synthetic zero


June 28, 2004

Debby reminded me about some things I haven't written about which happened recently ... for example, the art school where my dad once taught, Chouinard, is trying to resurrect itself in South Pasadena after about thirty years (it wasn't exactly entirely dead, as CalArts was supposed to be its successor --- but CalArts wasn't really its successor as almost no one from the original school ended up teaching there --- it's a long story). It's a small building but it's a start --- when I walked in there, I had a feeling of great promise, actually. They're starting with mostly basic classes like drawing, etc., but there are some great people involved and it could take off. I actually think that, against all odds, it could actually work. They had a fundraising opening party while I was in Los Angeles, and lots of people were there --- they auctioned off donated artwork. The work was strong, of course. The event was MC'd by the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright.

June 22, 2004

Back in New York, it feels strange --- everything so intense, vivid, the sounds and smells and sights. My perception is very different. I feel as though I can see around corners (not corners in three dimensions, but in other dimensions).

June 15, 2004

As I've said, I've been at a meditation retreat here in New Mexico, with the group of ragtag folk I usually meditate with; we're a nerdy diverse bunch, including physics professors (there are three in our group, not to mention a number of other people with some physics background), Zen practitioners from other lineages, artists, writers, a carpenter, programmers, cognitive science folks, etc. Beautiful here, hot and dry, of course. We're about a half hour north of Santa Fe, on some land owned by one of the professors in our group.

Today I realized that meditation is much like that Polya rule of thumb: it is interesting that an intractable problem can sometimes be more easily solved by tackling a more general problem, of which the specific problem is merely a special case. Strangely, so-called "spiritual" practice is really best done with this attitude --- tackling the most general existential "problem" in a very direct way. Surprisingly, one ends up with a way of dealing with practically every other problem, not only by giving one a way to work with them more effectively, but also by recontextualizing the problem so one can see it much more fully and clearly. One ends up, often, deciding that the whole problem one was trying to solve in the first place wasn't, in fact, what it appeared, and there are much more interesting problems to work with. At the same time, one's ordinary notions of what a problem is, what "solving" it entails, and time, space, "situations," etc., all can radically shift. I want to say much more, but it is very difficult to say.

I had an epiphany yesterday, which started out by noticing something in my lower abdomen (my underpants were riding up). Somehow this led to me noticing a feeling in my belly, which led to me realizing this feeling was related to a thought, a complex of thoughts and habits, and finally, a whole stance I had taken up most of my adult life. This stance is at the intricate and mysterious boundary between the active and the passive, or the "firm" and the "allowing". The trick is somehow to be able to be both at the same time. Understanding the problematic nature of action in the ordinary sense doesn't mean one ought to eschew a certain kind of firmness, a willingness to establish things. One can be firm, I realize now, and do so while maintaining a connection with an insight into the nature of time and action (that the way we usually "use" time and action is, basically, based on a misunderstanding --- a misunderstanding that time and space exist.) In other words, there is a timeless way of being which is dynamic and active, yet nevertheless already accomplished and complete before it begins.

June 8, 2004

This is the odd thing; at every era in history, we have tended to think: "Now we have got it all figured out. We know pretty much everything, except for a few small details which still need to be worked out." The Greeks thought they had it worked out, except for a few details. The Egyptians. The ancient Chinese. The Romans, the Christians, the Incas. In every case, not only did it turn out that they didn't have it all figured out, but what they hadn't yet figured out was vast, incredible, earth-shatteringly bizarre.

And now, here we are and yet again, we as a human civilization think that we have it all figured out, except for a few details. We're close to a grand unified theory of physics, they say, M-Theory, a "Theory of Everything", but, you know, there are just a few pesky details to work out. These theories are, in fact, remarkably successful ... yet, who is asking the question: how do we really know that our current theories about the world actually correspond to reality? Physics, in fact, works remarkably well for many things, yet --- it is still not unified. The major theories (quantum mechanics and relativity) are incompatible --- though there are many promising attempts to unify them, none have yet been successful. But how do we really know that even a unified theory would actually correspond to reality at all scales? Starting from the atoms and particles, we can't even begin to compute what something as big as a human being would do. How can we be really sure that we know almost everything about the way the world works?

The same is true for ourselves as individuals --- we think we know who we are, what we are, what our situation is in the world --- but I would submit we know much, much less than we really are.

June 5, 2004

I've thought this for a few weeks but I wanted to write it now: it is quite likely that the political and military situation in Iraq will improve in the short term. This doesn't mean, however, that the net result of our misadventure there will be a gain; the total amount of increased hostility among the average Arabs and Muslims in the region will remain very high, far higher than it would have been otherwise. Furthermore, the government there is likely to require our military force to keep it stable for quite some time --- and this is certainly going to be used by terrorists to aid recruitment.

June 4, 2004

Posting from my meditation retreat --- finally got the satellite Internet set up. There's no other option for broadband here, and since this is a three month retreat (I will only be here for a month --- well, two weeks now, two weeks later) some people need Internet access, so we decided to go for satellite. It's reasonably fast for download, but very long latency, so it feels sluggish. Hardly ideal but it is adequate for my purposes here.

On the way to the airport, my dad drove me --- he was asking me about the fact that physicists have a hard time explaining why time only goes in one direction, whereas in space we can freely move back and forth. I told him that I think it is simply that aware systems, sentient beings, tend to structure their experience, and therefore the world, into a time-forward picture --- and that even goes for the thermodynamic arrow of time. I said that I think that everything we see, even rocks and buildings and so forth, are in some sense organized into those forms by the existence of living beings. He asked, "humans, or all life?" I said, "all life." He then told me that one morning he had woken up, opened his eyes, and there was nothing. Just nothing. I knew what he meant.

June 2, 2004

Sorry for the lack of posts --- my hard drive got corrupted so I had to spend a significant amount of time rebuilding it, plus I've been travelling.

Been in Los Angeles taking care of my grandmother for my parents, who were on vacation. She goes in and out of focus, and often repeats herself, sometimes shouting when there's nobody in the room. Oddly enough the moment you walk in she returns to a normal voice. She might shout for my mom, or shout "onegaishimasu!" (something like a polite form of "please"), or, most peculiarly Japanese, she will shout, over and over, at the top of her lungs, "ARIGATO!" (thank you), particularly after you've helped her with something, as though if she didn't shout it she's worried that we might not have heard it.

Today I'm off to New Mexico for a meditation retreat. However, I will be posting here still.