Friday, March 24, 2017

Decisions, Decisions

'Life does not ask what we want. It presents us with options.' — Thomas Sowell 

If someone had told me long time ago that not making a decision was making a decision, I would have put more effort into being better at making them.

Sure, it's easy to make choices when the stakes are low. But every so often you have to make a decision that will set you on a whole new trajectory into the unknown. 

Sometimes these decisions require information, which complicates things even more so. Recent research suggests that we experience great pleasure when taking in information that supports our beliefs. This confirmation bias means we'd rather be right than true. Appealing to our emotions may stir and sway us, but it won't lead to a truly informed decision (see fake news and alternative facts).

Good advise can come from many unexpected places, such as the Jesuits in this case. I just finished James Martin's The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and found it particular poignant around how the Jesuits make decisions.

First, humility is the key. The Jesuits acknowledge that poverty of spirit means accepting that we are powerless to change certain aspects of ourselves. We are plagued with confusion, doubts, and restlessness. Therefore, we can't do it alone.

Martin brings out a beautiful meditation from Pedro Arrupe that can cut to the root of making difficult decisions: 
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.”
I love this quote, and I believe it eventually leads to choiceless choices. But there is also some additional practical advise that we can all use in the meantime.

Martin notes that many of Saint Ignatius's practices for making decisions came from his own life. Ignatius was a practical saint, despite having such a strict and courageous order. In his approach, he saw decisions falling into three categories each with different approaches.

The first category is the easiest, since these decisions bring the person to the place of neither doubting nor able to doubt. It's pure grace, or an Aha moment, where you are called to something that could be no other. 

The second category is less clear. Ignatius suggestion focusing on decisions that bring you closer to consolation, which may feel like a sense of peace, tranquility, and joy, verses desolation, which moves the soul toward hopelessness or agitation. These types of decisions will require more reflection, prayer, and contemplation. One excellent practice is to live out each of your choices for a day, and see which alternatives bring you more harmony verses more dissonance.

The third category of decisions are the most difficult. Ignatius suggests using both reason and imagination. With reason, we can make lists, confer the price to the benefit to our soul with each choice, reflect upon it, and ask for guidance from God. With imagination we can visualize advise being given to us from a wise person we respect, or how we would feel about this decision if we were on our deathbed, or how we would feel about presenting this option to the our 'best self' or maybe even the Creator. 

The key to all these practices is to have more objective discernment, and that can only come from the state of one's soul. This why discernment can be so tricky for us, because we easily be misguided by spirits if the state of our soul is not whole. Ignatius notes, “When the soul is different, they [evil spirits] enter with perceptible noise and are quickly noticed. When the soul is similar, they enter silently, like those who go into their own house by an open door.”

And what if we make a decision that appears to go poorly for us? Here, Martin quotes Teilhard de Chardin:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
So I go forth incomplete and in suspense of myself, ready to get my skin in the game of life. My first decision hereon is to end this post now. Voila!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Let the Light Get In Your Eyes

For some of you, this blog post is going to come off a bit obscure, but I can't help to be drawn to the esoteric at times. I do have a fascination with various spiritual teachings, in particular, when there is a pattern that seems to traverse many cultures and religions.

For instance, there appears to be a transmission of Light teachings that exist at the core of most religions and mystical experience.

Taoist yoga, Kabbalah, Orthodox Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism all have practices related to Light body that are performed in the relationship between the eyes and the heart. When people say the eyes are the gateway to the soul, there may be more to this than the typical cliche.

And how these light body practices manifest bring up a particular fascination. I don't have much direct experience with the fruits of these practices, however, having studied with a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher for several years I have do have some intellectual understanding.

The teachings of Dzogchen instructs that awakened awareness (rigpa) is in the eyes associated with a Light channel (Kati) linked to the Heart. In other words, our true original spirit is the Light in the eyes arisen from the Light of the Heart. 

The Tibetans have practices that are design to help facilitate this fruition, known as Thögal (or leap over the crest).  

According to the Tibetan Buddhists, the center of our Beingness (Dharmakaya) is in the Heart (Ramana Maharshi also intuited that the Heart Cave was two digits right midline of the chest). The Heart is directly connected to our eyes through the Kati Light channel, which bypasses the brain and karmic mind consciousness. When the clear Light arises from the heart through the Kati channel, the rigpa wisdom awareness at the eyes becomes our vantage point from which we view.

The idea with these practices is that we don't have to purify the karmic mind, as it's completely bypassed. The methods for Thögal often involve practices that involve sky-gazing, which will manifest visions known as thigles. Thigles are known as drops, or spheres of rainbow light, and are seen as the ground substance of Reality. It's the experience of seeing primordial essence manifesting, the direct expression of generative intent, a sort of sacred geometry, which are not outer phenomenon but Inner (as inner and outer together).

A typical practice would entail one to look indirectly at the sun (of course, never directly and with dark sunglasses) while tightly squinting the eyes. As the phenomena begins, it is important not to get caught up with what is arising, but to see it as it is. These practices are typically done for a short time over several days. Over time, the thigles with join together to form groups and become bigger in size, eventually forming more coherent concentric spheres with rainbow-like colors.

The phenomena you see are less important than the state of rigpa wisdom awareness that does arise. But the phenomena is quite fascinating. Below are some diagrams of the thigles. The first diagram is from a 17th century book on kabbalah. The rest of the diagrams are from a couple, Robert and Rachel Olds, who did Thögal practices over several years and decided to sketch out these radiant visions. 

Yes, some of these sketches appear alien or bacterium-like, but when directly revealed, these visions are also seen as beautiful and sacred... 

Come home to Primordial grace,

come home to spontaneous creation

arising from an absolute intent,

absolute potential.

Come home to Earth, Original heart,

and the Visions of radiance.

Come home to the essence of our very being,

come home to the message of love

blended into light itself.

Come home to a blended existence with our First mother,

come home to the heart of oneness, a living universe.

Come home to the breadth of all being, Original heart.

Come home to this primordial

poem of light, union, and love.

Come home….

— Robert & Rachel Olds

Friday, March 10, 2017

Artificial Intelligence (not Intelligibility)

“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they're too stupid and they've already taken over the world.”― Pedro Domingos

In theory, A.I. shouldn't replace humanity. That's not to say it's going to be quite disruptive. We're seeing it. If you've got a job that can be done better and more cheaply by a robotic algorithm, just count your days.

All those Uber and truck drivers are hanging on a thread. But they've got a few good years left. A.I. is also going to bring down a bunch of higher level workers too. It seems to me stock trading and legal advise can be done better by a machine. Perhaps, I may prefer the machine to the Wall Street trader or lawyer.

But silicon is not carbon. As Kevin Kelly duly noted, “in real life silicon suffers from a few major drawbacks. It does not link up into chains with hydrogen, limiting the size of its derivatives. Silicon-silicon bonds are not stable in water. And when silicon is oxidized, its respiratory output is a mineral precipitate, rather than the gaslike carbon dioxide. That makes it hard to dissipate. A silicon creature would exhale gritty grains of sand. Basically, silicon produces dry life.”

And last time I checked, humans are not dry life. What is dry is when we allow ourselves to become a closed system. And this closed posture to life (or the buffered self as Charles Taylor likes to say) creates a lack of Self-awareness that prevents us from becoming fully human.

This is the gist of intelligibility: it is the very Source that renders intelligence possible (not to mention all the other higher potentials humans are designed for: creativity, love, beauty, goodness, truth). But A.I. just isn't going there, because open verticality it just ain't got, in actuality and potentiality, despite all our projections.  

I recently read this article by Robert Epstein, who makes a good case that our brain is nothing like a computer. “The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell? (Epstein)”

The more we learn about the brain, the less we know. It seems we are nowhere near disentangling the brain's complexity, much less understanding its interactions with consciousness. Perhaps the Buddhists are right, and the substrate for memories are in storehouse consciousness (or Alaya). In other words, all these thoughts and memories live independently of our physical bodies. 

If you see human intelligence (and beingness) as a mechanical process or symbolic manipulations that can be isolated, measured, and optimized, then maybe you should find yourself a good A.I. wife in a few years. You probably don't care that much about the deeper sensibilities, self-reflection, virtues, sentiments, higher faculties, and relational nuances & subtleties that make us sentient beings.

It goes back to another similar blog post, where I'll quote myself: “Stanley Kubrick was concerned as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens out. So in other words, artificial intelligence won't come to us, but we will come to it.” Maybe that's why he made 2001's Hal so creepy.

So if A.I. continues to become more human-like, while we become more machine-like, where's the point where we'll all meet? I wouldn't call that the Singularity, but more like the relational loss of intelligibility.

No, in theory, A.I. shouldn't replace us. Unless we allow it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Resistance is (not) Futile

“Tempted by the fruit of another / Tempted but the truth is discovered” — Chris Difford from Squeeze

Steven Pressfield makes a good case for the gravity of Resistance. It is self-generated, and comes at us when we try to perform any act that derives from our higher nature. As they say, the higher we climb, the further we have to fall. And if we're open to seeing ourselves as agents to the Creative Principle of the Infinite, then this Resistance thing really is a universal Cross for all of us to bear. 

But come on, it's not so bad... is it? I mean, did not St. Anthony the Great say, “without temptation there is no spiritual progress”. That should count for something. 

Any temptation that allows us to Resist our Creative nature belongs as an integral part to the exercise of human free will. How many people in power have fallen from Grace? It's not that Grace let them go, it's more like they gave in to Resistance. They got tempted by the fear that it brings on.

Pressfield acknowledges the only way is to beat “Resistance at its own game [is by] by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is.” 

The paradox is we can only become more resolute and implacable because there is Resistance.

(Soul Strength = Will/Grace × Resistance.)

I recall Nassim Taleb made the case for antifragility (or taking on Resistance), and why it's best never to get too comfortable. “The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations. Remember that food would not have a taste if it weren’t for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life isn’t so when stripped of personal risks. (Taleb)”

Or maybe you saw that great film The Third Man, where Orson Welles offers this insight from the scene on the ferris wheel: 
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Not that there's anything wrong with the cuckoo clock (except for the fact that Silicon Valley has digitally outdated it). 

Despite the nature of Resistance, we can also sense “there are equal and opposite powers are counterpoised against it. These are our allies and angels”. They guide our creativity against these darker forces. 

Yes, there is a mystery to all of this, because we know our Creativeness doesn't come from us. Pressfield acknowledges, 
“We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. The act of courage calls forth infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us. Have  you seen interviews with the young John Lennon or Bob Dylan, when the reporter tries to ask about their personal selves? The boys deflect these queries with withering sarcasm. Why? Because Lennon and Dylan know that the part of them that writes the songs is not “them,” not the personal self that is of such surpassing fascination to their boneheaded interrogators. Lennon and Dylan also know that the part of themselves that does the writing is too sacred, too precious, too fragile to be redacted into sound bites for the titillation of would-be idolators (who are themselves caught up in their own Resistance). So they put them on and blow them off.”
With that in mind, it may be best to end this here before I inquire to the point worthy of a blow-off.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Space in Between Part 2

Sometime last year I wrote a blog post about what falls between the individual and the state, and why it's important. I knew I had a follow-up post in mind at the time, but I let it fall through the cracks. Or maybe I knew something would eventually come to me, because I believed this was a substantial inquiry. And sure enough, I got inspired by this theme again when I came across Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic. It's a such great book, and should be recommended to anyone who wants to change the world (while being open to changing themselves).

While I stand by epistemic humility when it comes to policy, I also think there are better spaces to work within to make substantial change. Levin makes the case for a place where “our expectations of policy are lowered while our expectations of each other rise.”

So let's assume the nature of man is in essence fractally like the nature of God. As such, we are “trinitarian in structure, such that one will find no "individual" beneath or behind it. Rather, our nature is to be relational; we are intersubjective right down to the ground (both vertically and horizontally), such that the I-We is an irreducible complementarity (as is the I-God vertically)” (Bob). Let's assume this (or humor me).

If that's the case, then would it make sense not to be locked into isolated individualism (as the libertarians would have you) or consolidated statism (as the socialists are more apt to admire)? We are relational beings, and maybe most of our problems are better solved in the realm of “middling communitarianism.”

We can not live alone, or live by efficiency alone. It is our sentiments that make us tick and holds our culture(s) together. These come from our families, local communities, charities, congregations, fraternal groups, and countless other institutions. 

A point that Levin makes that intrigues me the most is, although we have become fragmented more than ever, it may be the growth of our subcultures where the best is yet to come from. “In the absence of a consolidated, single national culture, it is much easier to imagine local, bottom-up moral subcultures creating the circumstances necessary for social renorming and moral revival.”

“The point is that a greater diversity of problem-solvers would give us a greater chance of meeting people's needs; it would let us use our diversity as a tool while combatting isolation and estrangement” (Levin, again).

So while our political institutions have “become theaters of aimless combat”, it may be the space in between where we can pull together isolated individuals and effect real cultural and political change from ground up.

This can come from both the left and the right, but it my view it would also need a spiritual revival grounding it. Otherwise, it would be another narrow horizontal ride without a capacious vertical vista.

And frankly, we're just getting a tad too old for those sort of road trips.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Epistemic Humility

“We are all here on earth to help each other, but what the others are here for, God only knows.” — W.H. Auden

Compassion, as I see it, should not be about making one feel good about being compassionate, but would follow the same notion Aquinas had about love: to will the good of the other.

This insight is not always easy. As Michael Novak says, “It suggests to the lover that he (or she) must be wary both of the illusions of the self and of the illusions of the other. It means that the lover must not be led solely by desire, pleasure, or the wish to please, but must attempt to activate a more difficult capacity for realism and judgment. The question a true lover faces is not What do I want? and not What does my beloved want? but What is the good of my beloved? In this way, true friends give each other correction, lead each other beyond their own infantile fantasies, and grow together in wisdom and friendship.”

And while this is a noble practice for all our intimate relationships, it should be also be true as to how we manage policy for the larger populous. Yet, it would seem we can't care for the abstract as we can for the particular. Even being pure at heart, we can intend the best outcome for those in need, but we can't guarantee it or be overly committed to it. 

The issue is the rules often change in abstract from the particular — in the same way when we leap from Newtonian to quantum realms in the physical world. We are dealing with complex systems, unintended consequences, and effects that are not proportional to their cause. You pull a lever here, and it drains a swamp way over there. I suppose that is why the Church knew subsidiarity would work best: empower institutions at different levels of society to address those problems for which they are best suited.

My girlfriend recently lent me Hillbilly Elegy — a beautiful read about white working-class America and their struggles in today's climate. I'm also in the midst of The Fractured Republic, which lays out the illusory appeal of nostalgia-driven politics in our ever changing, fractured country. When I read about all these structural changes we have going on with globalization, automation, specialization, fragmentation, etc., it makes me realize we are over our heads. I feel for the hard working soul in the Rust Belt who never got a modern education and is surrounded by opioid addicts. But I also would have little fruitful advise knowing that he has probably been ridden with an unfortunate fate.

That does not mean to give up hope. We may not be able to solve complex problems well, but we do need to do humility well. Jim Manzi says, “When we do [social] science, we reject the Aristotelian idea of "essence," but when we think about what we love, essence is everything. So, we need to think strategically while remaining aware of our ignorance, and we need to exploit the power of trial and error while remaining aware of the essence of what we are trying to protect.” 

I sometimes wish our science was in service for the essence. But that's a topic for another time.

The bottom line is our politicians, institutional experts, and academic thought leaders don't have it all figured out. They can speak with confidence, statistical facts, and flourishing anecdotes, but in truth, they're often grasping at straws. We can't be certain that our abstract reasoning or principled rules will work in every context. Yet, there is a deeper reservoir of human experience and tradition that we can pull from in those times.

As David Brooks notes, “The humble person has an acute historical consciousness. She is the grateful inheritor of the tacit wisdom of her kind, the grammar of conduct and the store of untaught feelings that are ready for use in case of emergency, that offer practical tips on how to behave in different situations, and that encourage habits that cohere into virtues. The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.” And when has knowledge (about ourselves or the world) ever been perfect?

*          *          *

(Or we may want to take a thing or two from one of the greatest indie songs: “I am a scientist / I seek to understand me / All of my impurities and evils yet unknown.”)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Silent Revolution

Movements don't appeal to me, especially when they are of a spiritual nature (and more so in the political arena). Religion has an unfortunate history with millenarianism, whereas it's better to have a movement in oneself than a society. We all need to sort ourselves out before we overly concern ourselves with what the world should be.

When Christianity ruled a nation, it almost always became corrupt: proving even Truth can get co-opted by power. Now, Christianity has become more feeble in the West (while gaining some traction in the East and South). Instead, we see western New Thought people gravitating towards the exotic, whether it be the Eastern traditions or the more progressive spiritual scene. Being someone who has dipped my toes in Integral/Evolutionary circles and intoxicated with the idea of being part of the new, new thing, I now see the error in my ways. 

As I see it now, these scenes should remain as powerless subcultures. Sure, they offer some emphasis in an experimental nature that may help correct or re-align the extremes that went off kilter in the western traditions. But they are not truthfully better since Truth is more eternal than progressive. These intoxicated aspirants are more consumed with being builders, than gardeners (and so few have tended to their own garden). As Tomberg mentions, the fruit is in devoting ourselves to the tasks of growth instead of those of construction.

My meditation teacher, albeit very good at his craft, is convinced Buddhism needs to come fully to the West. Another friend of mine wants cultural change at all costs with his neo-Advaita spiritual disposition. I know of others who want to use these spiritual movements to refashion the world politically. God forbid we hit the 10% tipping point (or whatever arbitrary Malcolm Gladwell number makes it all go parabolic). 

It's better if we have the competition of narratives. That's not to say there can't be some unifying principles that holds it all together, but in the post-metaphysical age it would be nearly impossible to put the pieces back together in any fruitful way. But these principles should not be just ideas of the mind, but of the heart too. In other words, I would prefer not to see a movement of the new, but a renewal of the eternal. Maybe then we can recover something worthy in the mustard seed, and revolt silently.