Culture+language as humanity’s most basic echo chamber

Social scientists often celebrate the diversity of cultures and languages in the world, because taken overall/comparatively, this diversity resists the negative aspects of globalization (e.g., corporate conglomeration and monopolization, the colonialistic imposition of wealthier or larger cultures on smaller or poorer ones, etc.) and offers a wide variety of ways of thinking about life.

However, most people are not social scientists; for most people, culture means ignorance. Most people don’t travel very far from home except perhaps for a very brief vacation or pilgrimage, just do a socially acceptable job, marry within their ethnic group and possibly social class, watch their people’s TV and movies, listen to their people’s music, speak their people’s language (thinking in terms of only one worldview, using words other groups can’t understand, etc.), eat their people’s food… and generally ignore or resist other societies and the natural world beyond their people’s territory.

People’s lives are small and brief, languages and cultures are complex and time-consuming to learn (sticking with the one you were raised with is easiest), and culture and language are tied up with people’s senses of self/identity. Culture+language is perhaps humanity’s most basic echo chamber, and most people seem trapped within one or two cultures, unable or unwilling to view their own existence differently.


Mindfulness exercise: Don’t scratch

One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.

Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.

Humans aren’t good enough for humans

There are many activities where people seem to fetishize (meaning an object of obsession, whether sexual or not) robots. For example: synchronized performances of many kinds (the military, sports, marching bands and drum corps, synchronized dancing, etc.); computer-generated music that no human musician could ever play; weapons that no human could ever resist; make-up to make the body look more like plastic or porceline; people value precise manual labor and cheap prices so much as to be willing to replace human factory workers with machines; increasingly elaborate sex toys; checking human behavior with endless sensors and cameras; etc. People seem to be in a great hurry to replace humanity with machines.

Worldliness and cold-heartedness, insisting that every ridiculously small and ephemeral material detail of life be beautiful and perfectly controlled, give me OCD.

The pain is over there… the pain is not me

For managing pain (or pleasure or boredom), here is a mindfulness technique that has worked well for me. Hold whatever part of the body or mind is in pain at a distance, look at it, and calmly/dispassionately repeat the following to yourself: “the pain is over there… the pain is not me.”

This seems to work for a few reasons:

  1. Calm, clear-headed, detached, dispassionate, etc. mental observation discourages the mind from creating things. It is like placing a buffer of empty space between the constructive part of the mind and the problematic construct.
  2. Pain is a more unconscious, automatic sensation, whereas suffering is a more conscious, habituated perception or psychological labeling of experience. Perceptions (like suffering and joy) can be more easily consciously managed than can unconscious sensations (like pain and pleasure). For example, when babies get injured, they often look to their parents to see how they should respond to, or feel about, the pain from the injury — is it no big deal, or should they cry? Similarly, adults can learn to separate their reactions to pain from their experience of pain.
  3. The body and brain are not a stable, eternal self. Like probably all phenomena in this world, the body and brain’s states are always changing, and seem to follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may stay awhile (or maybe this apparent abiding itself subtly changes from moment to moment), then they decay and condition/become something else. If one can just disassociate oneself from the problematic thing or person for long enough, that thing and/or oneself are guaranteed to change on their own eventually, and they might change enough that the current problem is no longer a problem. Alternatively, if action is better than inaction for some reason (e.g., if the pain is being caused by a poisoned knife stuck in one’s arm, which one should quickly remove), the mental clarity and detachment of this technique should help one to make a good decision and take immediate action.

Like most meditation techniques, the benefits of this technique include that it doesn’t involve taking any expensive, possibly dangerous drugs, or losing one’s mental clarity or self-control; the cons include that it takes persistent, conscious effort and practice.

The swarm of self

According to early-to-medieval Buddhism, as I understand, the self and (probably) world are like swarms/flocks of bees, birds, or fish: each particle more-or-less doing its part for some larger purpose with more-or-less thought, each particle itself a swarm of smaller particles — momentary configurations of some basic, common-to-everything, connected-but-separate flashes (not stable points) of energy, with the swarm’s complexity having slowly aggregated/evolved over billions of years. A feeling of a stable self emerges from the swarm, but it is an illusion. Swarms of food, water, air, thoughts from other people or objects, etc. are constantly affecting or replacing parts of oneself. These are several ways in which ancient Buddhism was/is similar to modern physics, biology, and complex adaptive system theories.

“All composite things are impermanent. Strive for liberation [from this state of existence] with diligence” (the Buddha’s final words, my translation from Pali).

Two kinds of happiness

I know of two types of happiness: contentment (calm, peace, clarity, balance, equanimity, neutrality, etc.) and joy (excitement, pleasure, arousal, intoxication, extremity, etc.). Most mainstream cultures seem to seek joy, however unstable, impermanent, or destructive it may be. Buddhism seems to seek a stable, permanent, harmless contentment.

Changing (how) the world (works)

People don’t really want the world to change; the world changes on its own incessantly, which is the cause of most/all suffering in the world (i.e., whatever one builds or gets attached-to in this world is inevitably destroyed). People want to change *how* the natural, psychological, and social worlds work. For example, the human body and mind are frail, susceptible to disease, and short-lived, so people want to find ways of overcoming those problems. Walking, running, or using carts are too slow/weak and painful, so people invent transportation technologies. Crop yields are too low, so people do genetic and other agricultural engineering. Certain social structures/regimes that are currently in power are destroying the natural environment, causing wars, or allowing prejudiced or unequal treatment of people, so people want to change those regimes. And so forth. Humans rarely want to live in their natural state.