Suburban Seeker

There beneath the blue suburban skies

Millennial Impatience

Millennial Impatience

Don’t be turned off by the terrible click-bait headline. This article is worth a read for anyone who finds themselves spending an ever-increasing amount of time online, particularly on social media sites.

Hand-wringing about the effects of technology is nothing new. (In fact it is quite old.) That is not a bad thing. In fact, these days it is probably necessary. The pace of technological change is so stunning that the world has never seen anything like it. Fifty years ago there were no personal computers. Now most of us have a personal computer that we keep in our pocket that is far more powerful than PCs from a mere decade ago.

Such rapid technological change must affect us, and probably in fundamental ways. The question is what these effects may be. One that I have experienced myself, and one that this article discusses, is an increasing tendency towards distraction and more difficulty staying focused.

I love Reddit (that is, I love the subreddits that I subscribe to. If you see anything from r/AdviceAnimals when you sign on, you’re using Reddit wrong) but it definitely feeds this tendency. Click, scan, click, scan, click, scan. Only rarely do I find an article that I feel is worth my time to read, and even then I probably won’t finish reading it.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that I have a tendency to skim articles online. Oftentimes a quick scan through the headlines is enough to tell you what is going on in the world. This was true in the era of newspapers too. The problem arises when something comes across your screen that is worth spending time with. Something that is worth reading slowly and pondering. The internet is a terrible medium for this.

I am not the first person to notice this, of course, and fortunately smart people have begun to come up with solutions. One I really like is a plug-in I use for Chrome called Clearly. It cleans up web pages so that you are not constantly distracted by the other articles you could be reading on the side of the page. It is clean and makes the page look like a book.

Even with Clearly, I find myself checking Reddit or Facebook or Twitter mid-article. It’s almost a compulsion. When I notice I am doing this I try to stop, but oftentimes I don’t even notice I am doing it until I have read seven of the thirteen comments on a status a friend of a friend posted on Facebook about something that I in no way care about.

For me the real solution is to do my actual reading and thinking away from a computer. This also includes tablets – though the form factor is better suited for reading than a PC’s, the ease of switching from the Kindle app to the very best Reddit app makes it too tempting to distract myself with internet pablum when I’m using my iPad.

Fortunately more websites are letting you send articles to your e-reader. (I highly recommend Aeon magazine.) My Kindle is a godsend. I have a plain ol’ Kindle. No color, no video, and a terrible web browser. It is good for one thing and one thing only: reading. It’s true that I can still pick up my phone and dick around online, but doing so is a step removed from the task at hand. Rather than switching from app to app within a device, I have to actually switch devices. And though on paper this doesn’t sound like much, in practice it is the difference between reading for a solid hour and reading in five minute increments in between checking to see who is depressed on Facebook today.

The ultimate solution is as always self control. If you have good self control, you’ll be able to resist the urge to seek constant stimulation online. But for those of us who struggle to exercise self control, it is always a good idea to have a few tips and tricks to help yourself when your willpower is off for the day.

It will be interesting to see where this all leads. To a generation raised in an era when smartphones are the default, all this worrying will probably end up sounding silly. But until then, I still find great value in spending time to sit down and do some actual reading and thinking and I can’t seem to do it when the internet is always clamoring for my attention. I’ll deal with that for now and then we’ll see how it all shakes out down the road.

News Brief: Mindfulness Conquers World

News Brief: Mindfulness Conquers World

This morning I was sitting down to write a bit about why the current fad in America for all things “Mindful” drives me up the damn wall. Then I came across this piece which, while it isn’t exactly the point I was getting at, did highlight the fundamental problem I see with Mindfulness in America.

This problem is Mindfulness as something that can and should be utilized devoid of any larger practice, be it spiritual, religious, secular, or some combination thereof, that is devoted to living a good, moral life.

From the “news” story:

Standing before a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Briss read from a list of activities of global importance that used to be done mindlessly but now have been brought into the full light of mindfulness. “Before, the President ordered drone strikes, but now he orders drone strikes mindfully. Before, corporate executives fired thousands of workers and raised their own salaries, but now they fire thousands of workers mindfully and raise their own salaries mindfully. The list goes on and on.”

While this is satire, the point it makes is spot on. Mindfulness is a wonderful tool. In fact it is one of the most powerful tools for living a good life because it can enable you to get a better sense of what is actually going on in your mind. But to be truly useful it needs to be a part of a larger practice.

Devoid of any context, mindfulness leads swiftly to selfishness. In fact it heightens one’s sense of selfishness. Being “mindful of yourself” places the emphasis on You: on the experiences you are having, on your own desires, and on your own needs.

With proper, diligent practice you can start to see and experience these desires and needs as being transient. You will likely find that it becomes easier to let go of anger and other destructive patterns of thought because you can see them for what they are: impermanent mental states.

Learning to let go of these impermanent mental states will enable you to live both a good, happy life and a more selfless, less selfish life. (I would argue the former is impossible without the latter.) You will find that what makes you you is the interconnectedness of the world, and not in any vague New Age-y Quantum Attracted Particles of Universal Law or Something way.

(For a small example of this interconnectedness, next time you are grumpy, watch how the people around you become grumpy too. Or consider that old saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I seem to be.” What you put into the world will directly affect your experience of it in a very real way.)

So within the context of trying to live a moral, reflective life, there are few better tools than mindfulness. But you can’t just be mindful of the things you do in your daily life and hope to be happy if you aren’t happy to begin with.

In a society in which we are already heavily conditioned to be consumers of media, experiences, and art created by others; in which we vote for people because we’re on this team and we don’t like that other team; in which cynicism reigns and morality and spirituality are largely laughed at and ignored, mindfulness will become just another means of consuming things and living in the world as we are used to it.

This is a shame because mindfulness can and should be used  as a tool for genuine personal and spiritual growth. However living your life that way takes more effort than mindfully eating dinner and saying, “My – I am very aware of how delicious this dinner is!” It takes seeing yourself as you actually are (your strengths and weaknesses) and then working with this information. It takes working through failures and set backs. It is hard.

Mindfulness, at least at the level it has permeated the mass consciousness of America, is not packaged this way. It’s packaged as another self-help fad. You want to feel good, right? I mean, who doesn’t? Try being Mindful! But the way to actually feel “good” is to become less focused on yourself and more focused on your family, community, friends, and the world around you. Being mindful of your life can help you live your life that way, but not on its own.

The Brain on Trial

The Brain on Trial

When I was in college I initially pursued a degree in philosophy. (Save your jokes – I have never been a particularly career-oriented person.) What interested me most was epistemology and the philosophy of mind. However what I found as I studied these subjects was that most of the literature was not philosophy per se, but was instead scientific hypotheses without the necessary means of testing them.

I became convinced that, just as chemistry used to be considered a branch of philosophy until science developed far enough to take over, so too would the study of our minds be eventually transferred to the science departments of our universities. So I turned my studies to political science, which contrary to what its practitioners will tell you is in no way a science.

I became more interested in the study of mind from the inside, and this led me to the eastern meditative traditions. Western philosophy, aside from the occasional phenomenological movement, has never really appreciated the value of experience talis qualus. If it can’t be put into words by an objective third party, an experience or theory has no place in traditional western philosophy.

(“I think therefore I am” may seem the simplest and profoundest of truths, but it conceals a hugely hidden variable. What is this “I” that “is”?)

The breakthrough came for me in one epistemology lecture from the brilliant Paul Churchland. He was comparing various philosophical approaches to the study of knowledge and noted that they are all dependent on language.

This is interesting, because language is itself a learned ability. It is entirely possible to learn something (fire is hot) without needing any recourse to language. What this means is that words describing a mental state will not be a description of what is actually going on in the brain.

When we study the mind we have traditionally been using folk psychology. If I say that I am angry I am describing a specific mental state which is more accurately explained by the activation of different parts of the brain. Saying “I am angry” is like saying “the sun rose this morning” – you know what I mean, but what I am saying is not a scientifically accurate statement. The sun didn’t “rise” this morning. The planet we are on made one full rotation as it orbited its source of daylight.

The linked article develops along these lines. Our justice system has always presupposed the existence of free will, a concept that makes sense when used in conversation, but has never been even close to being settled. 

If a brain tumor causes a man to kill his family, can we hold him responsible? Clearly we cannot. If the nature of the tumor is such that it cannot be removed it would be irresponsible to release the man back into society since he will be likely to cause further harm, but at no point are we “blaming” him for his actions.

If it is discovered through further neuroscience research that other criminal acts are caused by biological functions over which the individual has no control, what shall we do? From the article:

As brain science improves, we will better understand that people exist along continua of capabilities, rather than in simplistic categories. And we will be better able to tailor sentencing and rehabilitation for the individual, rather than maintain the pretense that all brains respond identically to complex challenges and that all people therefore deserve the same punishments.

This is not to say that punishment has no place in society. But its purpose must be one of deterrence and prevention, not vengeance. And taking someone out of society should be done with the goal of rehabilitation, not with a desire for retribution.

And this, I imagine, is where things will get tricky, because it is fundamental to our concept of justice that bad people deserve bad things to happen to them. We love vengeance. It makes sense that evolution would give us this trait. Those that cause harm to the tribe must be removed from the tribe. It was bad enough dealing with water scarcity, other tribes, plagues, and saber-toothed tigers without having to deal with that asshole Fred who kept killing his fellow tribesmen.

When we describe a human as simply being “bad” or “evil” we are using folk psychology to describe something that is much more complicated. A person may very well fit our definition of evil, and he may very well need to be removed from society for his or our own good, but the world – and the people in it – are never as simple as words make it seem.

Diagnosis: Human

Diagnosis: Human

Excellent, beautiful meditation by Ted Gup on the prevalence of ADHD in children in America. (Or, I should more accurately say, the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses.)

From the article:

“Ours is an age in which the airwaves and media are one large drug emporium that claims to fix everything from sleep to sex. I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.” (Emphasis mine)

I couldn’t have put it better. To be sure there are many people who do legitimately suffer from mental illness. But the idea that we should be happy all the time is a very strange one that flies in the face of the fact that we live in a universe that is actively trying to kill us and will eventually succeed.

Life is often hard, confronting us with circumstances and challenges that we would rather not face. But think how boring and bland life would be if things were otherwise. Without the downs, the ups are meaningless.

When someone reacts to the death of a loved one by becoming sad, or a divorce by becoming depressed, they are just experiencing part of what it means to be human. When little boys throw rocks at one another when they should be doing homework, they are not exhibiting symptoms of  hyperactivity and impulsiveness, they are just doing what little boys like to do.

It is the job of parents and society at large to instill in them the value of hard work and that play time is for after the job is done. And it is the job of children to ignore this advice for as long as they can. Anything else would be inhuman.

The Story of Bottled Water

Good video to watch on manufactured demand as it relates to bottled water, one of the biggest scams around.

One of the videos claims is a bit specious – bottled water often does taste better than tap water. But to that I have two responses: 1) get a filter if you must, and 2) just suck it up. Water’s primary function is to keep us alive. The water from your tap will do that, and, for the overwhelmingly vast majority of communities in America, it won’t make you sick.

It boggles my mind that we have defeated one of nature’s biggest obstacles to survival: we have a steady, reliable source of clean water that is continuously tested for pollutants and pathogens. We use this water largely to piss in and keep our yards green in the summer.

Drink water from the tap. If you don’t like the taste, quit whining and drink water from the tap. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll be doing the planet and your wallet a favor.

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

I for one can’t wait to go back to the good ol’ days when there was no such thing as antibiotics and a small cut could easily kill you. This seems like the kind of thing that could kill us all, if our overconsumption of meat wasn’t doing it already.

If nothing else, at least we get cheap, poor quality meat from sick animals in the meantime.

Never eat fast food. Eat less meat. Eat better quality meat when you do. If not for ethical reasons, then for the simple gross-out factor. (Who wants to eat the flesh of animals that lived in such filthy conditions they needed daily doses of antibiotics to stay alive?)

But the ethical reasons are important too. We’re only alive for a bit – isn’t it better to decrease the suffering of other creatures while we’re here rather than increase it?

Brad Warner is Not a Zen Buddhist

Brad Warner is Not a Zen Buddhist

What has always drawn me to Zen is that it tries to get to the heart of the way things ARE. In this moment. Not what Buddha said, not what your parents said, not what you have been raised and conditioned to think. I don’t know if this mentality is entirely compatible with “religion”. This post by Brad Warner is a good discussion of this ambivalence.