Another thing modafinil1 illuminated was how we become buried beneath layers of inertia. So gradually it’s hard to notice. We may start with energy to explore exciting potentials, we may be “called” by things we can’t even name or describe, our hearts might ache with a nostalgic beacon of sweet pain towards some great inexplicable —but we may find ourselves later just looking for a place to sit, rest and watch a screen or escape into distraction. Which is a shame because I think it’s less a physical depletion than a gradual smothering of a spark we carry. When this spark is alive — or coming back to life— we see amazing possibility in the every day, in time unhinged from lethargy of spirit.
Maybe to ignite this, we must figure out —or decide— what our life is about, what we are here to do, explore, create or accomplish. And how best we can contribute to this masterpiece we live in through being nothing other than ourselves rather than the manufactured product of our acculturation. To do this, we may have to release judgment about what everybody should be doing, and how the world ought to behave and turn back inward to find again what WE are about. Maybe it’s time to come home. And maybe that’s the only way to authentically contribute to the world.
To be on our own path of discovery, exploration, expression, to be in-formed, is to abandon all reward from and dependence upon any opinion but our own. The strength to do this should be the power we seek and the first thing in this crazy world we set aright.
I class modafinil in the same group as cannabis and psychedelics… it can show us useful things about ourselves. Not as a crutch to supply something missing that we then depend on, but to illuminate something we’ve always had or have always been, but perhaps have forgotten. All true learning is remembering, as a certain philosopher of antiquity once staked his life on. ↩
What happens when a pill engineered to increase focus is combined with a meditation practice designed to hone concentration? Let’s find out.
Subject: (see above)
Materials: Alertex (Modafinil) 200mg. Couch
Optional: Latin American electronica blaring from the appliance store across the street
Currently, my practice of meditation is called samadhi (or samatha). An exotic term for focusing on just one thing. Usually the breath. Samadhi, or concentration meditation, is often poo-pooed by other serious adherents to meditation like the Vipassana practitioners. At best they see it as stepping stone to stabilize attention for more serious practices. At worst they believe samadhi may lead to getting hooked on blissful states and paranormal phenomenon that sometimes arises.
Serious samadhi practice leads to a set of states (and strange phenomenon); these states are called jhanas, and are reached from a sort of staging area called “access concentration.” The staging area is reached by sustaining concentration for an extended period of time, long enough for things to start dissolving into very pleasant and distinct feelings that mark the entry to the 1st jhana. There are 7 more jhanas awaiting as concentration deepens even further.
Reaching the staging area requires stilling the mind; bringing it back to the breath again and again as it flits off with whatever arises. After a while, the mind gets like Teflon and thoughts and feelings arise to just slide off rather than catching the attention. At least it’s how it normally works. With modafinil, the process alters. Instead of mind getting slippery, formless and more relaxed, the attention gets stickier. That’s the best I can describe it.
Both approaches seem to facilitate passage to the staging area of access concentration, but the state waiting across the threshold is different.
Rather than the familiar pīti (bliss) and sukha (pleasure) bubbling up in the traditional first Jhana, another state is accessed in Modafinil which is a feeling of deep and resourceful “readiness.” Also pleasant, but very distinctive. Whereas pīti and sukha encourage one to hang out and enjoy, the readiness “Jhana” of modafinil, while not suggesting anything in particular, is ready to kick some ass somewhere. In a motivational sense. But it is not compelled to do so. It just wants you to know it could. If that’s what you wanted.
Will I repeat this experiment? Probably not. Modafinil demonstrated that concentration can also tap into a great reservoir of potential. A potential available to work with complete, settled focus rather than the low level, almost subliminal agitation of distraction that is usually a constant companion in our activities. Very useful, especially in contexts of learning.
But I prefer that type of focus that comes in samadhi practices as an encompassing and relaxed sense of abiding. A flow where the moment is complete as it is, there is nothing to add, that unfolds just as it should and must without effort. Which is sort of counter-intuitive to what one might think a strongly focused state entails. But some things change, once they deliver us to the threshold, and another journey begins. And it may have to do with whether the attention to get there was sticky or frictionless.
It’s a shame that all we remember of Stoic philosophy is a single impoverished adjective. A sequestered modifier ill-suited to capture its historical relevance. Its unattributed influence infuses our culture, revealed in aphorism and scattered parlance— “don’t ask for an easy life, ask for the strength to handle a difficult one.” In appreciating simple pleasures rather than gourmet commodities, with gratitude for both. And the suspicion that forever trying to satisfy desire as the golden path to happiness may not be a feasible pursuit.
Starting around 300 BC, Stoics suspected seeking an easy life was a fool’s game and a sure-fire path to pain and suffering. This is a book review, of sorts, of The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine. But also a spoiler, imparting some Stoic strategies still applicable to modern times.
My last book review on Buddhism spoke to how we may suffer through clinging to impermanence. And by taking whatever we think or feel without circumscription. Buddha’s prescription was meditation: observe the mind. By noticing thoughts as they occur, we notice our relationship with them. We gain a little space, a little freedom. A little less robotic reaction.
The Stoics are equally cynical of the current state of psychological affairs: we are led by the noses by our appetites and fears. We never find lasting happiness but blindly pursue, and are manipulated by, our hardwired dopamine dependencies1. By biochemistry rather than free will. Their remedy, however, differs from the Buddha: reflect rather than observe. Use skillful thoughts to dismantle dysfunctional ones. Jump into the fray swinging rather than detaching.
With sleights of mind like taking time occasionally to imagine losing all possessions, abilities, freedom, loved ones. Imagine ourselves dying, suddenly or through protracted illness and pain. Sound morbid? They claim it’s a vaccine. Rather than blithely assuming such things will never happen to us and it shattering our worlds when they do, Stoics accounted for possibilities to build resilience. And by doing so they bring a deeper appreciation and gratitude into the moment. By imagining the death of loved ones, we can appreciate our time with them now. And if, or when, they depart we may harbor fewer regrets. And by imaging our own demise we gain greater clarity about priorities. What’s actually significant in our day-to-day. And what isn’t.
A passage meaningful to recovery groups everywhere: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” is a touchstone of Stoic philosophy: not letting what we can’t control mess with our zen. In fact, they warn against setting external goals entirely. Much better to set ones we accomplish within ourselves, like doing our best. And living our virtues. And to unsubscribe to all the ways we are pulled into validating ourselves to the world or proving ourselves “worthy.” Whatever that might mean. We have no control over what people think about us, even on our best behavior2. So why pin our happiness and well-being on public opinion and external circumstance?
There’s a fatalism about the past and present with the Stoics, but not the future. The present is what it is. Deal with it they’d say. But they would add: and here’s how. The future can be changed if we avoid allowing our past to be our sole defining characteristic, with its automatic thoughts and feelings propelling us blindly into our karma. Free will is possible, but not a given.
To that end, a tactic used for building will and resilience was avoiding the easy way now and then. Intentionally making things harder, by practicing deferred gratification (incidentally, the ability to do this seems to lead to better lives in a series of studies.) Examples might be intermittent fasting, cold showers, things that might frustrate us if imposed by circumstance create a subtle pleasure of mastery when chosen for practice. And when we are inconvenienced or tripped up by obstacles during the day, it makes it that much easier to bear.
Unlike the Buddhists, the Stoics were troublemakers. While Buddhism shares common virtues, like compassion, the Stoics were tasked with finding their own set of values, important to the individual. Stoics were Kings (Marcus Aurelius, widely regarded as the best King in Roman history) and advisors to Kings (Seneca to Nero) but were often exiled and sometimes executed in pursuit of their values. They had certain virtues in common, like avoiding the pursuit of fame or wealth, but this was primarily because these were external goals. And yet their internal compass for doing their best, and living a good life however they defined it, seemed to result naturally in fame or riches; which were gratefully accepted but always held lightly.
Irving’s book covers these strategies, and more, and in greater detail. He set out to create a modern school for Stoicism in the form of a book. He presents Stoic philosophy the way it was presented in ancient Greece and Rome as a school of living optimally. Where philosophy asked the hard questions so that at the end of our lives we don’t discover that we never lived. The people with whom Stoicism resonates, and it probably won’t be many, will feel like they’ve reconnected with their long-lost tribe. Asgard is not a place, Asgard is a people.3
Dopamine has the curious property of rewarding us for first experiences, setting the hook, first one is on the house, and then rewarding us less for it each time in the future and more for the anticipation. Evolution rewards those who can’t sit still (leaving progeny that wonders why they can’t sit still.) ↩
Not taking things personally sort of sums this up. And also recognizes that many people may not be living conscious lives, and what they think about you may say far more about who they are than you. ↩
For those up on the latest Marvel movies. (e.g. Thor: Ragnarok) ↩
Renters catch a lot of flack over their lifestyle choice. At best perhaps they’re saving for a house, at worst they’re throwing money away. Most flack comes from well-meaning home-owning friends and family, and part might come from cognitive dissonance; trying to justify a position after having made such a major commitment. It’s human nature when we have hidden doubts about our course of action to argue its virtues to others in order to convince ourselves. If others climb on board, we have more validation. If we can label them as foolish for not joining us, we feel more confident in our choice.
And it’s true, renters usually pay more than people paying mortgages, but their estate comes with exclusive benefits not available to owners. And it’s true that someday, maybe when they are old, or if they win the lotto, or get rich in their careers, or pay long enough, that homeowners will see a reduction in their payments, maybe just to property taxes and insurance and ongoing upkeep. For renters, they pretty much expect to pay the equivalent of the mortgage+ payment for the foreseeable future. So this factors into their plans.
As part of this mortgage+benefits package, a renter’s estate spans the entire world. They might have an estate in Colorado for a year, then go to an estate in South America for a few, to an estate in Asia for several months. If they don’t like the weather, neighbors or conditions in one estate, they have pretty much the world to choose from for the next. If they feel like they want to live in the mountains for a while, or the beach, or the desert, they don’t have to get a second mortgage for a vacation villa or timeshare. If it’s too hot in the summers, they can live somewhere cooler. And they don’t have to worry about their estates when they are gone.
Of course, there are issues renters cope with that the owners do not. They deal with the hassle of moving stuff. Either from place to place or place to storage and back. Which usually results in them trimming down to just what they need to make this easier. Many of them find this simplifies their lives as well. For people who need, or collect, lots of possessions, this may be a deal breaker. Homeowners also seem to be constantly working on projects to upgrade their spaces whereas renters can just relocate to a space they like better when tired of the old. And repairs? That’s somebody else’s problem and not an out of pocket expense or even a planned contingency for a renter.
Owners have their own hassles: upkeep of their place, carrying a huge debt which, in some cases, forces them to work at a certain wage. Not that renters don’t have to work, but renters can look for work in a much larger market and broader span and aren’t pinned to a limited radius from their home. Homes don’t like their owners to be away for too long, and they are like being responsible for children or pets. Mail needs to be picked up, lawns mowed. Security monitored.
Renters have to be savvier about mobility and many aspects that homeowners don’t have to consider. Passports, virtual mail, flexible communication and banking options, good insurance that’s not pinned to an HMO or limited area. But they usually enjoy the independence these adaptations provide, even when they are in a single estate for several years.
Homeowners may feel they have the flexibility of building equity, selling their homes, then they too could have the renter’s options. But they usually reinvest in another big loan, a little larger, for a little nicer place, plus things have gotten more expensive by then and they can’t do this as frequently and as easily as the termination of a yearly lease. And there’s often tons of work each time to get things fixed up and ready to sell so they don’t take a loss. So unless they take their money and become a renter, it’s a much too lumbering a dance to keep up with the fleet-footed renters.
So the decision for owning or renting is not a clear-cut financial decision but is weighted by many other factors. And I don’t think there is one right answer.
Despite its title, this is not a book about Buddhism being the one true religion. It’s about how secular and philosophical insights of Buddha provide practical solutions to the mind’s outdated software.
How we struggle with reactivity and distortions no longer adapted to civilization. Our biology still pursues ends useful to propagating dna, but these are often starkly opposed to individual happiness and peace of mind. In fact, it turns out that as long as we procreate, nature doesn’t care whether we drop dead of stress shortly thereafter.
The nerve janxed primate that jumps at every stick thinking it a snake is more likely to pass genes than the “what, me worry?” type. But the thing is, everything these days looks like snakes.
We do have a nascent faculty, however, this newfangled “consciousness” thing that dropped late in our development, apparently riding in with the neocortex. (Maybe from touching that monolith back in 2001?) It can put us back in the driver’s seat —if we can figure out how to use it. And oddly enough, Buddha some 2500 years ago actually talks about how that’s done.
Some of his crazy ideas about how we are caught in loops of suffering because of how we’re hardwired and hoodwinked are being corroborated by a slew of studies in the neurosciences and evolutionary biology. And his prescription for meditation has proven to bolster, even at the level of our physiologies, a resilience to stress and detachment from the conditioning (but not the conditions) that’s driving us nuts.
That’s what this book is about. Although he does get sidetracked at times with a pet project, trying to come up with analytical models for non-self and emptiness. Yeah, good luck with that.
a little sniff, frees the mind of smell by enveloping its contents in another one with spaces and dust and crevices untold because a smell cannot be told in words nor can words be sniffed unless, unless, you have a particular kind of nose or particular kind of ears and that is rare, or perhaps not, perhaps we’ve all been cross-wired and that is the norm. It is hard to say, without a tongue, using only my ears, but perhaps that is cross-wired as well. And how do I even know of this thing about crossed wires, and what if it is only the least of the disconnections, the basic form, and there are oh so many many more in towering levels of complexity that make a simple crossed wire almost like sesame street to the esthete mind. but who knows. who cares? this writing, this thinking this a stream of song in the tawdry lines of syntax where meaning seeks to burst free for a moment or wiggle its tail happy to be noticed or enticing to be noticed and what, should I trust where it leads, because I think that words can lead to places we don’t want to go can take us, steal us, kidnap us bludgeon us down alleys of thoughts with the thugs of feeling closing in as it darkens and narrows and we are mugged of our lightness of being and left to struggle our way back to normalcy with scars with stories with a certain deadness of eye that accumulates like heavy metal in the soul when we catch any ride that words offer and steal the essence of the moment in the gutters of strange sludge in the city like gotham without batman or maybe we are all batmen and batwomen crusading our inner streets with no purpose other than the rigid mores we have been imprinted with by that show and that commercial and that sermon and that belief…
keep a bit of crazy
for an ally
a bit of dangerous
a touch of innocence
a big scoop of freedom
blue open sky
a dash of asshole
a shake of saint
a streak of sinner
and a glow
always keep a glow
if you lose it
look for its ember
somewhere deep in your belly
don’t give yourself away
don’t sell yourself short
know that self is illusion
but a useful one
wield it skillfully
don’t let it wield you
interview your thoughts and feelings
ask what they bring to the table
task them with joy and power to accept
turn away thieves of well-being
of judgment, disdain, criticism without heart
parasites and leeches
cut away contingent love and conditions
don’t take zombies personally
don’t become one yourself
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
somewhere near the heart
in the corridor of breath
anchors below, infinity above
the sides expand embracing
a space in the between
exploring an unfolding
deep familiar longing
sinking further down into
tinged now with anger
slicing at every clinging
cord fastening, securing
of that floating island of garbage and tinsel
slum dreams of hope
no spiritual bubble baths here
the mind doesn’t fanthom
found in the body
disposable debris of thought
You a writer? Or pretend to be? Isn’t that what writers do? Pretend?
Well, yeah, but they have to write also.
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:
To direct attention, which he worries over the control of, but most importantly…
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!