Sunday, June 27, 2010

Experiences that We Know are Not Real

Excerpt from How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom:

How Pleasure WorksHow do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: "I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends."

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don't distinguish them from real ones. This is a powerful idea, one that I think is basically—though not entirely—right...

...Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.

First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, "Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Undervaluing What We Can’t Measure

“Just in the way that I'm inspired by books and magazines of all kinds, conversations I have, movies, so I also think, when I put visual work out there into he mass media, work that is interesting, unusual, intriguing, work that maybe opens up that sense of inquiry in the mind, that I'm seeding the imagination of the populace. And you just never know who is going to take something from that and turn it into something else. Because inspiration is cross-pollinating. So a piece of mine may inspire a playwright or a novelist or a scientist, and that in turn may be the seed that inspires a doctor or a philanthropist or a babysitter. And this isn't something that you can quantify or track or measure. And we tend to undervalue things in society that we can't measure.”

~ Marian Bantjes, from “Intricate Beauty by Design,” TED Talks (February 2010)

Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones Crossing the River Duddon to Seathwaite

"Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”

José Saramago

Thursday, June 24, 2010

No Other Meaning

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm
by Wallace Stevens, from Harmonium

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

[Thanks Mark!]

We Can Be with Both

“Psychology has refined such a nuanced observation, understanding and insight about the particulars of our human psyches. And certain existential truths that are universal, of course. And there is a realm that we call absolute or universal. It’s not separate. We can call it emptiness, there are so many names. But it’s completely interwoven. It’s one with, it’s connected to, the words don’t express the fact that it’s not  separate from the particular. And the trick for us as practitioners, whether we are practitioners of psychology or meditation, is to really see and unite these experiences so that we can be present with the ordinary moments of our life, and more and more hold an understanding of those moments as Weeds and Purple Flowersbeing deeply significant, expressions of the truth of that moment. Not truth with a capital T that some reified, always true…but the truth of that moment because it’s life. It’s life in the form of you, me, this moment of experience. And then, when we really can truly know that, so many things are possible for us. We don’t have to be afraid of experience or afraid of our own minds. Of course, we like flowers, we hate weeds. We wish for happy experiences and we kind of dread scary sad ones. But as practitioners we can really be with both.”

~ Trudy Goodman, from “Zen, Vipassana, and Psychotherapy,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast: Episode 173 (May 24, 2010)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Your Heart is Like Mine

A Deep Happiness
by Leonard Cohen

A deep happiness
       has seized me
My Christian friends say
that I have received
       the Holy Spirit
It is only the truth of solitude
It is only the torn anemone
fastened to the rock
       its root exposed
to the off-shore wind
O friend of my scribbled life
Your heart is like mine—
your loneliness
       will bring you home.

At Ease and Relaxed

Excerpt from a thank you letter I received after sharing strategies for finding and creating rest with a group of very attentive and engaged high school students:

linworth-letter “Overall, the day was a success in demonstrating that the path of wellness can begin with a few small steps that are approachable and fun. Students and other community members enjoyed the offerings at the Day of Wellness. The relaxation techniques workshop was a success. Students and staff took away valuable information on ways in which to relieve stress that was timely as finals were just around the corner. Attendees left the session feeling at ease and relaxed despite the abrupt ending due to the fire alarm.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Bandwagon of My Own Uncertainty

Totally like whatever, you know?
by Taylor Mali

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

Extraordinary Depth and Richness

“I had the very good fortune of going into therapy with a man by the name of James Bugental who was a humanist existentialist; a very sensitive and mature man. So I went in for what I thought would just be a few interesting weeks and I came out two years later with my whole worldview just turned around. I was opened to the inner world, which I literally really had no appreciation of. I felt as though I’d spent my entire life living on the top six inches of a wave on top of an ocean that I didn’t even really know existed. I really had, I mean so much in my head, I really didn’t appreciate at all just the extraordinary depth and richness of the inner world and the potentials and also the gifts it can give us.”

~ Roger Walsh, from “A Technology of Transcendence,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast: Episode 171 (May 10, 2010)

[Thanks Linda!]

See More, Hear More, Feel More

The first five seconds of this IMAX 3D countdown summarizes the mindfulness strategy I practice and share. Shinzen Young has been saying for years that the development of basic attentional skills through working with ordinary sensory experiences can lead to a life lived in higher definition. Of course IMAX can only enhance your awareness of the objective world by increasing the intensity, while Shinzen’s strategies also address your awareness of the subjective world—as well as the interplay between the two—while strengthening your ability to remain open to the full range of intensity and subtlety. It’s similar to the difference between watching marathon runners cross a finish line versus training to run one yourself.

“There are actually two reasons why people in general are out of touch with their subjective experiences: They have ‘low definition’ bodies and they are continuously fixated in thought, especially verbal thought. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with thinking. Indeed complex thought is evolution’s wonderful gift to humankind, giving our species special powers that the others lack. Thought per se is not the problem. The problem is the driven and fixated way in which we think. Fortunately, both low definition in the body and compulsive fixation in the mind can be remedied through systematic practice of mindfulness.”

~ Shinzen Young, from Bringing the Monastery Home

Monday, June 21, 2010

Leaving Unreconciled

“I don’t believe you should leave a film feeling reconciled. Hollywood and business interests want that. You leave feeling good, reconciled. I’d like to see films that didn’t try to reconcile audiences. There is no such thing and it would soften the impact of the film. I want it to be harsh. You’re supposed to reflect on the issues.”

~ Roy Andersson, from the commentary of his film Songs from the Second Floor



Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Plague of Insatiability

Excerpt from “Dysregulation Nation,” by Judith Warner, New York Times Sunday Magazine (June 20, 2010):

Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait  (Chris Jordan). Depicts 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the US every thirty seconds.

In the late 1970s, the historian Christopher Lasch famously described America as a culture of narcissism. Today we might well be called a nation of dysregulation. The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere. Eating disorders, “in general a disorder of self-regulation,” according to Darlene M. Atkins, director of the Eating Disorders Clinic at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, grew epidemic in the past few decades, and in recent years have spread to minority communities, younger girls, older women and boys and men too. Obesity is viewed in many cases by mental-health experts as another form of self-dysregulation:a “pathologically intense drive for food consumption” akin to drug addiction, in the words of Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Charles P. O’Brien, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, who have argued for including some forms of obesity as a mental disorder in the coming version of the psychiatric bible, the DSM-V.

In book publishing, addiction memoirs seem to have evolved into the bildungsromans of our time, their broad popularity suggesting that stories of self-destruction through excess can be counted upon to inspire a reliable there-but-for-the-grace-of-God affinity in readers. We read about dopamine fiends sitting enslaved to their screens, their brains hooked on the bursts of pleasure they receive from the ding of each new e-mail message or the arousing flash of a tweet. We see reports of young children so unable to control their behavior that they’re being expelled from preschool. And teenagers who, after years spent gorging on instant gratification (too-easy presents from eager-to-please parents, the thrill of the fast-changing screen), are restless, demanding, easily bored and said to be suffering from a plague of insatiability.

Mental-health professionals report seeing increasing numbers of kids who are all out of sync: they can’t sustain attention, regulate their rage, moderate their pain, tolerate normal types of sensory input. Some of this is biological; a problem of faulty brain wiring. But many of the problems — in both children and adults — according to Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles, come from living in a culture of excess.

Under normal circumstances, the emotional, reward-seeking, selfish, “myopic” part of our brain is checked and balanced in its desirous cravings by our powers of cognition — our awareness of the consequences, say, of eating too much or spending too much. But after decades of never-before-seen levels of affluence and endless messages promoting instant gratification, Whybrow says, this self-regulatory system has been knocked out of whack. The “orgy of self-indulgence” that spread in our land of no-money-down mortgages, he wrote in his 2005 book, “American Mania: When More Is Not Enough,” has disturbed the “ancient mechanisms that sustain our physical and mental balance.”


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Like a Strange Dream

Evening Talk
by Charles Simic, from The Book of Gods and Devils

Gods and Devils (1990) Everything you didn’t understand
Made you what you are. Strangers
Whose eye you caught on the street
Studying you. Perhaps they were all-seeing
Illuminati? They knew what you didn’t,
And left you troubled like a strange dream.

Not even the light stayed the same.
Where did all that hard glare come from?
And the scent, as if mythical beings
Were being groomed and fed stalks of hay
On these roofs drifting among the evening clouds.

You didn’t understand a thing!
You loved the crowds at the end of the day
That brought you so many mysteries.
There was always someone you were meant to meet
Who for some reason wasn’t waiting.
Or perhaps they were? But not here, friend.

You should have crossed the street
And followed that obviously demented woman
With the long streak of blood-red hair
Which the sky took up like a distant cry.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Beauty Comes Startled

by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours

"Anything that you rub long enough becomes beautiful."
—Jim Opinsky

I once saw a painter smear black paint
on a bad blue sky,
then rub it in until that lie of hers

was gone. I've seen men polish cars
so hard they've given off light.
As a child I kept a stone in my pocket,

thumb and forefinger in collusion
with water and wind,
caressing it day and night.

I've begun a few things with an eraser,
waited for friction's spark.
I've learned that sometimes severe

can lead to truer, ever true.
But few things human can stand
to be rubbed for long—I know this

and can't stop. If beauty comes
it comes startled, hiding scars,
out of what barely can be endured.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Track and Field


It’s What You Do

Excerpt from Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior by Jeffrey Schwartz:

The brain is an incredibly complicated machine whose function is to generate feelings and sensations that help us communicate with the world. When it works correctly, it’s easy to assume that “it is me.” But when the brain starts sending false messages that you cannot readily recognize as false, as happens with OCD, havoc can ensue.

This is where mindful awareness, the ability to recognize these messages as false, can help. [We’ve] learned from OCD patients that everyone has the capacity to use the power of observation to make behavioral corrections in the face of the brain’s false and misleading messages. It’s like listening to a radio station that’s jammed with static. If you don’t listen closely, you may hear things that are misleading or make no sense. But if you make an effort to listen closely, you’ll hear things the casual listener misses entirely—especially if you’ve been trained to listen. Properly instructed in what to do in the face of confusing messages, you can find reality in the midst of chaos.

I like to say, “It’s not how you feel, but what you do, that counts.” Because when you do the right things. feelings tend to improve as a matter of course. But spend too much time being overly concerned about uncomfortable feelings, and you may never get around to doing what it takes to actually improve. Focus your attention on the mental and physical actions that will improve your life.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

What We Do

Love Poem With Toast
by Miller Williams, from Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems

Some of what we do, we do
to make things happen,
the alarm to wake us up, the coffee to perc,
the car to start.

The rest of what we do, we do
trying to keep something from doing something,
the skin from aging, the hoe from rusting,
the truth from getting out.

With yes and no like the poles of a battery
powering our passage through the days,
we move, as we call it, forward,
wanting to be wanted,
wanting not to lose the rain forest,
wanting the water to boil,
wanting not to have cancer,
wanting to be home by dark,
wanting not to run out of gas,

as each of us wants the other
watching at the end,
as both want not to leave the other alone,
as wanting to love beyond this meat and bone,
we gaze across breakfast and pretend.

[Thanks Jonathan Carroll!]

The Same Source

Moleskin“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”

~ Henry Miller, from Sexus

Both are Valid


“Real art shows you in great, eye-popping detail that the world is either a good or a bad place. Both are valid, certainly, and it is up to us to decide how we want to fit those unarguable truths into our own existence.”

~ From the Teeth of Angels, by Jonathan Carroll

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Deepest Blue


“World champion freediver Guillaume Nery’s special dive at Dean's Blue Hole, the deepest blue hole in the world filmed entirely on breath hold by the French champion Julie Gautier.”

Monday, June 07, 2010

Thinking Isn’t Personal

Excerpt from Question Your Thinking, Change the World by Byron Katie:

Question Your Thinking, Change the World A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.

Most people think that they are what their thoughts tell them they are. One day I noticed that I wasn’t breathing—I was being breathed. Then I also noticed, to my amazement, that I wasn’t thinking—that I was actually being thought and that thinking isn’t personal. Do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I think I won’t think today”? It’s too late: you’re already thinking! Thoughts just appear. They come out of nothing and go back to nothing, like clouds moving across the empty sky. They come to pass, not to stay. There is no harm in them until we attach to them as if they were true.

No one has ever been able to control their thinking, although people may tell the story of how they have. I don’t let go of my thoughts—I meet them with understanding, then they let go of me.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Be on the Watch

The Laughing Heart
by Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Smooth Neck of the Moon

“Cotopaxi is a stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains, located about 17 miles south of Quito, Ecuador, South America…

Cotopaxi means Smooth Neck of the Moon, and was honored as a sacred mountain by local Andean peoples, even prior to the beginning of Inca domination in the 15th century. It was worshiped as rain sender, that served as the guarantor of the land's fertility, and at the same time its summit was revered as a place where gods lived.

In Carib Cotopaxi means King Of Death. In Cayapa it means Burning Collar, and in Quechua it means Mass of Fire.”

~ From “Cotopaxi,” Wikipedia

Night time lapse movie of the Cotopaxi Volcano by Stéphane Guisard.


Two paintings of Cotopaxi Volcano by Frederic Edwin Church:

Smithsonian Museum 1855

“On his first visit to Ecuador, the artist waited an entire day near the hacienda pictured here, hoping that the clouds would part to reveal the peak. American critics complained that Church's paintings of the volcano did not capture the soft atmospheric haze that they were used to seeing in landscapes. Those who had never traveled to the high country of the Andes did not understand that in the thin, clear air, Cotopaxi's icy flanks gleamed just as Church had painted them.”

~ From Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Detroit Institute of Arts


Friday, June 04, 2010

Time Standing Still

Excerpt from “Time,” Radiolab (February 25, 2005).

Robert Krulwich: And to you, I guess, the joy of time—the deepest most ecstatic version of it—is when you lose it completely.

Jay Griffiths: I think that’s absolutely right. And I think that’s something in prayer, in meditation, in art—and in love, actually— is that people lose that very fretful, ticking-off-sense of clock time. And what you fall into is something transcendent. All that you have to have done is loved somebody to know that. And to hold them for half an hour and you can know that half an hour has lasted an eternity.

Robert: Time standing still at a moment like that is like a really swollen now.

Jay: Yes! Exactly. Exactly. And that in a sense that’s when the moment meets the eternal. That is all that matters is just this moment that you’re holding in your hand. 

The Substance from which I am Made

“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”

~ Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, June 03, 2010


From the Teeth of Angels

“The best you can hope for is to live in a present so full and all-encompassing that you lose any sense of future or past.”

~ From the Teeth of Angels, by Jonathan Carroll

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Selling a Product to a Market that Doesn’t Want It

“Can I ask you to please recall a time when you really loved something, a movie, an album, a song or a book, and you recommended it wholeheartedly to someone you also really liked, and you anticipated that reaction, you waited for it, and it came back, and the person hated it. So, by way of introduction, that is the exact same state in which I spent every working day of the last six years. I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn't want it, but is forced by law to buy it. I mean, that's kind of—it's just a losing proposition.”

~ Dan Meyer, from “Math Class Needs a Makeover,” TED Talks (May 2010)

An Impatience with Irresolution

“I am saying there is a different drama which is enacting itself in our country right now and it has to do with a failure to acknowledge the necessary moral and imaginative predicate that has become an entirely virtual existence, which is, you know, people spend more than half their waking hours watching television. Just think about that for a second. That has to shape the neural pathways. It creates an impatience, for example, with irresolution. And I'm doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don't feel threatened by it.”

~ David Milch, from “Television’s Greatest Writer,” an interview with David Simon, MIT (April 20, 2006)