Monday, January 29, 2007

My Meditation Routine

Upon my sister asking about it, I ended up codifying the meditation routine I've developed for myself over the past year. It follows the Theravedan tradition of vipassana. Here is it, in case you might find it helpful.


Your goal in basic meditation is to cultivate a relaxed separation
between you and your thoughts and feelings. You are not your
thoughts, you are not your feelings -- you just are. The way this is
done is to sit for a while, following your breath, and when thoughts
and feelings arise you don't try to stop them, but don't fixate on
them or judge them either and just gently return yourself to following
your breath.

This seems simple, but people's typical experience (myself included)
is that we discover, upon sitting with ourselves without a television
or an activity to distract us, a torrent of thoughts and feelings that
repeatedly sucks them in. It's really hard to just be with yourself.
But learning to do so gives you the ability over time to see yourself
and your situations more objectively and with less anxiety and
self-inflicted suffering, because you've learned how to watch your
thoughts and feelings arise and pass and are no longer dominated by
them. Okay, so that's the overview, if I had to make it into a list
of instructions I'd put it like this:

BASIC SHAMATHA or Peaceful Abiding meditation
1. Sit in an upright position, not leaning back on anything, in a semi-quiet place for a period of time.
2. Keep your eyes open, and look at a spot on the floor 5-6 feet ahead of you. Don't drill a hole in the floor with your eyes, just look generally in that area without focusing on any particular spot.
3. Breathe naturally. Don't try to slow your breath, just breathe and you'll notice it slowing down after you've sat a while anyway. Each time you breathe in notice it and say in your own head "in-breath". When you breathe out say to yourself "out-breath".
4. This gets really boring, so thoughts will come up as your mind tries to occupy itself. Every time a thought comes up notice it and label it in your mind as "thinking" and gently return your attention to your breath. After the period of time you've scheduled (5 minutes, 8 minutes, 20 minutes) bow and thank yourself for the work you've just done.

VIPASSANA or Insight meditation
This is the next level and the most useful type of meditation for everyday life, but you should get good at basic Shamatha first. The first 3 steps are the same, but.
4. When thoughts come up, instead of labeling them as thoughts and moving back to the breath, gently turn your attention to the thought. This does not mean let yourself get absorbed in the thought. Be like a scientist examining your own mind. Do not judge the thought as good or bad, just look at it. Note the moment it arose, and then watch to see how long it sticks around and how it varies in intensity, and when it passes. Note also if certain types of thoughts or feelings come up again and how frequently.
5. Often during step 4, insights will arise as a result of objectively observing your own thoughts. Hold onto these insights and develop them further after your session is done. Insights don't always arise, but when they do they're often incredibly helpful because they're coming at a time of meditation, when you're seeing yourself most clearly.

When you get really good at Vipassana during meditation, start to expand out to do this during everyday life. You gain the ability to take half a step back in any situation and see yourself and your world with more clear seeing, even as you're absorbed in the intensity of your thoughts and feelings in the present moment. I would recommend you don't skip the sitting mediation and try to jump straight to everyday Vipassana. You need to practice on the quiet, neutral area of the cushion before you try to apply to regular life, otherwise it's just too overwhelming to really make a difference.

One more thing to note: even after you start practicing Vipassana or insight meditation in real life, don't forget to sit on the cushion regularly as well. You need to keep practicing in a neutral environment to renew your practice, otherwise you'll tend to lapse back into old mental habits.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Conceptual Motifs of Larry Niven

Larry Niven has written many science fiction short stories and novels, filled with interesting ideas and fleshed-out worlds. Here are some underlying stuctural ideas I see coming up time and time again, particularly in his Protector and Ringworld series.

1. Multipurpose technology. We tend to think of tools in a specialized way -- build a tool for a purpose, and if we have another purpose, we build another tool. Items like computers and jackknives are compact collections of specialized tools. But in space travel, where storage space is limited and future purposes are unknown, tools will tend to be concepted in a multipurpose way, built to be adaptable, and human's perception of tools will tend to be more flexible as well. A flashlight becomes a cutting tool if the light is focused. A flying belt when attached to a man becomes a portable forklift when attached to heavy objects. The rocket exhausts of a spaceship doubles as a weapon. Niven invites us to rethink the way human tools will be built and used.

2. Alien Intelligence. In Niven's worlds, intelligent beings are not alike save for differing cultures and physical forms. Aliens, like Protectors, Kzinti, and Pearson's Puppeteers, process the world in completely different ways. Their perspectives and motivations are adaptive, logical, and yet utterly foreign. Niven's thought is that human intelligence isn't the only form intelligence can take -- intelligence itself is just another evolutionary adaptation, and many other configurations of thought and personal drives can lead to a successful species.

3. Human Survival Qualities. Niven asks the question of what would make Humanity a species that survives. The answer isn't merely intelligence, because that characteristic is just one of many tools, and other alien races can have intelligences that surpass our own. It is other qualities combined with intelligence that will make the human race survivable. Other authors have offered up human bravery and resilience as those other qualities, but Niven has a different take -- it is our Luck and Curiousity. The human race is bred for luck, having narrowly avoided extinction countless times during its history, and it will be dumb luck that keeps us alive in the far future -- luck to discover or find the right technology at the right time, luck to avoid extermination by other hostile species we encounter. The characteristic of curiousity comes from our origin as monkeys - we are bred to be curious, and yet cautious, about new things. We are afraid of the unknown, and yet we are drawn to it, and those conflicting drives propel us into the future. The Ringworld's protagonist, Louis Wu, is an summed portrayal of humanity's best survival qualities. He is over a century old, and continues to live because of his high intelligence, his dumb luck, and a cautious curiousity that leads him to continue to engage and challenge himself in his world, even while taking precautions. Niven suggests that without our monkey's curiousity, even the most intelligent beings would lapse into stagnation. And without a little bit of luck, even the most well-adapted species go extinct.

4. Increased intelligence reduces free will. While this concept only appears in relation to the Protector race, I find this one of the more interesting ideas. As one's intelligence approaches extremely high levels, one understands his situation better and better so the best decision to make becomes clearer. So in calculus terms, as intelligence approaches infinity, free will approaches zero. Beings of extremely high intelligence will tend to see their life as a chain of blindingly obvious decisions, because at each stage the optimal decision to make is so apparent that to act otherwise is just being stubborn and irrational. Niven's idea here is that human free will is dependent on the outcomes of our decisions being uncertain, and that highly increased intelligence leads to a reduction of each decision-making situation to this: choose the best rational outcome, or knowingly make a bad irrational decision. If this is the norm, where does real free will become relevant?