POEM: Thinking

I think,
but without Descartes’ insistence that I am.

In fact, the more I think, the less confident I am about knowing what “being” means.

I think — without knowing,
and recognize the hazard of that condition.
It’s what got Socrates killed.

A smart person who claims to know may raise hackles,
but is dismissed as arrogant.

It’s the smart person who admits he doesn’t know…
[let’s hope I’m not wrongly classed among them]
… that’s the one who arouses murderous intent.

For what hope exists for priests, professors, or politicians —
or any of the many oracles of our age —
when the most astute confess that uncertainty is inescapable?

What airy sands are our castles built upon?

And, yet, I think.

5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

POEM: Thought Bubbles

Source: Spiff via Wikipedia

 

Silence the jittery critter.
Ride the dullness down
to where images bubble.

In that blurry dimness
one feels their logic,
but shine the mind’s light
and all sense shatters —
scattering,
dissolving into shadows
without a trace.

Leaving only the dull ache of betrayal
that, as in a dream,
something so absurd and fragile
could feel so wise.

POEM: Nullius in Verba

nulliusinverba1

Said Socrates, “Oh, those poor bastards, for they think they know.

“I may be an ignorant slut, but I know I know not.”

[I paraphrase.]

My point, if I have one, is that “know” is an overused word.

Stinking up the discourse, like a bloated, floating pig turd.

[Remember Jim Carey, in the movie “Liar, Liar”]

“I object, Your Honor”… “Because, it’s devastating to my case.”

It’s a refrain seldom stated, but oft implied.

It works quite well, if you only talk to one side.

Fault us not for we’re wired to be certain.

If the cave wall shadow might be a tiger,

you don’t wait to see whether it’s a mouse.

That said, we’ve evolved these huge honking brains.

Our prefrontal cortexes might withstand the strain–

of asking:

How do I know this?

What if I’m wrong?

Might my mind deceive?

Facts: cherry-picked or  strong?

POEM: Fuel & Fools

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)




It was a fire-breathing preacher,

a hard-core and ceaseless teacher,

of lessons they said they wanted none.

Yet, it belched them out by the ton.


Spitting fire and dreadful lies

from the freedom of the skies.

And all about, its fires burned.

And people wailed like lovers spurned.


And then one day there came sage.

He found some sad, some in a rage.

“What troubles you folk,” he inquires.


“From far above, it slings these fires!

Can you save us, you wise old man,

from life in this blasted frying pan?”


“Every fire requires a fuel,

And every lie, a willing fool.

Do you feed the beast, or in its fires bask?”


“Neither, of course, and how dare you ask!”


“I can douse the flames, but they’ll flare right back,

if you fuel them with your petty, piddling yak.”


“Just do it, old man, before we all burn!”


“OK, I’ll give you this one chance to learn.”

So, pulling a hose, off the sage marched.

“Mighty dragon, you must be terribly parched?”


“You know, breathing fire IS a thirsty job.”


At a nod, minions spun the spigot knob.

The water caught the grateful dragon in the throat.

Steam rose, ash spewed, and that’s all she wrote.

With no fire to breath, the dragon flew off,

sputtering out its last ashen cough.


The town was saved, or so it appeared.

But it was as the sage had feared.

Soon, some dabbled in volatile mixtures–

at weakest moments, becoming fixtures.

And the fools? Oh, they missed the glow

of the dragon’s garish and tawdry show.


And soon enough, conditions were right

for the dragon’s fire to again alight.

My Vipassana 10-Day Experience: No Solidified Gross Sensations, No Gain

woman-pointing-at-herself6

It’s 4:45 in the morning and I’ve been sitting on my cushion at the Dhamma Setu Vipassana Meditation Center in Chennai, India for a quarter-hour. It’s day one, and I’m observing my breath as it comes in and out through my nostrils—at least for seconds to minutes at a time before I have to coral my mind back from some random tangent. This breath exercise (ānāpāna-sati), I will soon learn, is a preparatory exercise used to reign in the mind enough so that actual Vipassana meditation can be introduced on the middle of the fourth day. In eleven days, I’ll be in the closing session of the course.

 

There are several approaches to Vipassana meditation taught throughout the balance of the course, but the gist is the same for all of them. One rotates one’s awareness throughout the body systematically observing sensations. As one does this, one works toward equanimity, a calm and quiet state of mind in which one neither covets pleasurable sensations nor shuns unpleasant sensations. The idea is to train the deepest level of the mind to not habitually lunge one toward pleasure or away from displeasure.  (FYI: displeasure = pain.  At least for a novice, such as myself, there is a fair amount of pain involved in sitting still for such long periods. It’s generally referred to a solidified gross sensation to differentiate it from the uniform and subtle sensations that one may feel in the parts of the body that aren’t in agony. I joke about it here, but there’s good reason to train oneself to not think in terms of pain, and the negative connotation the word evokes.)

 

At that course’s beginning, I knew a little about Vipassana from research, including reading the book “Equanimous Mind,” one man’s account of his experience in the course. For example, I knew that most people who quit, leave either on day two or day six. At the time, I didn’t know why, but would learn soon enough. It’s nothing about those two days, but rather the days that precede them. Day 1 seems to last forever, and it’s easy enough to discern why it might give students trouble. When one gets through day 1, an optimist says “yeah, I can do this because I’m through the first day” but a pessimist says, “I just barely made it, I can’t do this.” Day 5 is when the strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) is added, which means that one has three one hour sessions during which one is to commit to not changing one’s posture for the whole session. No opening eyes, but—more challengingly—no unfolding /refolding one’s legs.  This commitment to not changing posture steps up the difficulty of the course to another level.

 

It should be noted that one can opt to sit in a chair. However, that introduces an entirely new challenge—drowsiness. During the long sessions, when I’d get up to walk the lymphatic fluid out of my legs, there were usually two people in a straight-spined meditative position and six to eight who looked to be sound asleep.  (Drowsiness was one reason that I didn’t sit in a chair. I’m prone to get sleepy enough during meditation, especially in a complete absence of caffeine. The other reason was that I’ve not found chairs to be more comfortable for long-sits of meditation. Once your bony parts start pressing into the chair, one begins to wish one was cross-legged on a cushion. One can make the chair more comfortable by placing padding wherever it’s uncomfortable, but eventually one has a virtual La-Z-boy and the drowsiness factor becomes all the more problematic.)

 

With respect to these strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) sessions, I didn’t make it the full hour without moving on the fifth day–or any day until day 10, in fact. However, I don’t count this as a failure, because I did give it my all. I say that based on the endorphin-induced euphoria, simple hallucinations, and a proprioceptive form of Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that I experienced from toughing it out past mere discomfort. I’ll get to what that all means, but for now suffice it to say these happenings were symptomatic of sitting still through the period in which the pain came, grew, and then started to numb out.

 

In fact, these trippy experiences may, sadly, have been one reason why it never occurred to me to want to leave around day six. While I tried not to get caught up in them, these experiences were fascinating. I could see why day 2 presents a challenge to so many, but day 6 was a hoot, relatively speaking. The second most challenging day for me was day 8, because I’d reached a plateau but I didn’t yet feel myself in the homestretch. But by day 8, who’s going to leave? You’ve gutted it out that long, and are almost done. For those concerned about whether they can make it to the end, I can honestly say that I never seriously considered quitting. It’s not that hard to get through the 10 days, as long as one isn’t too addicted to comfort and communication.  That said, I wouldn’t offer a wholesale recommendation of the course as many do, but rather recommend it on a case-by-case basis. If you’ve done no meditation whatsoever, this is the meditative equivalent of going from couch-sitting to training for an ultra-marathon overnight. If you think you can’t get through nine days of silence–without no phones or books, maybe you can’t, and you should probably reevaluate your life.

 

I mentioned some of the unusual experiences that I witnessed during the course, and I’ll get into that a bit more. I should preface this by saying that one shouldn’t get caught up in these trippy happenings for reasons I’ll elaborate upon below, but they may happen so it’s worth being ready for them. Here’s a list of the unusual events I experienced:

 

-Extreme relaxation / lethargy: a little off topic, but between sessions on day 1, I noticed that I couldn’t be bothered to shoo away a fly that kept buzzing around my head with random touch downs. I don’t know how long I walked with the fly buzzing over me before it struck me that this was unusual. This was before Vipassana proper had been introduced, so it didn’t yet seem apropos.

 

-Olfactory hallucination / vivid scents: on day 2 I witnessed a distinct smell from my elementary school days (i.e. a mix of cleaning solution and milk cartons?) that theoretically could have originated at the Dhamma Setu, but which was quite probably an olfactory hallucination. It was short-lived and I never smelt it again. I did later experience an intense smell of flowers inside the meditation hall. This may well have been an actual scent as there were many blooming flowers there. These vivid scents were also short-lived.

 

-Endorphin-Induced Euphoria: on days 4 and 5, I experienced this as an almost intoxicated feeling. [Endorphins are the body’s indigenous pain-killers.] As drunks find unfunny things funny, so did I—including the pain in my legs and back. I wondered if anyone would be distracted by my occasional giggle-fits, but I think they were much more subdued than I suspected from my vantage point. Just like I’ve thought I was talking in my sleep in the past, only to be told that it sounded more like faint and indistinct whimpering. On day 6, I experienced a more sophisticated (not drunk-like) form of euphoria that expressed itself as a feeling of “oneness.” I’ve read about feelings of oneness being attributed to a form of transient hypo-frontality—i.e. a shutting down of the parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that track the self / other distinction. There may have been more happening than endorphins (and other neurotransmitters) involved in that happening.

 

-Lifting sensation: This was the single most awe-inspiring experience that I was party to. For those unfamiliar with seated meditation, one of one’s chief enemies in long meditation sessions is a proclivity to slump. Slumping translates into agonizing back pain and labored breathing. So whenever one catches oneself slumping, one has to straighten one’s back. [If you wonder why a meditator would pretzel up his or her legs in full lotus (padmasana), the alignment of one’s legs helps one maintain a straight spine.] At any rate, on day 6 I experienced the feeling that I was being lifted up straight and it became effortless to maintain a straight back for the rest of that session—as if an outside force were doing the work. This lifting sensation wasn’t like being lifted by a person, but rather like the action of a “tractor beam” from the world of sci-fi. While I have some inkling of the causes of much of what I experienced based on the science of the human body, explanation of this “lift” is harder to come by. I did read an account in Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations” by a woman who suffered from migraine-induced hallucinations and Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that was a spot-on description of what I experienced as well.

 

-“Visual” [closed-eye] simple hallucinations: I didn’t experience anything even close to the what people usually think of as a hallucination—that is, there was nothing that could be confused with reality. I wouldn’t have even known to call these images hallucinations if I hadn’t been reading the aforementioned Oliver Sacks’ book. Mine were quite close to what are described as hypnogogic (falling asleep) hallucinations in the Sacks’ book. This makes sense. While I wasn’t drowsy at the time, my brain was probably in a pretty similar state of relaxation. Mostly, these were moving shapes that formed and dissipated in a field of black-fringed purple.  On day 7, there were more complete visuals—mostly of partial faces, usually with mouths wide open. I took this as my subconscious mind’s comment on the noble silence. (On the noble silence: from about 6pm on day 0 [orientation afternoon] until the morning of day 10, one isn’t allowed to talk or in any way interact with / acknowledge anyone except to direct questions to the teacher or staff. Whether one has questions or not, one will speak at least a few words to the teacher every day or two when he / she reviews one’s progress. For some, this may be the single biggest challenge of the course, but I’m a hardcore introvert and could do ten days of silence standing on my head.)

 

-Tactile Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome usually refers to a visual form of hallucination in which things appear a great deal taller, smaller, closer, or farther than they actually are. What I experienced was a great deal less whacky and traumatic than that. With eyes closed, I felt a distortion of the size and shape of my arms. Sometimes my arms felt like they were six-foot long from deltoid to fingertips, and sometimes the same points seemed to lie a foot and a half apart. Needless to say, those are both distortions of the actual length of my arms.

 

-Inexplicable Beatles’ Music: On day 8 my mind bombarded me with music from the Beatles for a little while. In particular I heard “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and “All You Need is Love,” or parts thereof, in high fidelity. Now, while this is fine music, it’s not music that I’ve listened to recently nor have I listened to that album a great deal. When I was growing up, there was a copy of “Sgt Pepper’s…” at home, but I’ve only periodically heard these songs on the radio since. The experience was monotonous because only the parts that I knew the words to (i.e. the choruses) replayed on a loop, but the music and voices were crystal clear as if I were listening to the album.  Given the lack of personal relevance, I can only imagine that my subconscious thought this is the kind of music a person meditating would like to hear.

 

As I said, by about day 8 I’d hit a plateau. The aforementioned odd experiences were petering out, particularly when I did as I was supposed to do and gently returned my mind to the task at hand. Yet, the practice wasn’t getting any easier or smoother. I still had the same dead spots—areas that I could observe for extended periods without even the subtlest of sensations—and I still had growing pain zones in my back and legs—i.e. starting from isolated pains, the pain would become increasingly diffuse and of ill-defined boundaries—but often no less painful.

 

Now I’ll explain my comment about not allowing oneself to become captivated by the trippy experiences. If one seeks after these experiences, not only is one missing out on the value of the practice, one is actually moving in the wrong direction by coveting an experience while impulsive craving is what one is training oneself away from through Vipassana meditation. Beyond this, seeking out such experiences is likely to be frustrating because they are products of the subconscious mind and physiological processes that are beyond conscious control. They happen when they happen, on your body’s schedule. (Note: Some people think of these as spiritual phenomena. I don’t, but—for those who do—they still won’t happen on your schedule. Ostensibly, they’ll happen on some deity’s—presumably rather tight–schedule. And—divine as they may be—they are still a distraction from the objective of the practice—and that’s not my opinion, but according to the teachers of the tradition, starting with Gautama Buddha and through to S.N. Goenka.)

 

So when one experiences such phenomena, one should do the same as one always does in meditation, quietly and non-judgementally return one’s mind to the object of awareness—in this case, systematically witnessing the sensations on one’s body. I won’t say that this isn’t a challenge. It is, because your mind is presenting you with something fascinating and new, and you’re asking it to return to a task that has become rather mundane over hours and days of practice. It should be noted, I would broadly categorize the phenomena that I experienced into two slots, one of which is things the brain does to cope with a lack of external stimulation. (The other being, things the body does to cope with unrelenting pain.) So it takes some discipline, but one should remind oneself—as one is frequently reminded during the discourses—that you are there to give the Vipassana approach a fair trial, and as fascinating as these sideshows are they are a distraction from the practice.

 

That said, these things will happen and their unusual nature may make them points of concern or confusion, and so I’ll discuss them a bit more. I have a theory about the cause of the euphoric experiences, but it requires a little clarification and background. What makes Vipassana challenging for a new practitioner—at least for me— is that in systematically rotating one’s awareness to observe sensations, one has to ignore areas that are screaming with pain while carefully running one’s attention through areas that seem completely devoid of sensation. This requires quieting the mind and especially not feeding the anxiety about one’s pain and discomfort—hence, developing equanimity (steadiness of mind.) Sitting still for an hour at a time, lymphatic fluid piles up in your lower extremities (no pump in the lymphatic system but the one of movement), over time blood circulation may be inhibited, and this lack of circulation has ramifications for the cells not being adequately nourished. So your body notices this fluid build-up (a relatively minor concern, easily rectifiable, and which will take a while to be a serious problem for most people) and sends you some pain sensations to spur you to get up and move about. When you don’t get up and walk, it turns up the discomfort disproportionate to what’s happening with your body. You still ignore it. Eventually, your body starts to think maybe a boulder fell on your legs and you’re in shock (the conscious and unconscious minds don’t talk as much as you might think, and—even if they do—let’s face it, at least the conscious mind is a big, fat liar.) It’s at this point that your body starts to emit some feel-good chemicals. (I refer to “endorphin-induced euphoria,” but it’s more extensive than natural painkillers. In reading up on the subject, I noted references to serotonin and even melatonin (yes, the skin color chemical) in addition to beta-endorphins. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some dopamine—a reward / feel good chemical—in the mix as well. Hence, the euphoria.

 

I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the hallucinations and other effects that the mind creates in order to cope with the lack of sensory input. This is a well-studied area, and there’s been a lot written on how the mind hates the dark and the quiet over extended periods. I would recommend the aforementioned book by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations as a case in point.

 

Saving the most crucial question for last, was it worth it? In his discourses, S.N. Goenka offers three criteria by which one might evaluate whether Vipassana is worth practicing. While all three are sound criteria, I’ll focus on just one of these, which is really the bottom-line, and that’s whether it makes an improvement in one’s life. That is, does one start to be less prone to impulsively react to craving and aversion and become more equanimous of mind?

 

On this, I’ll have to say that the jury is still out. Many come out of the 10-day course calling it life-changing. I’d say that it was beneficial because I learned a meditative technique that has a sound internal logic (even if one doesn’t believe every aspect of the mechanism by which it is said to work by Buddhists—which I don’t), an established track record of benefit for many, and the feel that it’s benefiting one. However, I’m still evaluating the approach. I’ve been doing Vipassana meditation twice a day with morning and evening affirmations. Let’s face it, 10-days isn’t a long time to overhaul one’s deeply ingrained modes of operation—even sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day. I’m optimistic, and the practice sure doesn’t hurt—except for those solidified gross sensations, they hurt.

 

DAILY PHOTO: Food For Thought For the Week Ahead

Taken in October of 2014 at Daulatabad Fort

Taken in October of 2014 at Daulatabad Fort

 

As you enjoy your weekend, if at any point dread of the work-week to come arises, take a moment to reflect on the fact that at least you don’t have this guy’s job carrying stones on your head up several flight of uneven stone steps all day – everyday.

An Unusual International Yoga Day Post: or, Dream Yoga and Fear Management

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" by Francisco Goya

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya

I awoke exuberant that I’d achieved lucidity in my dream and that I’d apparently slain a nasty character (picture Hans Gruber on a bad day)–a task that had seemed impossible before my eureka of “I’m lucid!” Only my exuberance was short-lived when I realized that Hans was also me. Do you have the courage to talk it out with your dream world nemesis instead of reacting from fear?

I was thinking that I should do a post on yoga for International Yoga Day (June 21st), but what to write about? My answer came in the wee hours of the morning when I had a minor breakthrough in lucid dreaming–also known as, dream yoga. I know this seems like a stretch because, despite “yoga” being right there in the name, this practice is much more firmly associated with Tibetan Buddhism than Hatha Yoga. But my last couple yoga posts (which were a while back on my experience with RYT300 teacher’s training and teaching a Yoga Kid’s Camp) were fairly conventional, so I’m due one that’s out there. Furthermore, I promise to try to make clear the relevance of dream yoga to my hatha yoga practice. (If you read the aforementioned posts, you’ll see that the theme of freeing oneself by managing one’s fears and anxieties is a recurring theme across all these posts. And that is the crux of the relevance of lucid dreaming to unifying mind, body, and breath [i.e. yoga.])

 

What is lucid dreaming? It’s becoming aware that one is in a dream as one is dreaming. One can then exert influence over the course of the dream. Maybe half of you have had this experience at some point in your lives, and so what I’m saying will not seem far-fetched. For those who don’t actively practice lucid dreaming, it’s much more common among the young, so maybe you had such dreams as an adolescent but don’t have them anymore.

For the other half, the whole idea may seem like poppy-cock. I could easily have been such a doubter. Without following a practice, I almost never remember dreams–let alone dreaming lucidly. At best, I get disappearing fragments of dreams that are ephemeral and hazy. I’m one of those people who might claim that he virtually never dreams, except that I read the science, which suggests that each of us dreams every night that we sleep long enough to cycle through REM (rapid eye movement) mode (and commonly 4 or 5 times a night.) We just don’t recollect these dreams. [However, I have had lucid dreams on rare occasions, and so my skepticism on the subject was curbed.]

 

Why do I practice dream yoga? While it wasn’t part of my formal hatha yoga training, dream yoga isn’t as far removed as one might think. I have been trained in yoga nidra (yoga sleep), which is an exercise that takes place in a hypnagogic state (on the edge between waking and falling asleep.) Commonly, yoga nidra is used as a deep relaxation exercise, but it can also help one to access the subconscious (as is reflected in repeating a sankalpa [a resolution] in the yoga nidra state.) Lucid dreaming is another approach to assessing the subconscious in order to see what’s going on in there and to try to make changes as necessary. Curiosity about the subconscious mind and its–largely unseen–influence on my daily life is what drew me to dream yoga. It’s just another aspect of knowing oneself and trying to expand one’s capacities of mind and body.

 

How does one practice dream yoga? Hardcore practitioners set alarms to wake themselves up when they think they’ll be in REM sleep. This, as I understand it, helps them reconnect with the dream when they drift back and greatly speeds the process. As I sleep with a wife who would clobber me with a brick if I set alarms for random times in the middle of the night, I’m not among those hardcore. My practice consists of three main aspects. First, I make resolutions to remember my dreams and to dream lucidly as I’m drifting off to sleep. Second, when I’m not making said resolutions, I try to just observe the subconsciously generated imagery that pops up as a witness–rather than letting my conscious mind go into its preferred mode of planning for an uncertain future. [One can tell the difference because the subconscious images don’t make a lick of sense, and–for me–are devoid of any verbal/language element–i.e. it’s all imagery.]  Finally, I keep a journal in which I record any dreams or fragments that I can recall–sometimes with drawings to supplement the text (though my artisticness is lacking, to say the least.) The first and last of these are among the most common recommendations one will hear from experts.

I should point out that there are a number of books on the subject by individuals much more qualified than I. Said books give detailed guidance into how one can begin one’s own practice. One that I recently finished reading and would recommend is Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams.”  At some point, I’ll post a review of that book. Also, there is “Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction” by J. Allan Hobson, which I have reviewed.

 

As I wrote up the entry in my dream journal, I made a resolution to stop attacking the “bad guys” in my dreams and to try to understand them. Note: I don’t recommend this approach for dealing with real world axe-wielding maniacs, but I highly recommend giving it a try in one’s dreams.

 

Sweet dreams.

Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)

 

It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.

 

Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.

 

IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)

 

I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.

 

I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.

 

What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.

 

 

 

 

6 Persistent Myths About the Brain

lucy1.) 10%: As this story goes, we humans only use about 10 percent of our brain’s capacity. This long-debunked myth is so well ensconced that there was a film built around the premise as recently as 2014. That movie, “Lucy”, features a titular character who accidentally ingests an overdose of a drug that allows one to exploit increased levels of one’s mental capacity. Admittedly, by the movie’s end the 10% myth is one of the lesser violations of reality because as Lucy gets closer to 100% of mental capacity all the laws of physics dissolve in her presence.

 

I’ll give a reference at the bottom of this paragraph from which one can learn about all the evidence of the folly of this belief. I’ll just lay out part of the evolutionary argument. The fundamental rule of the biological world is that mother nature doesn’t over-engineer. Once there is no longer any benefit to be gained in terms of enhanced likelihood of survival, we don’t evolve new and costly capacities.  We don’t see people who can run 500 miles per hour or jump 50 feet vertically from a standstill. Those capacities weren’t necessary to survive the beasts that preyed upon us. Our brains are very costly, they consume 20 to 25% of our energy intake.  [For the science, see: Beyerstein, Barry L.1999. “Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10% of our Brains?”. in Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain. ed. by Sergio Della Sala. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. pp. 3–24.]

 

Why does this myth get so much play? There are two likely reasons. One is wishful thinking. We’d all like to think there is much more available to us. And lucid moments of meditation or flow, we may even feel that we have tapped into a vast dormant capability. (In both the aforementioned cases, it’s interesting that the enhanced performance we may experience is a function of parts of the brain shutting down and not increased capacity ramping up.)  The other reason is that people see savants of various sorts, but they don’t account for the full picture. There are people who can carry out activities with their brains that seem supernatural. However, it should also be noted that savants who can memorize phone books or tell you the day of the week for a random date hundreds of years ago [or in the future] often suffer corresponding downsides with respect to their brain activity. Of course, there are people who are just geniuses. Geniuses are endowed with more intelligence than most of us. They have a bigger pie; they aren’t just eating a bigger slice.

 

2.) Left and Right Brained: The myth is that some people use one of the hemispheres of their brain much more than the other, and that this explains why some people are creative and artsy and others are logical and mathematical. We must be careful about the nature of the myth and separating it from reality. The science is NOT saying that there aren’t some people inclined to be “artsy” and some inclined to Spock-like rationality. Clearly, these personality types exist. The science is also not suggesting that there aren’t some functions that are carried out exclusively in one hemisphere–e.g. language is a left brain function.  The myth says that predominant use of one hemisphere is the cause of these extremes of personality type.  This myth has had–and continues to have–a great following, but it’s not supported by the studies that use the latest brain imaging technology to see exactly where the brain is being active.

 

For the science, see: Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, Anderson JS. 2013. “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging.” PLoS ONE. 8(8): e71275.

 

Why is this a persistent myth? First of all, we all know people who fit neatly into one of the boxes, either “artsy” or “logical.” The left-brained / right-brained explanation is as good a way as any to explain these differences in the absence of evidence. It may have also been a way for people to attribute their weaknesses to an uncontrollable cause (always a popular endeavor among humans.) Secondly, once this idea caught on, a lot of people built the idea into their teachings, businesses, and academic ideas. Yogis used the notion to support ideas about imbalances in the “nadi” (channels.) Psychologists used it in their personality testing and profiles. In short, many people had a vested notion continuing false belief. Thirdly (maybe), there could be something to the issue of how we notice differences versus similarities. (e.g. A person says, “Hey, look Jimi Hendrix is playing a left-handed guitar. Lefties are creative.” The next thing one knows people are disproportionately noticing the left-handed individuals in the arts [and failing to notice the many (more) righties.])

 

theDecider3.) The Conscious Mind Makes All Our Decisions: We all have a conscious mind that we think is our ultimate decision-maker. The evidence, on the other hand, suggest that this is wrong. It turns out that it’s entirely possible for an entity to think it has decision-making authority, when–in fact–it’s finding out about the done deal decisions after the fact. Like the left / right brain myth, this is an idea that was firmly affixed right up until brain imaging technology became sufficiently sophisticated to see what parts of our brain were firing and when. In the wake of such imaging studies, we could see that the subconscious mind does its work first, and this has led to the widespread (though perhaps not consensus view) that decisions are made subconsciously before they filter up to our conscious minds.

 

There are many sources of information on this idea, but one popular book that is built around the idea is David Eagleman’s “Incognitoa book that devotes itself to the part of our neural load iceberg that goes on below the waterline (i.e. subconsciously.) Scientists often compare consciousness to the CEO of a large and complex corporation. The CEO doesn’t personally make every decision. Instead, the CEO sets an agenda and the strategy, and–if all goes as planned–the decisions that are made are consistent with those overarching ideas.

 

It’s easy to see why this myth is persistent. First, if part of a process is buried from view, as subconscious thought has been (and–to a large extent–continues to be) then it’s easy to see how humanity would develop a story that excludes it and fills in from the visible parts. Second, there is immense vested interest in protecting all sorts of views of consciousness that are embedded in religions and quasi-scientific undertakings.

 

Thirdly, people have a deep-seated need to feel in control, and reducing the role of consciousness to long-term strategist and rationalizer of decisions would seem to make free will illusory. A number of scientists and scholars (e.g. Sam Harris) do argue that free will is an illusion. However, it should be noted that there are others who suggest otherwise (e.g. Daniel Dennett and Michael Gazziniga.) These “compatibilist” scholars aren’t necessarily arguing that the conscious mind is the immediate decision maker in contradiction of the scientific evidence. What they are arguing is that through learning, thinking, and agenda-setting, people can influence the course of future decisions–perhaps imperfectly, as when one eats a sleeve of Oreos after contemplating what one has learned about how that’s not good for you. (This goes back to mother nature not over-engineering. The conscious mind must have some role in facilitating survival or it–being incredibly costly–wouldn’t have evolved. If it can’t influence our path, it can’t enhance or likelihood of survival.)

 

I’ll attach this video by Alfred Mele that contradicts the notion that free will has been proven an illusion. This isn’t to suggest that I’m convinced Mele is right, but he does lay out the issues nicely and more clearly than most.

 

 

4.) The Sleeping Brain Shuts Down: I won’t spend a lot of time on this one because: a.) in a sense it’s a continuation of the consciousness myth (i.e. we lose track of this time as far as our conscious mind goes, and so we think nothing is happening because our conscious experience = what we believe our world to be.) and, b.) it’s not as ingrained a myth as some of the others. Perhaps this is because it began to be debunked with electroencephalogram (EEG) studies which began decades ago–in the 1950’s–well before the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that has been providing many of our most recent insights into the brain.  (The EEG measures brainwaves and the fMRI blood flow.)

 

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) offers a quick and clear overview of this science that can be viewed here.

 

Our bodies go from a very relaxed to completely paralyzed state over the course of a night’s sleep. The paralyzed state occurs with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and may be an adaptation that kept our ancestors from fleeing out of trees or cliff-side caves during their dreams. If the body is essentially immobile, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the brain is as well. However, the brain is like a refrigerator–always humming in the background (part of the reason it uses between 1/5th to 1/4th of our energy.)

 

5.) Adults Can’t Generate New Brain Cells: This was the prevailing thought until quite recently. It was believed that one’s endowment of cells–at least as far as the Central Nervous System (CNS) is concerned–didn’t change / replenish once one reached adulthood. It turns out that, at least for the hippocampus, there is now evidence to support the idea of CNS neurogenesis (the production of new nerve cells.)

 

There’s a Ted Talk by Sandrine Thuret that explains the current state of understanding on this topic, including what activities and behaviors facilitate neurogenesis. (Long-story short: Exercise and certain healthy foods are good, and stress and sleep deprivation are bad.)

 

What is the basis of this myth? First, one must recognize that the studies don’t show that any and all CNS nerve cells are regenerated. That means there is an element of truth to this myth, or–alternatively stated–a more precise way of stating the idea would produce a statement of the best current understanding of medical science.  Of course, telling teenagers that every beer they drink kills 20,000 brain cells irrevocably has probably proved a popular–if ineffective–reason for the continuation of this myth. (Note: at least heavy drinking is definitely damaging to the brain, though by damaging / interfering with dendrites and not by “killing brain cells.” It’s also not believed to be irreversible.)

 

brain6.) Emotion and Reason Are Forever at Odds: Most people have had the experience of boiling over with emotion. That is, they’ve experienced instances during which they believed a particular emotion didn’t serve them and they didn’t want to be caught up in it, and yet they couldn’t help themselves. It’s clear that there’s an ability to inhibit or suppress emotions; recent findings have suggest that the neural pathways involved with voluntary suppression are different from those used when one is persuaded to suppress the emotion.

 

Of course, there’s also evidence that continually suppressing emotion can have a downside. While it remains an unclear correlation, it’s commonly believed that suppression of emotion is related to untimely deaths from certain diseases–e.g. cancer, and there has been some evidence to support this.

 

Still other evidence supports the notion that there are healthy ways of regulating one’s emotional life rather than the ineffective and counterproductive process of just suppressing emotions. The key may lie in changing one’s way of perceiving events rather than telling oneself to not show emotions.  Rather than one’s conscious mind wrestling with the emotion, activities like breath control have shown effective in regulating exposure to stressful situations.

 

The brain is an organ we all possess, and we intuitively think we’ve got a grasp of it. Yet brain science is one of the scientific disciplines in which we have the most to learn.