Maybe I’m getting old, but I think its naive to think that selflessness is anything other than a purposeful act of will on an exponentially diminishing cost-return curve. In other words, one can try, but true selflessness is probably impossible.
I’ve been doing quite a lot of pondering lately on the topic of mindfulness.
Y’know, mindfulness… “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment” (quoth the dictionary) or also known as a way of steadying the flutter of an overly active brain.
Some people perceive mindfulness as a kind of spirituality-light, or an offshoot of meditation. Many people who do yoga, for example, I’ve been given to understand practice the stretching exercises because it has the parallel benefit of relaxation and mindfulness mashed into a physical kind of sport. A number of years ago I tried Tai Chi, which became a kind of slow motion yoga meets Kung Fu thing.
Other folks seem to skip the whole effort and just douse their grey matter in chemicals, like ethanol or tetrahydrocannabinol …which having only really dabbled in the former and feeling like I understand how these might act as an easy-quick fix for a too-busy mind, I personally think they lack the long term payoff of actually earning inner peace. It’s a cheat.
I think mindfulness could probably benefit many people, but then I also think there are likely those of us with busier brains than others, or at least some minds are more apt to flutter from the parasympathetic conditions of the real world. Some people are just enough out of sync with the vibe of the norm that a good balance is trickier to find. The crazy universe bothers us more. The stupidity pokes parts of our brains that don’t get poked in other more aligned heads.
So I frequently seek some balance and clarity in various thought-out methods of my own.
I’ve been writing for years about the benefits of running and mindfulness. I love running with friends, but when I go out for a solo dash around the neighbourhood there is a meditative benefit that I perceive despite being difficult to quantify in any meaningful way. I just… feel… more balanced after six klicks through the streets. It’s not sitting on the floor cross-legged and ohhhhming buddhist-like chants, but it is a kind of vacated awareness, the mind given a half hour’s break from anything besides moving legs and avoiding obstacles. There is a quasi-zen quality to a peaceful run.
I’ve been doing quite a lot of pondering lately on the topic of mindfulness because I’ve been having fleeting moments of mindfulness-like clarity that are emerging from something new in my life: playing the violin. As I write this I’ve logged nearly a hundred hours of focused practice on the instrument, which is enough for me to say that I’m starting to feel a certain level of confidence on the instrument. I’m not ready to do any major public performances, no, but I am acutely aware that my practice time has become divided into two distinct forms: the times when I am focused on learning and the times when I am focused on playing.
To be clear, there is a big, thick fuzzy line blurring any obvious distinction between the two kinds of practice time… but there is now a line where there had once just been a blur. So, when I am playing to learn I focus on technique, hone my time on repeating short segments to get them as close to perfect as my beginner violining skill will allow, and devoting the mental cycles of my brain to improving my playing. But, when I am playing to play I focus on the music, ignore minor mistakes and start to lose myself in the flow of notes and the feeling of the sounds I’m creating, and my mind is freer to drift into those meditative spaces.
When I just play to play, and it is still a fleeting and rare experience, I’ve started to taste the fringes of that same kind of mindfulness that I’ve been able to find in a solo run. That is obviously very cool, and I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this (though I never felt that way about the saxophone because it was always a bit of effort to play either for school or when I dabbled as an adult for fun.) In fact, I’m pretty sure there is probably epic literature on the subject of music and mindfulness somewhere. It must be a thing that musicians achieve, maybe even consistently, after picking up an instrument and playing for hours. Why else would music be such a integrated aspect of our culture?
The other night I played for an hour. Just played. I ignored the stuff I was supposed to be practicing (hopefully my teacher isn’t reading this and judging me right now) and I just played some of the “fun” sheet music I’ve collected over the last five months. Just played. Lost myself. Let my brain wander. Then looked at my watch and realized an hour had gone by and the storm between my eyes had calmed a little bit.
If that’s not mindfulness I don’t know what is.
Art by Claire, 2016
It’s that time of year again when I start thinking about the end of the year again and…
You either love the idea or you hate it. The idea that you should take the opportunity of cracking open the plastic wrap on a new calendar and celebrate it by trying to be a better person for a few days, weeks, months… maybe even the whole year: it’s a weird thing. But if you’re a goal oriented goof like me, it’s that time of year when you set new goals, start big-ass projects that span the three-six-five cycle, and try to rejig your ideas in a way that say, a year from now, you look back and brag about the awesome things you’ve done this year.
I’ve stopped thinking of them as resolutions. I start planning my big ass plans in December and then usually when January rolls around I have a bunch of the groundwork in place to kick off new projects, and it isn’t such a big surprise on January first.
For example, since 2017 is an odd-numbered year, I think I’m going to try another Daily Video Project. It’s going to suck because one of my favourite subjects won’t be in any of the clips from next year. Sparkle was my fallback. If I couldn’t pull a more awesome clip of something else, Sparkle cued up indifferently in front of the lens, and was always a — well, a participant in my project. Starting January One I’m going to jump into my 5 Seconds Per Day of video recording and see how that turns out for my third attempt at an annual daily video project.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m doing another big reading project in the form of my 2017 Big Book Queue. I’ve got the notion to read (and write a bit about) twenty-five never-before-read (by me) novels by the end of 2017. It seems like a small number, but it’s about four times as many as I read in 2016. I’ve gone back to the rules that I followed for a similar (successful) project in 2015, and I’ve already got a couple recommendations that I’ve queue’d up.
And if you’re thinking that I’m leaving out my new hobby, I’ve got a keener idea around not only tracking my progress in learning the violin but also around creating some content in a way that I’ve never really tried before: posting music in a two-songs-per-week effort to both share my scratchings with my readers and also try my hand at managing music and recordings in a web framework. My Scratchy Violynist Studios will result in at least two new performances shared here each week. It’ll will keep my practicing honest and also force me to hone a couple pieces to bring them up to recording quality.
Not to leave the running man out, and since I crushed my goal last year of running 1390 klicks in one year (the marathon helped) I’m going to go big on the goal setting again and follow my annual formula: last year’s goal plus my age. So… welcome to 2017, I’ve gotta run 1430 klicks before the year is out. Hopefully my legs (and back and brain) cooperate. I’ll get my spreadsheet updated soon and write a longer post about this, but for now take this teaser and run with it.
Run with it. See what I did there?
Fitful: active or occurring spasmodically or intermittently; not regular or steady.
Lately I feel a bit like a magpie: a cautious outsider.
Knowing that your best skill is just knowing who is smarter, faster, or stronger than you… and convincing them of what needs to be be done.
I think people want to be truly selfless and that probably matters more than if they really are.
There is this theory I read about once.
Or perhaps I compiled from various bits of reading.
Either way, the theory is mostly gibberish and you should definitely not take it as fact, or assume that I believe a word of it. But does occasionally strike me as interesting and do tend to find myself meanderingly thinking about it on the rare occasions whenever something triggers the thought of it in my mind.
Simply stated that theory is that from each our own perspective we are as close to immortal as our frail little bodies will allow. We don’t die until we have no other choice but to, when the universe is backed into a corner and there is no parallel universe to accommodate our perception.
I’ll understand if you click away now, but if you are feeling adventurous keep reading.
This theory, more complexly, and with a bit more nuance, goes something like this: our universe (or more precisely, our multiverse) is made up of a countless number of parallel universes. Not alternate dimensions. Not frightening parallel realities with bug-eyed monsters, laser battles and Donald Trump as president — oh, wait — I digress — but rather like roots spreading from a tree, or capillaries branching from a vein, billions, trillions, googolplexes of little branching, writhing, ever-creeping tendrils of universes splitting off every time the opportunity arises.
These opportunities, much like choices in a choose-your-own-adventure novel, can be mundane — or they can be hugely flux-inducing.
Often, those tendrils wind, twist, merge themselves back together because the choices are so mundane as to have literally zero consequence on anything, like when a photon of light bends left around a point or when it bends right. Sure, sometimes that matters, but it happens so frequently and has so little impact that those branching tendrils almost immediately merge back together and the universes collapse back into a single narrative.
Narrative. Now there’s a more interesting way of thinking about it. A story. A thread of perception, cause and effect, one event following logically after another event: a narrative. Choices shape and change the narrative, but there is always a single thread of narrative that your mind follows through the duration of your life. And often the change in the narrative of the universe you are perceiving has no impact and the story goes on uninterrupted. But there is always a single thread that you follow and when you reach the last page of that story, that will be the story of you — but, wait: probably only from your perspective.
So back to the idea of immortality. I know it sounds completely nuts, and it mostly is, but follow along with the theory for a few more minutes. The theory isn’t trying to claim that you can live forever, nor is it claiming that you’re invincible. It’s basically saying this: somewhere, in the vast mishmash, tangled collection of billions of parallel universes that make up the multiverse that swirls around you and each and every person, there is almost always a narrative that continues on with you in it. There is one for everyone. And when I reach the end of my life and you reach the end of your life those narratives will not only be completely different because we lived different lives, but they will be completely different because our perception of the narrative will have taken the optimal, most self-preserving path possible to the furthest reached of that narrative thread. My universe isn’t your universe isn’t…
So, while an occasion or an event or a decision in your perception of the multiverse may occasionally render your existence incompatible with 99.999% of those universe narratives, and while the rest of us might trek merrily on through any of those 99.999% and be sad that you won’t be continuing with us, should such an event occur your perception, or what you might otherwise call your consciousness and your mind and your self, will desperately lurch out and grab onto one of the remaining 0.001% and, well — you’ll blink, feel the rush of adrenaline, take a deep breath and your life goes on… and maybe you’ll have a story to tell.
Confused? Well, perhaps a concrete example will help.
Let’s say for example you’re driving to work on a quiet Thursday morning. The roads are a little slippery. The sun hasn’t quite climbed over the horizon. The streets are pretty dark and the air has that brisk chill that you’d expect for an early December day. You follow the route you follow every day, a pre-dawn commute that is almost always uneventful.
And then, say, someone in a silver SUV who is sitting stopped at the red light of an intersection makes a decision to take his foot of the brakes even though he still has a red light. The universe branches: in one branch he’s still paused behind the stop line, while in the other he has incomprehensibly lurched into the middle of the intersection.
Now say you’re the driver of the vehicle approaching on the green.
And let’s, for sake of clarity, say you’re driving a newer model black pickup truck, travelling at the speed limit and heeding an appropriate amount of attention to the road.
At about the same time the universe had split off to accommodate the two narratives of the SUV driver, your multiverse was also frothing with decision tendrils: there were universes where you had reached to change the channel on the radio, a list of realities where you’d looked into the rearview mirror and reacted in certain ways, a couple narrative threads where you’d extended a little too far scraping your windows that morning and your back was sore thus impeding your reaction time, and one where someone chose just that moment to send an email and, while you’d never actually reach for your phone you had forgotten to mute the notifications and the ‘ding’ notification distracted you for just a mere few milliseconds. In 99.999% of those parallel threads of universal narratives, you were just distracted enough that milliseconds counted for a lot in the hundred or so milliseconds of time between when you noticed the SUV in the intersection, slammed on your brakes, skidded to a stop and then noted that you were within inches of adding an SUV hood ornament to your truck.
In this example, in 99.999% of the parallel universes, there are an uncomfortably large number of universes where either the driver of the truck or the driver of the SUV would have found their continued existence in those universes incompatible with the narrative. Universes where the milliseconds of reaction time overflowed and the inches of gap were instead translated into impact velocities. And in this theory, some –many even– of those universes are still out there, weaving through the ether, going along, advancing through a split off narrative where one or two of the participants have ceased to be participants. In this theory, running parallel to the narrative that, say, you’re reading this essay, there are sad friends and family of either or both of those hypothetical drivers.
According to this theory in that busy, flux-inducing span of interweaving, branching, breaking parallel universes, the consciousnesses the two participants leaped over to the optimal path, followed the narrative that was most compatible, the choice with the best hope of immortality. Unnoticed, of course. Nothing extraordinary. Just a turn down the best tendril of reality. A blink, a feeling of the rush of adrenaline while they each took a deep breath — and two lives goes on with a story to tell about how they almost had a life altering collision that morning.
The universe is a strange place.
Finding a span of time longer than fifteen minutes when some aspect of my life ISN’T in massive change, transition, overhaul or otherwise frustration-inducing upheaval.
Some days 20. Other days 80.
Elon Musk told me so.
Regret is that weird combination of doing something stupid and simultaneously failing to learn anything from it.