‘Renegade’ and The Authentic Moment

Neuroscientist/Philosopher Sam Harris tells a story of walking on stage to give a talk somewhere and upon seeing that there was bottled water on a table next to the podium he did what so many of us do and thought to himself, “oh good, they put some water there.” He then asks – why is he thinking that and who is he thinking it to? He sees the water there – his brain registers it, he already knows it’s there, but why is there this internal monologue or voice that reaffirms it to ‘himself’ when really, ‘himself’ already knows the water is there?

We all have this internal monologue or voice and it’s uniquely ours. It speaks in language and tone and with colloquialisms and slang that indeed often only we know and recognize. It’s an infinite loop of inside jokes with ourselves.

Saturday morning I was sitting in a grassy clearing behind a subdivision watching the sun come up. There wasn’t much to watch actually, it was an overcast day. I watched the world around me get lighter. At the edge of the clearing there were some deer grazing that I don’t think had really noticed me sitting there – the grass was pretty tall and I was hidden.

When I stood up to leave, they froze a bit and realized I was there. Inside my head, my internal voice said a line it uses all the time in these situations, “the jig is up, the news is out – they know I’m here.” The first part of that, “the jig is up, the news is out” comes from a line in a Styx song that I first heard so long ago I can’t remember when. It often pops into my head in instances like this where it fits. Why it does is a totally different blog post, because I’ve never even really been a Styx fan or listened to one of their records all the way through. I will tell you it has something to do with that ancient technology, radio.

I don’t usually listen to music when I’m riding my bike, but I chuckled at this opportunity and dialed up the song on my phone in Apple Music, set my speaker volume as loud as it could go, a proceeded to tear through the gray suburbs of Fredericton’s North Side with it playing 3 times in a row.

I didn’t see anyone. It was very early on a Saturday, but I bet some folks saw or maybe even heard me through sleepy, coffee-fueled gazes out of kitchen windows. Maybe some dog-walkers heard strange noise a block away but couldn’t quite pinpoint it as it was moving. Some guy up early to wake-n-bake in his backyard probably thought, “whoah this is some great shit, I think I just heard Styx.” I enjoy doing my part to keep Fredericton weird.

It occurred to me that the whole transaction – from that moment when I thought of the lyric through to fishing out my phone, searching it up and hitting play – that is what digital companies are trying to capture and ultimately monetize. That’s the hook.

The voice in my head is uniquely mine, but science has basically determined that – leave arguments about the true nature of consciousness aside for a moment – those thoughts, my internal monologue (or dialogue, since it seems to be two-way with someone) is merely electrical impulses zapping through my brain that I quite literally have no control over.

The March of Technology continues to advance. I’ve heard discussions on podcasts and elsewhere about the eventual availability of ‘neural nets’ – the mess of wires and transmitters that measure brain activity you see in the science shows – potentially in the form of wearables like hats or headbands and coupled with devices and apps to read your brain activity. Most of the discussions I’ve heard are about the beneficent use of this tech – say for example an app to help you quit smoking that can read your brain activity faster than you can even think and then prompt you via an app or otherwise with a behavior or thought that works counter to the craving.

Ostensibly, one day there will be surgical implants that can be placed into your head, connected to your brain to then connect with external devices – such as a phone – but then again, at some point, there’ll no longer be a need for the external device. Everything will happen right inside your head. Your phone calls, reminders, music – all right there.

In the case of my Styx example, the process would change from a clunky physical one – thought of the song, reaching for phone (or even asking Siri to play it) – pressing button – to simply thinking of the lyric and then thinking “oooo, play that,” and my head will ring with 1979 era rock. I guess the downside is that the neighborhoods I ride through won’t be able to hear it – which ruins most of the fun.

More ominously though, if our internal monologue/dialogue is just electrical impulses, then eventually, the technology will exist for the implant in your head to be 2-way. It will no longer just ‘listen and monitor’ – it will respond or prompt. And the response will indiscernible from your own thoughts. It will speak to you in that same voice and language that you’ve known your whole life. The device will – of course – be connected to external sources via wi-fi, bluetooth, and/or whatever new invisible data transfer technologies are created between now and then. At some point it will be very lucrative and very compelling for advertisers, organizations, causes, or anyone really – to be able to get into your thoughts – and you won’t even know it.

So it begs the question, at what point will your experience of the moment become inauthentic?

Because I know you’re wondering, Sunday’s ride soundtrack was The Bosstones. Now you’ve been inside my head, no fancy gadgets needed.

Productivity & Distraction

Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.

“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.

A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”

Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.

Dawn Patrol

When I was a younger, dumber person – more inclined to evenings of considerable debauchery – my friends and I would consider any mountain bike ride that started before 1oam as ‘Dawn Patrol’.

Then at some point you have to start getting up at like 6 for work. And to get kids to school. Or to hurriedly rush a vomiting dog out the back door.

Then maybe you decide that in order to get a jump on things and/or keep your sanity as well as a moderate amount of joint flexibility into your twilight years you should get up early to meditate and do yoga, so you decide 4:30am is a good number because Jocko Willink says so.

At some point on weekends you’re already awake and there’s no work and the kids are still asleep so you decide to skip the meditation and yoga, because it makes you feel somewhat rebellious – in as much as a middle-aged dad who’s a slave to the Man can rebel – kind of way, and ride bikes. Invariably as the seasons change you end up riding in the dark, pre-dawn. The true Dawn Patrol.

You end up seeing a lot of things you’ve never seen before and come away changed. As a bonus you get back just in time for breakfast – sometimes you’re even back before anyone else gets up.

Heading out before dawn in the dark also means you get to ask yourself interesting questions like “how is it possible I’m this fucking cold and still enjoying this,” “is it possible for quiet to get even quieter,” or the more thought-provoking “where do I want to watch the sun come up today?”

Sometimes it’s a walking bridge. Sometimes it’s a field on a river flat. Sometimes it’s a town square. Sometimes it’s an empty intersection. The possibilities are endless, really.

Full moon descending, Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Our Man, the champion of achieving transcendence via the mundane, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has a chapter in his book Autumn called ‘Dawn’.

“It isn’t the light in itself that feels good, for once it’s here, say at around 2:30 in the afternoon, we take it for granted. What matters is the actual transition. Not the light from the immobile sun, which shoots across the horizon as the earth’s sphere turns towards it, but the faint glow cast by this light in the minutes before, visible as a pale streak in the darkness of night, so faint it almost doesn’t seem to be light at all, merely a kind of enfeebling of the darkness.”

Just before dawn, Saint John River, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

“Dawn is always the beginning of something, as its opposite, dusk is always the end of something, and when we consider that in practically every culture darkness represents death and evil, while light represents life and goodness, these two transitional zones between night and day become manifestations of the great existential drama we are caught up in, which is something I rarely think about as I stand in the garden gazing towards the growing light in the east, but which must still resonate in me somehow, since watching it feels so good. For darkness is the rule and light its exception, as death is the rule and life its exception. Light and life are anomalies, the dawn is their continual affirmation. “

Over a month now, I’ve been getting out before dawn at least once, if not twice on the weekends. At first it was about finding the best Hallmark Calendar spot to watch the sunrise from. A hill. Over a river. But there’s been other spots too. Sunrise over a strip mall is still the same sunrise as the one you watched 3 km away from the riverbank – well, that’s not really true – no two are the same. It’s the same sun rising, over the same planet – but even then, very little is the same – but you have to see both of them to figure that out. Or perhaps to figure out that you’ve really got nothing at all figured out.

The more I’m out pre-dawn, the less I tend to think of the darkness as ‘evil’ or ‘death’ and the more I think of it as merely the opposite of light. This is no news to anyone who’s familiar with eastern notions of non-duality – the idea of “not two” or “one undivided without a second.” Obviously there’s a mathematical/astronomical formula that tells me exactly when the sun rises and ‘day begins’. Actually, it’s the app on my phone that tells me personally, but is that really when it happens? Really, it’s just one continuous moment endlessly spooling out. There is no distinction between the two.

One of the main revelations I’ve had with these rides is how much there is to see before dawn. It’s exciting to rediscover what the human eye can see – even in almost pitch black – if you let your eyes adjust. On a clear night, even if there’s only a sliver of moon, it’s astounding the amount of light it casts and on the night of a full moon, you can conduct yourself quite easily without any artificial light at all – even more so if there’s snow on the ground to reflect it. It occurs to me that my ancestors knew all these things innately and somewhere they got lost for me to find again.

Every now and then, I’ll sleep in on a weekend. I invariably end up regretting it. There’s so much to see – even in the dark – I feel bad wasting it – and days take on a whole new perspective when you’re able to literally watch them begin.

About 20 minutes after sunrise, Nashwaak River, New Brunswick.

Physiological Resonance

Theres a 90+ acre area of river flats about a 10 minute walk from my house. It’s land that is for all intents and purposes uninhabitable – it floods every spring. There’s a road on it and nice access to the Nashwaak River. There are fields on it where hay was harvested. For over 10 years I’ve walked with my dog and ridden my bike down there in every kind of weather. Waded in the river in the summer’s heat and snowshoed across several feet of snow in the winter. I know I haven’t been the only one, I’ve seen lots of locals down there from time to time. Most, like me, respectful of the fact they were on someone else’s land, but some people not so much.

It recently changed owners and when it was up for sale I walked down there and would fantasize about turning into some sort of ‘park’. A place where people could walk, bring their pets, get close to the river and nature. The new owner intends to put cattle on the property and as such they are fencing it all off and the ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs have gone up. They are completely within their rights to do so – I have no complaint with them – but I’m disappointed I won’t be able to go down there any more.

I thought of all this reading an article by Lucy Jones, Pathways in the Urban Wild.

Studies suggest that when people spend over twenty minutes in “urban nature,” levels of two physiological biomarkers of stress—salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase—drop.

…If it’s been raining, and I can smell petrichor—that metallic, ferric scent of the earth after it’s rained—then brainwave activity linked to calmness and relaxation may be triggered. Listening to birdsong rebalances my nervous system. Watching the daisies move in the wind soothes mental fatigue.

…Then, there’re fractals. Fractals are abundant in the living world. From ferns to lightning, salt flats to ocean waves, and, for the purpose of my urban nature safari, plants and trees and sprays of “weeds” that peep through the cracks in the pavement. The deep-green leaves on these plants are fractal, meaning a self-repeating pattern of a shape that varies in scale, rather than being repeated exactly. Once you know what fractals are, you’ll see them everywhere.

Richard Taylor, Professor at the University of Oregon, discovered that patterns with a fractal dimension of 1.3 (most fractals in nature fall between the 1.3 and 1.5 interval) provoked brain waves suggesting a relaxed but focused state. It turns out that the retinal vessels in our eyes are fractal, so when they view a fractal shape, our eye locks into place, so to speak. Taylor called this “physiological resonance.” We often forget that humans spent 99 percent of our evolutionary history in contact with the natural world, and there may be a genetic disposition within us to prefer fractal shapes, like Savannah-type shaped trees such as acacias, as well as landscapes with prospect and refuge and water sources. When it feels relaxing to look at these sprays of weed in the cracks in the pavement, it’s partly a response to an inherent genetic memory.

On the news this morning there were discussions around the rise in calls to doctors, therapists and associations for mental health assistance since the start of Covid-19. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. I myself have come to the conclusion that the best thing anyone can do in these uncertain times is to keep themselves as physically AND mentally fit as is possible given the circumstances.

People living on the sharp end of nature deprivation are not given fair opportunities for stress recovery, restoration, and relief from mental fatigue that connection with the living world offers. The way land is owned and controlled is connected to who is allowed to feel the deep joy and calm of being with wild things.

…I experienced this recently while paddling and swimming in one of our favorite nearby rivers. It was a scorching hot day, and we’d taken a net out to look at minnows and admire the banks, sequined with turquoise damselflies and cellophane-winged dragonflies. I was hoping to see one of my favorite emergences: pearlescent mayflies on their one day of life on earth. We walked to a stretch of river I’m attached to, spotting swallows and hearing the sound of the cuckoo on our way. Swimming in this bend of river became an essential place of healing for me during periods of postnatal depression over the last few years. Alongside clinical help, being in the cold water, among the poplars and kingfishers, was sometimes the only thing that could ease some of the psychic and hormonal storm.

While we were sitting on the banks, an angler arrived and told us we couldn’t be there, that the river was “private fishing land,” leased to a local anglers’ society, and we were forbidden from being in it or on the riverbanks. The bailiff might be around, and he had a dog, he said.

Later, I confirmed that this river, the main river in my town which stretches out into the countryside, is indeed leased to a private fishing club (fewer than 80 people), so the townspeople (110,000) are not allowed, legally, into it. I’ve been back once, but I stood still at the water’s edge: held back by a feeling of shame and the discomfort of being in a place that is not meant for you.

I have plenty of other places I can go for walks and ride my bike – literally stepping right out my door. I will not want for lack of places to seek some physiological resonance.

Where I live is already decidedly more rural than Ms. Jones’ locale but her article has reminded me of something I’m always trying to keep within reaching distance of my day-to-day experience, and that is there are a lot of people that simply don’t have access to ‘the Outside’ in the way I do and can’t access it with the ease that I can and I remain extremely grateful for that.