Monday, November 24, 2008

Read This, If You Choose To

Having recently finished Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (see “What I’m Reading” in column to the right), this post will relate to one’s free will, or lack thereof.

Consider two machines whose actions are determined and known. It may still remain to me a mystery what the outcome will be if I connect them together. Or what if I create a cross occurrence between A and C, rather than A and B? The outcome created by the intersection is as if by magic.

Depending upon the finite (though seemingly infinite) variations of what A could be and likewise of what C could be, there is a greater number of potential outcomes.

Now imagine the number of encounters possible: A with D or E or F, etc. There appears to be endless combinations. The astonishingly huge array of possible outcomes is staggering. So much so, that we experience arriving at any one experience as whim or will, rather than the result of the laws of nature.

But, when we examine any one occurrence we see that, though they are vast, there is a finite network of determinants that have caused A to be A and to be where it is at the exact time that it is. Likewise, C has an exact network of determinants that have caused it to be C and to be where it is at the exact time that it is. So such an encounter between an exact A and an exact C at precisely that moment has a determined outcome.
It, of course, surpasses human capabilities to map out the exponentially complex web of every determinant and its antecedents (with their preceding determinants, and so on). But because it surpasses that which we can achieve does not make it an impossibility. At no point along this highly advanced map of results connected to their causes is there a point at which to stop and say, “Ah, there is an act of pure free well, an action devoid of any influence other than its own thought existence.” For if the thought (or whatever you decide is ‘free will’) is in any way at all influenced by something else, it is no longer free. It is now rather at the mercy of the outcome it experiences by being in relation to something outside of its self, something out of its control, and, if out of control, then no longer purely free.

This does not mean that we are trapped in a “dreadfully boring existence” (Notes From Underground, chapter seven, Dostoevsky). The apparently infinite (though, again, actually finite) combination of situations, individuals, thoughts, their synergy and resulting realities will always be experienced as free. And we must acct as if we are free. That’s right. Thought determined, we must act as if we have, and think ourselves to have, free will.

Determinism is mere intellectual exercise, no matter how much truth lie in its favor.

Dostoevsky argues that explaining free will (in his example, “wishes”…as if wishing itself is not bound by natural law) by reason only satisfies reasoning. He proposes that wishes/desires do not necessarily conform to reason. I conceded that. However, because they do not does not mean that they are devoid of influences outside of their control.

Our desires (wishes) come from the work of the mind. Tell me, how do I fire my synapses in just the right sequence, in just such an intensity, how do I, of my own volition, secrete just the precise chemicals in my brain, so as to create my own desires or wishes?

It is precisely these thoughts that, in turn, produce a physiological response [hotlink] and set into motion my whole amusement park of reality. At what point did free will slip in? Where is that will/wish/desire I created without influence external of itself? I must answer that there is none.

In the end, you perhaps will be happy to know that I still act as if I have free will. I’m still amused by the magic of life, even if there are props behind the illusion. I still enjoy the surprise of my own actions, which feel wonderfully free.

I have no choice but to do so.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds."


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Pie in the Sky"

That's the phrase coined by Joe Hill, who was executed on this day in 1915.

Read his story.

Monday, November 17, 2008

All of that thinking yesterday made me feel tired.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just Now

I had a very interesting conversation with a friend last week about zazen. In particular, we were focussing on the strange--but, I believe, real--notion that emotions do not exist. There is only thought and physiological phenomenon.

We have thoughts. We believe these thoughts. We have a physical reaction.

Often, that process happens in such a millisecond of time that the two seem inseparable, almost as if even the body had created the thought. Together, we name it "emotion".

But if we can begin to separate the two, even if just for a thin slice of space, and see the two as separate, then we can begin to see thoughts as just that: thoughts. And we can begin, ever so slightly, to enter into experiencing the now.

When I have an emotion, I am having believed thoughts about something and a physical reaction to those thoughts. For example, I'm "angry" about what someone did to me. What is that anger?

First, I am having a believed thought that so-and-so should not have done what they did. I am having the believed thought that I deserve to be happy. I am having the believed thought that the person is wrong. I am having the believed thought that my world should not be disturbed. I am having the believed thought that...and so on.

After naming all of the thoughts around our "anger" (and this can be a very long process in which we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the larger metaconstruct going on in our mind), what am I actually feeling in my body? Is my stomache tight? Is my breathing shallow? Does the frontal lobe of my brain ache? Etc.

Now what is left of the anger? Nothing.

There is only thought and the physiology I experience. Once I realize--experience--this, I can begin to not be controlled by my thoughts. After all, to create thoughts is simply what the mind does. Once I believe them, however, my body reacts and that becomes my reality. But when I can step outside of them, observe them for what they are, I am not totally at their mercy anymore.

My friend and I questioned whether or not it made sense that one could just experience one's body. Doesn't the experience get translated by our mind, thought, in order for us to know what the feeling is?

When washing dishes, can one just wash dishes and experience washing dishes? the mind have to think, "The plate is smooth, the water is wet," in order for me to know the experience? Perhaps not.

What if I just experience the smoothness and wetness instead of thinking about them? What if, rather than thinking about it being smooth, I let it just be what it is? How wonderful would that be?! That would be the "being in the now" that we hear about so much these days. Like hitting my thumb with a hammer, or an intense orgasm, there can be just pure experience of the moment without spinning off to live in the thoughts of the mind and what it makes up about the experience.

Thoughts are thoughts. They are about the future, or about the past. Thoughts, by their nature, can never be about this moment...because that moment just passed. So by naming my thoughts and becoming aware of my experience, I can live more and more in the present. Just being. Now.

Of course, this doesn't happen very often. Not many people can live fully in the moment all of the time (we call them "enlightened"). But we can set aside time to practice this observing and experiencing. Little by little, by practicing and practicing, we can begin to move some of this self-awareness and presence into our daily life.

At least I think so.

(Drawings by Sam Brown.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Man Eats Dog, Man Feeds Dog

I stood in line at "Blake's Lotaburger" today to get a morning burrito. As I waited, I watched the women who make these perform their magic.

One stood cracking eggs onto the griddle and browning the hash browns (aptly named, I note). Another spread out the huge tortilla to add ingredients. A third topped everything with chili and assembled the final product with a few fancy folds. Then it was tossed into a bag, napkin added and my number called.

It occured to me how funny it would be to see other species in the animal kingdom prepare food for each other. Truly, it is odd to pause in a restaurant and simply think about the human process that is our collective meeting in a building to have others make our meals, sitting together to consume it, using utensils to get it into our mouths!

Maybe it is a bit like cows coming into the barn to be fed by the farmer, but the other cows aren't preparing the food.

There is another peculiar thing about all of our eating rituals. We, seemingly at random, select some animals that we identify as "pets." Then, instead of eating them, we feed them. We even put the food into bowls for some of them.

I suppose only animals that regurgitate for one another come close to such processes. But, I know of few other animals that keep other animals as pets and turn to feeding them, except for perhaps ants who milk aphids.

Even then we manage to go one step further by comparison. More than just milking cows, we feed them hay that we can't eat so that they will process it for us into milk that we can drink.

Or we can just kill them flat out and gnaw on their flesh together at places named like "Lotaburger."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ethnic Extravaganza

I went to another dance festival on Saturday. This one featured West AFrican, Cuban and Brazilian dances. They also demonstrated capoeira.

I haven't figured out the features on my camera so all is blurry at night. So Eric, in answer to your question, the cool photo the other day of the Day of the Dead girl was not was taken by Odette who was with me that night. And I agree: it is a fantastic photo!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Weekend In Review, Part Three

On Sunday, I attended a display of Aztec Day of the Dead dancing. "Community of the Wind" wore outfits with the best beadwork that I have seen. Their headresses included feathers over four feet long. The final dance was a fire dance in which the main dancer held his foot in the fire for about 20 seconds, and then his thigh for as equally as long, without getting burned.

(It was too dark for me to get clear pictures, but the motion and color are captured.)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Weekend In Review, Part Two

Dia de Los Muertos is a time of remembering and communing with past relatives. Altars are erected to remember and celebrate those who have died.

In the Christian tradition it is called "All Saints Day." ("All Souls Day," Nov. 2, celebrates everyone who has died, not just the saints.) Following a passage in the Bible found in Hebrews, All Saints Day is a communion of the saints. When the Catholic traditions mixed with the Aztec traditions of Mexico, they merged and morphed into what is mostly recognized now as the celebration that we have today...a Day of the Dead/All Saints Day that is holy for all people.

In this celebration, altars are erected that feature "ofrendas" or offerings. Much like the carved pumpkins of Halloween (Hallowe'en...All Hallows Eve...the eve before All Saints make get the picture), these ofrendas are offered to the dead to entice them to visit. They include things favored by the person when s/he was living.

And wonderfully decorated "calaveras" (skulls). These are often made from sugar, chocolate and amaretto.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Weekend In Review, Part One

I spent All Hallow's Eve with two friends enjoying traditional New Mexican food at Los Cuates. We brought our own candied apples and cotton candy to share for dessert. Not too New Mexican, but fun!

Saturday, All Saints' Day, is known as Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico. The celebration happily spills over the border into New Mexico and we get to share some of the special cake served. We held a parade in Old Town, led by Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec "Lady of the Dead."

The parade ended at an altar with ofrendas (see tomorrow's post for examples of ofrendas) where we watched traditional Mexican dances, clapped along to mariachi music played by people dressed as skeletons, and then danced to the music of Wagogo, a popular local band. The evening lasted about four hours in a perfectly crisp and clear fall night.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Happy Election Day!

Each candidate has selected where to hold his post-election reception party tonight. The choices pretty well sum up the differences in style of approach to governance:

McCain has selected the elite Biltmore Hotel in AZ for a private party of 3,000 supporters. The Biltmore is known for its "privacy and discretion."

Obama has selected a city park in Chicago, open to the public.

Below: Two phrases common in New Mexico these days.
Tomorrow: Hopefully celebration photos.
Thursday: images from this past weekend celebrating Dia de Los Muertos.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

You Know You're In New Mexico When...

You purchase garbage bags in the fall and the clerk says,
"Oooo...someone must be doing chili!"

(For you non-NMs, we use garbage bags to sweat newly roasted chili before peeling and storing them.)