Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reflection, Metacognition and Presence.

It’s been years since my last blog post. I abandoned this blog on purpose with the intention that I'd be back someday but so much time went by that I forgot I even had a blog. I was reminded by one of those Facebook “on this day” memory things that pop up when Facebook is desperate for more content. It would be pathetic if Facebook were a thing I could feel pity for. 

Anyway, my blog about Cosmic Rays popped up in my news feed…on this day from seven years ago! I read through it and some of my other old blog posts and I realized that I’m proud of the work I did here and I want to continue it. This blog was a tool in a mission of open-hearted curiosity about the universe. It was a spiritual journey for me, even if that sounds cheesy. That’s how I think about learning.

Ironically, my last post was about why I was leaving Facebook. I did leave Facebook, for a year. I started to list all the reasons why I returned but then I realized they are boring and we all know the pro’s and con’s of Facebook, there’s no reason to spell them out. At some point, it might be interesting to delve into the ways Facebook is manipulating our brain chemistry, but not today.

So that covers my departure and return to Facebook, but what about this blog?

Of course, there are the normal reasons why I gave up blogging: I got busy, I was working on my career/relationships/fitness, I didn’t want to get home from work and then spend more time in front of a computer, etc… All of that is real, sure. But additionally, one of the big reasons I abandoned this blog was because I felt some shame about the two rather emotional posts I made, What Friends Are and Why I Left Facebook, and Philosophical Crisis/Cry For Help. Both of these posts were published during this year-or-two long time in my life where I was just generally unhappy all the time. These emotional posts were a departure from the original intention of this blog, which was exploring topics I found interesting, learning about cool stuff, and Nerding Out! I didn’t want this blog to turn into some embarrassing live-journal where I over-share on the internet and let other people ogle my pain while I romanticize it. So, I stopped blogging and Facebooking for a while and got my shit together privately.

The risk of emotion-based publication is that emotions are mercurial. I’m willing to propose that there is nothing more impermanent than how we feel. We can’t even trust our memory about how we felt at the time because there is no distinct neural path for making memories and recalling them. Each time we recall a memory, we change it, re-color it based on how we feel during recollection, mix it with imagination and then we have an entirely new scenario that could have very little to do with what actually happened. Memories can’t be trusted. There is a really good RadioLab about this phenomenon, check it out here

 Since memories are such malleable things, it can be astonishing to go back and re-read what I wrote in the times when I’ve committed my feelings to text. I’m like, "woah, did I actually feel like that? Was everything so dramatic? I certainly don’t remember it being like that." But it was, and I know it was because I wrote it down…and published it! (facepalm).

This is why journaling is so powerful, it gives you a window into a past you; a you that you can’t even remember being.

When we learn something new or change into a person we like better, we like to believe that we’ve always known that thing or that we’ve always been like this. This mentality is called hindsight bias. It was well investigated in the 70’s when psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman performed an experiment where they asked subjects to judge the likelihood that certain events will take place. Some time later, after said events were done and over with, the subjects were asked to recall the probabilities they had assigned to those events from earlier. It was shown that subjects were extremely likely to over-estimate the probabilities they had given for the events that actually occurred. In short, our brains love to think we knew it all along.

When we look at ourselves, we’re like, “I’ve always had these political opinions. I never liked that thing that turned out to be awful. I was always as cool, confident and emotionally reasonable as I am now. Socially awkward? Dramatic and reactionary? ME?? Never.” But we’re wrong. We change and learn a lot in our lives and if we have a written record of our emotions, we can prove it to ourselves.

I’ve kept journals since before I could write. I have big heavy boxes of them in storage at my dad’s house. Some of my journals from elementary and middle school would be humiliating if they weren’t so hilarious. I sincerely wish I could post a page from one of my old journals, but alas, they are on the other side of the world. Suffice it to say, they weren’t too far from this:

Poor kid, can't you see code name S{qÙlt<3 isn't into you??

or this <--- This one is narrated by actors and it's very entertaining. My favorite is November 2nd. 

Yes, looking back on our most intimate and personal thoughts from when we were younger is very funny. Why? Because we can only vaguely relate to them now. It’s absurd that these kinds of silly things were so important to us at the time. There’s an entire performance called Mortified that is just people reading their embarrassing childhood diaries. Can you imagine how humiliated 4th grade you would be if you knew that someday your deepest, darkest secrets were going to be read aloud and laughed at by a room full of adult strangers? I’ve seen Mortified, and it is indeed funny-as-fuck. I recommend checking it out if there is a show near you.

But reflecting on how we used to think isn’t just funny, there is also a solid research base suggesting that when your previous understanding of a certain topic is engaged, you can more effectively assimilate new information, even if your previous understanding was wrong.

In “How People Learn, Bridging Research and Practice”, from the National Academics Press, an experiment is described where experts and novices in a certain topic are asked to think aloud when presented with a problem. A notable difference between experts and novices was that experts constantly take inventory of how new information compares with what the knowledge base they’ve already built. If new information conflicts with previously held beliefs, experts tend to address the conflict and engage themselves in an internal dialogue to figure out what they need to alter about their knowledge base in order to assimilate this new information. It’s not just that good learners have an excellent memory, it’s also that they are very good at finding places for new building blocks of information. When information is organized in a systematic and categorical way inside our brains, it's much easier to recall. Good learners know that in order to continue building their knowledge base, they must sometimes discard their foundations and get rid of preconceptions that no longer make sense when compared to new information. 

When I was in college, I worked for professor named Andrew Boudreaux. His field is physics education so his research was all about how to most effectively teach students physics. His experiment entailed getting students to commit to some line of reasoning in ink, then perform the experiment, and later compare their original way of thinking to what they’ve learned. Of course, this is where hindsight bias kicks in. Lots of students thought that they knew the right answer all along, even though they originally wrote down the wrong answer! But the ones who could identify a contrast between how they used to think and how they think now, as well as the event that triggered this change, were the most successful. Boudreaux thought the key to solidifying a concept in one’s mind was to use metacognition and reflection. In other words, observe yourself learning. Watch how your thinking changes. Those who notice themselves learning, end up learning the most.

What I get out of that: if you want to be an expert at life and learn the most along the way, spend time in honest reflection on the ways you’ve changed. I love doing this. Every now and then I’ll binge-read a few years worth of journals. It’s always a big project. It’s fun to look at your own life as though you are some kind of anthropologist, putting all the pieces together about who you are and where you’ve come from.

In between my last post and now I’ve gone through several different epochs of Valerie. And yeah…some of them were fairly dark and depressing. At one point in the last few years, I started a research campaign about depression with the intention of making a blog post about it, but I lost interest and gave up on it, of course. That’s the nature of depression. If you don’t know what depression is like, here is a comic that gives a pretty spot-on description.

I had depression for a while, but I don’t anymore. I feel generally content now and I have for a few years. Of course, I get sad sometimes, but it doesn’t feel empty and hopeless like it used to.  I also feel like I’ve grown out of depression and I doubt I’ll have it again (did I just jinx myself?).

Employing Andrew Boudreux’s method of identifying learning events that triggered these changes in me brings me to the next topic that I really wanted to write about today: presence. I got better at living in the moment and it helped me come out of my depression. Yes, it seems counter-intuitive to reflect on my past and realize that being in the present was what really brought about a big change in my emotional state, but that’s how it happened. So, I want to talk about what I’ve learned about presence. 

One way to practice being present is to meditate. My goal in meditation is to be completely alert, aware, and conscious of everything that’s happening inside my body and around me. If my mind starts to wander away, as it always does, I notice where it went and I anchor it back to the present by concentrating on my breath.

Many meditation practices focus on breath. If you listen to a guided meditation, chances are you will hear some soothing voice instruct you to experience the entire cycle of breath as it enters your nostrils, fills your lungs and your belly and then leaves again. Breath is an essential tool for keeping your mind in the here and now. 

I have this coworker who seems to be the calmest most non-reactionary person I’ve ever met. He used to be in the navy and he lived on a submarine with a crew of people. Could you imagine what that would be like? I can’t even share a hotel room with my sister without getting into some petty argument. The thought of being trapped on a submarine with a bunch of my coworkers for months at a time sounds like a nightmare. A person would have to have tremendous control over their mental and emotional state in order to live like that. One time at work, I heard him take a deep, slow breath. Since I’ve been meditating, I notice when people do that. I said to him, “Nice deep breath, I like that.” And he responded, “Yes, breath is my secret weapon.” And then I knew, he totally gets it!

Why breath, though? What is it about breath?

First of all, why do we need to breathe? 

Every cell in our bodies requires oxygen in order to convert sugars from food into energy. Here is the chemical equation for what happens in our bodies as we take in oxygen:

Oxygen + Glucose Energy + Carbon dioxide + water

6O2 + C6H12O6 36 ATP + 6CO2 + 6H2O

As you can see above, when we respirate, 6 oxygen molecules interact with glucose to form carbon dioxide (this is a waste product that we exhale), water (useful for all kinds of things in our body), and ATP (cellular energy).

When we are doing some strenuous cardio activity, our bodies start burning energy faster, so our rate of breathing naturally increases. As our breathing increases, the activity in our bodies starts going wild. Quick, shallow breaths are telling our cells, “it’s time! Make some energy now! We need it!”.  However, breath is one of the few bodily functions that we can control. It’s possible to slow down the production of cellular energy in your body by taking slower, deeper breaths. This calms the body and allows it to focus all cellular energy only on what it needs in this moment. In this way, breath can propel us through difficult physical postures that our mind desperately wants our body to come out of. Yoga makes use of this fact. Breath is intrinsically linked to the entire practice of yoga. 

The oxygen that we inhale comes from the process of photosynthesis which occurs in green plants and certain bacteria.  Remember that chemical equation from above? Plants have a complimentary equation:

Light + Carbon Dioxide + water Oxygen + Glucose

Light + 6CO2 + 6H2O  6O2 + C6H12O6

You can see that plants use the energy from light to break apart carbon dioxide and water in order to produce sugars for cellular energy and, luckily for us, oxygen as a waste product.

Since every particle of oxygen we take into our bodies was exhaled by another organism, breathing is a way to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city. Breathing is a reminder that we are completely dependent on other life forms.

When we breathe in, we are taking in matter from outside of our skin and making it part of us. In this way, breath is a reminder that there is no separateness. This is true from a physical perspective in multiple, verifiable ways. There is no separateness.

If we could observe our skin through a window about 10 nanometers wide, we would see swirls of interactions constantly taking place. We’d see particles that we think of as “ours” constantly swapping positions, blending, and intermingling with the air. It wouldn’t be possible to determine where our bodies end and where the “outside” world begins. It only stands to reason that there is no outside world.

We don’t even exist in one place at one time. Because of wave/particle duality, all the tiniest pieces of our bodies have an extended nature. As I look across the room I’m in, I know that in the reality of quantum physics, all the particles in my body exist in multiple places throughout this room. Therefore, I exist in multiple places throughout this room. I exist in multiple places throughout the whole world, in fact. I’ve left traces of myself in every place I’ve ever visited. It’s highly likely that my wave function overlaps with someone else’s…maybe with many other people’s. I find myself here on this couch because my conscious mind decides that this is the most probable place for me to be. This decision is an observation, which means my wave functions collapse into this location.

Sometimes when I’m on a crowded train or a plane, I like to imagine all the particles in my body swirling and intermingling with everyone and everything around me and my wave function vibrating into their wave functions, creating interference fringes. 

Here is a very good TED talk that describes what it’s like to be immersed in this feeling, please watch it. Seriously, it’s so moving. It’s the best TED talk I’ve ever seen.  

This feeling is nirvana, and it’s only accessible in the present moment. We can’t get there if our brains are dwelling on something that happened in the past or consumed with something that will happen in the future.

Being present is realizing that we are not our stories about ourselves. Our egos create story-based identities surrounding memories about our lives… but memories can’t be trusted, remember? Even if our memories were completely accurate they are based on tiny sets of limited data. We are talking about the infinitesimal sliver of information we were able to gather from the following information:

-What was directly in front of us during that cross-section of space and time.

-What occurred in the teeny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to humans, or in the small portion of pressure-wave frequencies that our ears can detect.

-Whatever our brain picked out of the situation and decided was important enough for us to notice, which is a tiny slice of everything that was happening right then and there.

-If it involved another person, then the variables about what was going on in their lives and minds go off the charts.

-And to put a bow on this big, sloppy jumble, we add another total uncertainty: the way we interpreted all this information. It’s important to remember that even if our memories remain unchanged, our interpretation of events changes as time goes on. For example, a young child might think “Mommy is making me eat vegetables when I want to eat candy! She is mean! She doesn’t love me!” and as adults we realize, “Mom made me eat vegetables because she loves me and she wanted me to be healthy.”

We aren’t our memories. This is all just a bunch of bullshit that our egos hang on to in order to make us feel separate. The ego thrives on barriers between the “self” and “everyone else”. Those barriers aren’t real.

All of this is especially important for the times in our lives when we use these stories to create an identity around being a victim. We all know people who are trapped in victim mentality. They are convinced that everyone is doing things to intentionally try to hurt them; that bad things happen to them all the time and that those bad things have made them who they are. They are always talking about their misfortunes or angry about the ways other people have wronged them. This sounds familiar to me, I’ve definitely been that person before. It’s hard to let go of. It takes work. It takes practice.

I’m nowhere near existing in the present moment all the time, my ego often finds ways to creep in and steal the present moment away from me. My ego loves to dwell on annoying conversations I’ve had with people and practice the witty responses I should have given. Why? That conversation is over. My ego also loves making up some pretend scenario of what the future will look like. Why? So I can be disappointed when it doesn’t look like that? There’s nothing logical about what the ego does. It's just useless chatter that contributes negativity to my life. It’s best to silence the ego entirely. How? Get back to the present: Breathe. Notice details around you. Listen to all the sounds occurring in your space. Feel your heart beat. Feel the air on your skin. Do whatever you need to do in order to be right here right now.

The other morning I was riding my bike through a forested park on my way to work and dwelling on something that annoys me. Once I realized what I was doing and snapped back into the present, I noticed that I was riding through a beautiful downpour of bright red leaves. Huge, deciduous tree trunks were swaying in the wind in every direction. The morning sun was streaming through the branches. The air was chilly and refreshing to breathe. My cheeks felt nice and cold in the wind. I started peddling harder and laughing.  I became completely enthralled. It was a perfect moment, it always is.

We don’t have to wait for some pretend afterlife in the clouds where everything is great all the time. It already is great. The present is perfect. This is nirvana. This is heaven. This is God.

I know this is true because a person can feel it when they encounter deep truths. A great teacher named Christopher Hareesh Wallace taught me that the truest things don’t feel learned, they feel remembered. 

I think, in general, all the best spiritual teachers are on to the same thing. They are all telling us to be completely here for life.  This is what the Buddha found when he sat in meditation under the bodhi tree. This is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke about forgiveness: you can only forgive someone by letting go of the past and being with them in the present. It’s also what Jesus was talking about when he told us to be like the lilies in the field: the lilies of the field don't have anxiety about the future, they live in the here and now. This is what practitioners of voodoo are feeling when they let the spirit ride them. This is the feeling we are striving for when we go to our yoga mats. The present moment is the path to the spirit.

I love thinking about this and I could write about it for a very long time, and I often do when I journal. There’s no need to go on for longer here. Other authors have done a great job exploring this topic. If you want more literature like this I recommend that you read Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hahn, Tara Brach, and please recommend more authors for me to read, if you’ve read good books about presence.

Thanks for reading.

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