Thoughts About Simplicity and Questioning

“The height of cultivation always runs towards simplicity”

Bruce Lee

I watched this fantastic YouTube video called “Think Deeply About Simple Things’ where a mathematics professor/teacher describes how magic appears when we question the simple.

He gives the example of a circle. The simplest shape. In one mindset, we can just accept it – “It’s a circle, its simple”


But what if we thought more deeply about it?


How many dimensions is it in? – 2. How would it look like in 3D – a sphere. What about 4D?
Why is ‘pi’ the way it is, and how did it emerge from something as basic as the circle.

Another example- we all accept the sky is blue. But… why?
Off the top of my head, it’s got to do with light refraction. But then why does light refract? And on and on.

Ultimately he boils it down to asking two main questions

  1. Why —- Why —- Why

Like your 4 year old nephew, constantly question everything. Underneath your why, there is always another why. It leads to deeper thinking. Ask why about simple things. We have an inbuilt curiosity that we tend to squash as we get older, because ‘who has time to think about this’. This is tragic. Because the more you learn and question, the more you realise ‘how little we know’. It grants a level of humility. This leads to awe, as you realise how small ‘you’ are.

  1. What if …

This is asking hypothetical ‘what if’s’. For example, what if I imagined myself chasing a beam of light? This is of course one of Einsteins ‘gedanken’ – thought experiments. One that led to his understanding of the theory of relativity.

In thinking about consciousness. We can ask what it is. Why it arises etc. But we can take thought experiments too.
Suppose we were to construct a conscious entity, atom by atom- like a Lego set. At which atom, would you suddenly become conscious. When would consciousness arise in that system?

This leads you to interesting hypotheses.

Thought experiments allow us different perspectives on problems, because the truth is that ‘reality’ and science tends to violently violate our intuitions. For example, that we are at the centre of the universe, violated by the copernican revolution that we are not even at the centre of our solar system.

’Hard’ things are not hard

There is this idea that complex maths or science is ‘hard’.

Not really.

It is a structure. A building that one has to construct from simpler concepts. But you have to understand the simple concepts first, before you can layer on them, and learn ones that require you to understand previous concepts.

For example to understand what mitochondria is, you have to understand a layer below that ‘what a cell is’. Then you have to understand what a cell wall is, or what ATP production is, then you need to understand what a molecule is, what atoms are Etc etc. It’s interlinked and interdependent. And you can go deeper and deeper into these concepts.

But It’s all just concepts layered on top of each other.

In the video he gives the example of 1+1. We can all do this.
But what about 1+ 1/2.

If we haven’t been exposed to fractions, this seems like a ‘hard’ task. But if we understand what fractions are, then suddenly its just a problem. Neither hard nor easy.

What about 1+ 1/2 ^2

Again, the same, if you don’t know what square number is, then you cannot do this. It is simply concepts stacked on top of each other.

A problem in school is that students all move at the same pace. If one day, you miss a concept, or don’t understand it, often the teacher does not come and explain it to you. Then the next lesson, you are completely lost because you didn’t understand the previous concept. People who are ‘bad’ at maths just missed a concept, then they couldn’t progress any further. If only it was said in a different way, or expressed in a different medium, it would have ‘clicked’.

Thank God for YouTube. If you don’t understand something, you can go at your own pace on YouTube. Some really smart kids are being brought up in this generation thanks to YouTube.

Simplicity in Daily Living

I intended for this essay, to be an exploration of simplicity in daily life too. I’ve found that by living life with less reliance on external factors, is incredibly peaceful. Less objects. More space. More time.

You need very little to survive and be content. Yet the hedonic treadmill means that we keep on desiring more and more.

The trick is to desire the basics and the simple things. These tend to be the most valuable things.

This quote on Twitter really succinctly summarises my thinking on this

“A fit body, a calm mind, a house full of love. These things cannot be bought – they must be earned”

Simplicity in Writing

I’ve wrote about this before. But I think the best writing is simple.
If you can say it in fewer words, do that. (I struggle with this!)

Conclusion

Think deeply about simple things

Thoughts About Coronavirus

Pre-coronavirus times

There is a Chinese ‘curse’ that is translated as : “May you live in interesting times”.
Interesting times are pivotal and have the potential to transform the cultural psyche of humanity.
I want to explore a few predictions on what coronavirus could do for humanity. As well as my current thoughts on the topic

It’s Ok not to have an opinion

Everyone has something to say on COVID. Ironically, I’m now writing my opinion on COVID.

But amongst the deluge of information we are consuming, it is ok to say “I don’t know”. Because for 99% of humanity, this is the case. Most people are not epidemiologists or virologists.

I don’t know the repercussions of COVID. I don’t know how it will pan out for society and the economy. I don’t know how many lives will be lost.

At best all we have are models and predictions. But the ‘map is not the territory’. Reacting to changing information is the key. Obviously organisations should be thinking about this deeply, but at the individual level, there is only so much you can understand.

Acknowledging our limited understanding is crucial and finding some comfort in uncertainty can be valuable.

Information Overload and Misinformation

The 24/7 news cycle is something we’ve all become accustomed to. I usually don’t consume any news at all as I found it too distracting and often the most important news tends to find itself to me through others. However recently, Ive been sucked into reading about COVID, and I can’t stop. It really doesn’t add anything valuable.

Furthermore, there is spreading of misinformation on these online platforms, that is hard to avoid. From ’10 ways to boost your immune system’ to Charlatans peddling cures for financial gain.

I see this a lot of WhatsApp and Twitter. Some from doctors which is appalling.

The response is to treat information you read with skepticism, and to trust reputable sources only (e.g. WHO).

Black Swan Events

Taleb describes a black swan as an event that 1) is beyond normal expectations that is so rare that even the possibility that it might occur is unknown, 2) has a catastrophic impact when it does occur, and 3) is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable

Although, it doesn’t meet 1) – we definitely knew a pandemic was incoming at some point. This whole ordeal has made me think about Black Swan events.

You should reduce your exposure to negative Black Swans- for example by having savings etc. And try and increase exposure to positive Black Swans.

I need to sit and read Taleb’s books…

Quality Quarantine Time

To stop myself from being at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm even more than I currently am, I’ve been thinking about attention.

I haven’t been quarantined yet, but I’ve already made such a long list of skills I want to try and develop during this down time. But I’ll name a few to hold myself accountable when I check back in a few months

  • Calisthenics (since no gym!). Aim to work towards doing a muscle up and free standing handstands
  • Guitar : explore jazz standards and theory
  • Writing : try and write some more fiction and more on the blog. This is going well so far!
  • Reading : jump into Taleb’s work
  • Misc : Learn more about film photography. Limit tech usage. Wean myself to a sustainable dose of caffeine. Learn to juggle. Binge listen to ‘History on Fire’ podcast. Avoid getting busted by the police for going on 5+ walks a day.

Predictions on Impact

This is a bit of fun. Not to be taken seriously, but I can’t help speculating the impact it will have long term on humanity.

  1. More emphasis on Science and Technology – increased funding
  2. Distributed working : working from home will become a norm
  3. Increased compensation for healthcare workers and scientists as the public opinion changes.
  4. ‘Telemedicine’ will become more integrated into the system
  5. Global cooperation as this can be a demonstration that humanity can work towards a singular goal
  6. Better preparation for future global pandemics and crises (Global warming, Nuclear war, Technological disruption)
  7. There will be second order impacts that we won’t see coming. Maybe a spike in birth rates (or divorce) as people are at home. Maybe new hand-gel resistant bugs due to the widespread use of hand sanitiser. Don’t get me started on toilet paper stocks.

Ending

I don’t have much to say about Coronavirus, because I don’t really know much. But reading a lot of Sci-fi has given me an inbuilt optimism about humanity. We have the potential for so much good.

Currently, the hospital is eerily quiet. 300+ empty beds.

I hope that we can avoid the worst.

Why Meditate?

“If you wish to understand your mind, sit down and observe it”

Joseph Goldstein

I consider learning the skill of meditation to be the most important thing I’ve ever learnt in my life. By far.

I tend not to talk about it either, which I think is a common trait amongst meditators. Because it is experiential. Also esoteric as most people don’t go sit month long meditation retreats.

When people ask me about meditation, they tend to have a pre-convienced notion of what it is. That it involves some supernatural or irrational belief structure. That it involves growing out your hair, crossing your legs and ‘accessing your 9th Chakra’. “What do you even do. Are you sitting there just not thinking? “. “Are you chanting Om in an attempt to gain some sort of ‘enlightenment“. Worst one was a Christian girl who said, ‘Urh, I don’t want to join a cult”.

This isn’t helped by the new surge in the ‘self help meditation’ movement. The word has lost its meaning. Being used by the next guru to influence others, or sell copies of their book. ’To think positive thoughts’. Please.

First of all. I just want to say, I am through and through, a scientist. I am one of the biggest skeptics and abhor dogma and any claims that are unsupported. I caused a lot of trouble in my philosophy and ethics class, questioning from first principles. You can dismantle most dogma by asking ‘why’. My inherent disposition is one of doubt

And in my initial dive into Buddhist/Eastern philosophy, the first sentence I read was :

Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation.”

– Buddha

That piqued my interest. And down the rabbit hole I went.

The first thing is : meditation is a practice. It is like lifting weights or exercising in the gym. There is no authority. It is a simple set of exercises you do with your mind. It is radically scientific. Based on an epistemological stance of questioning entirely from first principles. Obviously there is religious muddying, where a lot of Eastern ‘Buddhists’ don’t even meditate. There are always attempts to institutionalise and solidify power.

But the practice itself is independent of any dogma. You don’t need to be a Buddhist or a Christian or a Hindu. Meditation is not ‘Buddhist’ insofar as the Laws of Physics are not ‘Christian’ (even though discovered by Christians) or Algebra is not Islamic (even though discovered by Muslims).

You don’t need to ‘believe’ in anything.

It is a set of mental exercises that produce lasting changes in the brain.

One of the initial instructions is so basic, that is is laughable.
“ Just sit and pay attention to your own breath”

So you sit down and you try to pay attention.
Ok. Its going well. 5 seconds in. Wow, I am really doing it. This is great, I wonder what Jess would think of this, I think she would flip out. I don’t really like her to be honest, I wonder if she likes me. What did I have for lunch today. Salmon. Salman Rushdie is such a great author…

And you are lost. Without training, this is how one spends their entire life. Without even realising it.

I remember I couldn’t even focus on the breath for 2 seconds. The worst part was realising that I had thought I was paying attention to my thoughts, that I ‘understood’ myself, and absolutely destroying that belief. I really did not understand my mind in the slightest.

You are trapped in a spell. This is the normal mind before any training in meditation. You don’t realise it, but for your whole life you have been lost in thought, without knowing necessarily that you are thinking.

The problem is most of our ‘default patterns of thought’ skew in a negative light. Wandering minds are unhappy minds- as a famous Neuroscience paper put it. Being scattered is not a pleasant feeling. Being focused is pleasant.

There are states of conscious experience that are available that are radically free of suffering. Full of intense joy, equanimity and free of aversion. Those states may be temporary, but over time lead to changes in traits.

If you can’t focus on your breath for 5 seconds, how can you focus on something infinitely more complex, such as grief or sadness or boredom?

Thích Quảng Đức self immolating in protest. Didn’t move a muscle. Evidence that there are states you can get into that are vastly different from those you experience on a day to day.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is an incredibly broad term. It is like saying ‘Exercise’. It can encompass Gymnastics training to Olympic weightlifting to simply walking in the park.

There are many different techniques. However one that has gained some degree of popularity is the 2500 year old ‘Mindfulness’ meditation in the Buddhist Theravadan tradition. : Vipassana-Samatha meditation.
But there are many more : in the Zen (soto) tradition. Tibetan Dgzochen practice. They all ultimately target the same root. Mindfulness mediation however is a good entry.

Mindfulness is a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in the thought. It is a radically different way of relating to experience.

Instead of being lost in thought about an event, you can relate to it differently. Suppose you replay an embarrassing moment. That triggers feelings of guilt/sadness or the whole panoply of emotions available. That story then leads to another story ‘I am boring, or I am stupid’. Any sort of belief structure. That habit or pattern of thought repeated, cements itself.
People can literally be angry for hours or days. People can stay angry and resentful for years against someone who has wronged them, even when it is not useful.

You are lost in a story that you are overlaying onto sensation.

What this training does, at a basic level, is it grants mental autonomy to ‘drop’ the pattern immediately. To see the thought, to observe the mind, without being lost in the stories. To see sadness or grief or joy for what it is. As sensations in the body. Or internal dialogue or imagery.

“You can drop whatever pattern you are lost in”. Instantly.

An analogy I like is this. Suppose you are waiting at the train station. A thought arises. This is like the train pulling up at the station. The default response that 99.9% of humanity experiences is that they get on the train, and are whisked away by the thought. Taken in all sorts of directions, onto new trains”. All at the mercy of the next arising thought in consciousness.

There is another option.

What this training does is. : allows you to see the train coming. And then choose not to get on. Not always. It is difficult. But suddenly having that mental autonomy, you have a radically different way of relating to experience. One with much less misery and suffering. And much more peace and contentment.

Practice produces objective changes in the brain

It’s a practice…

There is objective scientific evidence that there are structural changes in the brain of long term meditators.
For example : Studies looking at monks with lifetime hours of 40,000+ show that there are changes in the pattern of brain waves with more alpha waves present.
The activity in a set of structures called the ‘Default mode network’ is different. The DFMN is responsible for discursive thought that arises when you are ‘doing nothing’. It is the backdrop of your conscious experience.
The DFMN is quieter in long term meditators. It doesn’t light up as much as in non-meditators

I don’t intend to make this blog post a deep dive into the literature. But there is an excellent book called ‘The Science of Meditation’ that explores some of the studies done.

But we all know this intuitively. The habits of our life have a momentum to them, forming deep grooves in the rock-beds of our psyche.

Watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny

Contentment

Basic training involves the ability to direct attention to some level. It gives you the tool to explore your internal world. How do thoughts arise? What is a thought? Where is it?

Through this exploration, you can come to realise the causes of ‘misery, unsatisfactoriness, discontent’. Whatever you want to call it.

At the root level, what this training allows one to do, is to experience real contentment.
Not waiting for any external factor to change. But to experience contentment independent of any conditions.

As a default state, humans have evolved to be ‘discontented’. We want better things. We want to push away negative experience. We want to cling to positive experience. Evolutionarily this makes sense.

But both negative and positive experience are fleeting. Any negative experience will fade. Any positive experience will fade. Experience is ephemeral. Here one moment and gone the next. Any attempt to cling or hold on, is painful.

We go through life constantly chasing desires and pushing away negative experiences. This creates a level of ‘misery’, unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Use whatever terminology. But there is an angst. You can experience this by going on a retreat paradoxically. Just try and sit with your untrained mind for 30 minutes. Literally doing nothing. It won’t be pleasant I can promise.

Part of what this training does, is to allow you to understand desire and aversion. And then choose a middle way.

It’s like everyone is on a beach. When the tide comes in, they are running away. When the tide subsides, they are running towards it. Perpetually lost in a cycle of pushing, and pulling at experience. Wanting and not wanting.

But there is a middle way. To simply lie down on the sand and let the tide wash over you, finding joy in the experience.

Deeper Realisations : Illusory nature of the self, Impermanence, Suffering

Not quite

By paying closer and closer attention to experience, there are certain aspects you can realise about consciousness.

One core of what these traditions point towards is the selfless nature of experience. More accurately, the self as we think of it, is not what it seems.

If you’ve had any training in neuroscience. This is obvious to you, at least from an intellectual standpoint. We are hallucinating our reality. The brain is a virtual reality headset constructing reality using data from our sense organs. And with that, there really no ‘unchanging self’.

There is no soul. No unchanging self. No constant unchanging entity you call ‘You’. There is a constant flux of change. Your cells are constantly dividing. There is no ‘place in the brain’ that houses the self. The brain can instead be seen as a boardroom with various subminds vying for conscious experience.
You are literally not the same person as you were once you finish reading this sentence.
For example, the person you are without a cup of coffee in the morning, and the person you are with a coffee, are different are they not in how they react?

Furthermore from physics, we know that we are not ‘independent’. We are deeply interconnected. Where is the ‘self’ in the collection of atoms that compose you. Are you your body? Are you the brain? ‘You’ really are nowhere to be found.

But of course, you feel like a self at the moment. There is a narrative structure to your experience. You went to school in Bedford. You like Greek style yogurt. You look like ‘this’. But if you look closely, can see a narrative arising and passing away. You can dissolve the feeling that ‘you are behind your head’.

We actually lose our sense of self a lot I think without realising it. Imagine those moments in life, where you were truly immersed in the experience. Probably some of the most joyous experiences in your life. There was no projection of self referential thought. ‘You’ forgot you existed. There was just total immersion.

The fact is, you can see this inherent lack of self, lack of centre, as easily as you can see your blindspot. It’s not a matter of ‘progressing’ or ‘becoming a better meditator’. There is no ‘enlightenment’ where all your psychological problems dissolve and you permanently become a superior being. That is nonsense. People go their entire life chasing this notion of enlightenment, without realising that it is right on the surface.

You can see the inherent lack of self. And in that, there is a tremendous unity. It’s hard to describe. People can experience this when they take psychedelics. It’s like, there is really no centre to experience. There is just the arising and passing away of phenomena. And where you are, there is just the universe. An intense feeling of interconnectedness.

Please don’t take this as the truth. But as an avenue to explore yourself. Some Zen teachers famously were quite ‘violent’ in their objection to theorising, encouraging instead to simply sit and explore.

It is a hypothesis you can test. There are a set of techniques that allow you to explore your internal experience, and see this for yourself. It is not mystical, it is not magical. But it is strange and profound, and deeply liberating.

Conclusion

My retirement plan

My life is radically different.

Abhishek before meditation was lost in thought — 100% of the time.

Abhishek after learning meditation — sometimes isn’t.

The different between those is vast.

Ultimately, it is about understanding your mind. Coming from a point of curiosity. This is what I think ‘Spirituality’ is. Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher – articulates this well in his essay : ‘Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty’.

Science is an exploration of the external world coming coming from a place of questioning. The telescope is an instrument we can use to discern this external reality.

Spirituality is an exploration of the internal subjective world coming from a place of questioning. Meditation is a tool we can use to greater discern this internal reality. It sharpens the faculty of attention.

There is much more to be said on this topic. But reading and experiencing are vastly different. One is intellectual. The other is practical. But for some further exploration, I’ve put a list of resources for myself too, to re-read and digest.

Resources

I can’t recall all the resources and books I’ve explored in the past decade. But a few stand out as being influential.

  1. Sam Harris is one of my favourite humans. Initially a philosophy major. Then spent several years exploring in Asia, spending a total of 2 years in silent retreats. Then came back to do a Neuroscience pHD. Author. Articulate (but monotone in a good way). Discusses meditation in a secular rationalist way.
  2. Sapiens – by Yuval Noah Harari. Great book that explores human history. I disagree with some aspects, not referenced, but great read.
  3. J. Krishnamurti : definitely don’t read him first. He didn’t make sense to me, until I finally ‘experienced’ what the hell he was talking about. But I do love his radical stance of standing apart from all authority. ‘Truth is a pathless land’.
  4. Alan Watts – is a great communicator of Zen
  5. Tara Brach- another modern communicator of Buddhist philosophy
  6. Bruce Lee – surprisingly had some great insights into life : Striking Thoughts
  7. The Mind Illuminated : this is perhaps the most comprehensive book on Samatha-Vipassana meditation I’ve read. Deeply influential.
  8. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha : Daniel Ingram.
  9. What the Buddha Taught : Classic book, well articulated
  10. Robert Wrights book on Buddhism,- coming from a place of journalistic curiosity

Thinking About Language

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world

Wittgenstein

Although I disagree with Wittgenstein, he highlights the importance of language in our day to day life

The language which we use, constructs the narrative which we believe in, it conveys how you are feeling to yourself and to others. Therefore a finer, more accurate use of language, allows more information to be conveyed. You can be better understood. You can ask better questions. Ultimately you can connect.

Language is the medium we have to convert electrochemical energy in the form of thoughts, into vibrational energy in the form of speech, and then back. It’s the arguably the transmission of thought, with the added filter of being able to lie or distort thought. It’s a vital skill.

I want to explore some unspoken rules about language, that can make the way I communicate, clearer.

Context Dependent

Use language based on the context you are in. Don’t use the word ‘epistemology’ to explain a concept to a 5 year old. In fact don’t use epistemology unless you are talking to a regular person. Use it if you are talking to a philosophy graduate.

Simplicity

Using fancy words, and long sentences, should only be used to the extent that it makes an idea clearer.

Words are vehicles to convey meaning. The more advanced the word, the smaller the audience will be that knows what you mean.

I tend to use long sentences. But if the same message can be conveyed with fewer words, that is better. Hemingway is a good example of this.

Pausing is better than filler words

I tend to use ‘cool’ and ‘like’ as filler words when thinking. Not always, but the default, especially if I’m nervous is to add these into speech.

In fact it just makes you appear more nervous, more uncertain, and less articulate.

It is far better to pause. It feels much longer than it is, but that pause allows you to construct a logical chain of points that in the end, make a greater impact.

Expand your vocabulary

I love the scene above!

Read more. Not only that, read more, and write down words that you do not know. Write that novel you’ve been meaning to write. Write incoherent blog posts. Write that twilight fan fiction that becomes 50 shades of grey.

Actually. Don’t do that last one.

I have started using ‘Anki’ decks. I add any new vocabulary which I come across, that I want to learn. You don’t need to do this, but I like being systematic.

Then use the words in your daily life. I noticed that the sole word I used to describe a good situation was, well… good. I kept saying good to everything. ‘That sounds good’. ‘You look good’. I am ‘good’.

The word good, suddenly became a catchall. Instead of using more precise words to convey feeling, it ended up just being ‘good’.

The real downside is that you can fail to communicate how you feel to yourself and those around you. You can miss opportunities for meaningful connection, and that is a real shame.

A Conversation is inversely proportional to the number of participants

“Two is company. Three is a crowd”

The more people you have in a conversation, the lower the quality of the conversation.

You end up talking about superficial topics. Everyone talks, but no-one listens. There is no real deeper connection formed. This is not a bad thing, but as an introvert, I find that unsatisfying.

I would much rather spend time with 1-2 people at most and really ask difficult questions, that you couldn’t ask in a group setting. All driven by a curiosity about human nature. I think at a core level, all human beings are the same. We are driven by desire and aversion, we want the same things. To love and be loved. It’s just that society and culture layers on top of these shared common values.

Spending time with one person, you can explore your shared humanity and values, realising that at a fundamental level, you are the same. That I think, is beautiful.

Silence

If you have nothing to say at all, then be silent.
When people talk about awkward silences, I strangely don’t feel awkward at all. Maybe that’s atypical, but I don’t feel the need to fill the air constantly with words.
I then tend to get labelled as being quiet and introverted, and apparently mysterious. This makes me sound much cooler and introspective than I probably am. It’s just when I have nothing to say, I don’t say anything. Saves a lot of mental bandwidth.

Learn a foreign language

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own”

Goethe

I think the above statement is probably exaggerated. But the point is, there are 1000’s of languages. Learn one you will use.

Don’t Lie

Not even white lies. There is a fantastic little book written by Sam Harris called ‘Lying’, that details why all lying is ultimately harmful.

Worth a read. If you want mental peace, control over yourself rather than others and internal silence, don’t lie.

Flow

Good writers tend to intersperse long sentences with shorter ones. This creates flow. Then once in a while, they go for a dangerously long and convoluted sentence, one in which you can’t really sense the end or the beginning anymore, it’s just a cacophony of words that if done properly, is immensely gratifying. Then you can return back to short.

The point is, using sentences of the same length can convey monotony. But using longer and shorter sentences creates flow.

Conclusion:

Most of these blog posts really have no defined structure. They just tend to be a menagerie of ideas about a topic that I end up thinking about on Sunday mornings, and then solidify into sentences.

Thanks for reading to this point is you are still here.

Future Abhishek, don’t use the word ‘epistemology’ in front of a five year old. Please.

Thinking About Happiness and Meaning

This is an exploration of ‘happiness’ and ‘meaning’.

What is Happiness?

Everyone has their own definition of happiness.

  1. “Once I get X, I will be happy” ( X= item, job, money, status, partner, body, experience)
  2. Doing the most ‘good’ in the world
  3. Eudaemonia : ‘flourishing’.
  4. Contentment

Number 1 tends to be the default mode.

There are many more. What is important is to examine your definition of happiness.

One definition that comes up in many traditions is : peace and contentment.

It is not about seeking positive or negative states. But about accepting them as they come. Life is a river of experience, some good, some bad. But the way you react to the experiences is what determines your level of peace.

You can either go through life struggling. Rejecting or chasing after things. Buffeted by the waves of pleasure, pain, success, failure, loss, gain, death, tragedy.

Or you can face them with equanimity. Appreciating joy, appreciating sadness and all the range of conscious experiences available.

This hypothesis comes up in many philosophies (Buddhism, Stoicism , Taoism). What we seek is peace through acceptance.


Internal vs External Games

@naval : We play external games all day : go get better grades, go make money etc. These are all multiplayer games. You should go do those. But looking for contentment by making the world conform to your desires will never work.

Knowing others is intelligence;

knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength; 

mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu

Instead, change yourself. Seek to alter the way you see the world.

This is entirely trainable. It is like building muscles in the gym. It’s a set of tools that you use until they become habitual.

This will be an exploration of this internal game and how to train the mind to become generally more content and peaceful. Let’s start at the beginning.


First Principles :

You are a biological creature who ‘experiences’ the world through a nervous system. How experience arises (‘consciousness’) we don’t know. But really you are essentially wearing a virtual reality helmet that is your brain and nervous system that converts changes in electrochemical energy into ‘experience’.

Whatever reality looks like, it doesn’t ‘look’ like anything. Many neuroscientists espouse the idea of ‘virtuality’. The brain creates a model of reality. Everyone is hallucinating, but when the hallucinations line up, we have a consensus of ‘reality’.

Evolution has programmed the brain to model reality in a certain way that maximises genes passing down populations. The mind is not immune to natural selection. Many books exploring this topic. You have biases tending towards ‘survival’ or self deception.

Some of these biases are not helping you become peaceful. There is a mismatch between the environment we evolved in and the current modern day environment

Evolution has not programmed for contentment. It has programmed for desire and aversion. We are never content.

The default state is non-contentment

You are always reacting to internal states. It’s all just neurotransmitters and electrochemical energy creating a model of experience (best hypothesis so far). You don’t perceive reality. Instead you live in a mental representation of reality.

You never react to the external world, you always react to your perception of it.

The universe essentially has no concept of bad or good. It is only in your mind that an event is judged to be positive or negative.

Naval

This is important to understand because it means that :

Circumstances matter little. Unless you are in extreme poverty, changing your external environment does little to happiness. There are a few external factors that aid in contentment, discussed below.

It’s the way you interpret the stories you create.

We are often wrong about what will make us happy. As I said, the brain has evolved to pass genes, not to be happy. Certain intuitions are false. Examples :

Having X will make me happy, Earning X will make me happy, Having X partner will make me happy

This is called ‘affective forecasting’. We have a very poor ability to predict what will bring about contentment and happiness in the future.

For example : ‘Once I get into Medical School I will be happy’. How long did that last? A day, a week?. Then : ‘Once I get out of medical school, I will be happy’. Same outcome. ‘Once I become a consultant’…

It is obvious with material goods. You know upgrading your car isn’t going to bring long lasting contentment. But it is often harder to see with career goals or self-improvement etc. The Buddhists have a word for this desire ‘Bhava tanha’. The desire to become. In psychology it is the ‘Hedonic treadmill’.

Desire is not bad. It is inevitable. But be aware of the fact that fulfilling your desires is inherently unsatisfactory. The second ‘truth’ that the Buddha articulated : ‘Life is inherently unsatisfactory’.

So pick your desires very carefully : See ‘externals’ section below. Don’t have too many. And prioritise them. Relationships > Work etc

TLDR : Happiness as most of these ancient philosophies have mentioned is internal. It is your reaction. It is the mental stories you tell yourself AND how one relates to those stories

There are largely 3 ways to train the mind to become happier i.e. the reps of the internal game.

  1. Meditation
  2. Analysis of Thought
  3. (Pharmacological)

I will discuss each of these in turn.


1. Meditation

Modernity has destroyed what we mean by meditation.

TLDR : Observe. Look closely at experience.

Meditation is about becoming aware of ‘experience’ as it arises and passes away. This includes the arising and passing of thought. It is not about ‘not thinking’.

It is paying close attention to the contents of consciousness

Realising that thoughts are impermanent, and simply arising and passing away, as with all contents of consciousness.

Ultimately the relationship with phenomena changes. There is only consciousness and its contents. ‘Awareness’.

It is about viscerally understanding impermanence, the nature of suffering, and the illusory nature of the self (in Buddhist philosophy : Annicha, Dukkha, Annata)

Basic method:

  1. Bring attention to the breath
  2. Notice when the mind wanders
  3. Bring it back to the breath
  4. Be aware that one is thinking, without getting lost in thought.

Noticing that you were mind wandering is a glimpse of awareness. Repeat until it becomes habitual.

One can exclusively pay attention and explore conscious experience. Suppose you sit for a month just paying close attention to the contents of conscious experience. You can discover something fundamental about the nature of consciousness.

The Buddhist view of the self being not what it seems is being investigated and is being supported by modern neuroscience. Furthermore, there are objective changes in the brains of meditators.

The brain has a set of structures called the ‘Default mode network (DFMN). DFMN turns on when one is doing ‘nothing’. It results in background thought. It is ‘self referential thought’. Basically thinking without one is knowing they are thinking

Wandering minds are unhappy minds. Though can be a useful tool, but a terrible master

Meditation is a way to train these structures. fMRI scans show that experienced meditators have lower activity in the DFMN. But the real benefit is experiential.

Meditation is a fundamental ability. It can greatly reduce suffering as you become aware of ‘yourself’

There are profound experiential truths that can be investigated at a first person level through meditation. Admittedly not many people want to go on month long meditation retreats. But there is a lot to be gained from a basic daily practice. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.


2. Analysis of Thought

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Victor Frankyl

This is the realm of philosophy. You can choose your response to situations.

You can construct and reinforce thoughts that are useful and adaptive. You can train yourself to respond in certain ways to challenges.

The liberating aspect is realising : "my thoughts are not accurate. They are simply models. "

You can change your thought through deliberate analysis. If you have ruminations on self image, jealously, anger etc, become aware of them. Write them down. Journal

They lose their power almost immediately once brought into the light. They are simply constructs that you can change.

It is about intention and conscious deliberation. Left to its own devices, the automaticity of thought can cause tremendous amounts of unhappiness.

But when looked at, and accepted. Not pushed against. One can begin to change.


3. Pharmacological

Being medically trained, these medications have real side-effects. It is akin to using a sledge-hammer to hammer in a nail.

A lot of research is being done into psychedelics. I don’t know enough about them, but my worry is that they may not be sustainable.


External Factors

There are certain external factors that can affect your happiness.

Importance of social relationships

Those with deeper, closer social relationships are happier

The hard part is finding meaningful relationships and keeping them

One strategy is to meet lots of people. Once you find the right people – go all in. Invest in long term relationships

The longest term relationships are always family. So invest in family.

Quality > Quantity

Make time for relationships. A dying regret of many, is that they wish they hadn’t worked so much, and wish they had spent more time with people they love.

Time Affluence

People with more time and autonomy are happier

When faced with a decision between money vs time. Choose time

Unless you can trade the money for more time

Use money to buy time rather than to buy social status

Time is non renewable. Money is renewable.

There are 2 ways to be rich : earning a lot and desiring very little

Certain Environments

Commuting : Excessive commuting has been shown to make people unhappy

Noisy environments

Avoiding Poverty

Money is essential.

It should be viewed as tool rather than as an ends

Trade money for time. Outsource labour. Specialise as a producer ( become a specialist in the economy e.g. lawyer) so you can diversify as a consumer (trade that money for other speciality such as a painter to paint your house)

Money can essentially buy ‘freedom’ which is Time.

Popular study : happiness increases up to $50000 a year.

Just automate finances, so you don’t have to think about it all the time.


Meaning

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.

Victor Frankyl

It is important to have a ‘meaning’. A higher overarching narrative you live by, even thought it is illusory.

I find this video essay explores meaning and nihilism well.

There is no meaning universally.

Meaning is locally created by you.

You get to pick and choose a meaning to life. Here are some popular ones :

  • Kids
  • Helping people
  • Doing ‘meaningful work’

What is important is to think about what your meaning is.


Conclusion

Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone.

Figure it out for yourself through experiments. Start from an epistemological stance of reasoning entirely from first principles.

Just make sure you think about these topics and revise your views accordingly. Have opinions, just loosely held.

Three Questions to Answer in Your 20’s

The 1% of decisions you make paradoxically determine the trajectory of your life

In your 20’s, I think there are three main questions to be answered :

  1. Where do you live
  2. What do you do
  3. Who do you spend your time with

Let’s explore each of these

1. Where

Do you choose to live in a City or a Rural area?
Where do you choose to live in a City?
What City do you live in?
Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond?
Where can you afford to live?

You can try rationalise a lot of these. But at some fundamental level, there is an intuition. The problem is : you are the easiest person to fool.

You are a very poor predictor of ‘what you think you want’. It’s called affective forecasting.

You might have an idealised notion of wanting to live in the big city. So you spend years saving or working towards that, finally to reach your goal, and realise it was not what you wanted. It was just a ‘thought’ , repeated until you confused it for reality.

So what is the solution?

Mini experiments : Live in a place for a few months or a year if possible. Or at least frequently visit or ask friends/family who live there.

Currently : I have this idealised notion of living in North/West London. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe romanticism. But I don’t know the reality of living there, and making all my decisions to get there is foolish. Instead experiment first. Settle later.

It’s a pretty big decision. It warrants experiments.

2. What

What do you do for your career?

Ideally you should do something you are intrinsically motivated to do.
But again that is not always possible for most people.

You can either do what you enjoy, or enjoy what you do. Those are the two options.

Or you could be miserable in a job that pays well.

But the best would be to learn to enjoy what you do. Enjoy the process. But what career do you pick?

This question is a lot easier for Medics. The path is very clear. It’s a lifelong profession generally.

But for most other careers, when I talk to people, they just seem to ‘fall’ into a job by accident. They may consciously choose a ‘field’ but they don’t choose the job prospects.

Moreover the idea of having the same ‘job’ for life is an outdated 20th century notion. Nowadays, people are constantly switching jobs. Just talking with a few of my STEM graduate friends, even they are finding it difficult to cope with the uncertainty. They don’t know ‘where’ they are going exactly.

Solution?

You should not try to ‘aim’ towards any specific job. But develop the character and skillset such that you are resilient and employable. The pace of innovation is only accelerating, and the most valuable skill in the 21st century is the ability to learn fast whilst also staying sane.

Currently : Fortunately for me, I’ve thought this one through a lot. I’ve experimented, spent almost 2 months in Radiology departments. I’ve compared it to other specialities I want to do. There is no question, I can’t see myself doing anything other than Radiology. It’s intrinsically enjoyable.

3. Who

[Intimacy and Relationships]

This is arguably the most important one, but also the hardest one.

Modernity makes it hard to keep stable ties since people move around. But you can make an effort to go meet old friends, and make new friends of course.

In terms of finding a good romantic partner, there is an element of luck involved. You can increase your odds by meeting more people, through shared networks or groups, but luck is still present.

Solution?

Meet lots of new people initially. But if you don’t ‘click’ or share common values, don’t invest. Invest in the 1% of people you do connect with. And go all in.

Conclusion

Think carefully about these three questions as they largely determine the trajectory of your life.

No right or wrong answers : just an open floor to facilitate introspection.

Thinking about Success and Failure

I want to explore my view on what success and failure mean.

As always, with language it comes down to semantics. We all mean something different when we talk about success. Everyone is viewing the world through their own filter.

What is important, is to examine what your definition is. Otherwise you can be unconsciously influenced and just wholesale adopt the definitions of others

A few definitions that may be possible

* Make a ton of money
* Have a high status career
* Fulfil all your desires
* Be a moral/good person
* Help people

There are many definitions, and they are all individual.

But success tends to be a way of saying that you’ve fulfilled whatever desires you have. Failure means you haven’t.

What’s wrong with success = fulfilling all your desires?

Suppose you fulfill all your desires. You’ve been incredibly fortunate (or unfortunate!).
You’ve made money, have a high status job, even have a loving caring family. You might have struggled, been through mental breakdowns, destroyed relationships.
You’ve built this edifice. You’re the top

But… you haven’t realised that you will have to climb back down.

But you haven’t realised that its impermanent. It’s all just wooden scaffolding, and one day it will all burn down.

I swear I’m not a nihilist. I’m the opposite. (I’m rationally optimistic.)

Maybe a parable will help. This is a Taoist story

May be…

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

The point is. Life is inherently full of loss and gain. What comes around goes around.

I’ve internalised this so deeply, that I always instinctively question any praise or criticism. Default thought that comes up is “Is that so?”.

If you choose to define success and failure that way and cling to it, then it causes a great deal of misery.

What’s the alternative?

Acceptance

In all things have no preferences

Miyamoto Mushashi

I don’t tend to think of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ anymore. A more adaptive and useful framing is ‘learning point’.

There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so. Reality just is. It’s just when our judgement ‘module’ comes online, that suddenly things are deemed good or bad.

You can see this in meditation. You might have this incredible pain in your knee while sitting. You’re struggling, resisting. All because you are ‘thinking’ without knowing you are thinking. Then suddenly you ‘see’ the thought, ‘this is bad’. And that awareness itself, just dissolves the struggle. Immediately. It becomes raw sensation, with ‘thought’ overlaid on top of it. Thinking without knowing you are thinking is the root. It can dissolve it instantly with awareness.

Events are largely up to your interpretation. Loss is not ‘bad’. It is just loss.
Gain is not ‘good’. It is just gain.

This way of seeing, I realise is not the norm in society. I look at other people and kind of think they’re definition is weird (maybe I’m the weird one) and it causes a lot of misery.

Fortunately this view has been articulated in Eastern philosophies (and Western stoicism), which is why I immediately connected with them. They articulate it a lot better than me…

But I can tell you its pretty damn peaceful, and paradoxically I’m more effective with basically no ‘stress’.

Desire is not bad… but clinging to it without realising it will change can be unpleasant

Desire is inevitable.

Obviously we all have basic desires for food, shelter etc

But if you haven’t noticed, we also have a desire for security. A desire that things will remain as they are. That we will be untouched by grief, sorrow, loss.

We desire security in an inherently insecure changing world. Expectation and reality collide.

We want one side of the coin: gain, ‘success’, ‘money’. But we don’t want the other.

So we cling to desire and push against loss. Without realising that what goes up must also come down. I encapsulate this into the well known aphorism:

‘Desire is suffering’.

It’s that clinging to one side of the coin, without realising that one must accept both.

So how do we think about desire?

Be aware of desires

Be aware of whatever desires you have. Because any desire you have is basically saying : I refuse to be content until this is satisfied.

So don’t have too many! Especially the small ones, like desiring someone to be slightly different because you don’t like something about them, or desiring better weather etc.

Don’t have small desires that accumulate and subtly make life unsatisfactory. Have larger desires.

What are my desires?

Thought this would be a useful exercise to think about.

I have desires in life. Things ‘I’ want.

* Large family
* Time and financial independence

I think that’s it…

Maybe I’ll get them. Maybe I won’t.
But neither is good or bad…

Conclusion

This blog is becoming fun, because I can explore some counterintuitive views that I’ve had for a long time!

The whole point of this blog is to look back in 5 years time, and reassess. It’s fun to look at how one has changed.