"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."


09:24 Thursday, 29 June 2017

I like to write.

That implies, and means, that I experience some good "feeling" attendant to the act of writing, at least when I'm writing about something I want to write about.

What usually motivates me to write is also a feeling. Sometimes it's a good feeling I wish to share. Other times it's a bad feeling I wish to discharge and resolve for myself in some way.

Also attendant to these feelings is the source of all suffering, desire. I want the reader to be persuaded in some fashion. I wish for my writing to make some kind of a difference.

Probably my most prolific writing was done post-9/11 and in the run-up and immediate aftermath of the Iraq War. That experience was one of frustration and suffering. What I wrote made no difference, it was simply a futile act. Worse, it alienated a few people, and it involved interminable "debates" with people who didn't seem interested in exploring the basis and reasoning for an elective war so much as they were in simply rationalizing their feelings. And if you can't understand the difference, well, that's what this is about.

Since then, I've written far less. I still get the urge to scratch this particular itch, but I've learned that if I ignore it for a little while, it'll go away. And I'll not have to experience the disappointment of not having made a difference.

But, here I am today.

One of the most valuable things, and there were many, many valuable things, I learned in therapy was when Sandy asked me, and in so doing taught me to ask myself, "David, what's going on inside you?" Well, here's a bit of that effort today.

I'm sad. Almost despair. A little angry. And that's why I'm writing, even though I know it's almost certainly not going to make one whit of difference. I'll return to that thought at the end of this piece. Get comfortable, it may be a long read.

We are living in an age of miracles. You need no more proof than what is before your eyes right this very moment. My thoughts, conveyed to you by means that have only existed for a couple of decades being displayed to you on a device that was probably inconceivable for anyone save science fiction writers a generation ago.

We have robots exploring distant planets. Rockets reaching space and landing back on earth on their tails as God and Robert Heinlein intended. We can transplant organs, grow new ones, repair damaged ones. We're reading the actual code that builds human beings, and we're beginning to edit it.

It's remarkable. Astonishing.

We have taken the tools we've created, mathematics and science, and used them to seemingly master the physical world.

Where we have not kept up, and what will likely bring about our end, is the effort to examine and understand the interior world, the meta-physical, the psychological, or, for the more materialist among you, the neurological world.

Yes, we have made some strides there. We know much about behavior, and how humans think and we're learning more every day. And we have a huge store of practical knowledge that, while perhaps not codified and studied, is nevertheless employed every day in the service of commerce. "There's a sucker born every minute," is an example of that type of practical knowledge.

One encouraging sign is the exploration of "irrational" behavior. It has begun to destroy the myth that we are "rational" beings. But it's late, and I'm not sure there's enough time left to completely destroy it before our irrationality brings about our demise.

We harbor some seriously misguided conceits, and they govern much of our "thinking." While I'm sure most of you reading this will likely knowingly chuckle and acknowledge that, yes, we really are irrational beings; that thought doesn't inform a single thing you do. You've never really "thought" about it. Indeed, most of us seldom ever really think at all.

Now I've probably got a little bit or your attention, and your first active disagreement. I suspect I've pricked your ego a little bit, and the preceding paragraph has evoked a negative emotion, a feeling. And so now you're summoning "reasons" why I'm of course wrong, and wondering if you should waste your time going on reading this.

I hope you'll bear with me, endure the uncomfortable feelings for a little while. Once this is done, they'll go away. To paraphrase a wise, and fictional, woman, "Have another cookie. As soon as you close this browser tab, you'll feel as right as rain."

Thinking is hard. It requires time, and especially energy. It's an ability that came late in our evolutionary development. Most of the cognitive machinery that keeps us going all day long, watching cat videos and clicking "Like" buttons, doesn't require it at all. That ongoing narrative in your head? That's not thinking. Sometimes it might be, but I don't think so. If you're not using a piece of paper and a pencil or some other tools or implements, or if you're doing almost anything else besides sitting or walking, you're probably not thinking. At least that you're aware of. There is some background thinking that goes on that is largely inaccessible to your inner narrator, and a lot of problem solving takes place there. But it too is the exception, rather than the rule.

No, most of what we do, nearly all of it, is merely "behavior." Most of that is "habituated," often "conditioned." The very model of stimulus and response. And if you do take some time to actually "think" about it, you can understand why it is so. Thinking demands a lot of resources, and it takes a lot of resources just to keep our bodies at 98.6 degrees F. If you had to be "thinking" all day long, you'd be eating a hell of a lot more than you already are now. Of course, if we all thought more, we'd probably weigh less as well, both because by "thinking" we wouldn't make habituated unconscious choices to eat foods to engender a feeling, and we'd be burning up a lot of calories exerting that cognitive intervention.

It is only because we have developed societies and cultures that provide most of our material needs that we have had the luxury of a "cognitive surplus" by a relative few individuals, which has allowed us to make these advances in science and medicine; but which has also burdened us with the false conceit that we're all thinking, rational beings.

To the extent that we "reason" at all, we mostly reason backward from our feelings. If I say something "provocative," it invokes a negative feeling, and your inner narrator will summon a list of "reasons" to validate that feeling. If you're on social media, you've been conditioned by watching others' behavior to offer a comment in response, usually just regurgitating all the "reasons" your brain has summoned to explain your feeling to yourself.

Pro tip: Never read the comments.

So, back to Sandy. "David, what's going on inside you?"

I have to say, I don't recall anyone ever really asking me that question before she did. Sure, many people had asked, "What the hell's wrong with you?" Or, "What's the matter?" But no one ever really asked, "What's going on in there?"

And I also have to say, that I'm not sure I ever really looked at it before. "What's going on" inside me is like water is to a fish. What's water?

Sure, I'd often had inner discussions with myself. But usually that was just a habituated dialog that had been carried out over and over and over again many times before. It's really just a form of self-soothing behavior intended to kind of keep you from hurting yourself until the "feeling" that engendered it goes away.

And that's the wonderful thing about feelings. They pass.

But no, trying to describe what was "going on" inside me kind of forced me to "observe" myself. And this is the key to meditation, it is away of seizing control of your own faculty of attention, and using it to gain control, limited and usually fleeting, of your interior experience. It gets "you" (your ego) out of the infinite loop it's stuck in.

I had a number of years of therapy, and during that time I did a great deal of reading as well, all of it with the idea of trying to understand "What's going on inside you?" I learned a great deal, some of it is likely wrong, but it has had the fortunate effect of making my interior experience a far better one than I'd ever had before. And it has made me a better person as well. Not perfect by any means, but definitely better.

But you know… therapy. That's for people who have "problems." We're all rational cognitive beings in control of our lives. We don't have "problems." Well, yeah, little ones. Maybe some big ones. But we don't have "problems" with our problems. We're good. We're okay. We've got our shit together, man! Therapy. That's for people who can't handle life. (Which really is true. And also, it seems to me, most of us.)

So yeah, therapy isn't exactly something people really think they want, let alone need. If you're lucky, like I was, the universe keeps hitting you upside the head with a 2x4 until you decide you might need some help.

The good news is, we do know a lot about what's going on inside us, and it can be learned. The bad news is, we haven't decided that it's important to teach it to people. It's a very touchy subject. It's perhaps the most intimate, intrusive form of teaching there is. The student has to learn to be vulnerable, to be open, and the teacher has to be skilled in handling that vulnerability, and not abusing it. But much of it could be taught as "theory." There would likely have to be a "therapy" component to facilitate turning theory into practice.

Why is that important? Our survival as a civilization almost certainly, and perhaps even as a species, depends upon it; and that issue will probably be resolved in the next several generations. Here's why:

Do you think there's anything controversial about public sanitation? Apart from the location of landfills and the fact that our consumptive, consumerist culture is creating far too many of them? I mean, is it in any way controversial that we don't allow trash and garbage to accumulate in our homes or on our streets?

I don't think so.

Is there anything controversial about health codes? "All employees mush wash hands before returning to work." Food preparation and storage areas must meet certain requirements. Where's the hue and cry about "freedom!" when it comes to food preparation. Well, there is the "raw milk" crowd, (another irrational form of behavior) but seriously, do you think we have too much heavy-handed government intrusion in the fast food business?

Sewage? Any problem with sewers as a public utility? Any problem with building codes regarding the construction and installation of toilet facilities? Too much government intrusion there?

We did learn, long ago, that there were significant public and personal benefits to observing certain practices regarding sanitation and hygiene, and nearly every place in the world has codified these into law. These are, for the vast majority of us, uncontroversial, accepted and indeed, expected in any civilized society.

Why? Because the lack of these restrictions, the failure to observe these practices, facilitates the spread of disease, makes our homes unpleasant to live in. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there are many people who can live seemingly happily in squalor and filth. But most of us seem to have progressed beyond that.

The result is that we're able to have large numbers of people living in close proximity to one another, and not have it be an absolutely horrible experience.

Today we have something similar taking place in cyberspace. We have large numbers of people in close "mental" proximity, and everyone is "sharing" everything with everyone else. Would you do that with your toothbrush?

Manners used to be the form of social hygiene "civilized" people observed in their social interactions. You could be a total rat-bastard, but still observe the customs of decorum and etiquette.