Thought is a Virus

I didn’t really understand viruses. Or how they interact with cells. Or cells themselves for that matter. Luckily a trove of engaging resources abound for us opsimaths. And it was far more enjoyable (re-)learning this round for personal rather than performative satisfaction. All misrepresentations, over-simplifications, errors and misunderstandings in this riff are solely my own and bear no reflection on the fine resources linked to above.

A cell is a little maker workshop with a code book for manufacturing. A gene is a recipe from this code book for making a specific protein. How big is this code book? How many recipes does it hold? What do proteins do anway? Good questions I thought. If my calculations are correct, our DNA, aka code book, contains about 375MB of information with built in redundancies. These instruct operations (i.e. which amino acids and what sequence to put them together) for making ~20k different proteins in humans, each protein embodies a specific technique, a specialized skill, for manipulating matter. All orchestrated god knows how.

Returning to the virus then, which is but a scrap of code without a processor. About the size of what you’d put in a memory buffer overflow, if you do that sort of thing. Not even a living thing by most definitions. It’s just a chassis whose shape attaches to compatible contours on cell surfaces and some helper proteins. Just floating around waiting to get stuck to a cell. When it docks, it passes a code string through the cell’s membrane. This code is in a common biological format that can be run by processors in the cell looking for work. The code’s sole objective, like most organisms built of code, is simply to replicate. To passively find a processor in the cell (a ribosome) that will execute its program for making its protein building blocks. The code just needs enough scrap material to make a copy of the chassis and copy of itself until the cell is so full of these little escape pods it bursts. Then the pods aka viruses float free attaching to more cells. Leaving a wake of destruction behind that the body tries to clean up. By invoking fire through inflammation. (A nastier type of virus, the Retro-Virus, attaches itself to our own cell’s code book. Like AIDS. It then spreads via our cells natural reproduction so it’s harder to identify and catch.)

Thoughts are also similar to viruses. Both simple and retro. Some thoughts can survive on paper surfaces for centuries and then unfold inside a brain, mobilizing it to replicate its code to other brains through speech or writing. Many spread electronically now. In higher bandwidths than speech, like music, graphic imagery and visual story. Math and design.

Credits to Laurie Anderson and her Language is a Virus song, and William Burroughs before that. Language assembles sequences that act like genes, for building functional ways we perceive and interact with reality. Much like proteins work to manipulate matter.

Sometimes replication depends on survival of the host, and even the host’s well-being, in which case it’s called symbiotic. Organism and host work as a team. Microbes of this type make up more of our body than our cells. We are a multitude.

Sometimes, however, an organism is only about its own replication, host or environment be damned. This model is called a pathogen. i.e. “pathos”-producing. Pathos from the Greek “what befalls one.” Concerned only with their own survival and replication, everything else is the “other”, they destroy their hosts with strategies designed to find new hosts. The end game is unsustainable and results in total destruction, but it seldom gets that far.

Information seems to be a fabric of nature, like energy and matter. And code instructs biological processes of growth and maintenance, including processes of our brains. Our thoughts are fabrications of our biology as much as our cells. Code can build allies, making a union stronger than the parts, making the whole more resilient.

Or code can maximize its own survival, spreading sensationally and utilizing channels and mammalian habitual behaviors in ways that leverage and accelerate its chances to jump ships while its current one is sinking. As media accelerates and globalizes the spread of thoughts, code has unprecedented vectors for both symbiosis and pathology. Until we can quarantine our awareness from thoughts, we will continue to mindlessly and haphazardly embody both.

It may behoove us to practice some social distancing between our awareness and identification with thoughts so we aren’t unduly infected by the pandemic of panic and fear and so we do not become carriers of these for others. Or not.

“I choose to live by choice, not by chance.” — Miyamoto Musashi

Game Changing

Not a review but this book is riveting. The title really does not do it justice, nor indicate its scope. It goes far beyond “smart note taking” and provides a fascinating way to approach learning and leveraging what we already know. The system explored in the book below comes from a public administrator named Niklas Luhmann who was interested in sociology as a hobby. His family ran a brewery. He created a system he called Zettlekasten, German for “card box” which refined a non-linear way of taking notes and thinking about stuff. In the evenings, after his 8-5 at the office, he read up on his interests, made notes (in a specific way) and navigated this system for exploring and connecting ideas.

He ended up writing a paper on sociology that was noticed by a prof at a prestigious University who immediately offered him a job as a professor. For which he had no qualifications. He then took a semester of Sociology and, using his system, Luhmann spun out a couple more papers: a doctoral thesis and a second publication required to formally fill the job requirements in less than a year and was officially appointed as a professor. During his next 30 odd years, as almost a byproduct of engagement with his system, he published more than 70 books and several hundred of papers. His works rocked the field of sociology and brought in new ideas from widely disparate fields. But he never considered the system “work.” For him, it was a creative extension of the mind: discovering, connecting and understanding ideas that fascinated him at the time. Today he is considered one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century

So far I’ve been struck by the approach he uses for learning and thinking which are quite different from anything taught about learning in school. His system is simple, can be implemented with pen and note card like he did, or any electronic system (I’m using Evernote.) Amazing stuff. And practical for anyone who likes to think, who has a variety of interests and wants to explore new ways of understanding. And perhaps publish a book or post or two someday.

Two more things . . .

in my catalog of skillful means

So far, to recap:

  1. Death as an ally
  2. Unclinching, lightness of being
  3. A high level of unbotheredness about everyday things and clarity about reactive attachments and external opinion

Next:

Living more vividly

Time and time again I get fed up to the max with the mundane. With mediocrity in myself and my world. Lately, I often find I’ve muddled through a perfectly good day. As if I were killing time. Being too sensitive to slight variations in mood or energy and reading them as disincentives to engage in the myriad of pursuits available to me. I also second-think, become distracted and continually discount the beauty of flow in engaging with tasks that, while they may not seem of deep mystical significance, are nevertheless invitations to engage the day and potentiate my time. As nerdy as they may appear, and I’m really judging this from somewhere allegedly more “cool” … these avenues of discovery, learning and exploration are as valid and lead as deeply into the fabric of the world as anything more ostensibly “spiritual.” Know one thing to know all things as a sage once remarked.

So the skillful means here is to engage totally with what I am pursuing without, at least during the course of the day, sidetracking or second-guessing its relevance to the bigger picture. The bigger picture is to live vividly and with flow. Not waiting to be gob smacked by some metaphysical lotto of privileged experience.

Bordertown

I’ve relocated mentally and physically many times in this life. And while I believe, and have confirmed, that wherever we go, there we are; that it’s not so much the location —it’s what we bring with us (or what we leave behind)— there is still value in a locale to elicit dormant capabilities and insights. Be this locale an altered state, a different country, a physical practice or just an excursion beyond the comfort zone.

But there has always been a bordertown on the fringes of consciousness that attracts me like no other. Sometimes it seems I have a whole life there I have forgotten. People I know and things I’ve done that will not be ignored, for long. It’s more home to me in many ways than whatever this place is now where I spend most of my time. The “wall” that’s being politicized currently is an interesting metaphor on how we think we should isolate ourselves from these unruly aspects of being. And where our borders should properly be constructed.

There are several ways to get to bordertown. Dreaming is a big one. And it’s where I often encounter this whole sense of another life I’m living in parallel. But its most powerful aspect is as an overlay, a dimension of this reality. Chroma. And it encourages living a little sideways from the consensual. Through magic, through intent. But most directly through taking a bit of time during the day to sink into the mind and open, with intent, to other ways of touching the world; unfolding an array of internal senses that are feeble in the light and atrophied with neglect. But which show a nuance to reality that enriches the fabric of existence.

Stuff I’m Trying to Figure Out

Mortality, for example. I’m suspicious of this one. A part of me has absolutely no problem with it however it turns out. Blink out of existence, then who is to worry? Continues? Enjoy the adventure. Why worry either way? I have zero concern about whether or not I’ve adhered properly to some religious doctrine. And zero motivation to leave any sort of legacy or regard to how I might be remembered.

Another part of me is suspicious that previous part might be in denial. Suppressing fear or anxiety by disassociation of outcomes. Yet another part questions the suspicious part with, “so what is your suggestion? worry about it until the inevitable happens anyway? Appreciate the moments?” The appreciation and gratitude strikes a chord. It resonates authentically. And the inevitable breakdown, I’d like to do that with grace. And I’d like it to be a short transition. I’d like to keep my bearings if the adventure continues. And I think it will. That resonates as well.

This leaves me with the recognition that this ending stuff might be huge. That if I carry on oblivious to what’s coming, I might miss some real opportunities and squander a lot of precious resources on things that don’t matter. As long as I can keep the horizon of death in view, it can be a tremendous ally. And as with life so far, I also like to look down the road for clues on how best to prepare. Not to the extent of sacrificing today for tomorrow, but for investing in skills that are handy across contexts.

The skills I think most important here and now, from this vantage, are for one: the ability to let go. I have this baseline of tension that seems to run quite deep. I think it’s built on a bedrock of layers and layers of protective insulation where protection was freezing parts of my being, making pieces rigid to resist impact and hanging on tightly to things I didn’t want to lose or have stolen from my soul. It was building a little fortress to secure a foothold in the world.

To let go of this is to sink in order to fly. In its most physical sense, this is relaxation. In the mind, lightness of being.  

The next skillful action, number two: is learning how to sink without panic. Sinking is accepting whatever I am feeling and thinking without trying to “should” it or change it or judging myself for the feeling or thought’s unbidden arising. To start understanding through this the reality of impermanence. Of the temporal nature of selves.

The third skillful means: is to question and review some very old and very deep ways I’ve been contracted to think and feel. By circumstances of my culture and my timeline in evolution. Ways parts of myself have been programmed and how best to leverage parts of myself that are free to help wake up.

Concretely, this means questioning very basic assumptions like: is there any reason to feel upset about anything? How is that useful? And this doesn’t mean trying to be coldly logical about everything, it means questioning how feeling bad, which is certainly not my preference, is used in ways usually not in my best interest. To research what agenda these feelings serve. Because in any given scenario I act more resourcefully without these “triggers.” And I do not subscribe to the belief that we need to be punished, or punish ourselves, in order to behave or be motivated to do good. I have a moral compass without this, thank you. No one has bound me, I want to sustain the realization that I am already free.

And other sundry thoughts… 

Somewhat related:

the bubble bath

I inventory this moment
niggling irritants like transient itches
the lay this day feels stodgy with vectors
finding excursion within

“…the ability to return voluntarily on a regular basis to that deepest level of reality – the Tao – as if it were a rejuvenating spiritually scented bubble bath.”

I slip out of mind
down body
somewhere near the heart
in the corridor of breath
posture vertical
anchors below, infinity above
the sides expand embracing
the horizon

a space in the between

exploring an unfolding
deep familiar longing
sinking further down into

tinged now with anger
enough bullshit!
cutting and
slicing at every clinging
cord fastening, securing
swimming free
of that floating island of garbage and tinsel
slum dreams of hope
no spiritual bubble baths here
only directions
the mind doesn’t fanthom
found in the body
beneath
disposable debris of thought

On the Potency of Ravens

You a writer? Or pretend to be? Isn’t that what writers do? Pretend?

Well, yeah, but they have to write also.

Why?

Because it’s part of the pretending, it kind of makes it more real and has its own shape of things.

Are you talking about poetry?

Yeah, but any writing too. Opening a channel between thoughts and physical expression. Sometimes thoughts stay in line, other times…

They start imaginary dialogs?

For one, yeah. But seriously, how else can you use thought to explore something? Because it’s hard to hold big ideas or sprawling ruminations in the head. And then things like “ruminate” pop out and need investigating, street omens, one of those stutters in the stitch of time… I discover “rumination” listed in the pathology section of psychology on wikipedia…

Extensive research on the effects of rumination, or the tendency to self-reflect, shows that the negative form of rumination (associated with dysphoria) interferes with people’s ability to focus on problem-solving and results in dwelling on negative thoughts about past failures. Evidence from studies suggests that the negative implications of rumination are due to cognitive biases, such as memory and attentional biases, which predispose ruminators to selectively devote attention to negative stimuli.

This. This use of “self-reflection” in psychology is fascinating because it is mindless. Or rather, not the mindful definition of self reflection as a pure awareness without judgment as in meditation —but rather as a faceted awareness, an awareness of one self distinct from another self; both within us. In fact, a common hypothesis in psychology is we each have many selves. Some at odds with one another. Taking turns being in charge.

So rumination, as pathology, is one of our selves screwing with another of our selves with trash talk and scary stories. And the gnarly parts thrive and grow through being observed and, more importantly, reacted to. If there were no shocked, angry or anguished “reflector”, it would lose psychic energy, to be replaced with another grab for attention by other complexes. But if the observer were simply awareness itself, with no position or preference in negative or positive, it would take a lot of fun out of the torture. By accepting it completely.

The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror – going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing.
― Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu

This also reflects a curious property of attention. Attention paid to specific thoughts amplify them. Attention withdrawn, distracted or distributed, weakens them. Balanced attention leads to and restores equilibrium. Balanced attention neither focuses upon nor withdraws from any thought or feeling. It merely stays present and to see what happens. It may even be eating popcorn. It’s like an ET landed in our brain, or a Stranger in a Strange Land.

In tales of lore, Odin sends out two ravens every day: hugin and munin, usually translated as “thought” and “memory.”

Hugin and Munin fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Munin.
– Odin as Grimnir in Poetic Edda

I suspect hugin and munin are not thought and memory, as commonly translated, but attention and awareness. Awareness as self-remembering. And Odin uses these two magical abilities, the only true abilities we possess and share:

  1. To direct attention, which he worries over the control of, but most importantly…

  2. Remembering ourselves and being present to what’s happening right now. Which is the only way we notice when we’re asleep and how our attention is being directed “for” us.

Awareness and attention. Expand attention to bliss out in open awareness and flow or vegetate. Or contract it to a point and hold it to train putting energy into containments of thought. Focusing on breath, mantra or kasina are punching bags for manifesting and steering mood and energy states. Work on steering first. It’s fun. Plus we finally get to drive!

Now where was I…

The waves recede, the naked sand glistens with rocks, sticks, creatures. Some will not survive until the tide returns, some will not care. Down by the outcrop of cliff, ragged stone fingers casting spells toward the departing sea, spins a vortex in a tide pool which should be still. But for several minutes it drains down deep into a puncture in the earth, sucking and gurgling into a cavern of limestone underground where only one creature lives and has lived for a long time. Thousands of tides have cut the standing columns of green hued rock and carried polished stones and sea glass that look like eggs and treasure in a dragon’s lair. Bright sparkles of yellows, oranges, reds and the hissing of the black subterranean river, 20 feet below, attract the scavengers and gulls to the smooth lip of the hole, some plummet or skirt or fly or flop. Nothing that enters returns and the creature below feeds as it has fed for cycles and cycles of time and stares up with opal eyes at the small girl on her hands and knees looking down into its home, humming softly.

If I were a Writer

© Charles Schultz
© Charles Schultz

If I were a writer, first
I could practice my craft almost anywhere
In a coffee shop in Asakusa with a laptop or unruled notebook and pen
on a bus trip to Guayaquil
Scratching down phrases and turning words
this way and that
like those novelty lens
I’d steal dialog or a word or two
from a passerby
I’d probably carry a little recorder
or use an app in my phone
to say a few things aloud that were moving too quickly through
my mind and would be lost
like that one goose who overslept on migration day
and if I were a writer, first
I don’t know that I would work on a story
in a straight line
I’d probably just get lost in the texture of things
working more for discovery
than reporting
I would probably create more
of my world and my passing thoughts
if I were a writer
first, I might even put random unpolished things
on an obscure blog just for fun