Samadhi, intention, direction

Notes I made a couple of weeks ago while listening to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain:, talking about samadhi (concentration). This advice resonates well with my own practice, wanted to make note of it here for reference (mine and yours).

  • Set an intention – which sets the mind to a particular direction.
  • Relax, settle down.
  • Help yourself feel safer.
  • Activate positive emotion. Think about things that gladden the heart (activating dopamine and norepinephrine).
  • Keep the critters out. The voices in your head aren’t necessarily friendly or helpful.
  • Build a wholesome neural structure.
  • Intend and sense/evaluate benefits – “How’s that going for you?”

Another case where size doesn’t matter

I’ve often wondered whether insects are more intelligent than we think. A Science Daily article suggests that “tiny insects could be as intelligent as much bigger animals, despite only having a brain the size of a pinhead.” The article goes on to say that brain size is not predictive of intelligent behavior, that “bigger animals may need bigger brains simply because there is more to control.” Lars Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary’s Research Centre for Psychology, says “In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.”

Mac Tonnies

Mac Tonnies would definitely have been part of FringeWare. Check out his bio (though I would disagree with the second sentence).

Consciousness is a potential technology; we are exquisite machines, nothing less than sentient patterns.
As such, there’s no convincing technical reason we can’t eventually
upload ourselves into matrices of our design and choosing. It’s likely
the phenomenon we casually call “intelligence” will cease to be
strictly biological as we begin to merge with our machines more
meaningfully and intimately. (Philip K. Dick once wrote that “living
and nonliving things are exchanging properties.” I suspect that in a
few hundred years, barring disaster, separating the animate from the
inanimate will probably be an exercise in futility.) Ultimately, we
have two options: self-mutate by venturing off-planet in minds and
bodies of our own design, or succumb to extinction.

Mac Tonnies died last month. We’ve lost one uniquely weird and compelling fringe researcher.


A bit of free form writing from a Saturday workshop…

Stars, achingly beautiful stars over Arizona as we clean the plugs so the car will fire synchronously down the road. We’re on the road from Scottsdale to Flagstaff, having spent the day watching stars projected Cinerama dream of the ultimate, Kubrick’s 200, inspiration for curious speculation bout the expansive reality, the Universe, the stars that sparkle and flow through our evolving thoughs and wonderments. What is real? Is there a fundamental truth in what we see? A few years later I park by the side of the road again, embrace the night sky, zoom out the universe and see it as fabric, atoms and molecules of another level of reality, how many levels beyond that? How do you measure the infinite? The stars are cartoons in the Hollywood futures but they are real in this night sky, and I embrace them though I can’t, really – the distance is unfathomable. I am so limited, my perception is so imperfect. I want to know. I can’t know but I must. Stars and spaces between stars – so near, so far. The universe is spinning and I’m in it.


In a conversation with a longtime friend, I just sent an email message that was fairly clear on some points I’ve been thinking about, so I’m reposting part of it here, ending with an unusual reference.

I’m currently into Buddhist practice and a related qigongish practice, and while many people who aren’t into those things mistakenly believe they’re “religious” or “spiritual,” they’re really just practices about understanding mind and self. In Buddhism we talk about emptiness, the realization that there’s no permanent real self. I heard a Buddhist say the other day something about not believing your thoughts. I think that’s really key to getting straight. We identify with thoughts in our heads as though they were real objects with weight and permanence, and it just ain’t so. The voices in your head aren’t necessarily your friends, and often it’s better to ignore them. I thought about all this when I read your paragraph above about identity and opportunity. I think it’s important to get behind your identity and realize there’s nobody behind the curtain. It’s a hard realization and it takes work. It leads to a real opening, potentially, though.

Truth, power, justice, framing, global warming etc. are just concepts and aren’t real things, and it can be helpful on some level to realize this. You do have to come back to a level where they’re treated as real – but there’s creativity in understanding that they’re not real things that are beyond your reach, but concepts that you’re co-creating with everyone else – that can be asserted, diverted, hacked, etc. They’re only real in a kind of mental consensus that we have about them.

Our politicians are more focused on politics and power – concepts, not realities – and they’re not so much into focusing on what’s real. What are the markets of the future and what skills do we require to be competitive and have viable economies? My business partner and I have been saying that we’re moving away from economies where you make money by extracting resources, applying labor to produce products, and tossing whatever’s not used as waste – to economies where knowledge substitutes for labor and heavy equipment, and where we engineer to extract as much as possible from any resource. Knowledge and social capital become as valuable as, or more valuable than, finance capital. We’ve wanted to study this more and write about it more, but we’re working on our social media consulting business, where we have deep knowledge and understanding. However we see that social media is relevant to sustainability economy, so we’re moving in the right direction no matter what.

Around 1966 or 67, Bert Rafelson and Jack Nicholson made a film called “Head” starring the Monkees (Nicholson was the screenwriter). There’s a scene in that film, where the Monkees stumble into a steambath where a Maharishi-like yogi is sitting, and he says this:

We were speaking of belief; beliefs and conditioning. All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one belief system deposing another, and so on and so on and so on… A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, conscious and subconscious, is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is -am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To experience the now, without preconception or beliefs, to allow the unknown to occur and to occur, requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. And why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak, since I know nothing?

Safety first

(Wrote most of this on the road earlier this week…)

Had an unintentional overnight stay in Providence RI September 11, following a talk with some friends about the future of the Internet, and because the Internet has become essential infrastructure for the ecology of business, the future of enterprise and economy as well. I woke at 3am to catch an early flight back to Austin, and while I was preparing to leave saw on MSNBC a replay of the 9/11/2001 news – the attack on the World Trade Center.

On the shuttle to the airport my attention opened and I noticed a lighted bus stop signboard, an ad for footwear, and something about that very traditional piece of advertising felt safe. Much of the conversation of the last few days had been about how crazy, chaotic, and unpredictable the world has become. I think most of us are feeling more anxiety than ever before – we don’t feel safe. Our perception is too often that the world is coming unhinged.

Seeing that ad, I thought how we all just need to feel safe.

Recently I was talking to a friend who does marketing, and I was saying that marketing is practically undone in the new world of fragmented, complex communications, where mindshare is focused more on media for connection and relationship than on the kind of one-way mass media that traditional media’s built on. Marketing professionals can and do work hard to understand the new media environment and adapt their skills, but do we really need marketing, or are we disintermediating the space between operations/production and the customer? Doc Searls has described a concept called “vendor relationship management” (VRM) that connects the customer more directly with product, a disintermediation of need and provisioning. In that context marketing may be replaced by customer ratings and reviews, and successful sales determined (as it should be) by product quality, driven by operations. In that context, more of the customer’s dollar is allocated to the producer; some part of it is possibly allocated to systems that manage connections, and the social interactions that provide product feedback (hence the great success of Bazaarvoice). Given all this, I wouldn’t feel especially safe if my skills were all about marketing, because marketing could become irrelevant.

I’ve just presented a scenario – it’s not real at this moment, only a conceptual projection based on trends in the world I know something about. If you’re a social media maven, you may nod your head as you read the paragraph above. If you’re a marketing profession, you’re probably shaking your head, thinking of all the ways this scenario could be wrong. But you don’t necessarily feel safe.

My point here is not to talk about marketing, but to talk about very real concerns about safety. A scenario like this that seems to marginalize the marketing profession can create instability as a whole sector of the economy is described as endangered species. Even if the scenario is completely correct, how brutal do we want to be about this? After blathering about the End of Marketing to my friend whose life is built around that industry, I was thinking we have a responsibility to help people feel safe, not endangered. That’s increasingly hard to do.

Someone said recently how we should consider the possibility of a 90% unemployment scenario, because we could be headed there, at least in the U.S. What does that world look like? It’s more like 90% no longer having what we traditionally think of as jobs; though they still find ways to put bread on the table. Will people work less, earn less?

We’ve discussed how we’re no longer in a world that can produce billionaires. We may no longer be in a world where we can guarantee even a simple majority a secure job with benefits.

But my point is not what changes and difficulties the future may bring. I’m concerned with the psychological and sociological impact of those changes, specifically how we can mitigate the potential profound insecurities, the sense that we are no longer safe.

At the same time, I’m reading a Scientific American Mind article that suggests a relationship of sociability to health. “Research shows that being part of social networks enhances our resilience, enabling us to cope more effectively with difficult life changes such as the death of a loved one, job loss or a move….Not only to our group memberships help us mentally, they also are associated with increased physical well-being.”

I suppose the message here is that connected, we feel safer. And I find that I really do want people to feel safe, to BE safe. Hence the urge to build communities, shared relationships, intimate connections.

More on Multitasking

Gary Chapman Facebook’d me a link to a New York Times article on the multitasking study I wrote about. Ruth Pennebaker writes

To the rest of the world, though, the people who trudge through life excited and unnerved by an occasional cellphone call while walking or watching the sun set (isn’t that multitasking?), the study’s findings aren’t quite so shocking. A constant state of stress, deluges of ever-changing information, the frenzied, nanosecond-fast hustle and bustle — this is bad for you? It’s surprising and it’s news that it’s bad for you? Before they lie down to take a well-deserved and uninterrupted nap, the trudgers of the world would like to say, “We told you so!”

Stop multitasking

Stanford has released results of a study suggesting that “the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.” This isn’t news to me… I’ve been conducting my own self-study and repair for many months now.

For years, as I evolved as a supposed multitasker extraordinaire, facilitated by Internet technology, I was persistently balancing a large number of projects on my little nose. However I had a growing sense that things weren’t working as they should, even though I seemed to get a lot of things done.  I felt fragmented, and I was losing bits and pieces of conversations and occasionally missing appointments or failing followups. I was pretty clear that my mental faculties weren’t diminishing, rather, the demands on them were growing.

The solution (which I’m still successfully processing) came a couple of ways. For one thing, after 40 years as an armchair Buddhist, I got serious about the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. In Buddhist practice you step back and become aware of the workings of your mind, which in my case was pretty chaotic with all the facts and events and processes I was tracking. I could see clearly how my cognition was fragmented. It was like a cup filled to overflowing. I had “multitasked” beyond my ability to track and organize.

The other thing was seeing the problem reflected by my business partner, David Armistead, who has met with me almost every day for the last two years as we’ve worked to evolve our business. Our work has been demanding – we’re not just building a business, we’re also thinking through philosophical and practical impacts associated with the growing use of social media and the growing demand for sustainability – big subjects that require as much focus as we can muster, given their breadth. David could see in our various meetings that I was losing focus at points – actually shifting focus to other things that were urgent, if not critical. He’s given me persistent helpful feedback as I’ve pared down the number of projects I’m tracking and get laser-focused on our the work we’re doing.

If you need to “defragment,” you don’t necessarily have to adopt a Buddhist practice, but mindfulness exercises are helpful.  Feedback from someone close by is very helpful.  But the main thing is to stop thinking you can “multitask,” because you’re only ever focusing on one thing at a time, and what you call multitasking is exploding your focus into fragments.

Happiness Is Mobile Loaves and Fishes

Mark Horvath (aka @hardlynormal), who is an advocate for the diverse and generally invisible homeless population, is in Austin hanging out with our friends at Mobile Loaves and Fishes, just in time for this week’s social-mediated screenings of Andrew Shapter’s film “Happiness Is” on Thursday, preceded by a Tweetup (info blogged here by the MLF crew). A “tweetup” is a meetup coordinated via Twitter, but you don’t have to be a twitizen to go there and have a great time.

Mobile Loves and Fishes is featured in the film, a documentary that asks how we can create more happiness (however defined) in our lives. Here’s a clip…

Barker’s aliens

Schwa instigator Bill Barker has turned up, having responded to Mark Frauenfelder’s “where are you, Bill?” post at bOING bOING. Gareth Branwyn spoke with him – Bill’s doing well, and planning a new project.

What was Schwa? From the Wikipedia article:

Schwa is the underground conceptual artwork of Bill Barker (born 1957). Barker draws deceptively simple black and white stick figures and oblong alien ships. However the artwork is not about the aliens: it is about how people react to the presence of the aliens and Barker uses them as a metaphor for foreign and unknown ideas. Schwa became an underground hit in the 1990s.

I suppose that’s correct from someone’s perspective, and it gives you an idea. How accurate can you be about the “meaning” of art? I have a Schwa sticker on my laptop that says “Every picture tells a lie,” and another on my car (see above) that says “You are what you see!” Are those about “foreign and unknown ideas?” I think they’re remarkable koans, still puzzling after 15 years.

One recurrent Schwa theme was about alien presences and detection. I have a glow-in-the-dark Schwa t-shirt that says “ALIEN DETECTOR: the XenonTM coated figure above [the archetypal alien image, shaped like a guitar pick with almond-shaped eyes and no mouth] will flash red in the presence of any alien.” Schwa scwhag often counseled you to “STAY AWAKE,” aliens are in your midst. I related this to the Buddhist and Gurjieffian notions of being awake, being mindful, and invited Bill to create the cover for FringeWare Review #5, the “Stay Awake” issue, which was generally about consciousness vs that other, ordinary somnambulist state. I always thought Schwa art was meant to shake us awake and aware.

Welcome back, Bill! We could use a good shake about now.

The Evolving Brain

The human brain is always evolving, and that evolution is accelerating. Consider “superplasticity,” described as “the ability of each mind to plug into the minds and experiences of countless others through culture or technology.”

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested (see “Dawn of the cyborgs”). Indeed, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes the time when humans merge with machines will arrive as early as 2045 (New Scientist, 9 May, p 26).

In the future, will there be a sort of “class division” between those whose brains are enhanced, and those who don’t want or can’t afford enhancement?

The guiding principle, perhaps, could be to make sure the technology is cheap enough to be open to all, much as books, computers and cellphones are today, at least in richer countries. “If this stuff can be produced cheaply and resonates with what people want to do anyway, it could take off,” says Chris Gosden, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.

John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK says “There will be a lot of evolution, but it won’t be classic neo-Darwinist changes in the genome. It will be changes in the environment, in technology and in the availability of good education. I don’t think souping up people’s genomes is the way to go.” [Link]

Memories are made of this

Researchers are learning how memory works, via PKMzeta molecules that facilitate “speed dialing” among brain cells, “like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event.”

Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.

By manipulating PKMzeta, it may be possible to edit memories, which “raises huge ethical issues,” according to Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. While you might be able to remove traumatic memories, the drug could be misused to eliminate memories that support moral conscience. [Link]

Humans and tools

From Kevin Kelly: an overview of human history and some thoughts about the relevance of language as the original social media.

Language accelerates learning and creation by permitting communication and coordination. A new idea can be spread quickly by having someone explain it and communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves. But the chief advantage of language is not communication, but auto-generation. Language is a trick which allows the mind to question itself. It is a magic mirror which reveals to the mind what the mind thinks. Language is a handle which turns a mind into a tool. With a grip on the slippery aimless activity of self-reference, self-awareness, language can harness a mind into a fountain of new ideas. Without the cerebral structure of language, we can’t access our own mental activity. We certainly can’t think the way we do. Try it yourself. If our minds can’t tell stories, we can’t consciously create; we can only create by accident. Until we tame the mind with an organization tool capable of communicating to itself, we have stray thoughts without a narrative. We have a feral mind. We have smartness without a tool.

There’s quite a bit more, and it’s worth reading to discover why Kevin concludes “In a world without technology, we would not be living, and we would not be human.”

Big Mind and Evolution

Foremost integral thinker Ken Wilber discusses the Bodhisattva vow (to liberate all sentient beings) and it’s relationship to Big Mind, or revelation of true self.

What evolutionary awareness does is reveal a second dimension of the Enlightenment process that must now be a part of how a bodhisattva functions in the world, because although pure nondual Emptiness does not evolve or change, sentient beings do. With each new structure of consciousness, Spirit has a new way to understand itself, which is not simply recycled samsara dressed up to look like something new, but a stunning and grand act of emergent creativity on a Kosmic scale—one which you are invited to participate in, if you really want it.

Interesting high-level thinking (maybe too high-level – I think it’s a bit more complicated.)