Sunday, August 24, 2008

Brain as Composter VII

Re: Brain as Composter VI:

Two more qualities of 'slow thinking' are poetic sensibility and mindfulness.

About poetic sensibility, Claxton says,
"poetic sensibility has the ability to reset or create our agenda; to uncover issues and reveal concerns, perhaps in unexpected quarters, or surprising ways. By allowing ourselves to become absorbed in some present experience without any sense of seeking or grasping at all, we can be reminded of aspects of life that may have been eclipsed by more urgent business, and of ways of knowing and seeing that are, perhaps, more intimate and less egocentric (...) There is a kind of knowing which is essentially indirect, sideways, allusive and symbolic; which hints and evokes, touches and moves, in ways that resist explication. And it is accessed not through earnest manipulation of abstraction, but through leisurely contemplation of the particular.(...) For a person whose apprehension is under the spell of this attitude, the immediate context commands his interest so completely that nothing else can exist beside and apart from it (...) One slips away from self-concern and preoccupation into the sheer presence of the thing, the scene, the sound itself."

He quotes Kafka:
"You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."

He quotes Rilke:
"If you hold to Nature, to the simplicity that is in her, to the small detail that scarcely one man sees, which can so unexpectedly grow into something great and boundless; if you have this love for insignificant things and seek, simply as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems to be poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory, not perhaps in the understanding, which lags wondering behind, but in your innermost conciousness, wakefulness and knowing."

It's hard to get through life without visiting this sensibility. It restores one to oneself, to one's own "nature." You can bask in it - you can roll around at your own feet if you want, interpreting it physically and sensorially and personally. From it you can write your own poems and paint your own pictures and sing your own songs and play your own music and create your own dramas. All these expressions will bring you closer to your own selfness. It's all good. But I would add, do not inhibit the development of your own capacity for critical thinking either.

Claxton's fourth quality is mindfulness:
"The fourth manner of paying attention which I want to describe in this chapter is a way of seeing through one's own perceptual assumptions. It is called mindfulness. The extent to which the world-as-perceived is a mirror of our preconceptions and our preoccupations (...) is easy to underestimate. It takes an effort to see what is happening, because our beliefs are dissolved in the very organs we use to sense."
He follows with an example of tasting saliva that is in your mouth, noting its pleasant quality, then spitting some into a glass and retasting it, noting how one's perception of it immediately changes into something less positive.
"The spit hasn't changed, only the interpretation."

He goes on to talk about aging and mindfulness:
"Being 'old' is not just a biological phenomenon; how one goes about 'being old' depends on one's (largely unconscious) image of what it is like, what it means, to be old, and this in turn reflects a whole raft of both cultural assumptions and individual experiences. Ellen Langer and colleagues at Harvard U. have examined the effect on elderly people of their own vicarious experiences, as children, of ways of being old. They reasoned that children may unconsciously pick up images of old age from their own grandparents - which they might then recapitulate as they themselves get older. Specifically, they surmised that the younger their grandparents were when children first got to know them, the more 'youthful' would be the image of old age that the children would unconsciously absorb, and the more positively they would therefore approach their own ageing. (...) it was found that those elderly people who had lived with a grandparent when they themselves were toddlers were rated as more alert, more active and more independent than those whose first experience of living with a grandparent had not occurred till they were teenagers (...) it looks as if the ways in which different people age depends quite directly on the assumptions and beliefs they have picked up in their own childhoods about what it is to be old."

He talks about pain and mindfulness:
"The unconscious assumptions that people stir into their experience are often hard to alter, but sometimes they can be changed just by a suggestion, especially if it comes from some kind of an authority figure. The experience of pain, for instance, can be dramatically altered, in normal conscious subjects, simply by telling them to think of it differently. When a group of people who had volunteered to suffer some mild electric shocks were told to think of the shocks as "new physiological sensations," they were less anxious, and had lower pulse rates, than those who were not so instructed. In another study, hospital patients who were about to undergo major surgery were encouraged to realise how much the experience of pain depends on the way people interpret it. They were reminded, for example, that a bruise sustained during a football match, or a finger cut while preparing dinner for a large group of friends, would not hurt as much as similar injuries in less intense situations. And they were shown analogous ways of reinterpreting the experience of being in hospital so that it was less threatening. Patients who were given this training took fewer pain relievers and sedatives after their operations, and tended to be discharge sooner, than an equivalent group that was untrained.
These experiments demonstrate how other people may be able to rescue us from what Langer refers to as 'premature cognitive committments' - help us become aware of the assumptions that we had dissolved in perception, and contemplate alternative ways of construing the situation."
My bolds.
"Mindfulness involves observing one's own experience carefully enough to be able to spot any misconceptions that may inadvertently have crept in. There are a number of ways in which this quality of mindfulness towards the activity of our own minds can be cultivated, though all involve slowing down the onrush of mental activity, and trying to focus conscious awareness on the world of sensations, rather than jumping on the first interpretation that comes along and hurtling off in the direction of decision and action. Mindfulness can be taught directly, as a form of secular meditation, for example. (...) "The essence of the state is to 'be' fully in the present moment, without judging or evaluating it, without reflecting backwards on past memories, without looking forward to anticipate the future, as in anxious worry, and without attempting to 'problem-solve' or otherwise avoid any unplesant aspects of the immediate situation. In this state one is highly aware and focused on the reality of the present moment, 'as it is', accepting and acknowledging it is its full 'reality' without immediately engaging in discursive thought about it, without trying to work out how to change it, and without drifting off into a state of diffuse thinking focused on somewhere else or some other time.. The mindful state is associated with a lack of elaborative processing involving thoughts that are essentially about the currently experienced, its implications, further meanings, or the need for related action. Rather mindfulness involves direct and immediate experience of the present situation."(Jon Kabat-Zinn)"


So, in summary, from Hemenway's article on permaculture we have the basic design principles combined into four pairs:

1. "Do only what is necessary. Conservation involves passive restraint from change or disruption of natural systems and active participation within them."
2. "Multiply purposes. Never do anything for only one reason. "Stack functions""

3. "Be redundant. There is always a variety of pathways by which an ecosystem can proceed about its business. A system's capacity for storage and resilience stems from its redundancy."
4. "Check your scale. Design and act within an appropriate size frame. The only cultural tools our society provides for evaluating scale are economic; these often lead to the selection of scales that are counterproductive, inefficient, and destructive."

5. "Work with edges. That is where the action is. Straight lines have far less edge than waves. You know this instinctively."
6. "Encourage diversity. Diversity here is intended to be diversity of relations between things, and not just a bunch of different structures assembled. Diversity of pathways is redundancy. Diversity allows both stacking and repeating of function."

7. "Look both ways before crossing. Everything works both ways."
8. "The gift must always move."

From Claxton's book we have the four slow ways of seeing:
1. Attentive Resonance
2. Focusing
3. Poetic Sensibility
4. Mindfulness

How they stacked up as being congruent with each other in my mind was as follows:

1. "Economy and Elegance" with poetic sensibility ("reset or create our agenda; to uncover issues and reveal concerns, perhaps in unexpected quarters, or surprising ways");

2. "Balance" with focusing ("awareness" (like that in "attentive resonance", see below).."is now directed inward, towards the subtle activities and promptings of one's own body" - this is a tough one to learn when everything in our culture has prompted/taught us to be externally directed);

3. "Resilience" with attentive resonance ("The habit of attending closely and patiently to the evidence, even - sometimes especially - to tiny, insignificant-looking shreds of evidence" - another hard one when all exhortations are to keep an eye on "the Big Picture.");

4. "Reciprocity" with mindfulness ("seeing through one's own perceptual assumptions", not fall prey to "premature cognitive commitments" - in our culture, no one seems to care about this at all, except those who prefer to consider all things from a scientific perspective before unleashing them outward, as Burton reminds us in On Being Certain).

Next I want to highlight more from Claxton, his comparison/contrast of what he calls "D-mode" thinking ("D" is for deliberate) with slow, "undermind" thinking, the kind that is ongoing and one can peer into using his 4 "qualities." (I would call them "mind gardening tools.")

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