Mind

Mind is the world the brain creates. Mind is the world we inhabit. Sure, if you prick me I will indeed bleed, but my world is a product of my mind which is a product of my brain. Following on, the brain is an organ and part of a larger system we call the body. This dualism of body and mind is fundamental to Western culture, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in integration, a body/mind synthesis much like the space/time synthesis that Einstein pulled off. Science fiction is always giving us disembodied brains and downloaded consciousnesses and whatnot, but they are strictly for fun. A mind can’t be separated from its brain. The purpose of the stomach and guts is to digest the food; the purpose of the brain is to produce the mind.

The brain is not a simple organ, it has lots of parts, it should really be thought of as a system, too. And we know our bodies are composed of borrowed parts, parasitic remnants, invasive colonies, evolutionary weirdness, and other good stuff, not to mention that we turn over our cells in many places with astonishing rapidity, it’s hard to fix bodies in time and space. They are dynamic entities, immersed in a sea of gases and depending on a constant input of energy to survive. And so much of what happens to us each day is autonomic—you breathe and digest and excrete and regulate your body temperature and on and on without thinking. Of course you can think about all those things, but they are all done for you whether you care or not. No one has a fucking clue about how that shit works, but all agree it’s way cool.

So here we are in the overfed and over-stimulated US of A and we talk about health. All the time. We run, we eat kale, we detoxify, we go to spas, we get a bike, we quit smoking,  you know the drill. But it’s all focused on the body part of body-mind. What about the mind part of body-mind? What sorts of workouts do we need for modern times?

I think we have to characterize modern times as distinct from previous eras in human history. I date modern times from the atom bomb and the nuclear age. Humans actually created a true doomsday weapon, it was no longer theoretical, it was real. It ended the war, and no conflict on that scale has happened since. The other characteristic of modern times is the global communications network. War, or the threat of war, invented or accelerated existing technologies so that things like supercomputers and satellite constellations are everyday phenomena. The pace of change has changed: it has gotten faster.

We know this. We see it expressed in politics where society changes faster than the legislatures can keep up with. They are still debating things from the 70s, fer chrissakes. People can see further than their elected representatives who by design represent blocs of voters and thus are constrained by group-think. Clearly, the modern mind has to be flexible and adaptable. Change is inevitable. It’s growth, that is our mental growth, that is optional. We have to choose it. We can feel dismay at the pace of change, that’s natural. But we have to avoid the nostalgia trap. It’s easy to think things were better back in the day, that people were better, too, but it really doesn’t hold up. It’s just a comforting bias, and it gets harder to shake as you get older. But if we recognize this bias, and know that it is perfectly normal, we can allow our minds to see again, with fresh eyes, not jaded by memory, which as we know is a most imperfect thing.

Certainly we can reminisce, look back fondly, remember the past and all that. I don’t mean to say that we should not. Just that we live NOW and that if we view everything through the lens of how it was, or how we think it was, we will miss the now, or at least see less of it. You want your heart to be strong, to beat smoothly, right? You want your organs to function as optimally as they can, right? How about the brain-organ? If you do all the other things your mother told you to do (eat your vegetables, don’t drink or smoke too much, watch the sweets and red meat, etc.) your brain-organ is probably OK. But your mind, the product of your brain, has to help itself. To look at things anew is the key to adaptability and flexibility. The mind benefits from fresh-seeing. The poet knows this, as does the mathematician. When they face knotty problems they try to look at them from a different place, and in a different way, in order to be creative and generate new possibilities.

The modern world is full of challenges and mental fitness is just as important to the body-mind as physical fitness. Looking at things in a new light is one of those mental fitness things. It has to be in the toolbox, so to speak. We do it all the time, but it might be worth it to be more aware of it, and to work that muscle and build it up. I think the times demand it.

Solutions

Problems are easy. We see ’em, we hear about ’em, we talk about ’em ad nauseum, but we don’t do anything about them. We sit in coffee shops and bitch about the government or whine about immigrants and foreigners over our pints, and, what seems universal, we complain that the younger generations are never as good as their predecessors. In fact, if you get rid of bitching, whining, and complaining over half of what constitutes conversation in this world would disappear.

I’m going to complain about complaining and bitch about bitching, and I’m going to whine about whining. Enough, I say! We all KNOW what the problems are. I daresay that regardless of where you fall on our increasingly pointless political spectrum you see the same things wrong with the world that I do. You might express them in different terms, and you’ll likely prioritize them differently, but in the end we’ll be in agreement.

You can’t live for more than a few minutes without air. No one wants their air poisoned by pollutants. Everyone wants to trust that the air they breathe is healthy and life-giving. You can’t live for more than a few days without water. No one wants their water contaminated by pollutants. Everyone wants to believe that the water they drink is clean and pure. Tell me we can’t get together on those things. Sure, we’ll disagree on the best way to get those things, but the outcome is the same for all of us. If we focus on the common goal and submerge our egos for a bit we’ll find we can work together. Solutions are possible. Note I said solutions, not solution. No problem worth studying has only one solution.

You can’t live without a food supply. Farms and ranches need to prosper, and our agricultural systems must be sustainable. Our fisheries need husbanding. Who can argue with that? These are enormous challenges—why are we wasting time pointing fingers? Politics is just a game of posturing, of being “right” and the other guys being “wrong.” What a waste of energy! And speaking of energy, who doesn’t need that? We have to have long-term solutions to the rising energy demand. This is not about the “winners” and “losers” in the political landscape. This is a real thing, a real true-to-life problem, and instead of rolling up our sleeves we cling to our talking points and carp at the people we think are against us.

I say to hell with that. I’m not interested in problems. I don’t want to hear anyone whining, bitching, or complaining unless those activities are accompanied by a genuine search for solutions.

We all seek liberty, freedom, and autonomy. We all have to sacrifice some of those things to have stability, harmony, and peace. Our individual needs have to be met, but so do our social ones. We KNOW we have to compromise some of our personal freedoms in order to have order and safety. We can yell and scream about it or we can get together and do it. We are all answerable to each other whether we like it or not. The true sign of maturity is recognizing that certain things in life are true regardless of our feelings. Civilization is like a candle flame, it can be snuffed out easily. When we look at failed states and see the chaos and barbarism we ought to remember that. A civilized society means prosperity for all. Who can argue with that?

Our brains have to be trained, just like our muscles. When we see the world in terms of problems then we will continue to see the world in terms of problems. The only way to see solution paths is to train your brain to do just that: see the paths. The first step is to stop harping on the problems. Like I said, we already know those. It’s the difference between reading and writing. Reading is wonderful, but it is easy, because some one else did the real work. Writing is hard because you have to reach within yourself and create something new. Finding solutions is a hell of a lot harder than defining problems.

One step we could make is to get rid of right and wrong answers. Schools love right and wrong answers. But authentic questions don’t have right and wrong answers. How do we feed the world’s hungry? That’s an authentic question because the solutions are not trivial or obvious. (Beware of people who answer such questions with “It’s very simple, just do . . . ” because such things are NOT simple.) Now I love Jeopardy as much as the next guy, but there’s a reason that stuff is called trivia. Knowing all that stuff is fun, but it’s useless. It’s not in any way a measure of intelligence or intellectual worth.

True intelligence is openness. A worthy mind is one that’s always learning. The more you learn, the more you discover you don’t know. That sort of ignorance is beautiful. When you say “I don’t know” you are opening yourself to new learning. And learning opportunities abound. Confusion, frustration, despair, and bewilderment are all learning opportunities. Who hasn’t felt those things? There’s a ballplayer by the name of Hunter Pence who says amazing things. He suffered a season-ending injury and when asked how he was feeling once the prognosis was clear he said “I’m not upset, I look at this not as a setback but an opportunity.”

Now that’s something! It would be easy in such circumstances to whine, bitch, and complain. But he turned it around and made it a positive. That’s how we invent solutions, by turning the problems into opportunities. It’s not easy to do, it takes effort and persistence, and it requires us to re-wire our brains. But highly accomplished people do that sort of thing routinely. They see doors open up as other ones close.

I make no claim to expertise. And I’m weak. But I’m giving it a shot.

Binary

Computers are binary. We are not. The human brain is NOT a computer, and the computer as a metaphor for the mind is ultimately a weak one. If you’ve ever learned a programming language, and actually written code instructing a machine to do something, you find out straight away that computers are dumb. They can’t do anything on their own. They have to be instructed, and those instructions have to be syntactically perfect or the whole thing falls apart. Now it’s clear that a computer can “learn” if the programmers create such a possibility. And I expect in my lifetime that a computer will pass the Turing Test and fool people into believing it is conscious. But that’s not important to me, what’s important to me is thinking and learning.

One of the most destructive and pernicious fallacies we engage in is this idea of “both sides” of an argument. Pro/Con. For/Against. Yes/No. This is fine for politics, where one must vote to fund something or not, to allow or disallow something or not, to chose candidate A over candidate B. That’s the system and that’s how it works. But the problem is that that kind of thinking—that there are only “two sides” to every issue—is nonsense. The world is much more complex, filled with nuance and subtlety, and issues are multi-faceted. We see and feel all these facets and know they exist. But the complexity is frustrating so we lump it all together and mush it around and turn it into a binary problem.

Is there a god? Yes or no! Really, that’s all I get? Two choices? Fuck you. No, really. Do you think the world is that simple? That god is reducible to a yes/no choice? I once had a classmate ask me “do you believe in Creation or are you one of those Darwin dudes?” One of the most interesting questions in all of human history—the origin of life—which ABSOLUTELY NO ONE has the answer to, and he gave me only two choices. The hell with him. It’s OK, it was 8th grade, we were all stupid then. But I’m a grownup now and I still encounter this kind of thinking. We have science and we have religion. And every wonderful and fascinating inquiry into Nature is, at best, a multiple choice test of which the “answers” are plucked from one or the other.

Stupid. Hopelessly and irrevocably stupid. The universe is not either/or. It’s much too marvelous for that sort of simple-mindedness. There are some days in which I believe one thing and some days in which I believe another. I find myself rejecting beliefs I once had and accepting things I once doubted. Or doubting things I once believed. And then it happens again, and again, and I’m in a new place, one I had not imagined previously. I assume this happens to everybody. Does it? I feel like I’m a river, in the sense of Heraclitus’ dictum “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I’m always jumping my banks, or changing my flow. I’m always moving, evolving, and adapting. I’m the same guy, but I’m in flux. Buckminster Fuller said “I seem to be a verb.” I’ve always liked that. Nouns are supposed to be persons, places, or things, but really those are just labels. Nothing ever stays the same, life is dynamic and ceaselessly changing. How can this kaleidoscope of chaos we call the world ever be squeezed into the straitjacket of binary thinking?

I think we should embrace contradiction and inconsistency. I think we should ask questions that don’t have yes or no answers. I think we should stop deciding if we are for or against something and instead plunge, eyes wide open, into the messy, tangled, intricate, and convoluted nature of things. A made bed is nice to look at, but it’s lousy for sleeping in. A gorgeous presentation at a fancy restaurant is grand, but it’s only there to be rearranged by me and then turned into turds. Life is a process, not a thing.

I came across something in my reading the other day, it’s from Will and Ariel Durant‘s The Age of Louis XIV, volume seven of their Story of Civilization. A Frenchman named Fontenelle is quoted thusly:

Je suis effrayé de la conviction qui règne autour de moi.

“I am frightened by the certainties that reign around me.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

You are not a computer. There is no certainty in your inputs and outputs. Your memory is not fixed, you can’t run out of disk space. You don’t need to be replaced every five years. Since you aren’t a machine don’t think like one. Be analog, not digital. Enjoy the richness of the universe and don’t crush the life out of complexity by over-simplification. Whenever anyone tells you a problem has a simple solution tell them to go back to math class. (I love math. But math class problems aren’t real life and don’t give you an adequate picture of the beauty and power of mathematics.)

And, for the love of god, stop turning everything into a vote. Thumbs up or thumbs down is bullshit, stick that thumb in your mouth and suck. Your thumb is attached to your hand and thence to your arm and to your shoulder and to your head and ultimately to your brain. That’s right, your thumb is part of your brain. And when you twiddle your thumbs you are, at the very least, investigating possibilities!

Free

I used to beat square pegs into round holes for a living. I called it “teaching.” There was some of that, of course. Kids are curious and they like to learn. And there was some of the other stuff, too. You know, the sit-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up stuff. The certified, state-stamped stuff. We called it “curriculum.” It was the stuff you had to sell. Curriculum means “racecourse” in Latin. Is it any wonder we were always rushing through things? The surest way to make a fascinating and beautiful thing into a heaping pile of bullshit is to certify it as curriculum. No one likes to be force-fed, that’s why it’s called “force” feeding.

Authentic learning can’t take place under coercion. Oh, I’ll grant one can certainly acquire knowledge, crucial knowledge in fact, when faced with threats. But leaving aside the guy-has-a-gun-pointed-at-you emergency scenarios, I think freedom and learning have to go together. Education by fiat, or force of law, is counter-productive. I think society would be a whole lot better off if we scrapped compulsory school attendance. If we made our schools voluntary, like visiting a national park. Thinking on that, a national park makes a hell of a schoolyard.

I’m serious. And it’s not because of bad teachers, or their evil unions, or incompetent and overpaid administrators, or feckless and thieving politicians, although, like in all things, these certainly exist. It’s because the system is based on three things. The first is factory work, hence the work-friendly schedule. The second is farming, which gives us the summer holiday. The third I’ve mentioned, and that’s compulsion. You HAVE to go to school.

I contend those three things are fatal. They are systemic flaws. The first two are easy enough to deal with, they are just outmoded. Society has changed, obviously, and the schemes by which teachers and students can be organized and scheduled has failed to adapt. So many more possibilities exist and any and all should be tried. The ones that work will stick, and then, in turn, evolve and adapt as new ideas arrive.

The third is the stickler. Hordes of uneducated youth roaming the streets conjures up The Walking Dead and makes you want to stock up on ammo. But teaching is a moral task, and that’s incompatible with force. It’s like requiring someone to be cheerful. They don’t HAVE to be if they don’t want to. I’d prefer it, but it is not my call. If students came to school because they chose to then the whole experience would be improved. I know it sounds nuts, but if you think on it, you’ll see that’s what all this fuss is about vouchers and school choice. People don’t like one-size-fits-all these days. They like a custom fit, and who can blame them? I’d get all my clothes tailored if I could afford it. This off-the-rack shit doesn’t always work.

People are much like ants. We are a social organism. We require each other to survive. We have, moreover, the capacity to self-organize and we will do so, it’s our nature. I don’t see a free school as chaos, rather I think of it as a catalyst for something new. And by “free” school I mean it in every sense. No cost, or price rather, that is no money needed to connect with schooling. Free choice in what to study and learn, and where and when to learn it. This kind of thing is well past politics. Regardless of your political stripe you have an “opinion” about education and schooling. A free school could give a shit. This is a meta-political concept, it moves past the labels and the talking points and the rhetoric and focuses instead on the needs of the individual.

The Latin verb educare means “to bring forth.” That is, encourage what is already there to grow, to nurture what is latent. It doesn’t mean “shove a bunch of crap down your throat.”

Think on it.