Break your boxes, but remember them


We live in boxes.  no matter how deeply we examine the world around us, our perception is restricted. This restriction takes place at both a physical, biological level as well as on a constructed socio-cultural level. These boxes will always be there, but that does not mean they cannot be expanded or broken.

It is all too easy to see restrictions as prisons. Indeed, many of them can become prisons, but perceiving them exclusively as such is not valuable. Humanity has not created its numerous restrictions upon itself in order to slowly imprison itself. These boxes function like bricks. They build a navigable world for us that appears to have a degree of solidity. Without our boxes, nothing would make sense to us.

Yet despite the solidity – the ‘reality’ -our boxes create for us, we paradoxically are not living in anything ‘real’ at all, for our boxes are interpretations, solidified by socio–cultural consensus and the brain’s incredible pattern building capabilities.

My aim in this article is to persuade that our boxes need opening and our bubbles bursting, but not before understanding what purpose they served. We should pursue the knowledge restricted by our self-created bubbles, yet hold onto the structure of our former cages lest we fall into an unnavigable nihilistic existence.

Biological boxes

The first of the boxes we must recognise are the biological ones. A human’s senses are not perfect. Bats hear better than us. Cats see better than us. There is more of the world to experience than we are physically able to. This really is an astounding fact. No matter how hard we try, we are unable to experience everything there is to in the universe. We will never see every colour in an image, never smell every scent present in a flower. It is all to easy to assume we experience the world in its fulness, yet our experience is but a fraction of the world.

On a neurological level, the restrictions continue. The brain is tasked with a momentous role:  to control its body and react correctly to its surroundings. A big part of this job is determining what is important to even register.

Imagine for a moment if you placed the same value of importance on absolutely everything you experience. That dripping tap in the background is as clear as the sound of birds in the garden and both are suddenly as important as the conversation you are having with your partner. Things you used to completely ignore are now given the same weighting as the matters you really care about.

This would be too much to handle. You would go mad. Instead, the brain is highly selective. We perceive only a tiny fraction of the world around us. Though this is clearly for our own good – to stop us being overwhelmed with input – it also means our ‘reality’ is a mere shadow of what it could be.

The boxes of culture and society

A large proportion of our boxes are sociocultural phenomenon. These boxes build up from the very beginning of our lives and build up as we travel through it. We are all born in a specific place and most of us remain exposed only to the microcosm of that place for many years.

In that time, cultural boxes form. What language will I speak? What nationality will I have? Which god(s) will I follow? A brand-new human baby doesn’t get to answer these questions for itself – they don’t get to choose their first sociocultural boxes.

Instead our surroundings form our first restrictions for us. In my case, I write in English today because I was born in the UK. I was brought up by atheists, and so was not immediately exposed to religion. I had a Dutch name and was born to New Zealander parents, so built a very fluid national identity. These count amongst my first boxes.

Our options – break, or ignore?

Considering our boxes, both inherited and constructed, a question arises:  Is it right to ignore our boxes, or do something about them? Let’s consider first the easy option – Ignorance. The clear advantage is stability. Ignoring the borders of perception keeps us grounded and lets us believe we understand our surroundings. It is, at least on an individual level, safe.

Such a state of existence is arguably fine. That is, until something goes wrong or changes. If we believe in a solid world, we are not equipped for when it changes or collapses. Does this happen? All the time. Political developments, divides in religion, social conflict; these are all boxes under pressure. All it takes is a brief look into the history books to know that these boxes regularly fall to pieces.

Another option is to identify our boxes and take a long, hard look at them. There is an expansive history of doing so in philosophy. Buddhism teaches of the illusory nature of our existence and encourages the systematic breaking of illusions with the intention of discovering truth and freeing oneself from the prison of this existence.  Nietzsche attacked numerous social constructs, even bravely challenging the existence of morality, in order to pursue the true potential of the individual.

The path of breaking boxes is a path of discovery and life affirmation, but is no doubt also dangerous. For every broken box, the former stability of one’s personal illusion shakes a little more. Indeed, Nietzsche was eventually driven mad by his own philosophizing (plus opiates). Is it really worth pursuing a life of deeper understanding if it eventually leads to total nihilism and madness?

The answer is to reject our identified boxes, but continue to inhabit them. What does this mean in practice?

To challenge perception itself requires extreme scepticism. Amongst the strongest role models for this kind of thinking is Robert Anton Wilson, a man who can perhaps be described as a radical agnostic. In his book, ‘The Cosmic Trigger’, Anton Wilson attempts intentionally to change his perception of reality by exploring as many modes of understanding existence as possible. On the course of his journey he meets God, the devil, communicates telepathically with extra-terrestrials in the Sirius star system and chases the illuminati.  Despite experiencing very real encounters with such figures, he neither accepts nor rejects their existence.

By doing this, Anton Wilson inhabited realities he didn’t believe in. Instead, he committed to what he calls ‘reality tunnels’; the perception we solidify around us to match our sociocultural understanding. Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels are our boxes, and his experiments in their subjectivity show how morph-able they are.

The key point to realize here is this: If we do indeed match our perception to our understanding, then playing with perception will radically change our understanding of our existence. Breaking our boxes is the key to a new world.

Breaking sociocultural boxes

Society and culture are difficult to challenge because they fight back and are bigger than the individual. Culture is built from collective reality tunnels and the majority adhere to that reality tunnel. Otherwise the culture would cease to exist. As discussed above, it is clearly valuable to challenge the reality tunnels of culture, but to do so is more than likely to be considered by society as a transgression. Moreover, you are estranging yourself from the culture.

This is precisely why it is necessary to in some sense hold onto the boxes we endeavour to dismantle. Though there is much to learn by dissecting subjective reality, each incision can be estranging and ultimately life denying.

Let’s take an example from contemporary discourse: gender.

The sexes are divided biologically, but the different characteristics of gender are predominantly socially constructed. We are still considerably restricted by the social construct of gender and as such it is worth challenging. Gender is however a deeply solidified construct that society is vehemently defending. Society would be freer without the restraints of gender, but stepping out of the gender box still attracts the ire of society.

Can someone pursuing the dissolution of their gender constraints find a balance? Can their box be blurred whilst not being ostracised from society to some degree? Let’s apply the concept of ‘remembering’ the former box. This manifests itself as a form of extreme empathy. The challenger of gender constructs will eventually, even in the most liberal of places, be confronted by the elements of society defending the construct. The challenger could fight back, but to do so risks becoming the enemy of society, and society is stronger. We are however all familiar with the reality tunnels of established culture and empathising with them serves the challenger two-fold. They keep their community and their community is more likely to listen and eventually accept the challenger’s ideas.

Challenging biological boxes

We can, with some creativity, also explore further our biological limitations. There is of course a major difference between challenging socio-cultural boxes and biological boxes: the former deals with the realm of thought, the latter with perception of material phenomenon.

It may not be possible to dissolve physical material with thought, but our perception of the physical world is widely subjective. Each person’s senses are different and the degree to which each person engages with the world around them varies. Because of this, though biological boxes cannot be broken in the same way as their socio-cultural counterparts, striving to understand them in a new way is very possible.

Let’s take sight as an example. Human eyes are set at a particular field of view. A camera however is not. If a photographer wishes to take a photo with a similar perspective to what we see through human eyes, they are likely to use a 50mm lens. If the photographer changes the lens, the perspective of the camera’s shots will differ from that of the human eye.

By simply changing a camera lens, we can learn that a human’s direct perspective of the physical world is not the only possible perspective. The physical world can truly be seen in ways not usually open to us. Within those hidden perspectives, whole new worlds await.

Break your boxes

Without to some extent holding onto the reality tunnels we reject, we lose our greatest asset in the search to find value in breaking them in the first place: acceptance and contentment with your newly created world. Free thinking spirits are almost by definition strongly individualistic, but we remain social creatures. As much as society and culture can seem to imprison us, most of us need society. The individual who explores existence is better off for it, but leaving society would destroy most of us.

Because of this, the adventurer of human existence has one choice – to break their boxes, but to remember them.

 

 

 

Disillusion. A new way.


The world seems helpless and it seems hopeless.

I find myself in total disillusionment with everything. The work of several years to better myself and to come to terms with myself, work which was going so very well, is collapsing.

I learned to trust and love my friends, my family even my enemies. I moulded the remnants of depression and confusion into a beautiful contentedness. It became an unshakable grounding from which I could approach each wonderful day with joy in my heart.

I learned to meditate each day, to foster only positive emotions and to discard all negativity from my life. We only curse the earth with our presence for so long; what madness would make us choose to spend it in sadness and suffering? My inspiration was calm. I lost my anger.

I lost something else too, something which took me years somehow to spot.

I lost my spark. I lost the inner fire that makes us fight to live and love each moment, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I was at peace, but all passion was gone.

And what now?

In a matter of months, the world I see has changed for the worse. The leaders of the world have gone wild and their supporters wilder. Racism, nationalism, sexism; every imaginable form of baseless, weak-minded discrimination is on the rise. It becomes increasingly clear that we have pushed the earth to her limit and the environment is close to a point of collapse. All that is solid melts into air  and this time we are entirely to blame.

How can I then, in a time where it all is falling apart, possibly remain content? How can I hold firmly onto the contentedness  that I have fostered, even nourished in these past years?

I cannot.

That time is gone. It taught me much and I am thankful for a truly essential development in my self, but now is not a time where apathy serves. I have joined the disillusioned.

How can I sit in acceptance, as hate becomes the norm of society?

How can I sit in acceptance, as the people become divided over lies?

How can I sit in acceptance, as we burn nature to the ground in pure, brutal indifference?

I am a liberal, left-wing, environmentally-minded, vegetarian, bi-, non-binary, creative, introspective, radical human-being. In these times, the only element there I regret is the last.

In these times, where to sit in acceptance is as dangerous as to fight against the rising tides we face, my fostered neutrality has been smashed into tiny little insignificant pieces.

After years of purging pain and anger from my life in the name of breaking through my negativity, I am letting it all back in. Perhaps that seems like a truest form of madness, as if I were a monk jumping out of deep meditation to burn his temple in spite. I think however that this is a necessity.

Now?

Now I feel an uncontrollable rage at humanity’s encroaching madness. The world seems to me to be on the edge of a crumbling cliff: Past it is the void. The void is growing, in size and in strength. It can’t and won’t be stopped.

A curious feeling has grown however out of my new rage and this feeling is perhaps even stronger, or at the very least more striking. Out of the rage has grown an uncontrollable love. Suddenly I have so much joy to see the magpies each morning as I leave for university. Suddenly each falling leaf is a universe with its own story to tell. When I see my friends, they cannot possible know how thankful I am now to see them, and know that they are well, that they survive in the face of our world in flux.

I feel some of the other disillusioned are giving up. But no, why should helplessness mean giving up? Are we not still alive?  Are you not still breathing, thinking,  whilst you read my twisted  words so lacking hope?

Let me tell you then, that these words are of hope, at the very least for myself. With this development of new emotion – of conflicting love and rage – I realise: Our experience here, no matter how dark it turns, will always have glimmers of intense beauty. For each person who joins the ranks of mindless nationalism and discriminators, we can fight back with rage-fuelled love. As contrary as that seems, Love and anger are linked in impossible ways. The enemy here is apathy.

It has often been times of darkness where great writers have appeared from the shadows. I am not one of them, but I have learned from them how important the mighty pen becomes in such moments. Brecht attacked national-socialism. Lu xun gave up a medical career to take up the pen and challenge the early 20th century society of China. I am writing because although I sense a painful future, I see glimmers within its blinding darkness. I am one of the disillusioned, and it has made me see the beauty we will have until the last moment. It may hide in caves or under rocks at the very end, but it will always be there.

And so I throw away the work of years to become a content soul, thankful and accepting. I embrace now my new-found love and rage. I will stare into the encroaching void, and laugh with pure joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to let go of my goals”


That title gives off a common view. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to let go of my goals.”

Well then, at that point you’re already in trouble.

If you can’t imagine each element of your goals, then you risk never reaching them – even when it is the act of giving up on them.

We need to imagine what it would be like to let go of our goals, because in doing, we understand everything which is at stake.

Why not go imagine what it would be like to let go of your goals?

Coffee Meditation? That makes no sense.


Luckily, in regards to the title, I make no sense either, which is why I have no inhibitions whatsoever for trying things out that seem a bit silly. And so I just finished a 15 minute or so bout of coffee meditation.

Meditation is widely seen as a relaxation tool; a way to calm and ground yourself in a world where calm is hard to come by. I’m of the opinion that there is much more you can do with meditation than that. For me it is indeed a means to relax, but it’s also a creative power, a sleeping aid, a concentration booster and among other things played a key role in the late stages of my fight with depression a few years back.

Nonetheless, the combination of coffee and meditation seems at first rather far-fetched. A couple of google searches revealed to me that the majority of the meditation community (but not all) are against drinking coffee before or during meditation, and many completely remove caffeine from their lives. I gave it a go anyway.

My ‘procedure’ was simple. I sat down on a chair, stuck on some ambient music, and held a cup of fresh coffee in my hands. As is usual for my meditations, I took my breathing under control, and focused on my awareness of my surroundings.

This is where the coffee changed the meditation slightly. when one focuses on their awareness, the strongest outside influences come first and one thing we can all agree on is that coffee has a pretty intense smell. You don’t usually get the smell of coffee to focus on in meditation, or really anything that intense, so naturally this was all new. I spent a while just focusing on the smell, and the warmth of the cup.

With higher levels of concentration than usual simply on the smell, a new depth comes from the smell. Often on a pack of coffee there will be some fairly pretentious tasting notes on the back (yes, I see the hypocrisy in this comment), but generally our own comments on the said coffee whilst drinking it will be “Oh, that’s a nice coffee”. With a meditative focus on that smell, you notice there are indeed numerous levels to the smell.

Drinking the coffee was essentially the same story and there is little need to elaborate. i was simply able to notice different levels to the drink to usual. The difference came a few minutes later as the caffeine started to have an effect. And it’s that caffeine that surely would ruin the whole idea of ‘relaxation’ that is usually seen as one of the main aims of meditation.

The result was more that coffee and meditation complemented each other. The coffee offered something to focus on, and gave a new experience of awareness – something I believe to be important in meditation. That given focus allowed the meditation to progress to a deeper level more quickly. As more caffeine hit, ability to concentrate increased. Increased concentration further increased awareness.

By the end I felt excessively aware and grounded, wonderfully peaceful and much more renewed than just coffee alone would offer.

Some of the ‘negative’ effects of each appeared countered too. Meditation’s habit of inducing sleepiness was countered by the caffeine, and Coffee’s favourite trick of putting you on edge was countered by the calming nature of meditation.

I would say therefore, that this seemingly silly combination is actually a match made in heaven.

Are you awake? I’m not.


Are you awake? No really, are you? You’re reading this right now, and we generally assume that if you’re busy reading something on the internet you tend to not be asleep.

But I’m still not sure how awake you are. I know I spend a lot of my waking life not really being awake, but rather I drift through life missing some of the most beautiful moments that pass me.

I’ve only realised the extent of this anomaly over the last week or so when I started a little experiment of mine. I have been constantly doing what I call ‘wake checks’.

The origins of this experiment came from my attempts to Lucid dream; when you become aware that you are dreaming and can consequently control it. It is meant to be an incredible experience, and although I haven’t succeeded yet, I’m vaguely aware that I could lucid dream to an extent when I was younger. (I have an interesting story about when my dreams stopped, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post).

As i just said above that I hadn’t yet managed to lucid dream with the help of my wake checks, naturally i’ll be talking mainly about something other than Lucid dreams today. The fact, from my experience so far, is that wake checks do more than improve your chances of Lucid dreaming. Oh so much more.

Let me actually explain to you what my wake checks entail. The basic principle is fairly self-explanatory. You check whether or not you’re awake. I write ‘Are you awake?’ on my hand everyday in Chinese  (你醒马) and look at occasionally over the course of the day. As soon as I see it in passing, I ask myself “Am I awake? Am I dreaming?”, count the fingers on my hand, close my eyes, then check my hand again, looking for abnormal changes.

This may all seem a little odd, but in a dream certain small details get distorted. By making it customary to check for abnormalities in the waking world (being the strange person I am, I hesitate to use the word ‘reality’), it should increase the chance of noticing abnormalities in a dream – triggering awareness within the dream.

The problem arises when you consider that most people would think it rather strange to check they’re awake, especially when they know that they’re awake.

The bigger problem is that they should, and are missing out in not doing so.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘am I dreaming?’ used for when something incredulous happens. Interestingly enough, if you force the question, you start noticing plenty of incredulous things you pass every day but ignored before as ‘normal’, ‘just the way it is’, ‘boring’.

But things aren’t just ‘the way they are’ or ‘normal’. If you have ever read ‘the Kite Runner’, you may well remember the moment when the protagonist breaks down into tears because he had seen something stunningly beautiful for the first time. The sea.

What is considered normal is just what we are used to, and we tend to ignore it to an extent. An Eskimo isn’t going to be too excited If he met a Bedouin nomad telling of the wonders of icicles. Likewise, the Bedouin would be severely confused for an Eskimo in awe of expanses of sand.

Of course both places are incredible. But for someone, they are normal and for someone, what’s normal for you would be a world of experience for someone else.

You just need to see it.

And wake checks do that.

These are some of the things I hadn’t noticed – or had at least forgotten to the sea of acceptance and normality – that have come to my awareness since starting my wake checks.

-The cold isn’t as uncomfortable as we make it out to be, we just seem to be predisposed to anxiety from it. (of course I may have a different opinion of this if I still lived in Xinjiang, where it gets to -30)

– I’ve noticed patterns I never saw before in the way trees grow

– music has more depth and clarity

-The way different colours interact with each other seems clearer

-The huge amount of movement that happens in one single view at one time is incredible (this one came partly also from a recent training of my periphery vision. That in itself is another example of positive side-effects of projects as I was improving my periphery vision for speed reading rather than for increasing awareness in general)

-Fog has a very distinct smell

-I’ve realised how difficult it is to remain completely in focus of multiple actions. Try taking in everything in front of you in extreme detail whilst also trying to focus on a piece of music.

-Even if I haven’t lucid dreamed, my normal dreams are coming back (the disappearance of my dreams is worth talking about, but not today – it’s a weird story)

-I never noticed before how certain objects illuminate under streetlights at night.

-I see now just how much most people sleep-walk through life, when I see their faces in the street.

-I’ve noticed buildings and monuments I hadn’t acknowledged before.

-I’m more aware of how I feel, and as a result i’m less confused. This gives me confidence in myself.

-I feel like I need to be more productive each day. Being aware of your own wakefulness accentuates the knowledge that you are alive. We’re not alive for very long, and knowing you’re awake is a pretty good reminder that you’re still alive and need to make the most of that.

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Some of those points probably appear more poignant than others, but I think that the apparently smaller insignificant points are the more exciting. When you notice how the normal is incredible, you realise that there is so much more to reassess for it’s wonder, and that in turn highlights how exciting the as of yet unseen really is.

So I’ll ask you something again…

Are you awake?