Peripheral awareness, focused attention

Even after setting aside the mystical and supernatural angles, I’m always surprised at how often things come along at just the right time. I’ve moved the grocery shopping to Sunday morning, and roughly once a month that requires a 30-minute drive to Lexington for bulk supplies from Sam’s Club. I rarely listen to the radio in the car anymore, but I did this morning—when I do listen it’s always NPR—and was predictably irritated by the subjects on the drive into the city—subject, really, since media attention has not moved on yet from last week’s mass shootings.

But on the way back it was just past 11am, and programming had moved on to the really weird weekend stuff, at this point a program called Hidden Brain, and the hour was spent interviewing Iain McGilchrist. I was surprised by that—I’d first learned about his work through roundabout channels, namely some writers who take their mysticism seriously, and had a few shorter things by him on my to-be-read list—and even more surprised by the interview, which made it clear that McGilchrist’s big idea, a way of understanding the right-left brain distinction, was exactly the idea I had just started looking at closely as a way of reinvigorating my meditation practice.

I’ve practiced meditation for more than four years now, seriously, faithfully, and daily (with only a couple of short disruptions). In the beginning I was motivated mostly by excitement about what I was learning about mindfulness in my reading, as well as tangible results—not so much the pleasant stuff often used to sell meditation, but a new clarity in seeing and understanding, along with an untangling of the many different threads that compose my mind. But meditation is a practice and a path, and even though I was happy to continue on with it I felt after awhile that I wasn’t making the progress I should—not stuck, but somehow unfocused and unable to sort through the possibilities before me in a way that would lead me further up and further in.

And then a few weeks ago I came across The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. It turns out to be exactly the thing I needed now. I’m reminded of when my son Chris first picked up the fiddle—he had a few lessons but mostly worked on his own, and became surprisingly good, enough to hold his own in a jam session. Then we met a friend who was a very good fiddler and also a long-time violin teacher. It seemed wise to schedule an initial lesson with this fellow, just to see wheat he thought he might be able to help Chris with. The fellow had him play several pieces, and after 30 minutes or so complimented Chris on having come so far on his own—but also very gently telling him that if he didn’t address some basic aspects of his technique he’d likely be stuck where he was with no hope of improvement. We scheduled the lessons, and the teacher tore down the existing structure and rebuilt it on a solid foundation with all elements up to code. It didn’t take forever, Chris is a hard enough worker that the job was done in a few months. Chris was a much better fiddler afterwards, and, most important, in a position to progress as far as his gifts and inclinations could take him.

Similarly with my practice before finding this book. I had the motivation, the basics, and an understanding of the possibilities—but any given time I would sit I wasn’t quite sure what aspect I should be working on at that point. And so what I actually did was heavily influenced by whatever mood I happened to be in, and I couldn’t really choose between the possibilities because they were all points along the path … somewhere.

This book seems to solve that problem for me. I don’t want to gush yet because it’s early days, it divides the path into ten stages and I’m only at the second one. But what has been critical for me is that the writer very clearly says by the end of such-and-such stage you should be able to do this—and I definitely didn’t qualify as having masted the key elements of stage two, even though I was well aware of them and had played with them along with all the others at various times.

The writer’s second stage is really the initial stage, because he very generously makes Stage One simply a matter of establishing a practice—really a preliminary to everything else, but surely the place where many folks give up, and so it’s good that he treats it thoroughly and encouragingly. But I had an established practice simply because that sort of behavior fits my temperment well, and I had been able to continue on diligently mostly on spec.

The writer opens the book with a model of consciousness I found very helpful. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but a key aspect is that he distinguishes between two kinds of perception, peripheral awareness and focused attention, says that both are in operation all the time, and that one job of meditation is to train your ability to direct and sustain your focused attention while fully maintaining your peripheral awareness. When you try to do this in meditation, the very first challenge you will meet is a tendency to forget what you are attending to, followed by a bout of mind wandering. This was definitely my initial experience—I would focus on something (breath), then suddenly find myself jolting into awareness out of daydreaming, realizing that it had happened but not knowing why or for how long. The trick for addressing this is to (a) actually cultivate gratitude for such an episode—after all, each time it happens is an opportunity to practice recognizing the tendency and its warning signs, and to give things another slightly more informed go. This part I actually understood already, and was fairly adept at recognizing daydreaming quickly and returning to the breath. Where Culadasa helped me was in pointing out that both the mind wandering and the forgetting needed to be conquered—mind wandering was a problem in itself, to be sure, but forgetting leaves the gap that mind-wandering fills, and if you can conquer forgetting then you will now be in a new place, able to sustain your attention on the object indefinitely.

So, two important new concepts for me already, the separation of forgetting and mind wandering, and the idea of peripheral awareness as a separate kind of perception that provides the background for directed attention. It’s that second idea that fits exactly with what McGilchrist claims, namely that the right brain is responsible for big-picture thinking and perception (peripheral awareness) while the left focuses on and analyzes the details (focused attention).

Dunno if that floats your boat, but it was enough to get me to buy and download McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary as soon as I got home from the grocery stores.

Let a hundred flowers blossom

Constant Reader Servetus writes this:

I don’t think I’d necessarily want to have lived through your adventures of the last decade but I certainly have enjoyed reading about them

Thereby reminding me of something I fully believe: I live my life a certain way, but others don’t have to. And I write about it so others can benefit from my experiences without having to live through them. And I’m grateful to those who play the same role for me.

Last year I read Tara Westover’s Educated, her memoir of being raised in a Mormon survivalist family where she received no formal schooling, yet went on to earn a Ph.D at Cambridge University. There are many similarities between her family life and the one we’ve tried to provide for our own children—plenty of differences, too!—so it was mind-expanding to see how folks who started from similar places ended up somewhere quite distant from us. And by ‘distant’ I mean not just the extreme survivalism of Westover’s family but also her own embrace of formal education and eventually academia. I’m also intrigued by what Westover’s journey from unschooled to fully credentialed says about both the states of being unschooled and being credentialed.

Not long afterwards I read Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, her memoir of many years of drunkenness followed by her successful journey out. This time around I had little common ground to stand on. I have no scruples against alcohol or bad experiences with it, but a pharmacist friend once explained to me that my liver doesn’t process it normally, so what I drink stays in my bloodstream for a long time. It doesn’t take much to inebriate me—one beer and I’m ready to take a nap—and I never learned to like the experience (unlike, say, coffee or cigarettes, both of which I had to learn to like, but ended up liking way too much). So even though I’ve been drunk a few times, it was never a temptation.

Which is why I found Jamison’s memoir helpful in a different way, an honest account of the joys and sorrows of centering one’s life around something completely absent from my own experience. But just at the surface—Jamison’s attachment to drinking has some deep similarities to things in my own life that have me in their own unhealthy grip.

And she does one remarkable thing in telling her story, one which put some readers off, namely giving an honest account of the pleasures she found in drinking. I think that a large part of the power held by behaviors that grip us in this way is our pious impulse to deny that we find them enjoyable. It keeps us from looking them in the face and seeing them for what they really are—a pleasure, but just a pleasure, likely not the only pleasure we can turn to, and probably not the one we would choose to turn to if we saw the benefits and drawbacks clearly.

I don’t mean to say that seeing clearly is enough, just that it can be a useful addition to the toolkit, always helpful, occasionally powerful enough to do the bulk of the work. I’ve given up some behaviors simply by deciding. But others had much deeper roots, and the work was painful—I smoked for eleven years, stopped cold turkey … but chewed large quantities of nicotine gum for a year, gave thanks daily that I worked in one of the earliest facilities to ban smoking completely … and even so had the urge to smoke for another ten years, and a recurring nightmare for many more years where I found myself smoking with no clue as to how it had happened.

Not for me, more for me

I’ve always been prone to enthusiasms, but if I ever tried to press them onto others I can’t remember. I can remember measuring people on how well their enthusiasms matched mine—but that only vaguely.

Life got better once I switched from grading others on the content of their enthusiasms to grading them on the quality. Even if what turns them on does nothing for me, or turns me off, I can relate to their passion for the thing—enjoy it, even learn from it.

Pro tip: a surefire technique for meaningful conversation is to zero in on a person’s passions, ask a leading question or two, then stand back and watch the excitement pour out. It’s usually easy (and often delightful) engaging with what they say and how they say it, even if the subject leaves me cold. I’ll take this approach with people I don’t know well, and especially with kids.

I like this drawing by Austin Kleon on how to deal with enthusiasm mismatches:

(He offers some other conversational shortcuts here.)

Role models

People think of a role model as one to be emulated, but I think a neutral definition is more useful—an example worth studying of someone who embraces a behavior, letting me see what it is like to live it out without having to experience it first hand. I might like what I see and decide to emulate. I might not like what I see and decide to move on—but with gratitude and without judgment. I can stop at not for me without moving on to that’s wrong.

I’ll repeat this bit from Brian Eno, describing his assessment of fellow avant-garde musician Frank Zappa:

Zappa was important to me because I realised I didn’t have to make music like he did. I might have made a lot of music like he did if he had not done it first and made me realise that I did not want to go there. I did not like his music but I am grateful that he did it. Sometimes you learn as much from the things you don’t like as from the things you do like. The rejection side is as important as the endorsement part. You define who you are and where you are by the things that you know you are not. Sometimes that’s all the information you have to go on. I’m not that kind of person. You don’t quite know where you are but you find yourself in the space left behind by the things you’ve rejected.[Emphasis added]

I remembered this when reading yet another criticism of the blogging platform Medium, whose model looked so promising when Evan Williams launched it seven years ago but is now disparaged widely by people trying to figure out how to publish on the internet. These criticisms are often leveled not just at the model but at the company behind it, and at Williams himself, questioning their motives for perpetrating an approach that looks now to be more damaging than beneficial.

That may be correct, but I don’t find it helpful. All I need to know is the good and bad effects of the approach, something I can see without looking into the hearts of the builders. And regardless of what lurks in those hearts, I’m grateful they took the trouble to translate their ideas into a reality I can now evaluate.

Nordic noir

I’m hooked on these, mostly limited-run TV shows although an occasional movie fits the pattern. Most are set in greater Scandinavia, but the Brits have embraced the genre and produced some of the best of the bunch, e.g. Broadchurch with David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.

What appeals to me? Well, partly the hardboiled flavor of the stories—I’m a big fan of American noir as well, written and filmed, from The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels through Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Blade Runner, up to latter-day efforts like Twin Peaks and L.A. Confidential and True Detective. The dialog in nordic noir is nowhere near as cynical and wisecracking, but it shares a bleak view of events and I like that.

I also love the alien (to me) settings for these stories, whether urban London or Stockholm or Copenhagen or rural Britain or Iceland or Finland. These shows spend a lot of time creating and exploring the setting, and I get a lot of pleasure seeing a bit of what it’s like to live in the backwaters of Norway or the near-moonscape of Iceland.

But I think what I like most is that the procedural aspects are almost incidental, while characters and their interactions are central. Maybe it’s a mismatched pair of investigators, or a rural police force in over their heads, or a detective with severe physical or emotional problems or a shocking backstory, but the interest for me is to see how such people confront difficult situations—and one another.

Right now I’m watching the second series of Trapped, which I was eagerly awaiting after bingeing the first series a few months back. The story is worthy but not central, and I appreciate that it’s nowhere near as gruesome as some of the others (I don’t know where that particular quality comes from, it seems irrelevant to the genre but is very common). The photography is excellent (I’m watching in HD) and the landscapes are spectacular.

But maybe my favorite part is that the actors are not beautiful. No one is ugly, but their attractiveness lies in looking distinctive, not conventionally pretty. I’d love to be friends with either of these two folks, kind and warm and decent, but very surprising sorts to see as the two leads in a TV show.

By contrast, in Fortitude (also filmed in Iceland, though set in a fictionalized Svalbard) all the men are strong and handsome, and the women — cops, mayor, doctor, waitress — are beautiful.

Trapped is the superior series in many ways — the storyline of Fortitude is staggeringly weird — but they are both fun to watch, which is what I like about these and the other shows in this genre.

A nice observation

This review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (a topic which resonates with me, though I haven’t read the book and probably won’t) is critical of the of-the-moment writing style Odell uses when speaking out against our current of-the-momentness. ‘Tis a fair cop.

Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.

Odell masterfully deploys one of the reigning genres of digital content: the parable-like anecdote, offered not for narrative pleasure but didactic instruction. (I owe this point about the ubiquity of sentimental anecdotes online—see, for example, the website Upworthy—to Tess McNulty.) To illustrate our reliance on strangers, she tells how she called 911 on the way to the grocery store after seeing a woman collapse in a seizure in front of a church. Ten pages later, to decry the blandness of living inside a filtered bubble, she relates how her ex-boyfriend’s brother ate only at chain restaurants when he traveled. She weaves together a fashionable range of references—from Deleuze to David Foster Wallace—with the Carrie Bradshaw–esque formulations so typical of the early-2000s blogosphere: “As I looked at X, I couldn’t help but think of Y.”

But the writer is fair, and goes on to say this:

One perennial challenge of progressive thought is confronting the culture in which you are embedded while using terms and values that are comprehensible to that culture.

This has been on my mind, as seen in my previous post. Most of my writing is crafted for an idealized reader, one who is interested in what I have to say and has a background that makes it easy to follow me as I say it. I invest a lot of effort in writing clearly and directly for that reader. But my idealized reader is by no means the ideal reader—if there is such a thing at all—and lately I’ve been thinking I should invest more time writing for the people who are actually here and listening, rather than as if my readers will self-select into some idealized audience.

Note: I have always taken the sensibilities of my readers into account, as far as I’m aware of them, and steered away from certain topics just because what I had to say didn’t seem worth the discomfort it might cause. A couple of those topics have reached the point in my life where I probably should put them out there just for the sake of honesty and transparency. Perhaps I’ll turn to those.

But I still have a clear memory of the one time I did that, regarding something innocuous, just to see what would happen. A friend had started a discussion thread about books (and maybe other creative works) one was embarrassed to admit they didn’t like. My contribution was to say that I didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia—I had read the first book, it left me cold, and I hadn’t continued. The reaction, as I thought it might be, was pure shock—not even “How can you say that?”, but the internet equivalent of gaping in astonishment. I didn’t press the matter.

Two good pieces of writing

My admiration for Alan Jacobs, both as a writer and a thinker, continues to grow. Today he published an … allegory? … which reimagines the Scouring of the Shire. Not only is it a fine piece of writing, but the outlook it suggests is very much one I’ve come to adopt.

I’ve been wondering what it will take to get me back to writing regularly. I’ve mentioned that I’ve become sick of the sound of my own voice … which makes me think I need to adopt another one, at least for awhile.

I not only admire Derek Sivers as a writer and thinker, I find him inspiring. He doesn’t write often anymore, but when he does he sends an email to everyone on his list with a heads-up. Here’s the piece he published today. It’s really good — spare, insightful, from the heart — like all his pieces.

After reading it I pulled out an index card and a sharpie, wrote “Write like Derek Sivers”, and put the card at the base of my monitor. Perhaps it’ll inspire me to write like Derek Sivers. Or at least to write.