Eyes open

Much has changed since I began my meditation practice several years ago. I’ve experimented with multiple ways of sitting and found that the Japanese seiza position (legs folded under) and the Burmese position (legs crossed in front) work best for me. I’ve tried different things with my hands, too. Resting them together in a gable grip, resting the back of one in the palm of the other, interlocking the fingers and letting the tips of my thumbs hold each other up, keeping the hands separate and placing each palm-down upon my knee or thigh, keeping the hands separate but palm-up and with the thumbs touching the index fingers ever so lightly.

I’ve tried meditating to music, meditating to silence (via earbuds) and meditating with only the sounds of the space around me. I’ve tried to breathe solely through the nose and solely through the mouth. I’ve tried to practice with a wry grin on my face and with a face devoid of expression. I’ve tried modulating the velocity of my breathing, deliberately slowing it and deliberately speeding it up, and I’ve tried letting it come and go as it pleases.

I’ve tried many approaches with the mind as well. I’ve tried focusing solely on breathing in and breathing out. I’ve tried breathing ladders of varying lengths—inhale for one, exhale for one, inhale for two, exhale for two… I’ve tried repeating phrases and mantras to myself and I’ve done a tiny bit of exploration with ommm-like chants. I’ve utilised body scans and I’ve began sessions with the hunt for and dismissal of muscular tension. I’ve tried to concentrate on loving-kindness and on compassion, for myself and for others. I’ve tried not concentrating or focusing on anything, zazen-style, and just observed the paths that my mind was determined to walk. Most recently, I’ve gone back to noticing only the out-breath and trying my best to remain with it. But throughout all this, one thing has not changed—what I do with my eyes.

I close them.

ASLEEP

Eyes shut is what my first contact with meditation texts advised. So I did it. And as I made my way through more texts—books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bhante Gunaratana, Pema Chodron, Alan Watts, and several others—this instruction was affirmed. And if it was contradicted I chose not to notice it, or to notice it and disregard it. Why, though?

For most of my meditation journey, I’ve associated the shutting of my eyes with enclosure in a panic room. It is like closing my eyes has been a way to nope out of my current situation and trade it for one in which I can be motionless, light, and composed. With my eyes shut the small details in my immediate environment have more trouble distracting me. With my eyes shut, stress and anxiety can be more easily shed. With my eyes shut, I can fool myself into inhabiting a different time and space from the one I truly occupy. With my eyes shut, it is easier, wherever I am. In a hotel room, at a friend’s house, on holiday, at work—wherever I happen to be, when I shut my eyes I see the same comforting nothingness that is the back of my eyelids.

Until recently, I’ve had no reason to question this component of my meditation practice. But then I started to fall asleep. As part of my oxygen-instead-of-coffee experiment, I’ve found it increasingly hard to remain alert in the mornings. Especially when I rise at my usual pre-dawn time of between 0430 and 0600. Shortly after waking I sit down to meditate. But without caffeine—or, at least, without the promise of consuming it shortly—I find it hard to muster any energy or momentum. Enter Thomas Cleary.

CONTRADICTIONS

Cleary is a renowned scholar of Eastern thought and a prodigious translator of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Muslim classics. The only one of his works that I possessed was his translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—the same translation of Sun Tzu’s text that military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd thought best. Recently, I regained my interest in mindfulness and the religions and traditions that underpin it, so I turned to Cleary.

Looking through his works on Amazon, I was excited to find a book called Minding Mind: A Course In Basic Meditation. It is a collection of seven talks and texts, from various ages, about “pure, clear meditation”. I bought it, it arrived, and after I’d cleared my commons-backlog, I began it. The first text is by Chan Master Hongren and it is called the Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle. Amongst other things, it says this:

“If there are beginners learning to sit and meditate, follow the directions in The Scripture on Visualisation of Infinite Life: sit straight, accurately aware, with eyes closed and mouth shut. Mentally gaze evenly before you, as near or as far as you wish: visualise the sun, preserving the true mind, keeping your attention on it uninterruptedly. Then tune your breathing, not letting it fluctuate between coarseness and fineness, for that causes illness and pain.”

Next up is Chan Master Cijiao of Changlu with Models for Sitting Meditation. Amongst other things, he says this:

“The eyes should be slightly open, to avoid bringing on oblivion and drowsiness. If you are going to attain meditation concentration, that power is supreme. In ancient times there were eminent monks specialising in concentration practice who always kept their eyes open when they sat. Chan Master Fayun Yuantong also scolded people for sitting in meditation with their eyes closed, calling it a ghost cave in a mountain of darkness. Evidently there is deep meaning in this, of which adepts are aware.”

Not twenty pages into Minding Mind two of its texts are talking about meditation but advising different things. Eyes shut versus Eyes open. This time, for the first time, I listened. And when I dropped caffeine and experienced problems remaining awake during meditation, I took that message to heart and opened my eyes.

A BLESSING

So far, Eyes open has been profoundly better. The internal chatter that I always find so distracting is still there, but it is both less alluring and easier to pull myself out of. I also find it easier to maintain my posture. With my eyes closed, I end up swaying and eventually slouching—that happens less when my eyes are open.

The only issue is that when my eyes are open I don’t see the same thing as everyone else. Or, I do, but in less detail. See, I’m long-sighted. I wear glasses and when I meditate I take them off. Which means what I see is my surroundings, but strongly blurred.

three stages of sight

I’ve always seen my faulty vision as a tiny handicap. But when it comes to meditation I think it is actually a blessing. It permits me a transitional stage between Eyes shut and Eyes open. I can have my eyes wide and still not see with perfect clarity—I get the increased alertness from having my eyes open, but I don’t have to deal with the consequences of sharp and constant visual stimuli.

Speaking more abstractly, this shift to Eyes open seems like a new semantic version of myself. I no longer need to shut my eyes, to closet myself in my attachments and aversions, to seek endless comfort in my hopes and fears. But at the same time, I do not yet see with an unobstructed lens. I am out of the darkness but I still linger in the shade, not yet ready to expose myself fully to the rays of the sun.

Authorial intent

I was lucky enough to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week. I enjoyed it. The music was immersive. The acting, as far as I can tell, was spot on. The use of space and the movement used to transition through it added to the entire production, instead of detracting from it. The effects were not magical, yet they did make me feel as if I was in a different world. But as Livy says, “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad”, so I’d like to share my primary gripe: the story. And to to do that it is necessary to go back in time, to revisit the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

The following passage is from a part of the book where Proust’s narrator discusses the virtues of Bergotte, a writer he admires.

“These young Bergottes—the future writer and his brothers and sisters—were doubtless in no way superior, far from it, to other young people, more refined, more intellectual than themselves, who found the Bergottes rather noisy, not to say a trifle vulgar, irritating in their witticisms which characterised the tone, at once pretentious and asinine, of the household. But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”

Proust says that genius consists in “reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”—this holds the key to my (minor) discontent concerning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

ORIGIN STORIES

J.K. Rowling has said that the story of Harry Potter began on a train, with the image of the Boy Who Lived. From there, she has said, it all began to unfold. She’s also been known as a rather intricate plotter

rowling grid

The above represents just a small slice of The Order of the Phoenix’s plot. Replicate similar structures across seven books, and add to that Rowling’s tendency to flesh out detailed character back-stories, and it becomes clear that Rowling has put a lot of herself into the seven books that make up the Harry Potter series.

Contrast this vast but mostly individual effort with the words from the beginning of the Cursed Child’s program. It begins with “A welcome message from J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany” which says:

“The three of us had our first momentous meeting about five years ago, just after Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender had proposed the idea of bringing Harry Potter to the stage. Acclaimed producers on both sides of the Atlantic, they didn’t want to produce a musical or an adaptation of the films or books; rather they suggested that a play would be a wonderful way to explore what had become of the ‘boy who lived under the stairs’.

Jo already had ideas about Harry and his world after leaving Hogwarts, as an adult and a father, and she became intrigued by how theatre could bring his story to life in a different way.”

Rowling had, naturally, shown interest in what came after the end of The Deathly Hallows, but that interest had never been enough to inspire her to put pen to paper and take up the story once again. And I think that shows in the Cursed Child.

ELEMENTS

It’s possible to split a story into four elements: characters, world, events and narration. “Characters” is the cast of beings that feature in the story. “World” is the time, space and culture that the characters exist in. “Events” are what happens to the characters and their world. “Narration” is how these three things are portrayed to the audience. Until now, I’ve considered this a relatively inclusive framework—every possible thing about a story fits under one of those headings. Except authorial intent.

In my mind, authorial intent is something akin to Proust’s “reflecting power”, but it includes something different, too. Authorial intent is a quality whose potency is felt on some non-conscious level by an audience member. It has to do with the purity of an executed vision. It is what makes a seemingly mediocre story—in terms of it characters, world, events and narration—strike right through to the soul. Its absence is what makes a story with incredible characters, an immersive world, an ingenious plot and deft narration feel limp and lifeless on a deep level. And it is, for me, the difference between The Cursed Child and the seven-part Harry Potter series.

The reclamation project

Hidden in the overwhelmingly cluttered aspect of London are infrequent slices of negative space. Places which have emptiness as one of their primary features. There are tiny gardens, parks, terraces and balconies—these are mostly for the use of residents. There are also “official” negative spaces. Places like Horse Guards Parade, St James’ Park and Trafalgar Square. Places that are considered to be historically and/or culturally significant and so are classed as inviolable. They are used to full capacity only infrequently (usually for national or international events) and cannot be built upon or fundamentally altered. In between these two, between the residential and the sacred negative spaces, there is another category: negative spaces for the high-status individual.

When walking down Oxford Street and Regent Street one sees the typical international luxury brands that make a point of having a storefront on the world’s premium real estate. But down the adjoining side-streets there are also marbled hotel lobbies and commercial buildings accessible only by those with the right pass, an appointment, or a lot of money. I was in London before Christmas and I walked down these streets, past glass-fronted atrium after glass-fronted atrium. I looked into them and saw nothing. That is, they were deliberately bare.

I assumed that the space these companies were preserving was meant to act as a reprieve, an antidote to the masses scuttling outside the confines of the building. A soothing ointment for a client’s ordeal-ridden interaction with everyday busyness. I stand by that assumption. But these spaces, taken alongside residential and sacred negative spaces, also provoked a question: if negative space is recognised as so important by so many different parts of society and culture, why do we continue to let it slip away from us?

GREAT THOUGHTS

I have a pet hypothesis and it goes something like this: Great Thoughts require Great Space. The best way to understand why this is (or could be) is to bring in another ‘s’—“status”. Consider:

the great thought barrier

Low-status people—here labelled “have-nots”—have an abundance of negative space. The unemployed and the retired, especially so, but the working class also. Sure, they are subject to regular demands on space and time, like jobs, families, friends, etc., but that is mostly self-generated and self-sustained. An imagined community, like a country, a subculture, or an academic discipline, is not demanding everything from them. That changes when they graduate from being a have-not to being a have-a-little.

The “have-a-littles” are in no-man’s-land. They are subject to the same regular demands as the have-nots, but they also start to feel the demands of imagined communities. They have accumulated agency, but not enough to buy complete autonomy, and so they are the busiest of the lot. They have more status than the powerless but they are still at the beck-and-call of the powerful. This is where the path ends for most. Only a few make it out of have-a-little-land into the ranks of the “haves”.

The “haves” have an unusual amount of agency, and so purchase autonomy. They outsource both the regular demands of existence like cooking and child-rearing, but also institute hard-limits on the proportion of their life they devote to their imagined communities.

Now, the have-nots and the haves have the most negative space in their lives, albeit for different reasons. And, historically, it is from this dual-pool that many Great Thoughts have arisen. If we go back to antiquity it’s notable that many of the greatest thinkers were numbered among the nobility and leisured classes. Or, alternatively, they were slaves, former slaves, or people of otherwise menial status.

THE CORROSION

The previous hypothesis is speculative and based on anecdotal data—the impressions I’ve formed from reading a bit of this and that. But what I think is less speculative than “Great Thoughts requires Great Space” is that there is a shift in the curve. It’s moving upwards. Consider a revised version of the above graph.

the great thought barrier 2

Negative space is being corroded across every aspect of western society. The have-a-littles never had much in the first place, but the haves and the have-nots? The haves are, more than ever, being consumed by a global consciousness. Someone who starts a company and sells it no longer retires—not indefinitely anyway. They just choose another type of busyness, usually one with the potential to have either a more global impact (investing in biotech or energy research, for example) or a more focused local impact (funding education for specific towns or cities, for example). No matter how they accomplished it, “making it” is quickly followed by social pressure to contribute to the effort to make it better for everyone else.

The have-nots are seeing their negative space diminished in another way. First, via advertising. Banksy/Sean Tejaratchi wrote:

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

On a similar note, Scott Galloway has said that “advertising is a tax on the poor”. Hop on a tube-train or a bus. What is plastered on the interior. Ads. Watch regular TV or read a newspaper. Ads. Of course, a person can go ad-free, but it’s gonna cost ‘em.

Add to the omnipresence of advertising in the lives of the have-nots the obliteration of the friction required to access and consume media. Podcasts, audiobooks, radio, streaming services—these are the never-ending accompaniments to people’s lives. What is the result? An existence characterised by the absence of negative space.

SKYLINES AND SCHEDULES

In The Architecture of Community Leon Krier talks about city growth and planning. One of the key ideas in the book is this: a city should have a certain fractality to it. Instead of explicit zoning a city should contain quarters, each of which houses residential, commercial, governmental and industrial elements. A city shouldn’t be a great landmass split into pieces and assigned a function, he argues.

Krier is a proponent of human-scale urbanism, which is perhaps best understood by a reference to a classic Christmas movie. As Peter Bajurny says:

“The real hero of Home Alone is the commuter railroad era urbanism that allows Kevin to meet his needs (grocery store, pharmacy, park, church) within walking distance”.

The Architecture of Community contains many intriguing and important ideas, especially as we make the move into an age where the structure of our online communities is becoming an increasingly societal concern. The book also contains some elegant and simple sketches that accentuate Krier’s thinking. One of which is this:

city expansion

It’s used to highlight the difference in different urban growth strategies. Look at the skylines in the diagram above, though. There are essentially three: full, empty, and varied.

skyline 1

Now combine that with a person’s day-to-day activities.

skylines 2

A life completely devoid of activity is, for most, not a life. But a life made up only of activity isn’t a life either. We need the variation. We need action alongside reflection, motion with stillness, to do and to be. But modernity is pushing us towards a life cluttered with doings, with busyness, no matter what part of the socioeconomic scale we occupy.

RECLAMATION

Governments recognise that negative space is associated with sacredness and significance. Corporations understand that space without explicit purpose is a signal to high status consumer groups. Shouldn’t we, as individuals, recognise the importance of negative space and act to reclaim it?

If you agree that we need to take back some negative space, then the next question on your lips might be, “How?” The answer is tied to the concept of time.

I’ve said that the varied approach is best, that what we need is a mixture of negative and positive space, a blend of action and reflection. But over what timescale?

skyline 3

Do we spent decades doing and then retire to a life of being? Do we allocate negative and positive space the same way we allocate holiday during a working year, giving ourselves an arbitrary number of weeks per annum as negative space? Do we go smaller and say that two weekends every month are devoted to negative space? Perhaps every Sunday is now sacred, a day devoted to nothing but itself? Or do we modulate the negative-positive space ratio over twenty-four hours? There are advocates and arguments for each of the above. My personal favourite is the last: daily.

Our bodies, for the most part, synchronise on a twenty-four hour clock. I believe our behaviour should do the same. There’s a reason why it’s easier to do something every day than it is to do it three times a week. We’re daily creatures. The same is likely to apply for the reclamation of negative space.

ONE THING

I have a rather funny relationship with meditation and mindfulness. It’s been a bigger or smaller part of my life for several years. But one thing that got me interested in it was reading all the testimonials about the transformative effects of a daily meditation practice. I’ve experienced similar effects, if not to the same profound degree. So I would argue that taking up meditation, AM and PM, is the simplest way to reclaim some negative space in a life.

There are others though, and they don’t have to involve folding a foot atop the opposite thigh and chanting mantras that re-align the universe. When I think through the things that I do regularly and ask myself, “How often do I do only one thing?”, the answer is, “Not often.” When I do the washing up, I’ll have some music on. When I eat breakfast or lunch alone, I’ll watch some TV or read a blog. When I do a movement session I’ll chuck on a special playlist.

What if I didn’t do that? What if I made an effort to do one thing? To wash up with no distractions. To eat food with no audiovisual stimulation. To not turn on the TV when I get home. To leave the radio turned off when I drive. To not disconnect from the world while on the train or bus. To leave the headphones out and listen to real life going on around me. What I’ve found, and what you too might find, is that whilst doing the above I start to think.

If you reduce the mind’s operation and model it as input-process-output, it’s possible to say that modernity is emphasising input and output at the expense of processing.

input processing output

I want to do the opposite. I want to dial back input, take more care with output, and give myself more time and space to process. Would you like to do the same?

Getting to intimate

There were a few, but the most powerful moment in Derren Brown’s Sacrifice was this one. Synopsis: Phil, the Average Joe construction worker with a prejudice against immigrants, is being persuaded by Derren Brown to make a sacrifice for the sake of a stranger. After Derren Brown reveals Phil’s genetic heritage—itself a mish-mash from around the world—Phil is put face to face with a stranger and told to hold eye contact with him for four minutes. Phil attempts it, and watching him fall apart during the effort is heart-wrenching. It is almost as if you can see his assumptions and his beliefs, things which he has used to bear so much weight for so long, crumple.

The ability of intense and sustained eye contact to generate empathy is, as Derren Brown says in the prelude to the above moment, based on psychological research. That of Arthur Aron. Specifically, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. But why is it so powerful?

In Impro, Keith Johnstone says that:

“People will travel a long way to visit a ‘view’. The essential element of a good view is distance, and preferably with nothing human in the immediate foreground. When we stand on a hill and look across miles of emptiness at the mountains, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our space flow out unhindered. As people come in sight of a view, it’s normal for their posture to improve and for them to breathe better. You can see people remarking on the freshness of the air, and taking deep breaths, although it’s the same air as it was just below the brow of the hill.”

Intense and sustained eye contact is the opposite of standing upon a hill and gazing out over a magnificent vista. When someone is sat a foot away from us our “space” is most definitely hindered, and not in the same way as it is when we take a busy train or navigate down a crowded street. Johnstone continues:

“Approach distances are related to space. If I approach someone on open moorland I have to raise an arm and shout ‘excuse me’ as soon as I’m within shouting distance. In a crowded street I can actually brush against people without having to interact.”

The difference is related to motion—or its absence—and to the dissipation of focus. In a crowded street, our “space” is impeded, but there are brief intermissions that make up its continual opening and closing. When we sit down opposite another person and hold eye contact, with no table to separate us, with no coffee cup or dinner plate or activity to act as a barrier to connection, and no reason to turn aside and orient ourselves in a different direction, our “space” has no option but to be utterly absorbed by the person opposite. To flow into them.

three spaces 2

This leaves me with another question, though. Unhindered, intense, sustained eye contact generates empathy for a stranger. But I suspect it also generates greater intimacy when undertaken with someone we already know well. And it is this last I want to focus on. I want to know: are there any other shortcuts to intimacy?

HIERARCHIES, WORDS AND TAILS

Perhaps, but a few things must be handled first.

For true empathy and intimacy to come about there must be a flattening. A transition to a non-hierarchical relationship. This means that each person is appreciated on the level of being not on the level of acts (read more about this in The Courage to Be Disliked). The continuation of a hierarchical relationship negates the possibility of empathy and intimacy. Consider that in such a situation one person has to be higher and one person has to be lower. The person looking down considers themselves superior to the person looking up, and vice versa. In such a scenario, differences, fear and desire are what dominate. And that’s not exactly conducive to intimacy.

Next, there must be a devaluation of words. Traditional relationships—ones that occur in meatspace, not cyberspace—are mostly non-verbal, and the currency they accumulate and reckon their worth in is non-verbal, too. Think of the person who is closest to you. Now think of a stressful or traumatic time which that person helped you endure. When you picture it, do you recall what that person said to you? The exact words they used to coax you around or through the episode? I suspect you don’t, and I certainly don’t when I undertake the same exercise. But I do recall the fact that they were there for me—their presence is the thing that mattered then and matters now.

Now, with a flattened relationship and an understanding of the value of non-words, we can begin to accumulate intimacy. And the way that is done is via the tails of existence, via the good, the bad, and the weird.

With the passage of time comes good, bad and weird experiences. Typically, these experiences are spread out so that they are intermittent. But if we are seeking greater intimacy then they must be clustered closer together. Only a psychopath would willingly create bad experiences in order to gain more intimacy, so that’s off the table as a shortcut. Which leaves the good and the weird. But keep in mind that good and weird experiences can be absolute or relative.

An absolute good experience is defined by its scarcity—winning a world championship is an absolute good because so few people can ever experience it. Similarly, an absolute weird experience is so because of its novelty. The first person to successfully fly over the Atlantic got a taste of the absolute weird. So, sure, strive for absolute goodness and weirdness that is experienced with another, but know that they are not a safe bet and take a lot of time, effort, preparation and luck.

A surer bet is the pursuit of relative good and weird. Relative good and weird revolve around personal reference points and, ultimately, perception. For example, many people have been skydiving. I haven’t. But if I was to go with the woman I love, one, it would shift the benchmarks on my future “good” and “weird” experiences, second, it would shift the benchmarks on her future “good” and “weird” experiences, and third, the shift would be experienced together and so result in a greater intimacy between us.

FROM MASTERY TO INTIMACY

The above is mostly academic. There are not many people who go out of their way to promote the growth of intimacy in their relationship and attempt to find shortcuts to reach it—although they do exist. So here’s another way to look at the accumulation of intimacy in a relationship.

A couple of years ago, after reading a lot of self-improvement books and blogs, I performed a distillation. I’d been reading about learning and mastery and competence and I had ended up with a tangled mess of models, theories and frameworks. I wanted something simpler. I came up with this:

Mastery = Time x Attention x Love / Ego

“Time” is self-explanatory; “attention” represents the quality of perception and analysis hefted upon a skill or ability; “love” is harder to define—ask every poet, ever—so I’ll leave it to your imagination; “ego” is equivalent to self-importance, or the degree of priority given to the preservation of a favourable self-image.

What I liked—and still like—about this formulation is its fluidity. For example, mastery is attainable in a short amount of time providing the quality of attention and love is maximised and ego is minimised. Conversely, mastery will take a long time to achieve if ego is of titanic proportions—no matter the time, attention and love lavished upon a skill or discipline, ego will negate it.

The same can be said for intimacy. Achieving it takes time, achieving it takes attention, achieving it takes love, and its achievement is hindered by ego.

A new kind of overclocking

Mathematicians exist on a higher plane of abstraction than us normies, and thus seem positively odd. But in the same way that Pareto’s 80/20 principle can be applied to itself to yield an even more bizarre distribution of incomes, we can attempt to identify the most eccentric mathematician amongst a field of people renowned for their eccentricities. That most eccentric person could easily be said to be Paul Erdos.

Erdos was prolific (he collaborated with over five hundred people, and he had a hand in the writing of roughly 1500 mathematical papers) and he was also severely non-normal. Examples abound in Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (highly recommended) and in this Time feature: having no actual home, depending on friends to manage his voluminous correspondence and keep his fees from lectures, cutting a grapefruit with a blunt knife, initiating odd physical contests and failing miserably in them, incentivising the solving of mathematical problems via the promise of cash prizes, working with multiple people at the same time around the same table but on completely different theoretical problems, running into walls, developing his own vocabulary, shaking his hands dry instead of using towels or paper, and regularly taking amphetamines. Concerning the drug use, Wikipedia says:

“His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”, and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi). After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: “Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.” After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.”

Prodigious minds using drugs to accumulate insight and advance their understanding isn’t a new thing. A while back Naval Ravikant tweeted that “A future society may support overclocking brilliant young scientists with mental performance enhancing drugs to get more scientific breakthroughs.” But the hundreds of replies were quick to point out that this was already a practice of the past and the present—John Backus cited Voltaire’s forty cups of coffee a day and Freud’s cocaine habit and devilscompiler pointed to the use and utility of LSD and psychedelics. I myself have felt the benefits of the tactical use of caffeine—a black coffee whilst reading and another as I begin to write is standard fare for a reason…

Yet, recently, I have been wondering about “overclocking the mind”. Not so much its merit—that is clearly apparent, though probably better suited to the realm of outer truth than inner truth, as I argue in Near-Deathness—but more about its different kinds. For example, I’ve heard it said that the peak of a physicist’s intellectual capacity occurs somewhere between thirty and forty years old. I suspect that that is held to be the case because it has to do with computational capacity—the brain reaches its zenith during that window and can engage in the most intense of computational tasks. But there is more to overclocking than the ability to compute. Caffeine and cocaine will heighten the velocity of the mind’s operations; LSD and other psychedelics, as well as sensory deprivation, will distort the diversity of its perceptions. Are there more ways to overclock, outside of the willful distortion of the velocity of the mind and the diversity of its perceptions? I think so, and my candidate for a third kind of overclocking is longevity.

Consider the information concerning life expectancy over time. In the paleolithic era, it was lucky to make it to forty years old. In the modern world, not making it to forty is a tragedy. Making it to fifty or sixty is practically a given in the developed world. And in the future? According to current estimates, a large number of my generation (I’m twenty-seven) will live over a century. This isn’t because of any radical biological changes. It’s due to advances in general standards of living and technological leaps in our ability to prevent and repair the wear and tear of everyday life. How does this contribute to overclocking?

A large number of people living to over a hundred with the capacities of their minds intact will have unprecedented consequences. Take the idea of the differing meaningfulness of an instant—the fact that every person interprets each moment in unique ways according to the nature, nurture and torture they’ve been subjected two. Add to that the fact that now more than ever, we have tools that put a large amount of information about the world and its mechanisms in readily accessible places. The result? Increasing longevity and increasing technological capacity will compound and combine to yield unimaginable understanding and insight.

Imagine if an Einstein or a Feynman lived to be a century old whilst retaining the power of their mind. Further, imagine that they had the technological aids we have today. How far up the never-ending pyramid of understanding would they ascend? How far up it will we ascend in the future?

Overclocking the mind is a component of the past, and the present, and it will be a component of the future. But up till now, overclocking has been confined to its velocity and its perception, and has been a strictly individual affair. But as society advances and the general standard of living rises, the overclocking of the mind—via longevity—will be a collective concern. It will affect us all.

To feel, to swim

When it comes to reading, I have a process. Once I’ve selected a book—always of the dead-tree kind—I begin reading it, with pen in hand. As I go, I make infrequent marginalia, highlight interesting parts, and fold corners (top corner fold represents a notable passage or idea, bottom corner fold represents an idea or author to be researched in the future). When I finish the book, I note the date on the final page and record my immediate observations, impressions, and questions—a practice I picked up from Montaigne. Then it goes into a finished pile, to await incorporation into my commons, which is a digital archive of .txt files that I type up when I review a book.

the stack
Midway through processing.

The above process has friction deliberately built in, the biggest source of it being that it takes a long time to type up the passages I end up thinking are noteworthy. So I avoid it, usually with the result that I have a lot of books to review and capture notes on. Normally, it stays within manageable bounds and I can clear the backlog relatively quickly. Not this time. Between the 9th June and the 27th October of this year I read thirty-four books, and by the end of October I had taken notes on none of them. The full list, in order of consumption (because I don’t shine enough light on what I’m currently reading and enjoying):

Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien
Volume Three of The Complete Works of Primo Levi
Hitler; A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock
Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett
The Architecture of Community by Leon Krier
The Interface Envelope by James Ash
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Philosophical Remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Girard Reader
The Mediterranean in the Ancient World by Fernand Braudel
Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman
In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Beyond Economics and Ecology by Ivan Illich
The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Energy; A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil
Invisible Planets by Hannu Rajaniemi
Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
At The Mind’s Limits by Jean Amery
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua
The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot
Disruptive Play by Shepherd Siegel
The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard.

Because I couldn’t bear the thought of declaring book-bankruptcy and not taking notes on these texts, I got serious about the problem. After finishing Girard’s Things Hidden, I gave myself a rule: I can’t start another book until I’ve got through the backlog. Whilst that rule was in effect, I contented myself with a re-read of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet and then a re-read of Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, both of which I was already familiar with and didn’t need to take notes on. (I’ve got to have something to read…)

But the ordeal is over. I’m happy to say that, over the last weekend, I cleared the last of them. And this, in turn, granted me an unprecedented opportunity: I got to start multiple new books, all at the same time. It’s an understatement to say that I was unreasonably excited at the prospect. (For the interested, I decided to start six books: The King James version of The Bible, Minding Mind by Thomas Cleary, The Quest by Daniel Yergin, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder.) But this opportunity also provoked pause. In choosing what to read next, I was forced to examine a deeper question: Why do I read in the first place? In fact, why does anyone read? I came up with four answers.

First, and most obviously, people read for entertainment. For pleasure and to pass the time. Second, people read to get smarter. To accumulate insight and grow their expertise. Third, people use reading as means to collect a variety of lenses and perspectives—to see differently and in a more interesting manner. Those three answers to the question of, “Why read?”, are straightforward. The fourth was less intuitive and came as a bit of surprise to me. People read to become better humans.

The order in which I’ve listed the answers to the question above is significant; it is how they came to me as I answered the question in my notebook, and it mirrors the evolution in my own reasons for reading so voraciously.

My father reads a lot. Mostly fiction, mostly thrillers. So when I was growing up I did the same. He’d finish a book and then I’d read it—alongside things like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, of course. Naval Ravikant once said, “Read what you love, until you love to read.” That is what happened in my youth.

Then, in my late-teens and early-twenties, I stumbled upon Ryan Holiday’s idea of reading to lead and Nassim Taleb’s notion of self-education via an antifragile and insatiable curiosity. As a consequence, I began to read more about history and philosophy and science. Reading was still entertaining to me, but it became more about getting smarter, about making myself more valuable.

A few years after that I transitioned and began to take writing, as a vocation, seriously. At this point I realised that to write requires a vast diversity of viewpoints—to put out something different it’s necessary to take in many different things. So, reading, which had gone from being primarily about entertainment to being about accumulating smarts, became about the ingestion of diverse fragments. I switched to thinking of reading as a modular activity, one in which I cut up various books in search of building blocks with which I could go on to create weird and unique structures and stories.

The above still holds—reading is still immensely fun, it still makes me smarter (I think), and through it I still find weird and wonderful ideas to analyse and synthesise. But when I had the opportunity to choose new books, to think about reading and why I do it, I found those things were in the background. Still present, but not at the fore. When I asked myself the question I couldn’t help but think of figures like Primo Levi and Jean Amery, people who were touched by atrocity but who managed to retain their humanity. They didn’t just, as Nietzsche did, look into the abyss and find that it stared right back—they were thrown headfirst into its suffocating embrace and forced to feel its putrid breath as it drew them into its maw.

In the current space and time I occupy, I can’t reasonably expect—nor do I wish to—experience such things as they went through. But I do want to learn about them and understand them. Doing so is not particularly entertaining—reading about someone’s torture is itself a trial to anyone with any empathic ability. Neither does reading about someone’s agony and suffering make me smarter or more able in any conventional domain—it won’t help net me a contract or understand the laws of the universe. And the descriptions of and the meditations on their difficulties are not overly-extravagant or excessively weird, in and of themselves. Their uniqueness is due to their difference in intensity, not their difference in kind—we all suffer to some degree, after all. So why do I want to read such things? Because, as cited above, reading such accounts will, I believe, help me to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, to be more generous, to be more courageous, to be more humane. To think more, yes, but more importantly to feel more.

The pause that allowed me to consider the “why” of reading also gave me the space the to re-consider the “how”, as well. As mentioned above, I have a fairly structured process for reading, but that structure has as its foundation the idea of “being a demanding reader”. I first came across this idea via Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, where he extolled the virtues of being a demanding reader. There’s more information here and here, but the crux of it is that “Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.” I agree with that, but less now than I used to.

In the introduction to Zero Zero Zero, a book about the global trade of cocaine, Roberto Saviano denies the virtues of objectivity that the typical non-fiction book about such a subject usually aims at. He says:

“There are those who ask that art no longer be art. Those who insist that it be truer than the truth. More realistic than reality. As though it were a gigantic and, in the end, useless pantograph. My choice moves in the opposite direction. My aim is to threaten the power that threatens, recounting and unmasking it with as much force as it wields. What sense does it make to recount a Mafia murder if you don’t recount it from the perspective of someone nauseated from the acrid odor that emanates from those who died while digesting a meal they ate a few hours earlier? What sense does it make to only recount documents and not sensations as well? What sense does it make not to recount that existent universal truth even if it is not documented or cannot be measured?
Whoever writes nonfiction novels, deep down, recounts himself and the world through his words, through those lives and those deaths. He recounts that which is not visible, but is nevertheless there: sensations, emotions, and conjectures, even without definite proof. The news cannot do this, but it is literature’s duty. Adding reality to the novel and removing coldness from news reporting are the only possible methods for bringing “sensitive” subjects to the attention of the reader.”

Of course, Saviano is talking from the perspective of a writer, making the point that it is a writer’s duty to recall a moment with the twin powers of heat and cold. But the same is, I think, true for the reader.

To be a demanding reader is to be objective, to question, to challenge, to prod, to poke and to protest. It is to ascend to the same level as the author—himself positioned as an authority on his subject—and to initiate a dialogue as an equal, and to frame the dialogue in the context of everything you, the reader, and he, the author, knows about the content and its surrounding stories and ideas. But that is not the only way to read.

One could compress “being a demanding reader” into single word—“detachment”. This word signals a separation, a position above the fray, observation without involvement. Its opposite is “immersion”. Think about learning a language—it’s one thing for me to take French lessons on Duolingo in the comfort of my home. It’s another to embark on a three-week solo bicycle tour through the provinces. Both aide my learning of the language, but the latter far more than the former.

This was the re-evaluation I made when considering the “how” of writing. I thought that perhaps I would benefit more from deliberate immersion than distance and detachment—the latter being what I have striven for for so long. Perhaps I should give each book and each author the benefit of the doubt when they posit their argument, instead of relentlessly challenging them? Perhaps I should bestow upon them an aura of good intentions and allow them to take me by the hand and lead me where they will? Risky, maybe. But also of great potential value.

In Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins talks about the absurdity of expat communities in under-developed countries—how the inhabitants try to create their own little piece of home in a little piece of a foreign country. Typically, the homestead is sectioned off from its surroundings with high fences and armed guards, and as a consequence the high-flying execs that live there are out of touch with local and regional culture—which is bad news when they’re trying to build relationships and stock up on political capital. Perkins then goes on to recount some of his own forays into the communities his colleagues took such stringent measures to avoid. By allowing himself to be drawn into and absorbed by locals and local customs, he sees what others will never get the opportunity to. He sees how citizens of less developed countries actually feel about the Western powers; he sees the responses that certain imagery and ideas evoke; he sees the difference between the information his colleagues and employers are fed via their local contacts and what is truly the case.

By abandoning detachment and seeking immersion, Perkins accrued advantages his colleagues could not. I have no ambitions to be an economic hitman, but in my life I wish to see and feel and experience all that I can. So I will follow Saviano’s advice and Perkins’ example whilst reading. I won’t relinquish detachment, but I will de-emphasise it in favour of immersion. I will still take rest on the river’s bank to contemplate its shape and movement, but I will also endeavour to spend more time swimming with, against and across its currents.

Oxygen, not coffee

Sun Tzu said that “Morning energy is keen, midday energy slumps, evening energy recedes”. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey outlines the quirk-full and often-mystic routines of famous creatives, scientists and thinkers—a lot of them describe the featured individual’s primary activity as taking place before the morning is over, and sometimes before the sun has even risen. Many productivity goo-roos advocate soft waldenponding in the mornings to minimise distraction and maximise focus and output.

All this ain’t new. Since ancient times we’ve known that the beginning of a day is the epitome of opportunity. Soon after awaking we are at our most alert, our most perceptive, our most creative, our most engaged. Why is that? Simple: circadian rhythm. We dance to the beat of an in-built, twenty-four hour timepiece that determines the functioning and sequencing of a vast number of physiological and psychological functions. It’s why we can sleep for eight hours and not wake up in a puddle of urine; it’s why our mental alertness and body temperature declines in the evening; it’s why we feel the need to sleep longer in the winter than the summer.

Our circadian rhythm is important. It is one of the primary determinants of what our mind and body does at different times during the day and night. But it is does not always have the final say. We can and do override its signals. Artificial lighting and heating; alarm clocks and other tech; medicines and drugs. All distort (or complement) our natural biological rhythms.

I have a personal interest in this. I work shifts. My sleep pattern and biological rhythms are all over the place and I’ve experienced the consequences of taking their distortion too far. Thanks to that, I have a pretty good sense of where the precipice between abyss and solid ground lies—life would be hell if I didn’t. I also have a few aides that I regularly call upon. I utilise black-out curtains, I take ZMA, I have processes for transitioning in and out of night hours, I have morning and evening routines, and I drink coffee. Bitter, dark, gorgeous, intoxicating coffee.

Coffee, and the caffeine it contains, wakes me from a stupor. It sharpens my senses. It starts the swirl of thought. To me, and to many others, it is synonymous with waking up and becoming human once again. There’s no mystique surrounding its function, though. Caffeine is nothing more than a central nervous stimulant. Which is the cause of much of my recent dismay—perhaps it’s not a good thing to rely upon? Perhaps the distortions it makes to my natural biological rhythms are, over the long term, harmful? Perhaps I should lessen how much I consume? Perhaps I should not consume it at all? And in the total absence of coffee and caffeine, what can I lean on to catapult myself into a higher state of wakefulness?

The answer is all around me, in the very air I breathe. Oxygen.

TENT TIMES

Years ago, I spent a few summers working at festivals, often doing ungodly hours—eight PM till eight AM was a good one. And after such a shift, I’d retire to my tent. A tent in the middle of a field, in the middle of a festival with tens of thousands of people, in the warmest months of the year. I’d go to sleep in the cool of morning and wake up a few hours later dripping in sweat and unable to breathe. In such a scenario, I’d peel off my sleeping bag, open my tent’s inner flap in a vain attempt to circulate some air, and lie back down, usually on my side so I had the maximum amount of skin not in contact with the ground. Then I’d look at my watch and groan—hours until I had to work again. Hours I knew I had to use to get some sleep.

It was hard. Until I learnt a trick.

FOOLING YOURSELF

The nervous system controls what state your body is in. Cleaved down the middle, you’re in either fight-or-flight mode or rest-and-digest mode. The former is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, a diversion of resources to the brain and to the muscles and organs required for intense physical activity, a quickening of inhalation and exhalation and a release of chemicals and hormones like adrenalin. The latter is associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, the sending of resources to the digestive system and restive organs, a slowed and steadied pattern of respiration, and the release of chemicals and hormones which promote rest, recovery and peace of mind. But here’s the thing: the arrow of causation goes both ways.

The nervous system initiates physiological and psychological functions, but the reverse is true, too. Feynmann’s observation that “you are the easiest person to fool” is more than a comment on epistemology—it’s the key to life without coffee. See, the trick I had learnt during my festival days was to fool myself, to fall asleep effortlessly by manipulating my pattern of breathing.

First, I would lie still and mentally search for and isolate an area of tension (the neck and shoulders are hotspots for me). Second, I’d slow my breathing, taking long, deep breaths in and out. Third, I would focus on deflating those areas as I exhaled, imagining myself dissolving and sinking into the very ground I was lying upon. The next moment it would be morning.

Such a trick has come in handy. I’ve used it to fall asleep in a bus shelter, on trains, on coaches, on planes, lying in odd positions in uncomfortable places, and—to my partner’s chagrin—less than five minutes after getting into bed. But falling asleep seems like the opposite of what I want to achieve, though. I’m seeking an alternative to caffeine that preserves the integrity of my biological rhythms but still offers the same neurological spike. But if I can manipulate my breathing to calm myself, can I not also manipulate my breathing to arouse myself?

THE OPPOSITE OF CALMING

Wim Hof is known as “the Iceman” for his ability to withstand and function amidst extremes of temperature. He’s ran a marathon in subzero conditions and in the heat of a desert. He’s been injected with an illness and consciously compelled his immune system to rise up and defend against it. He’s remained immersed in freezing water for hours. How? By an aeons more advanced variant of my fall-asleep-quick trick—he uses the mind to control the body. Like some spiritual monk from a fantasy trilogy, he displays conscious control of normally subconscious processes. Can I do the same when I need a pick-me-up? Theoretically, sure. If I can dampen nervous system activity with the breath I can definitely heighten it. So here’s the plan.

I have a few weeks over the holidays where I don’t have to work. That’s my window. As soon as I enter that window, I’m going cold turkey. No coffee. Instead, I’ll rely on oxygen, on breathing, on little and large lungfuls of air, to stimulate me. And to make it easier, I’ll have a specific breath-set that I fall back upon. This is, technically, a part of the Wim Hof method that I found online—a program that eases a person into Wim Hof’s teachings and incorporates cold exposure and exercise alongside breath manipulation—but it’ll work just as well on its own. First, I’ll get comfortable—I have a meditation mat and I’ll either sit in seiza or in the Burmese position. No lotuses around here. Then I’ll breathe as follows:

1) Thirty to forty quick, sharp and strong inhales and exhales.
2) A long and deep inhalation which is then held for ten to fifteen seconds.
3) A long and slow exhalation, which after completion is held for ten to fifteen seconds.
4) Repeat a total of three or four times.

In quickhand: Power-Inhale-Exhale.

That’ll be my alternative. That’ll be the thing that banishes grogginess and promotes awareness. That’ll be the thing which will allow me to survive a life without coffee.

Hopefully.