Alchemist Shop, Prague
Final part of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there around some themes from the End of Belief.The next day I showed up at M's shop with the same odd, unidentifiable feeling of the previous day. Had I any New-Age-Woo-Woo bones in my body, I'd be tempted to say that place had strange energy. Instead I wondered which scene from which Hollywood movie classic my brain was randomly processing through an already punch drunk limbic system. The only thing I was pretty sure of was that it was a scene that didn't end very well for the protagonist.
As soon as M saw me, she grabbed her bag, the shop keys and my arm in a single seamless motion that lead us wordlessly out the door. Her anxiousness was palpable and I already started to fear the worst - without having the faintest clue about what the worst would even be. The hard click of the shop's lock was still ringing in my head when she turned to me, gathered herself and solemnly spoke four of the most beautiful words in the English language: I need a beer. It took a superhuman effort not to kiss her on the spot.
M ordered řezané pivo, a popular mixture of light and dark beer. That also seemed to be the mix of moods in her expression, and for that matter, a good metaphor for the third Tetralemma position (both yes and no). I kept the metaphors to myself, though, and just ordered dark beer. Somehow that better fit my own mood. Well, no, not really - I just love dark beer.
She had had a fight that morning with her fiance, she said before half-emptying her glass in one sustained gulp. No details offered, and none asked. I just figured I had better not fall behind for whatever was coming next, so half-emptied mine as well. Does happiness always have to be this elusive? she finally huffed in the direction of the window.
Yes. Na zdraví. I said and clinked my glass to hers. You mean happiness is always something you have to work for... she said with a groan and roll of her eyes.No, not at all, I shook my head and finished my glass.
I started to explain myself, but had to first stop to savor the mixture of expressions that now danced across her face: intrigued; analyzing; radiant; playful; inviting. It was a kaleidoscope of so much that is wonderful about the human mind. When I finally recovered and opened my mouth again, though, she suddenly reached across the table to place two fingers over my lips. Her eyes locked onto mine, and I could feel and smell the beer on her fingers. My superhuman-effort-reserves were running critically low. Mercifully, M broke the tension by ordering us two more of the same before leaning back in her chair. Not taking her eyes off mine, she nodded that I could now explain what I meant. With some effort I recovered my train of thought but was sure I had left my wits far behind me. The pursuit of happiness as such is actually relatively new on the scene of human history, I finally began. It seems to be an invention of the Iron Age - or more precisely, the Axial Age. Interestingly, it's the same age that gave us all of our current religious, spiritual and scientific belief structures. All that mediating on mountain tops I suppose. After 0.5 liter of strong dark beer in two gulps I was on more of a roll than I needed to be. M, as far as I could tell, was impressively unfazed so I resolved to slow my ramblings down. Did she know that in every Indo-European language, the word for 'happiness' derives from the word for 'luck'? I asked. Your random universe again, she smiled. Hhmm... yes, interesting... in Czech it's actually exactly the same word: štěstí. So what are you saying? Everything is just lottery?
Huh... I like that metaphor! I beamed. Yeah... we all certainly play the lottery. You know... buy our tickets, choose our numbers as best we can, and then hope. And lose. Then play again. Maybe win a little now and then. And we just keep playing.
... Until we run out of time to play... she sighed and wordlessly paid the bill as our beers came. Ah... so she's now pressed for time after all, I thought. That's OK, this is her show, I nodded to myself.
My point is, I said - still wanting to get one last point in before the second round made my incoherence manifest - that we shouldn't focus on playing the lottery. We do the best we can in life. But in the end, chasing happiness is a fool's errand. Trying to help other's chase their happiness is a fool's errand. If we have any biological mandate, it's not for happiness. It's to create meaning in our lives. Happiness is just the damn carrot the brain holds out to us - it really wants meaning in the end. That's what the grey goo in our skulls is computationally designed for; nothing else. Same reason it makes us miserable at times. That's the stick it beats us with to make us go out and create meaning. I was rambling again and thought I had lost her when she started drinking her second beer as fast as the first. Suddenly she set her glass down and leaned in toward me.So tell me how I am supposed to know which meaning. She deadpanned. How I am supposed to know what it means that we met? Or do you want to say because there is no meaning from the universe, I can freely choose my own meaning? Or is that also just lottery?No, no I didn't mean it like that. I said and had to grin at just how convoluted my meaning actually was. But don't get me started on free-will, or we'll be drinking all night! I continued. It's just that I mean there is no forward-looking meaning to anything. Meaning is only given in hindsight... that's how we can change it over time. Beats the hell out of me how that helps, I shrugged, except in one respect. If we know that little fact, we can always have hope, no matter how awful life seems to be at the time...
My dear, you are physicist, not priest! And a half-drunk one! She half-laughed and half-sighed in exasperation as she got up to leave. Can't you just give me a damn quantum machine - so that I can have all meanings? That I can both marry and not marry tomorrow?
Tomorrow? I thought she had three days left to figure it out... I murmured to myself and followed her out.
That's what the fight this morning was about, she said softly as we walked outside into the street. He said either I am sure about marrying or I am not. If I am sure, then tomorrow is a good day to marry. So... so... I will marry. Tomorrow.
I didn't ask if she was really that sure. Life usually forces binary decisions from us, regardless. Or at least we believe that they're forced on us. For such exquisitely sophisticated and complex creatures, we are still driven by a remarkably simple flight or fight mechanism. We then tell ourselves heroic stories about making courageous right-or-left decisions.... really just to make ourselves feel good about the fact that we're obeying the brain architecture of a lizard. But what is a decision anyway? It's only a state of mind; just another part of the Cloud. A simple thought experiment shows this quite easily: imagine everything happening in the world just as it does now. People doing what they do. Now take away the label 'decision' from people's actions; let them simply act as they act. Is anything really missing other than the label?
The context of our thinking and feeling is everything. If our context is too narrow, we think we have no alternatives. But as Star Trek's Spock was fond of saying: there are always alternatives. And although he didn't say it, as a good Vulcan scientist I'm sure he knew: that is the power offered to us by a random universe - as long as we know how to pay attention to context. In that metaphorical sense of having endless possibilities, then, we all carry the quantum machines within us that M wished for. But I didn't tell her that; didn't share any of these convoluted points with her. In the state I was in I had lost track of them myself actually. Instead I just stood silently, and waited. Then I watched as she approached me, looked down and slowly took my hands into hers.
When her large azure eyes finally met mine they were shimmering in moisture. In that moment I caught a glimpse of the vast deep blue ocean in front of me, and realized I was only standing on the shoreline. She then leaned forward and carefully molded her lips to the left half of my mouth. And I wondered if this very moment might not be the best possible time to die. For some weird reason, though, I lived, and we parted without a word between us. As I watched her disappear into the Metro, I realized instead this was actually the best possible time to get gloriously drunk.
It's just as well I don't remember much between that moment and the next day when the late morning sun came crashing into my room. But Černé pivo - black beer - had clearly been my metaphorically appropriate companion. Several beer coasters from Fleků, Kocoura and a few other places were strewn between me and the crumpled bed covers. I rolled over to the night stand, clicked my phone to check the time and saw that I had a handful of emails, texts and two missed calls. When I tapped to have a look, the low battery warning showed. That's OK I thought; I was hardly up for squinting at a bright screen anyway. After wishing dearly for several minutes that I had not just moved my head, I finally fumbled for the charger, plugged the phone in and managed a half-crawl to the shower. That helped, but not as much as it needed to. A different black drink in large quantities was needed as soon as possible. The hotel breakfast bar was already closed but the kitchen took pity on me with a cup to go. I wandered across the street towards the river.
With several caffeinated pit stops along the way, I eventually made it all the way across the Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle. No idea how my legs managed to carry me that far in my state; apparently they just weren't in the mood for sitting still. For the second time that week I circled the castle grounds, looking in vain for the famous window where the Thirty Years War began in 1618. Wikipedia says it's at the castle; two locals I asked insisted it's across the river in the old town hall. I had planned on asking a tour guide there if I hadn't found it by then, but my mood at the moment wasn't really up for conversation. So I wandered the castle grounds again, wondering if being thrown from a window is really as bad as it sounds. Finally I gave up, leaned over the perimeter stone wall and took in the city and river view below. I don't know how long I stayed.
It was early evening when I made it back to my hotel. I had put off being back in my room for as long as possible, but by now was too exhausted to do anything but crash. For sheer distraction I picked my phone off the nightstand and checked for messages. A few emails and Whatsapps from scattered friends; calendar reminders from the previous day.
A missed call at 7:24 am that morning. From M. No voice message. A text at 7:25 am. From M. Please call me!
Another missed call at 7:52 am, followed by text at 7:54 am Sean please call me!!
It was now 6:15 pm. Her voice mail came on immediately. I had no clue what to say and hung up. I took a deep breath, called again, mumbled something incoherent and hung up. I texted her: Just got your message! Can't reach you, call me anytime, have phone with me! Calling two more times then holding my phone the whole night didn't change anything. The next morning I texted her as I was leaving from the main train station. Live well, be happy. I knew I wouldn't hear from her again.
Since my dreamy teenage years I had wanted to see Prague at least once in my life. The first city that understood Mozart must be a wise and magical place, I knew. Now, only a week after my first trip there, I was driving back there on the E50, my books, devices and guitar loaded in the back. I felt energized, curious, but also perplexed and humble. I felt strangely between the cracks of an old life and a new one. Then I remembered an old physics buddy of mine used to say that all the interesting stuff in life happens between the cracks. That was his shorthand for what Isaac Asimov once wrote in longer form: that real revolutions begin not with a Eureka-like cry of self-assurance and certainty - but with a perplexed, humble and curious murmur; with a strange feeling. I think they both meant that the end of our believing, the end of certainty, the moment it dawns on us that things are profoundly different than we thought, is when our real stories begin.
Estates Theater, Prague
Continuing Part I of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there on some themes in the End of Belief.
The Buddhists try hard to live by their Eightfold Path
, I reminded her. Living by the right
intentions, etc. as opposed to the wrong
ones is a huge deal in their doctrine. So when it comes down to it, Buddhists cling to binary choices as much as anyone else.
Well of course! She grinned. How else will they keep their Karma accounts in balance? She stiffened her back and primly ran her hands down the white tablecloth as if going down a bookkeeping ledger. When she got to the end she stopped for dramatic pause and leaned forward with playful sternness. I don't think you will make them very happy if you tell them the universe doesn't really care, she said.
Oh, I wouldn't worry about them, I smiled. They're quite happy with their fixed system of 'revealed truth'... not plagued with doubt like the two of us, I said and clinked my glass to hers. That seemed to strike more of a nerve in her than I intended. She looked down and swallowed, then looked up at me, as if searching. Anyway... I continued, hoping to gloss over the moment... it's not so much whether the universe cares or not. What's funny is they actually preach the Tetralemma; they just don't want to practice it. Which for them is a double paradox: if you believe everything is an illusion anyway, you pretty much have to admit the whole concept of binary right and wrong is an illusion too, don't you?
So, yes, well... she said, gathering herself. I agree that reality we see… I mean believe
we see… is just ah… ah… what’s the word… She was obviously looking for a different word than 'illusion', helped by an unexpected and delightfully goofy gesture of puckering her lips while trying to pull the word out of her mouth like a strand of toffee. While I half suppressed a chuckle, she sank her chin into her hand and huffed in frustration. Seemingly defeated, she then suddenly perked up and began outlining semi-circles in the air with her upheld palms.
… cloud? I guessed, prompted by the airy elegance of her motion.
Yes cloud. She said, not missing a beat. We think we see reality, but actually it is just Cloud. We have to see what is real behind
Cloud if we want truth. She paused and seemed to shrink an inch. Looking behind the Cloud is what I have
to do in next three days… she sighed and finished the rest of her coffee in a huge gulp. As she crossed her arms and huffed more frustration, I thought hard about what would help her.
M… what if there’s nothing behind the Cloud? I finally asked her emphatically. What if it’s all just
Then it's even worse! she laughed ironically. Escaping Cloud was my last hope... As she drooped her head and sank even further, I thought... Yup... I really knocked that one out of the park... We sat in silence for a moment, then worked our way through two more rounds of booze - sorry, I mean coffee - and I've somehow forgotten what else we said. Eventually she gave a somber, deliberate nod that told me she had to leave. And I felt I had failed her. Walking outside together, I assumed it would be the last I would ever see her. I took a long, calm breath and looked up at the night sky. In the dim light of the narrow cobblestone street I could see the Pleiades cluster. Bronze Age Europeans at these latitudes used them as a sign for planting seeds, I remembered from an earlier museum visit to the Nebra Sky Disk. At such poignant moments in life I do the present-moment thing very well... it's actually quite easy when you have no clue what's coming next... Before I could look down and wish her a happy life, she had leaped the gap between us and locked her arms around my neck. There was surprising strength in her slender arms and she seemed in no hurry to let go. After a while of standing motionless together - and me wondering what my response, if any, should be - it dawned on me she was making a statement. But no... as much as my old ego would liked to have imagined otherwise, it wasn't a romantic statement. At least not the conventional kind. She was simply welcoming me into her life. No matter what she would finally decide to do, no matter what path in life I would take, we were now joined by the higher designs of fate and so the universe was a good place - in spite of her momentary difficulties. When she asked if I would I come by the shop the same time tomorrow, I just nodded, feeling equal parts enlightened and
stupefied. After seeing her off to the Metro station, I wandered the rest of the night along the river, trying keep things in perspective. Well, as much perspective as possible after three Irish coffees. If there were ever a sublime illustration of the exquisite random whims of the universe, I knew, this day was it. Of course randomness is always an unpopular interpretation. We seek the warmth and glow and beauty of higher purpose everywhere in life, and feel that to admit randomness would be like stabbing the meaning of life in the heart with an ice pick. But I think that's only based on a profound misreading of what randomness really is. And a worse misreading of what 'meaning' is. 'Everything happens for a reason', we learn since childhood, and reinforce that view in one form or another throughout life by our spiritual, religious and or scientific beliefs. Hollywood movies do their part too, of course. And we assign meaning according to what reason we imagine is behind it all. M had been primed by her beliefs (in her case, astrology) to think of our chance meeting as pre-ordained fate - that's why it meant so much to her. A traditionally religious person would have seen it, like everything else that happens, as part of God's plan. Finally, a traditionally scientific person would have seen the mathematical laws of nature gracefully turning their wheels, as they must in a lawful and causal universe. Here, the laws of nature are the scientific meaning of existence. But in each case, we believe in our metaphysical heart of hearts that a greater, forward-looking plan - call it The Plan - must be in place, everywhere and at all times. After all, our brains evolved over the eons as prediction machines; our existence is tethered to the unshakable conviction that The Plan - and hence, true meaning - not only exists, but that we can at least partly decode it. How could we possibly believe otherwise?
Except that The Plan is a figment of our imagination; part of the Cloud that M mentioned. Quantum mechanics already teaches that, at the most fundamental level throughout the universe, randomness rules. And this randomness is not, as some people like to imagine, one of human ignorance, limitation or misunderstanding. This randomness is the very essence of existence. It's as if the universe is saying to us: 'You might like to think
I need a Plan for what I do, but, seriously, guys... I don't.' And we should be thankful for that. Only a truly random universe holds all possibilities - if we know how to pay attention.
And as if to close the last escape hatch for our dogged misconceptions; the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel and Gregory Chaitin show that even some mathematical statements are just true or false randomly. To bring that home with a small example: there are an infinite number of profound facts about the number 2 which are true for absolutely no reason. (Chaitin has put it quite pithily
"God not only plays dice in physics, but even in pure mathematics, in logic, in the world of pure reason.") Before you talk yourself into believing those are just bizarre, borderline situations that have nothing to do with 'the real world' you live in, it may help to remember that John Lennon knew better. I sometimes call it Lennon's Lemma: Life is what happens while you're making other plans.
But there is also a deeper point to understand. The Plan actually cannot
exist outside the Cloud of our imagination. To pretend otherwise is conceptually incoherent. To pretend that meaning
comes from anywhere but the same Cloud is just as incoherent. Things have the meanings we give them and no other. And we can change those meanings. That's not depressing, not frustrating, not an ice pick stab at life. On the contrary, that's actually where our true chances in life lie. Again, if we know how to pay attention. But that was for the next evening.To be continued
Charles Bridge, Prague
The city of Prague has always been a place of my favorite passions: contrarian thinking, beautiful music and epic beer. This is a composite, fictionalized account of my first ever journey and discussions there about the End of Belief. Anyone who knows me understands how much poetic license I generally take!
I have no idea what made me walk into the little shop. It was almost hidden under a brown stone archway, and in the grey afternoon light of Prague, seemed barely a shadow. Medieval architecture and cozy brew pubs are generally my siren call when traveling in Europe, not curiosity shops on the corner. Still I crossed the broad cobblestone square to get to it, feeling a strange sense of puzzlement of no known origin. There was no sound of the door when I entered, or if there was, I didn’t hear it. And in my mind there seemed no theme to the collection of stuff lying around on shelves and haphazard table settings. To be honest, I now can’t recall even a single item that was there, even though I lingered and held a few in my hand. It just seemed like a place of stuff. Lots of stuff.
Unless I’m in a music store, when a shopkeeper notices me is generally the time I try to leave. I had no reason for lingering there, couldn’t remember the phrase in Czech for “No, thank you”, and anyway, I wanted beer. But when she turned from the counter to smile at me I stood standing, looking back, frozen like an idiot. In that one instant her large, azure eyes, set into solid, elegant features had made her face seem like a single radiant gemstone. My eyes then followed the way her thick dark hair joined with her sweater to make the gem’s black velvet setting. I felt the flush of utter stupor and then stupidity course through me, so turned away in embarrassment - and started fumbling with more stuff. I should leave, I should leave, I kept thinking, but didn’t. A minute or two went on like this until I realized she was repeatedly looking toward me - seemingly nervous and worried. Great, I sighed. I had finally become the creepy psycho women were always being warned about. As I hurried to exit she called to me something in Czech which I knew meant she was calling the cops. Halfway out the door, though, I heard an emphatic “Wait… Can I help you?”
I don’t remember the first sentences we spoke to each other (and especially thankful I don’t remember what I said), but I’ll never forget when she suddenly stopped after a few minutes of small talk, collected herself and then stared into me like she was bracing for impact “There’s something I have to tell you… you will absolutely not believe. You will think it is so crazy, you will not believe what I have to tell you.” Before I could say anything, a customer walked in. She greeted him briefly and turned back to me with a worried but excited smile “Will you have a coffee with me when I close the shop in ten minutes?”
Her name was M___ (even though this is fictional, it’s still better not to use her real name). The shop was part time; her real calling was psychotherapy and spiritual research. OK, today is a good day for an open mind, I thought as our coffees came. Fortunately, Irish coffee; somehow I knew I was going to need it. She was getting married, she said… that is, supposed to be getting married… in three days. Uh, OK. I took a big gulp that half scalded my lips, but still congratulated her without missing a beat. I decided to settle in for whatever was coming next.
She had been having doubts about the wedding. For complicated reasons. She paused, thought for a second, then waved her hand dismissively. The point was: last week an astrologer told her that, just before her wedding, a stranger – a foreigner - would walk into her life, and change it forever. Someone with eyes just like mine, she said with a nervous glow. I was tempted to ask how she could even see my eyes past all the folds and wrinkles, but just took another gulp of coffee instead. She suddenly giggled and pointed out the wad of whipped cream on my nose.
Then out of nowhere M told me her whole life story. An impressive, dizzying mess from beginning to end that I - sorry - had to pledge to keep to myself. But really, I was deeply impressed at her creative life, not to mention her multi-tasking coping skills, and told her so. Sensing now a true comrade at arms, but wanting not to be outdone, I said I’d trump her mess with my life story, a true iconic catastrophe of the first rank. In the context of our discussion, there was actually a certain pride in saying that. M listened intently, and at times her eyes appeared to well up with a caring and compassion seemingly impossible from a stranger. At one point her hand reached out to hold mine. But when I was finished, she only smiled lightly, knowingly, as if to say my story was not so astonishing after all. Huh. My shoulders shrank slightly. Don’t take it personally I thought. After all, I’m in the presence of a true Bohemian Master. Suddenly it was all delightful and we started to laugh ourselves silly.
Did she know what she would do about her wedding, I asked, shifting into my concerned- friend mode. Complete stranger though she still was, the shift felt still natural and effortless. As I pondered that surprising fact, M just sighed and looked out the window. There was no point in following up with what might seem normal questions: did she love him; were they happy together, that sort of thing. She would have run through those questions a gazillion times without my prompting, and if those were not the right questions, she’d know herself why. Instead I asked if she had ever run across the Tetralemma method in psychology, seeing that psychotherapy was her interest. Her quizzical frown and searching eyes signaled she was ready to hear anything new that might be helpful, even from a babbling, goofy American that randomly wandered into her shop.
I explained that classical, Aristotelian logic allows only two truth values to things – True or False. The notion of ‘dilemma’, which M was obviously confronted with, comes from seeing only two alternatives – true/false; right/wrong; good/bad, this-way/that-way, etc. We humans seem lost without these types of binary choices. Maybe it’s all just part of the neural wiring for our fight or flight instinct, who knows, I shrugged. Anyway, a much older system from Bronze Age India was brilliant enough to allow multiple values. In this multi-valued logic, things might be true; or false; or something of both; or nothing of both. Buddhist philosophy, which you said you liked, is actually big on this idea too. Only sounds hopelessly impractical, I continued: Court judges of that period would sometimes use this system in a rigorous way to decide murky legal disputes that needed more than just a good guy/bad guy decision. I paused and waited for her eyes to start rolling but instead they stayed fixed on mine, quizzical and patient. I decided not to push her patience by mentioning that multi-valued logics were not only a lively area of mathematics research, but some artificial intelligence programs and integrated circuit designs also used them.
I think what you’re talking about is just how real life is, she laughed.
Maybe... I said - realizing how hard it was to faze her - but we real humans sure don’t seem to understand that in thinking about our real lives. Like I said, maybe it's hard wired into our brains. Everybody pretends to live by the binary choice code... or at least pretends we have to... or pretends we want to. Even your much more free-thinking Buddhists - who of all people should know better! - fall back into that binary trap.
Yes, I like Buddhism... she said with a slight hint of a frown. What trap you mean?
To be continued
One thing they don't tell you 'bout the blues when you got 'emYou keep on fallin', 'cause there ain't no bottom
Emmylou Harris in Red Dirt Girl
Of course the trajectory of any life criss crosses the lands of happy, unhappy and everything-in-between. But did you ever notice that experiences of pure happiness are always limited in both magnitude and duration, but abject misery seems to know no such bounds? (Kind of reminiscent of Einstein's famous remark that, while the universe may be finite, human stupidity has no such limits.) Notice it's also a lot easier to go from
unhappiness than the other way around. And like Emmylou says in her song Red Dirt Girl
, once you're on that path, gravity alone will keep you on that straight and narrow. So if life were a thermodynamics quiz, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that happiness is the low entropy state, and unhappiness the high entropy state. And in fact, I think there's a good case to be made that there are many more unhappy brain configurations than happy ones, for reasons I'll get into. But for now, just note that this asymmetrical dynamic itself is really odd if the brain were actually equipped for sustained happiness.
In spite of common sense evidence to the contrary, though, the "Yes, dammit! I can choose to be happy" meme of the Axial Age (see previous post) is probably about as robust as human memes get. Of course, resilience of an idea contrary to facts is in itself not unusual. Nowadays it goes by the name of cognitive bias, and we humans downright excel at it. (If you need any hints, check out the last U.S. presidential election cycle). Two and a half millennia after its first appearance, and two and a half centuries after its inscription in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness meme thrives all over the world as never before. Interestingly, it also cuts across all traditional belief systems and comes in all variations: religious salvation, spiritual awakening, or just a stiff upper lip frame of mind. The fact that the self-help mantra is
by far the largest segment in book publishing, and the entire industry in the US alone is something like $12 billion ought to bring images of an exhausted dog chasing its tail. And in fact I think most people - certainly most of the ones I ask - know deep down it's all mostly just so much snake oil. There are exceptions of course(there always are) but for most us, the high of having some new fantastic guru-charged insight that will now finally make your life happy seems to last only slightly longer than it takes for a pizza to get stale.
So for all the happiness-gurus out there, here's some sobering news that shouldn't even be news. The bare-bones biological fact of life is that our brains adapted first and foremost to help us survive and procreate. Natural selection had no inherent interest in keeping us happy along the way. In fact, too much happiness would have been an obvious significant selective disadvantage. It would have kept us lazy, static and unwilling to explore difficult terrain; unable to learn hard lessons and adapt further. I believe this shows up in our basic mental architecture, and more to the point - if we’re objectively honest about it - in most of our lives most of the time.
Here I'll quote my grandmother, the venerable Evelyn Lee, who pulled a family through the dirt of the Great Depression and was able to once say with loving sincerity "Hell! We ain't here to be happy!" I've come to believe that on this particular point, she is more connected to the reality of our existence than were the keenly optimistic minds of Parsva and Epicurus.(see the last post) And in an extra tip of the hat the grandmothers, it seems nature might have had a special role for them in our evolution
The tool natural selection did give us to keep going was the constant yearning
we experience. Yearning, wanting, desiring something else than what we have as an emotional state obviously goes back to before the Stone Age; otherwise, well, we'd still be in it. But is it really happiness we yearn for, or something else? Think about it. The ‘feeling of happiness’ is only part of the brain’s dopamine reward system – it’s dished out at the end when the brain concludes it should reinforce certain pathways. So the feeling of happiness is really like a cookie. The brain constantly holds that cookie out to us, trying to motivate us in certain directions. Sure, once in a while we’re allowed a bite of the cookie, but just enough to keep us motivated and yearning for more. The problem for us post-Axial Agers is, I think, we've come to naively fixate on the happiness cookie and think that’s what life is all about. But the brain, and life in general, is not really interested in cookies – it wants something more nutritious, if I can stretch the metaphor.
What the mind really wants, and what it’s designed for at all levels, is to constantly engage in pattern recognition. Pattern recognition, aka data compression, is really the only way we can survive and navigate the world. It happens from the lowest levels of sensory input and muscle control all the way up to seeing faces in clouds and concocting theories of quantum gravity. We know and feel all that dot-connecting within us more simply as finding meaning
. Whether it’s reading animal tracks in the woods,or Tennyson by the fireplace; the feeling touch of a loved one or the grip of an enemy; finding the right life partner or the right pizza parlor: fulfilling our evolutionary mandate in a complex world requires constantly connecting the scattered dots of life into ever higher meanings
. If the game of life had to have a name, it could only be the search for meaning.
Why do we seek love - to be happy? If the goal of love were to be happy, the brain would be a pretty stupid organ. Deep down we know better. Love is for most people, most of the time, mostly painful. Of course there are great, even long moments of high joy – the excited glow of being ‘in love’, the calm warmth of a hug from a loved one, or reflecting on the love shared with someone. All that great stuff. But the inner sensations of all of that great stuff is, again, just the cookie. Small bites from it may keep us seeking and yearning in spite of all that heartbreak, disappointment, fear, loss, emptiness, suffering... should I go on? ... along the way. But what the mind really needs and finds in love, I think is meaning
. Yup, meaning. I could throw in a hundred quotes on love and meaning here, but since I'm no poet and this really isn't that kind of blog, I'll refrain. But even without me explaining further, I'm pretty sure you get what I mean.
It’s the same story with our jobs and professional careers. There are a few lucky people who do exactly what they love, love all that they do and feel happy every minute on the job. At least I have heard of such people – personally, I’ve never met one. For most people, even a beloved career is mostly hard and difficult work - a daily grind of frustration and fear; sometimes doubt and often despair. That isn’t what happiness looks like – but it’s exactly what the search for meaning
Why are religion and spirituality so important to most of us? Yes, it is a source of joy and hope for many. But in difficult times when we need it the most, do we really feel actual happiness
from it? And by the way, do we really enjoy the idea of our sins being judged before a heavenly tribunal? Or coming back as a frog? Probably not so much. But we obviously crave the sense of higher meaning they give us.
Which goes to why happiness requires a decrease in entropy, if you will. Data compression, pattern recognition, is precisely that. It's throwing out a truck load of data that you don't know what to do with so you can have your nice picture, of say, the Virgin Mary on cheese toast, or why your loved one has the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen. And once your brain has locked on to a pattern, there are many more data configurations that don't fit that picture than do. Hence, the miserable brain states tend to outweigh the happy ones that do fit the picture.
But hang on a second, you might say. Even if the brain doesn't care if we’re happy, does it have to make us so abjectly miserable at times? I think this is other half of the brain’s cookie and stick system. (OK, the English metaphor is 'carrot and stick' but nobody eats carrots these days)
Physical pain is our brain’s way of signaling to us that something’s wrong and needs immediate attention: take your hand out of the fire; don’t walk on that leg. Mental suffering is the mind’s way of signaling too. The mind suffers for only one reason, but in endless variations: again, I believe it yearns for meaning
. When we suffer from a loss, it is, in one form or another - in ways we may or may not consciously understand - a perceived loss of meaning
that the mind is bemoaning. If no deeper meaning seems immediately at hand that will satisfy the void, your brain will pull out its misery stick and beat you senseless until you go out and find it.
But still, even if that's all true – can’t we just try
to be happy? Sure and sometimes we actually are. It's just that the fixation on the cookies is what's counterproductive. Personally I wish I could stuff my face all day with the damn things. But really, our brain has all the computational and neurochemical resources it needs to make us happy 24/7 if that were the real goal. Instead, under our conscious radar a completely different program is being run- and it would be overwhelmingly in our interest to understand that.
Yes it kinda sucks. OK it does suck. But on the upside - and this is the best consolation I can find - how many great human journeys really started with the sentence “Gee… I just want to be happy” anyway?
Or maybe the working-man's hero Richard Feynman put it best When I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset. Rather I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon...
What if this is as good as it gets? Jack Nicholson in As Good as it GetsNo one dies a virgin. Life f***s us all
Kurt CobainLet me start with a short history of happiness before I trash it. My hope is to illustrate clues along the way to what may sound like a radical idea, but is, I think, actually pretty straightforward. As far as I can tell, the 'pursuit of happiness' as a riddle of life to be solved seems to be another Iron Age invention. (Bronze Age scholars: feel free to slap me silly with counterexamples, but I couldn't find any) Apparently, earlier times tended to consider happiness as something that either came your way or it didn't, and there generally wasn't much you could do about it. The word 'happiness' itself, in all Indo-European languages, derives from ancient words for luck. In modern German, it's actually still the same word, which turns out not to be as confusing as you would think. Anyway, I'll call that clue no. 1
But while happiness per se
may not have always gotten our attention, misery and suffering in all shapes and forms clearly did. The earliest surviving works of literature, for example - the hymns of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna - contain a sad tale of banishment from the temple and sexual harassment from a brother-in-law
. The themes that come out starkly in the oldest human writings are conflict, suffering and yearning. Sure, what else do you expect from literature, my first English Lit professor loved to emphasize. But what's telling is that, even back then, so much of that isn't directly related to what you would naively expect - our evolutionary mandates for survival and procreation. Enheduanna seems mostly upset by her loss of status. The Lament for Ur
goes on mostly about destroyed buildings and temples. Gilgamesh's journey through the wilderness is the search for wisdom,
not a cold drink of water.
And so on. So Bronze Age people were clearly searching and yearning for meaning beyond their daily bread. Yet with all that yearning, it still didn't seem to occur to anyone for thousands of years to express the meme that Thomas Jefferson told us was self-evident: "I just want to be happy". Call that clue no. 2In any case, that all changed with the Iron Age, or more specifically, the Axial Age. The earliest historical figure of a new 'find-your-inner-peace' movement was a sage from the Ganges Valley, Parsva, who started meditating his way to Nirvana three centuries before the Buddha. The meditative traditions spread slowly, but they did spread. Meditation is hard work, after all, especially for novices like me. But for however long you can do it, the benefits to your peace of mind are pretty quick and manifest. Unfortunately, they also go away if you stop. Maybe this is why the meditative traditions have a solid but still niche adherence of less than 10% of the global population. That fact that meditation feels so good but is still so hard is clue no.3An even quicker benefit was offered by the pre-Socratic Epicurus. He figured that avoiding pain and seeking pleasure was a seriously not-bad strategy towards happiness. Really, it should have been a damn easy sell as a life philosophy. But in truth, Epicurus had relatively few takers.
(It's a shame that the word 'Epicurean' somehow got corrupted into the first two of the seven deadly sins
, since Epicurus really taught modest, thoughtful, simple living as the highest pleasure. But there you go.) Anyway: for me that's clue no. 4
In principle, the monotheistic religions -
Zoroastrianism, Judaism, then later Christianity and Islam - should have been the toughest sell of all. On the one hand they do promise happiness to the faithful... just... well... not
in this life. The primary aim of this life is obedience to God no matter what the suffering is, as a fellow named Job would readily confirm. So if your life still sucks, suck it up and wait for the afterlife, buddy. The surprising fact that these belief systems, and not Epicureanism, or even Buddhism, are dominant on the planet is, I believe, a really, really important clue no. 5 to what our brains are really after.
Part II to follow.