05 March 2009

Living Life in Circles

Recently I was reminded of this beautiful comic from XKCD. In the main text it reads:

The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I'm sitting here refreshing my inbox. We live trapped in loops, reliving a few days over and over, and we envision only a handful of paths laid out ahead of us. We see the same things each day, we respond the same way, we think the same thoughts, each day a slight variation on the last, every moment smoothly following the gentle curves of societal norms. We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow our dreams will come back to us.

Like the stick figure in the comic, I don't have all of the answers here: "I don't know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become." I also don't know if the path I am on will ever actually get me there. I find myself trapped in the same loops as the rest of the world. When I get out of that mold, it follows similar routes to those I have followed before and I make slow progress on my projects.

Part of the challenge with unemployment is that it is easy to fall into a rut where you have all the time in the world and no time at all. Where you blink and go 'where did my day (week) go?" despite lacking firm commitments. The problem becomes exacerbated when we don't find a way to get out of the house or have some other form of changing external stimulus with which to index ourselves off of.

Yet at the same time it seems like a huge part of the struggle to become a spirit worker, priest, or monastic involves... repetition. Waking up at the same time to do a similar set of devotional rites. The process of kaizen involves making gradual changes in your actions over time by consciously and regularly repeating them, bringing them into your standard routine.

The difference is that one is conscious and the other is unconscious. I refresh my inbox generally because I am avoiding or postponing something I have to do: not because I actually want to see if I have mail. This can continue all day, and then suddenly you run into a situation where your day has vanished into "things I meant to have done." Your entire life can vanish this way, without ever meaning it to. In the Guy Lombardo song "Enjoy Yourself," we see the lyrics:

You're gonna take that ocean trip, no matter, come what may
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away
Next year for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around
But how far can you travel when you're six feet underground?

We want to think that we can just blink out today, then tomorrow, or the next, or the next, but "soon" I will find the time. then it never happens and we find ourselves years later having no idea how we got here. Suddenly it is "later than you think" in either the day or your life, and everything has gone by in a flash.

There are two aspects here that must be considered.

The first is that we have generally progressed farther than we think we have, but not necessarily in the ways we expected or know to look for.

The second is that, by falling into these patterns, we miss fantastic opportunities to explore life and the world around us, to advance in the things we claim we want to advance in, and to advance in areas of self development that we had scarcely even considered.

This is the key meaning behind Socrates's statement in Plato's Apology 38a, where he says that:

For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe.

Another translation of this passage is the origin of the famous quote "an unexamined life is not worth living" and it is clear from context that exactly this sort of thing is meant. Acting without knowledge of why we act, repetition without meaning, unconscious actions that dictate the flow of our existence.

This doesn't mean that we can't "goof off," but as Bear Heart indicates in The Wind is My Mother, we should do so consciously. If you want to goof off today, then have a good time and goof off with no regrets. Go play video games, turn the cell phone off and go hiking, read a book, play with your kids or your dog, or just sit by a creek and stare into space. Enjoy yourself.

Similarly, if you want to be productive today, then the goal is to be productive, again without regret.

To bring things back to where we started, this is where daily devotional rites, monastic practice, etc come into play. It isn't that the repetition itself is bad. The repetition helps train the body and the mind and can be used to help us become more aware of ourselves. The act of practicing a Form/Kata regularly trains the muscles and the mind, it can reveal new things about our own body, the form, and the martial art itself.

The problem is in mindless repetition. Set out your goals and accomplish them, and that accomplishment may require training, and it may require repetition. If you are a spirit worker or if you follow a particular religious path (even one you are carving yourself), it almost certainly will. Whatever it is you need to be doing, refreshing one's inbox is decidedly not on the menu.

The same is true of social norms and taboos. What if we, as advised in another XKCD comic, "Do things without always knowing how they'll turn out." Examine our beliefs, leaving nothing as beyond question. Ask ourselves what makes an older practice worth emulating in a modern context, and question those same societal norms and taboos that we follow every day. Why are there men and women's bathrooms? Why can't men wear dresses? Why can't you romantically love more than one person at once?

Why shouldn't you walk down the street singing?

This doesn't mean that we should violate social norms for the sake of violating those norms, or that everyone should suddenly become polyamorous. Sometimes those norms are functional, or there are perfectly good reasons a given individual might choose to act in a certain manner, or why social norms are the way that they are. The problem is, again, with mindlessly following them without attempting to understand them or--worse--even noticing them. Some people get extremely defensive of them, because "this is just what you do," never once attempting to understand why things are the way they are.

Getting there from here

Okay, so the statements are easy enough, how does one actually accomplish this?

The short answer is that, like the stick figures in XKCD, I don't know. The longer answer is that I have an idea. Like with many things, this is a "process not a product." There's not really a sense of "UR DOIN IT WRONG," so much as "this is a long path up the mountain, and I may be required to backtrack along the way." The goal is forward progress, not necessarily actually reaching the top.

So, recognizing that I am not there, how can I start to make forward progress? To quote Nathaniel Branden in his essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

The great, glaring gap in just about all ethical systems of which I have knowledge, even when many of the particular values and virtues they advocate may be laudable, is the absence of a technology to assist people in getting there, an effective means for acquiring these values and virtues, a realistic path people can follow. That is the great missing step in most religions and philosophies. And this is where psychology comes in: One of the tasks of psychology is to provide a technology for facilitating the process of becoming a rational, moral human being.

While he was speaking specifically to ethical systems, his statement applies just as well in our current dilemma: How to become what we want to be. Now that we know the goal state, psychology is a natural place to look to figure out where we want to go.

As humans, two of the natural tools in this area that you almost can't go wrong with are kaizen and mindfulness. There are other tools (one category of which I'll talk more about briefly later), but at least from what I've seen it never hurts to start here. The other technique that is available to us as occultists is transformative magic, for which I'll mostly leave off with a book reference to Runes for Transformation by Kaedrich Olsen.


Mindfulness is, as Elizabeth Vongvisith put it, "the art of paying attention." It is approaching life, the universe, and everything without assumptions or preconceptions, without letting your body or your mind go fully on autopilot. One of the early mindfulness meditations that is widely recommended is simply noticing your breath. The inhale, the exhale, what do each feel like? What muscles move? What triggers it?

We needn't take this to the level of Sir Francis Galton, who Dion Fortune reports in Psychic Self Defense, saying that he" experimented with mental control of respiration, and having obtained it, found that the automatic function had fallen into abeyance, and he had to spend three anxious days breathing by will power and voluntary attention until the automatic function was re-established."

Control of these processes isn't really the goal, but rather, observation. In the book Emotional Alchemy, which combines mindfulness with schema therapy, one of the early meditations involves a glass of a flavored drink. What makes you reach for it to take a sip? Notice the anticipation as you bring it to your mouth, the saliva response, how the glass feels in terms of temperature, condensation, and texture. What does it look like? How does it look as you tilt the glass?

The important thing is noticing these things, things we normally take for granted. As I sit here typing this I consumed an italian soda. I remember the taste, the texture, and so on for the period after I first got it. I think I barely tasted it after the first few sips.


Kaizen (改善, literally "improvement") is a word that gets abused by business consultants, but which has real, practical application and meaning. According to Wikipedia, kaizen is a "Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all aspects of life." It is the process of gradually making improvements to yourself.

For example, let's say that you want to change 10 things about yourself. Space them out over a week or a month, gradually adopting one at a time. That way, if you have trouble with one, you have still adopted all of the others leading up to that point. If you try and adopt all ten, not only are you less likely to succeed (it is easier to succeed at one thing at a time than ten), but regression on any one area may lead to regression in all of the other areas.

Rather than berating oneself for behaving a particular way, it is much more constructive to break down why one is that way and, knowing that, establishing a plan to move forward.

Generally, however, it is not enough to simply say "I will do these things this week, and those things next week," we need something more robust. This is where psychology comes into play in a big way: helping us achieve what we want to become.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

What will work for any given individual is up for debate, but one of the broader approaches I like are cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), and specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (MBCT). While full psychotherapy generally involves a psychotherapist, there are tools here that we can look at and adopt in our daily lives. I'm not going to go too in-depth here, since I am far from an expert and most of this deserves more than the small space I can give it here.

The core of MCBT is not to try and push the negative thoughts and emotions out of the way, but to notice them and accept them without judgement. Just like with physical reflexes, we can develop emotional "reflex actions" called schemata that the events around us can trigger. These schemata form a sort of "mental short-cut," and most people tend to build a variety of such shortcuts into their lives going back to childhood. The first step in this process is in determining what these patterns are and understanding them, not trying to sweep them aside or berating ourselves for having them.

One of the areas within this is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which purposes that the core to many of these problems comes down to the acronym FEAR:

  • Fusion with your thoughts
  • Evaluation of experience
  • Avoidance of your experience
  • Reason giving for your behavior

Essentially: Acting without being mindful, subconsciously finding a way to "protect yourself from it" through avoidance, and then back-rationalizing how you acted or are acting. It then advises us to ACT:

  • Accept your reactions and be present
  • Choose a valued direction
  • Take action

There is more to it, of course, but this is fundamentally where much of this starts. Determine and accept where you are, be present, and make a decision to be something else.

This is definitely a "process" and not a "product." You cannot "fail at mindfulness" in the general case, but only stumble along the way and evaluate in retrospect. "Was I being mindful? What can I do in the future to be more mindful?" Rather than berate ourselves for being something we're not, we look instead to change ourselves to what we want to be.

Further Reading

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