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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I

ATTENTIONAL FLAME

September 26th, 2020

 

Candlelight is inherently fragile. We protect it with every imaginable design of lantern and for reason that requires no explanation.  It’s so fragile that when asked to picture a candle flame, it’s impossible to keep from seeing that flame snuffed out when someone suggests the idea.  But hold that candle flame to a bone dry forest and it’s hard to imagine a forest fire getting snuffed out.

 

Attention functions more like that candle flame. Every little distraction risks snuffing out our ability to focus on the task and subject at hand.  And modern culture, supercharged by technologies like social media is a perpetual rain of distractions delivered by machine guns designed specifically for the task of making tatters of our attention and ability to focus.  

 

We do, though, come across some instances when attention feels somewhat invincible.  This is often referred to as a flow state, and this term has a crisp wholesomeness surrounding it.  Flow state has a reputation of a holy grail in the culture of productivity.  But there are other similar instances that perhaps aren’t so productive.  When immersed in a video game, or even just scrolling.  Who is to say that it’s not a flow state?  While scrolling for an interminable amount of time, we are focused, and undistracted from the task, though the task itself is itself a patchwork of competing distraction.  That of course is the point: much of social media is an ecosystem of competition that evolves more efficient forms of media and content to grab and hold our attention.

 

Such social media doesn’t so much snuff out our candle flame of attention as it does light the candle with a flamethrower and obliterate the ability to direct focus while consuming all reserves allocated for attention.

 

Becoming aware of social media’s spell is in fact an ability to get distracted from the act.  While many think that mindfulness and meditation is the ability to focus exclusively on one thing, it’s in fact better described as the ability to mindfully distract yourself from what’s consuming your attention whether it be social media or simply a train of thought and then step back from the situation to take in a wider slice of what consciousness is exposed to.


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Podcast Ep. 895: Attentional Flame

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WORK OF A WORD

September 25th, 2020

 

 

This episode is dedicated to John McWhorter who is a linguist, a professor at Columbia University, the host of the Lexicon Valley podcast, and a veritable badass.

 

 

As a word is slapped onto a greater variety of things, it loses power.  At first, the relationship between the growth of the word and its power seems to have a linear relationship: as the word grows, so seems its power.  And in the beginning this may be the case, practically speaking.  But if language fails to achieve a balance, the trajectory of growth designs and initiates its own symmetrical decay.

 

But what does it mean for a word to have power?  Each word here used operates in conjunction with others.  In fact, these words - all words - rely on the networked family in which they exist to have any meaning or power at all.  And that’s exactly what power is for a word, the unit of power is meaning.  Power, here, is an appropriate term and in quite a literal way because the discussion revolves around the work a word can do.  Power is literally defined as the amount of work achieved during a given unit of time.  We might momentarily imagine a sort of linguistic physics where the power of a word is determined by the density of meaning it conveys within a sentence.

 

To phrase this in a somewhat less technical way: how useful is a vague word?

 

Let’s zoom out even further: how useful, or rather frustrating is it when someone speaks in vague and hazy language?  Say you are speaking to a friend, or better yet a lover, and neither person can decide what to do that evening, whether to go out for dinner or cook, and if out to dinner, where to go, what cuisine - we’ve all been there.  That hazy cloud of possibilities easily becomes a possible source of infuriation.  

 

You decide…

No, you decide….

 

In the context of loved ones the cause is usually altruistic. Each wants the other to be happy, so each is open to anything, and when paired, the good intentions resolve into an unproductive stalemate.  How much easier is it when one party is very motivated to try and make Thai curry?  Everyone is happy, because there’s something specific on the table. 

 

The example juxtaposes the difference between specificity and vagueness.  There is a trade off between utility and possibility.  The more possibilities at hand, the less utility we get.  The more specific we get, the more utility we have.  

 

To help illuminate this trade off in terms of language, there is a particularly good example of a metastasizing word that has become crippled by its own growth.

 

 

That word is truth.

 

Truth used to have a definitive meaning.  It was singular in its specificity, and this specificity was  fundamental to its ability to convey honesty.  But now we have your truth, and my truth.

 

How exactly can two truths exist?  Certainly we’ve never had much of a problem with multiple truths, but this has always been in the sense that there are multiple aphorisms.  It’s akin to saying there are many true statements.  The key is that these each regard different contexts, whereas the recent bastardization of truth into my truth and your truth muddies the water of context.  The silly thing is that people are really talking about perception and opinion.  When people say my truth and your truth, they’re really talking about their opinion.  But as words go, opinion is a lacklustre weakling, and truth carries a splendid and princely quality.

 

In the absence of a well founded opinion formed through rigorous thinking, the same opinion was simply branded with a better sounding name: truth.

 

The trade off, of course, is that the word ‘truth’ begins to lose its power as it is applied to more and more opinions, and soon enough it will means as much and as little as the word ‘opinion’.  And in the meantime, we lose out on the utility of an important word, leading to more confusion and misunderstanding.

 

This has happened many times and it continues to happen.  Another example is the word ‘special’.  Perhaps as a byproduct of the ill-conceived self-esteem movement several decades hence, people began to see the word ‘special’ as differential in an offensive way.  The end result is trophies for participation, and as it’s been aptly summed up many times: if everyone is special then no one is special.

 

Compare a word like ‘truth’, or ‘special’ to a word like Orca, or better yet, mammal.   Orca is a subset of the word mammal, and mammal defines the broadest ways that a whale is different from a crocodile.  Orca and crocodile might seem more specific than the word mammal because they are subsets of the umbrella terms mammal and reptile, but the word mammal reptile retain their own carefully regulated specificity.  The relationship between all of these words is fairly solid, and that structure allows for meaning to retain its power.  But if, for example, some brilliant new startup out of silicone valley decided to name their latest product Orca, suddenly the word composed of o-r-c and a in that particular order loses just a little bit of it’s power.  And the reason is because there is - imaginably - a sentence where someone uses the word ‘Orca’ and the person listening to this sentence can’t tell if the word refers to the animal or the tech company.  The word has become a bit more vague.  

 

Returning to the word truth, we need only ask: how useful is truth if there are 8 billion different varieties of it?


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Podcast Ep. 894: Work of a Word

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WASH

September 24th, 2020

 

Take a moment, unplug, get away, wind down, take a breather, relax - all of these are advertisements for a particular state of mind.  Whether it is a mindless state of mind, or an effortful one depends solely on whether or not our mind in question has training for it.  For many, this state of mind is one of pleasure - a brain steeped in margarita and vitamin D from sitting on a virgin island beach, or hot coco and Netflix in front of the crackling ski lodge fireplace.

 

 

But for the trained brain, Netflix and sugar and alcohol present only another variety of clutter and dirt for a mind in search of peace, purity and calm.  The difference is between the desire and attainment of a peak experience, and a sense of being washed of all that.  Washed of the incessant search of pleasure and rid of all the daily humdrum that we are so often looking to escape in favor of some peak experience.

 

Doing the dishes, or laundry, or cleaning house is certainly something we appreciate once it’s done, but rarely do we get excited for it.  That being said, it’s not uncommon for people to find a bit of serenity during such activities.  A sort of zen-like wax-on, wax-off rhythm can come to accompany these activities for many people.  The work comes to acquire the quality of a strangely peaceful and productive existence, and the results, when finished, are satisfying in an entirely different, albeit likewise peaceful way.

 

Meditation is a work and a training that has some similarity to those chores that can take on the flavors of zen.  But unlike the peak experiences that we strive for and plan, the fruits of meditation, particularly in a mindfulness tradition, offer the ability to unplug and wash the moment at any moment.

 

Whether standing in line at the bank, or dealing with a screaming child, or feeling the rising sting of a freshly cut finger.  Even in peak experiences that are negative, as with the accidental injury, or one marked by frustration, the trained mind can, at will, detach, step back, and one’s being can breathe, no matter how bad or intense the circumstance be.  This might seem outlandish or even nonsensical to those who haven’t experienced the fruits of such practice, but this disbelief crops up anywhere and in every circumstance where a person has not put in the time and the reps to achieve what someone else has.  For those just discovering Tinkered Thinking, it might seem quite amazing that there are nearly 900 episodes, but this is the result of a fairly simple daily practice done consistently for 900 days.  Likewise, the ability to sit down and bust out an episode that is fairly cohesive becomes quite a lot easier after such practice.  But again, for someone who has not put in the time and reps, the result can easily seem outsized and impressive. 

Training the mind is no different, and 10 or 20 minutes a day can, after enough time, grant a cognitive ability that may seem like a superpower to some.  What better advertisement could there be for some thing that allows you to take a vacation at any moment - to relax, take a breather, wind down, get away, unplug, but simply and instantly washing the moment of all that bothers the mind…


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Podcast Ep. 893: Wash

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THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: AUTO-OBSTACLE

September 23rd, 2020

 

Entertain a thought experiment.  Say your life has just ended and you are now in the afterlife and you discover that reincarnation is a thing, but it’s not exactly as religious traditions have lead some people to believe.  Instead, it’s a bit like the matrix, and now you are tasked with setting up the conditions of your next life.

 

What would you choose?

 

Say you have control over quite a bit: you can choose where you will be born, you get to choose what sort of parents will or won’t raise you.  You get to set the wealth variable on that family.  You get to craft the sort of obstacles that you’ll face in life.  Knowing now a bit of what life is like, what sort of conditions would you set for your new life?  Would you glow giddy at the opportunity and start setting conditions that make life a dream, with everything served on a silver platter and gilded spoon?  Or is a good fulfilling life a bit more complicated than perpetual pleasure and ease.  

 

Reward without overcoming trial is empty compared to one earned by effort.  

 

This is a platitude we all know despite our regular inability to act upon it.  But given this simulation thought experiment, how would it inform your decisions about configuring your next life?  Imagine if, in conjunction with this renewed memory about life being a sort of simulated game that we willingly configure and enter, your mind is again joined with memories of previous lives.  No doubt, setting yourself up with an immensely pleasurable and easy life was one of the first lives you would have picked.  This is certainly what most if not everyone would do.  

 

But pleasure and ease is its own trap.  The threshold of fulfillment is pushed every time we try to satisfy ourselves with stereotypical pleasures.  This is referred to as Hedonic Adaptation - meaning, we get used to the good life we live, we become inured and soon it’s no longer the good life because we yearn for more.  It’s a never ending process that can take people to unhealthy and even dangerous extremes - none of which appear to be fulfilling.

 

Given the obvious traps of pleasure and ease, how would you look at your next life?  Would a curious and cheeky strain of humanity rise in you, wondering what sort of story you might be able to create…. Would you fill life with interesting obstacles if only to see how well you could rise to the challenge?  It’s curious to wonder about the sort of people would would want to make life extra difficult for themselves, just to see how far they could go, how much of life they could scale, the depth of experience they might achieve and the breadth of ability that would have to be acquired.

 

Consider now if this was actually the case:  what if, before you were born, you configured and planned the very life you are living right now.  What if you consciously and purposely planted the obstacles that are causing you much stress?    What if you are completely responsible for the reality you are experiencing?

 

Regardless of who configured or designed it: are you rising to the challenge?


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Podcast Ep. 892: Thought Experiment: Auto-Obstacle

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TOGGLING PERSPECTIVE

September 22nd, 2020

 

In a lot of video games we have the capability to change the point of view.  If it’s a role playing game, you can often see straight out of your character’s own eyes, but you can also toggle the view to watch your character from behind and above, watching the entire body of this character open doors, climb trees and jump across voids.  In some video games you even have the ability to spin the view around the character so you can simultaneously see the face of your character and everything behind your character.  

 

This change in view proves to be incredibly useful.  Zoomed out, it’s much easier to see an enemy or threat approaching from behind and take action before it’s too late.  But such a point of view becomes very unhelpful when you prompt your character to pull out a sling shot and aim at something.  For that it’s much more useful to see right out of the character’s eyes.

 

Now let’s toggle the perspective back to real life.  Imagine if you could have that bird’s eye view of yourself as you go about life.  Now imagine watching yourself from this perspective as you get angry at someone, perhaps a fight with a spouse or lover, or an extended moment of frustration after getting bad news at work.  How would you feel watching yourself have that little temper tantrum?

 

It’s not uncommon to see a child losing their cool in public, and regardless of how enlightened the perspective, no one sees that sort of behaviour as impressive or something to aspire to.  But do we as individuals truly integrate that opinion and change our own behaviour?  Or are we too wrapped up within the intoxication of emotion to occupy the right perspective and defuse our role in such situations?

 

Looking at our situation through our own eyes and trying to imaginatively see that same situation and our own self from another perspective adds an extra layer of perception to the world we see.

 

The more points of perception we can occupy, the more stable our understanding becomes, and with this stability arises the ability to see the clearest and most effective action that can be taken.


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Podcast Ep. 891: Toggling Perspective

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