Life With Toast

Mind reader

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I am fascinated by the lack of tools and language we have for describing and sharing mental states. We have encompassing words like sad, happy, confused, and angry. They are crude strokes, painted onto language with bricks and pillows. Without finer brushes, we can never relay our experiences to those around us in a meaningful way. We can do better. The tools we most often use are words that live on language islands, unable to connect in any real way to the vernacular highways of daily life. Indeed, when it comes to the important, subjective experiences that span our lives, our tools are insufficient. We can do better.

There are many questions that emerge from this: why is it this way? Is there a benefit to sharing experience beyond how we do so now? Would it make us happier? Would it drive innovation or make societies more money? The answer to the last one may be a major reason as to why we lack the quality of tools we have for other economic and industrial endeavors. Human society has relied on industry and innovation as a common goal since the industrial revolution. Maintenance and description of internal states? Not so much. However, with the explosion of technology and automation, does that still need to be the case? These questions don't have simple or straightforward answers, but demand more attention. It also be that the motion of the mind is vastly more complex than an economy. As it currently stands, we have seen across galaxies, into depths far beyond atoms and yet are just peering over the ledge of the dark and swirling pool of the mind.

Before getting carried away in that direction, I want to ground this discussion in the body. Modern culture is somewhat obsessed with bodies, which provides a good counter example to the mind (however these are in fact two parts of the same system). The benefit of our interest in the body is the scaffolding we have to build for relatable communication. While gaps will always exist, we quickly give diagnosis and empathy to others in physical pain and triumph. It is easy for us to do so because: a. we have experienced something similar, b. we are confident that the other is suffering in some way, c. other people confirm this, and d. we feel comfortable in our empathy. Take for example an athlete that rolls their ankle during a championship match. We have all experienced physical pain before; we can see in slow motion the moment of injury; medical professionals are there to assess the situation; all in attendance - regardless of team loyalty - praise the athlete when they are taken off. We clap for them when they are injured. Imagine clapping for a friend or colleague when they take leave for depression or discuss their struggles with anxiety or some personal issue. The same prerequisites are not met and most importantly, we do not feel comfortable in our empathy.

While it feels contrary, I truly believe the gaps of experience between physical and mental systems are quite similar. Fundamentally this is the case because we share experience across these domains. Humans are connected by what we have in common, on this rock, in our genes and chemicals and muscles and neurons. These variables shape and limit our experiences, confining us to see a section of the light spectrum and hear a subset of frequencies. Similarly, our experiences of mind have limits that connect us all. If my blood was made of nitrogen and my eyes filtered infrared light, things would be different. However, while some of us can jump higher and run faster than each other, no one can jump 30 feet straight up or run 100mph. In the same way, we may be predisposed to feel brighter or darker than others, but overwhelmingly we share the brushes that paint the human experience.

The difference in tools for describing physical and mental expereinces, is in large part attention. We have spent the majority of human attentional resources - limited as they are - in discussing the body, and not the mind. It's quicker, cleaner, and more directly related to industrial and economic benefit in the short term. A broken body cannot run the saw mill but a broken mind most likely can for a few hours a day, at least. In school, did you learn about the mind and how to talk about experience? Did you have physical education classes, biology, health, or related classes? Of course, that is because in the US at least it is required material. It doesn't frustrate  e that we have discussion and tools about the body, it grounds us and is our vehicle. The fact of the matter is both are important, two sides of an inter-folded dynamic system.

We can no longer as a society sustain our ignorance of experience, our envelopment in the ego, and lack of tools to make change. What we can do is build better tools to create scaffolding for experience so we can share in more detail the goings on of the mind. Better tools for tracking and putting into context various experiences and the open dialoge to make that okay. We can do better and we can be empathetic like we are for the athlete, and more importantly, for ourselves first. That's what I want to be a part of, in some way.

 

Time to start writing again.

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Recently I moved off away from major social media platforms after multiple years - a decade with one of them - not because I was bored, although that was also true, but because they failed to inspire. I'm not looking for inspiration in any big or flashy way, just something to keep me curious and engaged. Once I can start scrolling on end, I am going to get a case of the 'museums'; after some time (this varies based on my interest and the variance in the museum) of walking through gallery after gallery my attention becomes kind of numb to the art and I am unable to feel inspired or deeply connected to the pieces hanging in front of me. The posts and photos and videos and advertisements made me numb a long time ago, and I was staying on the platforms mainly to message friends. But even that started to weigh on me in some way, like I was holding responsibility to all these people in some indirect way. The costs outweighed the benefits, it was time to move on.

Another part of moving away from social media (for the time being at least) is to focus on creating more meaningful work. Again nothing flashy here, just a place to catch passing creative impulses and see what happens. I'm not sure what form my writings will take, but i'm looking forward to it.

 

Green light, red light


The sharp refection of a downtown 'scraper's glass panels bounce off my closed left eye as I wait for the light to change. Click - for some reason I always hear a click in my mind - the light goes green and I go off. I already know my fate: I'm not going to make the next light. Yet I rush towards it, pedalling against the timer I see next to the blinking red hand on the corner. The car which was impatiently waiting to pass me, squeezes by and through the yellow light that I am forced to watch click red from several meters away.

I take the same route to and from work everyday. I'm learning which lights are run on timers and which aren't. The ride back from work in particular feels straight out of some version of groundhog day, with the San Francisco perma-temperate climate assuring me I have been here before. But have I? Jack from today and yesterday are pretty much the same, but also not. Yesterday I may have been occupied with whatever issue was going on at work, or today I may be fixated by a cheeseburger I plan on having later. Or I may be just taking in the sights and sometimes strange smells of the city. Regardless, the Jack experiencing the bike ride home today is not the same as the one yesterday nor the Jack of tomorrow. 

We set our lives by cycles, adapting to the climate, commute and circumstances through them. Without them, we are tormented, tossed, and torn to pieces. While dramatic, imagine eating and sleeping at completely random and unscheduled times. Cycles are boundaries in which nature sets its roots. The basis of our human cycles is repetition: The routes, the sights, the people, the thoughts. I'm barely into a work routine and I already see this so clearly. Or maybe because i'm starting I am aware of the patterns forming. In some commuting veterans I can see the metaphors in the faces on the train. He is the canyon carved by thousands of years of flowing water taking the path of least resistance. She is the tide to a moon that will rise once more. Like the gravitational pull of some large and mysterious body, our cycles can slowly drag us into an inevitable fiery end. Or they can remind us that the fundamental nature of mother nature is cyclical.

Indeed happiness, curiosity and suffering are the same as seasons, the forests, and the oceans. None of them persist unchanged, none of them are the exactly the same twice, and none of them exist without each other. That's the rules: No repeat button. It may seem like your spouse or partner is slowly turning into cement, or that your job never changes or the light will always turn red before you get there. However, fundamentally this cannot be true as uncertainty is constant. Human perception and human construction team up to wrap much of this uncertainty in nice shiny packages, like Christmas presents hiding a mess of circuit boards and plastic that make up their content beneath.

Incredibly, we've developed tools of great power that we can pronounce once rarified physical laws - if I drop a ball from my hand, gravity will take it to the ground at 9.8 m/s^2 - to be merely approximations. Evolutionarily, our brains need to process whether or not that shape in the dark is a lion is approaching. A rough shape, color, and sound are enough information to scare the shit out of our proverbial ancestor. Past our perceptual wrapping of the world, however, is uncertainty in it's purest form. More specifically, physicists have shown that you cannot know the exact location of the smallest bits of information we have observed. Think of a tiny cloud instead of a tiny point. Taking this up the elevator to the human scale, it's hard to say of it's impact on the brain and behavior (yet). But it does tell us this: that nothing is ever the same twice.

No matter how much we want the world to be certain and clean and cut into discrete pieces, it is not. While this may be scary on the surface, this fact can also be profoundly comforting. There is no pressure for perfection or certainty because it does not exist. You can never know why something happened because it can never be known in a literal sense. We have great approximates, but don't let that fool you into the burden of certainty. Yet we often do, and by doing so we carry the weight of every little action with us: Each of us a David with a personal Goliath strapped to our back. Why carry it? We have precious little conscious resources to start with, the last thing we need is to strain our attention with such fine grain control and analysis. So why not give up that desire for certainty and control?

You never had it in the first place. 

Cambridge 101: be hard on yourself

It's been a while since I've maintained a blog. In part it is due to the whirlwind of graduating/job hunt/travelling and related activities. But more than that it's the remains of a Cambridge standard: you should be working more, you haven't done enough, you could do better. In short, it's normal to be overtly self-critical. So yeah, i've found it hard to write creatively or freely when there is a sense something more 'serious' that I should be attending to. 

 Apply this to that and that to this

Apply this to that and that to this

This is a nearly universal phenomena in the PhD community i've been a part of. We aren't competing with each other, but some ephemeral image of ourselves that has no flaws and has published in every reputable journal within our field of study.

We navigate our days through a set of ever-sharpening analytical tools but forget to put them away, ever. It's as if we were all F-1 drivers taking our race-day-monsters down the narrow, cobbled Cambridge streets. These tools we develop are far too powerful to be applied on ourselves, all the time. We need balance, and that means time away from laser focused thinking and nit-picking for each and every imperfection. In other words, we need balance between the analytical and the light and airy. Balance for the sake of the silly, the fun, the flow and the un-thinking moments that if left unattended, like the tide, slowly move away from us but are never lost.

It's not enough to talk about our frustrations over a beer. Students should be uniting in the name of lightheartedness. Completely disengage for just a bit. There is movement of putting our phones away and interacting with each other. The sentiment is to foster person-to-person interaction and enjoy daily activities more fully. But let me tell you, this has no impact if we continue to dance with our thoughts and latch onto self-criticism. 

Unfortunately this is not a quick processes for two reasons. We've never been taught about self-compassion, mindfulness, or other eastern-oriented practices to ground ourself, and like a train pulling a load of coal, years of repetition in self-criticism produces massive momentum to keep being hard on ourselves for any reason. 

But there is hope; we can start to pull ourselves out of the mist at any time.

It's pretty simple actually: be curious, be aware. If we can do these two things we can catch our self-critical thoughts and break the cycle. Critically, this requires us not to be critical of the criticalness of our thoughts. No this isn't a paradox, it's the foundation of mindfulness practices sweeping the west for the last 20+ years. I would recommend being in nature of any kind, the words of Alan Watts, the texts of Thich Nhat Hanh, and most importantly, the curiosity and compassion to make change in your own experience.

Travel: Barcelona September 1st

Square by square, Barcelona pulses colour, movement, life. People are out, they are in the parks, in the tall, skinny alley ways and with each other. OId women drag along their colorful shopping bags and young families tot their toddlers around the parks. The sun is full and hot, and the children are happy. Paloma has told me about 'square life' before, it's where childhood memories are made and where parents catch a break. Where old people play Petanque and love birds take their first awkward flights. It's not a British thing, where those able prefer to stay in with a 'cuppa and generally avoid public contact with strangers. Nor American where we stake our own damn land and drive our kids to others well deserved damn land. Freedom. It is a lifestyle derived from close quarters and hard times, from local communities and large families.

My five days in the city were spent wondering between two worlds. One: organised, air-conditioned, and academic. Two: busy as hell, hot as well, and cool as hell. I didn't go to any of the major monuments - although I tried several times - I didn't go to any museums or movies. I walked and even talked with some locals, bought a few little things, and ate like a southern european (to me this = king).  The rest of the time I was walking and taking pictures. Some of the environemnt. 

But really this trip was on people and how they interacted with the city, in detail and at large.

Everyone uses a moped, even the businesmen

The markets and big and bustling.

Looking back, I am somewhat mixed on Barcelona. There is something essential there that grabs me, the livelihood and colours, the people and the food. But it is so busy, even in the quieter neighborhood I was in there was a constant flow of mopeds and cars and trucks and people and bikes and so on. While this a main contributor to what I like about the city, it's that compromise that has always kept me away from the big places. Back in Cambridge, people are indoors, and that's OKAY, at least while I'm writing my thesis.

Travel: Barcelona, Spain August 31st

Dotted laughter of young children play in the background of a jazz band echoing across the green-ized industrial ruins of Parc del Clot. Pausing to take in the music, I notice a stable figure amongst the turning over the busy street. A man, seemingly alone, leans against a tree and smoking a little cigar, his face, body, and intentions seems against everyone else. I took the picture.  

I immediately scanned the image to make sure it was alright and walked off with a smile. I'm not sure why the photo resonated with me but the ephemeral nature of getting that moment, that feeling as I see it is what it's all about. 

About 10 minutes later I pulled out the camera and the screen displayed the darkest nightmare of the digital age: "card read error". There were no photos, poof. My first reaction was pain and frustration. However, pretty quickly I had let it go. That ephemeral moment is just that; you get it or you don't. Most of the time you don't and to be a photographer you must accept that. Lose a roll of film before it gets developed or printed and there is no going back, baby. Capturing an instant will never return, that's the game. I got home and the error was gone, the photos returned from the other side.

I'm here for a conference, but I will be exploring the city more with two pocket cameras (1 digital 1 analog). I hope they save it all, but I'll take what I can get, the process moves on.

Whispers of experience: August 20th

On the floor beside my desk is a box as dense as the sun. I'm cleaning out my room, getting ready to move, and the sun is sitting next to me. Should I save these memories, or let them go? What is meant to be saved? Is it some personal choice, or an approximate list we must follow? Are letters from old relationships, drawings and postcards weighted the same? Christmas wishes from friends and family? If we keep them, how often to do we revisit: once a month, a year, or only when we move? What started as a cardboard box is now the sun. 

When someone writes to you, talks to you, or expresses themselves in some raw and real way, in that moment it is to be cherished with all the capacity one has. Attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give, and in those intimate moments we must devote them all. When it passes along with the essence of those relationships, do you retain their relics, bound to be buried under the current of everyday life? Ultimately they serve as a reminder, a flashbang of events now awashed many times over. I would rather be in a place to create a thousand more experiences raw and personal than have a tho usand memories of them. The aim should not be to collect memorabilia from relationships past but live in a way that manifests them. In that moment it was real and true, and that is enough to let them go. That is the vulnerability that we all fear and which we must accept, unknowingly or unwillingly, to forge lasting relationships. But ultimately, that is the vulnerability that makes life on this lonely rock worthwhile at all.

Whispers of experience: August 15th

Hair follicles on the back of my neck rise up and spread down my arms to my fingers. The pistons of frustration rotate the air around me and get sucked up into my nostrils as I take a sharp breath in. More than anything else I want to yell. 'I AM STUPID. SHIT STUPID!' I also wanted to throw an object, really anything. But I was in Haddon Archeology library, and the only object in reach was my laptop, so I restrained myself on both accounts. I was so frustrated with myself, overtaken by it. The moment when momentum has control over an object and physical laws are bringing it toward impact, I felt myself flung towards the ground.

I had mixed up the date and we had missed a concert of the BBC Proms in London, which we had both been looking forward to for some time, not to mention the now sunk cost. But it doesn't matter what it is, when I am hard on myself every fluctuation or blip adds momentum to the critical 'story'. Like a train, the ego thrives on this momentum when allowed to be perceived as central to things that go right - or go wrong - in the happenings around us. As if we have some special ability or responsibility to ensure everything goes right, so when it doesn't we are WRONG. This is BLACK, that is WHITE. Steam was billowing out the rusted ole train and the horn was pulled down; I wanted to me to scream and pound my fists. What I didn't realise is the train I felt so a part of was fuelled by my attachment to it. Simply, giving attention to frustration makes it grow. I was shovelling coal into the fire, then surprised when I built up speed. This cycle is strong as a ocean current, and just as dangerous. 

The critical mind is the academic mind is the logical mind is the successful mind. Or at least that's how I remember learning it, and to an extent that has been true for the industrial era. But unbounded, the critical mind becomes a very human- and ego-centered mind, taking personal blame at any given chance. It seems in Cambridge we all feel this weight more, like a family of catholic mothers brooding in the guilt of our work whenever we can. It's a good lesson and in retrospect I feel silly about getting so upset, but in the moment it felt tactile and present. It was startling. We all fuck up, and that's okay, as long as we know it. Put that shovel down, buddy.

Whispers of experience: August 6th 2016

While a group of teenagers behind me complained about 'young people' not having an emotional response to the latest Finding Nemo film - which they were certain indicated a grave future for us all - I stared at a tree. It's roots ran under the anxious group, and I imagine they ended just beneath me, spreading out in every direction. I was staring at the leaves, which shimmered in the slight breeze and stark sunlight, releasing a wave of sound built from small leaf-to-leaf interactions. Like neighbors greeting each other all at once. The sound reminded me of photo where the subject is set out against a noisy background, relaxation washing over me. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

 This only took 10 seconds of full attention, and in return I was gifted with a moment of peace. This seems meagre, but in the world I feel we're living in at the moment, it is significant. There were people walking to and from a shopping center nearby, bike's passing by, and the distraught teenagers babbling onwards, but I found a slice of escape, of presence. In one way it's hard: to let go of the bubbling engine of our mind. In another it's easy: there is always a reminder of something solid and changing around. Bee's wrapping around a branch of lavender, a sprout of grass on the sidewalk, leaves in the wind. We need these moments, to remind us of our own roots on this rock rotating in vast-nothingness, and to appreciate our awareness of it for no reason in particular. We don't need a lifetime of monk-ish training for this, just a re-direciton of attention; a flashlight shone with intention.

Whisper of experience: August 1st

Air crackles across my ears - breath, step step step - it reminds me of early mornings staring into a fireplace. The infrequent bursts of sound - breath, step step step - light exploding and fading away. Gazing endlessly the flames would lull me into a warm trance - breath, step step step - I try and find that easy place once more. Watch for cars, watch for bikes - breath, step step step - thinking about how much is left doesn't help. I don't run to think - breath, step step step - I just run.

I've always found basketball to be a great mind-cleanse. In the heat of a game or practice, I can't think about emails or problems or anything, just what is directly around me. Slowly, the paint chips of built up thoughts and ideas get chiselled out, shown their fragility that was there all along. By the end, I am exhausted, but cleared in a way that birds must feel after a migration. I never found running to induce these micro-migrations, to really take me to away with it. Lately, as I've begun pushing myself and intentionally setting that time not to think (a fun paradox if you've 'tried'), it's starting to happen. Every time it gets a little bit easier - breath, step step step - the trick isn't to think about, just give it a shot.

Whispers of experience: July 29th

Marbled stairs echo against my Vans, pressing carefully against each ledge, as if the volume of my steps equalled my respect for this place. A serious looking man behind a desk examines me, searching for a phone or camera I'm sure. Later, I wonder if he speaks beyond 'shhh' and 'put that away' while he works. The bookcases stand a couple meters apart, but within them are hundreds of years of work, thought, innovation. Looking at my guests from Seattle, I can sense the palpable desire to take a photo they are resisting. Slowing folding back the thick red cloth, I take a look at the oldest book there, nearly 600 years old, a couple feet tall, and lined in a gold, flowing script in some language I don't understand. 

I've never been to such a dense place. You can feel it; the original Principia Mathematica, a work form Carl Marx, even Winnie the Pooh. Each nook of the Wren Library is heavy with knowledge, filled with wisdom, and a longing of times well past. Between each stack is a desk with modern computers and scanners, leaching material bit by bit, extracting sap from a forest of Redwoods. I couldn't create in there, it would feel like carrying a bucket of water into the ocean everyday, hoping to change the tides. I realise I'm walking with my hands behind my back, like a monk doing laps in a monastery courtyard. Breathe in, breath out, this place is where I study. Inspiration comes at unexpected times, even if it is in a expected place. 

whispers of experience: July 25th

The orange coils hanging from the top of the oven starts to glow and the expanding red heat flows down atop the bubbling mozzarella and salami. The pizza on the upper sheet was put in 5 minutes ago, the bottom one 3 minutes ago. The next two dough balls were put out a minute ago, they should be stretched in a couple more. What about the toppings for the bottom pizza? Is there enough sauce and cheese? What about the veggies; the onions and mushrooms should be cooked before going on the pizza so they don't get the whole damn thing wet. Oh shit is the top pizza burned now? 'Guys, don't wait for me, start eating!' Really they should start, this is more fun anyways.

The process of pizza making leaves no attentional landscape untouched. When the oven is blasting and there are hungry mouths, it's go time. A loud, guitar heavy blues track; get this moving, get that going, heartbreak! A burned pizza, a great pizza. Onto the next one, how I love to see you go, how I loathe it so.  Don't forget the last pizza for Paloma, the parmesan and egg, perched atop the final smashed dough ball, destined for destruction as we all are, recycled stuff.

Really, egg on pizza is amazing.

whispers of experience July 24th

Something building up, there it is. In the corner of the room, staring through my lens, fogging the view. Can't place the feeling, covered by a vague and familiar residue. Like holding bags for someone who isn't coming back. I stare at the wall, nothing has room to grow, walls are closer now. 

Not wanting to do anything in particular or much at all. So I don't, not running away, not distracting, but letting the wave come. It too will pass, if I let it. The wall is crumbling. I know it's foundation is built on puddy, on thoughts of thoughts and not cement, not the real stuff. Being with it is like sitting at the top of a slide that winds underneath and all about. I know that once I start the movement, I can let go and allow natural force to guide me back some intricate path. There it is, finally realising grip for a few moments. For no reason, bare. Nothing was in the corner, just a mirror from some place long passed. There was room to stop, and I am thankful. Afterwards, a feeling of relief. A feeling of having done something that was needed; blowing your nose. I can breathe again.

whispers of experience: somewhere in 2003

'hey cracker, get over here'. The strong rubber scent of the brown school bus seat has normalised into the upper crevices of my nostrils, leaking into my brain. I look over and see Jim looking back at with a big smile. His eyes have that edge of uncertainty; is he crazy, energetic, or unstable? We're on a way to some small town middle school for a football and he's beckoning for our pre-game ritual: calf massages. I don't know how this started but I can't back down at this point. Although we have mutual respect for each other as athletes and friends, he still has ~30 pounds on me and when Jim feels he should have something, he isn't shy about enforcing that whatever way possible. 

Another time, going to lunch with him and a few people, I sat in the back while he drove. It was my first time in the car with him driving. Winding down a big hill into town, unannounced, he pulled out his phone, took his hands off the wheel, looked down, and started texting. Sitting in front with him was Alicia who didn't have a driver's license. Luckily, she reacted, squealed, and grabbed the wheel. I asked Jim what the fuck he was doing, and him swung his head around with a bright smile and said 'texting a girl'. He laughed, no one else did. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a game to him, and he was testing us. Would we respond and take control, potentially saving ourselves from a serious accident? If we didn't, would he let his car crash? Many of my experiences with Jim were like this, really pushing the edge of what was appropriate. It was never dull. I never had to answer those questions of what if, because someone reasonable was around to wrangle the situation in. I found out today the life of cutting it close and living to the boundaries caught up, and now he is gone. RIP Jim, see you on the other side. 

whispers of experience: July 22nd

Afternoon light floods the bullet shaped room, two laptops sit across from each other. A wasp weaves around the open window but ultimately decides to stay on his side of the glass. A company of similarly dressed and similarly lived gather below, their hum fades with the insect, crossing paths back and forth. The musky summer air is broken with a breeze, the sound of birds, the movement of blinds across the window. A slice of silence is made in this place, for as long as it lasts.

whispers of experience: July 21st

I take comfort in the bumble of the little engine beside the roadside kebab stand. On it goes, day in and day out. Generating light, heat; a sense of identity for someone, space in the belly for many. The smoke from the griddletop streams out of the side of the truck and into the humid night. The sweat on my forehead is dry. I look up the road, spots of light above a couple, falafel wrap in hand, hoping to see someone coming towards us, no one does. 

The only constant

Turning the corner of one of the thousands of little streets in the tunnelling Medina of old marrakesh, I am assaulted by scents of cumin, fresh paprika, leather. I step out of the way of a donkey cart, the driver slapping and yelling at the animal to continue. The giant wooden wheels of the cart hop across the uneven surface, uncomfortably close to my foot. The criss-cross roofing above drapes the street in a lace of shadows, and I can't help but pull out my camera for a picture. A tall man in a orange robe and white cap immediately starts yelling at me and runs in my direction, his arms waving and pointing and big beard swaying slightly from side to side. No words are understood between us, but the idea is relayed. Photos were not welcome; I still got a couple. 

Going to Morocco, or nearly any trip to a foreign land presents change. The cliche thought appears - people really do live differently than me. This is change like the ocean is water. A vast, unmovable, horizon swallowing type of presence. Sprouted in every sight, sound, scent, touch, and taste; delivered in a format nearly every human can understand. This change grows and turns it's vines around your legs and sets you to straight to stand and face it. But change is not always so brash and visible. Yet it always here, moving and swirling in every part of our lives, inseparable parts of the same machine. To say we do not exist without change is to say that a wooden bowl does not exist without a tree or heat without the sun. We are the product of change, made up of it from start to end. 

Yet the modern world has built walls around change. Portraying it as something to avoid, to isolate in hopes of presenting a world unshakable and secure. Mammoth metal buildings with street signs and intricate sewer systems. The driving force of the 21st century. But it is worth reminding, in fact it is a healthy reminder, that this is a facade. We are nothing more than a recyclable cluster of cells on a rock spinning around billions of other rocks and so on beyond our imagination. This is the only constant we have, the only place to call home. But look around and see the pain we cause ourselves by holding on to things long swept away by change. Chasing after footprints taken back by the sea. In our natural tendencies to learn and not repeat mistakes we dig into what has happened to shape what is to come. But change waits for no thought, leading us to slowly and inevitably lose this bigger perspective in the mundane daily frustrations and fixations. For me, it's not about thinking about how I am damn impermanent and shooting pitiful looks all around. We all take time to sit down and relax in one way or another, sometimes when I do this, I shake off the weight of being human and try and let what is underneath appear. Let change be.

On the move

Out the window, beyond my faint imposed reflection a grey sky looms above a mossy green chapel. An extensive graveyard of stones ranging from white to black headstones litters the field making lines like that of newly planted trees. The fence of the yard boarders a community garden, and I can’t help but see the full cycle of life on display. Stockton, UK, where the city’s main attraction - so far as I can see it - is a hat museum which rises above the red brick buildings and same-sky-grey streets below. Most buildings here are brick, and most shops are closed. It’s Tuesday at 1pm. This is not the part of the UK you see on a sightseeing tour, it’s not a part of the UK you see unless you have a reason to be there. Today I did, making a 5 hour trip from Cambridge to meet with a potential school for my study. With MyCognition, a software company in London, I’ve helped develop a cognitive training game that I hope will improve students cognitive and more novel, their maths skills. I was told that 90% of the students at the school come from homes in the bottom 10% of income and SES status. I’ll never know that feeling. In a sense my trip embodies the other side of the coin; a graduate student from Cambridge doing thesis work funded by a private company in London.

When I applied to graduate schools, I only sent in applications to university’s that had research labs concentrating in neuroscience in education. Growing up I had experienced that one size does not fit all in the classroom, and my interested brain led to being an interested kid. Paired with my wonder of the brain, I was naturally led to the convergence of educational reform with scientific backing as a potential career. Quickly, however, I learned that science may provide sparks for change, but politicians carry the kindling, and the buckets of water. I am not a politician, it’s not in my blood. In seeing this, I axed by future self, ashed in the reality check. I do, however, have a chance to bring that optimistic benefit in my PhD, an application of knowledge for something beyond the pursuit of knowledge. Self-rightenousness aside, I hope for my own sanity, for my PhD, and most of all for the students, that this software will improve their cognitive and maths skills. But, as is the leading rule in the handbook of the universe, entropy continues. Most research studies across the sciences fail. Discoveries come at the hand of a errand mistake; a open window led to penicillin, random ‘background noise’ started the trail to the big bang, and gunpowder was discovered while Chinese alchemists were searching for the elixir for eternal life. Thus, it is not insignificant that we consider our intentions when we set out to complete a goal. Being vigilant allows serendipity to take place, for the mysterious to guide us, for change to find our hand in the darkness.

But how do we – 20 something masters of none – find a job that holds our attention? Filtering answers by pay rate, perceived status or sense of obligation to a parent or loved one is sure to treat the symptoms of unease, but leave the cause to fester. I don’t have the answer, but I know one piece of the puzzle is simple motivation. Go at something long enough and find a crack to fit in, find a niche to sink into. If you are lucky enough to have a job you are authentically excited by then you are motivated by the love it and not the fear of being poor, disappointment, and so on. I can’t be a testimonial as I am leaving academia and a lifelong pursuit of educational institutions to end up, well, I cannot say. I do know that making that decision was a relief. Possibility in the mists of the unknown take shape and color, feeding my imagination and wonder. I know beyond my rose-colored glasses that between now and my deathbed, I’ll do things I don’t want to do, work on projects not central to my essential self, and find frustrations in my work. But beneath, driving me, is the pursuit of what I want to pursue. To be yourself is fucking hard, it takes saying yes to things you know will be difficult and no to things of comfort and assurance over and over again. But to find that dream job, a dream must be tested, broken, and built from what remains. 

Half-assed, revisited

Dreary eyed and eyeing his watch, one of the students I supervised last year could have passed as the latest patient in Dr. Frankenstein's Cambridge clinic. What the hell happened, I asked. "Well I had a project due today which I didn't start until last night. No idea why. Seemed like whenever I wanted to start it, I just did two or three other things at the same time." I sent the poor boy-gentleman home. He was wasting time pretending to have the capacity to learn something in that sleep'en state. At the same time, I empathised with him.

Over a year ago, on a previous blog, I wrote about half-assing. Today I will write about it again. At that time I was more focused on getting work done on my PhD than anything else. Now, in my final year of the program, I'm taking things steady, slower than before. I'm focusing on striking balance in my life, finding experiences that are meaningful while still producing high quality work. I want to do this both for my own sanity, and as an experiment for my age group in general. I have a sense that given the immensity of choices and possibilities my generation is presented with, we are failing to engage. Engage in something we find that strikes us or gives us meaning in all the cliché ways. Instead, we rely upon the crutch of the quick and bright, the unsustainable. The unavoidable draw of instant-satisfaction brand of technology that surrounds us. Apps and phones and laptops and watches that talk to us. 50 years ago none of that existed. 10 years it was growing. Now it is inevitable. At it's worst, these instant experiences suck the air out of meaningful experience. With little difficulty, we can choose to never be in a present state of mind. At the bus stop, walking the streets, in our homes, in our minds we compulsively check and move on. Click, scroll, close, click, scroll, close. It's only natural to find ourselves here. Technology developers and advertisers are experts at hitting the soft spots of the brain. Similar to the high salt/fat foods we become addicted to, technology prays on our ability to consume quick bits of information in beautiful but unrealistic packages. There were no 4g signals in the caves of our ancestors, the forest does not have a livefeed.

But we can't blame companies and culture entirely, we take the blame too, we decide to fall into these habits and perpetuate them.

 

I'm always going to have a smart phone. I'll always have a laptop and wi-fi connection. I'm not preaching a wire-free world in any way. Instead, it's balance that I will get up on my soapbox about. We have time for balance. Those few minutes in the subway, the car or bus ride to work. The few minutes when you first get home. The same time slots we may turn to our phones or computers, there are other things. Why should you care? To me, cell time and internet time is often half-assed: a time where we aren't sure what to do, where a slight unease comes over us and we cover ourselves in the blanket of apps and videos. Moreover, millions of people feel this way at work, so why continue it afterwards? Free time for Americans is becoming a novelty, so why not be efficient with it? 

The beauty of 'full'-assing is it doesn't take any external circumstance. No need for an idyllic scene or life shifting event. It's a redirection of attention, and it's not environmentally dependent. Awareness of what is directly around you, and not of what future worries or past anxieties. This lends itself to a form of meditation:

"Simply sit down, close your eyes, and listen to all sounds that may be going on – without trying to name or identify them. Listen as you would listen to music. If you find that verbal thinking will not drop away, don’t attempt to stop it by force of will-power. Just keep your tongue relaxed, floating easily in the lower jaw, and listen to your thoughts as if they were birds chattering outside – mere noise in the skull – and they will eventually subside of themselves, as a turbulent and muddy pool will become calm and clear if left alone.

Also, become aware of breathing and allow your lungs to work in whatever rhythm seems congenial to them. And for a while just sit listening and feeling breath. But, if possible, don’t call it that. Simply experience the non-verbal happening. 

- From Alan Watts "The Way of Liberation"

Cooking, walking, listening, talking, reading, even thinking and consuming motion video on a screen can be done in this way. It's not about the act but the intention you take with it. Are you brining your concerns and worries? All the ego? Do you need it right now? Right here? At times, yes, but most of the time? Of course not. It may be easy to understand this logically as we don't want to be unhappy, needlessly carrying our life's burden with us to do our laundry and order take out. But how aware are we of such thought processes and autonomic habits? I do it, it's only natural in the world we reside in. That only makes our duty to ourselves more important. To cherish the moments when we can. When it's a great meal, when it's a sad and gloomy day, when it's recovering from an injury, to full-ass more and compulsively half-ass less.