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If we wish to change the person we find ourselves to be, we must change our thinking.

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THE NET

July 18th, 2019

 

Questions can hone themselves as we rephrase them.

 

 

Imagine for a moment a wide net that a fisherman casts out into the water.  The net is large and nebulous, like the shape of a summer cloud, designed to cover as much area as possible.

 

It’s like a probability cloud.  The fisherman is taking a chance and making a guess that the fish he wants to catch is somewhere in this big area.

 

And then the fisherman slowly begins to draw the net in, slowly closing the opening, changing the shape so that the space – that big nebulous area – starts to shrink.

 

Once drawn closed, the fisherman lifts the net and the net sucks in tightly against the fish caught in the net, outlining it’s form nearly perfectly.

 

 

 

Questions, and the art of forming and reforming questions, matches this process of changing form. 

 

We can take an all too common circumstance and use it as a hypothetical case study for this exercise of question rephrasing.

 

Let’s say a friend complains and says:

 

I hate my job.

 

We can respond:

 

What do you hate about your job?

 

I hate the commute and I don’t like any of the people I work with.

 

So its really a matter of travelling to a certain place everyday and dealing with people you don’t like?

 

Yes, I suppose so.

 

Is it possible that you would be happier if you had a much shorter commute and you liked the people you work with?

 

 

No, because I think the actual work is boring too.

 

Why is it boring?

 

It’s too easy.  I get it done quickly and often times I have to wait around for other people to finish their work before I can move forward.

 

So it’s not just that you don’t like these people, they actually hinder your ability to do work that you find boring?

 

YES!

 

Would you be content working alone?  Or is it necessary to have people around?

 

The only time I like is when I’m left alone to get work done.  Even if I think it’s boring, at least there’s no one around to screw it up.

 

So it’s possible you’d be comfortable working alone?

 

Probably.

 

 

 

At this point, the questions have approached the issue from a few different angles and we have a better read out on the shape of a possible solution.  The first question revealed an important aspect of this solution.  The commute and the problematic people.  So at first a solution seems like a closer version of the job with a different group of people.  But rephrasing the question with this as a possible solution uncovers another key fact, namely that the actual work is a problem too.    At this point it might seem that we are dealing with a miserable person who complains about everything,  but this would be a mistake.  This would be similar to being annoyed with a fish because it keeps flopping around spastically on the floor, and wondering why it doesn’t just chill out and accept the situation it is in.

 

The complaints are clues about the shape of the solution.

 

Just like a net shaped like a fish is not actually a fish but allows us to reason that there is probably a fish inside the net, so too can questions be formed to eat away superfluous unknown space in order to get closer to a solution, so close in fact that the questions begin to describe the solution.

 

Clearly, it seems this friend would be happier working alone with some location independence.  And clearly they need to find a field that is more difficult. Maybe something that moves quickly and therefore requires a constant level of learning.

 

It would be easy at this point to suggest something that falls into these parameters. But this is likely to be counter-productive, and it’s a lost opportunity to practice the art of the question.  We still lack a ton of information about this friend.  It could be easy to suggest something like freelance web designer, but this could easily be way off the mark and easily shut down.  Still, even this would give us more useful information if we don’t take the shutdown personally. Beyond this, however, we can do better by delving further into that which we do not understand.

 

We might ask questions that delve into our friend’s past, even asking them what they wanted to be when they were a child, and discovering how that narrative changed over the years.

 

This is one of the virtues of conversation: each person discovers aspects of their own thought they were not conscious of. We seem to have the notion that thoughts are like sentences and paragraphs in a book.  But in reality they are hazy, emotional concepts that don’t always have words and descriptions attached to them.  This is why writing, or more casually, journaling can be so useful. As a practice, writing forces us to make these fleeting ethereal concepts concrete in the real world.  Between writing and thought, we can see how conversation is a limp and lazy middle ground.  Unless the conversation is recorded and is reviewed, we are only left with the emotional illusion of achievement and the satisfaction therein.  But writing on the other hand, is something we can review, disagree with and fine tune. It’s extremely difficult to be analytical about our own speech, let alone our own thoughts simply because our memory of such things is so poor.

 

 

What’s notable about the little conversation of questions above, is that we can apply this same tightening of questions to ourselves. That little dialogue can be held by a single person.  But this is a difficult to pull off in the way that no one wants to do their taxes. It takes a little work to be so incisive and honest about one’s situation.

 

Questions are useful, not just as a tool to hone themselves.  Questions can be a tool with which we use to hone ourselves and who we are in the world.

 

This episode relates to Episode 30: The Only Tool, Episode 451: Crafting Riddles, Episode 403: Big Question, Bad Question and Episode 390: Question About The Question


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Podcast Ep. 459: The Net

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POKE THE MONSTER

July 17th, 2019

Any genuine question seeks to explore something that is truly unknown.  This can be distinguished from requestsfor information that have already been discovered by someone else.  Notice also the root similarity between quest-ion and re-quest.

 

A genuine question delves a little further into the chaotic unknown with the aim of creating a little more understandable order.

 

The old caution ‘be careful what you wish for…’comes to mind. 

 

If we genuinely delve into the unknown, then we cannot be sure what we are going to find, and we may not like what we find.

 

We need only remind ourselves of Oppenheimer’s change of heart after he spearheaded the creation of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII.  After being rigorously engaged with work that he found interesting, he quite literally found something he came to regard as monstrous.  Granted he found exactly what he was looking for. 

 

Perhaps this was a sort of morbid curiosity.  Or perhaps his zoom got stuck on the minutia of curiosity and he could not Zoom Out to the big picture to see what he would eventually come to regret.  While humans have - amazingly- been able to continue the project of civilization with nuclear weapons in hand for many decades, we can imagine a similar sort of circumstance in the future.

 

What other slumbering monsters might we poke at out of naivety and curiosity.

 

This is inevitably one cost of dancing with the unknown.

 

But the art of the question can aid us on this difficult quest as we blindly try to map the unknown.

 

Questions are like lures that we cast out into the unknown.

 

We need only test out questions, by fielding them with a meta-set of questions.  Such as: am I baiting a monster with this question?

 

Or is this question designed to lure something wonderful out of the unknown?

 


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Podcast Ep. 458: Poke The Monster

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NEGATIVE GRATITUDE

July 16th, 2019

We have all awoken in the morning with a sense of horror about what our life has become.  Or at least according to the dream we’ve just exited.  Perhaps, in the dream, we were fired, or cheated on a spouse or committed a crime. 

 

When the mind finally settles into a sense of which reality is which, the sense of gratitude that washes over our sense of self can be immense and so strangely pleasurable that it can make one wonder why we do not actively seek out this state.

 

Generally most people do not, but it can be molded into a very useful practice.

 

Fostering a sense of gratitude can be done by focusing positively on the things we do have in our life, whether that be people or resources or situation, but we can also foster a sense of gratitude by devoting some creative thought to the misfortunes that have not befallen our circumstance. 

 

Like the nightmare that we get to wake up from, we can day dream of terrible things in a way that is ultimately positive.  It may at first seem morbid to imagine losing a loved one, but this difficult and potentially painful exercise achieves two things: it increases our gratitude for the current situation which is not marred by this event, and two, it imaginatively prepares us for the circumstance in which this terrible event actually doeshappen in the future. 

 

While it can be tempting to hold the stance that we must always think positively and not bother with such morbid imaginings, the exercise, though difficult holds too great a benefit.  Ignoring the terrible things that might happen and probably will happen is just as unrealistic as being hell bent on the negative. Being realistic is in some sense a solemn matter.  William James defined ‘solemn’ as a state that holds some of it’s opposite.  To be a solemn optimist is to be optimistic about the future without fooling one’s self into the delusion that it might turn out differently.

 

Arriving at gratitude via a negative avenue is one way to invoke the practice of solemn optimism.  The exercise does two useful things: it improves the present and the future. One via gratitude and the other through a means of mental fortification.  Ultimately we soften ourselves to the moment and strengthen ourselves to the future.

 

The paradox reminiscent in the contradictory phrase ‘negative gratitude’ has an effect that has a like wise contradictory paradox of both softening and toughening who we are.

 

 

This episode references Episode 345: Solemn Optimist


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Podcast Ep. 457: Negative Gratitude

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THE INEFFABLE PLAN

July 15th, 2019

For those monotheistic religions that foster a belief in some kind of divine plan, there exists an uncomfortable connection to the realm of physics and science.  For Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of faith, the idea that some sort of ‘God’has a predetermined plan is exactly the same kind of notion as scientific determinism.

 

Scientific determinism, often referred to as just ‘determinism’ can be defined simply as the fact that everything has previous causes. Extrapolating upon this into the future, we can see that the present situation is the cause of future events. Chaining this concept together from past to present and into the future, it’s easy to see a kind of grand history of existential narrative.  Or as religious people might say,a grand plan.

 

Science and religion have historically been at odds with one another, but in this respect they seem completely in sync regarding the logic applied to the cascade of events we call life.

 

When the mystic definitions of ‘god’ are explored with regards to religion, the descriptions of the ‘almighty’ start to sound sufficiently hazy and vague as to approach the lack of definition that precedes all science, namely, what was going on before the ‘big bang’.

 

While the tribal circuits of human psychology are content to ignore these similarities in the name of having an obvious enemy to rub up against, like a bear scratching an itch against a tree, the reality of language, when stripped of big capital letter nouns like ‘God’ and ‘Science’ start to make it seem as though it could be a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-your-back situation.

 

Whether we call it ‘blue’ or ‘ Синий ’, the subject is still the same.

 

If the god of the religious populations has some sort of divine and ineffable plan, than it is by definition deterministic with regards to some sort of logic. Whether that be uniquely divine or cause-and-effect, regardless of whether we humans have the ability to properly track and anticipate this plan. 

 

The reality is that we need not differentiate between a cause-and-effect plan and a plan with divine logic.  We actually can’t follow either given our cognitive limits, so the difference might as well be negligible, at least so much as it can bring people together over the great mystery of what the hell is going on regarding life and the universe.

 

If scientific determinism were truly accessible beyond a strictly abstract point-of-view, then people would actually be able to predict the future to a finely detailed degree.  But this is not the case, just as it’s not the case that religious people do not have access to the future even though they propose their god has a predetermined plan for it.

 

It would be a mistake to see this as a mere peace-bridge between disciplines of belief.  It is in fact an important area where they definitively converge.    The differences on either side of this bridge, however, should play a significant role in the eyes of those on either side. We must ask: which side is better at predicting the future.  Or rather, to put it in terms already outlined, which side of this bridge is better equipped to track the ineffable plan into the future?  While old religious books might vaguely hint at black swan events like floods and tornadoes, the field of science was able to predict the discovery of things like the Higgs-Bosun particle. 

 

We might consider the difference on another level and ask:  would you rather hire a carpenter who gives the estimated costs as a range between $2,000 and $7,000 or would you rather a carpenter tell you that the job will take exactly 63 hours and cost $3,743.67?

 

This is the difference between science and religion, a difference that becomes increasingly stark and apparent the more that science fine-tunes its methods and the interpretation of its results. Religion, which might even be seen as a philosophical proto-science, has no mechanism to update itself in this way. 

 

And we need not see these disciplines as odds with one another, though that seems to be the dominate narrative that people enjoy playing with.  We can see them as creative extensions of one another.  And if the religious are to believe in an ineffable plan as the scientists believe in determinism, then it must be conceded that the method of science would come about in the ineffable plan of the divine; and retroactively, through the lens of scientific determinism, we can admit that the birth and sweep of religion was necessary for the rise of science.


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Podcast Ep. 456: The Ineffable Plan

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A LUCILIUS PARABLE: ROOM TO GROW

July 14th, 2019

Lucilius was tinkering with a project in his woodshop when the father of his godson came in.  The kind man smiled at the set up Lucilius had put together in their backyard garage.  He picked up a piece from a new chess set that Lucilius had finished making and studied the fine smooth surface carved from the lathe while Lucilius finished up his current efforts.  A long winding cut on a band saw clipped to conclusion and Lucilius flicked the power switch off, letting the metal band relax from its tinny screech, groaning a long smooth drag like the honing of a blade until it came to a stop.

 

“What are you working on now?”

 

“Oh, just some scrollwork that’ll go on the bookcase for the living room.”

 

The man smiled.  “Can’t thank you enough for all the beautiful work you’ve done for us.”

 

“Well hey, you’ve given me a beautiful home to be a part of.”

 

The man laughed.  “Pretty sure I’m getting the sweet end of the deal.”

 

“Nah,” Lucilius said, “there are no deals between family, least not in the way I see it.  Way I look at it, I get to spend time with my godson.”

 

The man’s smile was lifted high on a side. “Speaking of your godson, I wanted to ask.”

 

Lucilius looked up from the scrollwork to meet the man’s eyes.

 

“We were thinking of moving him up to the guest bedroom, and I wanted to see if you had any ideas about changing it for him? You have free reign of course, we love everything you’ve done.”

 

Lucilius paused, and thought for a few moments. 

 

“Yea,” he said.  “I think I’ve got a couple ideas.”

 

 

*           *           *

 

One of the earliest memories that Lucilius’ godson would come to remember for the rest of his life was that of a thick rope always hanging in the middle of his room.  The rope hung from a circular hole in the high ceiling. 

 

As a toddler, with the help of his mother and father, the boy used it to help take his first steps, and eventually it was used to swing from the bed across the room to the toy chest.  But eventually, the boy began to wonder what was up above his own room.  The perfectly circular hole in his ceiling gave glimpse to another room above where the thick rope was affixed to the second ceiling high above and there was no other staircase or way up to that high and secret room.  The boy grew frustratingly curious about the space up there, his parents sworn to secrecy, and his godfather gently laughing off every request to know what was up there.

 

“You’ll find out when you’re ready,” Lucilius would say during his visits.

 

The boy would lay in bed, puzzling over a way to get up there.  At night a dim light came on in the high room and lit the circular hole, creating a nightlight of sorts – something Lucilius had planned so that the space would not scare the boy in the dark, but also as a tempt to wonder.

 

Then one day, while Lucilius’ godson was building with Legos, he realized a new idea.  He’d pinched a small piece between two larger ones.  They did not technically fit but the boy did not have the right pieces and the improvisation worked.  Seeing what he’d done, he looked at the rope and wondered.

 

Then he got up and left his room, making his way out the back of the house to the garage where his godfather kept a woodshop. He entered and went over to a long rack of clamps that Lucilius had arranged on a wall.  The boy took a few of the heavy clamps, and lugged them back up to his room.  After puzzling over the mechanism for a moment, trying to remember how his godfather had used them, he managed to loosen one.  He opened the jaws, and then gently eased them onto the rope, and began tightening.  When he could squeeze the vice no further he let go.  The clap hung in midair, bending the rope at an angle with its own lopsided weight.  

 

The boy took hold of the rope high above the clamp and then hanging from his grip, he lifted his feet and placed them on the clamp and slowly pushed till his weight was fully supported by the clamp. The boy smiled and then got back down and took the second clamp and affixed it to the rope a little higher. He tried his idea again, and used the first clamp as a means to reach just a little higher on the rope, and then, hanging, he managed to lift his feet to the second clamp and push himself still, a little higher.

 

After a few more trips to the woodshop to collect clamps, Lucilius’ godson was ascending the infamous rope that had taunted him all during his short life.  That rope, now riddled with clamps, was turning into a staircase, the boy climbing up and down to bring clamps higher, until he was nearly flush with the hole in the ceiling.

 

From there the boy saw something he’d never noticed. What he’d always assumed was a dirty smudge was actually a little bit of writing, scrawled on the inside wall of the thick hole.

 

 

It read:

 

You must be strong enough or smart enough if you’ve made it this far. Each lends to the other.  Keep going, and enjoy the next challenge that awaits above.  Love, Lucilius.

 

The boy, sweating from the effort, and determined, reached down and took another clamp that he’d hung from a pocket.  With an arm looped around the rope he carefully placed the clamp and secured it, and then lifting his feet to it, he hoisted himself up into the secret room.

 


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Podcast Ep. 455: A Lucilius Parable: Room To Grow

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Appreciation can be more than a feeling. Toss something in the jar if you find your thinking delightfully tinkered.