Thursday, February 25, 2010

(w)resting my attention.

last week, on a days notice, i decided to catch a ride out to central mass and spend five silent days at a buddhist meditation center, instructed in meditation practice by some really nice and knowledgeable dudes, and, of course, practicing it. practicing it from 5am to 9pm each day-- forty-five minutes of sitting meditation, alternated with forty-five minutes of walking meditation, with breaks for meals (breakfast, lunch, tea) and an hour of chores. i needed a little adventure, a little quiet, a little bit of that feeling of new skill acquisition, and a little break from my devices.

there were yogi's at the camp who were on year-long silent retreat, others three month, and many of those there, like me, for only a couple of weeks or several days had been practicing silent meditation at this center for ten, twenty, nigh on thirty years some of them.

i myself have never meditated before. i went to try this thing-- to see about this way of knowing supposedly more clear-eyed reliable, more searingly direct than all of my philosophical figuring. i didn't expect to get more than the rudiments in these few days, and that was right. i expected it to be a grueling exercise in not thinking-- like they'd equip me with some kind of punishing shock collar that zapped at the first suggestion of theorizing-- and there i turned out to be interestingly wrong. their task, they explained to me in (not) so many words, was to gently strip me of the punishing shock collar of my own making. the key was to notice, without judgment (!), when my thoughts had wondered and to bring my attention gently gently back to rest gently on my breathing. the impediment would be my own exasperation with myself.

to see clear is to see without aversion. that seemed to be a central notion. and looking inward we find many things to which we are averse. and the first and forever aversion to be overcome is the aversion our own distractability-- how easily we are subject to recursive and looping and endlessly repeating fantasies and replays of played out pasts. and that's before you ever even have to address your aversion to those fantasies and replays themselves! so first, and forever, i just had to train my attention on my breathing. rest my attention. just rest my attention on my breathing for a breath or two or three (that was really all i could manage at first) until i was carried away by one thing or another and then, eventually, to notice that i'd been carried away and to gently bring that same attention back again and again and again to the breath. gently.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

raising them right. i mean happy!

We are born utterly dependent; from the moment we pop out, a social relationship becomes essential to living, namely the relationship with our mother (as well as other family members). Through that dependency—for physical survival and mental, social, physical, and sensory stimulation—we form connections with other people who become significant in shaping our view of ourselves and of the world around us. That socialization process also structures the brain in important and enduring ways. Through the complex processes of socialization, families can create in their members, and especially in their children, either susceptibility or resistance to depression that can last a lifetime.

Long-term epidemiologic studies show that depression intensifies from one generation to the next. Today's parents represent the largest group of depression sufferers raising the fastest-growing group of depression sufferers. We are on average four times more depressed than our parents and ten times more than our grandparents.

michael yapko & hara estroff marano, secondhand blues, psychology today

so, there's actually a lot i don't like about this article. (to begin with, "pop out"? seriously? where is the editorial support?) but i've been thinking about in terms of another question that's been on my mind-- when do you know that you're ready to have kids? i know that this question usually refers to things like, when do you have enough money? when do you have enough time? when have you accomplished enough of your own goals? and the answer that people generally give-- and rightly, i think-- is that you're never really ready in any of these senses, so you just have to do it, and you figure it out, and you learn as you go.

but how do you know when you've worked through your own bullshit sufficiently to actually avoid the egregious repetition of the past? how do you know when you've found the calm center from which you can...i don't know, not just parent responsibly, but bring up happy kids? i know that it's easy to group these kinds of questions with the others, but i'm not inclined to. the best of lives can be lived on not enough money and short of time-- you could imagine, even, wishing these kinds of material limitations for your children, that they might learn to thrive in more interesting and satisfying ways. but it's hard to see how we might analogously wish for them the constraints congenital loneliness or persistent anxiety. and yet, with the best and clearest intentions, and with the sincerest love, we seem to be handing these things on at a rate that's approaching the exponential. we have one life, and we give one life to our kids, their entire experience of which will be filtered through the lens that they construct from observing our own daily approaches to life.

it seems to me that the question deserves a different kind of reflection than the others. a friendly pat-on-the-back-and-you'll-figure-it-out approach makes sense if you're urging someone to put aside pragmatic questions for the sake of jumping into the wonderful business of family, and it makes sense as a way of saying 'look, these are the problems that have been faced time immemorial'. but here i think the question isn't pragmatic-- it's a matter of ultimate concern. and this seems to be a uniquely modern epidemic-- which is not to say that this, too, is not an age old question of parenting, but the risks seem uniquely high: "The World Health Organization recently declared depression the fourth leading cause of human disability and suffering and predicted that by the year 2020 it will be the second leading cause." high risks, ultimate ends. the stakes are high.

this has probably begun to sound awfully pessimistic, but i am, in fact (foolishly, i'm sure), brimming with optimism. but it seems so crucial to know: how will you know that you have in yourself the critical mass of peace, that warm solid center, that frees you up to do it right? or is the fresh start we seem to need more fruitfully thought of in terms of external conditions? what will a good place to start look like?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


when it's over, i want to say: all my life
i was a bride married to amazement.
i was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

when it's over, i don't want to wonder
if i have made of my life something particular, and real.
i don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

mary oliver

more on the subject: i just found this paper by a philosopher and a social scientist, called "why do humans reason? arguments for an argumentative theory".

abstract: "Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. ...Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively with the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow the persistence of erroneous beliefs. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all of these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and favor conclusions in support of which arguments can be found. "

there are these rare thinkers, though-- really, having read a significant amount of philosophy, i find them to be so utterly rare-- who seem to go where the argument leads them-- who don't begin with a commitment to an outcome, but discover, with wonder, along with the rest of us, where the train of thought leads. they're willing to be proved wrong. can't we argue from a place of wonder? isn't that what wondering is? or is wondering also problematic? does it only lead to arguments, or can it also lead to understanding?

so understanding stands apart. it's clearly a way of knowing, but not a way arrived at by arguments, whose function is to convince, and to assess for convincingness. so what is it, if anything, that moves when we come to understand? what is it we do, cognitively? is it a movement? (we must be moved.) is it utterly still?

Monday, February 15, 2010

you (i), my little lettuce.

[i'm trying to change my writing process from the very bottom up. i've got to learn to spit it out. in the name of this, i'm going to do these little writing exercises-- timed and unrevised, twice a week, i hope.

'when you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. you look into the reasons it is not doing well. it may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. you never blame the lettuce. yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. but if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. that is my experience. no blame, no reasoning, nor arguments, just understanding. if you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.'

thich nhat hanh
peace is every step

i read this book about a thousand years ago, and then the other day a friend of mine gave me the most wonderful gift-- she handed me this book, my own book, from my own shelf. it can look and read like something a little embarrassing-- an easy self-help manual, or treacly pop buddhism. i can't answer this except to say, somewhat vaguely, that this is that rarest thing-- a simple book that rewards multiple readings. while a first reading may provide a facile sense of revelation, i suppose that the only real transformative power comes with simple repetition (which is only to be expected, given the central role of simple repetition in buddhist pratice, as i understand it).

but i want to talk about the lettuce a little. i am here to write about the lettuce. i often use metaphors like these to try to bring home to people my practical and theoretical objections to our blaming practices. practically speaking, i think it's more useful and loving (and hard!) to think of each other in these sorts of terms (this is a highly contention claim-- the final word on the subject so far was spoken by the wonderful pf strawson who says that a mature and mutual and satisfying love depends on our not treating each other as we would the lettuce (see more on this subject here and here)). and i'm skeptical of there being any coherent justification for blame, as we generally conceive of it, whether or not it's of any practical use. blah blah yeah yeah you've heard it all before.

but look here! thich nhat hanh has used his lovely little lettuce metaphor not only to suggest the uselessness of blame, but to suggest the uselessness of arguments and reasoning. i'm brought up short. all at once i'm being schooled! challenged at the very core. because i think that people are like lettuce, and i think the value of my life is all and only my skill as a lettuce tender, but i also think that people are a very special kind of lettuce, responsive not only to sunshine and rain, but also to reason. i think that, officially. but the real challenge isn't to what i think, officially, but to who i am and what i do, independant of what i think. i'm an arguer and a reasoner, with a relentless habit of describing and redescribing things as a way of understanding them (and maybe something else). especially hard things. and most especially lettuce. it's the best and the worst of me. i think of this process of arguing and redescribing as the very process by which i come to understand. but thich nhat hanh tells me that you (i), my little lettuce, will respond no better to arguments and reason than you (i) will respond to blame. he suggests that understanding, on the one hand, and reason and arguments on the other, are of a distinctly different character. it feels hard as a paradox, trying to understand this very claim except as an argument or for reasons. alternately and also, i can understand it with the perfect ease that lettuce understands the sunshine.

this is what i've been thinking about.