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Is ‘enough’ a concept we understand?

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book a cou­ple years back on mind­ful eat­ing. It’s his take on how to han­dle the prob­lem we seem to have — in American cul­ture, any­way — con­trol­ling our weight.

Not sur­pris­ingly, for him it comes back to mind­ful­ness. Being aware of what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. Vipassana med­i­ta­tion can help with that. So can turn­ing off the TV at mealtimes.

My fiancée and I are in the midst of wed­ding plans, and are crash-​​dieting (sort of) to fit into our respec­tive out­fits a lit­tle bet­ter. (I just don’t have the hips to carry off a dress the way I used to.)

Something that has been rather forcibly demon­strated to me is that I’ve had a very poor idea of suf­fi­ciency in food for years. What I mean by that is I’ve been in the habit, for a long time, of con­sum­ing more than I need — but believ­ing that I’ve been doing all right. I didn’t think I was over­do­ing any­thing; I felt I was keep­ing things fairly well balanced.

I was, too. Fish, fruits, veg­gies, grains, nuts, cheeses. Olive oil, pasta. The stuff that’s sup­posed to be health­ier. Very few fast foods (I don’t even know what a McMenu includes any more; it’s changed that much since the last time I was in there), not many pack­aged or over-​​processed foods.

That wasn’t (and isn’t) the prob­lem. The prob­lem was the quan­tity, not the qual­ity. The choices I was mak­ing were fine, but I was snork­ing down some­thing on the order of 2000 to 2500 calo­ries per day of it.

That doesn’t work. Even a diet com­posed of the most health­ful foods imag­in­able will cause net weight gain in suf­fi­cient quantities.

At my age and activ­ity level, I seem to be in an inter­est­ing zone where the num­ber of calo­ries I con­sume, divided by ten, is a decent pre­dic­tor of my weight. So 2000 calo­ries means 200 pounds, which is well above my ideal. 1800 would be 180, 1600 160, and so on.

Well, for the last five or six weeks, we’ve been lim­it­ing our­selves to 1200 calo­ries daily, and we haven’t reduced our exer­cise lev­els. (She’s still run­ning; I’m still bik­ing.) And yes, the weight is com­ing off. That isn’t surprising.

What is sur­pris­ing, to me, is that at 1200 calo­ries per day, I don’t feel like I’m starv­ing. I have to be very con­scious of the kinds of foods I eat — more pro­teins, more ‘healthy’ fats, con­sid­er­ably fewer car­bo­hy­drates — but it’s not a star­va­tion diet, and it’s not a sub­sis­tence diet.

That was not what I expected at all. I fig­ured I’d have ter­ri­ble energy lev­els, that I’d be sugar crash­ing all the time, that I’d want to sleep for 17 hours a day (well, that part wouldn’t be new or peculiar).

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Good manners and good neighbors

One of the ‘spokes’ on the ‘wheel of the dharma’ — which sym­bol­izes the eight­fold path — is right (ideal, skill­ful) action.

Buddhism is delib­er­ately vague about what con­sti­tutes right action. I think the rea­son for that is because there’s just no way to know, absolutely and with com­plete reli­a­bil­ity, what ‘right action’ means for dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. I’d like to think Gotama real­ized that. It’s grat­i­fy­ing to imag­ine that, 2500 years ago, he under­stood that he couldn’t lay down solid rules which would apply uni­ver­sally to all peo­ples of all nations all through­out time.

That’s quite dif­fer­ent from a more fun­da­men­tal­ist or abso­lutist phi­los­o­phy, which tends to insist that it has all the answers to every­thing, all the time, and that any­one which doesn’t agree is wrong, end of dis­cus­sion. That’s prob­a­bly a reas­sur­ing world­view for peo­ple within it, but for the rest of us, it makes con­ver­sa­tion unnec­es­sar­ily difficult.

Right action includes some pretty obvi­ous things, such as not inten­tion­ally doing any­thing that causes harm to oth­ers; not inten­tion­ally doing any­thing that does dam­age to the places we inhabit; and not inten­tion­ally act­ing against oth­ers’ indi­vid­ual rights.

Beyond that, there aren’t too many par­tic­u­lars (unless you’re a monk or nun), though there are some sketches regard­ing sex­ual behav­ior, since that’s some­thing pretty much all soci­eties have reg­u­lated in one way or another since the begin­ning of the notion of society.

But even these sketches are just that — sketches. We’re advised to avoid vio­lat­ing oth­ers’ mar­riage con­tracts (adul­tery), advised against using untruth to get sex, advised against using our per­sonal power to get sex (both in the sense of rape and of tak­ing advan­tage of a sub­or­di­nate), advised to avoid sex­ual con­tact with those under the pro­tec­tion of their fam­ily (this includes youths, of course; but inter­est­ingly, this can be extended to include the men­tally and phys­i­cally challenged).

You’ll notice, if you’re pay­ing atten­tion, that there are some things left undis­cussed in these guidelines.

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Where the rubber meets the road

You see things dif­fer­ently on a bike, mostly because you’re trav­el­ing more slowly, you’re not enclosed, and you’re pay­ing atten­tion to dif­fer­ent stim­uli than when you’re in a car. This morn­ing I saw, lying dis­carded on the tar­mac at an inter­sec­tion, a condom.

I don’t bring this up for the squick fac­tor. I bring it up because the first thing I thought of in response to it was that bliss is ephemeral. (Well, to the extent you can think of sex as being bliss­ful.) My next thought was, hey, at least they used a condom.

From there I began think­ing about the val­ues we seem to have as a soci­ety. It occurred to me that our entire pre­vail­ing social atti­tude toward sex can be summed up with the image of a con­dom tossed onto the side of a road: Something to be indulged briefly and imper­son­ally, then care­lessly dis­carded, because hey, we’re not even sup­posed to be doing it in the first place.

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Time is a mys­tery. It’s been defined as an increase in entropy, as the expan­sion of the cos­mos, as the prop­a­ga­tion of elec­tro­mag­netic waves from a radi­ant point. One of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of time is that it is asym­met­ri­cal. For instance, you can mix together some eggs, milk, flour, sugar, and but­ter, sub­ject it all to heat­ing, and pro­duce a lovely cake — but you def­i­nitely can­not sep­a­rate out all those ingre­di­ents into their com­po­nent parts once you’re done. You can bake a cake, but you can­not unbake one.

The thing is that there is no sin­gle inter­ac­tion of any­thing within the cake that pre­cludes this from hap­pen­ing. The mix­ing, the phys­i­cal reac­tions of the mol­e­cules — and the atoms — within the cake, even the energy imparted by the heat­ing in the oven, is all reversible within the frame­work of physics. There is no law of physics, in other words, that pre­vents you from unbak­ing the cake — yet you still can­not do it.

This is called the arrow of time. What it means is that, as far as we are con­cerned, time moves in one direc­tion only, from order into entropy, from past into future.

But the prob­lem with this is that it’s a mechan­i­cal descrip­tion. All of our def­i­n­i­tions of time express them­selves in its effects, but none of them get down to cause. Even the cos­mo­log­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion of time — that it’s a bound­ary con­di­tion that was set when the uni­verse began expand­ing — just bypasses the question.

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Who is I?

Physics is a field that con­tin­ues to sur­prise. In the early 1900s the belief was that it was effec­tively fin­ished — apart from a few minor details, there wasn’t any­thing new left to dis­cover. Those few minor details ended up being the set of insights Einstein had which rev­o­lu­tion­ized our under­stand­ing of energy, mat­ter, space, and time.

While finess­ing what we now know as General Relativity, Einstein came across some­thing that didn’t make sense to him; actu­ally it so offended his sense of order that he chose to work around it rather than explore it. Later physi­cists, fol­low­ing up on Einstein’s work, found that it led to inde­ter­mi­nacy, which essen­tially means that we can­not simul­ta­ne­ously know a particle’s speed and its loca­tion. The physics of Quantum Mechanics devel­oped from that.

More recently, the LHC in Europe may have found traces of a sub­atomic par­ti­cle which might or might not tie together cur­rent the­o­ries in physics; or it could be a sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly. And else­where, devel­op­ments con­tinue in teleportation.

Not the Star Trek ver­sion of it. So far it’s only sub­atomic par­ti­cles that have been tele­ported, but it is hap­pen­ing. Essentially what hap­pens is a particle’s state is ana­lyzed, dur­ing which the par­ti­cle is dis­as­sem­bled, after which it gets reassem­bled on the other side of the room. That it’s the same par­ti­cle is con­firmed by its quan­tum state — a sort of fin­ger­print. Eventually, we can imag­ine the same hap­pen­ing for larger items such as atoms, marsh­mal­lows, miss­ing socks, and pos­si­bly even liv­ing enti­ties such as gold­fish or people.

So sup­pose you step into a tele­porter one day, and zap your­self to the other side of the planet, where you spend some time shop­ping and eat­ing inter­est­ing foods. When you’re fin­ished you tele­port your­self back home. As you step out of the booth, you’re accosted by a wild-​​eyed per­son who insists that you’re no longer you, that you’re actu­ally dead.

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Footprints of a gigantic lizard

I can’t say with any­thing like cer­tainty that I know what hap­pens to us when we die. To some extent I think it might be a bit like the reverse of what hap­pened at birth, only a bit more rapidly and drastically.

Of course, what hap­pens at birth is itself an inter­est­ing ques­tion; after all, fetuses are viable before birth, capa­ble of liv­ing with­out the womb. You have to go back a num­ber of weeks to find a fetus that can’t sur­vive on its own. What’s intrigu­ing is that you don’t get signs of coher­ent aware­ness, of a string­ing together of con­scious­ness into the nar­ra­tive that calls itself I, until well after the baby has come into the world.

Death, on the other hand, can be abrupt. It can just as eas­ily be a grad­ual process, one that hap­pens slowly enough for every­one to get used to the idea. I have a feel­ing that grad­ual deaths are eas­ier for the loved ones to deal with.

From another per­spec­tive, though, we’re really dying all the time, in the sense that the per­son I was a minute ago — or an hour or a day ago — is not the same as the per­son that I am now. Even rel­a­tively minor events have changed my per­spec­tive, so it can be argued that the past me is dead in one sense. However, there is his­tory, there is a con­ti­nu­ity, there is that con­tin­u­ing motion of con­scious­ness whose entire job is to join together dis­crete, dis­parate events and sen­sa­tions into a beaded string of appar­ent wholeness.

There’s a rea­son for all this phi­los­o­phy in this post.

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Udder relief

One of the more dif­fi­cult parts about mov­ing, for me at least, has always been the attri­tion. Deciding what’s going with me and what’s being donated — or, in some cases, sim­ply pitched out — has always been more dif­fi­cult than I think it should be.

Nowhere is this more obvi­ous than with my book col­lec­tion. It’ll come as a micro­scopic sur­prise that I have a fairly sub­stan­tial library, prob­a­bly 80% of which I’ve read. The rest is on the wait­ing list. When your library con­tains some 500 titles, that’s obvi­ously a pretty big I’ll-get-to-it-soon stack.

Why on Earth would any­one even want that many books? I used to be asked that some­times by class­mates when I was in high school. (One even com­mented, in all seri­ous­ness, “I’ve never been so bored that I had to read.” It goes with­out say­ing that she and I never dated.)

To some extent, this is my father’s influ­ence. I used to go into his study as a child and stare in utter, silent awe at the wall of books there. The col­lec­tion showed a wide range of tastes, includ­ing lit­er­a­ture, fan­tasy, and SF. The first time I read Dangerous Visions, I was about four­teen, and it was from his col­lec­tion.1 DV was not the kind of book you’d nor­mally think of a young teen read­ing, but that was how it went in my fam­ily. As long as it was a book, and wasn’t from a porn shop, there was no censorship.

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Things are not words

We will prob­a­bly never fully under­stand just why Jared Loughner decided to do what he did1 on that day in Tucson. This should actu­ally make us feel bet­ter about our­selves, when you think about it. I’d far rather be baf­fled by a spate of irra­tional killings than have a clue as to the rea­son­ing behind them.2

This hasn’t stopped an imme­di­ate and intense response from quite a lot of peo­ple, in quite a few cor­ners, each appar­ently try­ing to simul­ta­ne­ously absolve them­selves of guilt while assign­ing it to oth­ers. Ironically, the argu­ment about incen­di­ary lan­guage in polit­i­cal dis­course has itself become quite incen­di­ary. So it goes.

Rather than seek to attach blame to one “side” or another,3 I’d like to dis­cuss the lan­guage we use reg­u­larly in dis­cus­sion of any kind, which is fre­quently over-​​the-​​top and improper for our pur­poses. By “improper” I do not nec­es­sar­ily mean insult­ing, offen­sive, and so on; instead, I sim­ply mean the wrong set of words.

For exam­ple, many years ago, Hostess adver­tised their Twinkies and other baked can­dies as being “whole­some”. I believe I know what whole­some means, and it is not a word that I would apply to some­thing made almost entirely of sugar and so pumped with preser­v­a­tives that, assum­ing its pack­ag­ing remains undam­aged, it has an essen­tially infi­nite shelf life. Usage of the word whole­some is, here, improper. We might call Twinkies fla­vor­ful; we might call them con­ve­nient; we might call them tasty. We would be hard-​​pressed to defend call­ing them whole­some.

This is a good exam­ple of decep­tive label­ing. It could be argued that, since Twinkies do not con­tain cyanide, they are tech­ni­cally whole­some; how­ever, whole­some is not a syn­onym for non­lethal. Using a word that is con­ven­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with healthy cheap­ens the value of that word, and robs it of effec­tive mean­ing — par­tic­u­larly if that word is being used to describe some­thing that, eaten in any­thing but extreme mod­er­a­tion, is in no way healthy at all.

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Letting go of renunciation

One time, many years ago, a monk was walk­ing along in the for­est. Suddenly a rob­ber leapt out and demanded money, food, and so on. The monk, of course, had noth­ing to give; this infu­ri­ated the rob­ber, who began rant­ing about all the trav­el­ers he’d beaten, how dan­ger­ous he was, etc. The monk lis­tened, unfazed, for so long that even­tu­ally the rob­ber became impressed. He wanted to know how the monk could be so appar­ently at ease in the face of such dire threat, when the rob­ber him­self — who was in a posi­tion of power — seemed unable to let go of his anger.

Eventually the rob­ber con­fessed that steal­ing was an ingrained part of his per­son­al­ity. “Wherever I am, no mat­ter who I’m with, when I see some­thing, my urge is to steal it. It doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s some­thing I need; just to see some­one pos­sess­ing any­thing makes me want it for myself. I’ve actu­ally tried to stop steal­ing, but I just can’t. I know I’ll be caught one day and exe­cuted, but I sim­ply can’t help myself. Is there any­thing I can do to make it stop?”

The monk pon­dered for a moment. “When you get the urge to steal, sim­ply be aware of it,” he said.

The rob­ber blinked. “That’s all?”

Yes, that’s all.”

Bemused, the rob­ber parted ways with the monk.

A year or so later, they met up again on the road. The monk didn’t rec­og­nize his one­time adver­sary; the man had con­verted, and was now a monk as well — no longer a rob­ber. “Somehow,” he said, “just being aware of my urge to steal helped it to fade and lose its power over me. How did you know it would work?”

The monk shrugged. “Every lust is a thought,” he said, and in that moment the for­mer rob­ber was enlightened.

These sto­ries always seem to be about wan­der­ing monks. I don’t actu­ally recall the full thread of this one, and I can’t seem to find the ref­er­ence any­where; the monk might have been Bodhidharma, who was the itin­er­ant Buddhist that brought the prac­tice to China.1 It really doesn’t mat­ter what the par­tic­u­lars are, because the essence of the story is what I’m focus­ing on here.

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The dharma of Wilson

Hands up, every­one who’s seen Castaway, the movie with Tom Hanks about the guy who ends up stranded for years on a deserted island. That’s a lot of you — good.

If you recall, Hanks was on a deliv­ery air­craft, some­thing sim­i­lar to DHL or FedEx. The plane crashed, and he was the only sur­vivor. After the crash, he man­aged to make it to a small island in the mid­dle of nowhere. He started going through the freight that washed ashore along with him, look­ing for any­thing that could help him sur­vive. Among many things, he found a vol­ley­ball, of the Wilson brand. That vol­ley­ball turned out to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments to the story, to his sur­vival, and — I think — became a fas­ci­nat­ing enquiry into the nature of mind.

What began hap­pen­ing, you may remem­ber, was that he started talk­ing to the vol­ley­ball. At first it was clearly some­thing that made him feel fool­ish, but over time it became so reg­u­lar that he was hav­ing lengthy, com­pli­cated con­ver­sa­tions with Wilson. Rationally, we can rec­og­nize just how weird such behav­ior is — after all, if some­one started act­ing that way at the office, treat­ing a pen­cil sharp­ener as a per­sonal con­fi­dante, we’d quickly become wor­ried about his san­ity — but in the case of one per­son stranded in total iso­la­tion, it might seem a bit more sensible.

We’re social ani­mals. In one form or another, we like human con­tact. Sometimes the con­tact isn’t what we’d pre­fer, but by and large it’s some­thing we need on a psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional level. One of the worst pun­ish­ments that a pris­oner can be sub­jected to is soli­tary con­fine­ment; we even pun­ish our chil­dren with time-​​outs, iso­lat­ing them briefly from inter­ac­tion with all oth­ers. People locked into sen­sory depri­va­tion tanks actu­ally begin hal­lu­ci­nat­ing after less than an hour, partly because the stimulus-​​hungry mind ends up all alone with itself and, lack­ing any­thing to keep itself occu­pied, it begins mak­ing things up.

So, in a mind left with total iso­la­tion and some­thing that looks vaguely like a human face, it’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that face becom­ing more and more real.

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