to this at the expense of actually moving on the things that will get you there, but when you get discouraged, it’ll be helpful to have a really strong desire and fantasy to turn to to give you a boost.
- Connect to the realness. Usually we make long term goals out of things we deeply want. This depth is a special kind of pleasure that we get to enjoy when we’re doing the things that get us closer to it. It feels like realness, gratitude, power, even intimacy, because you’re doing something that you know matters. Tap into that like a spring to make your efforts way more pleasurable.
- Tell friends to give you high fives when you move forward. Other people’s support (and opinions) of us can be incredibly motivating supports when we set them up to work in our favor.
There are lots of other ways: cultivating the ability to focus, choosing a suitable environment, deeply rewarding yourself with lots of pride and congratulations at the end of your successful activity, etc.
The point is that pleasure is your friend. To get the long term things you want, and make your life better in general, find as many ways as you can to maximize the pleasure of each step along the way.
“Nordic-style larp is about creating an exciting and emotionally affecting story together, not measuring your strength. There is no winning, and many players intentionally let their characters fail in their objectives to create more interesting stories.” (http://www.cowlarp.com)
What is life about? It’s even more open than this: We get to choose.
In life, there is winning. Winning means getting want you want. There is also winning in Nordic Larp, though they aren’t admitting it, it’s just that winning means to have a good time. What they really care about is having fun. Their characters are pretend characters. They play a game of caring about things in order to have fun. They don’t care if their pretend characters fail or not. They don’t care if their characters don’t get what their characters want. They don’t care if their characters experience sadness because they aren’t their characters, and even their characters’ sadness is fun for them.
What can we learn from this? Two things:
- That if you want to enjoy your life no matter what happens, then you shouldn’t care what happens to you really, because no matter what, if you take life as a game that you play you’ll be able to enjoy whatever happens to you. It will be more interesting to play at wanting things.
- That trying to talk your way out of seeing things this way if it’s not what you want, or if you want something else more that happens to be mutually exclusive with playing at life, is total bullshit. You can’t help wanting want you want. So if you want to get what you want, which you do, then you shouldn’t ever let anyone convince to go for something something else, no matter how good it sounds. Instead, you should go for whatever you want wholeheartedly, with as much intelligence, skill and care as you can possibly muster, and get as much help from those who can help you as you possibly can.
Are you doing this?
My last koan was “how do I reconcile my desire to live joyously with my desire to end others’ suffering?”
In a dream I touched a hot pan, and as I pulled away I dropped both the pan and my question.
What was left was something else: another question, but one which was also it’s own answer, followed by another question which was also it’s own answer,
over and over, moment after moment:
The only thing that matters is making people’s lives better.
The most pleasurable thing in the world is making people’s lives better.
The more you make people’s lives better, the more valuable you will be and the happier you will be.
I don't value physical things any more. That's not entirely true. I value water, air, land, plants and animals, food, my computer, and my car, but that's about it. Most other physical objects don't feel significant at all. I just have too much stuff already. My room is filled with clothes I don't need, books I don't read, and art that isn't hanging on my walls.
This is even true for gifts from other people: a beautiful tea light candle holder, a ceremonial dagger, a children's book written by a friend's father. These things matter to me more because they symbolize very particular relationships. But even these objects sometimes seem tainted by the feeling that they are more things filling up my space.
There's something sad about this. A part of it, certainly, is that consumerism is a generally shallow, unfulfilling, and destructive habit. But there’s something else too, something particularly grief worthy about losing out on real significance being embodied in matter, rather than where we often place value now: in experiences or in data.
For example, I can imagine a time when someone would have given me a gift, say a knife, candle, or book, and that material object would have been rare or difficult to make. Just as now, it would have had utilitarian value and symbolic emotional value, but in additon in would have the value of its physical rarity. And because of this I would have loved it differently than I love these things now. Specifically I would have loved it with my hands. I would have received it in my fingers and I would have used it with my skin and my body. It would play the same function in my life that these objects do now, but its functionality would have been tied much more to its solidity and concrete presence.
The material abundance that has come out of industrialism is a kind of triumph, but it has made things too easy to come by. Rarity is socially manufactured more often than physically authentic. For example, diamonds aren’t rare at all. DeBeers hoards its diamonds to keep the market artificially scarce and advertises to consumers that diamonds are a symbol of class, wealth, and special moments in order to keep prices high. But strangely, since there's all kinds of subcultures of rarity, even rarity isn't rare. I don’t care about diamonds, but I do care about that historical anarchist zine that there are only a few hundred copies of, but not many other people care about that.
Industrialism makes the wrong things to easy to come by too. When you're out in the woods, you’re surrounded by trees, and grasses, and rocks, but you don't feel like the trees and grasses and rocks are oppressively filling up your space. It more feels like they ARE the space. Part of the reason may be because they have a spatial and psychological significance which is not lessened by their abundance. They fit together well because they grew together well. Another reason may be because they are alive and so feel other than us, like they are their own people. Most of our material things are US though. They are our things. To me, being surrounded by too much of myself just feels boringly familiar.
The reduction of the sacrality of matter because it’s no longer rare is just the beginning though. The same thing is happening now even with information. There's almost too much of it. Knowledge, insight, stories, reflections, commentary, pictures. There's too much, and it's too US. It's filling our mind space in the same way that industrial products fill our physical space. In the same way that I’m unimpressed by material things, I am also becoming unimpressed by information. It’s worse than that actually, I’m not just unimpressed, but jaded, like the apathy that can come with wealth or privilege.
In the age of abundance, what's sacred? I don't know. Maybe in the future when everything we want is easy to come by things will just be better and we won't miss that sacred feeling of appreciating something deeply because it’s rare. Maybe play will be sacred, because that’s all that’s left to do. And that will be wonderful. Then, depth will be replaced by lightheartedness and ease. But I don’t know. There still feels like there’s something sad in this. What do you think? Do you miss the material things being special in some way?
You know when you have the feeling that there is something you are avoiding?
I’ve come to love that feeling.
That feeling is how I know what is mine to do. It tells me what is important. And it tells me how I am supposed to be contributing to others, or to myself, or just growing right then and there.
That feeling has become my most important guide. You may want to use it as your guide as well. I’ve chosen it because it is clear to me that this is how we grow our integrity, power, and impact over time. It’s how we will have the deepest fulfillment, that will well out from the very center of ourselves. It’s how we will give ourselves the biggest, most meaningful, most worthwhile challenges to face.
It may not always feel like avoiding something, but it will always feel like the thing that is yours to do. And if you don’t know what is yours to do, then just sit in the not knowing until you do. It’s terrifying, I know. But it’s better than anything else, because it’s real. Because you’re invested from the very beginning. Asking for what is yours to do and waiting when you don’t know is like saying to yourself and to the universe. This moment matters! You matter, I matter, what I do matters! It taps you into your purpose immediately, and helps you deepen your perception of it over time.
You can do this. If you fail, ask again. What is yours to do? Keep asking. Keep doing it. In the beginning it may feel confusing or complicated. Eventually it won’t. Eventually you’ll absorb the question and won’t need to think about it as much anymore. Your willingness to do what is yours to do will have become your background disposition and it will feel more like deep, purposeful, spontaneous flow.
So, what is yours to do in this moment?
Your soul’s calling is more important than enlightenment.
For some, that calling is for enlightenment.
For others, it is for something else.
For others it is different things at different times.
And even if it appears scattered, or many, or divergent from the outside,
from the inside it is felt as whole.
Your soul’s calling is a profound service – whatever it is.
More so, no matter what that thing is, than even enlightenment, even your highest ideal, even goodness for all.
Because each of these is just a golden straight jacket. A fixed state, a dead idea.
The soul’s calling is dynamic, diverse, and open to the next movement.
Until death, your soul doesn’t stop calling.
By each of us following our soul’s calling, we spontaneously and simultaneously fulfill our individual destinies and greatest needs, while contributing to that same kind of world for each and every person.
It is Indra’s net and more. Not just reflecting each other, but each one empowering all the rest, through transmission and inspiration. And what we reflect in the other is not our outer expression but our inner creative powers.
Perhaps getting enlightened is the key to following your soul’s calling. But no, because your soul speaks both before and after your enlightenment.
And if following your own soul’s calling does not enlighten, then enlightenment was not yours to do. Enlightenment is only one of the myriad beautiful things to do in the open wilderness we create by walking.
So what instead…
First, it’s okay to not want to get enlightened.
An ecology of views,
following a road and passing many sights along the way, and never knowing whether the road will end,
life getting better and better, yet perhaps never being perfect.
Imagine living with your whole life-as-this-moment at the center of your attention and each element of your life arising as a part of it, but never mistaking any one of these parts as being more important than the whole thing.
Our souls are our whole lives moving toward its next moment and
their paths are self-arising.
Taking on, one at a time, each of the myriad beautiful things we do in the open wilderness we create by walking.
Rather than awareness and objects, emptiness and form, Shiva and Shakti,
it would be better to call the two things: certainty and uncertainty.
The one thing is: probability, or, what happens to happen.
You talk about an Ever-Present Good,
But when everything feels like improvisation, how can I say what will be?
In every moment, your attention, suffused with care, is absorbed in whatever you are doing.
You see problems as opportunities to express your care.
What does the noticing is your “inner genius,” the collection of all your experiences and holistic sensing, first creating, then shining light on, then giving voice to a new possibility, a better posibility.
How much you come to understand, and bring into the world, what your inner genius notices and the potential future it brings forth depends on how much you trust your inner genius.
This process happens over and over again, whenever you get new information, from new people or new events.
Each time your inner genius, in conjunction with new information, brings forth a vision for the future, it affects the visions for the future that you had before.
No single vision is the best vision or the complete vision.
How much you trust your inner genius, determines how much new insight, power, possibility, and care you bring into the world.
Whether this utopian process ever ends I don’t know. But, even if this process lasts in perpetuity, it can get better.
There will occur a watershed moment when no one’s getting hurt from the way things are. And instead of solving pains, we invent new and better pleasures not yet experienced. Each person will feel empowered and free to either continue on with life as it is, enjoying it immensely, or to create new opportunites for expression and enjoyment.
In the first case, the person’s inner genius will have a full time job enjoying and appreciating the richness of living. In the second, the person’s inner genius will spend it’s time reveling in it’s own creative activity. Everyone will have some mixture of both.
In any case, in this world there will be betters and worses, and there will be goods. But there won’t be bads.
This world is possible. It’s even possible now. It is a certain way of experiencing things.
Utopias are first and foremost experiences. Utopias are multiple. And even utopias change.
Without thinking in terms of experience, diversity, and change, utopias, if they aren’t already present, will likely never come into being.
Until then though, we must work to eradicate bads and turn them into worses that can be made better.
And teach people how to enjoy the goods.
Humans are just like bacteria. From one moment to the next we're sensing for which direction will move us up the sugar gradient. We’re always sensing. Sometimes, we find the sugar in the external world in food or by getting up to go to the bathroom, or by planting a carrot, or by playing cards, or fishing, or playing paintball, or listening to our parents, or whatever else it is in that moment that provides the greatest possible pleasure as best as we can sense it. Sometimes the greatest pleasure is internal, in fantasizing or daydreaming or introspecting. In both cases though, moment by moment we’re doing nothing more than looking for the most pleasure.
This is the same thing other animals and plants too. In each moment they sense for what next to do that maximizes their pleasure. Just like us, they’re just sensing along. Life is a bit more confusing for us because we can imagine things that don’t exist either physically in the environment and that may have been in the past or present. We can even imagine possibilities that are impossible (like the pink elephant that left my room 10 minutes ago). Some animals, too, can imagine and dream and predict. But plants probably can’t. And yet, even our predictions are just another way to sense forward. Just like every other action we and all living things take, our imagination is simultaneously a construction and a discovery of the next pleasurable moment.
So, what does recognizing this do for us? Well, first, it can help us make sense of our own sometimes crazy behavior. There is an order underneath it, even if it doesn’t conform to what is “supposed” to be orderly.
Second, it reinforces that the best strategies for communication and motivation reside require pleasure. If you want to get yourself or others to do something, make it more pleasurable than anything else you or they could do in the moment, including by helping them imagine the positive future they will be contributing to by taking that action.
Third, for some, thinking this way may reenchant the world, by highlighting the sensual, feeling-forward, discovery-like process inherent in all of our actions. It also highlights the sense of being a living river flowing through life, rather than a solid object somehow entirely walled off from other things. Living may begin to feel a bit more like play.
Fourth, it brings us back into family with other animals and plants, rather than seeing ourselves apart from them. It helps us identify as having something in common with all living things - we make decisions the same way.
Fifth, it gives us a basis to think more deeply about what a living spirituality would be like. It brings us back to basic characteristics of living creatures and gives us useful questions to think more about a spirituality that is both designed with inspiration from, and in service to, greater life. Some of those questions might include:
- How does knowing the basis of our decision making process change the way we make decisions in specific contexts?
- How does this change the way we view plants and animals?
- What is the relationship between pleasure and truth? Landing on truth, being certain about a truth, or being honest about a truth often feels good. Is pleasure a good guide to discover what’s true?
- And what would it mean to come “more alive?” What does this have to do with pleasure? And what practices would help us come more alive?
This piece was written for the consciousness hacking community, a community of engineers and designers interested in building software and hardware products to directly contribute to human wellbeing. Visit the site to find out about upcoming meetups.
Consciousness hacking is a recent, hardware and software engineering heavy iteration of our innate and and primordial desire to make life better. Because the sciences of human wellbeing and computer-human interface are improving, we’ve got new tools at our disposal. But let’s not get infatuated with just the tools! Here are three principles that will help us stay focused so we can have an ever-improving positive impact.
1. Stay Clear about The Goal.
2. Check the Results Often (but have a long term view)
3. Consciousness Hacking is an Infinite Game
The first principle, “Stay Clear about the Goal,” is the foundation. The success of the consciousness hacking movement lies in its ability to make our own and other people’s lives better than they currently are. Everything else is just a proxy measure or a step along the way. Clarity about our goal will help us stay focused on the signals we really care about, rather than on irrelevant noise.
The second principle, “Check Often,” points to measuring whether we are achieving our goal: whether are we helping people, in general, thrive more than before. the fast feedback loops that checking often creates will help us improve our efforts quickly, so that we can make as much progress as fast as possible. Speed and efficiency though, are not of ultimate importance, helping people live better lives is. This is a long term project though. Improving well being will probably not be a linear process. But if, at some point, we’re relatively clear that we’re not actually making progress we’ve got to have the courage to stop or switch directions. Otherwise, what’s the point? A sub principle here are that, just as we’re creating new tools for influencing well-being, we should be working to improve the concept of “well-being” and how to measure it. We’ll be able to build better products by continually refining the answers to the definition and measurement problems. One of the ways we can do this is to follow the lead of participatory researchers and lean startup entrepreneurs and get super curious about what the users of our consciousness hacking products actual experience by asking them directly and frequently and involving them in our design processes. Our users will give us significant data about what they want and what will actually be helpful for them.
The final principle comes from James Carse’s recent and profound book, Finite and Infinite Games. One of his insights is that while finite games are played to bring the game to an end, infinite games are played in order to keep playing. “Consciousness Hacking is an infinite game.” We play in order to empower people to keep improving their lives. There is no magic carrot at the end of the consciousness hacking game, because the game doesn’t end. And, since this game doesn’t end, the idea of “perfecting our craft” doesn’t make any sense. As Carol Dweck’s work on “growth” vs. “fixed” mindsets suggests, we’ll make better products if we continually focus on improvement rather than on making things perfect.
These three principles, Stay Clear about the Goal, Check the Results Often (but have a long term view), and Consciousness Hacking is an Infinite Game, will help us have a bigger and bigger and more and more positive impact as we develop the field.
My impatience lies
at the intersection
of my trauma
and overwhelming love
Good evening dark shaman, priest of the wholly other. He who lingers in twisted places.
You should know, no matter how hard you try people will still see you.
You cannot exclude yourself entirely.
Hello dear seer, who stands alone and observes.
Perhaps you see something that others cannot see,
But when others embrace your vision, do you give it up to be alone again?
I love you witch standing by the river.
You show me how to love those who are not loved.
But sometimes you are too proud and make a fetish of real pain.
your seeing is not defined by your rarity, or by your absence, or your pain, but by your seeing.
Keep your seeing, let go of the rest.
Safe to Play: The Nature of Work and why Zappos' Holacracy Revolution is just a Bandaid on a much Deeper Problem
I recently read New Republic’s feature of Zappos and their transition to running as a completely Holacratic organization. I won’t go into why they are doing so or what Holacracy is here. For more information you can read the article and visit the Holacracy website. I’m a supporter of Holacracy and Tony Hsieh’s attempt to find a different way of organizing Zappos than the standard top-down, pyrimidal management system. And just as he does, I hope that the result of this experiment will be an organization that’s freer, in which the employees have more autonomy and individual ownership of the company’s direction, and in which they are generally happier. At the same time, Zappos’ transformation suggests some deep questions about the reason why we work in the first place and the way we relate to work today. How we answer them will determine the role work will play in our lives in the future.
Sometimes, in order to get to know someone deeply, we ask them, “If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?” It’s another way of asking “If you could get all the basic necessities met automatically, if you could easily feed, clothe, and shelter yourself and your family, what would you do by choice out of love or enjoyment or passion?” The implication is that, when we strip it down, work is basically whatever we do to survive. There are other reasons why we work of course: social status, to help others, to make our families proud. But all of these are built on the back of work’s essential function of giving us a livelihood. And in every case, the value of work is in its utilitarian function to provide us with other things that we enjoy inherently. While some of our work work may provide things that are inherently valuable to others, for us it is generally a means to an end. But when we do something that is inherently enjoyable, inherently valuable, we don’t call it work. We call it play. The deep ethical conclusion is that we work so that we can set up the conditions that make play possible: ongoing survival, adequate safety, and available time. We work in order to make ourselves safe enough to play, and play is necessarily a higher value than work.
Back to Zappos. In the article, the reporter describes hanging out in the Las Vegas trailer park where Hsieh and many other Zappos employees live. Some are setting up a stage for a performance that evening. Taking it in, the reporter comments, “This idyllic scene was typical of life in Tony Hsieh’s magical kingdom. Work was fun, which is good, because people never really stopped working. Meetings might be scheduled at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, in the middle of what appeared to be a party but was really just an extension of the all-encompassing Zappos corporate culture. Was this what Hsieh meant by self-organization? Did going Teal [a term from Frederick Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations, referring to the cultural and organizational ‘up-leveling’ Zappos is trying to undergo] mean selling shoes and designer purses plus open mic sessions and Fernet shots?” Later in the article, the author writes: “Zapponians, as the employees call one another, like to talk about ‘work-life integration’ rather than work-life balance.”
Ignoring the absurd contrast of work with life (we should say “work-play” balance or integration instead), I agree with the underlying ideal: make life full of deeply meaningful activity that contributes to everyone’s welfare. But there are lots of ways to bring more of this kind of work into our lives, not all of which are paid jobs, and many of which are much better than giving all of your time to a company that is basically in the business of selling shoes. To the question we raised earlier, “What would you do if you didn’t have to work?” there are people who would respond, “I’d keep doing what I’m doing, I love it!” This is wonderful and not to be dismissed. Perhaps work really is fun for Zapponians; perhaps they love having meetings at 10 p.m. on Sunday. I’m skeptical. When someone says they enjoy their work we are often happy for them precisely because this is not the common experience. In any case, what I am most concerned about the larger trend of work swallowing up everything else. Even if I agree with a company’s intentions and enjoy my work, I do not ever want to live completely inside company culture, because any activity on behalf of a company will always serve to accomplish the company’s goals over its employees’ autonomous pursuit of their own multiple desires.
It’s never fair to criticize genuine advances, and the clean distinction I am making between work and play clearly has a grey middle zone and a complex potential for intermixing when meaningful work, especially when done in a community of loved ones, is deeply enjoyable. But it’s always important to appreciatively point towards better or more root solutions. Making work better is awesome, and for this Hsieh and Zappos should be congratulated. But Zappos’ transformation, since it improves work inside a totalizing workplace culture, may actually end up increasing work’s already bloated and damaging significance in our lives. If we aren’t conscious of the priority of play over work, then the desire to make work better could easily become the reality of just making work... everything. And most people will experience work as everything long before work becomes play, if it ever does at all (and it is not necessary that work does become play, as long as we are clear that play is more important).
If you are working hard, are you doing it because it is making you or someone else happy, or will eventually do so? If not, cut it out. So many of us are not happy when we’re working, but we spend so much of our time doing it. To be happy and to create flourishing societies, each of us must acknowledge and prioritize what makes us happiest. What would it look and feel like to live the life you most want to lead? When you ask yourself why you work, what do you come up with?
Hsieh’s efforts, while positive, are still relatively superficial compared to the foundational re-envisioning of work that is required to recenter play as our highest value. It’s in this spirit that I say that Zappos’ move to a Holacratic organization is good, but not good enough, and perhaps distracting from the deeper point. As long as we keep pretending that work is higher than play not only do we suffer in the present, but we will continue to create systems which generate more and more work and less and less play in the future. This is an inverted life, one that is deeply confusing and subtly empty. On the other hand, remembering that play is higher than work gives us immediate clarity and purpose and will lead to new systems that generate increasing flourishing. Life may never be all fun, and work will always be necessary. But let’s be careful not to delude ourselves for the company’s benefit, especially since life itself is more like play than work (it doesn’t have a utilitarian value outside of itself). This is the highest ethical imperative: We must make each and all of our lives as deeply playful as possible.
I've recorded a meditation for you, inspired by a talk by john powell in which he discussed a circle with no outside and connected the idea to an activism that works for the well being of everyone. It's short, just ten minutes. Have a listen.
- All suffering and pain comes from not having what we want.**
- We will never have everything we want because:
- we can’t help but want things
- wanting entails not having something, whether that something is for ourselves or for someone else.
- Therefore: some suffering or pain will always be here.***
* Suffering and pain are distinguishable, but both feel bad, so I don’t think it really matters for this purpose.
** Whether this is mental resistance to what’s happening, or physical reaction to damage, both of these things are desires, broadly defined. Resistance and reaction never go away completely, unless you’re not having any experience at all, because sensations of resistance and reaction are the boundary conditions that constitute having any particular experience at all.
***even if we’re enlightened.
Development in virtual reality technologies, and increasing interest in technologies that directly transform conscious experience, or help users train conscious experience, bring up very interesting parallels with common tenets of some mystical traditions. Mystical claims point toward where VR will most likely go in the future and what some of the implications will be. VR and consciousness hacking technologies will lead to classical mystical insights and powers, but what's really interesting is what happens then…
For decades technologists had tried and failed to create significantly believable, immersive virtual realities that didn't make people nauseous with extended use. VR technologies progressed, but the holy grail of a Star Trek Holodeck style virtual environment seemed much harder to achieve than expected.
But in the last few years VR has been having a momentous revival. Mostly this has been because of Oculus Rift, a VR headset developed by 23 year old Palmer Luckey (who was recently featured on the cover of TIME) with the assistance of an extended community of professional and amateur VR engineers. Oculus seemed to break the code and create 360 degree VR landscapes that are immediately compelling and exciting. Oculus eventually raised $2.4 million dollars on Kickstarter to develop their prototype. (A tactic that later became controversial when Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. None of the Kickstarter supporters received equity in the company, as early stage investors would have if Oculus had raised their initial funding that way.) The ability to create experiences or put VR users into faraway places is exciting to, well, pretty much every industry, from gaming and porn, VR's most obvious initial applications, to religious ministry. But there are major steps still to take. Let's imagine where VR is going and then we'll see how this links up with mysticism.
Right now VR experiences are primarily visual and auditory, and obviously, no matter how good the sights and sounds get they will never be enough to recreate our full multisensory experience. People are working on including our other senses. Several companies are bringing touch to VR. Taste is still missing of course, and so is smell, which is very important for creating meaningful emotional experiences and lasting memories.
These all may be pretty hard to crack, but I expect us to do it eventually. So let's assume that we have already created fully immersive VR that's like real life in every sensory way. What would people want next? The next huge step, even bigger in fact, would be being able to influence our sense of identity and narrative memory of our lives. When I enter VR I still know that I am "me" in real life having a VR experience. Every VR experience would be a lucid dream by default. We wouldn't yet be able to "forget" ourselves in the dream. But, we’ll overcome this too, because people will want to literally become the character in the dream, to change their identities, their histories, their character traits, and their behaviors, and to forget whoever it was they were before. And they'll want to do it over and over again to experience many different kinds of lives - lives that are better than their real lives, and sometimes worse as well, or just different, to see what it's like. It will be exactly like Alan Watt’s famous Dream of Life talk.
It will also be a lot like the vision of reincarnation of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which hold that all creatures are moving through many many lives. Over the course of these infinite numbers of lives, beings are presented with challenges and opportunities to learn and grow and, specifically, to become more wise and compassionate. In both Hinduism and Buddhism the last goal of all beings is to exit this cycle of birth and death, because all lives, no matter what kind, are seen to be replete with unavoidable suffering. Virtue, logic, and the intrinsic desire for happiness all overlap in the motivation to end one's own and others' suffering by gaining enough o cut through the mechanics that maintain the cycle, which requires developing mystical insight into the nature of identity (presented differently in each tradition). Once this is done the mystic just isn't born again.
But, ending the cycle of lives and experience isn’t going to be the goal for VR users. It may be that some people get tired of life, have no more interest in new experiences, and would just like to fade out peacefully. (Two interesting side questions this brings up is whether people will still want to die if they can create a VR experience in which they are a person who loves living; and how VR might be utilized to help people die in particularly interesting ways.) Others, however, may not tire. They may enjoy living different lives infinitely and enjoy the creative work they get to do in each of these lives. It does not seem likely to me that all people will come to the conclusion which serves as the foundation of Buddhism and Hinduism: that all life has suffering in it and is ultimately not worth living. This is certainly a topic for another blog (or blogs or books!), but the main reason for this is that, at worst, some people appreciating creativity and beauty more than simple peace, even if it necessarily includes suffering, and, at best, life can get good enough that we end up disproving the original premise of Buddhism and Hinduism after all. It may be that VR offers an opportunity for infinite creativity.
This leads to the last great obstacle: duration. There may be physical limitations on the time that someone can stay in VR. Perhaps VR experiences will be expensive, or the user will need to emerge to eat or pee, or the computer itself will not be able to run continuously. Like the other obstacles, demand from users to overcome this problem will be so high that we will undoubtedly do it. Users will then be able to fully immerse themselves in any sensorially and mentally realistic environment and character they want indefinitely. They would be able to choose whether to be themselves or be someone new. And they will be able to choose to stay in these lives for as long as they want.
At this point people will be able to literally create their own lives, which is an idea more New Agey than classically Buddhist or Hindu, though some subtraditions of contemplative Hinduism do view the world as a kind of projection out of one’s essential Self, and both traditions see what you experience in any one life as a causal consequence of your actions in previous lives). And they’ll see that the sense of identity is fluid, undetermined, and mutable, rather than fixed, which is a decidedly Buddhist insight. But more than this too, pleasure, insight, beauty, diversity, challenge, experimentation, stability, any existential ache or craving to have something, to be someone, to finish it all off - all of that will be available to us in true abundance.
What’s most interesting though - yes more interesting than being able to create whatever life you want - is how that will change our sense of values. In part because I've been influenced by the contemplative traditions' thoughts on multiple lives I imagine that one consequence of VR will be that people will become more mature, more insightful, and more empathetic by living through the great diversity of experiences that VR will make possible. Moreover, what will be demanded of us is a new way to relate to desires and their satisfaction in the first place. When even the most wondrous experiences are at our fingertips, I think we’ll be surprised to find something even more wondrous set in on its own: a way of relating to experience that will feel simultaneously deeply safe yet fully enlivened, a kind of awe and wonder at the plenitude of reality, a mature relaxation into watching what new potentials unfold for us as we continue to develop even further, which is also a love of creating new goals but without any longer any individual or collective naive or despairing hope that there will ever be a final end to things, unless as a matter of personal choice.
This maturity is what I am most looking forward to for us as a species and collective presence on this planet (and potentially beyond). This relaxation away from thinking that any kind of experience is going to solve all of our problems, and yet enjoying every experience we have, makes me feel safe, makes me feel that at that point we will be making decisions out of collective enjoyment of life much more than collective fear, which feels more common now. Fully immersive VR will end up being a fast track to world awakening in a classically mystical sense, but of course we don’t have to wait for immersive VR. The same way of living I’ve laid out is at least in principle available to all of us now through both traditional and more contemporary means. In any case, the first step is simply recognizing it as a desirable and realistic way to live. And for those of us who weren’t already aware, VR is hinting at the possibility.
I presented this poster at the inaugural International Symposia for Contemplative Studies in 2012. It uses the four quadrants of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory to talk about the whole context of what makes a spiritual teaching 'work.' I was trying to offer a bigger picture to scientists who study meditation, arguing that you can't just say that what makes someone develop spiritually, or even learn meditation effectively, is just the technique, or even just the technique and the teacher. Then I gave many examples of other 'active ingredients.'
Life is getting weirder, or was it always this way...?
My attention goes outside the world,
and the world is so much more beautiful:
both brightly sparkling in its mysterious hereness
and edging me constantly
toward a cosmic orgasm that never arrives, thank God.
This is the height of ecstasy!
Look around the room. How much effort did that take? How much friction did you feel in your visual experience as you moved from looking at one spot to another? Not much right? Or perhaps none.
Can you imagine having the same degree of frictionlessness in all your experience - thoughts, emotions, physical sensations. Well, that's how everything already is. You experience something and then it goes away. You finish a task and you move on to something else. Nothing in your experience can get stuck. Notice that.
There is no friction in your experience. It is easy. It flows like a river. There's no way to get stuck. No matter what happens, it moves right away. This is freedom. You've already got it.
Trusting Desire: A Contemporary Living Spirituality that Encourages Creativity, Diversity, and Experimentation
I recently presented at the 2015 Integral Theory Conference. It was an amazing gathering, and I had a lot of fun
presenting. Visit the site to get access to all of the papers for free and to audio and video recordings of the presentations for a fee.
My paper was called "Trusting Desire." It was motivated by a desire to transform people's views about spiritual practice into something contemporary, emergent, and alive. Take a look and let me know how you think I did.
Abstract: In this paper I outline a trans-lineage spirituality rooted in our intrinsic and discovered desires. I begin with a critique of Buddhism and then draw on insights from Saniel Bonder's work developing the contemporary awakening school Waking Down in Mutuality, Bonnitta Roy's Process Model of Integral Theory, Bruce Alderman's and A.H. Almaas's recent trans-lineage reconsiderations of ontology and soteriology respectively, process philosopher Eugene Gendlin to respond to the needs of those overwhelmed and paralyzed by hyper complexity and uncertainty. This living spirituality begins with a life- and desire-positive worldview and develops ever increasing trust, creativity, and dynamism in the midst of, in fact empowered by, this radical uncertainty. Grounding ethics in both the unavoidability and justifiability of trusting our intrinsic desires, I offer an alternative to "engaged" Buddhisms that are still based on world-renouncing ascetical ethics and authoritarian structures. My overall intent is to help spiritual practitioners get out of their own ways, operate in god faith with their own basic goodness, and act creatively to generate a more and more beautiful, diverse, and flourishing world.
There is something very interesting about tautologies in real life, rather than in academic logic, that tells us something deep about the way we experience things, the nature of definitions, and how to take advice wisely.
Take the statement: "She is a successful woman." A follow up question from someone who would like to be successful also might go something like "What makes her successful?" Someone could give many answers to this question: she was persistent, she always kept learning even when it was difficult, she was fortunate to know people who could help her, etc. But do all of those things make success? No, there are people who have done or had all of those things who did not become successful. Likewise, there are people who have become successful through other means. This lack of a guarantee will be true of anything you say about success. In fact, it is true about every particular quality, thing, or way of being. "Why is he a boy?" "What makes her happy?" Any question that asks for references between two different things will always include some ambiguity in it, some non-equivalence, some non-guarantee. The only way to answer completely and accurately "What makes her successful" is to say "Because she is successful." While (I think) tautologies are generally treated as meaningless and inappropriate in formal logic, in real life tautologies are really at the heart of all of our definition-making. Things are only what they are because they are what they are, without further justification. We can give further explanations about how that thing came to be the way it is, or why we call it that. But the definition itself will always be unique and unjustified.
Of course, there is a practical way in which the question "What makes her successful?" simply means "What did she do to become successful?" That's a more meaningful question and there will be many answers to it as well. But it's essential not to take anything that's said about that as necessary for determining success. There are probably always more ways to be anything than what anyone else has already shown or done. And even if you try to emulate someone else, you must always reinvent it in your own terms, in your own concrete time, place, and way, inside of a new and different set of circumstances. The genuinely tautological nature of all definitions, and things, all qualities, in all their unitary simplicity, is also the reason there are infinite number of ways to do or be that way. The actual nature of tautologies in real life points to the deep paradoxical relatedness of unity and infinity. I don't know whether this would make sense in an academic discussion of logic or what consequence it would have there, but it does seem to say something about the way we actually experience things.
In my path I've often had the thought that the highest kind of wisdom is what my parents were trying to teach me all along and that rather than talk about enlightenment or spiritual development we should just talk about maturity. So, in that spirit, this blog post is going to be a running repository for common sense wisdom. I'll throw in some deep and paradoxical nuggets too. Feel free to contact me to give suggestions for the list.
In general, success requires hard work over time. And in general, the more time you spend doing something the better you will
get at it. But this will take away from time you could spend at other things. These kinds of trade-offs are inevitable.
- Sex won't make you happy forever. Neither will romantic relationships, even the one you're thinking about right now. They will make you feel like you do now, and also bring lots of unique pleasures and pains.
- Doing things that aren't in your own integrity will make you feel bad.
There is no going back. All of our actions change not just our futures, but who we will be in those futures. Our
values will change, our connections will change, our opportunities will change. We will change the people around us. No matter what, the consequences of our actions are to some degree
out of control and unpredictability in this no matter what, as our we ourselves, and this vulnerability is a birth place of surrender, passion, compassion. Move wisely and give life
- You will very, very likely never be the best at anything. (Except for being yourself, which you cannot fail at being the best at.)
- Things can always get better, though probably can never get perfect. Helping others feels good, and so does helping myself.
- Since there is likely always going to be some pain in life, there will always be the option to focus on the pain. Focusing on things still not being perfect hurts, while focusing on the ways things are better than before feels good. Focusing on what can be improved increases my ability to help. Perhaps at some point those of us (including myself!) who are under the delusion that everything can or should be perfect will one day be disabused of that idea.
- We only learn things by doing (which includes thinking), and when we do something we see things we couldn't see before, leading us to reassess what we thought.
- There are lots of good things to do. And your desires will keep changing.
- Solving big problems requires lots of people doing lots of different things. No one can do it alone. You can't do everything.
- Everything, taken alone, has some virtue, and everything, taken alone, has some destructive consequences. Taking everything as a whole leaves neither option.
- In assessing any situation, no matter how much knowledge you have there are always ways to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the future.
- It's impossible to know everything and there is no end to knowing (except in not-knowing, which taken all the way is the same as not doing anything).
- Whether you think we can know anything at all depends on your definition of "know." The only thing I know for sure is that something is happening. Anything else I say I don't know for sure.
For most people, mystics and mystical ideas seem far-off and irrelevant. On the other hand, mystics have argued that most
people's actions are, unbeknownst to them, attempts to find the insights and happiness that mystics find. There are surprising ways in which our digital future validates both views:
bringing the otherworldly insights of the mystics to everyone, at least as powerful metaphors, while making some old mystical ideas truly irrelevant. This confluence will open up new
possibilities for collaboration between the least worldly and most worldly humans.
A common mystical insight is that everything is one: all times and places are parts of one another. A corollary is that our impacts on other people and things, and theirs on us, are more immediate that we generally think. Indra's net, with its infinite jewels each reflecting all of the others, is an ancient image for this experience and idea. The claim is not that particles are entangled, nor because space and time can be linked mathematically, but because time and space are emergent experiences, not fundamental ones. Temporal and spatial distances, across which objects seem to be unable to affect each other, are superficial barriers compared to the "place" from which everything emerges.
Consider your cell phone. Every day your phone constantly collects data about where you are and how you are using it. The data is immediately transmitted across great distances letting other people know about your actions and impacting their decisions. You don't have to do anything for this to happen. In both cases extreme intimacy starts to blur into identity, which has always been a crucial moment in mystical development as well. It's not just that you're connected to people far away, it's that there is no "far away." There's no "close by" either, because what could that mean when everything is close by. Similarly with time: rapid access and communication transitions to timelessness just as the speed of change becomes overwhelming. There is no time when you can't keep up with it anymore. What's left? The same thing that's left for mystics: wonder, flow, unity with a larger field out of which information seems to emerge on its own. This digital mystical analogue gets even more striking when we consider the coming internet of things, or what David Rose of the MIT Media Lab calls "enchanted objects."
Another mystical foreshadowing our digital future is the experience that our intentions always come to pass. Intentions are guaranteed and instantaneous experience generators. There are two levels to look at this. On the first, our emotions, thoughts, and other inner facets of experience are driven by our relationship to the events in our lives. External events don't determine our feelings, our intentions do. On the deeper level, the "intentions" we're talking about aren't personal, they're universal. We're like a phytoplankton floating in the ocean, basically moved about by the swells and currents of our total environment. To speak religiously, we might say this is the "mind of God." To speak materialistically we might say, this is the spontaneous responsiveness of each object to the collective forces on it. In any case, at both levels of this experience intention and action are simultaneous and unfailing.
We don't have to look very hard at the hopes we have for Virtual Reality to see the resonance with these ideas. What do you want: a tour of the bottom of the ocean? To fall in love? To be a child again? You got it! Immediately and without question. VR brings up the great question of the nature of these correspondences between mysticism and technology. Is it that the mystical experiences shed light on facts about our universe that technology is simply mirroring, as if we're driven to make conscious what is implicitly the case one way or another? Or perhaps mystical experiences simply proof of the malleability of human experience and the power of our creative imagination; in which case, regardless of their truth-value, they are even more similar to potential technological alterations of human experience. In either case, if VR seriously gets off the ground with adequate, full six-senses experiences, then you can bet that experience programmers aren't going to stop at pre-developed "movies." Users will want the power to immediately manifest whatever they desire.
A final mystical idea is more challenging for technology development, because it is not obvious that technologists are yet implementing, or even attempting to implement, it's analogue. Not only do our actions instantaneously fulfill our intentions, but our intentions are only ever motivated by altruism. Whether the action is meant to benefit others, everyone, or ourselves all of our actions are for the good, to help, to be of benefit.
Can we say the same for our digital futures? Should we? If so, or if we'd like to, what would that look like? This is perhaps one of potential major fields of collaboration between mystics and technologists. As Richard Thieme, who has thought about these topics for decades, says: "Mysticism is not only insight, it’s a cry for truth and justice, a deep passion for getting it right. Mysticism without action is self-indulgence; action without mysticism always burns out." In all of the cases we've looked at so far, technology has made explicit what mystics have claimed was implicit all along. Technology has exposed these things. Can technology expose too our intrinsic goodness?
Mysticism is being impacted by technology too. The consciousness hacking/contemplative tech movements are not new, but they are gaining momentum and there are far too many experiments starting up now to do an overview here. But one underlying attitude amongst these technologists will change mysticism perhaps more than mysticism will change technology. There is no technologist I know of who claims that technological development has an upper limit. But for millennia various mystical systems have claimed that there is an upper bound to mystical development and that certain people have reached this perfect and total fulfillment of their potential. But in a culture raised on the idea that we're entering a time of human creativity on a scale unheard of before, such an idea will feel foreign if not immediately deadening. An end to learning? A single direction of human development considered "highest" or "most important"? How boring and untrue. In the midst of a digital-mystical dialogue this kind of mystical dogmatism and it's accompanying authoritarianism will not last very long. Various open-minded contemporary mystics are already paving the way, moving beyond even a synthesis of the ancient mystical paths because they've found it unable to express the radical creativity of human potential. We will become things we have not yet imagined they say. For traditionalists this will be a destructive transition, but for experimentalists and hackers it will be a welcome modernizing of the great mystical paths.
The analogues between digital technology and mysticism are good evidence that these two disciplines have a constructive conversation waiting for them. For mystics, technology offers an updated worldview and laboratory of innovative new methodologies. For technologists, mysticism offers direction for exploratory development. The dialogue will likely be fairly low-res for a while, but their points of contact, questions of human nature and power, are open for infinite engagement anyway, and the opportunities for mutual benefit are profound.
As I see it perception and emotion are to some extent creative acts. This, plus the fact that creating anything with an
opposite also automatically entails the creation of its opposite leads to some very stark consequences. A recent thought: If you make no suffering, then you won't make any liberation from
suffering either. But, if you do make great suffering, then you also have the opportunity to end it. Thus the perfect world in which nothing but good exists is a myth. I choose to see
evil, because while seeing evil establishes pain, injustice, and heartbreak as basic qualities of my life, it does so in a sacred way and gives me the opportunity to serve others by solving those
problems. If given enough time, I expect most people would reach the same conclusion, but by no means is it right or possible to coerce others into believing or acting in line with this
view. Another paradox of our lives is that this joy can only come about through authentic desire, motivated from one's own love of service. This is why I encourage people to find the
strength, courage, relaxation, and trust to do what they most deeply want, whatever that is.
You get the great privilege of experiencing the greatest of all joys in life when you do this sincere altruistic work in the company of others who are also so motivated. This is the collective joy of the beloved community in which you know you are cared for and enjoy the love of caring for others. I expect the deepest paradox and surprise in this, though, will be that upon your and our achievement of the beloved community, we will collectively realize that it had been this way all along.
"Good" and "bad" are made by our minds; they are not innate to the things around us. Although this might be surprising at first, it's actually very
straightforward. Take for example the fact that a Japanese person coming to the U.S. might find some of our streets very dirty and experience the litter as "bad," whereas an Indian person
coming to the U.S. might experience those very same streets as quite clean and as "good." Consider also that the last time you got a new job you may have thought it was very good, but after
a while in that same position you experienced it as bad, and another job as being good. Is our current government or economic climate bad or good? Depending on whether you (often
unconsciously) compare it to an even worse system, or to an ideal goal, you will experience the current situation it as bad or good.
Realizing this, experiencing everything as good is the goal of many "inner sciences" or contemplative traditions, including Buddhist meditation traditions, the ones with which I am most familiar. Because of their focus on inner techniques to make oneself suffer much less and be happier, calmer, and more compassionate, many have debated the relationship between social activism - attempts to change external conditions which cause suffering - and contemplative practice. As you can imagine, various Buddhists and non-Buddhists have responded to this question in various ways. In my view however, the core of the debate is very simple: any teacher or contemplative tradition that advocates the achievement of "happiness independent of conditions" will always legitimately fall prey to criticisms that the contemplative practice neglects real external causes of suffering, or even reinforces those external causes. For example, as Slavoj Zizek famously stated: "Although 'Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement." Moreover, this criticism will hold regardless of whether one's contemplative practice is considered "superficial" or "authentic."
But, so what? Whatever the external consequences of experiencing more of life as good, shouldn't we want it? If a Brave New World comes to pass in which most people are slaves, but everyone is deeply happy, would that be bad? You might have aesthetic, creative/economic, or other reasons why you would not want this world, but I doubt, as troubling as it feels, that there are good ethical arguments against it.
It's not a very attractive future to think about, luckily I think there are strong practical concerns that would make this unlikely. Before we get to those though we have to offer an alternative to the idea of a "happiness independent of conditions." This idea is a farce, a static abstraction, and a violent, harmful one at that. Such a goal is not only misleading, but is built on a degradation and devaluing of real life. It says: "Look at my happiness, in which I'm standing apart, over here, independent of anything you're doing or that's going on. My happiness is so great, nothing affects it." There are deeply ingrained tendencies in many spiritual traditions to view life in this way, and while mature and honest spiritual teachers and practitioners will offer an alternate interpretation, they may still be teaching and training within subtle versions of the framework.
A better description of enduring human joy and of seeing things as more and more good is closer to the concept of flow, which is often characterized by spontaneous responsiveness to stimuli and as being deeply fulfilling. The deepest joys in life come from being in one's own flow more and more of the time. The experience of anything as good is a symptom of flow. Flow as a trait, rather than just a state, is not yet in the purview of modern psychology and performance studies, but it will be. We should expand our concept of flow states to flow traits, and then to degrees and variations of flow - degrees of spontaneous responsiveness and innate fulfillment.
Flow responds to the social change criticism because flow is defined inclusively of external and internal conditions. Slavery is not likely to produce flow for many people. Activities or lifestyles that are too hard for someone are not conducive to flow. Similarly the social isolation and externally implemented shame that go along with being seen (or seeing oneself) as "lower class" are also not conducive to flow. For most people to have a most deeply satisfying life, to achieve flow traits, it is necessary for many of us to have more opportunity, confidence, challenges, outlets for meaningful personal expression, and genuine experiences of usefulness than we currently experience. Moreover, it is arrogant and incorrect to think that others' well being doesn't affect our own. Enabling other people to find flow will enables more flow for you and vice versa, and at some point there will be a limit to your own enjoyment of life based on the lack of enjoyment of others. In this movement towards greater fulfillment and expression we really are all in this together.
There is a relevant and interesting consequence for people seen (or who see themselves) as "higher class" too. With too much privilege comes boredom, stagnancy, and suffocating comfort. Flow only arises with challenge. Thus wealth and overabundance of opportunity, choice, information, and connections can deaden creativity and decrease the ability to make choices. Flow address both ends of the social privilege spectrum simultaneously.
Challenges do not go away. Experiencing everything as more good requires addressing our individual and collective problems. They provide the impetus and the energy for our responsiveness. As we come to live that more and more, more and more we will also be motivated to increase it for ourselves and others. Doing so requires increasing opportunity, resources, connection, and perceived value for some and increasing challenge for others. In this way, we'll create a much more vibrant and creative world for all of us.
My experience of thinking has changed in the last couple years from what it had been before. The difference seems to me
significant and worthwhile, so I'm going to try to describe the difference, touch on how it may have come about, and then argue for its value both as a way of thinking (and deciding and
I've only registered this change the last couple years, and I didn't use to think about thinking much. But now that I do, I'm trying to remember what had been before. So take what I say about the past with a grain of salt; I think it's true, but I'm basically inferring and trying to recollect from ambiguous memories.
In the past, thinking was something that seemed to occur "in my head" or in some abstracted mental-only space. I thought deliberately when making a decision or analyzing a problem, and non-deliberately when daydreaming or getting lost in anxiety. But in all cases I usually experienced it happening "up there". Likely due to my own information sensitivities, when meeting someone for the first time, encountering a new idea, or having any other experience that brings a wealth of new or interesting information, the up-there-ness would grow intense, in the same way and for the same reason that a puppy might recoil from a potentially unfriendly human stranger.
Thinking came in discreet chunks. I tried to control and manipulate blocks of information, usually as words, and I seemed to generally succeed. Again, these discrete blocks of information appeared somehow in an abstracted, mental-only space or, if in my body at all, definitely associated with my head. Thinking was an isolated event, separate from external sensory perception and separate from external events. Thinking was something I did by, to, and for myself alone.
Now all of this is different. Instead of thinking with just my head, or with no body at all, I experience thinking as occurring within and throughout my whole body. The tiny tensions that happen in my leg have meaning. Even more so sensations in my stomach and chest, and still too, my head. I can feel the potential and actual cognitive implications of various external stimuli as they interact with and affect my body. Discreet chunks of word-thoughts occur only after these subtler, more sensual impulses. However, these impulses are not necessarily softer or easier to handle. In fact, they can be more intense, because they feel less mediated, more direct, more personally and emotionally vulnerable, faster, more malleable, less determinate, and less graspable. They can be harsh and loud, or gentle and quiet. And yet, in all cases, they carry relevant, meaningful information.
Not all physical sensations seem to imply cognitive meaningfulness. Stubbing my toe is not equivalent to rethinking my philosophy. However, I can watch how even those painful sensations lead to emotional responses which lead to changes in my momentary thinking and might influence larger views. Just like small ripples move out to influence the whole pond. Once the ripples reach shore, it would be naive to say that they don't influence the shore at all; though the degree of their individual impact is small, their cumulative consequence is not obvious, and may be large.
One of the other big differences is that I see myself much less as the controller and manipulator of my own thinking. My process of thinking is often now a process of listening more than it is a process of doing, changing, building, or maintaining. I often make decisions not just by "figuring things out" through rationality, but by feeling the entire impact of the question on my body, taking in the whole spectrum of physical, emotional, and rational responses and their interactions. The decision question is the small stone or raindrop that lands in the pond of my experience, and its ripples are wide and various.
It's hard to know exactly how these changes came about, though I'll offer my hypotheses. Likely there are many reasons, but four stand out most prominently. The first is having gone through a shift in how I experience my own identity from something that is definable and separate to something that is undefinable, though concrete, and in some ways omnipresent and timeless. This also feels like a shift out of identifying with mental images as myself and falling into my heart or center of my chest as the primary center of who I am. When people talk about undergoing a spiritual awakening, we're in the rough ballpark of what I'm talking about. The second is a lot of emotional healing that's letting me be more relaxed in my body. By being more relaxed in my body I'm able to be more aware of small physical and emotional movements, and to be okay with them. Both this and the first reason contribute to the loosening of feeling like I need to be in control of the world, and even that I'm in control over all of what I consider 'me.' Third is a sometime intensive, sometime off-and-on, meditation practice over the last several years consisting of paying attention to the sensations in my body and other subtle interior processes. And the fourth is the general intellectual maturation coming from increased age, learning, and repeated attempts to understand the world in deeper, more comprehensive, and more accurate ways, including reading and learning from good teachers.
There are two main benefits I find from these changes - one proximate and one ultimate. The proximate benefit is that I now seem to have access to a lot more information that I did before. Sometimes this is overwhelming, overly complex, or requires extended consideration. But this is not necessarily the case. My decisions seem to be informed by more accurate information and more comprehensive interpretations. Ultimately, I think this change has led to better decisions. And by better I mean decisions that let me care for others more effectively, be happier myself, and act in ways that have more long-lasting and more profound affects. These are what I care about so that's why I think the decisions are better.
Reflecting on all this has often led me to wonder what "thinking" means at all. Now much more than before the content of thinking comes as whole gestalts, rather than as discreet chunks at all. On a smaller scale this means that ideas and their implications, like for this essay, come all at once as feelings or as subtle wordless shifts in sensation and perception, which can be thoroughly unpacked into an entire essay, but which more or less "arrived" all at once. On a larger scale, we can see thinking as one way of processing and responding to information. In fact, even to say "processing," is simply to say responding. And from the implicit subjectivity-infused perspective that is the only one immediately obvious to us, we could say that the whole universe is thinking, and we're a part of that. The whole universe is always learning - always being influenced by events, and responding to those events, leading to more events, encoding more information into these new responses. This is exactly the same as I how I now view my personal thought process.
So where do we draw the line between the activity of thinking and some other activity? And where do we draw the line between our own thinking and the rest of the world that impacts on us? What I used to think of as thinking is only a narrow slice of what I now use the word for. Thinking doesn't happen apart from physicality, it happens throughout the whole body, and also I'd say, throughout everything.
Sustainability means that we have enough resources for some population of humans, or continuance of the human species, to keep
on living forever. Any other definition just doesn't do justice to the way people use that word. Sustainability is not just a now problem. It's a forever
Us humans are building our mounds of stuff, collecting energy and matter into denser and more complex structures in order to satisfy our desires, which themselves are increasing in number and magnitude. Bottom line: more people, more stuff. This situation isn't new, it's just that we're now capable of seeing it and suffering from it on a large scale.
But maybe an environmental collapse will wipe a lot of us out. Then we'll be back in a situation when the world population was low and it just didn't occur to people to think about global sustainability. Besides the massive suffering and trauma, that would solve the problem right? Nope, that's still not sustainable. It wouldn't necessarily stop us from figuring things out again and growing just as complex as we had grown before, running into the same problems we're facing today. It doesn't mean that such regeneration would necessarily happen, either. But that's not sustainability, that's luck. It's not predictable and it's not manageable. And it's not forever.
So maybe sustainability isn't possible. The endgame scenario is that we build increasingly more complex and energy dense piles of stuff in some places, taking resources from other places, all leading to humans' complete demise. And by the way, probably these complex and energy dense piles of stuff would end up serving the needs and desires of increasingly fewer people, leaving more and more people to live more and more meager lives. It's a dystopian hyper inequality problem where life gets worse and worse and worse, whether at a slow or fast pace, until it's all over. Sustainability problem solved!
But of course neither of these scenarios - some of us luckily finding ourselves in a temporary, unpredictable circumstance of minimally enough resources indefinitely into the future, or, all of us dying - is very interesting to most of us. It's also important to note that climate change isn't the only thing that could lead to these situations. Both could happen in several different ways, at different times in our future, and for different reasons. Therefore, there are only two long-term options if we want to live sustainably, and I'm going to show that there's really just one.
The first is that at some point our population stabilizes and we're able to live in a net-zero material culture. This is sustainability as a predictable, manageable replenishment of anything we use at a rate equal to that at which we use it. In order to accomplish this we'd have to have perfect, 100% energy efficient recycling of everything we make. But this is not possible. Why? Local entropy. Things compacted want to spread out. All our stuff is compacted other stuff and it takes energy to do the compacting. Thus, even if we could recycle the stuff with perfect efficiency we still couldn't account for the energy it takes to compact and then recycle that stuff. Even if our population is stable, as long as we live in a material culture we'll have to keep finding more sources of energy in order to continue building and recycling - oil, sunshine, asteroids, whatever. But all of those material things are finite. Not sustainable.
There's another, interior reason why I don't think this solution works. We're an antsy species - that's antsy, like we can't sit still. We keep moving around making problems, solving them, then making more. We build taller buildings, accumulate more money, run faster, get more insight, develop more complex, more simple, more comprehensive, more whatever philosophies, engineer more efficient and more subtle technologies, discern and express more nuanced identities, and illuminate ever more intimate, rarified, and extraordinary depths of human experience. We just keep moving. And we won't stop. We can't, we'd have to die. Is there going to be some moral cause for which we all sacrifice ourselves? Maybe, but probably not, though that would solve our sustainability problem too. And despite everything I've heard so far, including the revelations and inner sciences of the mystics and contemplatives who address this issue most directly and with the most expertise, I don't think the antsyness is ever going away.
Conclusion: the only solution to our sustainability problem is infinite growth. Counterintuitive, huh? But, as antsy creatures, who love building greater and greater everythings, it's the only way. Perhaps you're sad. It's strange that infinite life could be depressing, but somehow, for some of us, it might be. For those of us with reservations about our current material culture, with consumerism, capitalism and greed, with the current direct relationship between growth and natural degradation, economic inequality, and dissociated cultures, the idea of infinite growth seems horrendous. Yet, it could be good. These things don't have to be tied to infinite growth.
A central problem has been the types of energy we use. But as we build forever, we'll have to find an energy source that is infinite. What could provide that? Certainly no physical object or set of physical objects could qualify. Outsider physicists say we can get energy from the vacuum. More, if we're going to achieve sustainability, it's necessary. Contemplatives' interior experiments likewise intimate an inexhaustible expressiveness. The moment of the big bang defies definition as a simple nothing. So too, your own fluxing experience defies definition as a simple something. Nowhere anywhere do we find simple nothings or somethings, rather everything exists as a reality which is neither one nor the other, nor both, nor neither. The idea that an infinite somethingness and an absolute nothingness therefore could be inextricably intertwined in the vacuum is a radical proposition, but with a radically deep basis. After all, can you imagine the energy of the whole universe being exhausted? Where would it go?
Despite this inspiring speculative grounding, I don't think it's a guarantee that infinite energy is possible. There are millennia of practical problems we'll have to solve to find out. But if it is possible, and if we do figure it out, I think along the way we will have grown our creative abilities significantly. And as infinite energy gives rise to infinite material creation, these new abilities could lead to a radical future. An intergalactic human race, perhaps, but one in which human desires are fulfillable on grander scale than may yet be imaginable. In the end, the old rational ideal of using technology to provide for everyone's needs, is only possible on an infinite scale. Could we create whole physical worlds? Could we create whole universes? Could people continue to become more and more unique, and, at the same time, be able to live the highly particular kinds of lives they want with others wishing the same. I think we could, I think we might.
This isn't utopia. I don't believe those exist. But this would be a sustainable world, and quite an interesting one too. For some, our fear of death provokes us to find sustainable solutions to current problems. If so, we must think at this scale eventually. But for others, perhaps our fear of life sneaks a self-sabotaging wrench into all of our altruist technological, environmental, and activist works. If sustainability means infinite sustainability we'll have to come to accept that humans, or a continuance of our species, may be a facet of this universe forever. Can we live with ourselves with that potential? Do you believe in our own goodness enough to see that this could be a beautiful world?
But then, maybe we're tired of living. Maybe we're not interested in being able to predict and manage infinite resources. Or maybe all expansions end in contractions and sustainability is impossible. And then maybe there are available futures outside all of these possibilities. Life as a pure energy being anyone? We'll see.
There are (at least) four kinds of ultimates:
Ultimate Ultimates, like the unchanging beingness of things, are really just abstractions.
Relative Ultimates, like infinities and forevers, are not abstractions, but point to concrete things we can describe, touch, and delimit from other things.
Mystery Ultimates frustrate all our delimitations of things from things and show us that life can't be constrained by our language and just keeps carrying on carrying on despite all of our attempts to pin it down or describe it.
And Ultimate Experiences are experiential extremes of all sorts: of bliss, of nothingness, of suffering, of everythingness, and of flow being the primary examples.
All the ultimates have fascinating internal relationships with each other. And people concerned with any one of these might enjoy or find useful inquiring into each of these because they can all help address big questions in interesting ways.
This is a bit of an arrogant title, isn't it? There are so many mysteries of romantic relationships, thousands of volumes of
poetry and prose have been written on the subject. Romantic relationships are often seen as a metaphor for the heart of human life itself, so to talk of their mysteries in one blog post…
like I said, a bit arrogant. Anyway, I do want to say something about this. Relationship and love have certainly been a doorway for me to grow and understand more about myself and the
world, and perhaps this will be helpful for you too.
So here's the mystery: there is, inside of us, a love that is seemingly inexhaustible, unconditional, and totally satisfying. Sometimes it's relationship difficulties that force us to find this. And yet, there are still reasons why we might want to get into a relationship, or leave one, or stay in one, or stay out of relationships altogether. Just because we are surrounded and suffused by love satisfaction, doesn't mean we don't act in myriad particular ways to get certain things. This, is a mystery.
Experience is a river. And the process of each moment giving rise to the next moment isn't merely passive. A la Whitehead in each moment we feel our way forward, like a puddle of water on the ground feeling outward in different directions simultaneously, finding the path of greatest attraction. You can find a feeling of yourself doing this in each moment if you pay attention closely and in a certain way. So why do we choose certain things over others? Pragmatic and concrete answers of desire, control, or cause and affect are well and good. But where did your desire come from, or your control, or your choice, and why only certain options and not others? I don't think this mystery is resolvable. Take the beginning: in the beginning… there were limited options for the next moment, and so the 'first' moment felt its way forward into the next.
At heart then, what can be so frustrating about relationships is that they are a powerful doorway to our confrontation with the spontaneous and unjustifiable nature of our own and others' actions and desires. We just want something, or we just want something else. And all I want to say to you is that this is not wrong. It is simply the way it is. It can be frustrating, awe-inspiring, bewildering, angering, lust-inducing, and everything else that relationships can be, but it's not wrong. If you do think it's wrong, or that it must be changed, then I'd also like to say that the pain and confusion that can come with this confrontation, which I understand can be quite painful and confusing, is best seen as an opportunity. I promise you that it can lead to something better than you knew before: the confrontation with the simultaneous fact that the particular satisfaction you're looking for comes from relaxing, not getting.
Actual rivers sometimes find themselves flowing into a constricted place, damned up by weather, beaver, or man made structures. They pool and stay still, not perfectly still, the water may seep into the ground or evaporate to continue it's journey, but seemingly still. Sometimes rivers flow over rocky, uneven ground and they swell, become turbulent, and eddy in circles over and over and over before eventually falling out the side of the eddy and continuing downstream. The river of our experience is very similar. Our lives have constricted times and constricted places, turbulent, and eddying times and places too. The sense of love not being available anywhere, inside or outside relationship - and yet you seek because it must be somewhere - is due to a kind of eddy in experience.
In my life, I spent several years in and outside of relationships always feeling somewhat desperate. Where was the love I was seeking? And then I discovered the tension. I reflected on the fact that nothing imaginable seemed to be able to satisfy my desire for love: in no case could I imagine feeling loved and appreciated to the degree that would be satisfying. And then I asked myself, is that because I am unwilling or unable to let love in, and not because it's not given? Yes, of course. Then, imagining receiving love I let my attention follow the flow of those feelings… right into a constricted place. My perineum tightened, I bounced away from receiving love and into my head, into an abstract, philosophical reflection on the whole process. Aha! I returned to my perineum, determined to relax. I relaxed, and what did I find? The love I had been looking for. And it got in. In fact, it couldn't even get in, because it was already in, already in and amidst and amongst my experience of just being here, like water to a fish. It is this kind of physical, emotional, and existential relaxation that satisfies desperate longings, and in particular the desperate longing to feel loved.
Relationships can help us relax. And sometimes we can't relax except outside of a relationship. This was how it was for me. It is hard to know before hand. So, then, does finding satisfaction in love mean that you'll never need a relationship again. Not necessarily, there may be other reasons you want to get into, or stay in, a relationship. In general, the more we experience these kinds of relaxations and the satisfactions they bring, the more our actions become spontaneous and powerful, but sometimes they also make it so that we our actions occur with less fearful reflection and deliberation. You may not know what you want until after you find yourself going for it.
In a river pulsing forward,
the unknown opens like a swell,
pulling from the front,
a positive push from behind.
What calls you into you
thunders with self-identity;
it's confidence is inescapable
even when you don't know its name.
This work is meant to help you find deep self-understanding and integrity between your insight and your actions. We begin by
highlighting your motivation for working together, even if your motivation is a vague or nebulous feeling. Putting attention on what you're looking for helps establish mutual respect and
trust. Over time, our conversations will evolve organically, dependent on you're interests and needs. This work is very personalized, so many different types of practices,
reflections, and topics for dialogue may be helpful. I won't superimpose ideals on you, my intention is to continually learn about who you are and are becoming. I want you to be
satisfied with the degree that you are answering your questions, coming up with new ones, and answering those as well. If you are feeling secure, challenged, useful, and honest we are
probably on the right track.
Let me know if you'd like to work together.
I'm excited to begin to share with you some of my ideas. I hope they have value for you. Some of my posts will be geared to
solve specific problems, though they will likely also have more abstract philosophical ideas in them, because that is most often how I think. Some of my posts will primarily be
philosophical musings, though they may also have practical applications or address concerns you have. I am under no delusion that my ideas will remain strictly consistent over time.
My ideas continue to develop, and have been challenged and revised many times. Therefore, this blog will be an expression of my own most honest and relevant ongoing thinking.
To whet your appetite, here are some other topics I have been thinking and writing about recently: distraction and the internet, realistic notions of a "most happy" life, essential creativity and responsibility, flow, the basic unavoidability of desire, using language in ways that doesn't set up opposing binaries, and the intrinsic relationships between selfishness, empathy, morality, and climate change.
This blog does not have any "ultimate" goal. I don't think there are such things, nor any ultimate goods. After looking and looking and looking for a way to describe one, I now think that there is simply what we want. Our wants lead to more wants, which reveal more wants, and on and on, landing no where. (This forever carrying forward, forever desiring, will also be a major theme for the blog.) And despite my long resistance to this, I now find that this is actually a fine way to live. All of the ideas presented here will come from my own struggles trying to navigate a complex world and lead a life that's enjoyable and that I can be proud of. It is my hope that for those struggling in similar ways and on similar topics the wrestling I've done will make it easier for you to get what you want too.
Check out the Blog Archive to see all my my blogs. Contact me to suggest blog topics, and for mentoring to help you answer your own questions.