You Think You Can Find Here and Now?

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A building in the former East Berlin

It is easy to see that our idea of the future is simply probabilities and assumptions. It is also easy to see the past is stories we tell ourselves and can’t be found except in effects in the present for which we assume causes in the past. Neither has firm, concrete, reproducible reality, even if they seem fair enough approximations for day-to-day activities and decisions. For “practical” purposes, you might say.

But we are aiming to be living in the here and now, right?

There is a now we experience of course, isn’t there?

Are you so sure?

No matter how brief, there is a finite time, a gap, between event and experience, stimulus and response, energy change and sensation and perception. One study says the brain can integrate a simple visual scene in as short a time as 13 milliseconds, though most studies have suggested it is closer to 100 milliseconds. I suppose there are many factors at play for a given scene and brain. It certainly feels instantaneous, but that’s what our brain does, of course. It fills in the gaps.

The same goes for any sense. Impulses from sense receptors release chemicals that then change the physiology of a nerve creating electoral impulses and ions race in and out of the nerve. That nerve then signals others, which end up in some brain center ,which then sends signals to multiple brains centers. Some time after that, you put words on it and tell yourself a story about what is going on. That takes longer than 13 milliseconds of course; words are slow cumbersome things even when you think them.

So by time you see, hear, smell, taste, feel, think something, it is already past and you are anticipating the future.

Can we know the now? Sure for practical purposes. We don’t want to get lost in futures that may never happen or obsess about a better past we wish we had, so paying attention to something that seems ongoing and most proximate seems a good idea.

But lets not fool ourselves. Most of what we call the present is really the past, and we are already dressing it up in words and stories and anticipating the future when we think we are in the now.

And related to perception and time, is space. We speak of space-time. The here and now. No now, does here get a bit slippery too? Of course it does. Here relative to what? We know space seems to bend, expand and contract given relative motion. That’s Einstein’s relativity and the details aren’t important for this discussion. But I think it is instructive to look at one of the most basic of all entities in science, the massless energy quanta of light, the source of all we see, the embodiment of what we think of as color, the force carrying transmitter of electromagnetic energy, the photon.

There are many ways to look at the phrase “name the color, blind the eye.” The most obvious is that when we dress up an experience in labels we loose the immediacy of the experience. We pigeon hole it for future reference, falling into a dualistic trap. It may be useful if you are trying to paint a picture and want to be efficient in choosing what tubes of paint to open, but that’s about it.

There’s another way that color is a dicey concept that I like, and I think it is very telling about how things work regarding our dream of time and space. You probably know about the Doppler effect; most up us have experienced a sound becoming high pitched as it races towards us (a siren, for example, or a car), then becoming a lower pitch as it races away from us. The waves of air that make up a sound are in effect compressed as that sound comes toward us, then stretch as it goes away form us.

So what is the sound “really”? Is the high pitch sound or the low pitch sound more real? Of course neither, they both are predictable effects of motion. But it does make it hard to talk about THE sound the car or siren makes (even not taking into account all the modifying features of the environment, the atmosphere, other sounds, your ears and most importantly, your brain that turns the energy pulses in the air into sound then tires to make snense of it and relate it to your prejudices and conditioning).

A similar thing happens with light. You may have heard of the “red shift” in the light from stars as galaxies race away from us. Well, this happens all the time. You can only speak of a photon of a given energy being a certain “color” if the object creating that photon and your eye are perfectly still relative to each other. If that object is moving toward you (or you to the object, or both to each other, doesn’t matter, the photon doesn’t care. Relativity and all that), it shifts to blue. If it is moving away from you, it shifts to red. Same photon, full spectrum. Sure, this effect is too small to percieve at most speeds, but it is real and universal. The photon is no one color, no independent color. It all depends on the relationship of the observer to the photon.

And of course we are always in motion. Breathing, heart beating, land masses moving, earth moving, solar system moving, galaxies moving all relative to each other, Indra’s net of interconnections.

No past or future, and even now is a dicey concept. No there, no here, no in between.

Are you sure about here and now? Sure we want, as the Zen saying goes, to occupy the ground we stand on. And we don’t want to miss what is in front of us worrying about the past or future. But do we really grasp the present? How many ‘presents’ make up the thought of a now? How many instants combine to make up a perception? Is ‘Be Here Now’ just another cockamamie concept we strive after using our dualistic notions? Can we hold on to the fleeting moment, trying to encompass it with our thoughts and feelings, our fears and hopes, without missing the next one? Are we impressionists, who see the ever shifting play of light but then try and nail it to a canvas to contemplate at a later time? The later time of our idea of now?

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On the other hand, outside of our dualistic concepts, our sense of self and other, is there anything except now?

Deep Truths

In his new book “A Beautiful Question” Nobel prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek writes that Niels Bohr, one of  the fathers of quantum mechanics, said that you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.

Makes sense in that beyond the dualities of our senses and the language we use to convey such truths there is Truth that is not limited by our truth statements, our concepts.

So two opposite statements can be true because both capture some of our limited grasp of reality.

Most things we hold true just aren’t all that deep. Just working definitions and constructs that often don’t work all that well except to momentarily shield us from the painfully hard stuff. And they don’t do that very well without a large investment of energy. The real illusion is to convince yourself that the illusion works.

 

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Buddhist Stories

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I really appreciate that Buddhist lore includes a story that Buddha couldn’t charm his cousin into not trying to kill him out of greed and jealousy (though he could charm the elephant sent to kill him into chilling out and being peaceful).

And another where Buddha couldn’t stop a war that his clan brought on itself that wiped them out.

But Buddha tried anyway.

 

 

Kind of rings a bell, doesn’t it?

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The Enemy of Good Is Better

I first heard the statement ‘the enemy of good is better’ from a mentor when learning to do eye surgery.

To the compulsive or those who tend to feel insufficient or guilty it might sound like settling for mediocrity. Nope, didn’t say the enemy of mediocrity or not good enough.

Good enough is good enough.

Trust the universe to meet you half way.

It means take yes for an answer. If means don’t go after some unattainable concept or image of what is perfect. Trust in doing it right. Don’t futz, don’t get carried away pursuing arbitrary goals or standards of just how good, no, how great, it could or should be.

You will sometime take it too far. You will cause trouble for yourself and others.

Been there done that. And it wasn’t good. And it certainly wasn’t better.

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As I was Saying

Right after I posted my last:

Colorado Springs.

Mass murder.

Are we rounding up pro-lifers?

Decrying Christian and Orthodox Jewish Sharia law?

Seems only white people get to kill masses of people. After all. white folk got this country by genocide.

Addendum next day: Now I have had a day to think of this post, and I’ll let it stand even though I was indulging in some anger when I wrote it.

To make it clear:

I don’t want ANYBODY rounded up because of the actions of a few in their racial/ethnic/national/religious/political/philosophical/other general characteristic because of the actions of others in their racial/ethnic/national/religious/political/philosophical/other general characteristic.

Or even suspected, surveilled or reviled, let alone persecuted, just on those characteristics alone.

I do stand behind my assessment that many people’s (over) reaction has been xenophobic, racist fear and delusion, the right wing and media exploits it and we risk indulging it it we are not vigilant, and that the consequences of fear and loathing are real and horrific..

Lets encourage our leaders to do the hard work: get the bad guys! Don’t indulge and exploit fear that makes the terrorism a winning option for nefarious purposes.

 

 

 

Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?

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Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.

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If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?

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Emptiness and Form

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In my post “Circle and Wave” I suggested an intimate relationship between the absolute symmetry of the circle and the broken symmetry of waves mathematically derived from circles, and a similarly intimate relationship between waves and particles. In my post defining energy I discussed how energy is not a substance, but rather energy is as elusive and hard to grasp as it is essential to the world of things that go bump, the world of experience. In my last post on sensation and perception I suggested however awesome the world of experience is dualistic and maybe we need to go deeper and review the Buddhist experience described as emptiness (well, what Zen masters assure us is experience, I make no personal claims; I am wading here into waters that are very deep, well over my Zen pay grade and all of my heads, Zen or otherwise).

Lets do it anyway. It’s fun stuff. Continue reading

Keep It Simple (!)

 

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Granted I have not kept it simple, and since in later posts I plan to discuss things like fields and quantum mechanics, philosophy of mind and time, and other things and concepts that our brains tinker with, I will  put up a simple post.

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The best teachings I know of on how to live your life are:

      Pay attention

     No self-deception.

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The truth of how it works in time and space:

     Everything that ever happened and ever will conspires to make this moment.

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The truth beyond what ever happened and ever will:

      I don’t know.

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photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

 

 

Free Will and the Real Web

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Your brain processes millions of bits of data each millisecond act without any conscious effort. Most brain generated activities don’t have even a whiff of free will involved.

Certainly much of what we do, even complex behaviors, is done on “automatic pilot.” An oft quoted example is when you find yourself at some location you meant to get to without being quite aware of  f the details of how you got there (a bit scary when driving was involved). Or consider  how you cobble together what seems to be a coherent scene from what are actually disparate and rapidly changing sensory inputs that your brain compares to prior experience (that is, conditioning). Continue reading

Praise and Blame

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The magnetic field

 

Nyogen Roshi says Maezumi Roshi told him nothing is really hidden.  It seems some things are hidden to me in plain sight.  They are in my mental blind spot. That is the nature of delusion!

Anger is often like that for me.

Irritation, impatience, resentment and dissatisfaction are anger. Things aren’t how you want them to be, and you just don’t like it. Look carefully, that is anger. The point of recognizing anger isn’t to get bent out of shape about it, to suppress it, or to blame yourself for it. But if you don’t even recognize it, it owns you.

A most subtle manifestation of anger is praise and blame. This is important in all relationships, but particularly with those closest to you, including children. Continue reading