synthetic zero


June 30, 2003

It's not simply limitation, because the amazing thing is that when you "limit" yourself in the way I was describing earlier, you're actually just letting something even bigger come forward. It's as though we're spending all of our time obsessing over a tiny little diorama, and if we put the little tiny diorama away it gives the rest of who we are a chance to come forward. That "rest of who we are" is always there, behind the scenes, doing all the real work --- but it is only when we stop for a moment that we can let that vastness move into the spotlight and manifest itself more fully. Taking off the mask for a moment, and the whole thing is suddenly there, bigger than you could imagine.

June 25, 2003

A-ha ... ! Something not entirely describable, related to some of the insights I posted in the last week. But suddenly, through limitation, I feel I have a solid handle upon a vast array of something quite profound. In brief, it comes about through this: there is a principle of allowing, and a principle of being firm. Combine the two in just the right way (which involves going beyond anything that you can directly control) and you really have something. There is much, much more than I am alluding to here, but some of it is very difficult to write.

David sent me this interesting article about people gaining savant-like capabilities by having areas of their brain suppressed by a transcranial magnetic stimulator. I.e., one gains by becoming less. I think of this as uncovering one's deeper capacities and underground wholeness by letting go of some habits that cover them over --- such as overly conceptual thinking. Not that concepts are "bad" but one ought to be able to let them go as needed.

June 20, 2003

Aung San Suu Kyi, though unharmed physically, is nevertheless being held in a prison "notorious for its deplorable conditions." Hmm, I wonder if the Bush Administration is going to launch a war against Burma's brutal dictatorship ... somehow I doubt it.

Note to self: you don't exist. Ah ha ha ha ha.... sorry. Couldn't resist a little Zen humor.

June 19, 2003

It's sometimes helpful to impose certain limits on oneself --- not in an arbitrary way, but an open, accomodating way. For example, it is not possible to seriously investigate every single thing that comes into focus... much as I might want to. For a long time I resisted the idea of imposing any sort of arbitrary discipline on my life --- I was interested in examining that which was real in anything, even those things that people sometimes thought of as distractions. However, more recently I've realized that there is value in exploring a few things more deeply (as opposed to many things shallowly) --- and thus I've decided to switch contexts a bit less frequently, and go into what I have before me more fully. In some sense I am imposing a sort of architecture on my own mental habits and decision-making process. The difference (and the key ingredient that made this palatable to me) was that I was not imposing a structure on the sorts of content to fill my mental and physical space --- just that I go more deeply into each thing that is there in front of me.

I've also been thinking a lot about the structure of space, and the way it relates in various kinds of spaces (3-dimensional space, web space, etc.) I've begun a dialogue about this with Heather Anne but I will post more after she and I have had more time to discuss it, as she has a lot of thoughts about this.

June 15, 2003

The construction of who we believe we are, what the world is like, and how we should behave is an ongoing exercise that we are undertaking all the time. We are not spectators who have simply been thrown into a world that is pre-made or pre-given. We are participants in a continuous project of constructing and reconstructing the world in which we live.
-Traleg Rinpoche, in Shambhala Sun, September 2002


June 14, 2003

At a meditation retreat in Mendocino County this week. Very nice facility.

I fixed the broken link in yesterday's post.

Today I was thinking again about the advantages and disadvantages of thinking with words, using explicit discursive conceptualizations. On the one hand, it's dangerous to use verbal concepts because of the problem of over-abstraction (see this post); however, the problem with keeping things in the domain of the nonverbal thought space (as I tend to feel it --- as a sort of thought space with no dimensionality --- or very large dimensionality) is that one can sometimes miss important regularities or patterns. There is this peculiar power in verbalized thought --- the possibility of seeing a generalized pattern. If you can shift back into a nonverbal mode quickly after recognizing the pattern, I think one has the seeds of a very powerful way of thinking.

June 13, 2003

One of the most peculiar things about September 11th is that we knew enough at the time to prevent it. Yet, our own agents were under orders from higher-ups not to proceed with investigations. Could it be that the government was trying to avoid embarrassing prominent Saudi Arabians who were important to our oil supply? Even worse, could it be that this protection could have gotten worse under the Bush Administration due to its close ties to the oil industry? Mere speculation, of course, but this war against Iraq has me wondering --- it seems so transparently like a subtrefuge, misdirection intended to distract us from the real failings of the government when it comes to the war on terror.

June 10, 2003 (part b)

Sam Waksal gets more than 7 years jail time for insider trading. To me, this is really excessive punishment. He is the first CEO to get sentenced in the latest wave of corporate scandals. But, unlike real criminals like Kenneth Lay, Waksal merely engaged in one moment of weakness, a terrible mistake but one which was not connected to a systematic, long-term, ongoing pattern of fraud and misconduct such as what occurred with Enron or Global Crossing. Not only that, but Waksal's drug, Erbitux, probably actually works. It seems a shame to me that someone as bright as Waksal will be unable to contribute further to the advancement of medicine due to a one-time mistake such as this.

On Sunday we were driving back from a meditation retreat and we passed by a huge construction mess; Susan remarked on how trashed New York can look. Vinay, who lives near there, said that the project had been going on ever since he had first been to the area several years ago, and it looked much the same now as it did the first time he saw it --- what's worse, he says his neighbors claim the project had been going on for many years prior to that. There is definitely something really corrupt and inefficient about the way New York operates, particularly in the area of construction --- the project looked really small by comparison with the giant freeway construction projects in Los Angeles, my original hometown --- yet in LA, projects get completed in lightning time, with typically impressive results. A huge overpass system was built near my parents house, and it took only three or four years to complete, and it is a far larger scale project than the one here (and the end result, if anything, might look a bit overdone --- but it also has the feeling of a cathedral --- nothing like roads look or feel here in New York.) What's more, everything in the New York construction project looked totally messed up --- trash everywhere, signs strewn about, concrete dividers all banged up and everything looking more like a garbage dump than a construction area. There's something clearly wrong with the way construction is done in New York (and maybe the whole of the Northeast?)

June 10, 2003

Thankfully, Aung San Suu Kyi was unharmed in the attack.

It turns out that when eyewitnesses describe a criminal's features shortly after witnessing a crime, it actually impairs their visual memory. In general, verbal accounts tend to overshadow perceptual memory. I believe this phenomenon is connected to something quite profound about the way the mind works --- the ways in which verbal reasoning and thinking can prevent people from accurate thinking about complex issues (not only perceptual memory, but I believe this also applies to many other aspects of human thought and mental function). Verbal accounts are more discrete and it makes sense that you would lose the detail present in a visual or auditory memory. Interestingly, it appears to be possible to recover one's accuracy to a large degree by shifting back to a more perceptual mode of thought. Similarly, I believe if one is willing to shift away from purely verbal forms of reasoning, it's possible to harness much more of our total cognitive power.

June 9, 2003

I just heard about this though it happened back on June 2: Aung San Suu Kyi is reported to have suffered a severe head injury in a brutal attack by supporters of the military dictatorship on the democracy movement in Burma/Myanmar. The government claims only 4 were killed but observers on the ground suggest as many as 70 may have been killed. Our own consular officials suggest that there is signficant evidence of a major battle. This is a terrible disaster, a dark day for the people of Burma.

June 4, 2003

Though I opposed the war for a wide variety of reasons (and most of these reasons have proven correct so far), there was one aspect of it which I didn't entirely anticipate: our utter failure to find any so-called "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. My argument was that even if Saddam had some weapons, these weapons were not a significant threat to the United States. (The fact is, as I noted earlier, they are only so-called weapons of mass destruction because, unlike nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons have proven to be only marginally effective on the battlefield and in terrorist attacks.) For this reason it would have been smart for Saddam to have destroyed his caches, since they could only have been liabilities for him --- he could never have used them, and even if he had, they wouldn't have given him much advantage. However, I may have underestimated him in this case --- he may have actually realized that these weapons were of no use to him --- in which case he would be smarter than I gave him credit for.

However, the controversy over this first indication of the distorted intelligence surrounding one of the pretexts for this war has begun to take its toll, even among some former supporters of the war such as Mark Bowden:

Some of those who supported the war beforehand did so solely on the basis of ending tyranny.... But it is true that Hussein represented only one of many thuggish regimes, and that the United States is not about to go to war against them all. I supported this war because I believed Bush and Blair when they said Iraq was manufacturing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons in the hands of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that shared Hussein's hostile designs made such a threat a defense priority - or so the argument went.

They may yet be found, but it is beginning to look as though the skeptics in this case were right. If so, I was taken in by this administration, and America and Great Britain were led to war under false pretenses.

....I can imagine no greater breach of public trust than to mislead a country into war.

....When a president lies or exaggerates in making an argument for war, when he spins the facts to sell his case, he betrays his public trust, and he diminishes the credibility of his office and our country. We are at war. What we lost in this may yet end up being far more important than what we gained.

I recently finished Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Well, I didn't exactly finish it --- I read about half of it then skipped to the end. The basic arc of the book involves a group of people who, as a sort of literary joke, created an imaginary Plan rooted in ancient mystical traditions. In the process, however, they arouse the curiosity of many people still carrying on these traditions who manage to convince themselves that this fabricated Plan is actually the real thing, which ultimately ends up putting its creators in deadly peril.

The reason I found it difficult to read through the entire book is the fabric of the story involved a vast accounting of details, secrets, mysteries --- but these mysteries ultimately end up pointing towards nothing in particular. Of course, this is ultimately's Eco's point: true enlightenment comes when the protagonist realizes that there is, in fact, no secret to uncover after all. But what I am not sure Eco realizes is that this is, in fact, the ultimate point of at least many mystical schools. I am not that familiar with Western mysticism, but in the East, there are elaborate systems of complicated practices, hidden mysteries, secret teachings, etc. --- but the point is not to discover something hidden or far away, but rather to "discover" something that is so close to you that we normally completely bypass it. In Eco's novel, the mystical sects all diverge from one another in jealous rivalry, each proclaiming itself the one "true" keeper of the secret --- in reality, however, the highest "secret" is that every religious tradition has some fragment of the truth, often misinterpreted and distorted, but nonetheless at their highest level the details fall away and there is only Being itself there, which is beyond sects, secrets, and mysteries. The ultimate truth isn't secret because it is hidden, it is secret because we have covered it over with our own preconceptions and ideas. This is exactly the thrust of Eco's novel, but he implies that mystics don't realize this --- some may not, but some do, particularly in the East (at which point the word "mystic" is no longer really appropriate).

So what is the point of meditation if it isn't to discover something that we don't already have? The point is not to acquire something, but rather to help us let go of the delusion that our constructed notion of reality is reality. All great discoveries depend to some extent or another on this. To find something new, you have to be able to let go of what you think you already know. This is not the same thing as giving up the possibility of knowledge --- it is simply acknowledging the dependent and partial nature of all knowledge. Meditation is just one way of coming into more direct and concrete contact, so to speak, with this. As the Zen master Seung Sahn is fond of saying, "Only don't know!"