synthetic zero


December 30, 2005

Sometimes it is useful, as a sort of exercise, to attempt to do the impossible. Ironically, it is sometimes easier to make progress when trying the impossible than to confine yourself to the apparently possible. The impossible or very difficult is often simpler, strangely, than the apparently more tractable and specific.

December 13, 2005

A friend asked in a group discussion what techniques we used to help make decisions. Several techniques help me. One is sitting with a decision until it clarifies --- that is, rather than "thinking about it" (which tends to go around and around in circles), just sort of sit with it, contemplate it without trying to "move" it one way or the other. I've noticed that sometimes when one is apparently thinking about a decision one is actually kind of avoiding it in some sense, just skimming from one thought to the next without *really* letting the whole situation permeate you. Sometimes I've found that the decision then becomes easier to make (when I am not trying so hard to make the decision). Give myself space to really feel the situation from many angles, relaxing a bit the sense of urgency to "make a decision" in an active sense, ironically, seems to help the decision or situation crystallize. Another technique I find helpful is trying to notice tiny subtle details of how I am feeling in my body/energy when I contemplate a problem or decision (again, without too much interpretation, just being more aware). Paying attention to dreams sometimes helps. Writing down dreams every morning. Again, with less emphasis on "interpretation" and more on just paying attention. I also find randomizing gestures like the I Ching, or randomly picking a word from a dictionary or thesaurus, or even just flipping a coin, to be remarkably helpful. One reason might be that this tends to break ourselves from habitual patterns of thought about a situation, and another might be that it tends to help us to recognize that we'll probably be fine whichever decision we make. Finally, trying to remember that it is okay to fail.

December 12, 2005

My dad writes me this (commenting on this post):

Just read your thought on the trivial.  What Gleason told his students seems to be the same thing that all of my good art teachers have told me and others.  Interestingly, it's that idea of not fretting over the small things as everything is small things.  Also, it's about paying attention to details and the big things will come as a result.  Big picture cannot be preconceived.  So all good teachers teach the little things, pointing out small smudges of marks on paper that you didn't notice before except as smudges.  They are part of the picture you are creating or ought to be and so forth.  Little accidental drips of ink, unintended pencil or brushmarks are all important part of the work of art.  It's the reverse of the Platonic idea of ignoring little things that makes one a great artist.  - Dad.
Most deep truths seem to have two sides to them, like this.

December 9, 2005

Proposal for a research program: I was thinking about a problem that has been on my mind for a few years now: the difficulty of expressing certain existential insights. The problem is more than merely a matter of explaining something conceptual, because by "existential insight" I am referring to something more than just an idea, but rather something that is almost physical, embodied. As I was contemplating this, however, just a few days ago, I began to write down various ways one might try to encode and transmit such embodied insights --- via sound, visuals, discursive language, poetry, film, interactive systems, simulations, mathematics, models, body movement, breathing, meditation, and many other modes. What really struck me as I considered all of these different modes of communication and inter-participation (because this is more than just communication in the sense of a message going from one person to another --- it is also a way that people participate with each other and the "message" to create a larger understanding as well as something new that did not exist prior to the interaction) ... that what really interested me about this was ways in which one could bring together multiple aspects, multiple modes, and use the subtle ways in which they can interact to elicit something deeper than perhaps one could do only using one of these modes. But then it occurred to me that to begin to address this one could really benefit from a vast exploration of many fields, in many ways, keeping in mind at all times how these different fields affected each other. I can imagine many aspects to this sort of research program: something which touched upon, say, the relationship between mind and physical reality, something involving aspects of cognitive science, art, computational neuroscience, computability theory, music, body movement, Zen/Dzogchen and similar contemplative/meditative traditions, simulations, interactive systems (both physical and on the web), information and interaction design, literary theory, and on and on.

There is that which is very difficult to express, which I think ought to be more expressible.

December 1, 2005

The South feels like a foreign country in some ways.

One of my math professors, Andrew Gleason, used to like to say to us, "Never underestimate the trivial." I might add to that: never underestimate the seemingly obvious. I think it's no accident that the deepest truths are often counterintuitive --- they contradict simple expectations --- they often seem paradoxical. If only life were just a matter of doing the obvious --- if this worked all the time we wouldn't have so much tragedy. Tragedy arises out of blindness to the deeper truths which come not just from the things which we don't see, but things we are in some sense willfully turning away from. We attach ourselves to the apparently obvious not only because they seem reassuringly evident, but because we don't want to listen to the nagging doubt, the thing which destabilizes our picture of the world. But that doubt is precisely the thing which can save us in the end. Stay with those nagging doubts and open up the world.