Nothing Lasts.

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Small Open star cluster Pismis 24. Source: hubblesite.org

These happen to be the truest words that I know of. Terence Mckenna brought them to my attention when he mentioned them in one of his lectures (listen to the short version here ).

“You want to know a psychedelic truth, you know, thirty years of psychedelic voyaging, I can distill it for you,  this is not a psychedelic truth, this is truth.

Here it is – you can learn this from drugs, you can learn it from life, you can learn it from death, you can learn it anyway you like, but by god you will learn it.

Nothing lasts. Nothing lasts…not your enemies, not your friends, not your youth, not your dreams not your fears, not your hope, not even yourself. Nothing lasts.  

Now this has been said often, but has been felt rarely, Heraclitus  said “Panta Rhei ” – all flows. Nothing lasts… “

From this simple fact we can extrapolate into our lives and see which concepts gets destroyed and which stay intact. Since nothing lasts, it is completely ridiculous to feel anxious, because it implies that we’re in control. That by anticipating and worrying about the future, we might somehow keep things from going one direction or the other. But we’re really not in control. Whatever we have control over is so minuscule to the forces that nature demonstrates, that it becomes almost comical how futile our struggle for control is.

Letting go of control allows us to feel so relieved because we can finally just accept whatever reality is that we find ourselves in. We stop trying to fix it and just let it be. It is in those moments that we think “Fuck it, whatever, who really gives a shit”.

It doesn’t even have to be during some profound moment. It could come at any time. When we are having a particularly hard day, or when we’re failing at becoming who we aspire to be. When we find ourselves lost in the abyss of rejection, self-doubt and fear.

We might feel like we’re being submerged in murky waters, where confusion reigns and we don’t know which direction to take and how much energy to put into that final push for air. Maybe it’s better not to take that final push. We start considering the alternative as a realistic possibility.

It doesn’t have to be some life or death situation though. It could be simply giving up on an ideal that we have held ourselves to. It could be the acceptance of the end of a relationship or a side of us that we have clung onto for far too long.

Yes, nothing lasts. Ironically that will always be true. In that statement we see the paradox of living. What we call a living organism is just matter changing forms. There is no purpose to life. The purpose of an organism isn’t to survive and reproduce. That is a misunderstanding or a lie. Living organisms aren’t choosing to live. They just do. They don’t have a purpose. We humans form our ideas about having a purpose after the fact that we become alive.

It’s like we are trying to rationalize living. We don’t need to justify our existence, or the lack of it. It’s like asking a cat to justify its use of time. It presumably doesn’t care what the purpose of its life is, it just lives.

That’s what humans struggle to come to grips with the most. The acceptance of simply being an animal. Of just being this weak, two legged, weird, awkward creature. Our fellow earthlings seem to inherently accept this, while it is lost on us. We have work on  developing the acceptance of our inevitable end. They don’t appear to give it much thought. This makes us jealous. If only we could accept the present moment in its fullest, then we would actually be living. Instead we’re just thinking about living.

What happens when proverbial shit finally hits the fan? World War III, the zombie apocalypse, or more likely, us just fucking the planet through global warming. Well, that won’t last either.

Fuck it, let it happen. Let everything that can go wrong, actually go wrong. At least that way we realize the futility of worrying about it all going wrong.

Chances are though, it won’t be that bad. But on a more individual level, shit can go completely wrong in our simple, small, little lives. You lose that dream job, that lover, that wife. You may lose all your money, family and friends.

But you know why it’ll be fine? Because you already knew that was going to happen at some point. Nothing lasts…remember? Since nothing lasts, then nothing bad will always be bad. Death is not that bad when you’re the one that’s dead. That broken heart will heal and you’ll move on. That feeling of emptiness when missing someone is also going to be dragged away from you, one small painful increment at a time, until there is nothing. And that will last.

Nothing lasts.

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Being Yourself.

Stellar Sparklers That Last                    Source: http://www.nasa.gov

We don’t want to be naked. We all appear to walk around with both physical and psychological clothes on. We’re afraid of what others might think of us. Even when we externally portray ourselves as people without the need of others approval. Yet, here we are, manipulating our pictures, micromanaging our relationships, editing our status updates.

We’re social creatures and we don’t want to be rejected. We need social acceptance. We urge to feel like we’re giving value. Everyone wants to contribute to a world that is so hugely complicated that it overwhelms us. It’s not good enough to simply live. We need to live lives that are exciting. We find the need to capture every moment on camera in order for us to remember that moment existed. We crave the likes that we get on social media. People will act as though this isn’t true, that they are different, that they don’t require social validation. They deny that they are human beings. They deny their nature.

Everyone needs some sort of reaction. Everyone needs  their existence to be acknowledged. This is why being lonely is so difficult. This is why being in solitary confinement is considered a form of torture.

We are all scared of losing those that we love when we truly express ourselves. We don’t buy the idea that they give us unconditional love. It would seem that everything is conditional. The condition is that we act in the way that we’re expected to act. To follow the rules set forth by those that came before us. When we break those rules, it is seen as treason. Why do we get to break those rules? Why do we get to be the ones that run free and wild. It is as though everyone really wishes they could do it themselves, but don’t have the courage to say and do what they please. They are too addicted to comfort. Addicted to the world that they live in. It is no way to be alive if your life is not a spectrum of expression.

You should aim to just be whatever you want to be. To cut away your name, religion, identity and any other abstraction that limits you through your cultural conditioning. Say fuck you to cultural conditioning. You don’t have to do what they say you have to do. Quit your job. Stop smoking. Change and adapt. Swear. Run. Fuck. Fall in love.  Become whoever you need to become.

You’re not a bad person for not always doing the right thing. As a matter of fact, no one really knows what the ‘right’ thing is. But they will tell you they do. They will lecture, and talk and talk. Don’t listen. You don’t have to take it from them. Find out for yourself. Make the mistakes. They are yours to make.

We’re living in a dream. A dream that goes on and on. Never ending, always changing. That’s why being you is important. You is all that is. You can’t be anything else but yourself. You can’t act and be someone else forever. Might as well say all the things you feel like saying, walk around naked and see yourself as you truly are. This beaming ape like thing, walking on two legs. This collection of atoms and molecules, and stardust. Whatever scale you want to view yourself from. Whatever angle you look, it’s all you. Wonderful you.

The influence of Icons.

President Obama Meets With Crew of Apollo 11 Source: http://www.nasa.gov

We see them on all our screens. TV, laptop, tablet and phone. These are people who we as a collective, have decided are worth our continued attention. The nature of an icon is very interesting because it spans nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, location and time period. Big names like Gandhi, Hitler, Kim Kardashian or Bill Gates are instantly recognisable. How much we actually know about them, what role they play and if they are ethical or not is in some sense irrelevant. Certain people for one reason or another have become a meme of their own. The culture that we live in has generated and is spreading a certain version of these people. A version that they themselves can’t control. It’s difficult to say exactly why this happens and what the effect it has on the world (and us as individuals), but the fact that a child birth can have worldwide media attention is peculiar to say the least. I am of course talking about Prince George or the ‘Royal Baby’. Kate Middleton and Prince William’s son. If we just think through the facts of that event, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the media world is completely insane. A woman gave birth. Actually, that is even more interesting than what really happened. Let me go into further detail. A white, healthy, wealthy woman, part of the British royal family continued the 1000 year long lineage by giving birth to yet another person. What happened is exactly what we expected to happen. Yet, somehow the worlds media decided it was important enough to cover the hospitalisation of a pregnant woman for at least 24 hours, and then subsequently comment about how the baby indeed looks like a baby.

This icon obsession that we have does not always have to be an international affair. We all have many personal, but less known icons. There are certain people we admire and respect but have never met. We could be following their work for years, and have them impact our lives immensely, yet we don’t really know who they are. It is a common occurrence when you meet someone you admire and realise that they aren’t so different from you. They are, after all, human. This realisation also occurs when you grow up and start to see your family members as people. As individuals with their own flaws, hopes and dreams. Many of us can recollect times when we finished school and saw a teacher in the ‘real world’. Then it suddenly hits you, they are normal people and not just authority figures. They want to get drunk, do drugs and have sex just like everyone else.

It appears that we create memes of people who we have decided act as an authority figure on any given subject. Once we decide to place a person on an authoritarian pedestal, we instantly simplify that person. We remove ambiguities with their views and personality, then finally create a meme that is more easily spread around and digested. I think that the spread of iconic memes is probably related to our evolutionary history. The creation and adherence to the word of the icon is probably one of the many reasons that allow our species to be successful. The fact that we pay attention to people whom other people consider intelligent or wise will in general help us both individually and as a collective. Taking what Mahatma Ghandi says seriously is a very good idea, but of course following Hitler is not. I think this is the crux of the problem with the creation of any icon. They are relatively easy to make and spread, but can potentially be extremely dangerous and hard to remove. They enter our collective consciousness, and depending on the effect of the meme, it can either expand or contract it.

Our minds are lazy and make us inherently susceptible to the creation of icons. This bias that we have is being constantly challenged by both reality and the scientific method. The scientific method appears to be the only instrument of thought that we have created to dispel the illusion that the icon meme creates. It does this by creating an algorithm whereby the only memes that are accepted into the scientific library are the ones that can be objectively verified. Authority is meaningless when it comes to scientific ideas. Now the algorithm that the scientific thought implements is not perfect, and sometimes bad memes do enter. These memes can cause major disasters, and compromises the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. However, there are defence mechanisms in place that can combat these memes. To give an example of this, consider the idea called “spooky action at a distance”. This was a phrase coined by Einstein that referred to a prediction in quantum mechanics, implying information could be transferred faster than the speed of light.  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, nothing could travel faster than the speed of light. This is not a simple statement that Einstein had made. General relativity is extremely accurate and reflects most of what we understand about the large scale universe today. Einstein was of course a major contributor to the advance of physics, and his opinion about matters of physics were taken very seriously. However, this is completely irrelevant when it comes to science. What counts is evidence, and even if one of the most brilliant scientist that have ever lived thinks that an idea is wrong, his opinion has no bearing on what is accepted as fact in the scientific community. In the end, quantum mechanics was shown to be extremely accurate in its own predictions, and Spooky action at a distance or “quantum entanglement”, appears to be how reality (at least on the small scale) works.

The question is then, how can we as individuals protect ourselves from the illusions that icons create. How can we truly be independent from the influence of negative icons? I think the answer lies somewhere in the way science deals with them. We need to create mental auto-correcting meme detectors that can reject bad thoughts and let in good ones. To put it simply, we need to acquire better critical thinking skills. Whenever an icon is presented to us, we need to try our best to analyse their ideas simply based on their reflection of reality, and not the relation to the icon producing them. We also need to find ways to remove dangerous memes that have passed through our mental barriers. A good way to do that might be to re-asses on a regular basis whatever basic assumptions that are being made and see if these truly fit with reality. This way of thinking is not easy and since our brains are naturally lazy, it might not be intuitive for us to think like that.

The only thing we truly have is our own minds, and if we want to stay happy in this world, we need to protect them and make sure they are not easily manipulated or damaged.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/the-influence-of-icons

It’s hard being a Person.

What is it like being a Person? This question is difficult to tackle because it is by its very nature a subjective idea. Being a person seems to be a distinctly human quality. It encapsulates the experience of being ‘you’. As I am sitting here writing these thoughts in my head, I am very much aware of being aware. Of being myself. I think everyone has access to certain moments, when you realise that what you are, is more like a collage of experiences and ideas, rather than a single unified object. The understanding that you have of yourself appears to be related to your name, your credentials, your job, your family and so on. It is the history of your existence that has created the ego that you call ‘I’. But with some contemplation you can break down the ideas that you have about yourself and in some way bypass the ego. You already know that you’re playing a character. Your behavior is constantly changing depending on what situation you find yourself in. Your thoughts are always re-visiting old memories and projecting both positive and negative events into the future.

Most of the time, you are doing, saying and thinking a certain way to protect whatever identity you have created for yourself. You might see yourself as a confident and social person, or the introvert that doesn’t like people, or the activist, the scientist, the religious person and so on. When thinking about the different aspects of your personality, it might become somewhat obvious, that you are not really any of these things. Your identity is simply a mask that you constantly wear so that you don’t feel scared of the reality of the situation. And what is the reality of the situation? You have no idea who you are, what you are and what life is all about. However, you look around and everyone is acting completely normal. You think to yourself that they must know what is going on right? Well, they don’t. No one does. The more you learn, the more you come to understand how everyone is holding onto certain belief systems. They are creating a coherent story of themselves and the world around them. And like most stories, they are not actually true.

It is very difficult to escape from the familiarity of being a Person. Of being You. Meditation and certain drugs help in this respect, but in general, it is difficult to shake off the illusion that you have created for yourself. The pain that you have suffered in the past, your problems, your thoughts and dreams and whatever you use to define yourself. These things are all putting you at the center of your subjective universe. It is really all about you isn’t it? Even the anxiety and dread that you have for the death of loved ones can be traced back to what it would mean to you. How you will be alone, or how you will miss them and how your other family members will suffer. When we break the illusion of being a person, we can in some way appreciate the world in a deeper sort of level. Things become less personal. You stop seeking to avoid pain or obtain pleasure, and simply exist in a world that is endlessly fascinating.

Being a person is hard because it requires you to have an identity that needs to constantly be maintained. Every single event in your life is processed in such a way that relates to you. When someone for example says something mean to you, or when you are not being successful in whatever field you have chosen, that damages the coherent story that you have created for yourself. Suddenly, you start to question whether the identity you have created for yourself is valid. This requires you to either discard that identity or find evidence for its validity and hence risk causing even further damage.  It doesn’t help that the current media exploits the need for an identity and constantly tries to make you identify with whatever product or service they are selling.

Politicians want you to identify with their particular ideology in order for you to vote for them and keep the current socioeconomic system running. Some people go to the other extreme, where they only identify with conspiracy theories and decide that everyone else happen to be ‘Sheeple’ and don’t know the so-called ‘truth’. The problem is that whatever meme is generated and passed around, it can only represent a caricature of reality.

Things are almost never simple and straightforward, and a lot of what you believe to be correct is probably wrong. It takes a lot of mental energy to remove the mask of identity and see the world the way it actually is, because at that point, there are no filters that can block the vast amounts of conflicting information. Not only are you going to struggle to process all the information that is coming in, but you can get overwhelmed by the shear volume of information that you will never be able to processes in the first place. It is completely impossible for you to read and understand every single book ever published. Actually, even if you were able to read and understand every single book ever published, you would still be unable to fully understand the world, as the sum of human knowledge does not come close to describing the world in all its detail. With the tiny fraction of information that you have, you are expected to act decisively every single day. At the same time, since you presumably live in a democracy, you are pressured to vote on topics that you can’t possibly understand. The modern world is so complicated that your ape brain simply can’t keep up.

This is one of the many reasons that I think we all have an identity that we cling onto for dear life. It might even be a survival mechanism for us to simply stay sane in an insane world. But I do think there is a way to remove this filter created by our identity and still function in the world. We can try to do this by learning to accept uncertainty. We need to be humble enough to know that our understanding of the world is extremely limited and try to process as much information as we can without a biased point of view. If we can remove ourselves from the center of our own universes, we might be able to also remove the need for an identity in the first place, and observe the world the way it really is. We can maybe then, see a glimpse who we are, what we are and where we are going.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/its-hard-being-a-person

Meme Generators and Information Overload.

Super View of Glendale and Phoenix
Image Source: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/iss035e005438.jpg

Imagine this scene. A middle-aged man, sitting on his couch, next to him his similarly aged wife. Behind them you can see pictures of their little family. They have two kids, a boy and a girl. The picture is showing them at some birthday party, probably the girls’ birthday party. The wallpaper in the background is white, with a pattern showing little blue squares. Everything appears perfectly normal, other than the fact that you notice the couple are not really talking. The expression on their face is that of mild concentration. They do smile from time to time, and might be saying a few words to each other, but are both mainly staring away, towards a central location. They appear content in some way. You keep watching them and notice that they must have been sitting there for at least two hours. Whatever is capturing their attention must be very powerful.

No one can really sit still for that period of time without doing anything. I mean, unless they are in some deep meditation, otherwise it is pretty hard to sit still. People generally get bored and restless unless something is capturing their attention. Whatever this thing is, it must be pleasurable as well. Humans are constantly seeking pleasure and this couple appears to be receiving it. Could they be high on a drug?

The camera zoomed out and the scene has now expanded. The answer has become obvious. Yes, they are on a drug. A very specific kind of drug. They are being exposed to an electronic meme generator. A TV. Why do I call TV a drug? Well a drug is a physical substance that is able to modify your biochemistry. In this case, the TV is able to change your biochemistry trough rapidly changing patterns of light. Your brain is essentially being introduced to specific memes through your eyes. It is modulating your thoughts in real-time. Through this modulation, it can alter your view of reality.

As the camera zooms out further, the scene now covers an entire apartment block. You can see that in almost every flat, people are sitting and watching these meme generators. Of course they aren’t just TV’s. They are staring at laptop, phone and tablet screens. In essence, this means that all over this planet, people’s view of reality is being modulated by the memes that they are exposed to. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the relatively recent introduction of mass media has had a profound effect on how people view the world. As you are reading these very words, your view of reality is being changed.

This has to be taken seriously. The memetic lenses that you observe the world through does in some way define how you relate to yourself, other people and society at large. If you sit at home and watch an hour of E!, being exposed to how Kim Kardashian deals with her daily life, or getting updated on the most recent celebrity scandal, then those become the major memes that guide your life.

This aspect of modern living is in some ways hard to address because its impact is not immediately clear. It can be compared to smoking cigarettes. Having one or two cigarettes is really not going to do much damage to you, but over an extended period of time, it can become lethal. Although the exposure to memes can have a negative influence on your life, they can also be used to enhance it immensely. There is no debate that the advent of the Internet has advanced society in a way that was simply not possible in the past. I think of it as the great equaliser of memes, because it is able to give every meme a chance to propagate itself. The environment that the Internet has created for the free exchange of information, regardless of the content, is truly one of the hallmarks of our age. It has become a vital tool that can support and empower individuals to conquer ideas previously unchallenged. But of course, the darker side of this technology is found within its very nature. Because there is no discrimination on the quality and type of memes that are propagated, we can be exposed to negative and disempowering memes.

Because this technology is a new part of our culture, we have yet to evolve or invent new defense mechanisms to deal with the negative memes that it creates. These negative and low quality memes can range from cute puppies and kittens, to celebrity gossip, through to conspiracy theories, pseudo-science propaganda, including false and dangerous ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The negative memes (nemes for short) take advantage of our more primal and subconscious urges. They make use of our ‘lazy’ subconscious mind, as it tends to gravitate towards a simplistic view of the world and of complex issues. We urge for a quick answer, solution and preferably a picture instead of text. We even have shorthand notation for the fact that we just didn’t want to read a long piece of text (Too long, didn’t read – tl;dr). Our minds are naturally inclined to pay attention to negative information rather than positive information (for good evolutionary reasons) and this paints a picture of the world that is both dark and inaccurate.

Additionally, the nemes are very good at protecting themselves from being attacked and replaced by other memes. They appear to do this by latching onto a persons mind, and subsequently blocking the introduction of any facts that oppose the description of reality that the neme is producing. There are many examples of these nemes, but a particularly clear example is given by the anti-vaccine movement. Here we have a group of people who believe that vaccines are bad for a range of religious and pseudo-scientific reasons. Some believe that vaccines are OK, but that children are given too many, or that vaccines are not needed, because they do not see clear evidence that a certain disease will kill their child. Others mistrust the companies that produce the vaccines and think that the vaccines might cause other problems such as autism.

The problem here is not that these people have concerns about the drugs that their children might get, but rather they mistrust the facts that are presented to them. They seem to lack the defence mechanisms that cause other people to change their minds. The ability to think critically and evaluate scientific evidence is a very powerful tool that is used to filter out bad ideas, and these people seem to lack these tools. The anti-vaccine neme has exploited the weak mental defences that those people have and thus, it becomes very difficult to remove.

The problem that this neme has on the world is now significant. Recent outbreaks of almost extinct diseases have created a significant problem for the medical community. The problems caused by the propagation of nemes on the internet goes much further than this example, and includes the spread of radical ideas such as The ‘War on Drugs’, The ‘War on terror’ and extreme versions of religious and secular ideologies. The point to recognise here is that all these nemes have been both spread and countered by the availability of the internet, and the new media in general.

I think that it is important to protect ourselves from the nemes that are being spread around, and the first step in doing that is to actually admit that we are susceptible to their effects. It is very important that as you are reading this blog, you are able to take something of value from it. This means that you need to engage your conscious mind, and  assess what nemes might have infected you. What beliefs do you hold that are very dear to you? Is your particular religion, scientific understanding and general world view accurate? Is your position on issues regarding your physical and mental health clear?

I am asking you these questions directly because they will undoubtedly affect the way you see and behave in the world. If your view of the general population is self-interested, hedonistic and immoral, then that picture of the world might be created by one or many different nemes. How confident are you about issues surrounding what is right and wrong, or good or bad? Are drugs bad? Is sex bad? Is gay sex bad? Again, if these questions cause you to jump to a conclusion, then chances are that you need to assess your reasons very carefully. Start by assuming that you are wrong. Then go from there.

Finally, as you spend your day surfing the web, going on Facebook and reading the news, make sure that you are aware of the impact that these memes are having on you. Be very critical of what you let into your mind, and try to gather as many positive memes (pemes) as you can. This means that in the same way that you go to the gym to stay healthy and exercise, make sure that you listen, watch and read content that gives your mind some exercise. You don’t have to be a scientist to watch lectures on physics, biology and chemistry. You can watch videos on how the universe is created, how consciousness might work and what some of the most intelligent people alive have said about life in general. You only have this very moment to be alive, and whatever you decide to expose yourself to, make sure it is worth it. Because in the end, your mind is all you have, so make sure you protect it.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/memegeneratorsandinfooverload

Lost in Language.

Words. Words words words. Words. They lose their meaning when you say them many times. I mean, you don’t even have to say them out loud for them to lose their meaning. Try to say the word ‘meaning’ to yourself 20 times and see what happens. Seriously, try it.  It sort of sounds like ‘Me-ning’ right? Well, I think when you say ‘meaning’ many times, you are able to temporarily break the illusion of its conditioned meaning (ironically). When a word has lost its meaning, then what you actually hear is purely the sound of the word. You can simply observe how your mouth moves as you say it (if you’re saying it out loud), and for a moment you are not attached to the word.

If you are saying it to yourself then you observe the syntax of the word. Just the way the word is structured. You can see how arbitrary it is. If you can speak multiple languages you might have an edge on this, because you can switch between saying the same word in two different languages and recognize that they are both so arbitrary. They represent some other entity in different ways. This is made more clear when you first learn a word in a different language. Initially, it means nothing. It points to nothing. It’s just a sound. But then, slowly over time, after associating the word with different contexts and emotions, it starts to describe some entity in the world. More specifically, your world.

Terence Mckenna has talked about language a fair amount, and the inspiration for this post is partly based on one of his talks. Indeed the very title of this post is identical to a video that was released on Youtube. One particularly enlightening part of his speech is as follows:

A child, lying in a crib. And a humming bird comes into the room and the child is ecstatic, because this shimmering iridescence  of movement and sound and tension, it’s just wonderful. I mean it is an instantaneous miracle when placed against the background of the dull wallpaper of the nursery and so fourth. But then mother, or nanny or someone comes in and says “It’s a bird baby, it’s a bird, bird”. And this takes this linguistic piece of mosaic tile and places it over the miracle, and glues it down with the epoxy of syntactical momentum. And from now on, the miracle is confined within the meaning of the word. And by the time the child is four, or five or six.  No light shines through, they have tiled over every aspect of reality, with a linguistic association that blunts it, limits it, and confines it within cultural expectation. But this doesn’t mean that this world of signification is not outside, still existent, beyond the horizons, the foreshortened horizons of a culturally validated language.   

I think it is right here where the crux of the illusion lies. We humans have evolved the ability to talk in order to survive, but the side effect of this ability is a loss of our direct experience. We create stories and attach labels to things in order to make sense of the world. We create shortcuts and abbreviations so that we can communicate faster. But with faster communication we convey less information about the very thing we are describing. Think about this my anonymous reader; what would it be like if you were called something else. What if your name was only slightly different?. How would people have reacted to you, how would you have felt if it was much more common, or much more rare? What if your name was Spanish, or Arabic?

I think that analyzing our name from an objective point of view can give us a insight into how our minds work and the identity that we are holding onto. Think about it.  How much do you identify with your own name, your label. You know intellectually that you are not your name. You are not your degree, your interest or your family. You are not ‘that guy’ or ‘that girl’. When you are alone, you probably have an idea of how you present yourself in front of other people.  Of course, everyone presents themselves in front of others. But the way you present yourself is not who you really are. As Richard Alpert once said:

I wasn’t born as Richard Albert. I was just born as a human being. And then I learned this whole business of who I am, and whether I’m good or bad, or achieving or not. All that’s learned along the way.

When you find those moments of insight, when you ‘lose yourself’ in your work, or on that bus ride, or on that hiking trip, you’re not really being lost. You are actually shedding all the labels about who you think you are, and what other people have labelled you as. You are more ‘you’. This is a hard thing to do though. We are all chasing a career, or a skill or an identity. This is not always such a bad thing, but if we spend our lives worrying about the identity we want to uphold,  then we might not get the chance to simply be the person that we are. It is great that you’re always trying to become a better person, but when are you just enjoying the fact that you are already a good person?

The language we speak and the words that we have in our internal dictionaries will paint a world for us that will always be an approximation of what our direct experience actually is like. This point becomes obvious when you try to explain to a loved one how much you care for them. It is next to impossible. How can you really express the emotions that you have for someone when you only have access to words like love, passion, enjoyment, ecstasy,  euphoria and so on.  You might resort to other ways of expressing that love, using gifts, hugs, sex and the list goes on. The reason I think we express our emotions through material objects is because we are lost for words.

We want to give our loved ones something they can see and not simply hear. Yes, language can be a limiting factor in the way we see the world. As I am writing this, I can only partially express my emotions and my view of reality.  The enterprise of language reaches its limits when we want to show each other something that only one of us have experienced. This is why psychedelic trips are hard to describe, this is also why our feelings are hard to describe. We are not living inside each other’s heads and hence can never fully appreciate what is going on there.

There is however a way for us to understand better what the world is actually like, and what our friends and family think. By consciously trying to remove the labels that you have given objects in the world, you might be able to see those objects as they really are. You can appreciate the detail and continuous nature of reality, by silently and presently observing it. Go out. Find your nearest tree. And take a look at it. Take a good long look. Remove the label of ‘tree’ and ‘green’ and ‘brown’. See past the words, they are merely signposts, and start looking at what they are actually pointing at. In a similar way, try to not just hear what your friend, or loved one is saying. Try to actually listen to what they are saying. Focus on removing whatever interpretation you are automatically inclined to use and try to listen with a neutral point of view. Look at the way they their face is changing, the emphasis they put on each letter, word and sentence.

Yes, we are lost in language, but we don’t have to be. With focus and attention, we can break through and see reality the way it really is.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/lost-in-language

It’s about Time.

Field of Stars The Hubble Space Telescope captured a crowd of stars that looks rather like a stadium darkened before a show, lit only by the flashbulbs of the audience’s cameras. Yet the many stars of this object, known as Messier 107, are not a fleeting phenomenon, at least by human reckoning of time – these ancient stars have gleamed for many billions of years. Image Source: http://www.nasa.gov/

Well, isn’t it? Time is one of those concepts that I can’t get my head wrapped around. It appears that even in physics, time is one of those peculiar entities that we all take for granted, but as a concept it is almost intrinsically non-intuitive. To get an idea of how weird time really is, listening to a discussion on this very topic by some of the world’s smartest people is both fascinating and unsettling. Let us analyse the facts at hand and try to see if we can get any insight into what we really mean by time. Now, let’s start with something simple that we tend to use to represent time. A clock. A clock is any device that is able to keep track of moments that have passed in a systematic way. Well, at least that’s my definition of what a clock is. And I sincerely hope that you, my dear reader, will accept this definition.

So from my definition, we can come up with a thought experiment that will shed some light on the matter. Let’s assume that we never invented clocks. In this fantasy world, we can’t really measure time. All we really see are changes. A person living in this world is never late for anything, nor are they early. All they see is a world that is changing. They recognise certain cycles such as the sunrise and sunset. They notice seasons and the slow changing constellations. We may be tempted to imagine that a person living in such a world will use these changes as measures of time. As long as there is a consistent and repeatable change, then that can be used as a clock. But if we assume that those changes are simply recognized as changes and not used to keep track of the months, years, seasons etc, then something interesting happens. Life becomes single continuous moment.

If we all were to stop measuring and noting down all the moments that pass, then we might be able to break the illusion of time that we are spellbound by. I mean, think about it. We can take any moment, and break it down to seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries and millennia. In the world of science we measure things down to milliseconds (a thousandth of a second) or microsecond (a millionth of a second) and so on. We can also measure immensely large time scales, millions, billions and even trillions of years. The problem with all these measurements, or rather the implicit assumption, is that these represent what is actually real. But of course, a second doesn’t actually exist. I mean, a second is an SI unit defined as (found here):

“the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom”

This definition is used because it is a very accurate and consistent way of defining the unit. In the past it has been defined to be “1/86,400 of a mean solar day”. So we know that these measurements are arbitrary. In fact, any measurement is arbitrary. It is an abstraction of the way we perceive reality. Now, I am not saying it is not a useful abstraction, but it does not mean it is actually part of what is. So where are we now? Well, it’s in the sentence. It is always now. This concept is very well described in a lecture given by Sam Harris, and he is exactly right. The past does not exist; it is only a thought that appears in your mind. The future is an anticipation, also a thought that appears in your mind. The measurement of time is only arbitrary, and not absolute. It is an abstraction and only exists in our minds.

This understanding is very important to dwell upon. It is important because your view of what time is and how it relates to your life will shape the way you view the world. If life is only a continuous single moment, and time is something that we create for its usefulness, then we need to make sure that we recognize it for what it really is, and let it go when we are not using it. There is no use that you my lovely reader is obsessed about the past or the future, as they don’t exist. There is no use in worrying about growing old or staying young, because these things are simply changes in the world. You are a brief change in the world. You change with relation to other objects in the universe and get scared when the changes happen. But that fear is of course unfounded, because change is what you are in the first place. I hope you are not taking these words as my way of colouring reality, but rather as conclusions that come from what we understand (and more importantly, what you understand) about the world.

The understanding that time is not a concrete concept based on reality can be inferred from Einstein’s general relativity. Now, as a disclaimer, I have to say that I am not a physicist and don’t pretend to understand the theory fully. But certain facts have been confirmed and fairly easily understood for those who care to think about them. According to general relativity, the apparent measurement of time changes depending on the frame of reference of the observer. This idea can get pretty involved, but the gist is that when the frame of reference of one observer is different than another, time appears different for both observers and both times are valid. If I was looking at my watch while sitting in a car driving at 30mph, my clock would go slightly slower than an observer who is standing on the side of the road. In fact, if I were going close to the speed of light, my clock will have almost stopped completely, while the other observers clock will go super fast (relative to each other). In fact, he will age much faster than me. This effect is not just noticeable at such large speeds, but even at relatively normal speeds. GPS satellites move fast enough that this effect is substantial, and needs to be taken into account when we use their data here on earth.

The point I am trying to make with the whole spiel about relativity, is that time is not a straightforward concept. And the key word to emphasize here is that it is a concept. In the same way that electrons and photons (light particles) are concepts. They are more like an analogy of the way reality is, than the way it actually is. Again, it does not mean that any of these concepts are unimportant or not accurate. They are very important and from what we have seen, extremely useful depictions of what reality is. But just like any analogy, they break down.

As you’re mulling over these thoughts, try to think about all the ways in which you thought the world was one way, and found out that you were wrong. Like when you were young and found out how children are born. Or what sex is, or how Santa Claus is not real. All the things you were told were not really true. They were useful and formed a coherent story about the world. They were illusions that were cast upon you until you came to realise that they were not real. The same understanding and illusion breaking can be carried out further. Some people choose to stop at religion and others at science. It is of course up to you my patient reader, where you feel like stopping. It is not always pleasant to find out that Santa Claus is not real, but if you choose to break the spell, then other vistas of beauty can unfold. You can ask questions that you simply did not consider or took for granted previously. If time is not real and life is a moment then what does this mean to you? I can’t really answer that for you, but at least to me, it means that I can look at the world in a way that makes it all the more fun and interesting. If time is not real then I don’t need to stress about what has happened or will happen. I can just be, and so can you.

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You can listen to/download the post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/its-about-time-1

This is You.

Whenever I discuss the peculiar nature of being alive, I tend to feel like I am going a bit ‘deeper’ than what the party on the other end expected. I am not sure whether you have had this same feeling my dear reader, but don’t you ever have this sort of epiphany while riding the bus, or driving, while passively watching TV or even while having a conversation with a good friend, when it dawns on you how utterly strange and ridiculous reality is?  OK, let me try to clarify myself. First, let us take a look at the situation that we both inevitably find ourselves in.

Lets start with what you must be doing right now; you are this ape-like thing, looking at a screen with light patterns shining into your eyes. You have somehow learned to read English, and through some sort of mechanism in your brain, you are able to automatically put all these symbols into a coherent message and understand it, as if I was speaking to you. There is this voice, in your head that is telling ‘You’ what thoughts I had in my brain, many hours, days or even years after I had them myself. I mean, this might as well be called “post-telepathic communication”. Of course, you have no idea how you are actually reading these words. Can you somehow turn off your brain, in such a way as to stop reading the next word I am going to say? No. It appears that you can’t really help yourself. Your mind, is somehow just operating without any direct control.

OK, so why does this matter so much? I mean, it’s obvious that your brain (or maybe just You?) happen to do lots of things automatically. I mean, you fall asleep without knowing, you get hungry, thirsty and feel things without really having any direct control. You should be aware that most of what you do, is pretty much outside of your control. So what? Well, let’s dig a little deeper…

Now, let me see if I can point out something else about your direct experience that might give you some pause. Well, as a matter of fact, we know that every color you see is an illusion. This isn’t some fancy, overly intellectual observation that I am trying to make, but is a pretty straightforward observation that you can check. We know (and by we, I mean the scientific community…) that colors are simply an interpretation of different electromagnetic wavelengths that happen to enter into your eyes. In simpler terms, when you look at your hands right now, what you are actually seeing are light rays being reflected from your hand, to your eyes. The changes in these light rays (some being absorbed, some diffracted and others reflected) define what colors you actually see. Additionally, since you only have three different photoreceptor cells in your retina (detecting red, green and blue), you only see what is within what is called the ‘Visible’ part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is of course only a tiny part of the whole thing. A way to understand this, is to imagine an animal that can’t see all the colors that we can.

A dog for example cannot distinguish between green, yellow or red objects based on their color. This is because they only have two color sensitive cells in their retina (yellow and blue), and hence their ‘Visible’ part of the electromagnetic spectrum is even smaller than ours. Great, we now know that humans only see a small part of what there is to ‘See’ and dogs see even less of that. We can even imagine a human-like alien on some other planet that is able to see through walls, because it can detect electromagnetic waves that can penetrate through such solid objects. If that alien can see say, 80% of the electromagnetic spectrum, then we are effectively blind compared to that alien. I mean, we see less than one millionth of a percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, hence the alien would be seeing the world billions of times more accurately than how we see it. If the alien tried to explain to us how the world actually looks like, it would be like trying to explain to a blind person what the Milky Way looks like. Now that you are (hopefully) mulling over these ideas, let me see if I can explain to you why even the alien is not seeing the world in a way that is nearly accurate. Even if the alien could see 100% of the electromagnetic spectrum, every color that it sees, will still be an illusion.

This is because colors are only a particular way that our brains have evolved to interpret the stimuli that is given by the environment. In other words, there is nothing inherently ‘red’ about a particular wavelength of light. What you see as the color red is simply a way that your brain reacts to the signal given by the photoreceptor cells in your retina. It could have just as well evolved a certain feeling associated with that impulse. In that case, humans might feel colors instead of see them. This thought experiment can be extended to sounds as well. Sounds are also waves that stimulate the brain to ‘hear’ things. In this case, the wavelength of sound changes the way your ear drum behaves, which appears to us as a certain note. The brain could have evolved to ‘see’ sounds and hence, the world would look completely different. When you really think about it, it appears that there are an endless number of ways to detect and process stimuli and each way is just as valid as the others. It appears that we, as medium sized apes, are able to generate an illusion of the world, through a model of it in our consciousness. Everything you see, hear, smell, touch is a model of whatever stimulation you are getting from the environment. Reality as you see it is closer to a dream than what is actually out there. 

The point I am trying to make here my wonderful curious reader, is that not only are you unable to see the world the way it is, you cant really fathom how it actually is (and neither can I…). What we are looking at, what You are, is some kind of information processing machine that creates models of some external thing. To get what I am saying, just stop reading and take a moment to look around your room. Now do it again, and this time try to be aware of everything around you as only being mere models of things, similar to what you would see in a video game. If you are still finding it hard to understand what I am saying, then imagine a red apple rotating in the middle of the screen. You know that the apple does not actually exist. You know that you are generating the color, shape and movement of that apple in your mind. Well, that apple is just as ‘real’ as the actual screen you are looking at. The only difference is that the stimulation that generated that apple did not come from something external to you, but rather something internal.

So, where are we now? Unless I lost you (from boredom, or some other reason unknown to me…), it would seem that the world as we see it is a model, created by our brains, that could be called an illusion. Why an illusion? Well, because it does not represent whatever we call reality in any significant way. As the information processing being that you are, you are undoubtedly wondering what you can possible do with this realization? So what if we can’t see reality for what it actually is? Who cares if we are just information processing, ape-like beings flying through an illusion we call the cosmos? Well, I don’t know, I am just some guy writing my thoughts on the Internet. But since you’re still reading, I think I can give you some sort of reward for going down this far down the rabbit hole.

Well, these thought matter because it affects every aspect of your life. If you are able to truly realize the nature of what it is like to Be you, then you will also be able to look at the world in a completely different way. Suddenly, colors become interesting again. How weird they are when you observe them carefully. Looking at a tree now becomes like looking at a different object. I mean, the tree isn’t really green, and brown and tall. That is simply an image that you have created in your mind. When you really pay attention to the tree, really look at it, it does indeed appear to be full of character. You start to realize how strange it is that you so easily recognize messages within text, or words when a family member moves their mouth. When you sit and have a chat with a friend, you start to notice how they actually look, and what they are actually saying, instead of what you assume they are saying.  When you really start to pay attention to your mind and your surroundings, to the very moment you are alive, then you get a glimpse how the world actually is, there and then, not what it was like in the past or how you anticipate it to be in the future. You might actually just get to Be in the Now.

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You can listen to/download audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/this-is-you