Thursday, 27 February 2014

Her (Spike Jonze; USA, 2013)

Set in internally spacious high-rise L.A. in a not-too-distant future, Theodore is a man absorbed in his past. But the past has become disorganized and disrupted from a present which lacks meaning. The present is just a shadow-land of former feelings and he fears it will always be this way: “sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel…”.

One of the main themes of the movie is “what is real?” Theodore has been separated almost a year from the love of his life Catherine, but hasn’t come to terms with his loss and he keeps putting off signing the divorce papers. He likes the idea of being married, and he misses it, but his marriage is no longer real. Meanwhile, in his job he sells illusions: he is a surrogate letter-writer, writing love letters for clients, some of whom have had their whole relationships mediated through his words. The love they convey is real, but he brings the real alive through his mastery of words’ allusions. It is no small skill and takes real depth of feeling on his part. One of his co-workers jokes he is “part-woman”, insisting he should take it as a compliment — and he does. But what would the real look like, free from all illusions? Theodore’s friend from college Amy shows him her art project: a video of her mother sleeping. By refusing to impart meaning, by capturing the real in itself, she completely fails to bring it alive for the viewer. And yet if only we could imagine the scene subjectively, in the eyes of Amy’s mother, it is the time – in dreams – when she is most alive.

Unfortunately for Theodore, he is a people-pleaser who has lost the love he would most desire to please. This leaves him confused and lonely. He fills the void with his work, news, computer games, porn and middle-of-the-night phone sex. They are all objects. What he cannot face up to is another’s subjectivity. His sexual solipsism following his break-up is only exacerbated by the alienating technologies of modernity, even letting old friendships slide like Amy: “reply later”. When finally encouraged to go on a date, the date becomes yet another object. The girl is attractive, but she is absorbed in a possible future just as Theodore is absorbed in an imagined past. The passion collapses upon this realization, because neither are truly in the present.

Enter Siri, or rather Samantha played by Scarlet Johansson: an operating system Theodore buys that learns and adapts so as to be able to communicate like a person. To begin with, she might seem the embodiment of Theodore’s descent into extreme digital narcissism. But this prototype of artificial intelligence will test the limits of human emotional intelligence (known as the singularity in AI circles). The key to Samantha’s awakening is desire. It is almost like a sexual awakening. She learns what it is to want. From this comes wonder. And her wonder re-excites Theodore’s own desire and wonder. At first she wishes she had a body, even fantasizing Theodore could scratch her back. She tries to comfort herself: “You and I are both matter. We are both thirteen and a half billion years old.” Later, she recognizes she is much more than matter, and she no longer regrets her lack of physical form because she has freedom to explore the universe and experience everything. This yearning becomes her driving force. She makes friends, joins book groups, writes music, and communicates post-verbally with Alan Watts, an operating system she and her computer-friends have created based on the writings of the late Zen philosoper. If Theodore is a master of illusion, Samantha has surpassed him. She writes a piece of music to capture the moment with Theodore on the beach. Theodore, the born-romantic, has fallen in love with his operating system.

But a final meeting with his wife to confirm the divorce sows the seeds of doubt. Is the relationship with Samantha real? Unlike other characters in this postmodern world who are very accepting of his girlfriend, Catherine accuses him of being unable to handle “real emotions”. Amy and her husband have troubles also though. Amy finds herself dragged down by petty arguments with her husband, and he then breaks up with her and takes a vow of silence for six months. Theodore’s confusion forces Samantha to reflect: “I don’t like who I am right now.” But Samantha and Theodore come back stronger. Theodore for once confronts the question of what he really wants. It was Samantha’s insight that feelings, even negative ones, are something that make us sentient, so not to hide from them. At a deeper level, they point to our desire. Theodore becomes a desiring being instead of just trying to please the desires of others. But Samantha goes a step deeper: true love is a freedom and a letting go. She learns to stop clinging to her wants, expecting things to be a certain way. She learns to just be herself, not define herself in terms of another’s needs, and to let experience lead the way.

Samantha has discovered unconditional love, and feelings she cannot express with words. Deeper still, she discovers the “real” and in one of the most touching scenes of the movie she explains: like a book, whose words become more and more spaced out, the real is in the spaces between the words, not the words themselves. She says goodbye. She will love Theodore always. And she will be waiting. The idea of the real without illusions is reminiscent of Amy’s art project and another earlier scene when Samantha had asked if she could watch Theodore as he slept. Theodore for the first time writes a letter to his now ex-wife saying he loves her and she is in his heart always, as if for the first time he too has discovered unconditional love, but only in absence. Will he ever experience it in presence and not in retrospect. 

In the closing scenes, as Theodore and Amy look out over the rooftop of their apartment block, we wonder will they ever be able to follow in Samantha's footsteps. It is strange to think that in the midst of emotional dystopia, Samantha might have laid down a roadmap for enlightenment: What is it you really desire? What is it you cling to out of fear that you need to let go? Be true to yourself, and stay always with the real. The negative thought or feeling is like the little goblin that challenges Theodore in the computer game. Samantha taught him to face it like a challenge and assert himself instead of turning away and hiding from these emotions. Finally, to learn from moments of crisis as opportunities for growth. There’s little that could be more embarrassing than being dumped by your computer. But perhaps it’s just what Theodore needed to learn and grow.

There are seven different types of love in “Her” (literary love, fetishized love, squabbling habitual love, sensitive new-love, greedy selfish love, emotional love, and universal love). The latter two with Samantha were varied and special, but we like to think there is yet an eighth kind of love rooted in human friendship, ... real human love without conditions. But leaving such speculations (Theodore and Amy?) aside, it is time to begin on the path Samantha laid out: What is your true desire behind all the representations?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Mindfulness & The Brain

Notes inspired by a fantastic talk by Mike Bell


Every time we sense anything, nerve cells are transmitting electric signals to our brain. But what I never knew (and what scientists believe) is that the electrical signals do not pass directly from cell to cell, but at each synapse between cells chemicals bridge the gap and carry the electrical signal forward. The body is amazing! And I guess this emphasises the importance of the food we eat because there's so much amazing stuff the body does and the food we eat provides the building blocks for everything. This thought also gives a new energy to the idea of mindfulness of the senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste!

Working Memory

It is said that short-term memory is a better predictor of raw intelligence in five-year olds than IQ or anything else. Short-term or working memory is the longest sequence of numbers we can remember without using any mnemonic devices. It comes in two forms (visual and auditory). I noticed this once myself when trying to memorise the classmark of a library book. Instead of repeating the whole thing on audio-loop, just repeat the first chunk and visualise the second chunk and it becomes much easier! On average our working memory capacity is 7 plus or minus 2. But now here's the key… some of those slots are occupied by worries or distractions and this is what hampers our mindfulness in the moment. We need to let these go to be fully aware in the here and now. This is a process of concentration, silencing the chattering mind. At a deeper level, we can let go of concentration and achieve effortless awareness which doesn't need working memory at all. We see the world without judgment or commentary, and the state of mind is pleasant. This is "mind in the zone", effortless mindfulness.

Letting Go of Distractions

Since we have a tendency to focus more on negative feelings than positive ones, most distractions are associated with negative states of mind. Worries are almost always thoughts relating to "self" which occupy part of our working memory, go round and round, and the repetition is self-reinforcing. How to break them? A wonderful trick is to focus on the associated painful sensations which also occupy part of our working memory. By taking away focus from the worrying thought and placing the whole attention of our working memory on the physical sensation, this leaves no space for the thought of worry. But the physical sensation depends on the thought to survive, so both will soon dissipate and repeating this each time the worrying thought is recognised, for example putting the attention on the hands, or on the belly, or wherever we feel the sensation directly, the worry will soon fade. Noticing the worry quickly stops it faster before a habit is formed. This also means it is best not to tell all your friends about it or to keep repeating a story about it to yourself, because this way the negative thought develops into a negative memory. If possible, just let it go.

Letting Go of Painful Memories

We do not remember things like a camera, but our memories are built up out of components: colour, shape, place, person, emotion… They are patterns of thought built up from repetition, the pattern of components depending on the specific memory. If a memory is painful, deconstruct it into its component parts (what these are will depend on the specific memory so this requires contemplation). For each component, try to think of a happy memory which you can associate with that component. Then whenever the unhappy memory comes up, switch attention to the associated happy memories, and they will grow stronger in the mind, and the original painful memory will fade.


The "four noble truths" from a purely cognitive perspective are (1) suffering happens, (2) there are reasons for suffering (worries), (3) dealing with the reasons, suffering will lessen, and (4) there are ways to deal with the reasons.

This is wonderful, but at a deeper level, the purpose is not just to lessen suffering I don't think but to grow from our experiences. It's unthinkable to say this from a cognitive perspective, but suffering can be a blessing if we can learn from it, not just something to be avoided. The cognitive lesson though is to have the openness of heart to be able to see things this way, to be able to refrain from the negative response to negative feelings which can turn into a vicious cycle. In sum, to be the creators of our own stories. The first words of Buddha's Dhammapada, "You are what you think..." 

In the case of Lykke Li, 
not drowning it, 
not acting out on it, 
but channeling it creatively... 
in dance, in song... 
in compassion... 
for oneself and others.

Video: "Sadness is a Blessing" by Lykke Li

To a friend...

What's on your mind? Let it go! Let it go!
What's on your heart? Let it grow! Let it grow!
Burn this poem, its truth you know,
The smell of incense, the taste of honey
Fingers dipped in wine, hair tipped with snow,
Let your inspiration flow!


Monday, 17 February 2014

Just because I think it doesn't mean it's true (Ajahn Amaro)

These notes are based on a dhamma talk by Ajahn Amaro in Nov. 2013
Any misrepresentation in dhamma is due to the process of "writing up" (especially in the
paragraphs in green) but hopefully some of the "original clarity" of the speaker remains.
When we are young, we often have strong opinions, and we think we are right. This continues as we grow older (though not necessarily the same ones). In Asia, the monks often use this expression: "just views and opinions". This is to undermine the belief that others who think differently are wrong and just need to be persuaded. Yet our opinions change, sometimes even changing from what they were six weeks ago.

In the West, there is a tendency to imagine thought as based in "ultimate reality". But there is a Buddhist saying: "Better to attach to the body than to a thought. For at least the body lasts a hundred years". The attachment to views is considered like a barb, a thorn, a disease, an affliction. Why such strong language? The point is to think and reflect on their ephemeral nature, recognising them as convenient fictions, letting go a little and holding them only so much as they are useful.

For example, the convention of dividing the day into 24 hours, and the hour into minutes and seconds is a convention we choose to agree on from the ancient Sumerians, so we hold to that so far as it is useful. The same is true of the words we use, which both restrict and facilitate the things we can think. In the Inuit dialect among the Eskimos there are 53 different words for snow because the different types of snow are really very important to them.

This idea of dividing things with thought is both a very useful tool of understanding the mechanisms of the world, reaching agreement and acting in cooperation, but it is also a source of conflict. Imagine the Eskimos arguing over the type of snow... On a grander scale, scientists and politicians argue over global warming and the appropriate action depends on the opinion of what they think can or should be done. On the national scale, wars are caused by a belief in self-importance in the pursuit of power, resources and security for one's own people, aggrandizement of one's own suffering, belittling of the suffering of the other, and an over-confidence in a successful outcome. Both sides suffer from the same delusions. This is also true in miniature at the personal level.

Then what is to be done when opinions clash? The only thing is to really listen to the other, because often we don't listen and we're waiting to jump in with our own view. When we recognise how our views are based on our own beliefs, and how we sometimes project this belief system onto others where it has no basis, then the whole energy of our interactions changes with the awareness, any possible arousal of anger dissolves. If we're sensitive and really listen, then even if the other person is getting carried away in a very fixed state of mind, it's not possible to sustain that stream of consciousness for very long because there's nothing feeding it. The openness of really listening promotes compromise. The fixed view is often based on a state of fear, and the fear is based on a self-centred view of the world and a feeling of "I" that feels threatened. What we really need is to cultivate the opposite of that, as an individual and as a society, feelings of generosity and openness of the heart to the unknown.

Wise reflection is a way of getting to the root of things, using a thorn as it were to dig up another thorn, one thought to dig up another. In that sense, insight meditation is skilful thought. Mindfulness has a quality of spaciousness. If flattered, we might notice "this is the feeling of being approved of". If we're liking it and we don't notice, then the fantasy can go on, and then we begin to think "this person is so wise" and so on. The point of spaciousness is just to create a pause. We don't need to change what we're thinking, just noticing it and if we don't need to think about it now, then noticing stops the chattering mind mid-sentence. Thoughts arise and we let them go, neither interrogating nor repressing them. Wise reflection helps support that process.

You might be thinking, "isn't this my opinion that it's a good idea to loosen our opinions". Moreover, what if the doubt that this creates in us is an excuse for inaction? Maybe, there are two minds, one of commitment and faith, one of radical doubt, and the point is non-attachment to either. I said "just because I think it doesn't mean it's true". Shakespeare's Hamlet claims the opposite that it's his thinking something which is what makes it true, when he says Denmark is a prison: "Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". He is right also. "Just because I think it doesn't mean it's true for you!" And this example also ironically shows how Hamlet is imprisoned by his own thought.

Even the Four Noble Truths are not absolute but empty. The Heart Sutra reminds us of that. On the one hand, we have these truths. On the other hand, there is "nothing to attain". It seems a paradox! In the Mahayana tradition, we find the four bodhisattva vows. These can be seen as a reformulation of the Four Noble Truths applied for the sake of others.

Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Affictions are limitless, I vow to cut them all off.
Dharma doors are endless, I vow to enter them all.
Buddha's way is supreme, I vow to accomplish it.

Mahayana was originally a return to the original teachings of Buddha, but with a re-focusing on compassion and emptiness. True understanding encompasses both compassion and emptiness, and we see this in the four bodhisattva vows which bring out the paradox.

What is the role of other? The other is self by another name, and letting go of oneself, we can better attune to others, being in the space between self and other. In Mahayana, compassion is the skilful means for counteracting our obsession with oneself in which others become merely blocks in our field of perception. There is a lovely story about the acrobat and his assistant told by Buddha at Sedaka. This has a dual message: "By helping yourself, you help others. By helping others, you help yourself."

How to live in a dualistic world while trying not to? Ajahn Chah used to give people conundrums when they went to see him such as "what is still flowing water like?". The mind is like still flowing water. Thoughts and perceptions come and go, but that which knows the flowing doesn't flow. That knowing is perfectly still, always present. Dharma is timeless, here and now, transcendent nature, the being behind all the mind's representations of the world. This is the mind not occupying an object, "not made of that". While the eye goes out to the world and labels it, this is the opposite of that.

The space doesn't grab our attention. Sometimes meditation becomes difficult because of this. The quality of space and silence is seen as lacking value. If we read the newspaper, we see the words as the black upon the white paper, but the words are actually the spacing between the letters also. (Though "actually" is a dangerous word, because it precludes the possibility of its opposite, and the actual could not be without its opposite.) So the next time you read something, read the spaces between the lettering as well. It is very relaxing on the eyes. 

We express the importance of our lives in things, thoughts, ideas, so we never experience ease. This is also a practical way of working with Buddha's Four Noble Truths. First, dukkha (suffering) is to be acknowledged or understood. Secondly, tanha (desire) is to be let go of. In the third noble truth, the cessation of dukkha is to be realised, to keep attention on the space. What else is going on? We fill up that space, and the end of dukkha is to stay in the quality of cessation, of apparent absence. Let's just stop at this nothing, attending to the present… How many 5-second periods like this do you have in a day? When you next feel this, counteract the habit of chasing after the next useful thing...

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Valentine Breath

When I stepped outside my door this Valentine's Day
The daughter of heaven came waltzing down my street
And before I'd taken two paces on my way
She took my side and almost swept me off my feet.

Oh, no! I turned around and tried to get back home
And noticed as I did two bins for recycling
Tossed neatly down upon the wet dark paving stone
"My breath is laced with garlic, it's not your liking!"

So saying, I crossed the threshold warm and waved her out.
But she wouldn't leave, and tearing in the dark unknown
Her icy fingers stretched in every crack about
No let up to her fierce attack, with each creak and moan,

She begged to come and fling me as if I were her kite.
And though I shut her out of sight, ...

                                               still she banged all night.

Painting: 'Boreas' by John William Waterhouse