Caffeinated Mindfulness

Mocha !

I take a sip of coffee, dark roasted into anthracite of Arabica, swirled with the luxurious tropical tang of coconut cream. It rushes into my bloodstream, into my senses. I can’t tell the difference between the chemicals blocking adenosine between my neurons, or the psychosomatic reaction of my hot wet love affair with the aroma, with the taste, with the feel of it on my tongue.

My third eye snaps open. It was asleep. It’s usually asleep. But it’s forced open by the thunderclap of caffeination outside its window, blasting through sleep paralysis, it jolts up in bed and stands at attention. I close my other two eyes. I take my first breath. I begin my meditation.

I take my second breath. They are the long, slow, deliberate breaths of the practice. The same ones that I take when I am calm. What do I look like, to the bodhisattva ghosts that haunt the space around me? Do I look at ease? Do I look rested, because I breathe normally, and because I am not moving? Can they see the thousands upon thousands of lightning bugs that rest upon my skin, waiting to burst into action and light up the night?

I am not rested. I am not calm. There is more to peace than stillness. If nothingness is the true state of perfection, then perfection is flawed. I am a bundle of bundles of charged wires of a hundred different polarities that only exist in the dreams of electrons. Instead of a place without thought, drifting like leaves on a stream, the inside of my skull hosts so many thoughts, so many sensations, in such a reckless state of effortless agitation they are indistinguishable. They are white noise. My mind is a serene cacophony of beautiful tension.

I realize there is no such thing as silence. There is only deafness. In the quietest room in existence, there is still the background radiation of the infant universe. The scream of it’s birth. Not a scream of agony, but an agony of triumph. An impossibly massive explosion in an impossibly small instant, bursting outward from a single point of infinite inertness to a furiously rushing sea of endless potential. The loudest shouts that could ever be, so distant when they reach us that they have become a caressing whisper. If we cannot hear them, it’s because we lack calibration. Because our ears are too small.

It swirls around me, within me, throughout me. These thoughts and this noise are me, and they are not me. They are larger and vastly more important, and smaller than the Planck scale. Less relevant than a single crumb of food that cannot feed a mouse so small it suffers wave interference when it tries to pass through two slits in a scientist’s lab.

It is exhilarating. It is exhausting. It lasts forever, but when it ends, as all things end, it has written a poem in prose in my head. A distant reflection in arbitrary symbolic representation of the chaotic, tranquil, nasty, perfect glory of the experience of trying to meditate after my third cup of coffee. But I will share it anyway.

Why Creativity Is Not Problem Solving

brain

Me: I’m really disliking my job these days.

Brain: Trust me, I’ve noticed.

Me: I used to like it, but it’s turned into a serious slog.

Brain: Well, maybe you should look for another job.

Me: But I hate looking for other jobs!

Brain: Well, which do you dislike more?

Me: Both of them.

Brain: I’m not sure what to tell you here, dude.

Me: You’re not being very helpful!

Brain: What do you want out me?

Me: I don’t know! A solution! You’re my brain. You should be able to come with something here! Something that lets me do or not do both of these things at the same time. You’re very creative. Aren’t you always telling me that? That we’re creative.

Brain: I do tell us that. I believe it, too.

Me: Right. So…come up with something!

Brain: Okay, I’ve got it.

Me: That was fast.

Brain: I’m a massively parallel organic processing unit with more potential interconnections than grains of sand on the earth, if every grain of sand had a pair of twins with every other grain of sand. Give me some credit.

Me: Fair enough.

Brains: Besides, it’s not like I…you…we…haven’t been thinking about this a lot.

Me: If a chaotic maelstrom of unpleasant emotions and half-baked notions can be called “thinking.”

Brain: What can I say? I’m complicated.

Me: Okay. What’s this plan of yours.

Brain: Alright, so first you get on the running shoes that you bought just before you stopped running regularly.

Me: Okay.

Brain: Put them on, lace them up, and head out into the woods.

Me: The woods? What does that have to do with my job?

Brain: Are you going to let me finish? I am your brain, here.

Me: Fine, fine. Carry on.

Brain: Your British accent is terrible.

Me: I know.

Brain: But I don’t judge you.

Me: I appreciate that.

Brain: Okay, so you head out into the woods, and you look for some squirrels.

Me: Squirrels.

Brain: Squirrels. Gray or black, it doesn’t matter. You start tracking down squirrels, and incapacitating them in some way. So you can put them all in the same place where they can’t get away.

Me: How do I incapacitate them.

Brain: You don’t know how to do that?

Me: No.

Brain: Well then neither do I! I’m your bloody brain!

Me: Oh. Right.

Brain: It’s something you’re going to be able to figure out. But that should be kind of fun, right?

Me: Yeah. I guess it should. I mean, kind of wrong, but a good thing to know how to do.

Brain: Right. So, you gather up these incapacitated squirrels, at least 49, but 51 will do, and…

Me: And?

Brain: You swallow them!

Me: Swallow them?

Brain: Yep! Just gulp them up!

Me: And…that will solve my job problem?

Brain: No! Of course it won’t! But you never listen to anything I say anyway! Just start looking for a new goddamn job like I’ve been telling you to for the last two months! Dammit!

Me: Oh.

Brain: Sigh.

Me: Did you just say “sigh?”

Brain: I did. I did do that. You made me do that.

Me: Sorry.

Brain: It’s okay. And sorry for the bait and switch.

Me: It’s okay. You made your point.

Brain: I appreciate the understanding.

Me: So are we still friends.

Brain: Yes we are. I mean, assuming that term applies when I’m a physical organ and you are an abstract representation of an amalgamated and probably fictional concept that can’t realistically be separated from me other than for the purposes of thought experiments like this one. I don’t know if the world friend applies.

Me: It’s an interesting question.

Brain: Indeed. We should spend the next nine hours discussing it.

Me: You think so?

Brain: No! Get off your ass and start looking for a god damn job!

Me: Right. Of course. Sorry. Getting right on it.

Red

Angry red LED light

 

Part of Colors.

 


 

 

The red light shines.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

In the moments between the angry cold of crimson there is only darkness. The red obscures more than the darkness. When the light is gone I know this place. I’ve seen it, so many times, bathed in fluorescence. It has no mysteries, no secrets. But the red light warps everything. It flashes its quiet scream of momentary luminance, and this is not the room I know. The corners hide frightened shadows. The shapes are distorted. The groans and mechanical clanks that buildings make are innocent in the dark, but not in the red. There nothing is innocent.

I sit here in this red and black space. I could turn on the light. Maybe someone will walk in and flip the switch, and it will transform everything. Yank it artificially into the normality in which it bathes nearly all the time. The normality of chatting and lunchtimes and whining about bad customers. I sit in the red and black, and I know that any moment someone might walk in and shatter the world into light. And I will hate them.

I can feel hatred, in this place. An anger that is deep and unquenching and unquestioning. Meaningless. It consumes rational objection or perspective the way a white blood cell consumes a pathogen. Unfeeling, but righteous. Evolutionary. For the good of the bitter organism that is the hateful mind. I bath in the warping red light because I cannot run from the hatred. Not now. Not like this.

It isn’t real. I know that. It’s just hormones, circadian rhythms, seasonal affective disorder. But it doesn’t matter. It isn’t real, but it is the only thing that exists. I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to be able to handle the day. My mind screams these words at me, written in red on the back of my eyes. I know they are phantoms. Later on I will laugh and dance and bask in the light. That is the person I am nearly all the time, and I know that, even now. These thoughts are phantoms. But they are phantoms made of stone.

The light is all.

Later when I think about this I’ll dress it up with fancy words. Brighter colors. Purples and blues and greens. It’s all about neurotransmitters. It’s all about balance, feeling the harsh emotions to put the joyful ones into perspective. Later on, under the sunlight, I’ll believe those things. But they are phantoms. I know that, right now. Phantoms made of spun glass, but phantoms still. Right now, in a place so real and so strong that it shoves everything else away, there is only desperate, vicious fatigue. It doesn’t matter what produces the light. It doesn’t matter that it’s the LED of a snack machine, any more than it matters the origin of the metal that pierces your heart. There is only me, in this room, in the darkness.

And the red. So very, very much red.

The Procession of the Angels of Memories

Neurons, In Vitro Color!

I can see my friend’s face, her white skin and her hair dyed coal-black. It looks natural on her, just as the black clothing, and the frustrated smile. It looks natural because it is the only way I know her.

“She’s the most grounded person I’ve ever met,” she says about someone in her orientation group. “Just an amazing person.”

I believe her, because that is how I am carved. I believe people about things. I’ve met this person she’s talking about, just once. Just for one conversation. Her name was Pearl, and we talked about smoking and veganism and how she cheated only once in Spain when she was drunk and the tall Spanish waiter brought out a mountain of gorgeous, quivering flan. I could not tell if Pearl was grounded, but now, hearing this other friend about it, I believed her.

It was the first week of college. An intense, magical, impossible time. When I think back, when I picture the white skin and the black hair and the lyrically formal way her High New England accent formed the words, I don’t see an 18 year old. I see a person. A full person, developed and intelligent and strong. Like the people around me, now, at 33 years old. I don’t see that when I look at 18 year olds. They are so young.

In another place at another time, I can see the stairwell that leads up from the library to all three floors of the school. I’ve never walked up this way before. My old classroom was on the second floor, and I am walking up to the third. For the first time in my life, I feel older. Not old, of course. I’m not wrinkly or infirm. I’m just growing up, and I can feel it in my bones. I can see it in my classmates that run past me, excited in a way that is painful and exhilarating, for the first day of school. They are in fourth grade, now. So am I.

When I look back on memories of the past I see two Jesses. Two Mes. One of them is another person. A memory that I know is my own, but it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. Anymore than a half-remembered dream. I know, because intelligent people in books have told me, that some of these memories, maybe all of them, are just whispers. Copies of copies, printed from the scatterings of story others have told me about those times, or from my own memories of remembering.

The other Me is Me. I remember these moments as if they happened yesterday, only a yesterday that was a long time ago. But the Jesse inside those experiences is the same one who types these words. The same one who is listening to meditative music in order to stay calm during an anxious period of his life. The same one who breathes in air with just the faintest scent of cat litter still on it, and who is happy that it isn’t as strong as it was before he took out the trash.

I know that this Me barely existed as I walked up those stairs to Mrs. Robertson’s fourth grade classroom. This Me has millions of sensory and mental experiences that define him that were not present in the exuberant, long-haired 17 year old who watched his new friend’s coal-black hair as she spoke, and marveled at how she stretched out the A in the word “candle” in the same way that fairies must do.

And yet, it is Me. Deep in my mind I don’t believe that. I think the self is an illusion perpetrated by a series of neural impulses responsible for the well-being of a pattern of DNA that itself has no motivation at all. A moment ago I downloaded a book about Taoism I intend to start reading later today, and still I believe that.

I believe that, but my brain won’t let me feel it. I don’t know if I want to feel it. We can see ourselves only as who we are. Sometimes I have moments where I forget who I am, and suddenly I am observer in someone else’s strange life. How much of my conviction about the lack of self is truly an informed analysis of the salient research, and how much is informed by this dissociation? I feel that I can comfortably abandon the illusion of self because I am smarter and more aware than others. But I don’t know if that’s true. I’m very, very skeptical, because this view is comfortable. Anything comfortable should be viewed with caution. It could be a trick.

I’m obsessed with the idea that we are trapped inside of our worldview, and that this is the cause of much of the world’s suffering. And yet I fall for this delusion so many times a day. I think back on my fourth grade self and I can see through his eyes. I share not a single cell or molecule with that hilariously young and unshaped person who shares my social security number, yet my brain still believes we are the same.

I have faith that there is something powerful here. Something that no one reading this can understand because it can’t be understood. Only felt. Like the Tao, only with more references to psychology journals.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve just gotten too much sleep lately. The human brain plays tricks on itself for its own subtle ends. It is Loki and Hermes, locked in a battle of dendrites and cortisol and selective myelenation, their prize control of a pineal gland that way or may not be the gateway to an infinite procession of angels.

I curse and bless how glorious this type of thinking makes me feel, and the quirk of my character that allows me to survive with the dissonance that makes me cringe and the pretentiousness and still, despite that, click the “publish” button in the upper right hand corner.

Enough May or May Not Be Enough

I think I am losing my mind

Crazy Thought Induced By Working On Novel Of the Day:

Should each of my characters represent some kind of cognitive bias? And the whole structure of the story can be a metaphor for the brain and the flaws in human thought, and how they emerge to create a functional whole that is both capable of amazing things and unable to understand potentials and limitations of its own capability?

Because, you know, the 8 viewpoint characters and the 3 main plots and many sub-plots all squidged precariously together like a precariously built sandwich aren’t complicated enough.

Worms in the Soil

Root and Soil Interaction Imaged for Dr. Daniel Hirmas visiting from the University of Kansas

(Warning: This is horror and has sexual elements.)

Sometimes I can’t read because I’m too tired. Or I drank too much coffee or too much stress during the day and my mind is full of angry weasels with sharp teeth. Sometimes I can’t read because they steal it.

It happened today. I didn’t see them again but I can feel it. They come in through my open mouth, like spiders are supposed to do when you’re sleeping. Only spiders don’t really do that. But they do. Or they come through the space between my finger and my fingertips. They’re much bigger than that space, but they’re bendy. They’re clever.

I don’t know why they like my reading so much. I think they like the way it tastes because I can hear them chewing on something with my inner ear. But they don’t eat it. I couldn’t get it back if they ate it. I always get it back. So far.

Sometimes it’s hard to chase them because of what they take. They cut out my motor control or my vision. They never take all of those. I think they’re too big. When they take my motor control I stumble around and I can’t grip anything tight, but I can still move. When they take my vision there are blurry spots. Sometimes all over and sometimes one big one, right off-center of each eye. It’s hard to chase them. They’re hard to see at the best of times. They slime out of vision as soon as I catch them with in my sight. And when I grab them they burn my skin and its memories.

When they take my reading I can’t read. You don’t need much taken out of that. Just a little missing piece of brain and you can’t follow what a character is saying. If you’ve ever read the same sentence over and over, you know what it’s like. You know what it feels like to have them take it, just the tiniest piece. The moment their wispy fingers dig in isn’t like anything else. It’s sharp and small and oily. Like you’ve eaten too much fatty foot and you can’t get the grease off of your lips, only it’s on the inside of your brain.

Sometimes they take my sex drive. Brandon gets mad at me because I make excuses. Tired, stupid excuses. But it’s not my fault. I tried to explain to him about them and how they kept coming and taking it out. His eyes grew so wide I thought they were going to crack his skull. I realized that he doesn’t like talking about them. Most people don’t. It’s one of those uncomfortable subjects to most people when I bring them up. Brandon never brings them up, either. But sometimes he has no sex drive. He just makes excuses, so that’s what I do, too. But they come for me far more often than they do for me. For anyone I know. I think they like me. I think I’m tasty.

The sex drive isn’t the worst. It’s not the worst for me and Brandon. Two weeks ago Tuesday they took my compassion. I didn’t know it was gone until we were in bed together, and I was giving him what he wanted. What he’s always begging for. Only it was too much. I knew they had taken something. They took while I lounged on the wicker chair, I think. I could hear their voices. Like tiny violins just barely out of consonance. The perfect movement away from sounding beautiful to sound truly unpleasant. The bottom of the uncanny valley of beauty.

You don’t know compassion is gone until you try to use it. Most of the time compassion is sitting in the back of your brain not doing much. But then we were in bed and I was inside him and thrusting and he was begging me to go harder and screaming and then he was begging me to stop and I didn’t want to because I didn’t care. I looked at myself not caring like it was from above, just taking what I wanted, and I realized what they had taken.

I didn’t want go after it. I had to force myself. It’s hard to care about compassion when it is missing. But I cared about Brandon yelling at me afterwards. So I found the one of them that took it and caught it and shoved it back in. Then I felt guilty. Feeling guilty is terrible. If they ever take my guilt, I’ll probably let them keep it. But they never take something I don’t want. That’s not how they work.

Recently I’ve tried starting to talk to them. The noises they make are starting to make more sense to me, and they respond when I speak. They never used to do that. Maybe I’m on to something. Maybe that’s why they like me so much better than other people.

I don’t know what I would do if they weren’t around. It hurts when they tear out parts of my brain, but sometimes there are too many thoughts in my head and I need some of them to just go. It’s like worms in the soil. They are the worms, and I’m the soil.

There are more of them then there used to be. Sometimes I feel like I’m all worm and no soil. But that’s okay. The soil is dead and meaningless without anything to grow in it. Some things are bigger than we are. No one else understands that.

I’ve always wanted to grow.

I don’t know why they find me so delicious. I’ve learned to accept this.

What the Brains Are Saying

BRAIN HUE Collection by Emilio Garcia

  • Criminals who are physically attractive are twice as likely to be acquitted for violent crimes.
  • Judges are more likely to deny parole to inmates right before they eat lunch, when they are hungry.
  • A first impression of a politician’s “likabilty,” before they ever state their views, is an accurate predictor of whether they will win a given election.
  • Charging parents $5 if they are late to pick their children up from daycare makes them more likely to be late than if they are charged nothing.
  • People on diets are statistically more likely to cheat on their spouses.

What does it all mean? I’ve spent the last few years in pursuit of that question. At some point that I can’t identify I became obsessed with human behavior, human interaction, and the human brain. I make no claims to be an expert, just an enthusiastic amateur. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, and I’ll put the rough reading list at the end of this post.

These issues have been studied from many different directions, and some of the findings are little understood or contradictory. However, the evidence mounts up for certain conclusion. One in particular has changed the way I look at the world, and my own functionality within it. It is the following:

Human actions and decisions are determined by a combination of character—encompassing qualities such as personality, temperament, beliefs, and morality—and external circumstances. Of the two, external circumstances are by far the larger factor.

In other words, we do have free well—or at least the compatibilist version of it—but it has much less influence on what we do and what we become than factors outside of ourselves of which we are unaware and over which we have little control. This truth cuts down to the deepest level, from how successful you are at your career to what you had for lunch this afternoon.

Society, it seems, has some serious thinking to do.

Reading List:

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Why Axis by Uri Gneezy and John List
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Switch, How to Change When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton
Brain Rules by John Medina