Mindfulness

Notes from “Why Buddhism is True”

Robert Wright’s books have oscillated between evolutionary science (The Moral Animal) and religious history (The Evolution of God, Nonzero). His latest book, Why Buddhism is True, tries to unify the fields, told through a personal perspective.

For more than two millennia, Buddhism had been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the “conditioning” works. Now, with Darwin’s theory, we understood what had done the programming.

One of Buddhism’s big ideas is that most of what we sense and feel is illusory. Wright argues that evolution created these illusions by shaping us to value survival and reproductive success more than “truth”:

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

He gives the example of seeing–really seeing–a dangerous snake out of the corner of your eye, sprinting away, and then turning back to realize it was only a stick. In the moment, your brain saw a snake, because it was more beneficial to your genes to believe it was real.

Even if you think you’re being rational, that too can be an illusion:

From natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.

His conclusion is that our collective psychology is “a byproduct of the particular evolution of our species”, and that the way to save the world is for people to recognize their illusions, especially the illusion of separateness from each other.

I think there will have to be, in the long run, a revolution in human consciousness. I’m not sure what to call the revolution—maybe the Metacognitive Revolution, since it will involve stepping back and becoming more aware of how our minds work. But I think it’s going to have to be something so dramatic that future historians will have an actual label for the transformation.

In an age of information addiction and personalized newsfeeds it’s hard to imagine the world embracing mindfulness en masse. But perhaps it is exactly the artifice of those things that will drive us back to a more natural, more mindful, and more truthful lifestyle.

Experience as interpretation

Our own nature, in fact, is defined by the tiny fraction of possible interpretations [of the world] we can make, and the astronomical number we can’t.- Hans Moravec

Consciousness as story

Our consciousness may be primarily the continuous story we tell ourselves, from moment to moment, about what we did and why we did it. It is a thin, often inaccurate veneer rationalizing a mountain of unconscious processing…

On the one hand, our consciousness may be an evolutionary fluke, telling an unreliable story in a far-fetched interpretation of a pattern of tiny salty squirts. On the other, our consciousness is the only reason for thinking we exist (or for thinking we think). Without it there are no beliefs, no sensations, no experience of being, no universe. – Hans Moravec

Micro-activities

Since becoming a father I’ve had trouble fitting in all the things I’d like to do, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine two activities together, or to squeeze one in between two others. A few examples of these “micro-activities” that have worked out well:

  • Meditate while falling asleep
  • Pushups as I roll out of bed
  • Bodyweight exercise on playground equipment while the kids play
  • Mindful breathing while waiting for them to finish things (brushing teeth, putting away toys, etc)
  • Squat stretch while brushing teeth
  • Naps during lunch break (and related, lunch during meetings)
  • Squats and stretches while riding the elevator (alone =)

The way these work best is when the activities are in two separate cognitive or physical categories. I haven’t been able, for instance, to listen to a podcast while working (which both require cognitive attention), or to intersperse pushups with cooking (both require your hands). But a physical activity while doing a mental one can work (e.g. pullups while watching the kids).

Mindfulness in particular is well suited for this. Besides the fact that a single 20-minute session is hard to stay focused for anyway, spreading bits of meditation throughout the day has a nice regulating effect on my mood and attention. Chade Meng Tan encourages people to practice just a single breath at a time, finding that produces a large benefit; I agree.

No more rock stars

This is a wonderful takedown of “rock stars” and stopping abuse–in the tech industry, but applicable to any field–by Leigh Honeywell. Some of my favorite points:

  • Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone (of course, you say! But you still have to do it)
  • Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
  • Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
  • Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives (when the job is all they have, people get crazy)

“Rockstar” in tech has become synonymous with narcissist. I avoid any contact with companies or teams who are looking for them.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching

When privilege kills

What’s behind the increased rate of deaths from suicide, drug abuse, and heart disease for middle-aged white Americans? According to Nobel Prize winning economists Case and Deaton, it might be that they’re just not able to fulfill their own expectations:

Most of the increase in white deaths is concentrated among those who never finished college. These are the same people who have been pummeled by the economy in recent decades…

White American men without a college degree still earn 36 percent more than their black counterparts. But the death rate among less-educated black Americans has actually been decreasing…

Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a “spiritual” pain caused by “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Maybe Calvin had it right after all:

We already think about the future a lot

Contradicting Jane McGonigal, Martin Seligman says that we already spend plenty of time thinking about the future:

We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities. Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected…

Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

Though there are limits:

Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people’s deaths.

I’m surprised this was found to be mostly a positive phenomenon given the stress it causes, but the absence of prospection would cause much bigger problems. Makes sense that this is baked into our natures.

Think, wait, fast

“What is it now what you’ve got to give? What is it that you’ve learned, what you’re able to do?”

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

“That’s everything?”

“I believe, that’s everything!” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Lessons from living with an Amazonian tribe

Or, how to unlearn your first-world problems:

  • You learn to ignore the mosquitoes. And hunger. And all the other stuff too.
  • Everyone depends on everyone else
  • Lack of distraction leads to deeper thinking
  • Everything else seems easier afterward

Anything and everything

Carson tonight, from under a towel:

Dad, I can’t see anything! I can only see everything.

He must have been reading William Blake and Wallace Stevens.