Daily, snackable writings and podcasts to spur changes in thinking. Why?

If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.

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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: THE MOMENT'S TASK

September 22nd, 2019

 

Lucilius could not wait for his shift to be over.  The next car pulled up to the window and Lucilius reached out for the crumpled grubby money.  He watched his hands make the automatic movements: flipping up the bill tongue, pushing the bill down into the small stack and dragging a quarter up the curved insert.  He reached out through the window and handed the quarter into the proffered palm, for a limp, ‘thanks’.  Lucilius tapped a wide red button and the red light flipped to green and the gate rose.

 

It was like this, hour after hour.  Lucilius watched his hands make their movements, over and over, until finally...

his shift was done.

 

Afterwards he went to a pub by his apartment and sat with a beer.  He paused just a moment before lifting the cold glass to his lips and savored the moment just before relief.  He took a sip of the frothy drink, hearing the tiny static pop of fine bubbles.  Something in him instantly felt as though it relaxed.

 

And then for the rest of the evening, he watched the movement of his hand, grasping the glass and lifting it to his face.  It was like this, over and over, and he drank to fill the time as he waited until it was time to go home.  Soon he could not really concentrate nor remember what his hands were doing, and it wasn’t long until he woke up in his bed and it was time to go back to work.

 

He sat down in the toll booth.  He watched his hand reach for the radio to turn it on, but stopped.  He just watched his hand, motionless in its reach, and thought about the evening before, watching his same hand reach for the glass of beer.  He took his hand back and left the radio off.

 

When the first car came by, his hands again began their automatic exchange, but he stopped them, and watched them for a moment, concentrating on how they felt as one smoothed the bill into the register and the other retrieved the coin.  He handed the change to the driver and looked the person in the face.  The person was in a rush, pinching a phone between their shoulder and the cheek of their face.  Doubtless in a rush to get somewhere else, waiting for the drive to be over.

 

It was the same with the next car and the next.  Each time Lucilius paid closer attention, as though there was something eluding him, something that he could sense and yet not pin down.  Constantly it seemed as though something were both receding away and always present, and as Lucilius paid greater attention it felt as though time were slowing down.  The short time it took to hand back a quarter to a driver seemed as though it were packed with more time that unfolded and expanded as Lucilius paid ever greater attention, and as he did so the vanishing sensation that each moment ended with seemed more pronounced, and in that fleeting sensation Lucilius remembered the relief he felt at the end of a shift, or just before tasting a beer.  And now he could sense it everywhere, with each moment as he paid attention.  It was as though the moment were both fresh and dead.  He focused even more intensely and time seemed to slow even further. 

 

With a quarter in hand he was reaching out to hand it to the newest driver, when his focus, his attention, pierced the moment even more fully and the normal speed of his reach seemed to come to a near full stop.  There was now nothing but a full immersion in the moment, which now gave up everything to the gaze of Lucilius.  Time - for just a moment - stopped, to make space for eternity.


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Podcast Ep. 525: A Lucilius Parable: The Moment's Task

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Tinkered Thinking


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EXCELLENT ADDICTIONS

September 21st, 2019

The word ‘habit’ on it’s own is fairly neutral, because it can go either way.  We qualify it by talking about a good habit or a bad habit.

 

Some people go so far as to claim that absolutely everything we do and think is a form of habit.  Things don’t look strictly the same every time because the context is a bit different and the collision of different context and same habit creates something that seems novel on the surface. 

 

When it comes to bad habits, we have another term, one that is wholly negative and often compounded by the implications of some chemical.  Extreme bad habits are referred to as addictions.  These pathologies dictate a whole other word because the influence of some chemical is an obvious incentive.

 

What’s interesting is that every repetitive behavior is incentivized by some sort of chemical.  Most are simply produced and consumed by the brain.  The word ‘addiction’ is usually used when some external chemical is added to the mix.  But the same basic dependence is identical in either case.

 

We can all bring to mind the image of someone who is obsessed with exercise and the culture of the gym.  Such people are in some sense addicted to the chemicals their brain produces when they perform the physical feats of their workout.  This addiction ratchets upwards like any addiction and many people have damaged their body by pushing too far, and it’s not hard to point out the chase for some higher concentration of the chemicals produced by the brain.

 

Luckily most people don’t really get to this point and the good habit of working out can become a virtuous cycle that an individual can constantly benefit from.

 

This is like an Excellent Addiction.

 

It’s simply another way of saying good habit.  But in this case the hope is to draw the obvious connection to addiction and declutter the word of it’s dirty connotations.  The value here is to reduce the distance between such good and bad behaviors.  All are functioning by virtue of the same exact mechanics.  Whether such mechanics perpetuate a good behavior or a bad one is often a case of luck.

 

Unless we’ve been lucky enough to have the thought to take such things under our own control.

 


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Podcast Ep. 524: Excellent Addictions

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FRACTAL ANXIETY

September 20th, 2019

 

Most all behavior lays the groundwork for that behavior to be repeated.

 

A good example is coffee.  Here’s a simple explanation of how coffee works:

 

When we wake up, our brain immediately starts producing something called Adenosine.  This chemical is primarily responsible for making us feel tired.  Over the course of the day Adenosine levels rise, until it gets to the point that we need to go to sleep, and sleep is the only way to clear the brain of it’s Adenosine levels.  Now enters the elixir of productivity, the addiction of the modern world: coffee.  Beautiful roasted bitter chocolate taste aside, coffee is consumed in large part for the caffeine it has.  Caffeine has a purine structure similar to Adenosine, and because of this, caffeine works as an antagonist to Adenosine by blocking the receptors in the brain that Adenosine would normally use.  It’s by this mechanism that we feel more awake than we actually are.  Here’s the kicker.  Caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours.  This means that someone who drinks a cup of coffee at 3 pm will still have half the caffeine from that cup of coffee actively blocking adenosine receptors at 9pm, and a quarter of the caffeine will still be active at 3 am!  Caffeine’s long half-life ensures that anyone who drinks coffee even remotely close to the time when they sleep will not be able to flush all of the Adenosine from their brain.  What does this mean?  It means we wake up tired because there’s still some unprocessed Adenosine floating around when the Caffeine finally wears off.  But at this point we have to get on with our next day, so what do we do? 

 

We drink more coffee

 

And the cycle starts again, and we risk compounding the effects by drinking more and more coffee in order to try to wake up, when really what we need is healthy sleep that has been untainted by Caffeine.

 

This Caffeine/Adenosine cycle is a pretty straight forward example of how a solution can actually perpetuate the problem it attempts to solve.

 

In many cases, this is exactly how we deal with anxiety.

 

We often run away from anxiety and retreat to an activity that gives us some little hit of dopamine.  Checking email or scrolling through twitter are excellent examples.  But these activities, once repeated enough times, rob us of the time we have to deal with the underlying cause of anxiety.  Eventually we pull our head out of the digital media hole we’ve been stuck in and the day is over, and the cause of anxiety is still ever present.

 

The solution of escape ultimately adds to the sense of anxiety created by the initial thing we still need to deal with. 

 

The problem compounds as we administer the short-term solution of relief via entertainment.

 

Such a solution isn’t a solution at all –though it might feel like it in the moment- but a further problem.

 

 

The solution is often the same as it is with the problem created by too much coffee.  We must turn around and go backwards on our strategy.  For lethargic days filled with coffee, our best bet it to take a break from coffee, endure a very tired day and get a solid night of sleep.  The same strategy works with social media.  Putting the phone away, or deleting apps, or putting some sort of lock on them for a little while –at least until more pressing matters are dealt with, clears the anxiety.

 

Such compounding problems can only be solved by going to the root of the issue, otherwise each short term solution we implement merely works like fuel, allowing the problem to grow bigger and bigger.


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Podcast Ep. 523: Fractal Anxiety

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SOURCE OF ATTENTION

September 19th, 2019

 

Attending the party means you’re actually there.  It comes from the same root where we get the word attention.

 

The root is two parts.  The first, the old prefix was once spelled with a ‘d’ instead of a ‘t’, and ‘ad-’ communicates something like ‘towards, or simply to’, the preposition, not the adverb or the number.

 

The other half the of the word, ‘tend’, has a root in proto-indo European meaning ‘stretch’.  It’s easy to evoke this root meaning when we use the word tend by itself in a sentence, as in:

 

Things tend to get a little heated every time someone disagrees with Hitchens.

 

The word ‘tend’ in that sentence speaks of a process of increasing degree.  The situation is stretching towards a full on example of something that is ‘heated’.

 

With a quick and rudimentary understanding of the historical guts of this word ‘attention’ we can ask whether it makes sense in a modern context.

 

For example…

 

When you pay attention to a child deviously tinkering with something in the corner of the room, does the etymology of the word attention make any sense?

 

We can substitute the etymology in the sentence in order to see.

 

Our focus stretches across the room towards the child.  So it makes sense, but only with the addition of the word ‘focus’.

 

Let’s examine another use case.  Say we flip to a news station and the anchor says: The nation’s capital became a source of attention when protestors lit the nation’s flag on fire.

 

This concept of a source suddenly calls into question the direction of attention.

 

Where exactly is the source of our attention?  In the case of the news anchor, the source is in the nation’s capital, but if we are suddenly paying attention to events in the capital, does not our focus stretch towards the capital? 

 

Or…

 

Is it the other way around?  Is our focus captured by sources of attention that stretch out towards us?

 

 

It’s further interesting to think about the times when we are so engrossed in some activity or work that we lose track of time and all other thoughts that we might have fall silent.  Think of a great movie, or a great book, or tinkering with some project.  When these instances end, we often feel as though we are waking up and return to ourselves.  The experience is encapsulated by the phrase: to lose yourself in what you are doing.

 

When our attention is so fully directed, where exactly do we go when we have lost ourselves?  That self that seems to return when the credits begin to roll or the book ends or we finally have to put down the project to answer a phone call. 

 

Perhaps it’s not that we lose ourselves but rather that we become the object of our attention.  That pesky determiner ‘our’ creates the assumption that attention is something we somehow posses, but what if it’s the other way around, what if it’s attention that posses us?  Strangely enough, we use possessive determiners in exactly the same way in other circumstances.  For example, with work we say my boss, when really the vector of power is in the opposite direction.  The boss commands a degree of power over the employee.  Even more visceral is the way we talk about illness, we say: I have a cold, when really, it’s a virus that has taken up residence in our body.  Or with addiction, people say… my addiction.  In all of these cases it would be more accurate to state things the other way around.  This addiction that has a grip on me, this virus that has infected me, this boss who is directing me to do things.  Through this lens the usage of possessive determiners like ‘our’ seems a bit strange and in some sense inaccurate.

 

Suddenly the news anchor who is talking about the source of attention being located at the capital seems to make more sense.  There is an event that is stretching out towards everyone and capturing our focus.  The source of attention is not in the person who focuses on a subject, but the source actually is the subject upon which we focus. 

 

It’s a bit like that infamous quote from Fight Club:  the things you own end up owning you.  This sentiment has been reiterated since the times of Seneca and even the Buddha, but the sentiment is perhaps even more pervasive.

 

The things you pay attention to are really capturing you through your focus. 

 

And by this mechanism we are either robbed of our precious resource of time,

 

or

 

we happen to be lucky enough to be captured by the things we love.


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Podcast Ep. 522: Source of Attention

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THOUGHT SURFING

September 18th, 2019

 

Channel surfing isn’t exactly a phrase that makes much sense.  Certainly anyone who’s watched enough TV knows what it means:  flipping through channels somewhat aimlessly in search of something interesting to watch.  If we get overly pedantic, this is similar to what surfing is overall: waiting around on a floating board and occasionally taking interest in a passing wave and using it to go somewhere, then paddling back out to watch for more promising waves as unpromising waves move by.

 

But when we think of surfing we do not think of all the boring time spent merely floating and waiting.  We think only of the exhilarating thrill that comes with the right wave, catching it and flying along on as it grows to a crisp edge before curling in on itself.

 

If we take the whole activity of surfing, we can pose a a simple and easy question:

 

Would it be a good idea to try and catch every single wave that comes our way?

 

No, the reasons are obvious: the small, weak waves won’t result in much of a ride.  And – more importantly – we’ll miss the opportunity to catch bigger waves because we’ll be busy paddling back out to the right place.

 

 

This description of surfing is useful because waves are very much like thoughts in the ocean of consciousness that we experience.

 

A thought pops up and before we know it, whole minutes have passed before we ‘snap out of it’ and come back to the present moment.

 

What was I doing?  Oh yea…  is often the following thought.  And it functions very much like the surfer paddling back out to catch another wave.

 

Here’s the catch where the analogy turns ripe:

 

With thoughts, we try to surf every thought that comes our way.

 

At least, this is what happens for the most of the time for people who do not have a meditation practice. 

 

The analogy extends further when we return to the reason why surfers don’t try to take every wave: they don’t want to miss out on better waves because they’re busy trying to surf a weak small wave.

 

This same reasoning can be applied to the very thoughts that we have.

 

The more time we spend entertaining a particular thought or line of thinking, the less opportunity we have to happen across a more productive thought.

 

This might at first sound a bit odd, but since we have a finite amount of time alive, then there is a finite number of thoughts that we can have and explore.

 

Just as you only get a certain number of years on this planet, you also only get a certain number of thoughts.

 

Now, to be sure, that number can be drastically different depending on the mental strategy that we employ.  If we spend years perseverating over negative thoughts, then we are literally having fewer thoughts because we are only riding the wave of these negative thoughts over and over. 

 

However, with a meditation practice, particularly a practice that orbits the frame work generally described as ‘mindfulness’ or vipassina, we gain the ability to choose what to do with a thought when it pops up.  We gain the ability to stop spending time with a thought by taking a step back, and letting it dissolve in the same way that a surfer lets an unpromising wave pass by. 

 

Even though this might sound straight-forward and obvious, this is a deceptively subtle concept for those who don’t meditate, because without the trained ability to take that ‘step-back’ from one’s own mind, it’s impossible to notice any difference between riding a wave, and letting it pass by, because both constitute an experience of living.

 

 

We can bring back the concept of channel surfing with TV to elucidate the point a little further.  It would be odd to simply turn on the TV and simply watch whatever station it’s on without ever having a thought of changing the channel to see if there’s something better on.  That’s why we channel surf.  But without a mindful ability to pause and observe the nature of our own mind, this is exactly what people do – they simply go along with whatever thought pops up.  The alternative requires training and one of the first tools that becomes available through meditation is the ability to let go of less useful trains of thought.

 

In the analogy of surfing this ability would be like surfing a small boring wave, realizing it, and then instantly teleporting back to the spot where you have the opportunity to catch a great wave.

 

In short, you only have as many great thoughts as you make room for.  Inevitably this means letting go of as many useless thoughts as possible as they pop up. And given the fact that much thinking is habitual, it’s crucial to develop this ability because there’s probably a lot of useless thought to slag through before a golden shining thought comes undulating through our conscious experience.

 

Breaking a habitual thought pattern is ultimately the practice of letting it go, and continually letting it pass by every time it crops up.

 

This leaves us free to thought surf just like we channel surf, in order to find some better thought that can inspire some better action, that can ultimately lead to a better life.


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Podcast Ep. 521: Thought Surfing

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Tinkered Thinking


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If you appreciate the work of Tinkered Thinking, please consider lending support. This platform can only continue and flourish with the support of readers and listeners like you.

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.