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.