Love 4 | Observing the Entangled Mind

This is the fourth post in an indefinite series on love. Here are post 1, post 2, and post 3. Someday the love series will coalesce into a book. 

A master in the dark arts of anxiety with a mystic’s appreciation for the beauty latent in our day-to-day, I’ve listened to countless podcasts about meditation. My favorites, like this Tim Ferriss podcast with Jack Kornfield or this Krista Tippett podcast with Carlo Rovelli, brought tears to my eyes as I listened to them walking to work.[1] I’d take a moment to recompose before entering the office, hang up my coat, and walk–more like jog–directly to Charu Jaiswal and Katharine Marek, two former colleagues, gushing with enthusiasm about what I’d heard and watching them react with combination of surprise at being accosted, curiosity about the content, and joy at the purity of my intent.[2] Through all these hours of listening, however, I never heard anyone speaking about meditating with another.[3] I don’t mean next to someone, but entangled with someone, touching him or her, looking into his or her eyes, meditating together to feel, think, and breath as one. Love as meditation, or meditation as love.

I bet it would strike most as horrendously awkward and invasive to meditate looking directly into another’s eyes, even if they were the eyes of a lover or spouse. Context alters what feels natural: gazing into someone’s eyes is romantic on a first date, bonding after sex (when authentic…), and cherished during a proposal. But pausing our lives to sit down and look at one another without speaking just feels weird. It’s certainly not something we’d practice at a yoga class or meditation retreat. Sitting for five minutes in silence with strangers at a respectable distance is hard enough; having strangers sit on top of us and look into our eyes would annihilate any sliver of the inner peace and focus meditation is designed to promote.

But it’s deeper than that. The way of being we cultivate during meditation is a often a being disentangled from the minds and emotions of others. The quest in the west is to use meditation to appease our anxiety, depression, and fear, to chip away at crusty carapaces of self-hatred we’ve built over the years. It’s a hermetic place guarded in ritual, a precious state of mind that is relief from the turbulence and distraction we return to the minute we turn off our app and check email or Facebook. Many meditators find it difficult to bring the inner stillness they find on the mat to the office chair or the grocery store check-out line. The world impinges on us. Others impinge on us, entangling their histories, their emotions, their states with ours. And the spell is broken.

This isn’t to say that this is what meditation should and could be about. On the contrary, practices like metta (loving kindness) are geared towards focusing on others, wishing well-being, safety, and health to loved ones and strangers alike. The enlightened are beyond the petty, world-forming powers of anxiety, envy, and ambition, able to embrace all with equanimity and love divorced from the pain of projected possibility and power. In Buddhism, as far as I understand it, each person’s meditation promotes all beings’ ability to liberate ourselves from samsara, the purgatorial repetition of earthly existence characterized by suffering. So there should and could be value in practicing being fully connected with another, finding the same inner silence we encounter sitting by ourselves while our minds and emotions are entangled with another’s. Making space for emotions and thoughts we can’t control or directly observe and all the while experiencing deliverance.

My fiancé Mihnea and I recently started an almost daily practice of meditating with one another. On one another. In one another. We didn’t start on a quest for entangled enlightenment. We started because I wanted to meditate and we wanted to be together and it didn’t feel right to meditate next to one another, apart and independent, because we don’t love that way. It’s not our way of being. Ours is a love of oneness and interdependence, so it was more natural for us to meditate on one another than next to one another. So began a practice that yielded challenging and graceful experiences neither of us expected.

Here’s a sample. Mihnea has told me that he recognizes his own experiences in these descriptions.

How We Sit

Both Mihnea and I are prolific creators. We create to find stillness. We write, learn, build teams, build futures, ground our constant creativity in disciplined habits and rituals. As creators, we both have the instinct to experiment with meditation techniques and poses, to make meditation itself an instance of creative power. And yet, we (almost) always meditate in the same position: he sits on a couch or chair and I straddle him with my knees bent. Our perspectives are different: I tilt my head down and he tilts his up, when he bends his neck I see the crown of his head and when I bend mine he sees the tip of my forehead, I look down into his eyes and he looks up into mine.

My hunch is that we keep returning to this same position because it foregrounds the ability to look directly into one another’s eyes (or perhaps not, perhaps it’s all awaiting and preparation, twenty minutes spent building magnetic potential like rising bread that finds release in an embrace that is deep, pure, reaching towards essence, in the moment when I collapse into his chest like a child and he softens his hands to stroke my back and kiss my hair, a moment bursting with waiting, watching, noticing what wonders emerge when the world stretches flat from the density of a concentrated gaze). During a recent sit, Mihnea’s gaze hit me like a solid beam, unearthing a latent memory of the early Italian Renaissance Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who described the eyes as a conduit to exchange blood and spirits, capable of beaming soul-rays into another. Here’s his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus in De Amore [4]:

Put before your eyes, I beg of you, Phaedrus the Myrrhinusian, and that Theban who was seized by love of him, Lysias the orator. Lysias gapes at the face of Phaedrus. Phaedrus aims into the eyes of Lysias sparks of his own eyes, and along with those sparks transmits also a spirit. The ray of Phaedrus is easily joined to the ray of Lysias, and spirit easily joined to spirit. This vapor produced by the heart of Phaedrus immediately seeks the heart of Lysias, through the hardness of which it is condensed and turns back into the blood of Phaedrus as before, so that now the blood of Phaedrus, amazing though it seems, is in the heart of Lysias. Hence each immediately breaks out into shouting: Lysias to Phaedrus: “O, my heart, Phaedrus, dearest viscera.” Phaedrus to Lysias: “O, my spirit, my blood, Lysias.”

800px-Angel_Appearing_to_Zacharias_(detail)_-_1486-90
The lower-left corner detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Zachariah in the Temple (this fresco has as many names as there are websites), in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Marsilio Ficino is the guy on the far left. My friend Andrew Hui, who teaches at Yale’s NUS college in Singapore, has written extensively about palimpsest temporality in the Renaissance, where recognizable contemporaries in modern clothing stand alongside spiritual figures from the Bible, as if the stories were happening in today. The temporality of allegory is non-linear: it’s ever present and wraps around itself in quantum loops, like Mihnea’s gentle hand bringing me back to my childhood. This fresco is a great example, with Ficino and his cohort present in a Jewish-temple-turned-Catholic-Church to watch the archangel Gabriel announce a child to Zachariah first hand.

Humoring Renaissance Humorism and Christian-mystic-transubstantation, there is something intense and powerful about our eyes becoming vessels to exchange blood and bile. While we meditate, it’s clear that our connection is centered through our eyes. The many other channels of communication and connection–my hands on his stomach breathing his breath, my bottom sensing pulses and twitches in his quadriceps, the heat from his body creating a temperature differential between my chest (facing him) and back (facing away)–are present but dim in contrast to the encompassing power of Mihnea’s gaze, the window to the inside, the locus that dominates my awareness and makes the rest feel like static in the background, surprising me when it comes to the fore. Given this connection, we often meditate with our eyes open; indeed, it feels slightly awkward for me when I close my eyes, as if I’m cutting off our connection and imparting distance. I’m learning to see with my eyes closed, to be ok if his eyes remain open and watching even when my eyes are closed. To feel blood seep through eyelid gates and pump his heart with mine.

My knees inevitably get so sore I have to lie flat and stretch them after we sit. Once we inverted our positions and he sat on me; he wasn’t heavy but fear that he would be tightened his leg muscles. I tried to relax him. Someday I’d like us to stand holding hands, stand with our hands down near our haunches but with some part touching one another, lie on our sides facing one another, lie as if we were two dead people in coffins with my back touching his front, sit with our backs facing one another, etc. There’s no rush.

Breathing in Syncopation

One of the first things a new meditator learns is how to focus on the breath. Breathing is a marvelous anchor because we all easily recognize it as an eminently noticeable act that almost always goes unnoticed as we think about or do something else. The psychologist William James went so far as to claim that consciousness is nothing but breath, and that what we mistake for consciousness is a fictitious thing philosophers made up to name the thing that knows its thinking:

I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing. The ‘I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the ‘I breath’ which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intracephalic muscular adjustments, etc., of which I have said a word in my larger Psychology), and these increase the assets of ‘consciousness,’ so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath, which was ever the original of ‘spirit,’ breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed the entity known to them as consciousness. That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are. (Italics original)

There are different breathing techniques and different techniques for attending to breath. I like to start a meditation session with controlled, hyper-dilated breathing: 60-second inhale-exhale cycles dabbled with rapid cycles if I get short of breath. Five breaths (minutes) in, I notice that my brain feels different. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as if the center of my brain’s activity shifts from the forehead to the back of the skull, as if a spidermonculus had emerged from hibernation in my axons to canvas my neural pathways in delicate, shimmying webs. Eventually I stop controlling the pace and observe myself breathing naturally. While keeping partial attention on the breath, I sometimes expand awareness to scan the sensations in one localized body part, like my right pinky toe; this lopsided focus is most fun when it induces pinky toe hallucinations, stretching my torso and face into oblong pizza dough like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Dogmatic mindfulness meditators insist that one shouldn’t control the breath actively, that the practice is about noticing what the mind and body are doing and stilling the instinct to control. The breath, in mindfulness, is a home base to return to when thoughts do what thoughts do and plan and worry and wonder and plan and worry and wonder and criticize and compare and plan and worry and criticize and evaluate and self-hate and worry about planning and remember and ruminate and plan about worrying and ruminate about self-hate and remember about planning and plan about worrying ad infinitum. In the pranayama tradition, mediators actively restrict the breath using fingers or hold the breath at the top or bottom of a cycle.[5] Given my proclivities for experimentation, I like to experiment with different techniques and observe what happens.

When Mihnea and I started meditating together, I began with my habitual practice of long, controlled inhales and exhales. But it didn’t work. My prefrontal cortex stayed engaged, comparing my breathing cycle with his. I observed myself as I imagined he observed me, projecting my meditative I into his gaze such that the I watching me breathe was no longer the meditative I, but a socialized I, an outside I seeing my face and skin, judging me within my projections of what another sees. This doesn’t mean this is what Mihnea sees, or even what I think Mihnea sees. It was rather that his presence activated my superego, activated a bifurcation of the observing I that includes the awareness that others are watching. The discomfort was exacerbated by frustration: I sought to replicate the experience I cherish when meditating alone and felt budding frustration that I wasn’t able to replicate it, that the situation was different, that I didn’t have the same control.

So I pivoted. Focused on his breath instead of mine. It’s a different experience, a different way to cultivate inner stillness, but a way better suited to meditation with another. When I focus on my own breath, the act of attention is coupled with an act of will that controls the observed phenomenon: as I observe myself breathing at a pace I dictate, it’s as if my body were an extension of my attention. When I focus on his breath, the act of attention is decoupled from the observed phenomenon: sometimes Mihnea will imitate my breathing pace, but it normally lasts no more than 2-3 cycles. I notice the union and the difference, but the syncopation doesn’t bug me or create distance between us. It brings me closer to him, attunes me to him to the point where I stop noticing me and identify entirely with his breathing instead. It’s even deeper when I place my hands on his front body, palms facing down, one hand on his chest and one hand on his abdomen. My hands become like eyes, absorbing the heat and movements from his body as if they were x-rays observing his inner motions. When my hands breathe his breath, I close my eyes to amplify the sensation. It’s one of the few times when I feel more comfortable meditating with him with my eyes closed.

octopus skin
When I close my eyes and breathe Mihnea’s breath in my hands, it’s as if my hands were able to see him, the way an octopus can see through its arms. A firm believer in decentralization, I often dream of creating a company with an octopus leadership structure: I’d like to be a puny octopus brain CEO, delegating whole nervous systems to my teams, each of which can cognize the world independently yet somehow avoid the perils of silo’d, product-centric fragmentation. I also think the nervous structure of an octopus is a wonderful inspiration for distributed computational architecture, which seems to be where we’re headed.[6]

Mihnea recently built an application that synchronizes breathing in a group of people. Users put a belt around their chest to measure and join breath cadences. His research has shown that people who breathe in sync are more likely to register and remember the same thing: they become like one observer. I’ve certainly experienced communion like this in group meditation sessions, the experience strongest when the sound of my Om harmonizes with the resounding Oms of others (best when there are baritones and basses present). I think this makes the syncopation between Mihnea and my breath in our private meditation all the more interesting. We don’t breath in sync. But it’s precisely the syncopation that draws me out of myself and onto him, to decouple attention from will and give myself to his being.

Leafy_sea-dragon
Adding the octopus image reminded me of my favorite sea creature, the leafy sea dragon. You can view these in the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Knowing the Self Through Touch

Whereas I place my hands on Mihnea’s chest and torso to breathe his breath, he laces his fingers behind the small of my back to balance and support me. The awareness of me in his hands, of his hands on me, interestingly, is an outside-in way of perceiving the self, a meditation practice emphasizing self and mind as integrated with body (Yoga is similar, just aligning mind with body through movement rather than focusing on the self as body through touch). Note that the organic awareness of the boundaries of the self through touch is very different from the deleterious projections of how another would see the self as described above. Watching hands don’t judge, the feel their way to vision.

Finding self awareness in touch (rather than through a recursive loop in the mind) reminds me of responses some French Enlightenment philosophers had to Cartesian epistemology. Descartes emphasized the split between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (extended thing, or matter), claiming that we can build the world (and God) from a clear and distinct perception of the self because it’s impossible to say “I don’t exist” (who’s the I who says I don’t exist?).[7] A corollary was that knowledge does not depend on sensory experience, that truth is pre-wired in the mind (explanation beyond the scope of this post). Enlightenment empiricists thought this was bollocks and worked to show how all knowledge starts with sensory experience. One of my favorite pieces in the tradition (referenced in a former post on consciousness), is Etienne Bonnot de Condillac‘s Treatise on Sensations, which opens with a fable about a statue that comes to know herself by touching another, implying that the mind alone does not suffice to stratify the self.  Here’s how I paraphrased Condillac on May 21, 2010:

Imagine a statue that can only smell. Waft a rose under its nose. To an observer, it will be a statue that smells a rose. But to itself, it will simply be the oder of rose, of carnation, of jasmine, of violet, according to the objects that stimulate it. The odors the statue smells will seem to it not as properties of an external object, but rather as its own manners of being. Now think that the statue can only hear. Again, when the wind blows the oak leaves and rustles the willows, it will be that rustle and when the rain pitters the roof above, it will pitter with the rain. Now let the statue only be able to taste and smell. Place on its tongue your honey and thyme, and it will be that honey and thyme. Place on its tongue your cream and your salt, and it will be your cream and salt. It will be a collection of manners of being.

Now let the statue touch. First let the statue touch its own hands, its own legs. Then, place a rock on the table in front of your statue and let it touch it. It will rapidly pull back its hand in fear! For the statue will know that its me, the me that feels modified in its hands, does not feel modified in its body when it touches the rock. It is, then, the sensation of touch by which the soul passes from itself outside itself. By touching the rock, your statue will awake to its existence as different from the rest of the external world.

Now, Pygmalion, let the statue touch your own hand. Wait out your statue’s initial fear. Gradually, she will recognize that you are like her, a form similar to her own. But she will recognize that you are more than her and will think that her existence might change places and pass entirely into this second half of herself. She will want to give you all her being; a vivid desire will return and take over her whole existence, as a new manner of being, as a new awareness of a self that is a complete surrender of self into another. She will feel the birth of a sixth sense. Let us call this sixth sense dependence, vulnerability, or love.

Mihnea’s hands, however, do more than anchor me in the present as a body in space. They open another dimension and transport me through time. He has stubby fingers, incommensurate with the grace of his being. But he’s an extremely skilled pianist who expresses the musicality of his being–and the musicality of the world channeled through his being–through touch, absorbing and reflecting my needs and emotionality. When he strokes my hair, he transports me back to my childhood: I am three again, five again, comforted at last by my parents’ touch after hours of fretful insomnia. His hands cradle my fear and remind me I am no longer alone, ease me to sleep after the storm. Time unfolds in our moment of meditation, collapsing my life into the sensation of his fingers on my back. It pulses, breathing like a seal asleep under beach sun.

Practicing Stillness When Entangled With Another’s Mind

A Mind Like Sky is one of my favorite Jack Kornfield meditations. It calls for expansive attention (rather than the focused and controlled attention described above) to cultivate a mind “vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm.” (From the Majjhima Nikaya) Every once and a while when I practice like this, the boundaries between myself and other relax (it’s too strong to say disappear). I identify with the sky, with the vase of breadsticks sitting askant to my left as I write, with the red spindly branches of the still leafless plant on our back porch. When the boundaries of the self expand to include and encompass everything, our ethical calculus changes. The golden rule stops making sense.

I have yet to feel this kind of universal identification when meditating with Mihnea. I trust it will come in time, but so far having my mind entangled with his has thwarted my ability to generalize my self awareness: his powerful and immediate presence grounds me in an us that is part of but not inclusive of everything. This is in part caused by the inviscid movements of our non-verbal communication. When Mihnea notices something that stimulates him, his eyes flicker and twitch with activity. When his eyes spark during meditation, I wonder what he’s thinking, what he noticed, get locked in his mind’s movement. Sometimes he opens his eyes so wide that the skin on his forehead folds like waves on a pond. His mouth opens slightly. He looks at me in utter surprise and I can’t help but laugh.

The openness and stillness our meditation cultivates is the kind needed to be good friends and colleagues. It’s practice being able to register the actions, words, and emotions of others in an encounter, rather than focusing on one’s own inner world, emotions, and thoughts. One of the limitations many meditators encounter is the difficulty transferring the same grounded bliss from the mat to the boardroom: the tendency is to default right back to our same old selves upon entering into the magnetic field of a given epistemological network and context. I’ve felt this frustration, and wondered if all the morning practice would ever amount to transformative change at work and in the rest of my life. There’s a good case to be made that meditating with someone else is better practice for the entangled consciousness we experience with others. It’s awkward at first, but it’s where the real work takes place. Almost like the initial resistance to taking an improv class that can go on to work wonders for one’s ability to act bravely and brazenly in other areas of life. I’d love to transform myself into a blank and open vessel, always open to others, able to see them for who they are, with strengths and weaknesses and beauty and blemishes, and to help them grow with equanimity. To register every last detail of every encounter and replicate the details in my mind. It’s a work in progress.[8]

Seeing the Details

Meditating with Mihnea gives me time to study him with the minute gaze of an entomologist. I study the curve of his chin, the two little freckles near his right eye (left-looking to me as we face one another), the curve of the bottom of his earlobes into the side of his face (he has attached earlobes like Clint Eastwood), the distribution of grey and black beard hairs at different lengths depending on when he last shaved, the shape of his lips, the chappedness of his lips at any given time, the puncture a single beard hair through the center of his bottom lip, stains on the side of his teeth, the odor of his breath (so often hinting tangerine oil), the smell of love in his veins and through his cartilage, the aura that emanates from behind his neck, like a halo on a Fra Angelico fresco, the furrow of his brow, the uneven distribution of his forehead pores, the even distribution of his skin melatonin, the precision of his hair line depending when he last got a haircut, the depth of the inlay into his spine in his lower back. It can go on to infinity, confirming the glorious skepticism of all that is there to be known.

womaninthedunes11
One of the most beautiful and sensual films about the precise gaze of the entomologist is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964). At first trapped in a sand dune with an alienating woman, the protagonist comes to cultivate a new obsession extracting water from the sand. 

I like to pay particular attention to the details of Mihnea’s eyes, and see different things every time. Their colors are enormously complex: he has hazel eyes with brown concentrated near the pupils (which sometimes dilate or constrict extremely rapidly after he returns his head back to look at me after bending his neck, only to encounter the shock of the bright lights above), followed by rays of green that eventually give to violet lining around the iris. His sclera tend to be bloodshot in the evening, which is when we tend to sit on weekdays. His eyes are galaxies, Leibnizian monads whose lines narrate a universe’s worth of history. And every time we meditate, water collects at the bottom of Mihnea’s eyes. I always wonder if it harkens tears. Sometimes it does. When it does, and I ask him afterwards why he cried, he says it is to wash away my pain.

One time I examined his tears. We didn’t let them keep us from meditating. We stayed silent. The tears were slow to fall, and collected in concave meniscuses like water in a glass. They hung in suspension, stopping time in the dense event horizon of his hands laced behind my back. Finally they fell. They fell down his cheek and dampened the two freckles under his right eye. I wiped away the rivulets with the pad of my index fingers, reabsorbing the pain he felt for me as we sat.

Just different, this time.


[1] I immediately bought and devoured Rovelli’s The Order of Time after hearing him on the On Being podcast. The book inspired this post. I got my mom a copy for Christmas and learned that my dad loved it after speaking with him on a recent phone call (Mihnea and I got my dad multiple physics books for Christmas, but didn’t think to get him this one. My dad appreciates lyricism, however, so I’m not surprised he loved it too). The book’s lyrical style inspired me: it gave me license to incorporate my own emotionality into the book I thought I was going to write about machine learning. Naturally, as I work on the book, the subject matter has changed slightly. I’m still in this purgatorial space where it’s trying to figure out its identity and is currently a gangly teenager with braces experimenting with different genders. Anxiety doesn’t help much and my dear friend reason-simulating-excuses likes to do pull-ups near my right ear over my right shoulder, whispering that this is character building, reminding me that wrestling with the content is the only way to write something worth reading. She is a rascal.

[2] Perhaps my most meaningful experience at integrate.ai was my weekly meditation session with Katharine Marek. Our meditation club started off much larger. In the first session, a whole slew of us sat together in a glass-exposed room at the WeWork offices at Yonge and Bloor and did our best to concentrate and focus in the mid afternoon as passersby buzzed by like worker bees. Participation fell like lemmings off a cliff. Shradha Mittal staid with us for a few more mornings, but she only worked part-time so the habits weren’t regular. It ended up being just me and Katharine. And it was marvelous. As it was just the two of us, we could begin each session sharing our worries, doubts, anxieties, emotions, thoughts. She shared with me and I shared with her. I’d teach her different techniques, mindfulness one day, metta the next, to expose her to various kinds of meditation and let her pick which one stuck. Ever suffering from misophonia (a byproduct of being highly sensitive and anxious), I’d do my best to ignore the sound of Yevgeniy Kissin tapping his spoon on a ceramic bowl as he ate a bowl of oatmeal like clockwork at the same time every morning (it didn’t help that I knew exactly when the clinking would start; Yev knows this and knows I love him). Katharine would smirk with joy at the oddity. Being with her reminded me of the course I taught at Stanford that had only one student, the magnificent Josefina Massot. We read Milton and Hobbes and Rousseau and Kleist like two Renaissance scholars sharing ideas. Josefina also had episodes of depression, and we supported one another through the quarter, teacher loving student loving teacher. I live for these experiences and vow to keep the details alive through frequent remembrance.

[3] I’m a fan of long podcasts interviews. Tim Ferriss’s interview with Jack Kornfield, for example, is 03:02:03. I don’t feel any need to consume content within a window of time. To have a book end and have a thought be quick and compact like a teeshirt we can tidily fold and tuck away into a drawer. I listen to podcasts like I read books: I read, stop, bookmark the page, and pick up where I left off. The assumption that content should be easily digestible is patronizing. Just noticing while writing this that we use food metaphors for content, we consume and digest words. I may the odd man out here, as I heard from others who self-identify as productive, busy, important executives that they want their learning to churned and scoped down like the tasks they jump around from in their day-to-day lives.

[4] It’s in The Phaedrus that Plato references that the technology of writing may have a deleterious impact on human memory (for if we outsource memory to writing, we won’t exercise the capability and it will fade over time). It’s a good reminder to see that there’s long-standing fear about how some new technology will lead to our gradual degradation into use automata. I tend to think this stems from a lack of imagination and proclivities towards fear: we ground our predictions in what the future will look like after some change in the context of what we see and know today. The wonderful thing about participating in non-linear and complex systems is that they are complex and can react in ways we don’t predict in advance. Tim Harford does an excellent job showing the complex entanglement of social developments from new technologies and inventions in 50 Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, illustrating, for example, the relationship between birth control and gender equality in the workplace. Plato feared writing. Some people fear AI. I tend to most fear, based on my own experience, distraction-inducing technologies, even something as simple as the notifications on our devices. Notifications annihilate coherence, which Mihnea and I both prize. He recently shared that enough Generation Zsters use closed captioning to keep their attention focused on movies and videos that it’s capturing media attention.

[5] I wanted to show a picture of pranayama finger positions but everything I found looked ridiculous. Here, for example, is the wikiHow picture. In my brief but fruitless search, I also learned that Hilary Clinton swore by pranayama techniques to calm herself in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Naturally, this is only interesting because it’s Hilary Clinton, both because of the star factor (our curiosity to know famous people’s habits, as if this where some sort of privileged knowledge; the phenomenon of completely disregarding privacy when it comes to famous people is bizarre. Is it cultivated by their constant visibility in the media or an intrinsic default of human group psychology and dominance hierarchies?) and the surprise factor thinking about Hilary behaving this way. Then again, Jeb Bush was on a paleo diet leading up to the elections. Politicians are people, too.

[6] Three very smart Johns I know, John Hall (CEO of Intapp), John Frankel (Managing Partner at ffVC), and John Deighton (Professor at Harvard Business School), all believe that technology moves in cycles between centralization and decentralization: the mainframe was followed by the client-server, which, after virtualization, was followed by the public cloud, which, now that we’re getting queasy about the power of so much centralized data and have a network of mobile devices and IoT-enabled cars and toasters and things hopping around the world, will be followed by decentralization once more once we can get GPUs and TPUs small enough to work well on mobile devices. We are very, very close. Distributed ledgers and databases are also harbingers of what’s to come. I’m keen to know what it means for the ideological superstructures on top of the material backbone of society. Or maybe information technologies alter some of Marx’s axioms? It’s definitely the case that we need a new economic model for data-powered software, the same way SaaS subscription business models were created for the cloud.

[7] It’s funny that Bertrand Russell decided to embody the first-order logic paradox that yielded Gödel’s incompleteness theorem as the barber paradox: “The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself?” I haven’t seen a lot recently in the AI community grounded consciousness on recursive loops the way Hofstadter did back in the days of symbolic AI as canonized in Gödel, Escher, Bach. As intimated in this post, Mihnea and I are both after an articulation of minds as entangled phenomenon, selves not as static brains in vats but as dynamic and complex systems entangled in different social contexts.

[8] Mihnea is a priest of language. He ends his book Inside Man with a gesture towards the communicative ethics that guide his internal dialogues as much as his dialogues with others. He cultivates minute precision in language in part because generalities and abstractions leave room for an interlocutor to extend a comment or criticism to encompass their entire being: “try tilting your wrist a little to the right when you swing the tennis racket” turns into “you suck at tennis and that means you can’t learn anything new and that means your career is ruined and that means you’re a pathetic failure, oh yeah, and that also means I think you’re a pathetic failure.” He’s helped me come to understand how dangerous it can be when others cannot refer to a particular behavior or activity when they provide feedback, and instead have couched multiple vague impressions into a narrative that leads to nothing but harm to a student or teammate.

The featured image is the Contemplative Bodhisattva, National Treasure of Korea No. 83. Insured for an estimated 50 billion won, it is the most expensive Korean national treasure. The semi-seated figure is Maitreya, a bodhisattva (someone working towards Buddhahood, but who has not yet attained it) prophesied to appear on Earth, achieve enlightenment, and teach the dharma, the way of being in line with the right order of the universe. I learned how remarkable this statue is when I attempted to crop the photo to make the proportions fit more nicely into the frame of my posts (I prefer square images or flat images with narrow heights, rather than long upright rectangles). It lost its aura when I cropped it, There is a majestic balance between the narrow, smooth lines of Maitreya’s chest, the silent grace of his necklaces, and the textured flow of the draping cloth. His bent knee carries forth the line sketched by the upturned rim of cloth upon his seat. He’s leaning forward slightly (apparent when you view the figure in profile) and it’s as if the lower half is required to cradle his balance and keep the painting unified and whole. The chipped enamel reminds me of the skin of yellow beats, shedding ground dirt to canvass concentric circles that beam inside. 

Pensive_Bodhisattva_02
The Contemplative Bodhisattva in profile

One thought on “Love 4 | Observing the Entangled Mind

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