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Most of us think about consciousness and unconsciousness are the two states our mind can be in. But in religious and spiritual contexts, there is also a transcendent state of consciousness that is harder to define and achieve.

I was reading about William James (1842–1910), the psychologist and philosopher who wrote about this in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

He believed that the transcendent state of consciousness had several features as experiences in order to qualify as such.

One feature he called “ineffability.” That is a tricky feature because it means that “it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” In other words, it would be an experience that must be directly experienced and could not be explained adequately to others.

He also believed this experience would have a “noetic quality.” He meant that these mystical states are also states of knowledge with insight into depths of truth, illuminations and revelations “full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” These parts can be explained to others and can be used for creating art and practical solutions.

Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. He found that they had “transiency.” His observation ws that they usually lasted half an hour, or at most an hour or two. Beyond that, they fade. He wrote that “Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

His final quality of the transcendent consciousness is “passivity.” Though he noted that the initiation of these altered states may be from voluntary operations, when the transcendent state occurs, the mystic feels as if his own will were “in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

William James listed initiating practices such as fixing the attention, and going through certain bodily performances from the fasting and abuse found in some religious rituals, to deep meditative practices.

James drew some of these conclusions from being not only a reader and philosopher but, empiricist that he was, from using his own body-mind as a laboratory. In his case, he used nitrous oxide, also known as  “laughing gas,” which produces a euphoric effects. As a mild hallucinogen, the nitrous oxide gave him a new perspective on own consciousness. He did not claim that it gave him a mystical, or transcendent, experience, but it allowed him to understand those states.

He separated some of the reported transcendent experiences of his time such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, and the trances of mediums. Without saying they were faked, he noted that because there was no recollection of the phenomenon later and they seemed to have no significance for the subject’s inner life, they were not mystical states. True mystical states are retained at least somewhat in memory, and remain as a profoundly important event that modifies the inner life of the subject.

 

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time in mind

You probably have heard the idea of “living in the moment.” I tend to associate it with Buddhist traditions, but it has Eastern and Western origins.

Living in the moment means that you take little thought for the future, but do whatever enhances what’s happening right now. there is also the phrase “living for the moment” which means that it’s those special moments that make life worth living.

These seem to be valid philosophies and I would guess that most of us want to be living in the moment or living in the now. But it is not that easy. Too often our thoughts take us to the past or future.

This is a kind of time traveling that is not only possible but probable. We go back to things to earlier points in our lives all the time. That’s not a bad thing. But sometimes we go back and dwell on particular turning points in our lives and imagine how things could have turned out differently.

These “What if?” and “If I had only…” kinds of thought can become obsessions.

The term in psychology for this is counterfactual thinking.

We all know that thoughts in the present about the past can never change the past, so why do we do this?

Some kinds of events prompt this kind of thinking about alternatives to life events. Yes, we know that this is thinking that is “counter to the facts,” and yet we do it.

Studies about this way of thinking are not new. Early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato pondered why we have “subjunctive suppositions” about nonexistent but feasible outcomes.

“Counterfactual” mean “contrary to the facts.” Lately, the news has been full of talk about facts, alternative facts, false facts and other rather ridiculous versions of “facts.” I saw a review of Hillary Clinton’s book that came out after her election defeat, What Happened, and the book was described in a way that made it seem like a book-length counter factual about “if I/we/they had only…”

This kind of thinking is understandable as a coping mechanism.

Listening to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “Rewinding and Rewriting,” brought this topic to mind. They spoke there about the things that usually generate this kind of thinking. First, the past incident had a clearly negative outcome. It is likely to be something out of the ordinary. And it was something in which you played, or could have played, a key role in changing.

We imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if only we had done something differently. We might not have even been a part of the event, but we could have been there.

The more serious the event, the more likely it is that we will turn to counterfactual thinking. So, when we don’t put money in the parking meter to run into a store quickly and we get a ticket, that mat seem like something we could have changed, but it’s relatively insignificant. You probably won’t dwell on that thought for days, weeks, months or years. But if an accident results in a serious injury or death and you feel you could have prevented it if you (or someone else) had done something differently, that will linger in the mind.

I had an accident the first week I owned my first car. I turned down a street on the way home and misjudged distance and clipped another car. I was a new driver, but really I had gone down that particular street, which was not the way I would normally go home, because I was hoping a girl I knew who lived there would see me driving my new car. I was angry with myself, and for weeks after I thought about how I could have just gone home the normal way and avoided the accident. My mother followed a different philosophy. She would say that maybe if I had gone the usual way I might have had a worse accident. I’m not sure if that is optimism or pessimism.

Two examples that I found online of counterfactual thinking point out how it can be harmful and useful. One case looks at Olympic Medalists. The study found that counterfactual thinking seems to explain why bronze medalists are often more satisfied with the outcome than silver medalists. Silver medalists tend to focus on how close they were to the gold medal and think more about what they might have done to get gold. Bronze medalists tend to think about how they could have not received a medal at all. The researchers call this downward counterfactual thinking.

Another study from the same researchers looked at the satisfaction of college students with their grades, which is not that different from the Olympic athletes. The study is called “When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction.”  They studied the satisfaction of college students based on whether their grade just missed the cut off versus if they had just made the cutoff for a grade category. Students who just made it into a grade category ( for example, just barely got a “B”) tended to downward counterfactual think and were more satisfied. They thought that things could have been worse. Students that were extremely close to making it into the next highest category but missed (for example, they got a high “B” but just missed the “A” grade) showed higher dissatisfaction and tended to upward counterfactual think. They focused on how the situation could have been better and things that they “could have” done.

I believe that living in and for the present moment is very important. I try not to dwell in the past. I try not to be counterfactual in thinking about past event. But it is easy to fall into the harmful habit of wanting to change the past.

I saw an article years ago about a survey that asked people, “If you could travel to your own past, what time would you return to and why?”  The most common answers involved going back to change something the person either had done or had not done. Some people wanted to go back and relive a moment – the birth of a child, a great day with a loved one – but most people wanted to change the past in order to change the present.

Most scientists who have pondered time travel have said the same kinds of things about the experience. Most of their ideas don’t make for a good story plot.

We could go back in our own timeline, but we could not travel back before we existed. You’re not going to do anything about Hitler or the Kennedy assassination unless you lived through hose events.

If we went back, we would simply relive what had happened and we could not change anything. It would put us in a loop where we would again move through time until the point when we traveled back and then return and do it all over again. It’s the movie Groundhog Day.

If we went back and did change something, the entire series of events after that would change. In fact, they might change in ways that would eliminate us from the world that follows. What happens to us then?

This killjoy kind of science is a reminder that we can’t change the past. We live in the moment of now, and we need to be very conscious of the now and appreciate it.

I once took a class about doing improvisational comedy. I think learning to improvise is a good skill for everyone. It doesn’t have to be comedy, though a laugh never hurts, because the rules of improv acting and comedy are transferable to other roles in life.

One of the basic rules they teach in improv (it’s one of Tina Fey’s rules too) is “Yes, and…” The idea is that a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).

I know that this concept has been used in business, education and other organizations as a way to improve the effectiveness of the brainstorming process. It also is a way to foster better communication and it can encourage the sharing of ideas.

The first “Yes” part of the rule encourages you to accept the contributions of others. In improvisation, you are encouraged to agree to a premise and cooperate, rather than shutting down the suggestion which ends the communication.

I didn’t get to do much improv and I didn’t work with some famous group like Second City (they have their own book on improv called Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses No, But Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. But I remember a session when one person looked out at the crowd and said “Wow, look at that beautiful water and at the waves.” And her partner responded “That’s not water. That’s a guy in the audience waving!” The joke got a laugh, but it also killed the improv.

That’s why in an acting or comedy workshop or in some organizational setting saying “Yes” encourages people to listen and be receptive to others’ ideas.

Of course, a judgment has its place in brainstorming, but later in the process.

When we get to the “and” part we add new information into the narrative. Accept and then take it further.

The opposite of saying yes is blocking. One kind of blocking is asking questions. A question forces your partners to do the work of adding information. In a meeting, asking questions can slow down brainstorming. Questions do not move things forward.

I think about a line in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors about defining comedy “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” You don’t want to break a scene.

Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”

fox and hedgehog

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin which was published as a book in 1953. Berlin said that he never “meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”

But he didn’t invent this way of viewing people. The Greek poet Archilochus  (680 –645 BC) wrote “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1500, Erasmus wrote his Adagia (adages) and one of them was “Many-sided the skill of the fox: the hedgehog has one great gift.” Erasmus’ interpretation favored the hedgehog.

[S]ome people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus [hedgehog] … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

Later interpretations have gone both ways. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. Examples often given include Plato, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust.

Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences. For a fox,  a world view can’t be contained in one idea. Fox examples might include Aristotle, Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Goethe, and James Joyce.

I had heard of this concept somewhere in my undergraduate days but had totally forgotten about it until recently when I came upon the book, On Grand Strategy. It is by John Lewis Gaddis who based it largely on a class he has co-taught at Yale for about twenty years.

Why have Yale students competed to get into this “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar? (It is actually taught by Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and Charles Hill.) The premise of the seminar is that this is a way to prepare future leaders by looking at lessons from history and the classics.

In his book, Gaddis looks at how leaders and decision makers fare as foxes and hedgehogs.

Political psychologist Philip Tetlock had earlier studied people who made predictions for a living. These people are at universities, think tanks, in governments and nowadays in the media. He found that the foxes were more accurate because they were more intuitive thinkers and could piece together information from different sources. Hedgehogs tended to be ideologues with big ideas to explain the world. But for television and headlines, hedgehogs are better guests and interviews. Easy sound bites rather than those discursive foxes.

One situation Gaddis looks at leaders during wartime. Who would you follow into battle – a fox or a hedgehog?

Though not everyone agrees on which is the best approach, but the fox and the hedgehog concept has influenced many people.

In The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver (who received much attention during the past election cycles) sides with being “more foxy” and a fox is his website’s logo.


A short clip of Gaddis explaining how a “grand strategy” works in the real world.

On the podcast Hidden Brain, I heard a modern day story about a hedgehog surgeon.
In “The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big,”
you’ll hear about how he hesitantly became a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery.   LISTEN www.npr.org

An adage is a short, memorable, usually philosophical saying. These kinds of saying go by any number of other names, and though there are probably distinctions, they seem pretty similar to me. For example, aphorisms, proverbs and bywords are close synonyms.

I did find that an adage that describes a general moral rule is usually called a “maxim”. An aphorism seems to be more of an expression that seems “deep” and may not be widely used. But, one that is witty or ironic seems to get the tag “epigram”.

Many adages are ancient and if they have been overused, they may be referred to nowadays as a “cliché”, “truism”, or “old saw.”

Some more modern adages get labeled as “laws” or “principles,” such as Murphy’s Law.

The word “aphorisms” comes from a book by that name by Hippocrates that is a series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The first line is “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.”

I found many lists of adages online that are very common, such as “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” and “Don’t burn your bridges.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the compiler – by Hans Holbein

I was surprised to find how many adages come from the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, commonly known as simply Erasmus. He published several ever larger volumes ultimately with the final edition of Adagia (1536)  having more than 4,000. Most of them are  annotated Greek and Latin proverbs that he compiled.

Here’s a sampler of ones (translated to English) that you are likely to recognize:

More haste, less speed
The blind leading the blind
A rolling stone gathers no moss
One man’s meat is another man’s poison
Necessity is the mother of invention
One step at a time
To be in the same boat
To lead one by the nose
A rare bird
Even a child can see it
To have one foot in Charon’s boat (To have one foot in the grave)
To walk on tiptoe
One to one
Out of tune
A point in time
I gave as bad as I got (I gave as good as I got)
To call a spade a spade
Hatched from the same egg
Up to both ears (Up to his eyeballs)
As though in a mirror
Think before you start
What’s done cannot be undone
Many parasangs ahead (Miles ahead)
We cannot all do everything
Many hands make light work
A living corpse
Where there’s life, there’s hope
To cut to the quick
Time reveals all things
Golden handcuffs
Crocodile tears
To lift a finger
You have touched the issue with a needle-point (To have nailed it)
To walk the tightrope
Time tempers grief (Time heals all wounds)
With a fair wind
To dangle the bait
Kill two birds with one stone
To swallow the hook
The bowels of the earth
Happy in one’s own skin
Hanging by a thread
The dog is worthy of his dinner
To weigh anchor
To grind one’s teeth
Nowhere near the mark
To throw cold water on
Complete the circle
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
No sooner said than done
Neither with bad things nor without them (Women: can’t live with ’em, can’t live
without ’em)
Between a stone and a shrine (Between a rock and a hard place)
Like teaching an old man a new language (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks)
A necessary evil
There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip
To squeeze water out of a stone
To leave no stone unturned
Let the cobbler stick to his last (Stick to your knitting)
God helps those who help themselves
The grass is greener over the fence
The cart before the horse
Dog in the manger
One swallow doesn’t make a summer
His heart was in his boots
To sleep on it
To break the ice
Ship-shape
To die of laughing
To have an iron in the fire
To look a gift horse in the mouth
Neither fish nor flesh
Like father, like son

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