Sunday, July 25, 2010

Whale Watching

When I was quite young my peer group played a game called “don’t laugh”. It was a staring game that began with the two players standing toe-to-toe. The opponents would stare into each other’s face with a look of absolutely stoic composure. After a couple of seconds one of the opponents would deliver the pitch. In slow measured syllables the pitcher would say “d-on-t L-au-gh”. A properly delivered pitch would have the receiver busting a gut in uncontrolled giggles before the pitch was even complete. Extra points were awarded if the receiver snorted while laughing. Still more points were garnered if the snort produced a snotcicle. I am still amazed at the utter lack of approved safety equipment available to us as kids.

The idea behind the game was that once the suggestion of laughing was presented (the pitch) it was impossible to think of anything else. Once one thought of laughing hard enough it was impossible not to laugh. Though I’m not sure if playing “don’t laugh” with an adult would be as interesting, or as sticky; the basic premise the game is based on is worth examining. That premise is that it is very hard to not think about things.

In earlier entries I discussed mental tracking at length. I have discussed forming dugways of thought that resonate with enhanced cellular neuroanatomy to create robust thought patterns. Practicing useful patterns enhances the ability to use them with different levels of conscious control. The same is true of useless or harmful thought patterns.

Guilt is a good example of a negative thought pattern. There are ways that guilt has both personal and cultural uses. On some level guilt is useful as a learning tool. I certainly want you to feel guilty if you harm me, or impede my progress. However, once guilt has been established the thought pattern quickly outlives its usefulness. Enhanced cultural awareness gives way to self denigration. The individual transitions from just feeling guilt into being guilty. Guilt is only one of many named negative emotional feedback loops.

How does one get out of a negative emotional feedback loop? One can attempt to “just let it run out”. Eventually, without the primary source of the emotional irritation, the loop decays in intensity. The problems with this approach are that the primary irritation may not go away, and that after the loop peters out it leaves neural pathways molded into ruts that enhance future negative feedback loops. So the loop may continue or may start up again with little difficulty. We all know of people that can wallow in self-pity with amazing skill.

Another popular coping skill is to de-prioritize the negative feedback loop. By “keeping busy” or pretending that things are not a problem the loop can appear like it is not there. The major problem with this approach is that the de-prioritized loop can become a background process that creates stress. A popular difficulty with this approach is achieved when de-prioritization is done for the sake of appearance. “My friends expect me to be over her so I just will be”. Ignoring one’s state of mind only de-prioritizes ones personal identity. De-prioritizing is akin to just hoping something will go away by magic; very little good can come of it.

Interestingly enough the third mechanism is one stolen from spiritualists. It is called many things depending on the context. I will call it meditation here. The nice thing about meditation is that it works.

Meditation is practiced by consciously focusing on thought patterns occurring in one’s mind. Then each loop is slowed and stopped. Through meditation even some so-called autonomous loops, like heartbeat, can be slowed. Crude objective measures of neural activity, like brain waves, can be minimized. Mediation not only feels like it is affecting the thought patterns in the brain; it looks like it is also.

The idea is that by slowing or stopping thought loops in the brain one has an opportunity to refocus on productive thought patterns. The stopping is achieved through meditation; the re-focusing is achieved through creative pre-positioning. Let me provide one of my favorite examples.

I have told this story many times. Some of you valiant readers have heard it before. If you have I ask that you enjoy it the way you would a comfortable pair of socks while walking across a cold tile floor.

Decades ago (in a galaxy far far away) I became convinced that the best way to know true human intimacy was to engage in absolute celibacy. I decided to go on a pilgrimage like a monk of some strict sect of some iron-age religion. Like a monk I reduced my possessions down to a very small set. Basically I limited myself to some clothes, bedroll, a pack, some stuff I don’t recall like utensils, and the largest book I owned. Like many of my awesomely bad ideas the whole celibacy thing did not last long, but I inadvertently began the process of pre-positioning for a meditation catalyzed change of mental focus.

The largest book I owned at the time, not including textbooks, was Moby Dick. There probably was some thought given to the irony of taking a book with a title like “Moby Dick” on a celibate pilgrimage into the great American “further”, but I will not recall it now.

The celibacy decayed into a process of discovery wherein I found one of the great loves of my life hidden in the personage of a good friend. The voyage stretched on into weeks, and the great American further became the backwoods of several western states. In Yellowstone I filled an empty three-pound coffee can with sulfurous mud from a mud-pot geyser. In Washington state I ran –covered in nothing but mosquitoes and screaming- across a mud-slick flooded sagebrush desert. I saw simple vistas that could not fit into my east-coast imagination so I expanded my imagination to let them in.

There was an unnamed stream-fording in northern California where I saw a dying salmon with what looked like a lamprey attached to it. Shortly thereafter I found myself on a pot farm who-knows-where in a crude A frame that had almost no furniture. In the center of the A-frame’s main room was a meter cube appliance box filled with cassette tapes. Each tape had a hastily scribbled label on it which consisted of a date; sometimes a city name. The A-frame belonged to the “maybe-ex” of the woman who had morphed into this great love of mine.

I was out of my comfort zone. I am such a fierce teetotaler that I agonize over cold medications should such substances accidentally affect my ability to examine my thought and feelings, and here I was on a pot farm. There was a box that represented what must have been years of (probably covert) surveillance tapes. I was being forced to examine my weeks-long Honda-bound relationship in the light of a multi-year co-habitating real relationship that yielded up all sorts of emotions I had no part in. Worst of all there were two foot long toothed leach-like parasites in the water. There were so many sources of counter-productive thought-loops that I would need to re-prioritize in order to perform simple tasks like peeing. I needed to leave.

Northern California, if you don’t know, is a great place to leave anything. Armed with a scrap of highway map, two cans of beans, and the amassed positions I catalogued earlier; I hatched a plan. I would hike into the Sinkyone wilderness a day or so, feel miserable, and hike back out. The Sinkyone wilderness state park is a stretch of coast where stands of California redwoods reach out to the Pacific over cliffs so rugged no road could be built anywhere near it. I knew that there, among other things, I would find banana slugs.

Since my company was quickly not entirely welcome I was able to secure the loan of a car and I was on my way.

On the second day of backpacking it dawned on me that a three-pound coffee can full of mud weighs much more than three pounds. I could not, of course, just pour it out.

That is how I came to be on top of that cliff. Pre-positioning had given me the memories that come with just having finished Melville’s most famous epoch, and a can of volcanic mud, and time, and nowhere to go.

The hiking path ran in the shadow of the redwoods; just over a slight rise a mere 20 yards from the cliff’s edge. Between the edge and the rise was a tiny meadow of wildflowers. The sun was still rising in the sky, but it was already warm. The pacific was hidden beneath a quilt of fog that ran into the cliff about halfway down. I could hear waves on the rocks at the base of the cliff, but I could not see them.

It made perfect sense that I should remove all my clothing and coat myself with the mud. It took a little stirring, but the mud came out as sticky as I could have possibly have hoped. Once coated in the mud I decided I would meditate. There are only so many reasonable things one can do while covered in mud and perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I sat in a relaxed lotus position and put a hand –palm up- on each of my knees. I tried to focus on my breathing but the sound of the waves on the hidden shore was too distracting. Soon I found I was breathing in arrhythmic syncopation to the waves. Everything was still and warm. My thinking changed state. I was not happy, but I was no longer miserable. I did not know where I was going to go, but I knew I was not going anywhere right now.

As the sun rose higher in the sky it baked the mud coating my body. The mud began to crack; it would itch slightly as pieces fell off me. I became aware of insects; probably the loudest were bumblebees polenating the wildflowers of the field. I slowly opened my eyes to gaze out over the Pacific Ocean. The sun had burnt holes in the quilt of fog through which I could see open ocean.

In one of the holes I saw a shadow-like appear on the surface. A spray of water shot up from the shape and it disappeared. Several more appeared and sprayed. It was a pod of California gray whales migrating to Baja.

I was on my feet in an instant. So quickly did I transition from lotus position to dancing that I could swear I performed some acrobatic maneuver impossible to reproduce. I waved my arms about and spun like a top. I pointed and gesticulated at the whales, and all the time I was screaming.

“Aye the grey whale is a mighty whale but tis no Moby Dick” I screamed “Hump like a snow hill”.

It was several full minutes before I realized that by standing I was now in full view of the slightly popular hiking trail. Silently meditating while hidden behind the rise, and camouflaged by the mud coating, was one thing; jumping around in full view while naked and screaming was another. Modesty rapidly prevailed, and I quietly got dressed before heading farther on down the trail.

It was at least a day before I realized I was not miserable. In the interim I had realized that I really thought banana slugs were cool. In the interim I realized that the sound of waves on a cobbled beach was delicious. In the interim I tried to time my breathing with waves as they appeared and rose and crashed. Every once in a while, in the trough between waves, the whiskered face of a seal would pop out of the water to look at me.

Meditation provides a mechanism to actively change one’s point of view.


Lily Rose said...

"California gray whales migrating to Baja."
May to December is the time when whales migrate from the cold waters around Antarctica to the warmer waters around Australia....

adult onset atheist said...

I would love to see the Australian California Gray whales. There are apparently two routes in Australia; one for each coast. I think for either of the coasts a fine mud made by reconstituting a red clay would be best. I picture stopping in or near the Great Victoria Desert on a Sydney to Perth road trip to get it.