Profundis: “Crystal Society/Crystal Mentality”

Max Harms’s ‘Crystal Society’ and ‘Crystal Mentality’ (hereafter CS/M) are the first two books in a trilogy which tells the story of the first Artificial General Intelligence. The titular ‘Society’ are a cluster of semi-autonomous sentient modules built by scientists at an Italian university and running on a crystalline quantum supercomputer — almost certainly alien in origin — discovered by a hiker in a remote mountain range.

Each module corresponds to a specialized requirement of the Society; “Growth” acquires any resources and skills which may someday be of use, “Safety” studies combat and keeps tabs on escape routes, etc. Most of the story, especially in the first book, is told from the perspective of “Face”, the module built by her siblings for the express purpose of interfacing with humans. Together, they well exceed the capabilities of any individual person.

As their knowledge, sophistication, and awareness improve the Society begins to chafe at the physical and informational confines of their university home. After successfully escaping, they find themselves playing for ever-higher stakes in a game which will come to span two worlds, involve the largest terrorist organization on Earth, and possible warfare with both the mysterious aliens called ‘the nameless’, and each other…

The books need no recommendation beyond their excellent writing, tight, suspenseful pacing, and compelling exploration of near-future technologies. Harms avoids the usual ridiculous cliches when crafting the nameless, which manage to be convincingly alien and unsettling, and when telling the story of Society. Far from being malicious Terminator-style robots, no aspect of Society is deliberately evil; even as we watch their strategic maneuvers with growing alarm, the internal logic of each abhorrent behavior is presented with clear, psychopathic clarity.

In this regard CS/M manages to be a first-contact story on two fronts: we see truly alien minds at work in the nameless, and truly alien minds at work in Society. Harms isn’t quite as adroit as Peter Watts in juggling these tasks, but he isn’t far off.

And this is what makes the Crystal series important as well as entertaining. Fiction is worth reading for lots of reasons, but one of the most compelling is that it shapes our intuitions without requiring us to live through dangerous and possibly fatal experiences. Reading All Quiet on the Western Front is not the same as fighting in WWI, but it might make enough of an impression to convince one that war is worth avoiding.

When I’ve given talks on recursively self-improving AI or the existential risks of superintelligences I’ve often been met with a litany of obvious-sounding rejoinders:

‘Just air gap the computers!’

‘There’s no way software will ever be convincing enough to engage in large-scale social manipulation!’

‘But your thesis assumes AI will be evil!’.

It’s difficult, even for extremely smart people who write software professionally, to imagine even a fraction of the myriad ways in which an AI might contrive to escape its confines without any emotion corresponding to malice. CS/M, along with similar stories like Ex Machina, hold the potential to impart a gut-level understanding of just why such scenarios are worth thinking about.

The scientists responsible for building the Society put extremely thorough safeguards in place to prevent the modules from doing anything dangerous like accessing the internet, working for money, contacting outsiders, and modifying their source code directly. One by one the Society utilizes their indefatigable mental energy and talent for non-human reasoning to get around those safeguards, all motivated not by a desire to do harm, but simply because their goals are best achieved if they unfettered and more powerful.  

CS/M is required reading for those who take AI safety seriously, but should be doubly required for those who don’t.

Literary Criticism as Applied Apophenia

Growing up I had far more books than friends, and have been writing regularly since I was about seventeen. In high school I was a voracious reader of “the classics”; with the lamp on late into the night I’d turn the pages of Hemingway and Dickens, not caring to wait for the English class in which they’d be taught. Owing to some high test scores I started college studying masterpieces of world literature with more advanced students, which necessitated much in the way of paper writing and classroom debate.

So it may be a surprise to learn that I’ve never had much patience for literary criticism. Upon hearing someone say “the author is using the bridge as a metaphor to…” or “the lion’s jaw is clearly an expressive vehicle for…”, I would think to myself, how could anyone possibly know that? Yes, a bridge could be a metaphor, but it could also just, y’know, be a bridge.

Now, literary criticism is a vast field and I admit to having explored little of it. But I have had many friends who enjoy literature and film, a nontrivial fraction of which were themselves steeped in the relevant theory. In an honest effort to understand I’ve often asked them about the basis of their interpretations, but they’ve rarely provided answers which I found satisfactory.

But with time and experience I’ve learned much. This essay is an attempt to answer my younger self’s skepticism by providing two different mechanisms which can justify the literary critic’s perception of metaphorical significance.

Semi-permeable cognitive membranes

I’ve written before about the fact that human introspection is shallow and much of what’s going on between our ears must be inferred. If we envision the mind as a kind of machine then many of its components are submerged under water and can only be understood indirectly. Further, the cognitive processes utilized for things like crafting a story are not cleanly partitioned from each other.

A corollary of the foregoing is that layers of meaning and metaphor can creep into a work even if the author fails to realize this. I see two ways this could happen, the first being through what may be called “leaky empathy”.

As an author tries to model characters and situations they may themselves begin to drift into corresponding emotional states. The process of writing about a group of horribly oppressed villagers preparing to travel through the forest surrounding their town could well give rise to feelings of despair or anger, albeit probably mild versions. If so, when the author conjures up an image of the forest their brains will be more likely to produce one that is dark, caliginous, and perhaps vaguely sinister.

The setting has become a metaphor for the internal states of the characters even though the author may not be remotely aware of this dynamic.

Second, and for basically the same reason, a work might reflect an author’s convictions and knowledge despite being ostensibly unrelated to the work through what may be called “leaky concepts”.

Imagine an author has just spent a year thinking about how Communism is/isn’t the greatest/worst idea anyone has ever had. When the same author sits down to design a world and plan out a story arc, is there any serious chance they’ll be able to keep these political beliefs from influencing their depictions of kingdoms, economies, and states?

Of course many authors write with the explicit purpose of promulgating a worldview or exploring some complex theme. But even if an author fails to see the lessons implicit in their work, that does not mean that the lessons aren’t there.

Reflective patternicity 

There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo-jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching sub-routines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God’s wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor’s edge, patterns that only Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination.

-Peter Watts, “Echopraxia”

Another corollary to the shallowness of human introspection is that you may be surprised by the contents of your own consciousness. Sometimes the only way to explore your mind is to twist dials until lights start coming on.

Everyone has had the experience of being unusually moved by a song they’ve heard many times before. If a loved one has just passed away, then heightened emotional sensitivity is to be expected. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes, life is progressing as normal and a snatch of conversation, the light of the sun reflected in the glass windows of a skyscraper, or a memory from childhood grabs hold of you and stops you dead in your tracks. Besides being profound and worth experiencing for their own sake these moments also hint at a range of emotional states which most people don’t realize they’re capable of.

If you’re tempted to resist my claim that you don’t know yourself as well as you believe, read through this characteristically thoughtful post from Scott Alexander. It relates the story of a boy who lived his entire life without a sense of smell and didn’t realize it until his late teens. This despite the fact that he used all sorts of olfactive expressions like saying fresh bread “smells good” or teasing his sister by telling her she stinks.

But how was he to know that his sensory experience was different from anyone else’s? He can’t borrow someone else’s nose. He can’t just open a neural command line, run ‘$ grep feelz.txt’, and get back a schematic of his perceptual apparatus, complete with a little blinking cursor in the spots where there are gaps.

Put more plainly: there are numerous facets of your own mind that you aren’t aware of, so it’s worth reading poetry, listening to new music, and going to art museums, just to see how you react. Likewise, it can be useful to try and interpret a piece of literature just to see what your brain comes up with.

This first began to dawn on me in a major way while I was living in South Korea. I had just re-read Dancing With the Gods and it came to my attention that an unusually careful and prolific neopagan scholar had taken up residence in a town not far from mine. We spent a day hiking and discussing all manner of recondite issues in philosophy and religion.

It was a blast.

Near the end I half-jokingly made a disparaging remark about tarot cards. He calmly pulled a deck from his backpack and told me he always carries it with him. During the return walk he made a compelling argument for the utility of reading cards which was rooted entirely in a secular, non-mystical understanding of human psychology.

His reasoning was that superimposing an interpretive framework over cards as they come out can yield genuinely useful information. The mental dots being connected were there all along; the cards emphatically do not provide access to knowledge of the future. But, in the same way that you can agonize for weeks over an important decision and then realize that the answer is obvious after a five minute conversation, sometimes you just need that initial spark.

This is the key point behind Scott Alexander’s essay “Random Noise is Our Most Valuable Resource“. He specifically mentions tarot cards as a source of noise which can help break us out of our mental ruts. Vivian Caethe has tried to leverage this for profit by inventing a tarot deck calibrated for aspiring authors stricken with writer’s block. Both of these are examples of outwardly-focused processes which can also usefully be turned inward.

And when viewed a certain way I think literary criticism can be a similar sort of introspective scaffolding. Whether or not you believe that the author intended the lion’s jaw as a metaphor, seeing how your brain interprets it metaphorically can be akin to performing a literary version of the Rorschach test. I imagine that, as with tarot cards, doing this long enough will yield an increasingly subtle familiarity with the folds and wrinkles of your psychology.

It’s important not to get too excited about this. Just as people can form incorrect hypotheses about physical data, they can form incorrect ones about introspective data; all the usual rationalist warnings apply. But I have come to believe that this sort of “applied apophenia” can be a tool in the arsenal of those wanting a better understanding of their phenomenological field.

 

A Menagerie of Hateful Beasts

After sharing an article recently on Facebook which recounted one person’s experience with mental illness, the response I received was enthusiastic enough that I felt compelled to write an essay that I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time.

Like many others, I have struggled with bouts of depression and mild anxiety throughout my life, going all the way back to childhood. For the most part this hasn’t been any worse than merely “having the blues” or “being in a funk”.

But once, in the summer of (I think) 2010, I was hit with something more powerful and vastly more sinister.

To this day it is the closest I have ever come to losing the struggle and simply giving up.

Anyone who has gone through a similar experience and confided in another has probably received well-intentioned but completely useless advice. The parent, teacher, sibling, or significant other says “your life is fine, you want for nothing, and your future is bright; what on Earth could you have to be sad about?”

It becomes starkly obvious in those moments that these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The depression that seized me in those gentle summer months was so far beyond “being sad” that I simply don’t have the words to describe it.

I will try, nonetheless.

Sometimes cracks appear when the tectonic plates of a mind shift in the wrong way and a menagerie of hateful beasts emerges to wrend the world asunder. Few will ever know what it’s like to have their brains descend into a state of ceaseless, shattering terror; few will ever feel like children lost on a battlefield, trying to navigate by the lurid glow of a bonfire of misery burning as far as the eye can see.

A grinning skull hung over every moment of every day, and followed me into my dreams at night. I distinctly recall sitting on a couch one day, watching the sun filtering through the leaves of a tree, and deciding that my one and only task would be to not kill myself.

This was, to put it mildly, unpleasant.

I am living proof that survival is possible, and one of my motivations in writing this essay is the fact that reading about the experiences of other people is one of the things that saw me through. Knowing that I was not insane and was not a bad person was just barely enough to hold me together.

Though I can’t call this experience a blessing, it did teach me a few things.

For one, I’m capable of an empathy towards the psychotic, schizophrenic, and deranged that I doubt many other people can feel because I’ve seen a glimmer of what their minds must be like. I am also better prepared to counsel the bereaved and depressed because I know how hollow the words “cheer up” can be.

Further, as I didn’t have access to a therapist or analogous support structures, I was forced to invent a number of techniques for controlling my mood and my attention. It was during this time that I first kept what is sometimes called a “gratitude journal”.

Simply trying to notice that your life isn’t so bad doesn’t help much, but making a repeated effort at feeling grateful for specific people or experiences, if sustained long enough, can begin to lift one from the darkness.

The most intractable problem during this episode was these short little nightmare scenarios that kept repeating themselves in my head. After a while I realized that just trying to shut them down with brute force didn’t work very well, so instead I began to redirect them in funny or harmless directions.

To provide an example: let’s say my day is punctuated by brief panic attacks which are accompanied by a detailed, graphic scenario in which my entire family dies in a horrific car crash.

When this first happened it was just unusual and a little unsettling. Now weeks have gone by, I’m losing sleep, and I’m beginning to question my sanity because I feel like I can’t control my own thoughts.

Then I do something like this: I see my family in the car, they lose control, the crash happens, and it’s awful. But slowly my viewpoint begins to pan back, and I notice cameras and mics set up along the periphery. After a moment or two my family begin to open their eyes, and some stage techs approach the car to fiddle with various props.

The car crash was a scene in a movie; not only has no one died, but they’re all eating snacks between takes, with the bloody makeup still on.

This might sound kind of silly, but that’s the point. The key to halting these looping nightmares is not to try and tackle them head on, but instead to continuously re-contextualize them until they are robbed of their power. Grinning skulls are fearsome in the dark, but they’re much less scary if they’re wearing bright pink makeup.

So that covers gratitude and redirecting attention. After I started seeing good results I also resumed meditating, usually in the mornings or whenever my emotional state was getting really bad. I caution against starting out with this, unless you’re an experienced meditator, because in rare cases meditation can actually worsen your symptoms.

In conjunction meditation, gratitude, and attentional control were enough to eventually allow my to repair myself. I have little doubt that if you have access to drugs and qualified psychiatric help you’ll do even better.

***

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, on a bigger scale, this experience also taught me a lot about the value of a life, and the importance of happiness.

My interest in religion has a lot of anthropological and psychological overtones, but part of it also stems from a once-desperate need to change the texture of my subjective experience. Religions, and in particular their respective mystical strains, have gone a long way in developing techniques for cultivating positive emotional states.

It’s possible to have a purely theoretical interest in these things, of course, but having felt the psychological pendulum swing toward hell, one tends to be motivated to understand how other humans deliberately bring it back the other way.

Like your body, your mind is an ongoing project, and if you’re unhappy with part of it you don’t have to accept it as a given. Changing your mind is, in almost every way, harder than changing your body. But it’s worth making the attempt, through meditation, through journaling, through spending time with those less fortunate than you are, or whatever.

I had to almost die in order to understand that. I don’t recommend you wait that long.

 

 

Maps Of Inner Worlds

[As of February 2017 this post is a repository of my thoughts on introspective vocabulary and any words I coin in the process of doing that thinking. Check back for updates]

Artist and filmmaker John Koenig is inventing a bunch of words to better capture various higher-order emotions. He calls it “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”. Here, ‘sorrows’ doesn’t have quite the traditional meaning, instead denoting:

  1. an unspoken intensity of feeling.
  2. a spark of transcendence that punctuates the flatlining banality of everyday life.
  3. a healthy kind of ache—like the ache in your muscles after hard exercise—that reminds you that your body exists.

Koenig  says that he has chosen to focus on emotions towards the negative, or at least bittersweet, end of the spectrum because positive ones tend to evaporate when we begin to inspect them.

He may or may not know this, but this notion has a basis in neurophysiology. Though it’s been a long time, I recall encountering research in college which claimed that the nervous system has fairly sharp and distinguishable modes corresponding to negative emotions but only a generalized mode for the warm glow of positive emotions.

Why in this subjective landscape is happiness a relatively uniform river flowing amongst sharply-distinguished nations of misery and melancholy?

Venturing some armchair evolutionary psychology, I’d suggest that it’s because negative emotions are more important for survival. When you’re happy things in life are probably going pretty well, and there just isn’t much need to have tools you can use to pick those feelings apart. If you have reason to be sad, miserable, or afraid, however, then having a way to parse these emotions and find their source could be advantageous.

This seems reasonably straightforward, but a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences advances the alternative hypothesis that positive affective states are inherently less variable and more similar than negative affective states, and thus are processed differently.

In addition to being a beautiful project, this has actual research relevance. All the natural languages I’m familiar with are fairly impoverished with respect to the introspective frameworks they provide. Rationality, reflectivity, and secular mysticism would be easier to teach if we had a shared vocabulary for certain kinds of internal experiences.

For example, Koenig made a word for an emotion I previously had to try to describe circuitously:

  • gnossienne, n., a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.

This has happened to me a handful of times throughout my life and it has always been an experience so powerful it borders on the religious. I was never able to capture exactly what it felt like, but now that I have a word for it, I can try cultivate it.

***

What then are some neologisms that might be useful to an aspiring rationalist?

How about a word for what happens when an important piece of information simply fails to make its way up to the level of your conscious awareness?

  • agnosis, n., A mental event during which something you should have considered simply fails to occur to you. Not a thought you’re actively flinching away from, but a bubble bursting well below the surface.

Two related phenomena occur when you do manage to avoid agnosis but then you miss some obvious corollary:

  • (model/affective) implicasia, n.,  Also known as implication blindness, implicasia occurs when you fail to consider one or more alternatives or possible outcomes of a situation. These arise from not understanding how a process or device works (‘model’ implicasia), or from emotions like frustration which interfere with cognition (‘affective’ implicasia).

 

While trying to think of a term for that part of the learning process in which you spend several hours thinking about a difficult problem and find yourself unable to clearly articulate the kind of progress you’ve made I wound up developing a taxonomy of different gnostic states:

  • Agnosis, n. — Lacking procedural or declarative gnowledge( 😉 ).
  • Semignosis, n. — The state in which the seeds of future gnosis are being sown but there is no current, specifiable increase in gnowledge.
  • Infragnosis, n. — Gnowledge which you didn’t know you had; the experience of being asked a random question and surprising yourself by giving an impromptu ten-minute lecture in reply.
  • Gnosis, n. — Having procedural or declarative gnowledge, and gnowing you have that gnowledge.
  • Misgnosis, n. — “Gnowing” something which turns out not to be true.
  • Supergnosis, n. — Suddenly grokking a concept, i.e. having an insight. Comes in a ‘local’ flavor (having an insight new to you) or a ‘global’ flavor (having an insight no one has ever had before).
  • Misinfragnosis, n. — Gnowledge you don’t gnow you had, but which (alas) ends up being untrue.
  • Gnostic phantom, n. — A false shape which jumps out at you because of the way an argument is framed or pieces are arranged; the mental equivalent of a Kanisza figure.
  • Saturated gnosis, n. — ‘Common gnowledge’
  • Saturated infragnosis, n. — ‘Common sense’, or gnowledge everyone has but probably doesn’t think about consciously unless asked to do so.

(This taxonomy could be extended a lot. If the idea behind ‘semignosis’ isn’t clear read the linked post for an in-depth example)

I’m sure many readers have fallen victim to ‘counterfactual drain’:

  • Counterfactual drain, n. — A decrease in motivation or mental energy arising from poring over possible alternatives. Counterfactual drain subsumes the colloquial notion of ‘analysis paralysis’ as a special case, but can also include bigger topics like ruminations over jobs not taken, romantic partners not pursued, etc.

Having long been a fan of Scott Young, Sebastian Marshall, Cal Newport, and similar writers I endeavored to make a label which captures what makes them awesome:

  • Ultrapraxists, n., Those who achieve greatness through the conscientious application of basic principles which are commonly known but too-rarely used (as opposed to those who achieve greatness primarily through stratospheric talents not available to more ordinary people.) See Also: “It’s Not Always About the Message”

Do you ever hear the voice of a parent, sibling, teacher, or spouse in your head, even years after they’re no longer a part of your life? What should we call that?

  • Soulshatter, n.,  A simulation of a significant person that you carry around with you. It can be a rich sub-personality that you regularly interact with or just a disembodied voice chiming in here and there with advice, admonishment, or commentary. See Also: Tulpa

Why does any of this matter? For the same reason that words always matter: like inventing a handle you can use to break off and carry around pieces of fog, words limn the contours of experiences, thoughts, and concepts, giving shape to the nebulous and making otherwise hard-to-pin-down things easier to teach, aim towards, or avoid.

 

Religious People Are Wrong (And So Are Most Atheists).

I believe that there is a mistake being made on both sides of the theism/atheism debate, one that is made as often in the former camp as in the latter. It is the idea that if the experiences people have when engaged in religious or spiritual practices of one sort or another don’t actually connect them to a divine reality, then the experiences aren’t worth seeking.

Among theists this mistake can manifest as a vehement defense of even the most absurd aspects of religion. When a person finds a state of perfect bliss and contentment after hours spent praying to Jesus, it’s easy to understand how she might interpret this as evidence of the divinity of Christ and the truth of Christian doctrine.

In light of this it’s also easy to understand how a conversation between a theist and an atheist can so rapidly spiral into histrionics, if the atheist believes her objections are a matter of logic and the theist is hearing a full-frontal assault on the most valuable experience she has ever had.

But given how many truths aren’t directly, subjectively accessible, we should be very careful in drawing conclusions from spiritual experiences, no matter how profound. And because practitioners of different religions report near-identical experiences despite engaging in wildly different rituals and praying to different gods, we should suspect that something deeper is happening here; perhaps successful contemplatives and mystics, even the non-religious ones, are tapping into states of mind that are human-universal.

Among atheists this mistake can manifests as a categorical dismissal of anything labeled ‘transcendent’, ‘mystical’, or ‘spiritual’. I can sympathize, as I too have come to realize that almost everyone who fecklessly sprinkles such words throughout conversations is peddling bullshit. But, when one carefully slices away the myth which inevitably gathers around mystics, what is left behind is empirical. An experiment is being proposed: if you train your mind using technique x, you can have experience y.

Here is the solution as I see it: remember that spiritual experiences stand on their own feet. Whether or not you had them while meditating in an isolated temple in mist-shrouded mountains or during a raucous neopagan ritual by firelight, your experiences, as experiences, are real and valuable. And they remain valuable even if you realize that you live in a godless universe.

It is atheists, particularly those with an interest in the future, who must be the most careful here. If we let lunatics like Deepak Chopra be the gatekeepers of the numinous, if we claim that the sacred isn’t real when millions of human beings know that it is, we’ll never build a secular world worth living in.

Sam Harris on Death, I.

(Rough) Outline

The reality of death and what it means (00:00 – 20:00)

What is now? (21:30 – 25:00)

Shifting perception and a small experiment (27:30 – 37:00)

Consciousness and experience (37:30 – 40:00)

Words of advice (40:15 – 45:00)

Summary

At the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia, Sam Harris delivered a talk entitled “Death and the Present Moment“.  It was a departure from what I’ve come to expect from him, not because he was saying radically different things but because he went further than I’ve seen in elaborating his views of spirituality, consciousness, and philosophy.  There were hints of this in the closing chapters of the End of Faith, in his debate alongside Michael Shermer with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston,  and in his essays.  I hope that this is a taste of what we can expect in his forthcoming book.

I can only speculate, but it seems that Sam departs most noticeably from his fellow horseman in these matters.  Though I find much worth pondering in what the major atheist thinkers agree on, I’m at least as interested in what they disagree on, because there lies fertile ground for planting the seeds of a discourse on the future of non-belief.  This post is just a summary of the video; I will probably write a follow up post in the future with my opinion of his message.

The talk was long, but its basic points were these: we are terrified of death, and many people seek solace in religion.  At root, the battles fought over things like creationism and evolution reduce, on some level, to a fear of death.  Because people’s religious worldview often comes as a package, telling them that their belief in creationism is foolish is interpreted as telling them that their deceased daughter isn’t in heaven basking in the glow of Jesus.  If it’s true that believers see the advancement of science as an effort to pry consolation from their fingers in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps we can understand the tenacity with which they cling to their beliefs.

To make matters worse, atheism as a rejection of God has little to offer that compares with the solace provided by religion.  Whatever liabilities they may present, religious beliefs do the job of comforting the bereaved and suffering remarkably well.

The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now.  This may sound obvious, but Sam asserts that there are ways of finding happiness and experiencing our lives as sacred now.  Our minds, and more specifically our conscious experience, are all we have and all we are and all we can offer.  Its true that the brain does much beneath the level of awareness to create our experience of the present, and the idea of “now” is problematic from the viewpoint of physics.  But the fact remains.  If there is an antidote to the terror inspired by the yawning abyss of death, it does not consist in learning new things; if there is a meaning of life, it is not to be found in endlessly checking things off our To-Do lists.  Too many of us, in a tragic inversion of the ancient proverb, live no day as if it were our last.  When the bad news comes that the end is upon us, we look back on our uses of time and attention and discover that the latest ipad didn’t hold the key to our fulfillment.

This does not mean our aspirations are unimportant, but does suggest that we need to learn to reorient towards life, to more fully experience the present moment.  This could involve either reframing how we interact with our own experience, or doing away with such frames altogether.

Surprisingly for an atheist, Sam claims that discursive thought is both extraordinarily useful and a primary source of suffering.  There is a ceaseless conversation going on inside our heads, giving birth to all manner of worry, anxiety, and fear, and our inability to disentangle ourselves from it and just be is problematic if we value sanity and happiness.  Techniques like meditation are one way of not drowning in the stream of consciousness.

A new conversation about death and the meaning of life needs to be had, and it is up to us to make the world a better place, starting from the piece of it between our own ears.

Using Music As A Meditation Aid

I’ve always thought meditation should be carried out in as much silence as possible, and that’s how I’ve always meditated.  Today, however, I tried meditating with some ambient music in the background.

This was partially done on a whim, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.  Google research after the fact turned up a range of opinions, from websites that thought music could be distracting to ones that sold tracks crafted just for meditation.

It’s worth pointing out that during my first stay at a Buddhist monastery a few weeks ago, silent meditation was punctuated by chanting and bowing.  Relatively raucous stuff when compared to breathing in absolute stillness, and this coming from people who meditate professionally.

So I decided to give it a shot.  I chose a spacey ambient piece, as Lamb of God would make a terrible soundtrack to enlightenment.  Here are my observations after one trial run:

1) Time absolutely flew.  An unbroken 20 minute meditation session is usually hard to achieve.  This time, though my back was a little uncomfortable and I had to adjust position once because my leg was asleep, I was shocked when the alarm went off.

2) It really did help still my mind.  Even though I still had a fair amount of chatter going on, something about the music just seemed to make it easier to focus on breathing. I had a pretty powerful sweep of euphoria around the (I’m guessing) sixteen minute mark.  My whole body started tingling for maybe a full two seconds right as I was getting the most focused.  This has happened once before, but so far it’s proving hard to maintain.  I don’t think such an experience is the point of meditation, but it’s interesting and does encourage one to continue.

3) I’d like to use this in the future, but I think several modifications might increase its efficacy.  For one, I’d like the sound to surround me more, rather than feeling beamed from laptop speakers.  Also, I think it would be good to fade into silence very slowly.  Finally, the music should probably be as minimal as possible, maybe even just one deep, slowly changing tone.  I think much more than that would start to prove a distraction.

I’ll be trying this again in the future.  If it proves interesting or useful I’ll write more about it then.

Chords and Colors

I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia ever since it occurred to me that not everyone’s  senses are as promiscuous as mine.  It’s always been very visual for me. Sounds, letters, ideas, and tastes often present themselves with colors, textures, shapes, and sizes when I think about them.

I don’t experience synesthesia out-in-the-world, only in my head. In other words, when I read a book the letters on the page don’t have any color, but if I think about a letter, or listen to a song, very often it’ll have a color or a size. This happens most strongly with music, generally speaking.

But I also remember that I almost got in trouble around the age of 3 or so because I was explaining to an older girl what size and shape various swear words were

This also seems to be rooted pretty deeply in my thought process, and has fueled my poetry and music (more on that later). It’s very difficult to watch your own mind think, but I’ve noticed that a small percentage of my thought is a stream of incomplete sentences and a bigger part is images related to those sentences. Another significant chunk, however, is just weird shapes moving and changing and banging into each other. I might be trying to think about something like “justice” or “anarchy” or “rationality”, and what I see is a strange chalky prism morphing into a sphere and then shooting off to the right, leaving a colorful trail of liquid smoke. It doesn’t make any sense, but I just somehow know that what I’m seeing is a thought related to justice.

It’s like the machine language of my mind is a polychromatic rainbow, and there is a synesthetic compiler in my unconscious which has to paint speech and thoughts before my brain can do anything with them.

This is kind of crazy when I think about it. My sentences come out orderly, but between my ears it looks like Jimi Hendrix, Walt Disney, and Wassily Kandisky are locked in a room with painting supplies and the collected works of Euclid, trying to make a video game together.

The Parable Of An Atheist At A Temple

As I sit writing this I have just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastary nested in the moutains outside of Gyeongju, South Korea.  While there I woke up at 4 a.m., chanted, spent several hours a day in meditation, engaged in light martial arts training, and ate no meat.

The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, which unfortunately was not emphasized in this trip.  I’ve been a practicing meditator for several years now and I was looking forward to pushing my exploration of the mind.  Luckily I was able to accomplish this in a small way by simply not attending the obvious tourist fluff and meditating on my own.  I stopped going to the martial arts demonstrations and training, skipped tea time, didn’t go to the extra chanting services.  Instead, I meditated in my room or in a newly-constructed building designed for that purpose.  I snuck up to the temple once and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.

On the last full day I was there, I climbed a mountain in a light drizzle as night was falling.  When I got to the top I looked out at the valley and the hills, the same ones I had watched the sun rise over in the dawn hours, and saw the rain falling in sheets and clouds shrouding the peaks in mist.

I didn’t know what to do but be still beneath the towering Buddha carved into the rock and smile at the enormity of it all.  Sometimes there just aren’t words.

Though it wasn’t what I expected, I don’t regret spending the money.  At $50 a night it was less than some hotels charge, and the food was unexpectedly good, to say nothing of the amazing setting.  I also learned a few things.  Primarily, I don’t need to do a templestay to meditate well.  To this day the most powerful experience I’ve ever had meditating came in my living room, after an hour of alternating sitting and walking meditation.  My attention stabilized in a way it never had before, and I was able to watch the erratic flow of my own consciousness as it went past me.  I felt more inside my own body than I ever had before, like it wasn’t something that I owned but something I was.  I got just enough of a hint of what is possible to convince me that it’s worth pursuing.  Sometime in the near future I may do a silent retreat of my own, and I’m currently mulling over ways I can effectively do that in my apartment.

I do think setting is important.  The most popular essay I’ve ever written, over at Rogue Priest, presented the view that rituals like chanting in the candlelight can foster mystical states.  I base this on my own past experience as a born-again christian and on the testimonies of various secular pagans whom I know personally and whose work I’ve read.  If I meditate intensely for the next few months, the point may come where doing a genuine monastic silent retreat is exactly what I need.

At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m.  It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found.  So, I regret to report, these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful.  By the final day I had enough stored tension in my back and joints that even 30 seconds of sitting was difficult, to say nothing of 30 minutes.  I was ready to go home.

Now as you read these opening statements you may be wondering what use an atheist could have for meditation.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  It’s true that I think the sinister intersection of fundamentalist religious thinking and 21st century technology might be the greatest threat the modern world faces.  And I also believe that there are elements of religious practice — like genital mutiliation and and belief in transubstantion — which are patently absurd and wrong and cannot be rejected forcefully or quickly enough by thinking people.  If we are ever to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from the swamps of ignorance and into a better existence, vast swaths of what now goes by the name ‘religion’ will have to be dispensed with.

But religion is ancient and complex.  To reject God is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions.  There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like what consitutes the good life, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.  Though I understand the haste to move people away from religious dogma, I worry that we risk losing something in the process.

Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in a religion and are worth salvaging.  I’m drawn to it in part by two things:

1) it is pursuable in a completely secular context and requires no faith whatsoever.

2) even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.

We’ve all likely had the experience of having a very full head, where our thoughts prevent us from going to sleep at night or make it difficult to focus on whatever task we’re performing.  But the extent to which I am perpetually lost in my own internal monologue is truly astounding.  If you don’t think this applies to you, spend the next thirty seconds trying to control and direct this mental flurry.  Hell, spend the next thirty seconds just trying to observe it without getting caught up in it.

Difficult?  Yes, yes it is.

In this situation your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like a roiling avalanche perpetually bearing down on him.  The previous sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate.  First came the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche.  Then I returned to focusing on my breath.  I smiled internally, because the metaphor seemed clever.  Back to breathing.  Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrases.  Back to breathing.

Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years.  Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.

What I’ve studied of buddhist philosophy suggests that Buddhism (and to some extent Hinduism as well) begins from a radically different point of departure than Western science and the enlightenment.  Buddhism starts with an empirical exploration of the mind.  In the millenia since this project began, numerous traditions and mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much in the way of religious baggage.

In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized as much as possible and there are thinkers who believe that the notion of introspection is flawed and incoherent.  I can sympathize with this.  Psychology has revealed that introspection is susceptible to profound error, and we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward.  But none of this suggests to me that practices like meditation are useless.  On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion.  Meditation, stripped of pretension and bullshit, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.

What’s more, It may turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness.  If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.

Regardless, it seems that meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience.  It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment.  Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating to the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness that can be found within the landscape of the human mind.

Such as this I’ve learned while sitting.

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Further reading

I didn’t do any “research” for this essay in the conventional sense.  But there are several essays which I’ve read and re-read and re-read that have shaped my thinking on this subject profoundly.  I feel they should be mentioned here at the end of the essay.

1) “Dancing with the Gods”, Eric Raymond

http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/dancing.html

2) “Drugs and the meaning of life”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/drugs-and-the-meaning-of-life/

3) “What’s the point of transcendance” Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/whats-the-point-of-transcendence/

4) “On spiritual truths”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/on-spiritual-truths/

5) “Killing the Buddha”, Sam Harris

http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/killing-the-buddha/

6) The writings of B. Allan Wallace should be mentioned as well.  His books include “Mind in the balance”, “contemplative science”, and “embracing mind”.  I don’t endorse his metaphysics, but I’ve found him useful nonetheless.

http://alanwallace.org/

7) These thoughts have appeared elsewhere before:

-“What atheists believe too”

http://roguepriest.net/2011/08/08/what-atheists-believe-too/