Mind Matters

What If We Already Know How to Live?

What If We Already Know How to Live? | My essay published on Ribbonfarm (?!)

Exciting news - I wrote an essay for Ribbonfarm, Venkatesh Rao & co’s popular blog devoted to “exploring refactored perception”, which they describe as:

“Experiments in refactored perceptions is a geek joke. It refers to changing how you see the world by trying to rewire the software inside your head through writing.”

My essay explores how the internet-driven shift from information scarcity to abundance evolved the basic human conundrum of living well from a deficiency in discovery, to a negligence in design.

Global connectivity amplified the ecological interdependence of our lives, so that the design of our sociocultural systems play as intimate a role in sculpting our sentience as our more ‘local’ ecologies. Economics, digital media, and global trends now swirl together with contemplative practice, time use, social circles, and lifestyle design in our project of figuring out how to live.

So we stand as a culture, frazzled in the wake of an electrified society, asking with Annie Dillard: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Where the hippies set off to discover themselves, we may now prefer, recognizing ‘selves’ as interwoven sentient nodes of ecological systems, to do the communal work of designing ourselves. 

You can read the full essay on Ribbonfarm

Does Infinity Exist in Nature?

I’m reading cosmologist Janna Levin’s book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, because I want to know the scientific community’s progress on the question:

Is the Universe infinite, or just really big?

I wrote an essay laying out my curiosities on this, but I want to focus on a particular comment she made:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in scientific theory - except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.”

Hm. Show a Buddhist a finite object in nature, and they’ll show you the arbitrary intellectual distinction you’re using to slice up the interdependent, interwoven universe into cognitively digestible morsels.

This analytic carving up of reality by human cognition is taken up by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world. Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts…When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process”

I’m not sure finitude is a property of nature, but maybe a result of human perceptual and cognitive mechanisms grasping to make sense and order of what they perceive. The universe might be one big infinity, all of its finitudes just arbitrary intellectual distinctions imposed by a human mind. Everything in nature is blurred together, beginnings and ends of apparently finite objects might only exist in the mind. In our spacetime, things all coalesce into the same tapestry, the same thing.

In this sense, maybe Buddhas — beings wholly liberated from mental grasping, clinging, and craving tendencies — see only infinity in nature, for there is nothing else. “Eternity in an hour.” Contrasting Levin’s remark, I wonder if no finitude exists in nature.

There’s an incredible short essay on the ‘intellectual knife’, found here. Some of the best essays on the internet are obscure pdf documents.

Contemplative Philosophy

The label ‘contemplative philosophy’ is one way to describe the budding iteration of philosophy that incorporates meditation, neuroscience, and the embodied search for living well.

Adam Robbert, who runs The Side View, wrote a great thread on how theory & practice combine in this mode of philosophy, where things matter only insofar as they act upon one’s perception & attention:

Book Notes: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet

I have no clue what to say about this book, other than it defies all my attempts to understand it, which is a healthy thing for the mind.

It’s one of those reads whose departure from all expectations renders it mysterious, and that mystery is tantalizing, alluring, as if it contains some way of seeing the world that I might learn something entirely unexpected from, or react to in some entirely unforeseen way.

It’s slightly aphoristic, and quite pessimistic. All broken up into short bits, reminiscent of E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born.

It begins:

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I do not know what instruments, what violins and harps, drums and tambours, sound and clash inside me. I know myself only as a symphony.”

It’s a vaguely psychoanalytic project, an introspective meditation on living, but with a kind of indifference and cruelty that separates it from similar projects. For example:

“The makers of metaphysical systems, of psychological explanations, are still new to suffering. Systematizing, explaining…building? And all this - arranging, ordering, organizing - is nothing but energy expended and all too desolatingly like life!

I am no pessimist. Happy are those who can make of their suffering something universal.”

I’m still working through it, it’s a book that can be dipped in and out of. But it’s twisting me in such unfamiliar ways, expanding what I thought was possible with writing, that I’d happily recommend it as an antidote to the homogenization of literary tastes that we get through all scouring the same best-seller lists, reading the same genres and forms.

The Guardian wrote a review if you want to learn more, or find the book on Amazon.

That’s it!

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