The radio said: “It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue.”

What is superficial?
What is the spiritual significance in the opening chapter of White Noise?  Is it DeLillo’s most visual novel? The musicality of the language works in service of its visual appeal. DeLillo  focuses on lines and color. The scenes pop.

Do the concepts that Northrop Frye develops in Secular Scripture apply to modern novels? 

I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page–finished, printed, beautifully formed. 

I don’t remember when I first read that, but it took hold of me, and I struggled against it for months. Reading Alan Ryan’s eleven hundred page On Politics, part of my attention was absorbed by the ink on the page. It was just another mode of obsession with the superficial, with the shape of things.

This also happened with Ishiguro’s qualifiers. 

Toby Lichting observes: 

The language his first-person narrators use to sustain this world is necessarily inhibited, hesitant. Artless. Ishiguro is a master of the linguistic hedge, the modifier, the qualifier, the conditional modal and passive tense: “Naturally”, say his characters, when they mean nothing of the sort; “of course”, “that is to say”, “indeed”, “perhaps”, “I would have thought”, “it was to be expected that”. Their behaviour hinges on a disjointed, or out­moded, understanding of the world around them; they are often the last to twig: things that should have been patently obvious for years “suddenly occur” to them. Their inability to express themselves is most acute in dialogue. “How odd” they say when they really mean “I love you” or “You have betrayed me”. At moments of high tension they are most likely to “give a little laugh”.

I fell in love with this style for its politeness. The hedges soften everything, and I sometimes tend toward the overly emphatic, the artificially precise.

Does the chapter serve as a warning, an antidote, a consolation? Since Milton, has the incautious reader risked modeling their behavior just a little after Lucifer the next day at the office, affecting a grandiloquence in an unnecessary email exchange?

I love Cat Power’s albums Dear Sir, Myra Lee, What Would the Community Think, Moon Pix, and You are Free. I like The Greatest.

I dislike Sun, but it has the most beautiful album cover.

How it feels

A friend of mine has started writing vignettes. He told me about them in a recent conversation. I asked to read one, and he agreed. We met at a park between his apartment and mine, beneath a tree, though it was cloudy. He had decided to print it on 5 ½” x 8 ½” sheets of paper, with ½”  margins, in Calibri typeface.  He had elected to laminate them, so that the effect, as I read beneath a sweet gum tree, was of flipping through a stack of photographs, or rather of oversized photographic plates. 

It was particularly windy, and, in one of the gusts, a torrent of spiky sweet gum seeds fell around me, a few striking me. Rain clouds gathered, and the air developed a verdant glow.

I was dismayed. With curious efficiency he had made characters and scenes so evocative that I suspected part of the effect had been caused by his curious printing choices. In my own writing, the characters were burdened with autobiographical detail. 

After I had finished reading the plates of text, I handed them back to him and asked why he had started writing vignettes in this way. He explained that two months prior he had had a dream in which a paler copy of himself was floating a short distance in front of him, the whites of its eyes minutely rippling as if submerged in a shallow pool. He had felt in this dream a hollowness in the air in front of him, which gave walking a curious buoyancy, yet also a slowness. In this way he chased the figure, which eventually floated away, its one hand pocketed, its eyes wide, its blonde hair tossing mutely in the thin atmosphere, its other hand reaching for him.

Waking up the following morning, he had perfect recollection, not only of the images in the dream, but of the feeling of it, which was unlike any he had experienced before. He explained that he wanted to know whether anyone else had also felt that way,  so he tried to write something that would evoke the feeling in the reader, so he could ask them whether it was familiar to them or strange.

I thanked him for the opportunity to read his vignette and told him I had to be getting back. As I covered the few blocks to my apartment, I interrogated myself concerning my own writing decisions. Why did I burden the characters in my stories with my own personality?

Three answers came readily to mind.

The first was that, since I had only ever experienced emotions as myself, I had inferred that I could not describe an emotion with fidelity without putting it in the context of my personality.

Second, watching movies and television throughout my life, I had found it uncomfortable how the characters were so straight forward, as if each were a token for a class of personality. Being prone to self-loathing, I found myself alternately envying one archetype one week and an apparently incompatible one the next. This made their incompatible experiences inaccessible, as if each person had their own pure, vital essence, whereas mine was mercurial and exhausting.

Or, worse, a story that prides itself on defying expectations—a motivational speaker who spends his nights carefully planning suicide, or a behemoth that loves cuddles. Ah yes. People aren’t what they at first seem. I felt that this trick, so ubiquitous and stupid, was somehow evidence that stories produced few fruits. The scarcity made me fearful and, like the slave with but one talent, I chose to hold onto what I had, deploying tiny and simplistic versions of myself  onto the page, hoping that they might at least be evocative in tiny and simple ways.

Third, it seemed that I had somewhere along the way allowed the motivation to evoke in the reader a certain feeling to be outweighed by the motivation to make the reader understand what it felt like to be me, or at least to have lived through particular experiences I had found impactful. 

But here my friend had been so much cleverer. He created strikingly muted characters, characters that hardly existed, and in the way that they did exist, it was primarily through setting and their interactions with one another. In this way the feeling of the story was held out close to the reader.

As I entered the building, my mind wandered to scenes in Charlie Kaufman movies and to some remarks that Kazuo Ishiguro had made about Marcel Proust. It struck me that both of these artists (Kaufman and Proust) had made decisions like my own—they had felt that they had to rely on biographical accuracy in order to achieve emotional accuracy—while Ishiguro had made a decision like the one my friend had made.

In particular I found myself contrasting The Unconsoled with Synecdoche, New York. Both are in a way exhaustive. Both appear to be works of a completist. Yet while The Unconsoled efficiently cycles through frame after frame of experience,  sharing a lifetime with the reader through ingenious metaphorical devices, Synecdoche, New York seems to do something less.  It depicts the construction of an awful, gargantuan movie set by a director who  believes that adding details somehow adds life. Yes, the movie mocks this idea, but it also exaggerates and amplifies it, minimizing its own availability to evoke more than a few contrived and complicated emotions, which, because of their specificity, seem specific to its characters. 

Arriving back at my apartment, I felt queasy, and I had to lie down. My phone vibrated. It was my friend. He had forgotten to ask me: had it—had reading the story—felt that I was looking back over periods of my life? Had it felt like distilled recollections of what it had been like to live through what at the time hadn’t felt like any notable kind of experience but in retrospect did feel like a kind of experience? Had it felt like vistas? 

I told him it had.

customers

Basically we have two methods to survive. We can kill something. Or we can pay someone to kill something for us. In modern society, most of us choose the latter, and so we have capitalism, the religion of outsourcing.

It seems that in preliterate societies, there was a general assumption that everything is real. Then we got clever and thought some things were real and some were stories. Now we know that, while there is likely a reality, it’s inaccessible to us. We interact with it, but all of our perceptions of it are mediated by our own psyches.  We will only ever have second-hand knowledge of reality. We will only ever have stories.

Likely you saw the flaw in my reasoning above.  I said “we” interact with it. But what does that mean? When you say, “I”, do you mean your body? How even could you, if it’s yours? Whose? Your body interacts with reality. Your body is part of reality. But you? Your self?

Some people convincingly argue that the self is an illusion. There is only your body and the phenomena it produces. There are neurochemical phenomena, experiencesthoughts. But where is the you there? And then when you look at matter, you just find more phenomena. Waves in fields, manifesting the illusion of particles. It’s just activity all the way down. It doesn’t exist, it just becomes. But this is just another kind of mistake. While it doesn’t exist, just like stories don’t exist, yet it does exist in the way that stories do also.

So I don’t exist, and you don’t exist. Only processes exist. And you and I exist insofar as we are processes.

So then we have these complex macroorganisms. We kill them and eat them. Or we pay someone to.

Capitalism is the story of how these payments take place. In the 20th century, we started getting some good ideas about this story. Provide the customer value so that they will buy your product instead of someone else’s, as cheaply as possible. Be as honest with yourself as you can be, in service of this aim. Be as empirical as you can be, in service of this aim. In other words, perform experiments and learn. Be as responsive to the apparent demands and vicissitudes of reality as is conducive to providing more value at less cost.

There have been some strange ideas about the customer in the 20th century. Most of the discussion of customers is condescending and trite. We talk about making them happy, pleasing them—delighting them, even. It’s distasteful. In capitalism, every customer has customers. Every process has outputs.
Every output has paying customers, or the process that produces it dies through some variety of predation.

The purpose of a supplier is to understand the value that its customer provides to that customer’s customers. You should be an expert in your customer’s value proposition to its customers. That’s how you can provide it the most value. That is how you will cultivate loyalty. Not by delighting it.

Most discussion of customers in the 20th century is parasitic. This discussion is how we got ourselves into this situation. This unsustainable mess.

Note how I’m using customer here. I mean a customer in a SIPOC. I am not trying to be cute with the word customer. I am not trying to liken all interactions to transactions between a shopkeeper and a patron. But typically if a microorganism is expending calories engaged in a process, it is doing so with some expectation of a return, and that return is rarely monetary. Think of the processes that you perform daily. How many of them result directly in remuneration?

Many of them result in a surge in dopamine, which is a kind of promissory from the universe saying, “If you do more of that type of behavior, you may increase your likelihood of procreating.”

The old model is, understand your business, and sell a product to a customer. A better model is, understand your customer’s business, and sell them a product or service that enables them to provide more value to their customers.

That’s virtue. Everything else is a variety of predation.

The attraction of what is strange

Explaining things
So the series of vignettes I’ve been writing about my history of developing the (let’s call it) dexterity of my non-dominant hand is even more depressing than I anticipated. I think it’s because I like making arguments, not implications. A story implies too much. Or, I like making implications, and inserting small stories inside of my arguments, but I don’t like making arguments inside of stories. I don’t like explanations in stories, but I do like stories in explanations.

Likely now that I’ve said that I’ll feel differently about it.

Discomfort
I heard David Sedaris read once about how he loved living in France because the language was difficult for him, and I could relate. This is clearly one reason for using my left hand. It’s as if, instead of choosing some challenging goal using my native hand (or tongue) I will do mediocre things with a foreign hand. 

Hero Worship
Another reason is that I have always felt that, for life to be good, I would have to very fundamentally change who I was. For most of my life, I did not see my challenge as one of degrees, of continuous improvement. I saw it necessarily as radical transformation. 

I have also throughout my life experienced electrical storms in my head, as if the voltage got wonky. Someone will speak, and suddenly I’m not just listening—I am tracing their words with a needle that’s located somewhere between my ear and my uvula. Or I will have a thought, and my whole body incorporates it, and I have to grind my teeth and speak nonsense for a minute to calm my head. Or I will feel as if in front of me is a low pressure zone, and behind me is a high pressure zone, and my thoughts extend out in front of me, pulling me forward.  I have experienced that while watching people perform acts with dexterity, especially when doing so sinistrally. People talk about a “tingle down the spine.” Tingle isn’t the word.

Sometimes this feeling has gone wrong, and instead of my thoughts pulling me forward through pressure differential, they form an inflexible plank, extending forward from my face, and I am unwieldy maneuvering because of this ballast. Why I must have such a figurative conception of planning I don’t know.

But anyway, seeing someone that I admire doing something so fundamentally different from the way I do it has given the politburo of my mind ammunition for dictating that the workers be left-handed.

Similarly, it sometimes seems to me that I don’t experience affection in a normal way, instead experiencing primarily envy or disgust.

Mindfulness
Still another reason is the mental concentration, and the experience of rapid development. Maybe some Dunning-Kruger. In trivial tasks, you can double your dexterity with your non-dominant hand, while the same level of practice might produce diminishing returns for the right.

And there are a lot of ways to focus. On the physical movement (the grip, the movement of the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist, the joints of the fingers), the mental model of the movement (the way the shape of a letter feels), the mental picture of a letter, trying to trace that mental picture, or simply focusing on what the tip of the pen is doing and connecting that with what your arm is doing, and relating the two. You can be an instant in the past, an instant in the future, or somehow right in between. And over time the consciousness of using the wrong hand is replaced with a feeling of pure intention, of willing a letter, a word, a sentence to be formed. 

Side-effect
And other phenomena seem to go on. Imagination seems to improve. Verbosity drops off. You find yourself thinking about square roots. 

Practice
One thing I have learned over the past few weeks is something about practice. While I have practiced on and off at this for years, it has always been with a blend of confused intentions, and always mired by very messy self-doubt. And always for surprisingly short bursts. Years of daydreaming, and maybe two weeks of sporadic practice.

This time, I accepted but didn’t dwell on the anxiety. Instead, I set some straightforward goals and rules. Practice twice per day. Don’t worry about which hand you use in daily activity. Don’t try to change anything about yourself. Just practice. Focus on objective skills: writing a sentence smoothly, consistently, shaping the letters the way that you intend to, each sentence similar to the one above it. Focus on finding a grip that is comfortable and non-fatiguing. Do this and nothing else. Breathe through the rest.

When you find a shape that’s hard to form, form it over and over. Don’t have anything distracting going on. No video or music or erratic thoughts. Focus the beam of your attention over and over and over so over time it distills your awareness into a concentration. 

That’s how you myelinate the axon sheaths.

Lean
I haven’t been having coffee for a few weeks, and hardly any any processed food for a little over a week. Mostly vegetables, meat, yogurt, and milk. I think I’m not getting enough calories and feel a bit tired. But also I feel less protected from my thoughts. My mental arousal seems more closely connected to the clarity of my intention in any given moment. I can go from feeling tired to very engaged just be visualizing a desired outcome, as if, without the stimulants of caffeine and simple carbohydrates, the accelerator has become more sensitive.

 I am rereading Karen Martin’s book Value Stream Mapping. I am in the thick of a lot of process design and improvement at work, but that’s difficult to talk about.

Why no posts?

Why did my production to this blog reduce so significantly over the past few months?

Reasons:
One reason is that I have several draft posts that I don’t know whether to put here. While I’ve put pieces here that are more personal than professional, I had a loose ratio of what was acceptable in mind, and lately my thoughts have been more personal, so if I post what’s on my mind, the ratio would be wrong. I told a few Lean associates about this blog, and I have a composite readership in mind. I worry about causing embarrassment or confusion.

I spent much of April writing a short story, and since then I have been trying to write an essay about the correlation of my compulsion to use my non-dominant with changes to my mental habits—specifically, the volume of questions I ask myself, and the attention I pay to the objects in my mind’s eye.

Writing about my intermittent yet almost life-long fixation on my non-dominant hand isn’t something I enjoy, and I don’t enjoy talking about it with others. It’s just a strange thing that’s always been there. So instead of writing about it directly, I’m composing a series of vignettes describing my habits in regard to my mind’s eye, trying to make more sense of these correlations.

In other words, not interesting at all. Not even to me, let alone to anyone else. The only reason I’m doing it is to try to be done with it.

And this is misleading, because intermittently, it is very interesting to me. I wonder intensely about it. Why this fixation? Do others have it? (Yes, they do. There are wikihows and online articles, and at least one youtube channel, devoted to developing dexterity in your non-dominant hand.) Why do they have it? I’ve been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. which, conveniently, is about the tendencies of the two hemispheres of the neocortex. So that’s making it worse.

What else. I’ve been running. That’s good. I read Northrop Frye’s book Secular Scripture, which is fascinating if you’re interested in how popular stories reflect the collective psyche of the societies that cultivate them. I read a book by John Sarno called Healing Back Pain. I read it on June 20th. Today is July 1st. On the day that I began reading it, I was experiencing sharp pain in my lower back, and with it I was having the normal anxiety that comes with it. How can I accomplish my goals if I can’t sit at a desk? Why doesn’t anything I do work? I’ve had this intermittently since I was fifteen. Occasionally it’s debilitating. Since the 22nd, I can say that I haven’t experienced this pain. I’ve experienced  discomfort. But I think this is the normal discomfort that comes from sitting. I haven’t experienced sharp pain, and, maybe more importantly, my attitude towards the discomfort is changing. I am worrying less about it. So that’s interesting.

But, getting back to the problem. I need to decide what to do in regards to this site. Should I start another one for my more personal writing and for fiction? Which isn’t necessary. But right now, I’m in such an in-between place mentally, I don’t even know where to file things. I don’t know where things go. What even is my goal? 

At work I am working on process maps and value-stream maps for a process that we are developing on the fly. It’s such an undeveloped process that I’ve decided to do it several times myself, hands on, in order to be able to train the Analysts on it. That is maybe the lesson I’ve learned over the past couple of weeks. It’s the 5th of Leah Guren’s 10 golden rules.  (Why she doesn’t just call them commandments, I don’t know. She’s Israeli, so maybe it’s too sacrilegious?) Anyway, the rule is: Don’t write blind. It’s very tempting when people are asking me to develop processes on paper to see it as my job as to do just that. But it’s very difficult to describe a good process that I haven’t performed. It might be adequate. People might agree with it. But, when I actually do the process, and go back and read my own workflow or instructions or process map, I find deficiencies that I just couldn’t see before. 

I knew this. So my strategy was to ask the Analysts themselves to take my instructions, and try to use them, and to revise them in a way that makes more sense to them. I set up standards for the process in One Note and ensured everyone had access to the notebook. Clearly the next step (when no one makes corrections to the document) is to let the process run, and produce defects, or excessive cycle times, and do a quick cause analysis on the defect or delay, and find the inadequate process standard to be to blame, and work with them to fix it. That sounds good, right? But everything is moving so fast. There are so many problems. 

I’ve been staying late working on developing the process metrics so I can get a  good Target Condition. I’m doing this without a Coach, which makes it tricky. Friday I had a good start at a value-stream map with a few weeks worth of data on % C&A and cycle times. Now to gather that data on the upstream processes.

A brief problem analysis: the importance of knowing roles

Problem:
I was frequently feeling a distracting level of frustration when a contract Business Analyst (BA), whom I have been working with for a few months, would ask me questions or want to discuss problems or next steps on the project we are working on. I did not like my tone of voice in replying to him, and I could not determine what was causing me to experience this level of frustration. While it is normal for me to initially experience frustration when talking with someone, I usually figure out the cause and make necessary adjustments for it. I eventually was able to that in this case, also, but it took awhile. 

This BA has been working in the cubicle adjacent to mine for several months. Since there is significant overlap in the work that he and I do, we have been working together a lot.

He is a self-described extravert, and tends to think out loud, but that, to my mind, wouldn’t account for the level of frustration I was experiencing in talking with him.

Attempted methods of resolution:
First, I took a walk with him and explained  my problem: something about our interactions was causing me trouble, and I wasn’t able to identify it. We agreed to work together to improve the effectiveness and ease of our interactions.

My first countermeasure was to ask him, when he would start describing a problem to me, whether he wanted assistance or whether the conversation was just an FYI. This hardly helped because usually he wanted assistance. 

Then I attempted to clarify early in each conversation what kind of assistance he wanted. Did he want me to serve as a sounding board as he talked a problem through? Did he want my advice as a Process Improvement person? Or did he want me to give him some direction as a more senior staff member?

These countermeasures had little effect.

Resolution:
The answer came when I recalled an interview with Noah Yuval Harari, in which he described the important role of titles and rank in human cooperation. We interact in a fictional world of corporations, departments, and job titles. We create stories and live inside of them. While sometimes these stories are overemphasized and the importance of human interaction is underemphasized, the problem can lean the other way. In this case, my problem was not so much with the person, but with an ambiguity in our roles.

Because he is playing an ambiguous role, gathering requirements, identifying problems, proposing solutions, setting meetings, and because he is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in the abstract in many of the problems he is covering, and yet he  is not the designated SME in any of them, my mind was having a very hard time making sense of our conversations.   Additionally, I also play an often ambiguous role.  When he would come to me with problems, my mind was trying to classify his question in the context of its asker (him) and our relationship (per our roles). Normally, I know and assign roles implicitly. My mind simplifies most interactions by asking something like, 
“Is this my area of expertise or responsibility?” If yes, I take the person’s question and take responsibility for it. If not, I ask
B “Can I direct the person to someone else?” If it falls in an unclear domain, I ask,
C “Can I quickly help them analyze the problem so that they can move forward with experimental solutions?”

But in this case, my mind was answering “I don’t know” to A because of the significant overlap in our roles. It was answering  “No” to B because this person was already talking with the SMEs and was often in some degree of disagreement with them. Not being a SME, I did not know what to do in regards to this disagreement. Finally, it was was answering “No-o-o-o-o!” to C because of the frequency of these conversations.

Once I identified the problem (that he and I have ambiguous and shifting roles) then I was able to recognize that we may need to negotiate our functional or contingent roles more frequently so that I can decide the right role to play in any given conversation. For example, am I acting as senior personnel, providing insight not the workings of our department? Am I providing analytical assistance? Am I declining to assist due to time constraints? All of these options felt more available to me once I realized that they are normally unconsciously self-evident due to the relatively fixed nature of organizational rules.

Death, etc.

Torah
I have an A5 sheet of paper that I keep in my breast pocket. It reminds me what to do when my executive function fails. 

Begats
After work today, I called my grandfather. I call him Pop. He’s 83. We talked about the Korean War, working life, my Dad’s health problems, and, briefly, death.

Death
A close friend calls me about death and whatnot. I bite my tongue, literally, talking about the pros and cons of overdosing, while eating a hamburger. It hurts but I’m drunk, and tongue and teeth are really just asking for it, so close together.

Steely Dan
You do his nine to five
Drag yourself home half alive
And there on the screen
A man with a dream.

Pragmatism
Naturally, I feel shame for producing some affectation regarding habits and rituals. And so on. The afterlife is abstract, along with a soul, god, so on. And so we (wouldn’t we?) want to find out how important this life is. If what others regarded as being somehow higher is abstract, wouldn’t we want to find out what those numinous feelings are for? Anyway, you can’t argue intelligently with any of that. Some posture or another. 

Continuous Improvement
I am coaching. Experimenting, documenting those experiments. Teaching, sending surveys, getting feedback, making adjustments. Past, present, future. As you do. Improving habits. 

Dopamine

David Foster Wallace wincing between statements in discussion with Charlie Rose.  What was he wanting? For people to think he’s smart?

You call tell that by the look on my face?

Motivational salience. There’s a term that you can picture. Somewhere about as good as valence. You can see the electron in the outer shell. The valence of an object is dependent on your context. 

Some shattering fawn, etc. Or something similar that seems to know what you were getting at, without being there.

Socrates’s dialogue with Ion, who is, not skilled, but divine. A general instructs others. It’s maybe not as easy a skill to judge as that of the charioteer? Is it easy to assess the efficacy of a doctor? 

What is the name—John Ashbery. Quick question. Doesn’t he remind you of—not the philosopher—Francis Bacon? What is it about him?

You imagine Stephen strolling along a Dublin street—epiphany!

You read and you channel, then. That’s what he was saying. It’s a spirit, an intoxication. You act in accord with another, who acts in accord with another. Massimo Pigliucci asks Epictetus a question.

You are acting with the intelligence of another, as they have transmitted it. It’s a start, anyway. Inferior to informed empiricism. But why did Santiago Ramón y  Cajal write Advice to a Young Investigator? It isn’t instructions for how to set up a lab experiment. Or is it? McGonigal says, “I think everyone needs to treat themselves like they are their own science experiment.”

Socrates, why do you think Ion treated the General differently from the Doctor, the Charioteer, the Sailor?

Smear

You wash a counter according to the principles: multiple passes with soap in the wash phase; multiple passes without soap in the rinse phase; wringing the sponge each pass of the rinse phase. You  are sure any grime, anything tacky, is completely removed, so that it won’t break loose and smear. You employ patience. Yet it doesn’t matter. Try to walk away, it will bring you back. The light catches it. Or your mind holds it as a question and has you return to inspect just once more, to find it. 

What color is your counter? Do you vary the pressure that you apply? Do you experiment with vinegar? Do you use timeblocks to contain your concern? Do you remember the craze of those green faux-marble counters in the nineties?

Islands were popular in the nineties. Have you ever tried to wash a countertop that extended significantly beyond its base? It flexes. You wonder how much. How many times before it breaks? If something can break eventually, does it break a little bit all the times it flexes before that? Or is there some threshold pressure that must be met, and below that it can warp forever?

Walking past a stack of firewood, it occurs to you that if it ever falls, it is either in the process now, or will its stillness will have been disrupted.

Anxiety or Conscience?

I’ve gone on a lot of tangents on this blog, looking for similarities between the sacred and the secular. In my mind, I’ve drawn two columns.

Religious Practice Analogous Secular Practice
Prayer Self-talk¹
Imagining the personality of God Imagining what is above and greater than the self
Reading scripture Careful reading of any text that is written with care for the benefit of the reader
Catechism FAQ
Asking God for guidance Asking the unconscious mind for guidance
Picturing heaven after death Picturing continuous improvement
Picturing hell after death Picturing hell before death

The compelling analog for this week is: anxiety = conscience.

This week I’ve been engaged in this experiment: what if I listen more closely to my “anxiety”, and what if I treat it as if it were my conscience? In other words, it is always information, or at least data, and my job is to interpret it.

Clearly we all do this. It’s how we survive. But, at some point, based on unconscious assumptions and cultural norms, we think we’re feeling too much. We think it’s unreasonable, a distraction. But are you sure? This week, I’ve been acting under the assumption that if it feels uncomfortable, it’s just my failure to interpret it and act on it adequately

I picture a Quaker sometimes when I think this way, and I know from experience to note that picture and add to it, to make more visual correlations so that when that picture fades and loses its power, as it inevitably does, my connection with the thought doesn’t follow.

Of course, acting as if anxiety is OK and deliberately letting go of aversion to it is counterintuitive in part because I assume that the aversion itself is part of how the brain makes the mind understand. If anxiety isn’t bad, will I be inadequately motivated to act in ways that minimize it? Reading Anders Ericsson’s book Peak brings this concern to the forefront. The discomfort of not being able to perform a specific task in a skillset that we are deliberately practicing is part of the process by which our brain rewires itself so that we can perform the task. But if we become too comfortable with this discomfort, does that interrupt the process? In Buddhism we are often, it seems, encouraged to just accept and sit with the discomfort. As I’ve talked about a lot, this troubles me for a few reasons. This is one. And that discomfort, I can describe this way: how to deal with anxiety has to be a central aim to religion. If a religious practice doesn’t alleviate anxiety, then who will practice it? And, as Viktor Frankl observes, a very effective way of making suffering tolerable is to put it in the context of a meaningful story. The Nietzschean How/Why quote. 

So, is conscience just more meaningful a concept than anxiety? Isn’t saying you’re anxious an easier out than saying your conscience is troubling you?

¹A friend observes that I should put meditation as the counterpart here. Which is interesting. In Zen meditation a question is often employed. But isn’t it a koan? A koan is paradoxical. It shows you the inadequacy of your reasoning. (Does that remind you of something? The paradox of the following the law: the wages of sin are death, and yet. The epiphany of vicarious atonement.) Also, recall the three pillars, great faith, great doubt, great determination. In the doubt, there is boundless inquiry. Or something. 

But I am thinking more of prayer as a dialogue between the self and the conscience. This is also the dialogue of a story.

What else, what else. In the Buddhist practice, you are setting up a story, clearly. The story of you and all the beings reaching enlightenment. So these are the two I keep coming back to. “Dropping the story” and controlling the story. But sometimes it strikes me that when we ask our conscience a question, the listening we do isn’t auditory. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But for years I was literally listening.