synthetic zero


May 9th, 2010

Posted by a participant (Zen Arado) in the Ways of Knowing Kira workshop discussion of a Zen koan:

One day Mara, the Evil One, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. he saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up on wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendant asked what that was and Mara replied, “A piece of truth.”

“Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of truth, O Evil One?” his attendant asked.

“No,” Mara replied. “Right after this, they usually make a belief out of it.”

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May 7th, 2010

I find both Canadian and UK politics quite fascinating; was up late watching the election returns. A Lib-Lab coalition would require the participation of the nationalist parties. Con-LD coalition looks impossible as any true move towards proportional representation would mean the decisive end of Tory government for decades, and I can’t see how the LD could accept a coalition without PR. Labour looks really stupid now having resisted PR in the past, as it would have guaranteed a center-left coalition government as far as the eye can see.

Or should I say centre-left…

My prediction: Lib-Lab + nationalist party coalition + PR referendum as the least impossible of all improbable outcomes. With or without Brown.

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April 17th, 2010

My reply to Roger Ebert’s “Video Games can never be art“:

I want to write in response to your article because I used to work in the gaming industry, and my original interest in it was precisely because I wanted to make art. I left the industry mostly because I felt it had moved in a direction that was more or less antithetical to that desire; nearly every game being made today suffers from fundamental problems that prevent them from really rising to the level of art, even if they can be quite impressive games in their own way.

I agree in general with your dismissal of most existing games as art (at least as “good” art), I disagree, however, with your contention that games either cannot be art or won’t be art within the lifetime of living gamers. What I believe is that it is very difficult to make games which are art, but to assert that they cannot be art I believe is based on a lack of understanding of what differentiates a game from other existing art forms.

We can start with a reductio ad absurdum argument: A film could be thought of as a game without any choices. But something seems to go wrong the moment we add in choice: i.e., there does seem to be something fundamentally less satisfying, artistically, about a choose your own adventure novel than a regular novel. So obviously there’s something about interactivity itself which makes art problematic.

But not all interactivity. Suppose a great film critic (ahem) created an interactive library of films, complete with the option of selecting commentary or not commentary, rewatching certain film segments with and without commentary, watching films in an order selected by the user, and so on. One could argue whether or not curation is art but certainly I think it is plausible to suggest that collages, mashups, mixes can be considered art — and curating an interactive film collection I think could certainly rise to the level of art, provided the curation was clever enough. So I don’t think the problem is necessarily that interactivity itself dooms art.

But of course in this case, the individual elements of the interactive experience were not originally intended to be interactive. They each created an artwork that was intended to stand on its own. There is something about creating something noninteractive which makes it much easier to create art, and the interactivity in my example is comparatively unobtrusive and doesn’t affect the content of each piece. The choices don’t interact significantly with the worlds of each element (film); there is a natural relationship between the choices and what is being presented.

So this leads me to my theory about the problematic nature of interactivity and art. The problem, it seems to me, is that the way in which interactivity interacts with the game world creates a fundamental breaking of suspension of disbelief, because the interactivity itself forces a highly artificial and noticeable break from our expectations extrapolated from the nature of the world being depicted in the game. Part of the problem is that many games try to live within some sort of story world, or involve interactions with what appear to be creatures or characters. But creatures or characters in the real world behave in ways far more nuanced and complex than characters do in game worlds; the only thing we are able to simulate effectively and accurately is physics of objects, and thus games are getting more and more realistic in terms of their physics, but the interactions with characters remain completely unbelievable.

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April 17th, 2010

Transcript of the following week’s follow-up discussion at Kira on the somewhat radical interpretation of quantum mechanics that Jonathan Tash and I came up with:

Gilles Kuhn: so welcome to this week seminar we will continue last week discussion on mitsu interpretation of qm
Gilles Kuhn: so i propose that mitsu make a quick resume of his idea so to restart our stimulating conversation
Agatha Macbeth: Hi Gilles, Mitsu :)
Gilles Kuhn: hello agatha
Betz Darwinian: hello all
Agatha Macbeth: Rezzing slooooooooooowly tonight
Theodolite Wickentower: Hi Agatha, Cosmo, Betz…
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Theo
Gilles Kuhn: mitsu do ou wish to reintroduce your idea?
Mitsu Ishii: Well, it’s hard to summarize very quickly, but in essence the idea is that we can consider a possible approach to the interpretation problem as relating to information feedback loops a la Gregory Bateson, taken in a quantum context.
Gilles Kuhn: well synthetised
Gilles Kuhn: as last time i have a concern is that not a bit let say expansive ontologically speaking like btw everett interpretation is
Gilles Kuhn: and too in the same veein as information loops are object and thus subjected to the same problem of superposition of state what have they so special a status
Gilles Kuhn: ?
Gilles Kuhn: why have they*
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Ari :)
Mitsu Ishii: Okay, so yes, as far as the ontological implication they could be said to be disturbing, if you find Everett and similar interpretations disturbing.
Arisia Vita: Hi all
Gilles Kuhn: hello ari
Theodolite Wickentower: ‘fraid ya lost me… But I wasn’t here last time. I have an inkling about quantum physics and sorta understand the Heisenburg may have slept here… but what is the difference between Q physics and Q mechanics?
Mitsu Ishii: I don’t really have much to say about that other than this is to some degree an aesthetic concern, i.e., a matter of taste. I know some people find Everett and similar interpretations distasteful, however since I’ve sort of lived with them quite a long time I don’t really :)
Gilles Kuhn: only words theo
Theodolite Wickentower: :-D Ahhhh!
Arisia Vita: only words?
Mitsu Ishii: I might note that a friend of mine, George Weissmann, a physicist at UC Berkeley, also said that he and his colleagues (Henry Stapp) have a distaste for Everett-like approaches.
Gilles Kuhn: qm and quantum physic refer to the same theories of physiic that started with planck solution of the black body radiation paradox
Mitsu Ishii: However, as they began to investigate the various implications of the measurement problem, they began to realize there were fundamental problems that require a relative solution
Mitsu Ishii: so they started to investigate what they called a relational approach to QM, which is to say observations exist in relationship rather than objectively.
Sartre Placebo: hey everyone
Arisia Vita: Hi Sartre
Agatha Macbeth: Hello
Mitsu Ishii: Then when I explained my views to George Weissmann he realized that they resolve all the issues which they were trying to resolve with the relational approach
Gilles Kuhn: hello sartere
Theodolite Wickentower: Hi Sartre
Mitsu Ishii: so he had to admit that perhaps Everett does turn out to be a more elegant and parsimonious basis from which to begin.
Mitsu Ishii: For me, the Everett style approaches seem far simpler and less fraught with mystery than the other approaches — except they do not make it clear what a mind is or how it gets correlated with an observation.
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April 7th, 2010

I just gave a talk at the Philosophical Seminar workshop (hosted by Gilles Kuhn) of the Kira Institute (started by various academics associated with Institute for Advanced Study, Stanford, Amherst, Princeton, and others), in Second Life on the subject of an approach to an interpretation of quantum mechanics which my friend Jonathan Tash and I came up with. My name is “Mitsu Ishii” in Second Life:

Gilles Kuhn: hello melchi
Mitsu Ishii: hello
Kendust Vansant: hello everybody
Gilles Kuhn: hello kendust take a seat
Melchizedek Blauvelt: Hi Gilles, all
Bleu Oleander: hi
Mitsu Ishii: all right, so shall I begin?
Gilles Kuhn: ok so in this seminar we will “hear” a presentation of mitsu and yes please by all means do so
Kendust Vansant: my first visit here
Mitsu Ishii: Okay. So I assume most of you have spent some time already studying various interpretations of quantum mechanics
Mitsu Ishii: As you know, there is a fundamental problem, the measurement problem, which lies at the heart of QM.
Agatha Macbeth: Hi Gilles
Mitsu Ishii: hello Agatha
Gilles Kuhn: helo agatha
Bleu Oleander: hi Agatha
Agatha Macbeth: Hello Bleu :)
Mitsu Ishii: I’ll start with a brief reprise of two archetypical interpretations which I think can serve as grounding points.
Mitsu Ishii: So, first the Copenhagen Interpretation states that quantum wavefunctions which evolve in a unitary fashion “collapse” when subjected to observation.
Mitsu Ishii: So, for example, you have a wave function which exists as a superposition of, say, a particle spinning clockwise and the same particle spinning counterclockwise (spin up versus spin down).
Mitsu Ishii: We can only actually observe the particle in one or the other orientation of spin; it is either spin up or spin down, in other words.
Mitsu Ishii: Copenhagen says, the particle is in a superposition of both states until it is observed, at which point it “collapses” into one or the other state, entirely randomly.
Mitsu Ishii: The fundamental difficulty with this interpretation is brought out by Schrodinger’s Cat which I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
Mitsu Ishii: Briefly, to an external observer, the whole system: observer, particle, etc., is itself in a superposition. There’s “observer observes spin up” and “observer observes spin down” and until the external observer “looks into the lab” the lab, including observer and particle, is in a superposition of both states.
Mitsu Ishii: so the problem with Copenhagen is that there seems to be an infinite regress — who or what constitutes an “observer” ?
Mitsu Ishii: One possible objection is that in Nature it appears that only microscopic objects can be in superposition, though the theory says that there’s nothing that stops macroscopic objects from existing in superposition.
Mitsu Ishii: However, most recently there has been an experiment showing a macroscopic object, visible to the naked eye, about the width of a human hair, existing in superposition.
Mitsu Ishii: There’s no technical reason why that could not be expanded to larger and larger objects.
Mitsu Ishii: So at this point I’d like to mention the Everett Interpretation, which is one that many cosmologists favor, according to polls.
Mitsu Ishii: In the Everett Interpretation, there is no objective wavefunction collapse at all.
Mitsu Ishii: This interpretation is also called the “relative state interpretation”.
Mitsu Ishii: The basic idea in Everett is that rather than having an objective collapse, there is simply a correlation between a mind state and an observation.
Mitsu Ishii: That is to say, the particle itself remains in a superposition of spin up and spin down, but there is a mental state which is correlated with spin up and another mental state correlated with spin down.
Mitsu Ishii: Colloquially, it’s said that the universe “splits into two” universes, one with a measurement of spin up and one with a measurement of spin down
Mitsu Ishii: however this is somewhat misleading. What is more accurate is to say that the measurement of spin up is correlated with one mind, and spin down with another mind, but measurements are all relative to a specific observer/mind.
Mitsu Ishii: One could say, for example, that in this interpretation, when we look at the past, the past is not objectively present before a mind correlates with it.
Mitsu Ishii: so the dinosaurs, etc., don’t exist prior to digging up the fossil evidence, which then correlates your mind with the retrojectively projected past which has dinosaurs, and so on.

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April 2nd, 2010

I wrote this as part of a discussion on a private discussion board on the subject of why we needed health care reform now. We were discussing the spiraling costs, the fact that health care costs have been skyrocketing at twice the rate of inflation for decades, how unsustainable this was, how half of all bankruptcies are filed by people who HAVE health insurance but still can’t afford the bills, yet we were discussing why doing this now might not have been the most urgent problem we needed to solve, given all the economic problems we face.

There’s a very good reason why health care reform was essential in 2010: because there’s no chance in hell it was going to happen anytime soon after 2010. We are clearly at a high water mark in terms of having a Democratic Congress for probably quite some time to come, and by the time the next heavily Democratic Congress comes rolling along (ten, 15, years from now?) the disaster our country would have been in would have been incredibly grave. Obama, being someone who actually cares about policy, not just politics, didn’t want to preside over that kind of dropping of the ball. Clinton dropped it, and we couldn’t afford another screwup like that. Obama wisely, I believe, focused on this issue and managed to get a surprisingly comprehensive bill through. And all I can say to that is:

Fucking A.

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March 29th, 2010

Polls show the core of the Tea Party movement are hard-core conservatives, not independents, but polls also show the strength and fervor of their politics is, in fact, influencing the views and votes of independents. The problem is, of course, their fight against “big government” appeals to a fundamental American rebellious streak, a desire to fight the power, and that rhetoric sounds good when you are angry at the status quo. However, fighting against “big government” is, in our society, equivalent to fighting for big corporations; government in a democratic society is one of the few institutions that can be changed by popular opinion. The whole idea of the old establishment class was to counter the influence of liberals by invoking this phrase “big government” — yet this is simply code for less regulation of large corporations. The working class people who have bought into the Tea Party rhetoric are now fighting for the preservation and expansion of the very system which has thrown people out of work and held down wages with increasing force for decades.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to engage in dialogue with people on the right. Basically, they have bought the idea that what they’re doing is “fighting big government” 100%. It never occurs to them that there’s anything missing, whatsoever, from their pantheon of evildoers; that corporate malfeasance could be anything like government power. Their arguments are simple, the same arguments libertarians have used for years: that government has the power to force you to do things whereas corporations do not.

Entirely missing from their analysis is the fact that a democratic government can be influenced by the people and thus can act as a popular counterbalance to the power of money. They’ve bought the Chicago School malarkey hook line and sinker. They quote Friedrich von Hayek as though he were a god.

Their basic notion is that ANY deviation from libertarian orthodoxy is a step towards Stalinism. They refer to Hayek’s analysis of the economic calculation problem as definitive proof that government ought to be restricted to simply enforcing contracts and rooting out fraud, and NOTHING else.

The funny thing is, there’s something to these arguments. Hayek’s analysis is correct when applied to the Soviet Union. He argued that even the most altruistic central planners could not possibly allocate resources anything like optimally because they would face an information bottleneck. I came up with this very same argument when I was in college, as an argument against Soviet-style central planning.

The problem is, Hayek’s analysis, the Chicago School analysis, leaves out one gigantic piece of the puzzle: the problem of local versus global optimization. A purely libertarian world can and does optimize better than central planning because it follows, essentially, the path of least resistance. And path of least resistance optimization can lead a system to a dead end (i.e., total depletion of renewable, but slowly replenishing, resource, like fish in a lake) or to various other suboptimal outcomes which actually turn out to be suboptimal for the system as a whole (i.e., massive income inequality leads, I believe, to a drag on the economy as a whole as the poor are unable to fully contribute to the economy, their children are disadvantaged and cannot reach their potential, people die or go bankrupt from health problems, and so on).

The solution is government regulation: not to micromanage the economy a la central planning, but to monitor the system and bias it to avoid dead ends, systemic instability, and too much inequality. None of these systemic biases run into the problem Hayek notes because they continue to use the market to do local optimization, they just take away the market’s dictatorial power.

In other words, to prevent unrestricted corporate power from destroying lives, you use a democratic government to restrain it.

I really think that we haven’t done what we need to do to spread the message. Fighting against “big government” means fighting FOR “big corporations”. It means further empowering the already powerful. People were mad about the bank bailout, but if the government had let banks fail in a straightforward way that would have been just more of the same “small government” stupidity that got us into this mess. What we DON’T need is simply to “let the market decide” — the market by itself is unstable, that’s the way it is! Sometimes you need massive intervention to stabilize the system. What you need to do after that is reintroduce meaningful regulation — yet that part is now stalled in Congress.

What the world needs now is someone to fight to restrain the adolescent beahavior of big corporate power. Unrestricted corporations are not the friend of the working class, yet so many of them are being influenced by the populist message of the Tea Partiers.

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March 21st, 2010

Reading various right-wing comments on the health care reform bill prompted me to write this rant (only slightly toned down from its original form):

It’s astonishing how uninformed people are about both this health care bill and the current grave state of our health care system.

First of all, the bill in its current form is very close to Republican proposals of years past. It is to the right of a proposal that President Nixon himself offered to Ted Kennedy (who foolishly turned it down). The rhetoric that this is a “socialist takeover” of health care is pure, uninformed idiocy of the worst kind. It’s incredible to me that so many of my fellow Americans are so averse to doing basic research and understanding what we have in front of us. Calling it “socialist” basically means that Republicans will call anything socialist in order to score points with the public.

The plan uses ONLY private insurance companies. There isn’t even a public option in this plan, at all. There are no hard price controls in the plan, though there are plenty of cost control ideas. It’s in every way one of the most conservative attempts to reform health care there could possibly be.

As for complaints about the mandate; let’s think this through. There are only two options: government health insurance, or private insurance with a mandate. If you don’t have a mandate, but you get rid of prohibitions on insurance companies preventing people from getting insurance who have preexisting conditions, then insurance rates will skyrocket for everyone, because people will have no incentive to buy insurance until they get sick. Just wait till you get sick, buy insurance then, and take your free ride! This makes no sense at all and would never work.

You can’t have it both ways: if you don’t want government health insurance (public option), but you want to get rid of discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, then you have to have a mandate. There’s no logical alternative.

Most Republican ideas regarding health care reform are already in this bill. The bill boils down to: preventing arbitrary rescission, preventing discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions, creating insurance exchanges to give individuals group purchasing power, enabling some form of interstate competition, creating a mechanism for the development of alternative payment schemes for Medicare, mandating insurance companies spend, in most markets, 85% of their premiums on health care, subsidies for people who cannot afford insurance. It is a balanced, private sector approach.

We are ALREADY paying through the nose for health care (or our employers are). In the United States, we spend roughly twice what other countries spend as a proportion of GDP on health care, and yet we still have waiting times as long or even longer than many countries with government health care, and our health care outcomes are just middle of the road, or worse, on average. The price of health care is exploding at twice the rate of inflation; it has doubled in less than ten years. If we don’t do anything now we face financial ruin.

Wake up, America, and stop listening to right wing blowhards who haven’t even bothered to understand the basic issues. This is a good bill, it is a moderate bill, it is the minimum we need to get or country back on track.

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March 20th, 2010

Somehow SXSW and the resulting stream of thoughts, ideas, and responses have combined into a kind of repeating theme in my mind which I wanted to elaborate upon a little, here.

In my last post I talked a little about the issue of naturalness; that is, one approach is self-abnegation, self-discipline, thinking of your nature as something you have to fight with, overcome… but there’s a complementary view, which is that there’s a deeper sense of “naturalness” which doesn’t mean simply going along with habits, reactivity, etc., but it can include a larger context of life, and you can approach life not with the idea of fighting with your own nature, but with the idea of relaxing into a larger sense of what is “natural.” That is, you can think of, for example, overindulging in something as following a kind of restricted sense of the natural, yet it’s also natural to be more aware of a larger picture, i.e., that, say, so eating healthily, for example, can be something that feels right rather than being the result of a kind of self-discipline or fighting with one’s impulses.

Thich Naht Hanh likes to say you should see a cloud in a glass of water. It’s simple: we tend to see things in a very local sense; we see things, as well as ourselves, and the forces in our lives, as objects, separated from each other. Yet everything we see is interpenetrating with everything else; they come from other things and go into other things, arise, dissolve, like waves. There are vast cycles, yet we tend to assume everything is static, constant, and the factors in our lives are also static, and that we are static, for the most part, changing only in small increments through defined, atomic movements.

But in fact it’s more accurate to say we’re temporary metastable aggregates, loosely defined and strongly coupled to everything around us, and every action we take comes from and feeds back into that network of connections which surrounds and interpenetrates ourselves and everything else. To put it more simply, what we do now affects not only our immediate circumstances but has a long-term impact which can play out over longer and longer periods of time and over larger and larger contexts. And yet, though we tend to systematically ignore these larger contexts, they have a huge impact on our lives, in the long run.

The “discipline” approach, to some extent, acknowledges this, but it does so by coming up with rules and then attempting to impose these rules on ourselves and others (in the extreme, to get past the apparent conflict between the rules and our immediate impulses, those attempting to impose this approach appeal to dogma or blind faith). But there is another way, involving presence or awareness: trying to bring a larger context of life directly into present awareness. There are many ways of doing this — contemplative practice is one approach to helping us notice this larger context and bring it more fully into our moment-to-moment life: it addresses a certain direct perceptual/participatory aspect of this. More generally, however, it seems to me, what’s at issue has to do with bringing a direct awareness of a larger context into the present moment, so we see the potential long-term or larger context effects in a more direct, visceral way.

We can see the tension between the immediate and the larger-scale or longer-term in so many areas of politics, social issues, environmental issues, etc.: global warming is a perfect example. This is a phenomenon which occurs so slowly that the changes from year to year are hard to notice; the relationship between our actions today and the longer-term effect on the future of the planet are difficult to perceive directly. Through careful analysis, observation, and modeling we can understand a bit better how the various aspects of the system might evolve, but it takes something visceral for us to visualize the problem directly and see it as a present, rather than a hypothetical future, or even imaginary, threat.

We have, however, existing perceptual systems which are designed to take in vast amounts of information and process them directly and quickly; this is the power of data visualization and why, I think, further experiments to extend and expand the range of ways in which we can visualize complex relationships and patterns can yield powerfully important aids for us in understanding and responding to our lives at every scale, from our individual lives to larger and larger scale communities. A lot of what interests me about philosophy, ontology, etc., also indexes back into this; the way we perceive and conceptualize our world can have a big impact on what patterns seem immediately evident and which are obscured by habit or by the fact that the patterns can’t get past our conceptual blinders.

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March 17th, 2010

I’ve been having some interesting online conversation regarding the issue of naturalness in a contemplative/Buddhist context. The question is, what is the structure, the basis, of any impulse we have to overeat or overthink or overworry or lash out or whatever it may be? On the one hand, we might think of these impulses as somehow natural, and to avoid them we have to in some sense work against our natural tendencies. But there’s a deeper sense of “natural” which I think is worth bringing into the picture.

I like to think of these situations as akin to feedback (such as when you have a microphone too close to a speaker). You get the microphone too close, or you turn up the gain too much, and you get that self-reinforcing feedback loop which really hurts the ears.

In order for this to happen, the microphone has to pick up sound and it gets amplified and output through loudspeakers. So you could say that the loud screech is “natural” because it is relying on the basic tendency for the microphone to pick up sound, for the amplifier to amplify it, and so on. You could certainly think of the ameliorating action as one of going against what is natural, to tone it down, and so on.

On the other hand, the microphone and amplifier and speaker do have a more “natural” function, a way of being used which feels more comfortable and right, which doesn’t hurt the ears. And this is also natural at a sort of meta-level. Is it really “natural” to use a microphone with the gain turned up too much or too close to the speaker? In fact, without struggling or feeling bad about yourself or whatever, you simply move the microphone a little bit away from the speaker because that, too, feels natural and right.

I prefer to think of this latter sense of natural as the more appropriate metaphor on a larger scale because then the feeling you have isn’t struggling with your nature, but rather going along with your nature in a deeper sense. Because ultimately the direction being recommended by the teachings (of various schools, not just Buddhism) is really more akin to relaxing, going with the flow, being in accord with Tao. The benefit of this metaphor I think is simply that once you “get” the sense of ease, the feeling that it is a matter of relaxing in a larger sense, then it feels far more possible to maintain it more stably, because in fact you’re not thinking of it as something you have to constantly maintain (an effort to fight against your nature) but rather a surrender to a larger reality which has a natural ease to it.  And when you start to get into trouble again, your impulse will be to relax, rather than to struggle: because struggling tends to accidentally ramp up the feedback loops far more often than relaxing does.

Of course, the “relaxing” is a specific kind of relaxing: it is relaxing in a vast context, including the whole situation beyond your direct control, not relaxing into a set of habits and so on. And some effort may still be required as needed, including some idea of discipline. But if there is a goal it should be to switch over to the “relax” approach, I think, as soon as you can, even if it isn’t available at first. There’s a kind of small-scale sense of naturalness involved in the microphone feeding back (it’s natural for the microphone-amplifier-speaker system to function in a way that creates screeching feedback in some instances), but if you include a larger sense of naturalness and ease (where we acknowledge that feedback hurts our ears and no one in the room can hear what you’re saying, etc.) then in a larger sense it’s more natural for you to use the microphone in a way where you can be heard. If you can tap into that larger feeling of ease, then it’s a lot more easy, I think, to stay in a stable sense of relaxed presence in the world.

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