Reading the Tea Leaves

tea readers

This morning, I brewed a little pot of tea in the old way and so I ended up with some tea leaves in my cup. And I did a bit of reading the tea leaves.

You’ve probably heard about that and I’m not claiming that tasseography (or tasseomancy or tassology) works, of course. But divination by interpreting patterns in tea leaves is quite an old practice.

Tasseography comes from the French word tasse for “cup” (which comes from Arabic tassa) and the Greek suffixes -graph (writing), -logy (study of), and -mancy (divination). You get a bit of history by looking at the word and see who practiced this art. It is also done with coffee grounds and wine sediments, but tea leaves are the most common method.

I know there is no scientific evidence that the future can be determined through any method, so you can view this as just a party game – but I do have an affinity for things that are interpretations of synchronistic events.

The methodology is simple: pour a cup of brewed tea made without a tea strainer into a white cup and drink the tea. (I don’t think you should just pour it out.) Some things I have read say to shake the cup but that seems like some deliberate changes to the leaves, so I leave them be unless they are all in a lump. I did give a final swirl before I finished the last sip. There aren’t that many rules about what to see and much of the interpretation is in the eyes and mind of the reader.

Look for a pattern: a letter, a shape, a face. There are books that give clues, much in the way that dream interpretation books suggest meanings and symbols. But the meanings are supposed to be so personal that you need your own system to interpret your future.

Guides will say that a heart means your love life, a snake is falsehood, a spade is good fortune, a road or mountain is a journey, though the mountain might be an obstacle along the way. Pretty standard interpretation stuff and far too generic to have much personal meaning. Maybe, for you, a heart indicates actual heart health. Maybe snakes are pets to you, or perhaps you just saw one in your garden this morning. Meanings are personal. You could certainly anger some people by saying that a cat represents “a deceitful friend or relative” while a dog is “a loyal friend or relative” as I read online.

I was taught (by a girlfriend in college) that you read a cup starting at the rim by the handle as the present, and down to the bottom as the future. If you’re able to do it, some readers can see not only images in the dark tea leaves, but also the reverse images in the white negative spaces (the dark leaves are then the background).

tea leaves

What did I see of my future in my cup of plum tea?

I think near the handle I do see a mountain.
Those two blobs to the left? Clouds?
On the bottom, I see an alligator with its mouth open at the left. Not sure what is below it.
So, am I facing a mountain that I must climb soon? One obscured by clouds or something?
To the future, that alligator doesn’t bode well. Unless, it’s a lucky dragon.

I think I’ll stick to my casting of the runes.

Brain Waves and Biohacking

Neural oscillations are more popularly known as brain waves. These rhythmic or repetitive patterns of neural activity in the central nervous system occur in several types. I first learned about this in a high school science class, though I had certainly encountered a version of them on TV and in movies before that.

My teacher said that our body contains electricity and it can be measured. In the brain, an electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test used to measure electrical activity of the brain. Small metal discs with electrodes are placed on the scalp to send signals to a computer to record the results.

Certain actions cause the neurons in our brains to communicate with each other in an electrical or chemical way. There are five types of frequencies or brainwaves.

Beta waves occur with day-to-day activities when we are alert and when we are learning.

Alpha waves are present when we are relaxing, waking up or winding down from our learning and working activities.

In the non-dreaming portions of deep sleep, the restorative healing sleep, slow Delta waves are present.

Dreaming is a special part of sleep. Theta waves appear when we are dreaming or in flow states or in meditation. Those sound like pretty serious times of concentration, but theta waves also occur when you doing something like taking a shower and arrive at solution to a problem at work. It’s not because you were focused on that problem, but you were completely in the moment.

Gamma waves were essentially unknown before the development of digital EEG recorders because the older analog machines could not measure brain waves at that high frequency.

Gamma brain waves are associated with the “feeling of blessings” which are reported by experienced meditators. You have probably heard about the studies done with monks in meditation and nuns in prayer. Neuroscientists believe that gamma waves are able to link information from all parts of the brain. They are associated with peak performance, mentally and physically.

People with high gamma activity have exceptionally vivid and rapid memory recall. They have increased sensory perception, and increased focus. In a gamma state the brain is able to process incredible amounts of information very quickly, remember it, and retrieve that memory later.

There are benefits to entering a gamma state. And all this leads to the idea of brain wave training. What if we could be trained to produce certain waves?

If you could make more theta waves, it could be very beneficial. It could help produce a state of relaxation. It might help those with sleep problems quiet their brain to sleep. It could help the stress and anxiety of those with phobias, OCD, eating disorders and other issues. It might be able to replace tranquilizers.

The term biohacking is used to describe this brain wave training.

How might you try to generate theta waves?  It’s not easy. I have read about some interesting methods. You could try listening to specially prepared “music.” called binaural beats which are two slightly different ranges of hertz that are played in each ear. You can find some of these sounds online by searching YouTube or Spotify for something like “theta binaural beats.”

But you can try meditation practices such as focusing on your breathing which will enable you to be in the present moment. Regular meditation increases alpha activity and decreases beta in waking states.

If you want more serious, data-driven, training you could work with a neurofeedback coach using tools like EEG in the way that people use biofeedback training to control heart rate, skin temperature, and blood pressure.

Mantra: Instrument of Mind

 

Om
The Om syllable is considered a mantra in its own right in the Vedanta school of Hinduism.

 

The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit combining man meaning mind and tra meaning instrument, with the idea being that it is an instrument of the mind. A mantra is a word or phrase in Sanskrit that you repeat over and over, either aloud or silently.

I first learned about it when I first encountered meditation because the repetition of a mantra quiets the mind and should bring peace and clarity.

“Om” is probably the most well know Sanskrit Mantra. Om is believed to be the sound of creation. It is the first, original vibration. Positive mantras create a powerful sound vibration that aligns the mind, body and spirit to divine energy.

Using mantras is a type of meditation and chanting one is treated like meditation – seated in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.

In transcendental meditation, a mantra is considered a personal and secret thing, but now you can find mantras online and even YouTube videos of how to pronounce the ancient Sanskrit words.

I was taught to chant it out loud seven times, then again seven times but softly, and then silently in my head seven more times or for as long as needed silently until the vibration of the sound connects in some way to your  subconscious mind.

I learned much later that in India tradition, the mantra is repeated 108 times, using a string of 108 Mala beads to help you keep count. This reminded me of the praying of the rosary and other props used to focus meditation or prayer.

So, are mantras really prayers? I think they can be, but they do not have to have any connection to a religious sect or practice. Mantras, when used properly, are said to direct your life force energy (Prana) through the body and your energy centers. That is why some practitioners credit them with deep healing.

It is easy to make fun of mantras, as Woody Allen did in Annie Hall. (Do you recognize the rather distraught young man in the clip above who has forgotten his mantra? It’s Jeff Goldblum in a bit part back in 1977.)

When I first was given a mantra by some “Buddhists” I met my freshman year of college, I was told that I could request anything and by chanting my mantra regularly my wish would be fulfilled. “Could I get a new guitar?” I asked. “Absolutely,” was the reply.

That is not what mantras are about.

I question the powers attached to an individual mantra. For example, Om Namah Shivaya is the “great redeeming mantra” and is supposed to help us to call on our higher self, overcome our ego, aid in purification and space cleansing, physical and mental healing and increase self-esteem and confidence. That seems like a lot to ask of six syllables.

Om Shanti translates as “peace” and is a popular mantra. Om Namah Shivaya is also a well known Hindu mantra and the most important mantra in Shaivism. It means “O salutations to the auspicious one!” or “adoration to Lord Shiva.”

You don’t have to use a Sanskrit mantra. There are other words and phrases in English or any language you can use. J.D. Salinger introduced me to the Jesus Prayer which is used as a mantra. That short prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Salinger is most famous for The Catcher In The Rye, but after the fame of that book sent him off to a hermit’s life in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote Franny and Zooey. That book introduced me – and I’m sure many others – to the Jesus Prayer.

Salinger’s novel also introduced me to the Russian tale The Way of a Pilgrim, which is essentially an introduction to The Philokalia – part of Christian mysticism.

In a literary sense, the story of the siblings Franny and Zooey, the two youngest members of the Glass family which was a frequent focus of Salinger’s writing, may be a reaction to the success of Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher, is full of teenage existential angst. It puts him into a mental hospital.  Salinger himself escaped the fame train that his first book put him on and went into isolation and read a lot about philosophy and spirituality.

Franny and Zooey is a modern American take on the path from existential depression to spiritual illumination. Franny explains the method of the Jesus Prayer in this way:

“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what but something happens, the words get synchronized with the person’s heart-beats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. The prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.”

Positive mantras should be words that resonate for you. You could just use a word such as “peace” as your mantra. People will create their own mantra. Someone coming out of a broken relationship or leaving a job might say “I will find a better life.” The mantra can be about your intention.

More than a few self-proclaimed modern”gurus” have built a career (and fortune) by getting people to use mantras (whether they use that word or not) and to repeat over and over positive phrases such as “I am strong.”

In Franny and Zooey, Salinger also has a character warn us about using a mantra.

“You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessations from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddamn truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?” source

I identified as a college student with Franny Glass. She is a 20-year-old English major. Her story takes place when she visits her boyfriend for a college football weekend at his school.  She is already tiring of the phoniness of college life and the egotism of faculty and students – including her boyfriend.

“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.’

Her existential crisis is at a point where it is making her physically sick. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the little book, The Way of a Pilgrim, she has borrowed from the college library that is in her handbag.

At the end of her story, she explains that the prayer means to her that ‘You get to see God. Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart—where the Hindus say that Atman resides…”

She is nauseous, sweating and has just confessed out loud what she is feeling. Franny faints on the way to the bathroom. “Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”

Salinger was writing Catcher fresh from getting out of WWII and surrounded by Beat Generation poets and novelists and their fascination with Eastern philosophies. We know that Salinger also was interested in Eastern religious philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but also Christian spirituality.

The nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of his journey as a mendicant traveller across Russia, He repeats the Jesus Prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra.

It’s too much to say that the two stories of Franny and Zooey are full stories of pilgrims or hero journeys or even someone in crisis finding enlightenment. And it’s too much to say that chanting a mantra will solve all your problems.

Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist monk who saw as the essence of Buddhism the belief that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life. He believed we have the ability to transform any suffering through a power we possess by being connected to a fundamental law.principle that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.

The name he gave to this principle was “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This was the first mantra I was given in that college encounter with budding Buddhists. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and I used in meditations for about a year, but I left it.

I rediscovered it (though it had been flashing in my brain on and off for the rest of my life) only a few years ago. I read an article explaining the meaning of the words and then realized that part of what appealed to me about the mantra was that I did not know what the words meant. The mystery of the words was part of my attraction to them.

The past year I have used this mantra as a way to clear my mind of thoughts, especially when I am trying to get to sleep. Luckily, I have forgotten the meaning of the words so that the chanting carries no other meaning, no associations that are an opportunity to distraction. The silent chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo pushes other thoughts away. An empty mind can be a wonderful thing.

Visiting My Mind Palace

tower of babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Great Tower of Babel, 1563

My memory isn’t as strong as it once had been. For example, when I started this post, I had to search the site to make sure I had not already written about this topic. I have written a lot about memory and it is something I am fascinated by more and more as i grow older. No surprise there. I think all of become more interested as we grow older and as we watch those around us who are even older. Memory starts to fail.

The Mind (AKA Memory) Palace has been used since ancient Rome as a way to enhance memory. It is a mnemonic device adopted in ancient Roman and Greek rhetorical treatises, such as Cicero’s De Oratore. People use this technique to recall faces, digits, and lists of words. It is based on the fact that most of us are very good at remembering places we know.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Memory Palace is a metaphor for any place you know really well and that you’re able to easily visualize.

If it sounds less than serious, you can call this method of loci (Latin for “places”) is a method of memory enhancement which uses visualizations with the use of spatial memory, familiar information about one’s environment, to quickly and efficiently recall information. The method of loci is also known as the memory journey, memory palace, or mind palace technique.

There is even a poetic connection, such as with William Wordsworth’s The Recluse.

“The idea of the mind as a palace or church, whose individual rooms can be explored with training, is familiar from the memory treatises of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The “memory palace” as a mnemonic device was widely used before the advent of printing to organize and remember vast amounts of information. By memorizing the spatial layout of a building and assigning images or ideas to its various rooms, one could “walk” through the imaginary building and retrieve the ideas relegated to the separate parts.”

“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

What do you need to do to try the mind palace approach?

Choose a place to use that you know very well and are able to mentally walk around that place remembering everything in detail. Most people use their home, but it could be where you work or even your childhood home. You need to mentally walk around this place and see the specific order of things.

You will need to be able to focus on particular features you remember very well. If I imagine my home, I can start at the front door, entering the porch there is a storage bench on the left. Entering the house itself, there is a mirror on the left, then a window seat, then a large bookcase, and so on.

Visual learners are undoubtedly better at this technique as you need to really imprint the location and specifics. From what I have read, some people find it effective to walk through the place mentally and say the specifics aloud. You could also draw the location. Always use the same perspective for looking at the features.

When you know this place and every feature, you have your mind palace. Now what?

First, build the visual associations between the features and the information you want to memorize. You could use it to memorize a list in a particular order. More challenging would be to use the palace to remember the parts of a presentation.

I tried this for a presentation I was going to do without notes or PowerPoint slides. I created “memory pegs.”  On each peg I would hang an item I associated with it.  The association should be strong, perhaps even a bit ridiculous, but memorable.

This step is similar to other mnemonic systems which often rely on memorized spatial relationships. Similar techniques are known as the “Journey Method” (for lists of related items) or the “Roman Room” (for storing unrelated information).

Maybe you should start with a shopping list, rather than a presentation.

Walk your Mind Palace from beginning to the end of the route. It is said that you can strengthen the memories by walking backward. I have not found that to be true, but then again I have trouble saying the alphabet backwards too, and I know that really well in the normal order.

Using this technique, can improve your memory in general, and it can improve your visualization skills.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” ― Edgar Allan Poe

I think Ed could have used a lesson about the Memory Palace.

The Pomodoro Technique

Being a virtual worker has its obvious advantages, such as no commuting, variable work hours and days, and working in your pajamas from the couch. It also has its disadvantages, such as allowing you to do nothing and lose track of time.

Because much of my work these days are billable hours rather than a salary, it is important that I keep track of how long I work on a project. I need those stats both to invoice clients and to give estimates to new clients.

This was a skill I needed to develop when I shifted my working days to virtual ones. One technique that I started using turns out to have a formal name. More on that in a bit…

This time management and productivity technique is very simple. When you start a task (not a project, but a piece of it), set a timer and work on that task for 25 minutes. Then, take a short break (3-5 minutes). Start working on the task again for 25 minutes and repeat until it’s completed.

I just started doing this on my own and it was only later that I discovered that I was using the Pomodoro Technique.

Il pomodoro.jpg
Pomodoro tomato timer – from Erato at Italian Wikinews. – Transferred from it.wikinews
to Commons by Fale using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. His technique was to use a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Originally, he broke it down into six steps. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

The technique has been popularized more recently via a bunch of apps and websites that provide timers and instructions.  I just use a cheap digital timer that can count down. I tried using my phone timer but for some reason it was less effective. Perhaps because the screen would go to sleep, so those numbers weren’t always staring at me.

One of the app options is Focus Booster which will automatically record your timesheets  for each project or task and lets you export it for easier invoicing.

This technique is closely related to several other productivity techniques, such as timeboxing, and iterative and incremental development.

Timeboxing allocates a fixed time period, called a time box, to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame. It often involves having deliverables and deadlines, which will improve the productivity of the user.

Iterative and incremental development, which is often used in software design, uses the basic idea of developing a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental). This allows software developers to take advantage of what was learned during development of earlier parts or versions of the system.

This post originally appeared at Ronkowitz LLC

 

Old Advice on Getting Old

Galen

In ancient medicine of Greece and Rome, aging was viewed as a disease. As a disease, it was thought that it could be “cured” or perhaps even prevented.

The most prolific of ancient writers on the topic is Aelius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), usually Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon. He was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.

Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Galen did not see aging as a disease. In his treatise Hygiene, we find the only surviving classical study of gerontology which Galen viewed as a natural process.

During the three centuries from Homer to Hippocrates, views of human aging and longevity evolved in a socio-cultural sense. The physicians of that time began to believe that the aging process could be influenced by natural factors, such as environmental influences and lifestyle.

It was radical to think that an individual has any choice in health and aging  when beliefs in the primacy of the supernatural, and that the gods could predestine one’s life. Could you defy the gods by changing your diet?

I don’t expect readers to dig into Galen’s Hygiene , but I found a number of articles about it online and about his views of aging. Some of those views still make sense today.

Galen’s understanding of medicine was influenced by the then-current theory of humorism. The Four Humors were black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. That theory goes back to ancient Greek physicians such as Hippocrates.

A more modern term we might attach to Galen’s approach would be to say he thought of ageing holistically. His writing shows that he thought this lifelong process had a number of stages. Three of those stages were crucial to health and a longer life: the first seven years of life, maturity and old age proper.

He also believed that rather than a generalized approach, a person’s aging path is highly individual. There are many possible health outcomes at each stage.

He believed that those first seven years were the basis for a robust old age.

I dipped into a library copy of the biography The Prince of Medicine and learned that Galen’s theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years.

When he wrote Hygiene, he was at the peak of his career, as physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was not totally “modern” in his views. He did adhere to the concept of humours which was based on bodily fluids. He believed in the curative properties of “divinely-inspired” dreams. He developed treatments based on herbs and spices, which he tested on fellow physicians. Some of those would be viewed today as questionable, while some are probably still used.

In his time, there was a religious taboo on the dissection of corpses. Galen studied anatomy through skeletons exposed in flooded cemeteries, and while treating the wounds of gladiators. He was known for some rather gruesome anatomical demonstrations on animals, such as public vivisections of live Barbary macaques (monkeys) to demonstrate the function of nerves.

Galen is thought to have lived to age 80 – a long life in that time. What would be Galen’s “anti-aging” regime?

He advocated walking and moderate running.

He saw health benefits of a simple diet involving gruel (oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice, boiled in water or milk), raw honey, vegetables and fowl.

He suggests as suitable for the elderly, “yellow wines… always choose the thinnest in consistency.”

He was not a proponent of the strong purges and bloodletting of that time, but encouraged gentle massage for kidney and bladder problems.

He would have appreciated the modern approach to preventative

Hygiene became part of the Western medical curriculum by 500 AD. His output was prodigious. He may have produced more work than any author in antiquity, rivaling Augustine of Hippo. In fact, his surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.

It was said that Galen employed twenty scribes to write down his approximately 500 treatises, amounting to some 10 million words. About 3 million words survive today.