Meditate with Max!

Neuroscience, Society

A lot of the reading I’ve done lately has focused on neuroscience, taking a systematic look at how the brain works best. In many cases, this reinforces our intuition about human interaction. Often, it surprises us. More and more, these readings are highlighting for me areas where our society is at odds with how humans have always functioned and how we function the best. I’m not a neuroscientist (except, aren’t we all?), but here is what I’ve been able to put together.

On a fundamental level, we’re finding that the most important part of life in terms of cultivating happiness and fulfillment is our social engagement. It is a healthy functioning limbic brain (the emotional system common to all mammals) rather than reptilian (reflexes, instincts) or neocortical (higher cognition) that allows humans to flourish in society and not become reclusive, depressed, or psychotic. The limbic system is largely cultivated through close relationships, especially during childhood, but later in life as well. It sounds corny, but the word we’re looking for here is love. Parental love allows our brains to develop properly as infants, love from our teachers helps us learn in school, and love from a partner allows us to deal with difficulties throughout life. This is a wonderful thing to know and be able to put into action, but it’s a devastating lens through which to view our society. Here are a few areas that could be vastly improved by acknowledging the human need for love.

Technology

I’ve written about some of my qualms with the internet before, but this one is getting worse. We continue to replace our face-to-face interactions with screen time. Our emotional brains resonate through subtle cues in body language, eye contact, and touch which cannot be mimicked by text messages, email, or Facebook. All this technology gives us the sense of being connected to people, but without any of the deep emotional bonds that goes with it. Instead, we get a quick dopamine fix from the constant stimulation and fall in love with our phones instead of our friends. Have you tried saying hello to strangers on the street lately? It’s nearly impossible.

Welfare

Our society encourages parents to get back to work as soon as possible once they have kids, even though spending time with their children is the most important thing they can do for their kids and for society at large. It forces single parents to hold down full time jobs while paying for child care, which is no substitute for building the emotional bonds between a parent and child. Even maternity leave (and the occasional paternity leave) considered to be “generous” barely scratches the surface for a child’s emotional development. Combined with the stigma against full-time parenting, we’re churning out generations of emotionally-deficient youth.

Education

Kids learn the best when they have a strong connection with their teacher, and when their teacher is able to devote attention to the child’s needs and progress. Huge classes, teaching to the test, and low teacher salaries all restrict the strength of these bonds and reduce the effectiveness of our education system. Instead, we’re buying bombers and drones which aren’t making anyone happy, except maybe the executives at Lockheed Martin.

Food

Even our food system is suffering from a lack of emotional resonance. The food we buy is so packaged, processed, and reconstituted, that it’s often impossible to know what we’re eating. Eating, and especially eating in groups, is one of the most basic human interactions. As our food loses value, so does the meal itself. Factory farms would not exist if we maintained our emotional connection to the animals we raised for food. We are meant to look into the eyes of the cow that will become our beef and feel a sense of gratitude, gain an understanding of our place in the world. Why put time into preparing and sharing something so synthetic as what we call food today?

Business

Money will not make you happy. Studies are showing that once basic needs are met, more money does not equate to more happiness. We love to measure things, but GDP does not relate to the quality of a nation. Our society is awash in consumerism and the idea that more stuff is better. This is a devastating perspective, and will only lead to more greed and envy.

Health

It seems that doctors no longer have the luxury of actually spending time with their patients. Insurance companies ensure that these interactions are brief, and focus solely on the disease, not the person. It turns out we’re complicated organisms and much of the healing we’re capable of is powered by our emotions. Those who have good insurance might get coverage for a few therapy sessions, but therapy is meant to work gradually over several years. Considering how hard it is to even get decent insurance, we’re pretty much begging for illness and depression.

Justice

It seems like Republicans want more incarceration, Democrats want more treatment programs, but nobody wants to deal with the weak family structure that is so often the root of crime and drug addiction. This goes back to the welfare system. If we put more resources into allowing families to form strong bonds, our whole society would be stronger and less reliant on criminal justice to keep order.

Government

My thoughts on this one have been sequestered until further notice.

So, things are pretty bleak. Perhaps as awareness grows of how our brains work and what makes us happy, our society will begin to shift. Living in the bubble that is Seattle, it’s easy to feel like maybe things aren’t so bad. But in thinking about the country as a whole, I’m pretty sure they are.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 26

Day 26 of writing a novel, kind of.

I have good news and bad news.

Bad news first. I’m not going to make it to 50,000 words by the end of the month. I’ve made a number of excuses for this, including multiple trips to Oregon, friends visiting from back east, general lack of discipline, and uncertainty about the story. I’m sure I could come up with more if I thought I needed to justify it to myself. I’ve still been trying to write every day, but I’ll probably be closer to half my goal by the end of the month.

So, the good news. I’m really happy with the experience I’ve had, and despite not having met my target word count, I feel like the month has been a major success. I’ve learned a huge amount about writing, about myself, and about the place where those two things intersect. A few important realizations:

  • Writing new material for more than about two hours a day is excruciating. At a certain point, it just stops flowing. Editing and whatnot can still happen, but my creative well needs a day of recharge after about that point.
  • It’s a lot easier to write in the morning before other distractions have started filling my mind. Immediately after waking up is probably best.
  • The rest of my life doesn’t appreciate being pushed aside in order to be able to spend more hours writing. I still need to paint, play music, exercise, and visit with friends. This actually works really well in concert with item #1.
  • Reading is always important, and even more so when I’m trying to write a lot. It provides good perspective.
  • It’s OK (and usually better) to be a little bit crazy, both on the page and in life.
  • It’s really easy NOT to write. And really lame.
  • Fail constantly. Just do it. I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m probably going to make a lot of terrible art and writing and music if I ever want to get good enough to make something good. If I just sit around and wait until I have the perfect idea, my skills won’t be up to the challenge of translating that idea into something tangible.

I’m still committed to the novel even if it won’t be done by the end of November. It took me until mid-month to come up with a clear outline for the main plot, and I’ve been refining that as I add to it and flesh out the chapters. I have a lot more to write, but I’m going to try to write every day and chip away at it until it’s done. I’ll let you know when it’s there.

Oh, and more good news. My mustache has been going strong all month and is doing fantastic.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 9

Day 9 of writing a novel.

A good day today, focused and productive. The last few days, not so much. I had big plans to get all caught up over the week, and instead found even keeping up with the daily word count to be difficult. I imagine this is something like how it feels to get behind on your credit card payments. At the first payment you think, “oh, no problem, I’ll just pay the minimum plus a little extra today and for the next few payments.” But the minimum is just a little too high and the card keeps getting used, so instead of chipping away at the debt, it piles up. Luckily my word-debt only inflicts guilt, no long-term financial harm. And I’m still feeling positive about it. I’ve got some big chunks of the weekend already devoted to getting words on the page. I actually do think I work best under some pressure, and being a little bit behind is prodding me to invest more heavily in the project.

I’ve got all the main story lines started at this point, and for the most part they are heading in a direction I’m happy with. It’s not completely clear how they will all tie together yet, but I’m sure as I get to know the characters better things will sort themselves out.

I’ve been writing a journal/flow every morning when I wake up to kind of get my brain going, and I think that has helped allow me to achieve the same state later in the day after my brain has hardened a little bit. I also made a conscious effort to start reading more, which has reinforced the thoughts I’ve been having about narrative and description. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m remembering the 10,000 hour rule¬†and imagining myself chipping away at an enormous block of time, getting my reps in and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, getting a little better at writing.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 6

Day 6 of writing a novel.

Whew! Things are starting to get rolling. I got a bit behind over the weekend by taking a climbing trip to Oregon, but I’m almost back to my word count target. At about 9k, was hoping to be around 10k-12k. I’ll have another full day for it tomorrow, which will help. I’m not sure I’d be able to keep up with this if I was working full time. People do it, though, so it would probably mean a lot more focused writing effort, greater drop-off of other activities, and more late nights.

I’m getting more and more involved with the story. It’s starting to creep into my mind at all times of the day and night. The ideas are flowing easily even when the actual words are not, and I have a feeling the whole thing will not be fully told in 50,000 words. That’s OK, I can make it longer if I need to. I definitely fall in and out of the flow of writing, and it can be hard to keep the words coming without getting distracted. Watching the election results certainly does not help. And it turns out there are some really diverting things on the internet. I’ll probably have to start writing more in my room where the internet can’t get me. But still feeling good about it! I’m definitely feeling the need to disconnect myself from any thoughts about whether anybody would like it. That’s a really fast way to get discouraged and second-guess everything I’m putting down. It’ll be week 2 soon, which is when the NaNoWriMo people say things start to get really difficult. Planning to just power through.

And drinking coffee

NaNoWriMo, Day 2

Day 2 of writing a novel.

So far so good! Wrote about 1,700 words yesterday and 2,400 today. It is feeling great to get into a flow and just kind of let the story create itself. So far it is very obviously based on pieces of my life and people I know well. I’m really enjoying the possibility of where things can go, and I’m curious to see how it transforms over time. I’ve been keeping notes about the characters and situations I’ve created, as it quickly became clear that I’m going to have trouble keeping everything straight in my mind. Hoping that some of the weird humor comes through and makes it somewhat enjoyable to read. It’s really hard to tell with my own writing and so early on, but I’ve been trying to edit as little as possible and save the dissection for later.

I’m going on a rock climbing trip this weekend, which will make it very difficult to write. I’m hoping to do some in the car, but even charging my computer will be a trick. I’m pretty sure I can catch up quickly on the days I don’t work, but this is definitely going to consume my effort for the next month. I’m happy to let it. I can already tell the adventure is going to be worth it. Knowing that I can write a couple thousand words a day is empowering, and being able to do that consistently for a period of time will really add up. And with enough practice, it’s bound to be good eventually.

Which reminds me of this quote: “Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” Some kind of Chinese proverb, applicable to all sorts of areas of my life right now.