Last we left off I had decided that it was time to ask Hard Questions of my manuscript, and to answer them. It has been going, uhh, along. Quickly, I’ve realised that the improvised approach I’ve employed so far won’t take me much further. I need something more explicit. Something with a touch more rigour. Enter the Rosetta Grid.
There’s three things that underpin it: story elements, bottom-up structuring, and the notion of “keys”.
The primary elements of all stories, in order of descending importance, are: authorial intent, characters, world, events and narration. Separating out and tracking these elements is, in theory, doable. But when contrasted with an actual manuscript, any attempts to track the elements of a story soon become slum-like: wild, messy, unruly, unpredicatable, illegible.
Bottom-up structuring is the opposite of what I employed with the story’s original outline. Instead of starting with (what I hope is) a potent premise and unpacking it via ever-finer strokes (whole story to acts to chapters to beats), I do the reverse. Beat by beat, I will work my way through the manuscript, stating my intent, noting characters in order of appearance, jotting down the worldbuilding necessary, and summarising the events. Once I’ve completed the four beats of the prologue, for example, I transfer the elements up. An example:
Once I reach the top, I should have a complete list of characters, worldbuilding elements and summaries of events at different grains of abstraction.
Finally, the notion of “keys” is why this grid is called what it is. From the Wikipedia page for the Rosetta Stone:
“The term Rosetta stone has been used idiomatically to represent a crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information, especially when a small but representative sample is recognised as the clue to understanding a larger whole. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first figurative use of the term appeared in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica relating to an entry on the chemical analysis of glucose. Another use of the phrase is found in H. G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, where the protagonist finds a manuscript written in shorthand that provides a key to understanding additional scattered material that is sketched out in both longhand and on typewriter.
Since then, the term has been widely used in other contexts. For example, Nobel laureate Theodor W. Hänsch in a 1979 Scientific American article on spectroscopy wrote that “the spectrum of the hydrogen atoms has proved to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics: once this pattern of lines had been deciphered much else could also be understood”. Fully understanding the key set of genes to the human leucocyte antigen has been described as “the Rosetta Stone of immunology”. The flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana has been called the “Rosetta Stone of flowering time”. A Gamma ray burst (GRB) found in conjunction with a supernova has been called a Rosetta Stone for understanding the origin of GRBs. The technique of Doppler echocardiography has been called a Rosetta Stone for clinicians trying to understand the complex process by which the left ventricle of the human heart can be filled during various forms of diastolic dysfunction.”
A completed grid is a Rosetta stone, a master key for my project.
You’ve probably also noticed the duplication of the grids. The left is labelled “Included”. This is the one which will be filled out in the manner described above. It is also, probably, the least significant of the two. The one on the right, “Troubleshoot”, is where I reconvene with the notion of answering “hard questions”.
Once a full pass of the manuscript is complete, not only will I have a clue what’s going on, I will be able to begin picking apart what’s going wrong. Another combing of the manuscript will begin and during it I will be able to note flaws and failures and correlate them with the appropriate element.
As will others. See, once I’ve made a troubleshooting pass, my intention is to get a draft to a select few people, collate their feedback into the Rosetta Grid, and solve more problems, iterating until release.
There’s one other tweak I’ve made to my writing process, in addition to the creation and use of the Rosetta Grid. I’ve stuck a hand-wrtten version of this 2×2 on the bottom of my monitor.
The content of the grid comes from a Breaking Smart post: Good Forecasting Takes Strong Nerves. When I read it initially I thought its concepts particularly applicable to fiction writing, and as I embark into a more advanced stage I thought it would be helpful to keep a reminder of them in front of my face.
Finally: in other news, I went for a dip in a river (second time so far this year) and met some sheep.
The last count was 35,062. Sixty-six days later, the count was 75,512. That means I added roughly 622 words per day to my novel-in-progress. Of course, progress wasn’t as linear as that. Due to the nature of my boring day job–day shifts, night shifts, transitions into and out of the latter–my actual writing days have probably numbered half of the above. Has the inability to write day-in, day-out helped me? I don’t know. But the fact is that I’ve reached a new stage in the project.
See, as I was finishing up, I realised that I didn’t like the ending. Actually, I liked it. But it didn’t make sense. It didn’t feel appropriate. Spoiler alert: the original ending was, shall we say, violent. There’s nothing wrong with violence, but the violence included in my intended ending felt non-sensical, forced, incomprehensible. Part of me thought, “Fuck it. Isn’t all violence incomprehensible to the victim, on some level?” Another part of me answered: “Sure. But not to that degree.”
Result: I have a drafted novel with a necrotised ending, a chicken minus the head, a broom without the bristles. At this point, you may be wondering, “Now what?” Well, here’s what.
My first task is to “Recreate the Compression”. This is a text doc that breaks down the story. In it I summarise the story as a whole, each act as a whole, each chapter as a whole, and each beat as a whole. (Note, “whole” is a loaded term here.) Such a document helps me understand the substance of the story from multiple different levels, but more importantly, it helps me stave off the chief demon of fiction: BOREDOM. If I can make each compression of each of the different parts sound interesting and engaging in isolation, then I’ve set myself up well for a something-other-than-mediocre debut.
Recreating the Compression doc will also mean that I have to “Solve the Ending”. But like before, having a beat-by-beat outline for the ending won’t be enough. I’ll have to take it and expand it into an actual draft. (FYI, I already have some speculations for what the ending will be. All I need to do is play around with multiple permutations of it.)
With that done, I’ll be onto my third task, which is to “Ask Hard Questions.” Hard questions are questions that contain the threat of worldview collapse. Hard questions are questions asked by the people who love you and hate you the most. They’re not “gotchas”; they are more profound than that. Their purpose is to disrupt, reveal, confront, challenge, and off-balance.
Finally, after asking them, my fourth task will be to “Answer Hard Questions”. That could mean formulating responses in private that have no demonstratable effect on the text–clarification of intent concerning a particular detail, for example–or, more likely, it could mean carving open, rearranging and sealing the body of my text like a surgeon on LSD.
“Recreate the Compression”; “Solve the Ending”; “Ask Hard Questions”; “Answer Hard Questions”; those are my four tasks for the next month or so. One last thing, though. I’d like to share one particularly surprising thing that I (re)learnt during this period of swelling. It is, simply, this:
Each moment is a portal to any moment.
The context behind this is fairly mundane: whilst drafting, my energy repeatedly flagged at what I thought was the limit of expansion for a specific beat. It took me a few run-throughs to realise that all I had to do was pick a moment in the scene, any moment, and go deeper into it, find the infinite detail within. Examples: a frown could be a portal to a childhood memory; the play of light on a sea’s surface could be represent an important fragment of worldbuilding; a detail in the background could be an author’s easter egg or a foreshadowing central to a B-plot.
Each moment is a portal to any moment. With that realisation, all concerns of writer’s block vanished, and in it’s place arose something else. Call it writer’s responsibility: the consideration not of the ability to travel, but the deciding upon of the best route to take.
Of course, it’s presumptous to claim that this experience, this choice, is unique to writers and writing. It isn’t. None of us have to choose where we’re going, but we all, whoever we are, have to decide how we’ll get there.
They say that first drafts are shitty, and boy are they right. I’ve just completed mine. It’s 35,062 words long. That’s well short of my target length. But that’s okay because 15% of my beat-by-beat outline has been skipped during drafting because I don’t have the research I need to hand. Those beats have been coloured amber and they are spread throughout the story. This less-than-expected word count is also okay because it turns out that this draft is less a draft than a more thorough expansion of my beat-by-beat outline—there’s so much more detail to add about concerning the characters involved, the world they romp around in, and the events that take place.
Nevertheless, I have a draft. Which begs the question, WTF now? Well. The purpose of the next stage is obvious: address the amber beats and put some meat on the bones of the story. But that can wait until tomorrow. Right now, it is 1224. I’ve been at it since around 0800. It’s about time that I have some food and go outside.
Some of you might know that I govern my days using a “scalable loop”. It’s a construct that I developed to bypass the rigidity of rituals and routines—I can twist, bend and shape the loop to fit into whatever gaps and whatever circumstances arise. (Read more about it here.) Currently, the loop has five components: Breathe / Read / Write / Move / Play. And since I’ve been writing but not publishing, and since the first month of the year is drawing to a close, I thought I’d use that five-part structure as a frame for an update. But before I proceed, I want to draw your attention to two things.
“In living systems the whole generates the parts. The parts do not exist a priori. In each step of this process we can see that both wholes and parts come from existing wholes. They are not constructed in the usual sense—they are not manufactured. They are synthesized via an unbroken chain of wholes, extending back to the beginning.”
Reading that changed me. Immediately. If you’ve ever broken a bone or snapped a ligament, you’ll likely have a visceral recollection of the moment when it broke, that indescribable fragment of time in which the force being applied to your body exceeded its ability to endure it. I had a similar experience. Considering the ideas in that short-but-potent piece shattered the spine of one of my deepest assumptions—that my life is made up of a plethora of different pieces that individually are important, but come together to create something more than the literal sum of their parts. Now, I have begun to see and think of my life as a collection of wholes, instead of as a collection of parts. I haven’t truly unpacked the consequences of this transition—I need more time—but it continues to be something I am unable pull my mind away from.
Second, I learnt about a new concept in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: the notion of a samayabond. The easiest way to think of the samaya bond is as an unbreakable vow, as an irrevocable, unconditional commitment between a teacher and a student. As Chodron says:
“If the student accepts and trusts the teacher completely and the teacher accepts the student, they can enter into the unconditional relationship called samaya. The teacher will never give up on the student no matter how mixed up he or she might be, and the student will also never leave the teacher, no matter what.”
In addition to perceiving the parts of me and the parts of my life as wholes, I’ve also come to see these wholes as teachers. And thus I have been wondering: is it the right time to enter into a samaya bond with the practices of breathing, reading, writing, moving and playing? Am I ready to make an unconditional, irrevocable commitment to them? Perhaps…
Anywho. The meta-commentary is done. Now, we can move on.
First, I am practicing concentration meditation basically every day. I’m trying to approach the practice with the resolve to Make no plans, to leap over the labels of “succeeding” and “failing”. It’s working, slowly, and that is okay.
Second, I have decided that eyes closed is the best approach for this type of contemplation, but I’ve maintained the eyes open approach for periods of zazen (see here and here), and for any other time when I am just sitting and being a human.
Third, I’ve woven all this together into a framework for attaining a “higher” state of awareness or consciousness. I am unable to enact it now, but I hope to be able to in the coming years. It looks like this:
Step One — Use the Wim Hof Method of breathing (deliberately intense breathing, a prolonged inhalation, and a prolonged exhalation, repeated three or four times) to dispel any psychological or psychological impediments to concentration. This method of breathing compels the sympathetic nervous system to activate with more intensity. Step Two — Make my way, sequentially, through the Eight Jhana states, and develop a profound one-pointedness of mind. Step Three – Transition out of the Jhana states and use the momentum previously accumulated to transition from one-pointedness to many-pointedness of mind, from a state of deep concentration into a state of deep awareness.
Right now, I am far from attaining even the first Jhana, so you can see why the above path is a long-term ambition. It’s also worth noting that my understanding of what “deep awareness” is and actually involves is sparser than I thought it was. Luckily, though, I picked up The Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw on a whim, at the same time as David’s recommendations. I suspect that text holds the keys to several locks.
II – READ
I’m back into my reading rhythm. Although the articles linked above are the only ones I’ve actually read online with anything more than fragmented attention, I’ve been able to absorb myself in several books over the past few weeks.
After reading multiple second-hand references and interpretations, I decided to read a translation of Mein Kampf. I read the first half and I have many thoughts about it, none which I am willing to share yet. After reading and loving Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel (which traces elements of desire in the works of Flaubert, Cervantes, Proust and Dostoevsky) I was persuaded to continue Proust’s In Search of Lost Time series. I’ve read the first, so I picked up the second, Within a Budding Grove, but despite some truly profound passages I dropped it in order to re-read Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, which was glaring at me from the bookshelf. Dropping Proust in favour of Yoshikawa turned out to be a good decision: the latter resonated with me in a much greater way than when I first read it. I actually tweeted about it here.
A consequence of those tweets was a nod towards the work of James Clavell, specifically his Asian Saga. Like a rapper shutting down Gucci and cleaning out the store with his black card, I brought all six novels in the series (for a total of nearly six thousand pages of fiction) and began the first, Shogun, as soon as it arrived. So far. Can confirm. It’s good.
I also finished Katy Bowman’s essay collection, entitled Movement Matters. It’s just as good, if not better, than another one of her books, Move Your DNA. Off the back of that, I’ve begun Erwan Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement. Also, truly good—but I’ll talk about these books more later. The other book in my hands at the moment is Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It’s about embodied cognition and it’s changing my mind, connecting so many dots and concepts that have lied dormant waiting for an opportunity to come together. Again, recommended.
Another development on the reading front: I picked up a hand-me-down Kindle. I am, and always will be, a devoted dead-tree book reader, but I’m finding it a bit awkward to lug some of my door-stopper texts to work with me, and while I don’t mind taking six books with me on a week-long holiday, it is a tad inconvenient. Previously, I had been content to live with the inconvenience, but after discovering that my CargoWorks pouch will take a Kindle alongside my phone and notebook, I decided to make a change. In order to travel lighter, I’ll be rocking a Kindle stuffed with the complete Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I can re-read endlessly) and a few other collections—Tiago Forte’s Praxis ebooks, a few Ribbonfarm Roughs, an Eliezer Yudkowsky book or two, and a number of other diverse texts that I have yet to decide upon (recommendations welcome).
III – WRITE
As I mentioned in AFK, kinda, I have stopped blogging in order to focus on my novel. I want to publish it by the end of this year, and after creating a set of significant milestones and coupling them with deadlines, I can say that I am on target. For now. It’s not like I’ll be going from conception to completion of a novel within a year, though. I’ve already spent months on character profiles, countless time thinking about worldbuilding and iterating the events, and many hours contemplating the sort of story I want it to be and the manner in which I want to tell it. I’ve had a headstart and it’s going to be interesting to see how long I can maintain it (praying and lobbying to the Gods on my behalf is encouraged). I can be more specific…
Thus far, I’ve come up with a beat-by-beat outline for the story, and I’m using it in the manner suggested by Venkat in response to a toot:
“…as a trellis to guide a growing vine structure. You lay it out to get a vague sense of overall arc and avoiding dead ends, internalize it subconsciously, but then write the story in an improv fashion, simulating the action in your mind. You refer to the outline again only if you run into trouble, and it’s okay to skip or add beats by improv”.
I was lucky enough to receive that advice before I began drafting proper. I was also lucky enough to receive a nudge from M. K. Anderson— she persuaded me to take a proper look at genre, genre conventions, obligatory scenes, sources of conflict, and hook-build-payoff structures at different levels within the story. I did that. I pulled out my copy of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid, figured out the questions I needed to answer, and went about answering them. Which I am glad I did because I realised, amongst other things, that my novel is a story about courtship. I did not see that coming.
In terms of volume, I’ve been making my way through the novel at essentially the same speed that I used to blog at—roughly three thousand words a week. I expect there to be periods where that increases and patches where it decreases, but either way I want to get to a shitty-first-draft before May begins.
I know I said in AFK, kinda that I’d use the absence of publishing time pressure to be more active on social media and dig deeper into more complex topics and create longer posts. That hasn’t really happened. Similar to how one uses their income to pay the rent and buy food first, and only then goes on holiday and out to dinner, I haven’t felt like I’ve had the disposal income to invest in those activities. If you look at the etymology of the word “priority” it is singular—it is meant to refer to one thing. The novel is the thing right now. Anything after that is a bonus.
There’s been two consequences of this prioritisation. First, I am writing in my notebook more, attempting to record both inner and outer truths. Second—and this is related to the first—there has been no drop in the number of thoughts I have. Instead, there has been a development in my ability to let them alone. Previously, when I had a “good” idea, I’d grasp it and record it in some form for later use. Now, my thought is like a butterfly landing on an extended finger: I see it land, remain still while it takes its rest, and let it flutter off as soon as it feels ready. The previous sentence is probably a third consequence of focusing on my novel—the proliferation of “lofty” metaphors in my prose. Don’t worry, they make me cringe, too. But right now I don’t feel particularly self-conscious, so they’re staying—after all, didn’t Ray Bradbury say something like, “the enemy of all art is self-consciousness”?
Which brings me to the penultimate point of this section: Ray Bradbury also said that, in writing, quantity leads to quality. Venkat mentioned this idea in a recent Breaking Smart Q&A, and after I riffed about it on Twitter, I began to think that it is an idea applicable to more than writing. It’s common knowledge that writing is a proxy for thought, so wouldn’t quantity of thought lead to quality of thought? If you follow the logic and subscribe to it—I do—then the imperative is obvious: we should do everything we can to have as many thoughts as possible. If that means blogging, fine. If that means, making up limericks and poetry, cool. If that means moving to a new place, communing with oak trees in a remote forest, listening to the whispers of a mystical waterfall, living in a van, or filling a house with dogs, cats and llamas, great. Do whatever it takes.
Finally (phew), I suspect it looks like I’m contradicting the quantity leads to quality idea above. After all, I’m not publishing anything, really. Counterpoint: I’m writing just as much as I used to and I feel like I am having more thoughts than ever before.
More importantly, I feel like I have settled on a course for the next few years at least. In roleplaying games, it is possible to play either “pure” or “hybrid” characters. The latter could be, for example, an axe-wielding barbarian who also knows a few spells. The former could be, for example, a thoroughly committed magic user whose only form of attack and defense is the arcane. After a year or two of LARPing a “hybrid” character, trying to get my freelance career off the ground and blog and write a book and do all the other things, I now feel like I’m much better suited to the role of “Pure Writer”. I understand the risks of this approach, but as I write this I have twelve books I know I want to write. Allowing for a fifty percent entropy rate, that’s still six books to get around to. (FYI, I know an idea or insight is book worthy because it plants itself in my brain, begins to grow of its own accord in my sub- and unconscious, and then reappears to my consciousness later, in a vastly more advanced state.)
That sounds crazy, right? Everyone says that writing a book is a slog, a ball-ache, torture. For example, James Clear said recently that:
“In case anyone is wondering:
1. Writing a book is very not fun.
2. Launching a book is very fun.
3. Number 1 is what makes Number 2 possible.
The height of your joy is linked to the depth of your sacrifice.”
That’s not true for me. Writing is the fun part. Having ideas and seeing where they take me is the whole point. If it benefits others? I will be amazed. If it results in unexpected-but-meaningful relationships? I will be grateful. If I can make a living from it? I will be humbled. But none of those possibilities change the fact that, for me, the act is the reward. And I’ve made a conscious choice to orientate my life around that fact.
IV – MOVE
I have never fallen out of love with reading, nor with writing. I can’t say the same for movement. My youth was heavily composed of different sports, and as I became an adult that process continued. The only difference was that I swapped team sports for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a sport that depends on others being present but is a decidedly more individual pursuit—the practitioner alone is responsible for the rate and extent of their progress. But over the last year, my momentum in that, and in physical training generally, flagged.
Fortunately, this new period of my life has seen that energy re-captured and exceeded. Although I am only able to train once or twice a week, I am thoroughly enjoying the practice of BJJ. I’ve adopted the same approach with BJJ as I have taken with my meditation practice: show up, be attentive, and let the development take care of itself.
Outside of BJJ my movement practice feels revitalised too. Much has been said about the toxicity of social media, especially channels that overwhelm us with normative models (see The toxic triangle of modernity). However, I’ve cultivated a private Instagram account, made it movement-centric—as opposed to my Twitter feed, which is a river of ideas concerned with a great number of mostly abstract topics—and deliberately resolved to use the people I find there as inspiration instead of models to compare myself with and gauge my ability against. Following the accounts of Ido Portal, Tom Weksler, Rafe Kelley, Roye Gold, Fighting Monkey, Formless Arts, Erwan Le Corre and MovNat, many yogis, multiple BJJ competitors and coaches, and a lot of photographers and filmmakers, has nourished my mind with possibilities and helped me to practice movement more often, for longer, and in many different ways.
As I hinted at in The floor and the canopy, my aim is not just to lift weights, swing a kettlebell or cycle up a particularly challenging hill. Those things are good and useful sure, but my main aim is to be able to walk and run and climb and swim and jump and fall and crawl with ease.
Part of the reason that my capacity for movement was dulled in the first place was that I was struggling to find a way to fit it into my life. I solved that problem: in the back of my notebook, I keep a folded index card. On that card are three stages of a movement practice.
– The first stage, which involves a few low-level basic movements that I can do cold—like hanging and rolling—functions as a warm-up. If I have five minutes, I can just do that. And how can I not have five minutes?
– The second stage is more expansive. It has two parts. The first is a superset which pairs a pull movement with a Turkish get-up. The second is a single-hand kettlebell complex which involves a swing, a clean, a squat, a press and a carry. If I have only fifteen minutes I can do a warm-up and one of those movements. If I have thirty or forty minutes I can do a warm-up and both the superset and the complex.
– The third stage is focused on exploration and has no explicit instructions. Instead it has three columns. The first lists basic human movement instructions: strike, throw, crawl, jump, etc. The second lists modifiers or spectra for those actions: slow-fast, inside-outside, planned-improvised, etc. The third lists implements that can be mixed in: the ground, water, bands, bars, sticks, balls, etc.
This approach has a similar flavour to the scalable loop, and in lieu of working directly with a coach (which I have done previously) it’s the best solution I’ve come across to the problem of programming movement into a life. Here’s the card itself, the backside of which has two ideas that I am trying to keep in mind:
Of course, those activities only take place during a specific movement session. And as I learnt in Bowman’s Movement Matters and as I’m learning from Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement, there’s more potential for gain—and there’s more cause of harm—in the other twenty-three hours of the day that we’re not explicitly focused on movement and training. The shorthand of “23/1” reminds me of this, and as a consequence I’m trying to be more mindful of movement and health in the rest of my life.
One way in which I’m doing this is sitting on the floor more. Sounds simple, but it’s quite remarkable how effective it is. Try it for yourself. I’m also making a point of moving on the floor and rolling around when playing with our puppy. Again, simple but effective.
The other notable things I’m doing in regard to health are first, taking care of my sleep, and second, taking cold showers. First, because I don’t have the time pressure of publishing daily or twice a week, I’m allowing myself to sleep in a bit later. This is helping me when I go into and come out of night shifts. I no longer feel as tired after a week of shifts, and I feel like the rest of my life has been enhanced because of this significant change in my approach to sleep. Second, I’m finishing every shower with either a couple-minute blast of cold, or a few rounds of hot and cold. The usual stress placed on body because of a moderately physical job, BJJ and my movement practice hasn’t decreased, but my ability to tolerate it and recover from it has seen a marked increase because of this.
I’m sure that, when it comes to movement and health, there are other things I can be doing and should be doing. I’ll get to them, eventually. But, for now, I’m enjoying the path and I’m happy with its trajectory.
V – PLAY
My thoughts and developments concerning this “whole” are both deeper and less extensive than the previous four. That’s because the concept of play permeates everything that I do and is thus hard to comment upon. There’s playfulness in my contemplative practice, in my reading, in my writing, in my exploration of movement, and in most other elements of my life. The phrase I’m trying to associate with my writing now is “joyous freewheeling” and that phrase is equally applicable to the other aspects of my existence. It feels like, on some higher level, I’ve stopped giving a fuck about the “shoulds” and began to wonder about the “coulds”. This isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably not the definitive way to approach life, but for me and for now, it’s working, and my intention is for it to remain that way.
I’d like you to know that I hadn’t intended to say this much. I started and the above just kept coming, like I’d nicked the carotid artery of expression. But it has been fruitful for me. It has helped me consolidate a few thoughts, to tie some bows with the differing threads of my thought. So I’ll say no more.
Except this (I can’t help it): yesterday I went out on my bicycle for the first time this year. Nothing exciting—I completed a loop that I’ve done many times before. However, it did generate two insights.
First: there’s this hilltop farm whose gate I always stop at. It offers wide and sweeping view of the countryside, and on most days it’s a tranquil spot. But yesterday, I missed it. I was so absorbed in my own thoughts about I-can’t-even-remember-what-that I had cycled passed it and made it to the bottom of the hill before I noticed my not-noticing it. Infer from that what you will.
Second: right after I realised I’d missed my usual hilltop-stop, I took a left and sought a gap in the hedge. I dismounted and walked myself and my bike through it, into the field, into its five-by-ten-metre rest area. I leaned my bike against the wooden bench waiting there and took off my helmet, hanging it via the strap off my handlebars. I then popped my water bottle out of its cage, took a sip and walked through the gap in the fencing, towards the middle of the field. It was a cold day but a clear day, cloudless. I could see the hills falling away from me and rising up in the distance. Upon reaching the middle of the field I knelt, tucked both feet under me, seiza style, and breathed out.
It’s said in When Things Fall Apart that “The out-breath is a metaphor for opening our whole being.” I felt the truth of those words whilst knelt in that field on that cold clear day—I breathed everything I had into the wind, and the wind bore it away. The wind also bore me away. It flowed over the hillside, and I went with it. It descended into the valley and climbed out of it. As did I. It kept the birds in the air, and there I stayed with them, for a time.
What this experience created in me was not a reverie so much as a sense of reverence. A deep appreciation for where I’ve been and where I’m going, for who I am and who I am not, for who I was and for who I have yet to be, for the people and the things that are and aren’t around me—regardless of whether I am intimate with them or not, regardless of whether I consider them strangers, friends, allies or enemies.
I recently read somewhere that taking a vitamin C supplement is not the same as eating an orange. That seems obvious, right? Deconstructing a wholesome food and taking its components in fragmented form is not the same as eating the damn fruit. Similarly, in times past, we had religion. It provided us with something to believe in and it was a thing which brought people together. Now, it is different. Despite what you’ve heard, God isn’t dead. And there are other ways in which we generate community and social support around our selves. But what religion also gave us, in a neat package alongside belief and community, is a sense of reverence,. Not a blind faith in or a meek submission to something untouchable and unimaginably larger than us. Just a deep appreciation and respect. I can’t speak for others, but I get the sense that we don’t have that anymore. Or if we do, we rarely feel comfortable enough to share and experience it with one another.
As I rose and made my way back to the bike, I thought on this and I concocted a directive for myself, which also serves as an epigram for this little update:
In action, joy and conviction; in reflection, reverence and doubt; in everything, compassion.
On the 12th September, 2018, I switched from posting daily to posting every Wednesday and Sunday. The experience has been exquisite so far, but it hasn’t entirely solved my problems.
First, twice-weekly still doesn’t leave me enough time to do deep thinking and research. It seems that, at the moment, one thousand words is the point of diminishing returns for me. Anything beyond that demands an exertion that I can’t make under current constraints. That means that many of the most interesting questions and possibilities that are raised whilst outlining and drafting posts are left unexplored. Sad face.
Second, blogging time still eats away at book-writing time. I’d like my second book to be finished and released this year. After that, I have at least four that I know I want to write—I know because, without any conscious effort on my part, my mind keeps returning to the projects and putting up preparatory scaffolding. But at this rate I’m not going to finish my current book for years. Sad face, again.
So I’m making another change. I’m going AFK, kinda. I’m not going to have a regular posting schedule for the foreseeable future. Instead, I’ll spend more time working on the novel, I’ll put more effort into exploring audacious ideas with greater rigour, and I’ll be more active on Twitter and Mastodon—treating the latter as an informal platform for conversation and abstract adventuring.
(Also of note: subscribers (who, in my unbiased opinion, are the best humans ever) will still get new posts (short or long, posted here or elsewhere) delivered straight to their inbox and will still be privy to infrequent book-project updates.)
This change is also a bet, a risk taken in service of a belief: that my comparative advantage lies in books not blogging. It is time to let that belief run the gauntlet of reality.
In Solutions to the problem of life, I acknowledged my tendency to get caught up on the first of the Buddha’s Four Nobles Truths—Life is suffering. Realising that that wasn’t exactly useful, I attempted to find a way past it. As a consequence of releasing that piece, Harry Potash was nice enough to point me towards something a suffering-fixated person like me might find interesting…
Now, I don’t have much familiarity with transhumanism, or enough grounding in the disciplines it draws on—evolutionary biology, genetic engineering, moral philosophy, etc.—to critique and comment upon what he said. But I can include the extracts from the talk that I found most provocative. (If you wish to skip ahead do. They have no bearing on what is to come.) First:
“Unfortunately, attempts to build an ideal society can’t overcome this biological ceiling, whether utopias of the left or right, free-market or socialist, religious or secular, futuristic high-tech or simply cultivating one’s garden. Even if everything that traditional futurists have asked for is delivered – eternal youth, unlimited material wealth, morphological freedom, superintelligence, immersive VR, molecular nanotechnology, etc – there is no evidence that our subjective quality of life would on average significantly surpass the quality of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – or a New Guinea tribesman today – in the absence of reward pathway enrichment. This claim is difficult to prove in the absence of sophisticated neuroscanning; but objective indices of psychological distress e.g. suicide rates, bear it out. Unenhanced humans will still be prey to the spectrum of Darwinian emotions, ranging from terrible suffering to petty disappointments and frustrations – sadness, anxiety, jealousy, existential angst. Their biology is part of “what it means to be human”.”
“If there weren’t something fundamentally wrong – or at least fundamentally inadequate – with our existing natural state of consciousness bequeathed by evolution, then we wouldn’t be so keen to change it. Even when it’s not unpleasant, everyday consciousness is mediocre compared to what we call peak experiences. Ordinary everyday consciousness was presumably adaptive in the sense it helped our genes leave more copies of themselves on the African savannah; but why keep it as our default-state indefinitely? Why not change human nature by literally repairing our genetic code?”
Third (in response to a proposed genetic solution to the problem of suffering):
“First, this genetic recalibration might seem to be endorsing another kind of uniformity; but it’s worth recalling that happier people – and especially hyperdopaminergic people – are typically responsive to a broader range of potentially rewarding stimuli than depressives: they engage in more exploratory behaviour. This makes getting stuck in a sub-optimal rut less likely, both for the enhanced individual and posthuman society as a whole.
Secondly, universal hyperthymia might sound like a gigantic experiment; and in a sense of course it is. But all sexual reproduction is an experiment. We play genetic roulette, shuffling our genes and then throwing the genetic dice. Most of us flinch at the word “eugenics”; but that’s what we’re effectively practising, crudely and incompetently, when we choose our prospective mates. The difference is that within the next few decades, prospective parents will be able to act progressively more rationally and responsibly in their reproductive decisions. Pre-implantation genetic screening is going to become routine; artificial wombs will release us from the constraints of the human birth-canal; and a revolution in reproductive medicine will begin to replace the old Darwinian lottery. The question is not whether a reproductive revolution is coming, but rather what kinds of being – and what kinds of consciousness – do we want to create?
Thirdly, isn’t this reproductive revolution going to be the prerogative of rich elites in the West? Probably not for long. Compare the brief lag between the introduction of, say, mobile phones and their world-wide adoption with the 50 year time-lag between the introduction and world-wide adoption of radio; and the 20 year lag between the introduction and world-wide penetration of television. The time-lag between the initial introduction and global acceptance of new technologies is shrinking rapidly. So of course is the price.”
“From a notional God’s-eye perspective, I’d argue that morally we should care just as much about the abuse of functionally equivalent non-human animals as we do about members of our own species – about the abuse and killing of a pig as we do about the abuse or killing of a human toddler. This violates our human moral intuitions; but our moral intuitions simply can’t be trusted. They reflect our anthropocentric bias – not just a moral limitation but an intellectual and perceptual limitation too. It’s not that there are no differences between human and non-human animals, any more than there are no differences between black people and white people, freeborn citizens and slaves, men and women, Jews and gentiles, gays or heterosexuals. The question is rather: are they morally relevant differences? This matters because morally catastrophic consequences can ensue when we latch on to a real but morally irrelevant difference between sentient beings. [Recall how Aristotle, for instance, defended slavery. How could he be so blind?] Our moral intuitions are poisoned by genetic self-interest – they weren’t designed to take an impartial God’s-eye view. But greater intelligence brings a greater cognitive capacity for empathy – and potentially an extended circle of compassion. Maybe our superintelligent/superempathetic descendants will view non-human animal abuse as no less abhorrent than we view child abuse: a terrible perversion.”
“The last frontier on Planet Earth is the ocean. Intuitively, running compassionate ecosystems might seem too complicated. But the exponential growth of computer power and nanorobotic technologies means that we can in theory comprehensively re-engineer marine ecosystems too. Currently such re-engineering is still impossible; in a few decades, the task will be computationally feasible but challenging; eventually, it will be technically trivial. So the question is: will we actually do it? Should we do it – or alternatively should we conserve the Darwinian status quo? Here we are clearly in the realm of speculation. Yet one may appeal to what might be called The Principle Of Weak Benevolence. Unlike the controversial claim that superintelligence entails superempathy, The Principle Of Weak Benevolence doesn’t assume that our technologically and cognitively advanced descendants will be any more morally advanced than we are now.”
I actually read the talk, in full, a few times. The ideas it contains are new to me and so they raised multiple questions. But the first question they raised was not the one I was expecting: What happens to stories in a suffering-free world?
Here, the plus and the minus can be as simple or as complex as you like. They could chart a protagonist’s progress towards his goal. They could be multiplied and comment on multiple character’s journeys. There could be a different one for both the character’s explicit objective and his or her implicit objective and the story could be about the conflict between the two values. They could be used to represent transitions between material wealth and poverty, or between philosophical or psychological abundance and scarcity. However they are used, they can form the foundation for understanding or producing a story in multiple mediums. But the aim of the “abolitionist project” is to abolish suffering and unpleasant experience—so, in essence, we lose the bottom half of the graph. But what happens then?
The first answer is obvious: we move the goalposts. Stories will no longer be tales of transitions between good and bad, but recounting of movements between good and better. A villain will no longer be Evil, he’ll just be Less Good than the average hero, for example. Pearce uses the phrase “gradients of bliss”—stories in a suffering-free world will be about the peaks and troughs of those gradients.
The second answer is a bit weirder, and the easiest way to understand it is with a reference to technological pastoralists. These are people who think it’d be a good idea to regress to a state where technology is less advanced because humanity was less corrupted back then. Sometimes, though, these people act on that belief and move to a farm to grow their own turnips. Imagine that the transition to a post-abolition society is complete and the generations with concrete experience of pre-abolition society have died. All that will remain of experienced-suffering are the records preserved in various media. And in the same way that people LARP around to find out what a pre-technological existence was like, people will want to LARP around and find out what a pre-abolition existence was like.
Pearce says, in the talk linked above, that “happier people – and especially hyperdopaminergic people – are typically responsive to a broader range of potentially rewarding stimuli than depressives: they engage in more exploratory behaviour.” I don’t think it’s much of a leap to claim that once we’ve abolished suffering and ceased to remember what it feels like, then our new, more-predisposed-to-exploration selves will get curious and engage in small-scale recreation experiments. And of those who are brave enough to engage in the experiments, there are going to be some who come back and decide to record it.
John McPhee, in Writing by Omission, talked of Hemingway and his tendency to leave what he knew out of his work.
“And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the iceberg—or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” The two sentences are from “Death in the Afternoon,” a nonfiction book (1932). They apply as readily to fiction. Hemingway sometimes called the concept the Theory of Omission. In 1958, in an “Art of Fiction” interview for The Paris Review, he said to George Plimpton, “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.” To illustrate, he said, “I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.””
In a post-abolition society there will be a gap in the market—people who have experienced suffering—and it won’t take long for it to be filled. It’ll be like wireheading (“direct stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain via implanted electrodes”), but for pain instead of pleasure. We’ll go to some nondescript building, sign some forms, get hooked up and be run through the gamut of the original human emotional spectrum for however long we think counts as “authentic”. We’ll then unhook, run off back to our co-working space and get to work on a piece for that New Media outlet.
Stories, post-abolition, will involve a recalibration of traditional axis, but they will also present storytellers with an opportunity to experience an unaltered consciousness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.