Study

 

14.11.17

Study means to examine closely. Therefore to study from a book is an oxymoron because the words are simply not the thing. The study should reveal more about the book and the recording and presentation process than about the subject itself .

Studying from a book is really the study of the subject through the intermediary of both the book (the physical medium) and the author (the subjective experience).  In this way, words, images and videos etc, all represent barriers to study, as these artefacts are often mistaken for the truth, and play an important role in shaping our opinions of the subject.

If we accept that each mode of representation has its own inherent characteristics and biases, then it follows that regardless of the author’s intentions and perspective, our subjective experience will always be altered by whatever medium our subject is presented in.

While each medium is a metaphorical barrier it is also a physical one: a book is a solid screen that blocks our vision and engages our metaphorical eyesight: the imagination.  It prevents us from seeing that which we intend to study, by presenting us with a pre-filtered copy and set of conclusions.

In effect, in order to study something as best as we can, we need to have an unobstructed view as possible, otherwise our perception and ideas can become tainted by the filters.  This implies at least two things: experiencing the subject first-hand, and becoming aware of one’s own biases.

First-hand experience is always limited, but in the past was even more limited by technological constraints.  Now that we can travel more easily and cheaply than ever before, we have the possibility to meet others and have experiences that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamt of.  The invention of high-fidelity modes of information sharing such as the printed word, no doubt played a role in inspiring readers to seek out new experiences, however, they simultaneously blinded people by convincing them that the words in the book, and the subject to which they referred were one and the same.  Thus, personal study was usurped by the official printed version.

First-hand experience is also limited by time as well as space, because we cannot have experience of time periods before or after our own.

In contrast to (direct) experience, indirect experience is a misleading term, and often refers to “experience of someone else’s account of something”.  A video for example, would constitute an account of an experience, while remaining a completely different experience in itself.

“Being there” is a necessary part of experience, therefore the different mediums for communication represent tools for inducing vicarious experience of things that are not there.

[we react to old, documentary footage of soldiers being killed as if it were happening right before our eyes, despite the fact that even if those soldiers had not been killed in battle, they would have died of old age long before the point in time when we choose to view their recorded deaths.  This idea became even clearer to me upon watching on old film in which a small bird was caught using a metal hook – the bird had long ago died, and would have done so irrespective.  The recording and repetition of its pain and suffering was just an echo, albeit a powerful one. {This unintentionally answers the question “if a tree falls in the woods” in a novel way: if there is no recording of the event there can be no echo.}]

The problem is that metaphorically speaking, we refer to the imagination as if it were a place, a space or container somewhere in our heads or minds (another metaphor), so that anything that happens “in our imagination” appears to us as if it were right before our eyes, and so, experiences that are first-hand to our imagination feel as if they were external, first-hand experiences.  This abstract concept can be easily understood by going to the cinema to watch a film.  Although we know and accept the unreal nature of the events projected onto the screen, we can’t help but react to them as if they were real.  If this were not true, cinema would have little or no reason to be so successful.  We end up feeling hatred, compassion, and all other possible emotions towards the characters the actors are pretending to be!  If you spend your time thinking rationally about what is going on onscreen, you won’t enjoy the movie!

This concept explains why athletes who imagine performing their sport, experience some of the benefits of actual exercise, but more importantly it explains why zebras don’t get ulcers.  [It is also my own just-so story about why cats dream: the dream state is a low-cost means of not only staying alert, but also maintaining physical fitness and reactivity.  This assumes though, that cat dreams are similar to cat lives – running, jumping and hunting etc, and that unconscious (sleeping) imagination has a similar, or the same effect as the waking imagination.]

How we relate to the world around us is determined by how we view and experience it.  Microscopes and telescopes both afford us unique vantage points that the naked eye alone does not.  If we constantly experience life through a microscope we risk damaging our eyesight: there are no angry atoms, only angry people.  That is to say, we must maintain an awareness of human experience on a level of the naked eye, regardless of what goes on under the surface.  Anthropology is not the same as biology etc.

Beyond being interesting or entertaining, I think that viewing a subject through different lenses simultaneously shows you some truth about that subject through that which remains the same, while also highlighting the characteristics of each lens through those features that change.  In this way I believe that using a number of different filters to examine a subject has a similar effect to running multiple tests and then cross-referencing the results, i.e increasing the sample size.  If a drug is effective for example, this should be shown by each test, although not necessarily to the same degree: this is the constant, while any differences in the results could be explained by varying methodologies and so on.  Anyone familiar with the scientific method should be aware that the results of the study can be down to poor design, rather than the element being tested.  This important fact seems little acknowledged outside of the scientific domain, but has been summed up famously as:

“the medium is the message”.

So if coming closer to a state of objectivity is arrived at by both de-filtering and cross-referencing information, we can conclude that much of what we consider truth, in the sense that it shapes our impressions and actions, lies somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Our experiences and ideas are not really our own, they are concepts passed down to us through a long, complex and ongoing filtering system that includes time itself.  The information we receive prior to our first-hand experiences goes a long way to biasing them, so that in effect, books and other reference points become important factors in preventing us from having our own untainted, and in-the-moment experiences.

We are largely to blame for this state of affairs though, as we often like to research and plan things to death before taking action, for the sake of apparent control and peace of mind.  It’s as if we only wish to move forward if we can not only be sure of the destination, that it really exists and in the form we currently desire, but also that we will actually make it there without fail.

In a sense it’s safer to get someone else’s opinion before launching ourselves into oblivion for the first time, both physically and metaphorically.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense that not only having correct beliefs led to greater chances of survival, but sharing them too was also beneficial for successful co-operation.  Trust could be built on accurate advice and data, and in some ways civilisation itself was also built by these same materials.  But technology has exponentially and reliably enabled us to circumvent and derail our biology, so that characteristics and circumstances that would have previously led to the extinction of a particular individual no longer have that effect.  We are able to support life that cannot even support itself, so much so that for the most part “survival of the fittest” no longer implies life-or-death struggle it once did, leaving the phrase an empty shell.  And in the same way that changes to our environment have led to us becoming less reliant on ancient practices for survival, we are no longer so dependent on the sharing and receiving of information that has a high probability of correlating to our immediate surroundings or even the world at large.  Truth is going the way of the dodo.

There are a number of things to first consider: our environment is orders of magnitude richer in information than that of our evolutionary ancestors, and although this is true, the amount of relevant information has probably not changed all that much.  These two points leave us with the conclusion that we are currently swamped with superfluous information for which there was no evolutionary advantage.  Information itself has broken free from its ancestral constraints.

Let me now bring your attention to the condom; an item that prevents the one thing we have evolved to do: procreate.  We should take care not to conflate evolution’s results with our own goals, but in a sense this should be obvious, as it appears natural for humans to rebel against their own biology in every single way possible, and currently impossible.  The existence and widespread use of contraceptives is abhorrent from a survival standpoint, as is suicide, abortion and sterilisation, which strangely enough, quite accurately maps to what certain religions also find objectionable.  The condom therefore, serves as a banal example of the normality of the strange.

In the same way that we are unable to emotionally create a distinction between things imagined and the things themselves, we also tend to treat information on a is-captivating-therefore-is-important basis, as if the latest viral videos were really information on where to harvest some ripe fruit or warnings of imminent death-by-tiger.  We also share this strange relationship to certain foods and other superstimuli, one where we are unable to untangle our emotional responses from our sense of good or bad.  We find it difficult to instinctively comprehend the idea of something having ultimately negative consequences for us, yet on the surface appears enticing and pleasant when we consume it.  But this is the crux of the issue with how human psychology operates and fails to operate effectively in our man-made environment – we are falling into our own concrete pitfalls, having spent so much effort on paving over the natural ones.

This historical anomaly we call the news, is an attempt at study from a distance, or study without study.  In order for the multitude of things reported on by the news to be of personal relevance to me, they would for the most part, have to take place in my local vicinity, so in order for me to study (experience) the effects of an earthquake in Tokyo I would have to be there in person.  This leaves me in a strange position: either I travel to every place on the news in order to experience things first-hand and in order for them to be relevant, and for me to have a greater power of affecting them, or I concede that the images before me that elicit such natural, healthy emotional responses, are merely entertainment like the actors on the cinema screen.

The news, through its study-from-home technique, emotionally transports us all across the globe, and takes us from fear, anger, astonishment, grief, joy and all the way back to fear again without us ever changing position, while constantly changing the plot and the protagonists.  For this reason the news is perhaps the strongest example of media as a teleportation device, but what goes unreported is not the trivial and meaningless occurrences that would otherwise pass by unannounced, but the collective emotional impact that such an experience of information has on the population.  We are as enthralled as we are divided: torn and divided as the range of messages, emotions and locations from which, and to where it is all broadcast.  Paying attention to the news is to self-inflict schizophrenia in small, regular doses.  The cost is sanity, as we lose our minds from having them constantly elsewhere, jolted back and forth, disturbed, uprooted, transplanted and replanted.  The end result is that we are never here.  We are never now.  Always then, in somebody else’s past, a fly on someone else’s wall, trying desperately to make sense of the events, fumbling to arrange them all in alphabetical order in an impossibly large filing cabinet that juts off heavenwards into infinity like a towering tombstone.

We don’t see the filter, only the pieces that pass through.  So when we view life through the privileged vantage points of the media, with our easily emotionally captured attention, we don’t ask ourselves why we are being presented with such information, instead we move directly on to responding to the propositions as they stand.  It’s as if when the television says “jump” we don’t say “how high?”, but proceed to jump automatically, when we should really be asking “why jump at all?”

By virtue of the focusing power that the news has over millions of people, simply showing something, anything at all, creates the illusion and feeling of primordial importance.

Terrorism became important in the minds of people, not because it was suddenly more relevant to our everyday lives, but because it was widely reported on and repeated, and re-repeated and reported.  Statistically speaking, you’re probably more likely to die by committing suicide than being killed in a terrorist attack, which if anything, means you should be worried about your own state of mind and should probably sleep with one eye open in case you’re watching.  This didn’t, and doesn’t stop anyone from feeling uneasy about walking around European cities, especially at certain times of year.  That information cannot be un-broadcast, to paraphrase a catchphrase.

Information should largely be opt-in only, which would put limits on advertising in public space, and make it the sole responsibility of the individual to manage their consumption of information.  There’s a reason it’s called a news feed.  Instead of using the heuristic interesting=good, we should be more wary of not only wasting our time, but of the possible short and long-term negative effects of having such an unrestricted diet.

Fast Food

01.10.17

I officially began a 7-day fast yesterday, although I had eaten very little the day before, and didn’t at all consume an evening meal.  I had experimented with fasting as a child, but no longer than a day at a time, and if I remember correctly my fasting periods were often during school hours.  I think it was my mother who once encouraged me to try, and I soon discovered how easy it was, and what’s more how I could save my lunch money to be able to afford a better meal the next day.  My motives were hardly spiritual or noble in any way, but it was nevertheless an unusual experience that further separated me from my peers.

I have challenged myself to do certain things over the years, most recently to live without time.  Not being tied to a routine job allowed me to remove all artificial evidence of time in the form of clocks, and to experience life according to the rhythms of nature, becoming more attuned to my own feelings and learning first-hand how much influence this powerful concept has over us.

On my first day of fasting I realised how much food and time had in common, and that much of our experience with food is tied to routine and expectation.  In the same way I had seen how time would dictate whether we ate or not, mealtimes themselves seemed to give meaning and order to the day, so that when eating (or time) is removed from the equation things fall apart and we are left feeling lost.  There are unexpected benefits to fasting that all amount to having more time on your hands, due to the fact that you no longer have to prepare food, eat, and clean up afterwards three times a day or more.  Now that’s something I could get used to.

My first day of fasting went smoothly until around 6 or 7pm when I began to feel very tired mentally.  I went to bed around 9:30 but had trouble sleeping, unable to shut off yet mentally exhausted.

When I woke up this morning I was still tired and felt physically weak as I went out to do my daily exercises.  When I came back in I lay down in bed as I didn’t feel any better and was also quite cold, which appears to be something that comes and goes throughout the day.  A little while later I drank some black tea but was sick shortly after.  At that moment, like many other people who have had one too many to drink, I told myself “never again”.  Surprisingly though, or not, if you think that one always feels better after chucking up a gut or two, I felt much livelier and more awake than I did before.

My day went from me thinking that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through, to feeling that it’s not so bad after all.  The hardest parts of the day are when my girlfriend cooks and the smell wafts in, more enticingly than ever.  I realised that I must have pretty good self-control though, as I don’t allow myself to dwell on the thought of food and have avoided making a lip-smacking mental list of all the thing I intend to feast upon once these 7 days are up.  Ok, at least not a complete list.

Today I saw how food, mealtimes and other related rituals are important for their symbolic aspects in ways that mechanical representations of time are not.  Food isn’t just a bunch of nutrients to be consumed as efficiently as possible, food is a vital symbol of self and group sustenance that not only concerns the end product in the form of a meal, but also encompasses the rituals and practices of hunting (sacrifice), harvesting (nurturing) and preparation.  This is why the metaphor of fast food extends much deeper than simply reduced cooking times, for the whole concept of food itself is reduced.

Recently I began not saying grace, but simply having a moment of often silent appreciation for the food and favourable circumstances that allow me to eat regularly.  Now into my fourth day of fasting my appreciation of food has grown even stronger, along with an awareness that every meal, every bite is an opportunity to enjoy the simple, necessary act of eating.  Bringing a consciousness to our eating habits and practices is another element missing from fast food culture, as we tend to consume our meals as rapidly as they are prepared.  There is a distinct lack of practice in savouring our nourishment and we treat carefully prepared meals just as fast food or protein shakes to be wolfed down out of necessity.  Fast food and the under appreciation of real cooking could be seen as a side effect of a time-bound culture that is both driven and sustained by convenience: we not only strive to make life more convenient for ourselves, but technology and modern infrastructures allow us to continue in this general direction by eliminating the need for effort and personal input, with an array of time-saving devices.  Convenience is all-encompassing, meaning that it is likely to affect multiple areas of your life.  It takes a lot of willpower and strong motivations to avoid becoming automatic when we live life according to the rigid routines of our jobs.  But instead of seeing a lack of time as the ultimate excuse for our failing to suck out all the marrow of life, we can instead take the opportunity and first steps towards a deeper appreciation of daily experiences as they are presented to us, and that moreover, we can liberate ourselves from a stressful sense of not having enough time.  For when you fail to enjoy the simple, humble occurrences that regularly pass you by, no amount of free time will satiate your hunger.

After being vegetarian for almost 30 years I became aware that I had slipped into a comfortable routine of eating the same things, despite enjoying cooking since I was a child when I would prepare 3-course meals for the whole family.

The closest I have come to making a new year’s resolution was saying to myself that I would pick up the recipe books and begin to experiment again, to change my diet and develop new tastes for the sort of things I’d habitually avoid due to prejudices and knee-jerk reactions.  Although I’ve yet to fulfil this non-resolution, my starved mind is eager to dive into this endeavour once I begin eating again.  My goal is to use the cookbook as a pre-defined constraint, meaning that I will follow all recipes and eat all meals, challenging my own consumption assumptions and expanding my knowledge and capacity for appreciation in the process.

I have already begun to venture outside the boundaries of my culinary norms with the discovery and joy of mushroom hunting last autumn.  I have never been a fan of cooked mushrooms due to their slimy appearance and texture, but realised that by developing a closer relationship to my food and also to nature, I became less repulsed and actually began to enjoy the smell and then taste of freshly-picked wild mushrooms.  Initially I would just help search for them, but later found it a bit of a shame to spend time collecting them without getting to savour the final product.  Now, not only have I been regularly eating mushrooms, but the proportion of my food that comes directly from nature and the garden as opposed to the supermarket has significantly risen, although remains relatively small for the time being.

I find it strange how something so important as the production of food has become so obscure and alien to the general population.  Not only are people ignorant of how to prepare their own food, they are also oblivious to the origins of their ready meals and constituents, and children fail to correctly identify vegetables, let alone know how to grow them themselves.

There appears to be a great source of untapped personal power, respect and gratitude in cultivating a more food-centric culture that re-connects humans to the earth through healthier (for body and mind) practices for eating and consuming.  Instead of merely waiting at the table with an eager knife and fork, the human must re-invest himself in all parts of the process.

Before beginning my foodless journey I had read that when fasting for a week or more the first days are the most difficult and then things het easier, but in my experience it was the opposite.  In the beginning I was able to function normally, to exercise and continue my daily routine without much difficulty and with a clear head.  As the week progressed I became much weaker and my calves felt like every step was a workout for some reason, and time itself slowed to a crawl.  Standing made me dizzy and I lost the desire to do anything, remaining seated and relatively motionless during the final days.  Strangely, throughout the fast I woke up before sunrise and didn’t feel like I needed as much sleep as before, despite being physically weaker.

I decided to end my fast early as I felt that there was nothing more to be gained from continuing in such a state, so on the morning of the 6th October, six and a half days after my improvised fast began I ate a banana.  That very instant I began to feel life return to my body, and I realised that this was the closest I had ever come to dying.

A week later and now everything seems like ancient history: distant and impersonal, yet I have created new boundaries for myself by removing one of life’s most essential comforts, and in the process altered my perspective.