What is Dreaming, What Do Dreams Mean, and Why Do We Dream?

170419.jpgMartin Luther King, Jr. once had a dream—and last night, so did I. At the end of a long day, we all get in bed, close our eyes, and go to sleep. Then the magic happens. It is as if when our eyes close, the curtains of the mind are opened, and a lively and magical performance begins on the stage of our unconscious, with dances, songs, and monologues. Bright, intense, and nonsensical, these images in our heads visit us every night, although we are quick to forget them, as they soon fade away, almost as though they never happened. Dreams feel real, yet they are unreal, illusory. Sometimes they capture things that have happened to us, but sometimes they show us things that have not yet happened, and sometimes yet they show us things that are happening. Dreams are the greatest mysteries of the night, which is why they have attracted so much attention, both from individual thinkers and collective civilizations, who have attributed to dreams some sort of importance. What are dreams, really? Why do we dream? Do other animals dream? These are all questions psychology has been asking and will continue to ask. As of right now, none of these questions has a confident answer, but is constrained to theory. We humans will not rest (no pun intended), though, until we get the answer; we will refuse to just “sleep on it”—literally, because we cannot. So in today’s post, we will be exploring the science behind dreaming, the history of dreaming, and the different interpretations of dreaming that have been proposed. Although no definitive answers will be yielded, we will still gain some valuable insights on the nature of dreaming.


What is dreaming?

Types-of-brain-waves.jpgIt is not like we start dreaming as soon as we get into bed. Instead, sleep has to pass through several stages in order for dreaming to initiate. Researchers study brain waves with electroencephalograms (EEG’s)—a fancy word that refers to the skill of finding and interpreting electrical activity in the brain at a given moment. With these brain waves, psychologists have found that there are at least four stages that occur in the sleep process: First, in our everyday waking lives, our brain produces beta waves, which are released when we think, usually at 13 or more cycles per minute (cpm); second, when we close our eyes and start to relax, alpha waves start to kick in at 8-12 cpm; third, theta waves are produced at 4-7 cpm when we enter light sleep, or NREM, and begin to feel drowsy; fourth, we experience delta waves, which are 4 or fewer cpm, created during deep sleep, known as REM. It is in this last stage, when Delta waves are produced, that we experience most of our dreams. But what is a dream?


A dream is “a sequence of images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person’s mind.” In addition, “Dreams are notable for their hallucinatory imagery, discontinuities, and incongruities, and for the dreamer’s delusional acceptance of the content and later difficulties remembering it.”[1] One important thing which is to be gleaned from this definition is the fact that dreaming is not just confined to visual displays and imagery in pictures; rather, dreaming can involve many other senses. A lucid_Dreaming.jpgquestion many people are curious about is whether blind people can see things in their dreams, or deaf people hear. What has been found is that people with blindness, because they have never seen anything, dream using senses other than sight, and the same thing applies to deaf people. In other words, people with congenital blindness, who were born blind, can hear or smell different things since they have been exposed to such stimulation, but not with their eyes. Another interesting thing about dreams is that, besides not just being about pictures, dreams can also communicate intentional states, i.e., motivations, fears, desires, etc. Dreams are set apart from waking life due to their being illogical. Whereas there is a logical cause-and-effect and sequence of narration that follows a common story in real life, there are random and disorganized events in dreams. As such, they are characterized as fantastical, belonging more to fantasy and fiction than reality, adopting unrealistic exaggerations and possibilities, more incredible than realistic. When we say there is a uniform narrativity to life, we mean there is a set plot, with a beginning, middle, and end; but with dreams, there is no such narrativity, for there is nothing that links events together in any reasonable way.


Now, regarding what actually happens during dreaming: Once we reach deep sleep, once the brain starts putting out Delta waves, we switch between two stages, REM and NREM. REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and there are about 4-5 of them that cycle through the night, 90 minutes at a time. While we are in REM, brain waves paradoxically Unknown.jpegresemble those that happen when we are awake. If we were to look at the brain when we were awake, then it would look just like how it is when we are in REM—despite the fact that REM is deep sleep, when the entire body is paralyzed and in total relaxation. This is a kind of “dream-state,” as psychologists like to refer to it, in which animals who undergo it are very stimulated. All mammals, not just humans, experience this dream-state. The only difference is how long each animal spends in the dream-state; depending on the average lifespan of the animal, they will dream more or less. We humans are in the middle. The reason REM is named so is because the eyes literally twitch rapidly while shut, which seems to contradict all logic, and the reason why psychologists are so puzzled about the phenomenon. Speaking of puzzling phenomena, some people experience “sleep paralysis” when they regain consciousness during sleep, only to find their bodies rigid, unable to move, as if stapled to their beds, their throats pinched. Why we wake up randomly, we do not know. Why we are paralyzed—this we do know: Psychologist Michel Jouvet found in an experiment that the pons, located in the lower region of the pons2.jpgbrain stem, actually inhibits all motor activity, meaning the muscles are completely stopped. He performed a study in which cats had their pons removed, and then he watched them at night to see what happened. Because he got rid of the part of the brain that stopped muscles from being used, the cats, he observed, actually moved around quickly and ferociously, in a predatory manner, because they were, Jouvet supposed, dreaming about catching mice. What this revealed is that, if the pons were not activated during sleep, there would be many more injuries at night. It has been reported by a number of people that they experience a sort of “falling reflex”; upon falling in their dream, they wake up, as if reacting to the fall and catching themselves. Imagine, then, what would happen to many of us in some of our more threatening dreams, if it were not for the pons in the brain stem.


What about NREM? NREM stands for “non-rapid eye movement”—I know, creative. As is to be expected, NREM is not called “deep sleep” for a reason; NREM is a lighter form of sleep that is not as engaging. To better illustrate the difference, take people who can Unknown-1.jpegsleep through their alarms, and those who cannot; the former are in deep sleep, the latter in light. For a time, it was thought that dreaming only occurred during REM; however, later studies disproved this, stating that dreams do occur during NREM, just that they are less memorable and exciting. Other things that have been found about dreaming regard the environment and dream content. The external environment of a sleeper has been discovered to affect their dreams. For example, a case had test subjects enter REM-sleep, then the tester would spray them with water. Upon waking, the subjects said they dreamt of some form or another of water, be it seeing a waterfall or swimming in a pool. What surrounds a dreamer or what they touch can create associations related to the outside stimulus, or effector. Such dreams are “self-state dreams,” since their content is centered around the state in which the self finds itself. Sometimes, self-state dreams can also lend insight into future actions. One thought-provoking fact is that 80% of reported dreams are negative (Domhoff, 1999). Accordingly, for every five dreams we have, only one of them does not involve bad things happening to us.


Another subject of inquiry—one which is unbelievably trippy—is lucid dreaming. When dreams are very high in lucidity, or clearness, we are aware of ourselves as dreaming. lucid-dreaming1.jpgLet us put it this way: Lucid dreaming is knowing that we are dreaming. But are we just dreaming that we are dreaming? If you want a quick look at the philosophical problem of dreaming, then you can read here! Aside from the armchair philosophy of dreaming, there is a little more substance to lucid dreaming. For instance, lucid dreamers feel like they have no sense of touch, allowing them to pass through otherwise impassable obstacles, and they also apparently lack any other sense beside sight. Lucid dreams are also said to be more bright than regular dreams. When aware of dreaming, dreamers can ignore natural laws, doing things that defy logic and physics. All of this raises the question of why we even dream in the first place. If sleep is necessary for us to rest our bodies, then why not just sleep, why have hallucinatory visions at night? Unfortunately, we have no solid answers. There is only speculation. I will discuss these speculations in further detail at the end, but for now, here is a brief overview.

  1. Wish-fulfillment. According to this theory, dreams are symbolic representations of repressed, unconscious urges that are mostly erotic. The problem with this theory is that, surprisingly, dreams with sexual content are actually quite rare and uncommon (recall that 80% of dreams are negative).
  2. Memory storage. Those who support this theory argue that because memory is improved during REM, it stands to reason that the purpose of dreams is to filter out the day’s experiences. If you have ever heard that it is unwise to study right before going to bed, then it comes from this. Just like your body, your brain needs time to recover, so if you jam it with knowledge right before bed, then you will overload it, and your learning will not be as effective; the brain works more efficiently if it takes in smaller chunks over a longer amount of time.
  3. Neural pathways. Random sensory information from outside stimulates the brain as it sleeps, strengthening their neural connections. Thus, this theory says dreaming’s purpose is to solidify our neural pathways.
  4. Biological model. Activation-synthesis is the theory that the brain stem creates random imagery that is interpreted by the limbic system, which colors it. Hence, seemingly meaningless visuals are turned into emotional, colorful images that resemble conscious life.
  5. Cognitive development. For some, dreams reflect our cognitive development. As evidence, they use the fact that children have relatively simple, crude dreams, whereas adults have more complex, egocentric dreams. The complexity of dreams depends on how much knowledge one has.

A History of Dream Interpretation

Egypt ba.jpgSince the earliest civilizations of man, dreaming has held an important place in our culture. If we explore the human mind over 4,000 years ago, then we will find the earliest records of dreaming to date. A document known as the “Chester Beatty papyrus” was excavated and is dated to be from around 2,000 B.C. On it are written 200 dreams that were reported and interpreted by the Egyptians. Based on Mesopotamian mythology, and adapted from Assyrian sources, this Egyptian dream codex reveals the universal nature of dreaming. The fact that these three great civilizations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—all gave such immense attention to dreams, that they were related in study, shows how intimate dreams are to the collective conscious of a people. In all three societies, dreams were ways of contacting invisible realms through the guidance of either good or bad spirits. Then came Abrahamic monotheism. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all interpreted dreams as coming directly from God to them in their sleep. Understandably, these dreams were heavily filled with religious metaphors and symbolism.


A little later and the Greeks would become fascinated with dreams. The Greeks had their own religious groups—some might say cults—called “Mysteries,” and many a Mystery was focused on dreaming. In order to have better dreams, Greeks encouraged sleep to each other with oils and drugs, so that they would be more immersed. An important aspect of Greek life was the oracle: Each day, hundreds of travelers would go to oracles to have their fortunes told. Dream interpretation was done in the same manner. Specialized interpreters would have a place in the temple, where they were surrounded by natural smoke that they would read and decode, then pass onto the dreamer. During the Archaic period, though, a shift occurred. The Pre-Socratic philosophers began to steer away from religion and toward scientific, rational thought. Mystery and dream divination, or magic (oneiromancy), would be replaced with more empirical observations. Each of the following philosophers accurately predicted modern-day conclusions by themselves.

  • Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.) claimed dreams were nothing more than day residue, i.e., recollection of things that happened throughout the day.
  • Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.) thought dreams were the result of the external environment acting on an individual’s consciousness.
  • Plato (428-348 B.C.) proposed that dreams were a manifestation of wish-fulfillment based on repressed desires in the soul. He also thought dreams were the divinely inspired and could grant people creative impulses.
  • Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued against prophetic interpretations, instead declaring dreams to be the result of sensory stimulation that could potentially affect our future actions based on their content.

Unknown-2.jpegThus, the study of dreams officially became scientific in nature. Artemidorus, coming 400 years after Aristotle, born in the same country as Heraclitus, wrote the largest encyclopedia of dreams for his time, the Oneirocritica. In it, he distinguished between two types of dreams: Insomnium and somnium. Insomnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the present. These are dreams that deal with current problems and daily occurrences. Somnium is a dream-state whose contents are about the future—self-state dreams, in other words. These dreams are “deeper,””more profound,” than insomnium dreams because they give us insight. But Artemidorus came up with even more fascinating idea, one that has hitherto been neglected and still does not receive a lot of merit today: Dream interpretation reveals more about the interpreter than it does the dreamer. Apparently, according to Artemidorus, by gaining the background of a person, by interpreting their visions in light of this, we gain insight about ourselves because we mix in our own beliefs and symbolism that they would otherwise miss. Contemporaries of the Pre-Socratics in the East—the Chinese, Buddhists, and Hindus—were the heirs of the Egyptians forasmuch as dreams were glimpses of a higher realm, a truer reality, to them. In their dreams, they would experience the transcendence of their souls from the corporeal world.


The scientific study of dreams would come crashing down in the Middle Ages, which saw a reversion back to religious symbolism. Only this time, the underpinnings were moral and theistic. The problem of interpretation came down to the whether the dreams were communicated by God or not, in which case it was either angels, and therefore holy, or demons, and therefore wicked. Thus, medieval dreamers had to discern between truth and untruth. A few hundred years more, and we get the great rebirth, the Renaissance. It is from the Renaissance that we get our contemporary connotations of dream interpretation, for it was during this time that divination once again became dominant. The Renaissance saw a surge of interest in practices like occultism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, prophecy, and hermeticism—in a word, magic. Nowadays, these associations still carry over, so when we hear people talking about interpreting dreams or discussing horoscopes, we tend to brush them off as useless, arcane magic.


Fast forward 400 years to the Modern Age in the 19th century. Still traumatized by the Renaissance, people in the 1800’s were hesitant to study dreams or consider their importance seeing as dreams were seen as “unscientific” and therefore unworthy of serious thought. The magical side of dreams was not wholly abandoned or dismissed, contrary to what some might think; literary geniuses celebrated dreams for their Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster_edit2.jpgcreativity. Famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his unfinished poem “Kubla Khan” after an inspiring dream, but he never finished it because he was interrupted by a mysterious “person from Porlock”; novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde based on a dream he had, too, in which he saw his hidden, unconscious urges battling his outward, conscious behavior; and Edgar Allen Poe also said his dreams contributed to his works. Around this time, in the mid 1800’s, anthropology was becoming a much-studied topic, so anthropologists were traveling around the world studying primitive tribes. What they found predated Jung’s theory of archetypes, and they also found that these tribes usually made their decisions based on dreams they had—the resurgence of prophecy. Next comes the 20th century and the rise of psychoanalysis, dominated by two figures, Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung, to whom we shall presently turn.


Modern Day Dream Interpretation Models

maxresdefault.jpgBefore discussing the psychoanalytic tradition, we will first return to the earlier models of dream interpretation (the cool name for which is oneirology) we discussed. The first model is the cognitive model, according to which dreams are a means of thinking about the day during the night. When we dream, our mind is thinking just as we normally would, but with multiple layers of metaphors emphasized unconsciously. In this way, everyday imagery is “translated,” so to speak, into metaphorical forms that stand in for ordinary things. These forms, furthermore, are colored by our emotions, so that they reflect our inner world of moods and feel significant to us. This theory also groups together the cognitive development one, so dream quality will differ based on one’s brain development. Some scientists contend that dreams are important for problem-solving. There is a scientific basis for the phrase “sleep on it,” after all. When we sleep, our unconscious and subconscious are most active, so thoughts we did not know we even had float around, and some by chance end up back in our conscious, while those in our conscious sometimes drift off into the Unknown-1.jpegsubconscious. Either way, ideas move around. A friend of mine told me the story of how he lost his headphones, only to dream about how he lost them two months later, whereupon he found them in the exact location of which he dreamt. How did something so insignificant, something that happened two months in the past, chance to occupy his dreams? The best explanation, I told him, was that after a while, his brain, by its own whims, conjured up the memory of where he left it. Why it took so long, I do not know. Whether timing is important or not and how long an average memory takes to resurface are also questions worth asking. Over time, the brain will relax, and things that were troublesome and problematic will be relieved, I can only theorize. This leads to the next idea, namely that dreams reflect our current state and condition, environment, gender, age, and emotions, according to the cognitive model.


Another model we discussed briefly was the biological model. In light of biopsychology, dreams are nothing more than mere creations of neuronal firings processed by the thalamus into visual displays that make no sense. As such, interpreting dreams is useless considering they have no inherent meaning. Personally, I am not proponent of the biological method for two reasons: First, (I know this is a terrible reason) it is too bland and boring, and it is too reductive for my tastes; and second, if these neuronal firings are so random, then how can they create coherent (in the sense of “being familiar”) images that do make sense and that resemble complete narratives and sequences? This is not to say that the cognitive model is more correct than the biological model—not at all. As I have said, these are just theories, and neither has been verified indubitably.


Freud-b.jpgMost famous, hands down, is the psychoanalytic theory, first propounded by Freud, and then expanded upon his student, Jung. Starting with Freud, he described dreams like this: “Dreams are the means of removing, by hallucinatory satisfaction, mental stimuli that disturb sleep.”[2] In Freud’s eyes, dreams arise from the irrational, hidden side of ourselves—the unconscious. As a result, dreams need to be interpreted by a therapist. Dreams work through association, creating nonsense connections between ideas that are seemingly unrelated. Since dreams are irrational and incoherent, interpreters use a technique called “free association” that Freud loved to use. The analyst says a word, and the patient says whatever comes to mind. The logic goes that if the dream is formed by associations, then the intuitional associations said by the patient will point to their roots. Having done this, the analyst can then find associations of which the patient was initially unaware. One thing Freud did that remains of a subject of interest is his splitting of dream content into manifest and latent content. Manifest content is the storyline of the dream, the surface-level meaning. On the other hand, latent content is the deeper, symbolic, underlying meaning of the dream. Whereas the dreamer has access to the manifest content, only the analyst has access to the latent content, because latent content is unconscious and therefore hidden from view; it has to be uncovered through free association. What is this elusive latent content, and why does the mind go through the trouble of disguising it? Freud said that dreams protects us from waking up due to “mental stimuli”—but to what kind of mental stimuli was he referring? He believed that the latent meaning of dreams were repressed, unacceptable ideas.


The basic formula for a Freudian dream is “any kind of trivial occurrence + a traumatic childhood memory.” Subsequently, dreams take some kind of ugly truth and dress them up with ordinary occurrences. This is why Freud said that dreams protect us from disturbances. If these unacceptable ideas were to be shown to us in full light, then we would never be able to sleep; we would be too disgusted or traumatized. Dreams prevent Unknown-2.jpegus from waking up by playing out fantastical scenarios that reflect our wishes, goals, and fears. By hidden means, the dream releases our repressed memories. Freud posited a theoretical “censor” inside the mind, a kind of watchguard that makes sure nothing from the unconscious creeps into the conscious. Obviously, then, a feeling of aggression cannot be made manifest; instead, the unconscious is clever, so it disguises the feeling of aggression, such that it is able to sneak past the sentry and make it into the conscious in the form of a dream that makes no sense, but which nonetheless has a deeper meaning. This explains why dreams are confusing and unclear, yet meaningful. How the unconscious goes about disguising the repressed ideas is called the “dream-work.” Its four methods are condensation, displacement, symbolization, and secondary elaboration.

  1. Condensation is what happens when two or more ideas are merged together into a single thought.
  2. Displacement is what happens when an emotion is misdirected toward something other than its target.
  3. Symbolization is what happens when an object is made to stand in for another.
  4. Secondary elaboration is what happens when the subject tries to recall their dream, only to distort the facts.

Unknown-3.jpegBy using all four tricks, unconscious impulses manage to invade the conscious mind. Freud went further and identified two types of dreams. Dreams of convenience are dreams related to one’s day. Closely linked to day residue, dreams of convenience focus on some kind of fear or wish that occurred during the day visually. The other type of dream is one of wish-fulfillment, for which Freud is most well-known. Basically, he said that dreams are a way of satisfying our desires with our imagination. Because we cannot satisfy these desires in reality, we are forced to do so in sleep, in ideality. These desires are either erotic or aggressive. To use an example, one night I was really thirsty, and I went to bed on my trampoline (for fun, of course!). I dreamt I got out of the trampoline, went all the way inside the house, got a drink of water, walked back to the trampoline, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I had no memory of getting up, and I realized that I could not possibly have gotten water, as it was far too cold, and it was a long walk. Thus, I came to the conclusion that I dreamed about getting water in order to satiate my thirst before going to bed. To summarize, here are Freud’s ideas about dreams:

  1. Repressed childhood memories are revealed through associations.
  2. Said memories are either painful or unrefined, which is why they are repressed.
  3. Dreams are illogical, resembling an infantile imagination.
  4. Dreams have sexual and/or aggressive themes.
  5. Dreams are disguised wish-fulfillment.

6534180_orig.pngThe reason we no longer believe in the psychodynamic model of dreams is because, simply put, there is no evidence at all that supports it. Carl Jung was Freud’s student, although he would later distance himself from his teacher’s ideas in order to develop his own in more detail. To begin, he classified dreams into three categories. The lowest level of dreams are day residuals and just focus on things that happened throughout the day. Above these are self-related dreams, dreams that are about us, our mental states—stuff like that. The highest dreams, however, are archetypal dreams, which are the deepest ones possible, for they connect us with each other through the collective unconscious. I feel the quickest way to present Jung’s views are by enumerating them and then contrasting them to Freud’s:

  1. Dreams are essentially creative.
  2. Dreams are a part of the collective unconscious. Each of us, no matter who we are, shares the same symbols and universal characters, or archetypes.
  3. Dreams reveal the personal unconscious, too. We learn about the hidden parts of who we are through dreams.
  4. Dreams give insights into the future.
  5. Dreams are positive and constructive, providing insights to the self.

And as contrasted to Freud:

  1. Dreams are meaningful in- and of-themselves, not by interpretation.
  2. Dreams represent present, not past, problems.
  3. Dreams are best interpreted based on patterns and recurrences rather than individual interpretations. Rather than look at each dream by themselves, it is better to look at them together.
  4. A holistic analysis of dreams is more efficient than free association.
  5. Symbolism is not repressed, but archetypal.

If we want a quick summary of the psychoanalytic model, then we can say that Freud’s focus was sexual, and Jung’s archetypal. But while they differed in many respects, they also had these traits in common with the modern world:

  1. Dreams give clues to life.
  2. Dreams bring the unconscious to the surface.
  3. Dreams are based on day residue.
  4. Sensory stimulation affects our dreams.
  5. Universal archetypes are a part of our collective unconscious.
  6. Dreams are a.) repressed or b.) creative.

1370918.large.jpgIn conclusion, while there is a rich history of studying dreams, there are also countless unanswered questions regarding dreaming. Will we ever know them? Who knows. Until then, we can only dream of what they might be. Since the Egyptians, who believed in otherworldly journeys, to the modern psychoanalysts, who believed in hidden symbols, there have been many views of what dreams are, and many revisions, too. What we can see from the history of oneirology is that how dreams are interpreted depends upon the culture in which one finds oneself. Where one lives, how one lives, what language one speaks—these can all affect how we interpret dreams. Does this mean that there is no objective meaning of dreams, that the purpose of dreams differs between peoples? The question remains of whether dreams are even meaningful in the first place, or whether they are, in fact, just biological accidents created by the brain. These questions create a living nightmare for psychologists. One thing that is for certain is that dreams are very personal, intimate things that happen to all of us, that are unique, and that are private to us alone. I have my dreams, and you yours. (Get ready for the cliché ending…). But then again, what if this is all a dream?  

 

 


[1] Myers, Psychology, 8th ed., p. 285
[2] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 499c*

*From Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54

 

For further reading:
The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior Vol. 1 by Robert M. Goldenson (1970)
Psychology: Mind, Brain, & Culture 
2nd ed. by Drew Westen (1999)
In Defense of Human Consciousness 
by Joseph F. Rychlak (1997)

Introduction to Psychodynamics by Mardi J. Horowitz (1988)
Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought
by Ruth L. Munroe (1956)
The Secret Language of the Mind
by David Cohen (1996)
Psycholog
8th ed. by David G. Meyers (2007)

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A Phenomenology of Sprinting: 1 – Introduction

My favorite description of what it means to be a sprinter comes from John L. Parker, Jr.’s novel Once a Runner when the narrator starts by commenting on long distance runners and throwers:

images.jpegThere was great unspoken respect between the weight men and the distance runners that was understood but never examined closely. They all dealt in one way or another with the absolute limits of the human body and spirit, but the runners and weight men seemed to somehow share a special understanding, and there were good friendships among them.

The sprinters and jumpers were quite another story. Their art revolved around a single explosive instant during which all was gained or lost. They were, perhaps, the spiritual descendants of the assault troops who leaped trenches and scaled barricades to lead the attack. They were nervous, high-strung, either giddy with success or mired in swamp funk. They were the manic-depressives of the track world. They constantly puffed themselves up with braggadocio, either to bolster their own flagging courage or to intimidate their opponents. The intensity of their competition was ferocious, even cruel…. A sprinter’s race takes only ten seconds…. Cassidy pitied them the intensity of their contests, but at the same time was envious (Parker, Once a Runner, pp. 17-18)

As a sprinter, whenever I read this passage, I can always relate and get a laugh out of it. It so clearly delves into the mind of the sprinter, I cannot think of a better way to write it. From the emotional to the temporal aspect, the writing covers the sprinter’s world.


A question I have always had is: How can I combine two things I love—sprinting and philosophy—two things so seemingly unrelated and incommensurable, and put them into a third thing I love—writing? Is there a way that I can take the experience of running, philosophize it, then write about it? I like to say there is a philosophy behind everything, but I could never find a way to encounter “philosophy of sprinting,” until I realized that the experience of sprinting itself, the happening of sprinting, is itself philosophy. Mid-run, one is in the midst of philosophy, yet it is hard to explicate. images-1.jpegPhenomenology, simply put, is the study of phenomena, or experience. If I were to ask you, “What is an experience? What is an experience like? What is it like to experience something?” how would you respond? Such is the objective of phenomenology, whose goal it is to analyze and explain the nature of experience, no matter what of. Experience itself. But immediately there is a problem: Sprinting is such a short, intense activity—how can one possibly study the experience of it? I am crouching in the blocks, hands spread on the track, head down, when a loud Crack! echoes, and I find myself flying out of the blocks, only to cross the finish line in what feels like the snap of a finger. But did I retain anything? How could I in so short a burst of time? It is like being put in front of a screen that flashes images in microseconds, then having someone quiz you on what appeared. It seems difficult to imagine that the brain can keep up with a short, action-packed instant. Fortunately, the brain, although limited in its power, can retain a lot, if not some, of these fragments. Also to my advantage is the fact that there are hundreds of sprinters in the world, all of whom can attest to similar experiences, thus forming a phenomenological study.


Therefore, in the future posts, drawing on personal experience and experience gathered from other sprinters on my track team, I will be discussing a phenomenology of sprinting. This has long been an ambition of mine—combining sprinting with philosophy—and I am finally setting out to do it. Track and field is an interesting sport in its own right, and perhaps avid fans might be wondering what it is like to run from the sprinter’s perspective. For the next several posts, we will be exploring the inner world of the sprinter—the philosophy of the sprinter.

 

Heidegger and Mindfulness

Unknown.pngIn the last post, we learned what it means to think, or rather, what It is that calls upon us to think It. As such, the “thinking” Heidegger describes is not thinking in the traditional sense, as in logical and rational problem-solving, which we in our everyday lives employ; on the contrary, he states thinking is the hardest thing for us rational animals to do, despite its being a natural endowment of ours, an ability with which we are gifted—for the precise reason that it is the easiest thing to do. But, as was concluded previously, the nature of this thinking still remains elusive. What, exactly, is thinking as Heidegger conceived it? Is it just another obscure theory of his, shrouded in obtuse language and opaque rambling, or is it actually a practical activity, one which will benefit us and deliver us from an approaching void as he advertised it? Does Heidegger’s thinking stand up to history as new, original, and groundbreaking, or does it resemblant of other modes of thinking? These are all important questions to ask when reading What is Called Thinking? In this post, which is the second of three installments, I will propose that, despite the seemingly impenetrable and impractical nature of thinking, what Heidegger calls thinking is really an accessible, highly practical, and much-needed mode of living similar to mindfulness. Thinking is being mindful. Because it is the simplest task, it is also the hardest task; and with it, we can learn to value and appreciate life for what it is in this high-speed world of ours.


flowering_tree.jpgTo best illustrate what is meant by “thinking,” Heidegger asks us to imagine a tree in a meadow. According to our normal notion of thinking, to think is to create ideas, to ideate. When you or I think, when we create ideas, we usually see them as immaterial mental images that are superimposed over our vision, as if they are “out there.” If you close your eyes and think of a table, then it as though the thought of the table is projected forth from your mind, in front of you. This theory is known as idealism. It states that reality is a creation of the mind, that all substances are really products of the mind. Because the mind is internal, it means the ideas, too, are internal, meaning, then, that our representations of the world are experienced internally. All experience of the world is essentially private and internal. Everything exists within ourselves, and nothing exists independent of us. Hence, when I look at the tree in the meadow, the tree is not truly there, nor is the meadow; rather, they are ideas in my mind—I think them—and so are within me. This is a Berkelian way of looking at things: Esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. But in reality, what is really happening—is the tree out there in the meadow, or are both in my head? If the tree is on the meadow, and if the meadow is in my head, then neither is real. Heidegger proceeds to ask whether it is we who meet the tree, or the tree that meets us. We say we encounter the tree, by which we mean we come face-to-face with it, in which case it is a two-way experience, not just a one-way experience.


Even science, which likes to clarify problems, cannot lend help to the problem at hand. If anything, it worsens the problem, Heidegger asserts, because “science does not think.” In saying this, Heidegger points to the fact that science deals with objective facts, and in its pursuits, it becomes stuck in its ways, stubborn and unwieldy, unable to accept any other viewpoints, set in its ways, confident in its validity. Eventually, this leads to scientism, the belief that science is the only source of knowledge and that science can solve every single problem presented to man. What eye_xsection_01.jpghas science to say regarding our encounter with the tree? The unquestioned verdict of science is that our encounter with the tree is quite simple: It is reducible to certain mechanisms that go on in our brain, causing a complex series of neurons to fire, finally producing the image of the tree before us. What this means is that the tree, the meadow, the sky—everything is illusory. The tree is not really a tree since it is a construction in our minds. In fact, the brown bark and green leaves are neither of those things, because the light reflecting from them is everything but those colors, and the image of the tree itself is heavily diluted and reversed and edited by the retinal system so that it is everything but what it is. The tree becomes anything but a tree. We are not content with this, though. As a result, science reduces the tree further, breaking it down into mere atoms, which are about 99% empty, and which are divisible into quarks that zip around emptiness. At the quantum level, neither the tree nor I exist. If anything is experienced, Unknown.jpegthen it is at most an illusory construction in the mind. Not only is the tree reduced, but I, too, am reduced to a measurable quantity. My brain waves, behavior, and physical composition can be analyzed and reduced to nothing. Heidegger rejects this representationalism. He thinks it unrealistic to view things idealistically or representationally. For him, percipi est esse, to be perceived is to be. In other words, for something to be seen, it must in the first place be there. It must exist, foremost. Before science can analyze a tree, a tree must be there to be analyzed. By analyzing the tree, scientists are effectively looking past it. They are missing the tree. They are neglecting the tree for what it is—a tree. Therefore, Heidegger can be said to be defending common sense. I see a tree in a meadow, and that is what I see. This kind of perceiving is pre-scientific, even pre-conceptual; in a word, it is naïve, in that is both unsuspecting and natural. To look at a tree as such is to look at it without judgment, without second thoughts, without trying to peel it away, as if to reveal a second, deeper layer beneath. I behold the tree and just look at it. In Buddhist psychology, I could be said to be perceiving rather than conceiving. Instead of labeling, categorizing, and analyzing the tree, I see, acknowledge, and accept it. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, a face-to-face encounter. It is just the self and the tree in the meadow. The self, perceiving the tree, “grounds” itself literally because the self finds itself planted firmly on the earth in the world, and figuratively because the self is established in relation to the tree and finds itself oriented thereto. Thus grounded, the observer is present. The observer is said to “awaken to reality.” They are aware of the tree, and they do not just regard it as a passive, lifeless presence-at-hand. There is a connection. As Heidegger puts it,

When we think through what this is, that a tree in bloom presents itself to us so that we can come and stand face-to-face with it, the thing that matters first and foremost, and finally, is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once [to] let it stand where it stands. Why do we say ‘finally’? Because to this day, thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.[1]

Importantly, Heidegger writes that the tree “presents itself to us.” He does not just mean that the tree is there for us to see; he is also implying that the tree, of its own, shows itself to us, reveals itself for us to see it, makes itself manifest. Heidegger’s word for this is the Greek Aletheia (αλἠθεια), which means “unconcealment.” The tree, previously concealed, images.jpegis unveiled. Usually, though, we “drop the tree in bloom,” meaning we do not see the tree for what it truly is but for its mode as an object. Just like how we wake up every morning and neglect our bed because we are so used to it, so we regard the tree as “just another object,” and so pay no attention to it. After all, what makes this tree so significant? It is just there. Heidegger is saying that we do not really see the tree as a tree-in-bloom. As a default, we live in a mode of everydayness, in which life seems to drag on, and everything in it unravels itself before us. We lazily make our way through life without giving heed to anything in the background. Things are mere objects. We ignore them, never acknowledging them, but just pass by inconsequentially. We have not the time for such trifles as a tree-in-bloom. Now, compare Heidegger’s example to that of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s:

When reality is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection, an almond tree that may be in your front yard may reveal its nature in perfect wholeness. The almond tree is itself truth, reality, your own self. Of all the people who have passed by your yard, how many have really seen the almond tree? … If your heart is not clouded by false views, you will be able to enter into a natural communion with the tree. The almond tree will be ready to reveal itself to you in complete wholeness. To see the almond tree is to see the way. One Zen Master, when asked to explain the wonder of reality, pointed to a cypress tree and said, “Look at the cypress tree over there.”[2]

Unknown.jpegIn this passage, Nhat Hanh mentions the tree “reveal[ing] its nature in perfect wholeness.” It is easy to relate this to Heidegger’s concept of unconcealment. For both thinkers, the tree is a very real entity, one which is capable of being shown to us. So real is the tree, that it is wholly independent of us, because it is unconcealed “in perfect wholeness”; in other words, the tree is presented to us because of its being a substantial tree. The tree reveals itself in “wholeness” considering it is complete in itself. The tree as a tree is ready to be seen by us. It is readily unconcealed. In Greek, the word for nature is phusis (φύσις). Heidegger translates the word from its origins to mean “self-emergence.” For this reason, to say the tree “is experienced in its nature of ultimate perfection” is to say that the tree emerges forth from within itself. The tree is perfectly whole as a tree, and so it presents itself. Nhat Hanh goes on to ask how many people “have really seen the almond tree?” referring to everydayness. Imagine you have said almond tree in your front yard. You have been living in this house for 10 years, and every morning, when you drive to work, you walk out the door, stroll past the tree, get in your car, drive to work, drive back, walk past the tree, go to bed, and then repeat. Even after a month, you most likely will have gotten used to the tree, to the point where you are even tired of it. The brain, adapting to the repeated stimulus, decides to block it out and simply stop processing it. As such, every morning, you ignore the almond tree for the simple reason that you are so familiar with it. But familiarity breeds contempt. Consequently, you do not give it the time it deserves. And think about a jogger who passes by and sees the tree, or someone driving through the neighborhood who notes the almond tree in your yard—although they see it, can you say that they really saw the almond tree? How many people, in the middle of b17338ee1086cbc142c1d070ba6a77af.jpgtheir days, stop what they are doing to simply look at a tree, think, “That is a tree,” and silently, thoughtfully, admire it for its natural beauty? Sadly, the number will not be high, if at all a number. The point of this illustration is to show what everydayness looks like in contrast to mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exact opposite. Being mindful allows one to enter into “a natural communion with the tree,” as Nhat Hanh writes. The mindful observer is not filled with “false views”—internal ideas, concepts, scientific prejudices, representations—but readily sets the tree up for an encounter. Whereas the average, everyday observer is inattentive, distracted, and remiss, the practitioner of mindfulness opens themselves up to “the wonder of reality.” And what is “the wonder of reality,” you ask? Nhat Hanh cites the Zen parable of the teacher pointing to a tree and saying, “That is a tree.” Upon a first reading, the reader will find this story silly and anticlimactic. However, given this background, we know that this a much deeper truth. The Zen teacher is not just pointing to the tree, but the tree is revealing itself to the Zen master, so they enter into a “natural communion” “in perfect wholeness.” This wonder, this astonishment, is the key to being attentive. Wonder plays a big role in Heidegger’s later philosophy. To wonder at reality is to be overcome by the bare fact of existence; to wonder is to be mindful of Being.


Parmenides in forest.pngHow does one think, or how does one be mindful according to Heidegger? The answer, we found, lies in the following sentence translated (heavily) from Parmenides: Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, or “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too, the presence of what is present.” What this means, we shall examine phrase by phrase. Λέγειν, or legein, means “to say,” or “to lay out,” in the way of explaining something. Therefore, legein is to let-lie-before insomuch that we take something before us, and we leave it as such. An example Heidegger uses is of a mountain range: After taking a long yet beautiful hike, we stop at a plateau, and we look out at the mountains across from us. During our admiration of the mountains, we notice that they “stand out,” so to speak, in that they emerge in the midst of the background, where we let them lie, arranged in the way that they are arranged. Our stopping to look at the mountains is an act of letting-lie-before. We leave the mountains to themselves where they stand, simply watch from a distance, letting them be, without interference. Literally, we are letting them lie before us. It is not as though the mountains are asking, Unknown.jpeg“Can we lie before you?” and we say, “We let you,” however, as though we are the ones “letting” them. What the “letting” refers to is our passive, unintentional attitude toward the mountains. Simply put, we are enjoying the view of the mountains in nature. This is a basic orientation of mindfulness: To let-lie-before. If you can, then take a moment right now, wherever you are—just a minute—and be mindful by using this technique. Sit, stand, or lie down, and take into view all your surroundings. Breathe in and out, counting the breath, looking around impartially, letting things lie before you as they are. The chair you are sitting on, the ground you are lying or standing on—as they support your weight, you are simultaneously letting them lie beneath you. Notice, then, that which grounds you. Being mindful involves attending to things with full attention and allowing them to exist.


Unknown.jpegNext, Heidegger talks of “taking-to-heart” from νοεῖν, or noein. Noein comes from nous (νους), mind. Insofar as nous means mind, it brings connotations of the logical, the rational. Despite this connection, Heidegger actually takes noein to mean “to perceive” rather than “to think.” This move should bring to mind the distinction between perception and conception. Whereas the mind is usually rational, Heidegger sees it as the emotional in a way, to the extent that it is a passive process. To perceive is to grasp something, to literally take it into view. If you think about it, Heidegger explains, then perceiving is a kind of passive reception. The tree in front of us presents itself, and we perceive its unconcealedness—we receive the tree’s emergence. It would be wrong to think that perception in this sense is wholly passive; Heidegger does not want to take this approach, but rather contends that perception is both active and passive: To perceive is to both receive something passively while at the same time caring for it actively. Elsewhere, Heidegger writes, “Apprehension [perception] … denotes a process of letting things come to oneself in which one does not simply take things in, but rather takes up a position to receive what shows itself.”[3] Here, he explains the twofold nature of perceiving. Because perceive comes from capere, meaning to take, Heidegger plays on the word “take,” taking (sorry, I had to) it to be both passive and active, as a “taking-in” and a “taking-up-of.” Purposefully, he says perception is “a process of letting” in which we “take things in.” In viewing something, we “take it in” or receive it. We say we “take in” a puppy when it is lost; we receive it. In another strain, we “take up” a disposition, or, as Heidegger puts it, a position. During discussions, we “take up a position,” by which we mean we adopt it and adhere to it faithfully. From this, we get that noein means “taking-to-heart.” A matter is Unknown-2.jpeg“taken-to-heart” because it is important to us, so we hold it close. We receive something while protecting it. In terms of mindfulness, this is being appreciative of things. Practicing mindfulness has a big component of appreciating the moment. Going for a walk is a great form of mindfulness meditation. Walking, we get to see nature all around us, and we get to perceive it unendingly. In perceiving it, we are receiving it. By receiving it and noticing it, we slowly learn to appreciate it and take it to heart. We want to care for nature. But caring does not necessarily mean you have to go out and join some kind of activist group; caring can be as much as simply enjoying nature and spending more time with it. Spending more time with something shows that you care about it. When you care about something, when you love it deep down, you feel it in your heart. Spending time in the present disposes us to taking-to-heart.


Now, taken together, we have “Useful is the letting-lie-before-us, so taking-to-heart, too.” Legein and noein are co-dependent. One cannot occur without the other. With regard to the almond tree, we let it lie before us by becoming aware of it. And once we are aware of it, we receive it and take-to-heart. Conversely, Heidegger says that when we care for something and take it to heart, we are implicitly letting-it-lie. We do not go about

leaving something where it lies while we pass by indifferently…. By taking to heart and mind, we gather and focus ourselves on what lies before us, and gather what we have taken to heart. Whence do we gather it? Where else but to itself, so that it may become manifest such as it of itself lies before us.[4]

Alright, so what does that mean? Let us be mindful of the tree: The tree is still there, no matter what happens, even if we do not pay attention to it. But if we stop, take a second to really look at it for what it is, then we will let it lie there while gathering thought about it. Here is another way of paraphrasing Heidegger: Passing a tree, attending to it, setting our gaze upon it, we do not “leave” it “indifferently,” regarding it as just another object, but we notice it as being in our line of sight, whereupon we gather, or attend to, thought, although not just any thought, but thought directed only toward the tree as it stands before us. I could pass by an orchard and not see a single tree. The problem, Heidegger Unknown-1.jpegthinks, is the opposite of the classic phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees.” For him and practitioners of mindfulness, it should really be “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Going to and from work every day, the average person will not care to give his time to a tree. He will continue on his way, with no time for silly distractions. Many of us, even when we want to give time to things, do not give them our full attention. We confuse the whole with its parts. We refuse to acknowledge the tree in its full presence. We do not see the tree for itself. Something we need to do, understandably, is to stand before a tree and think about it—think about it not in terms of representations, but in terms of mindful thinking. Thinking about the tree, we “gather” it, as Heidegger says. We gather our attention to the present and regard the tree solely.


Finally, what are we to make of “the presence of what is present,” the ἐὸν ἔμμεναι, of Χρὴ τὸ λέγειν τε νοεῖν τ΄ ἐὸν ἔμμεναι? The presence of what is present is the closest thing to a synonym Heidegger’s “Being of beings” has. It is what makes present things present. But what does it mean to be present? What are we letting-lie and taking-to-heart? In class, the teacher asks a name, and the student replies “present,” meaning “here,” “not absent,” “existent.” Presence is derived from praeesse, meaning “being before” (prae/pre = before, esse = to exist). The “before” is not temporal but spatial; it is not saying the thing exists before we do; it exists right here and now, be-fore us, in front of us, instant, immediate, accessible. Presence pre-sents itself to us; it lies before us. Phenomena, experienced things, are revealed and made manifest from unconcealment in the midst of unconcealment. This description does not really help. If anything, it only muddies the waters more. Presence, as with many of Heidegger’s terms, can best be explained Unknown-3.jpegthrough illustrations. Gestalt psychology argued that humans perceive things in terms of wholes and parts. Perception then involves a figure and a ground. The ground is the background, or what gives context, the scene, and the figure is what occupies our attention—it is the main attraction, the distinct thing in front of us. In many paintings, for example, there is something in the center to which our eye is quickly attracted, while the rest of the painting fades into the background. Imagine a bowl of fruit—this is the figure, while the table upon which it rests is the background. The thing is, the figure and ground can be switched. We can look at the table, thus obscuring the bowl of fruit, making it the background, and the table the figure. Presence presents itself in what is present, and unconcealment unconceals itself in what is already-unconcealed. Take a mountainscape: The mountain range is within our field of vision, meaning it is unconcealed, considering it is seen by us and not hidden, but it is only so within the context of the whole scenery, from the sky to the ground, i.e., what is already there, behind the mountains. Heidegger says the mountain range’s Unknown-4.jpeg“presence is the rising entry into what is unconcealed within unconcealment, even and especially when the mountain range keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.”[5] To paraphrase, the mountain range “rises” up from the ground, where we see it must clearly and distinctly, in the background of the environment. Before we can see the mountain, we must be able to see the context in which it presents itself. Accordingly, the mountain must reveal itself after everything else has already been revealed. The figure—the mountain—and the ground—the sky, ground, trees, etc.—are dependent upon one another. Heidegger states that the mountain most naturally “keeps standing as it is, extending and jutting.” A mountainscape is thus most widely recognized. Indeed, when we look at any mountain, whether it be in Yosemite or the Himalayas, we can certainly confirm that, in the context of a ground and sky, the mountain, in being a mountain, shows its strength in its awesome magnitude as it extends and juts.


Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 12.49.06 PM.pngLooking out at the mountainscape, we automatically perceive the mountain (rise) and become aware of it (entry), but we do not notice this subtle perceptual shift itself as it happens, but let it stand there. It lies there, present, so long as we look at it, and it keeps being a mountain in our view (continuance). But as it stays in our view, in the forefront of our attention, it can at any moment fall risk to becoming a part of the background, thereby concealing itself, as when we look somewhere else, and it vanishes (coming and going away). As it appears to us, presents itself to us, it is what it is (radiance) in its manifestness, in its simply existing, and remains so, temporally enduring as a mountain (duration), where it is thought about and acknowledged as laying (gathering). These traits, Heidegger says, are the traits of presence. It consists in “unconcealedness, the rising from unconcealedness, the entry into unconcealedness, the coming and going away, the duration, the gathering, the radiance, the rest, the hidden suddenness of possible absenting.”[6] Mindfulness practice can apply this to the present moment, to what Unknown-1.jpegis present, in meditation. Notice, when you look around, that everything sort of just appears, or presents itself, while in the midst of a melange of other items all scattered about, although none vies for our attention, since we must direct it ourselves, giving us the power to choose what we want to focus on, what we want to present itself in presence, as it radiates before us in its sway, and how, when we are tired of concentrating on one thing, we can leave it, concealing it, and turn our focus on something else, whereat it is unconcealed in its own. Meditation enables us to engage our senses in order to receive a greater experience of what is present. The Ancient Greeks, thought Heidegger, were mindful of their surroundings and wondered about Being. They asked about presence and found the above traits, but nothing of the traits themselves, seeing as presence is what is presented through them.


“Thinking is not so much non-philosophy as post-philosophy,” writes Lee Braver, an interpreter of Heidegger.[7] This is an important concept to understand. Heidegger’s mission is to disassemble Western metaphysics, a tradition which involves a lot of rationalism, conceptualism, and objectification, all of which he deems dangerous. Thinking, then, is not some kind of antithesis to philosophy, but a revolt, or, more fittingly, a revision. Heidegger is trying to reform philosophy by returning it to its original form. The Presocratics did not care about whether reality was objective or not, whether they could analyze language—all they cared about was why we existed and what reality was. Thus, Heidegger wants us to examine these questions once more. He wants us to think about existence, about Being, about what it means to be. It is a Unknown-5.jpegdivergence from the normal route of philosophy, and its goal is to attain “grateful wonder towards presencing rather than explaining and controlling present entities.”[8] Grateful wonder is a form of curiosity and amazement at the world. Thinking about existence fills one with gratefulness for existing and a wondrous awe for all that exists. Importantly, it is about gratefulness, rather than explanation and control, as he says. Science, we have noted, does not think, because it tries to objectify beings and impose quantitative calculations on them, thereby controlling them, subjecting them to countless experiments, seeking to explain its whences and wherefores. What science does not try to do, is wonder at beings and be grateful for them. A scientist may proclaim to be grateful for a tree’s existence so that he may study it, but then it is degraded at his hands as soon as he begins to analyze and dissect it. Technological exploitation and manipulation, prevalent in the modern age, only further this agenda. Again, Heidegger’s mindful thinking must be distinguished from regular thinking as we take it: “[T]hought in the sense of rational-logical representations turns out to be a reduction of the word that beggars the imagination.”[9] Re-presentation means putting a semblance, a false reality, an imitation, in place of what something really is. We take what is present, and we re-present it, thereby changing its form, making it into something it is not originally. This form of thinking removes magic and in so doing systematizes and imitates, like Plato’s idea of art in The Republic. When we represent beings, we “drop the tree in bloom.” Reality is left bland, and we are ungrateful toward it.


In the previous post, I wrote about the connection Heidegger makes between “thinking” and “thanking.” Even in English, the words show a very close similarity, both visually and phonically. As it turns out, they come from the same roots. Somewhere along the etymological tree, there was a split, resulting in thencan and thencian, which became, respectively, thanc and thonc, then finally thank and think as we now know them. A thought consists in giving thanks. I used the spirit of Thanksgiving to best show the relation: On the holiday, we give thought to those we love, by which we give thanks to Unknown-6.jpegthem. It is a meaningful consideration. Thinking is having grateful thoughts. This function is related to sorge, care, which is what constitutes man’s existence in Heidegger’s other work Being and Time. We humans are always concerned with something, be it a person, relation, or duty. As such, thinking is a form of care, in which we give with intention and intentionality. When we think, we heed the gift given to us to think. The gathering of thought is memory. Back in the day, memory meant “mindful.” To have in memory meant to meditate upon and keep in one’s mind. When we retain the past and present, we are said to re-call thoughts, to re-collect them, to bring them back into the mind, where we can gather them and focus on them. “As we give thought to what is most thought-provoking, we give thanks,” writes Heidegger.[10] The most thought-provoking thing is existence, or Being. When we think about Being, we thank it. We give thanks for a being’s Being, but since beings are everywhere being, we are giving thanks to Being itself. To think Being is to thank Being—to thank Being for what?—for being what it is, for being what is, for being qua Being, for being Being. You see, in order to thank Being, we must be, or exist, in the first place, which would not be possible were it not for the fact of Being, wherefore we must give thanks to it.


Heidegger gives us more hints: “The human will to explain just does not reach to the simpleness of the simple onefold of worlding…. The first step toward such vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents—that is, explains—to the thinking that responds and recalls.”[11] This quote reinforces the conception of thinking forwarded by Braver earlier. Both speak of the perils of explanation. Braver said that we should aim at grateful wonder instead of controlling and explaining, lest we lose the opportunity to appreciate Being, and Heidegger says that explanation not only misses images.jpegsimplicity, but it also represents. Representation is closely related to explanation, Heidegger reports. By saying “the thinking that…,” Heidegger furthers the dichotomy between rational thinking and mindful thinking. The one is negative, the other positive. The one is explanatory, the other grateful. This only serves to widen the rift. Scientific representational thinking gets in the way of the simplicity of Being, therefore. In order to counteract this modern technological attitude, we must, as Heidegger instructs us, first “step back from” ideational thought and “step toward … vigilance.” Vigilance is careful watch. A vigilant person takes care of and nurtures whatever they are watching over. In this case, similar to taking-to-heart, we humans, mortals, must take up our place as the shepherds of Being—we must take Being to heart and nurture it. Mindfulness asks that we not explain, just experience. On an afternoon walk, we need not analyze everything we see. The path beneath our feet need not be studied, only felt; the birds in the trees need not be photographed, only heard; the clouds in the sky need not be categorized, only observed. We must take-to-heart what lies-before-us nonjudgmentally, with appreciation and gratefulness, whither we attend thought. Of the images-1.jpegpresent, we must be vigilant, always keeping a watchful eye on presence, lest it escape our view, or lest we end up objectifying it. Living in the moment prescribes thinking. Heidegger says true, mindful—that is, gathering—thought “responds and recalls.” The dirt path, the singing birds, the wispy clouds—we are not here to box them in, but to set them free in their own way. All of them are to be revealed in unconcealedness. Their radiance is supposed to be brought forth from us so that they can endure in their gathering, rising into view, entering into perception, prompting our reception of them into our hearts, when we can give grateful thoughts to them, thank them for existing, thank Being for being, dwell on the fact of their being, and direct wonder at them.


Being calls to us to think it, and we answer the call through ourselves. Singing their songs, the birds invite us to answer them, and we do when we heed them, when we listen to their songs raptly and with intention, when we attend to the birds with focus. The clouds, high in the sky, wave to us from above, and we respond to them by passing underfoot. Beneath us, the dirt path opens itself up to us for an embrace, and we recall it by thanking it. Gathered in our hearts is thought. We are not in the past or future, but the present. When we are present, things present themselves as present. Held before us is time in a continuum—it hangs there before us, the present, beckoning us forth, into the presence of what is present, where all things arise. The present isolates us, suspends us between two extremes, between what-is-no-longer and what-is-not-yet. In the present, we can enjoy the presence of presence. Justin Richards on Medium put it eloquently in a well-thought-out essay

Standing in this now we withdraw from our ordinary experience of time, and as soon as the thinking activity is at an end we find ourselves back in the coming and going of past and future, and the now moment withdraws from us again. The Thinking that gathers what is in the inmost heart of one’s being in a saying that lays it before oneself as it is establishes a person’s orientation towards Being; towards the presence of what is present, towards the unique temporal experience of a genuine Now. Infinity before us, infinity after us, and standing here, now, the tree in bloom, a being in Being.


Unknown-8.jpegThe German philosopher and Eastern philosophy have close connections, connections that are oft overlooked, but which deserve careful study and devotion. Combining phenomenology with spiritual practices, Heidegger manages to devise a remedy to today’s accelerating civilization, when all is Now, when values are being lost, and nihilism looms. Discarding modern scientific-technological objectification, Heidegger moves to a more primitive, accepting, and simple philosophy, or way of life, in which we can respond to the call of Being, of existence itself, through wonder and curiosity. If we can take the time to stay in silence without moving, then we can grasp but a glimmer of what it means to truly be, to be in the presence of Being. By not judging, by perceiving not conceiving, by being grateful, by acknowledging, by not dropping beings, by not representing, by letting things be, by being vigilant, by taking-to-heart—we can be mindful of ourselves, others, and life. A mindful moment is all it takes. Psychologists have found that writing down a list of things for which we are grateful every day increases our well-being and happiness. On the top of that list should be “Being,” first and foremost. Consider this: You are alive. You exist. You are. Period. When you wake up, re-call—bring back to mind—the fact that you Unknown-5.jpegare, that you exist, and be grateful therefor. What better gift is there than to be alive? Paraphrasing Thoreau, it is a shame to die only to discover you had never lived. Heidegger asks us to pause and live in the moment and give thanks so that we do not miss out on the magical experience of life. In the next blog, I will discuss in further detail the Eastern connection in Heidegger—but that is in the future. Until then, we are in the present, and we ought to continue living that way mindfully.

 


[1] Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, p. 44 (Henceforth abbreviated WCT
[2] Nhat Hanh, The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Almond Tree in Your Front Yard,” p. 58
[3] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, p. 147
[4] Heidegger, WTC, pp. 208-9
[5] Id., p. 236
[6] Id., p. 237
[7] Braver, Heidegger’s Later Writings, p. 118
[8] Id., p. 124
[9] Heidegger, WCT, p. 139
[10] Id., p. 146
[11] Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, “The Thing,” pp. 180-1

 

For further reading: What is Called Thinking? by Martin Heidegger (1968)
The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh by Thich Nhat Hanh (2000)

4 Strategies To Stay Motivated

Unknown.jpegEvery Thursday, we dread coming to class. Slowly, nervously, we walked into the gym, not knowing into what we were walking or what to expect. He calmly sauntered ahead of us, set down his clipboard and music box, opened the door for the girls, and stood there, arms crossed, as if plotting his latest machination—of which we, the students, were the victims. We got in our lines, got through our warm-ups, then stood there dumbly, looking amongst ourselves with frightened eyes, shrugging, asking with our eyes, “What is it today?” with desperation, with full knowledge that none of us would walk out of there alive. Suddenly, after clearing his throat, our P.E. teacher announced, “Alright, get behind the sideline and listen up.” We got behind the sideline. He turned to face us. He gestured. “Today, for your fitness test, you will sprint from here to the sideline and back, followed by a burpee. You will repeat this, each time adding one burpee on, until you get to 10 burpees. When you are done, shout ‘Time!’ and go get some water.” So that’s what our fitness test would be that day. It sounded terrible. In total, we would be doing 20 sprints and… oh god… 55 burpees. I looked at my friend who was next to me. How are we gonna survive? Are we going to die today? These questions would be answered shortly. Until then, it was just I and the present moment—just I and the workout. And the key to it all: Keeping the right mindset to stay motivated and get through it.


images.jpegMotivation, we all know, is a complicated and fickle thing, a thing that usually comes and goes without our willing it, as though a fairy sprinkles her magic dust on us, and we become motivated, only for it to vanish into thin air when we are done, leaving us unmotivated and lazy, incapable of doing anything more. There are no real shortcuts to becoming motivated. Most of the time, it just has to happen. When I say, “I am motivated,” with “motivated” being in adjective form, I say it as such because it is done to me. Really, I am implying that there is something actively motiv-ating me. As such, I am passive. I am the recipient of motivation, whereupon I am motivated to do something. Whether it is doing a fitness test like I have to do every Thursday in P.E. or going to go a job that one hates, the only way to get through it, the only way to survive—is to be motivated. In tough moments, when we are pushed to our limits, when our arms feel like they are gonna fall off, when the stacks of paper that have to be read are piled to the roof, when all seems unbearable, when all hope seems lost—it is at these moments that we need motivation the most. To get through them, we must stick with them and try to stay motivated.


As it turns out, I did not, in fact, die that Thursday after completing my 20 sprints and 55 burpees, although it almost felt as if I died. I got through it, though, by keeping the right mindset. Today, I will be sharing my 4-step method of staying motivated, from which you can hopefully benefit, too! This can be used during exercises, work, or anything else, if you make it work. I have yet to give it a catchy name, but for now, it is the MMAA method:


  1. Macro. The first tactic I used was thinking at the macro, or large, scale. In the back of my mind, I always had an idea of how far I was in the workout. For example, I would remind myself, “I have ‘x’ sprints left and ‘y’ burpees left.” This way, by Unknown-1.jpegthinking about it in terms of the absolute, the ultimate, the whole, I was able to keep track of my progress. Taking inventory of where one is and where one has to go, allows for clearer thinking and planning. The macro aspect is the long-term. It takes into account the beginning and the end, the start and the finish, but not the middle in between, because then one gets caught up in the details; on the contrary, one must keep their eyes set on the whole, the bigger picture, in relation to which the smaller parts stand. Thinking macro is absolute and always directed toward the bigger sets, the bigger picture overall. 

  2. Micro. Second is thinking on the micro, or small, scale. During the workout, once I had established where I was in terms of the macro, I could then break it down into smaller units, into sets, and from there, into individual repetitions. This way, a larger workload became a series of smaller, more manageable ones. The macro makes way for the micro. To use an example: If I had to do nine burpees, then having to do nine burpees would be the macro approach, but the micro approach would be doing three sets of three. The bigger picture—nine burpees—was broken into the smaller pictures—manageable sets, three sets of three—which could easily be completed. The two work together. Illustrating further, if I were still sticking with the 3×3 burpees, and I was completing the first three, then the next 2×3 would then be the macro, and the current three the micro: This is because the micro is oriented, or Mosaic-Magic-840x400.jpggrounded, rather, in the present, in the relative and relational. Micro thinking is always a part of the whole, as opposed to macro thinking, which is the whole itself. The macro makes a mental map, and the micro draws the pathways connecting the landmarks. If one only thought macro, then they would be overwhelmed; if one only thought micro, then they would be lost. As such, the two mutually coexist and are dependent upon each other. Another idea that I touched on is that of the present. Because the macro takes into account the future, the micro takes into account only the present—not what I will do, in the future, what is still left, but what I am doing, right now, at this moment. While the macro image of three sets of three burpees exists in my mind, projected into the future, the micro conception of  “I am doing one burpee at the moment, out of three” is being done at the moment. What this means is that the micro, unlike the macro, is twofold: It simultaneously breaks down the macro and enacts it. In summary, the macro is a long-term projection of the bigger picture and what needs to be done, and the micro is the short-term breaking down of the macro into smaller parts that can be completed realistically.


  3. Action. Next is action. The name does not say anything important, nor does it seem groundbreaking. To be motivated requires that some action be done, does it not? Is not action redundant, then? Only to an extent, insofar as it is never considered in itself. Going back to the fitness test, I would find myself in the second half of the workout frequently asking how I would get through it. On the macro level, I had 10 burpees to do, and on the micro level, I had two sets of five to do. However, as I Unknown-3.jpegjumped, squatted, then pushed myself to the ground, I struggled, both physically and mentally. Already I had done 45 burpees, so my arms and legs were tired, and I was out of breath. Oh, if the workout could just end already! I thought. But this got me on a train of thought: Time is that through which things unfold, and unfolding is an action, meaning the only way to pass time is to act; and what this meant was, the sooner and quicker I acted, the sooner the workout would be over. Let me put it another way: Just sitting there on the gym floor hoping for the workout to end, acknowledging the pain and fatigue I was feeling, thinking both macro and micro—none of these would make the workout end quicker unless I actually did them. So while I knew I was tired, and while I knew I had to push out these last reps, the longer I dwelled on these things, the longer it would take me to finish, meaning the longer I would dwell, the longer I would hurt. Ultimately, thinking too much causes delay. Another way of thinking about action: Overall, the macro plan is to do my final 10 burpees and two sprints, yet having this plan is but what sets me on my way to doing them. Having this big picture in my mind does not change anything, per se. All it does is linger as a thought. It has no potent effect. I could sit on the sideline the entire day repeating to myself, “You have 10 burpees and two sprints,” but those numbers will not go down until I start on them. Until then, the numbers remain the same. Until then, nothing will change. So, in those moments when I found it nearly impossible to finish my reps, and when I asked, “How will I do the last four burpees?” the answer was, “By doing the last four burpees.”


  4. Absurdism. No matter what task it is we are doing, we at one point or another ask ourselves, “Why are we even doing this? Why should I even be doing it? What consequences are there if I do not do them?” That Thursday, in the midst of the fitness test, these questions came up many times in many forms. For comfort, I like to think back to Existentialist Albert Camus’ response to the problem of suicide. In Unknown-2.jpeghis essay, Camus references Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who has been punished by the gods to indefinitely push a boulder up a hill, who, having pushed the boulder to the top, watches it roll down to the bottom, forced to start all over again, ad infinitum. What does this have to do with anything? Well, Camus said that, although this is not the best of circumstances, we must bear it the best we can. Applying this reasoning, we can all find solace and wisdom in our goals: While a hard, laborious, and tedious task may be imposed upon us, and we do not want to do it, we might as well do it happily and do it to the best of our ability. If you think about it, there really is no reason to do it, no overarching purpose. But if we are doing it already, and if it is expected of us, why not jump in and make something of it? Sweating in the school gym, feeling like spaghetti, I knew that I could at any minute stop doing whatever I was doing, give up, forfeit, throw in the towel, call it quits—I could surrender to meaninglessness, to the absurd—or I could overcome the absurd, triumph over it. I could take the meaningless and make it meaningful. I could fight against the pain and turn it from suffering into vanquishing. It is a process of strengthening. There was no universal law that I had to do a fitness test, and by all means, I did not have to do it; but I decided that, despite its purposelessness in the long run, I might as well push through it and prove myself in spite of the void it presented to me and my classmates.


images-1.jpegIn conclusion, motivation is not a singular, simple thing—yet then again, we already knew that. I had conceived of this blog during a nap, and I had planned out a perfect image of it in my head; but as soon as I started writing out the strategies, I found that it did not correspond with the image in my head, and I felt like it had been a waste; I wanted to rewrite the whole thing—but I lacked, of all things, the motivation to do so! Somehow, out of sheer willpower, I managed to jump back and rewrite it; hence, what you are now reading. The MMAA method, albeit widely applicable, is certainly not the approach for everyone, and it may not work for every single task. Howbeit, the four steps need not be taken together as a package, no; rather, you are free to do whatsoever you like with any of the methods, be it adapting them to your own strategy, or taking one or two and starting from there. Ultimately, it is subjective, considering that is the very nature of motivation—it differs for everyone. The main takeaways, in summarizing the four strategies are:


  1. Have a clear idea of the bigger picture, including reference points, and a clearly defined beginning and end.

  2. Think about the bigger picture in small terms, in terms that are doable, that can be done mindfully.
  3. Plan, but do not plan such that it gets in the way of enacting that plan. Reflecting too much on the plan prevents it from coming into play.
    And finally:
  4. There may not be an immediate meaning behind your work, and you have to be fine with that: Make your own meaning, and embrace it. Maybe it is not the best thing to be doing, and yes, maybe you have better things to do, but for now, you might as well have fun doing it!

And yes, many of the ideas expressed herein are not new, and perhaps you have read something similar before; but hopefully, you have gleaned at least something of value that you can apply to your life!


Stay motivated, readers! Keep reading!

Happiness as Eudæmonia

Averill on Happiness.pngHappiness, according to psychologist James R. Averill, a Eudaemonist, is a means-to-an-end, contrary to what his predecessor Aristotle thought. After taking into account both survey reports and behavioral observations, he devised a table of happiness (see below). It is a 2×2 table, one axis being “Activation,” the other “Objectivity.” The four types of happiness he identified were joy, equanimity, eudaemonia, and contentment. He narrowed it down to the objective standard of high immersion known as “eudaemonia,” a term for overall well-being that finds its roots in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle wrote that eudaemonia was achieved through activity, as when we are so engaged in doing something, we forget we are doing it, and lose a sense of time—time flies when you’re having fun. As such, happiness for Aristotle is not a typical emotion in that it occurs for periods of time. You cannot always be in a state of eudaemonia. Rather, it can be actively pursued when you immerse yourself in meaningful work. To be happy is not to be happy about or for anything because it is essentially an object-less emotion, a pure feeling. Eudaemonia is distinguished from equanimity by the fact that the latter is the absence of conflict, the former the resolution thereof. Equanimity has been valued by philosophers as a state of total inner peace; on the other hand, eudaemonia is the result of achieving a images.jpeggoal, which necessarily entails conflict, viz. desire vs. intention. When you are confident in your abilities and set realistic goals, when you are able to complete their goals, having overcome conflict, you can achieve happiness. Too many short-term goals means not experiencing enough of what life has to offer, while too many long-term goals means not being accomplished or confident in yourself. The measure of happiness, then, is relative, not absolute, and differs from person to person. What remains absolute, however, is that this sense of achievement can be had privately, by yourself, and publicly, when it is done for your community, family, or close friends. Inherent to eudaemonia, Averill asserts, is purpose: Behind happiness is direction, intention, and devotion. This led him to claim that “Pleasure without purpose is no prescription for happiness,” meaning you should not resort to hedonism to be happy, but must seek pleasure in meaningful actives into which you can immerse yourself.

Averill’s Table of Happiness:

Subjective: Objective:
High activation: Joy Eudaemonia
Low activation: Contentment Equanimity

 


For further reading: Handbook of Emotions 2nd ed. by Michael Lewis (2000)

The Breath and Mindfulness

Benefits-Deep-Breathing-Featured1.pngHow many times have you gone for a run, and, a mile in, you reach your prime, and you feel unstoppable, your legs like automatic machines pumping, arms swinging by your sides, only to feel a pain in your chest, a heavy feeling in your lungs, sharp, managing just short breaths? Or what about getting ready to present in front of an audience, all their eyes on you, expectations hanging above you like the sword of Damocles, your reputation on the line, and you find yourself pacing nervously, breathing in and out shallowly? Or when you try to hold your breath for as long as you can underwater, cheeks puffed out, pressure building up, rising, inside your mouth and lungs, till it is enough to make you burst so that you pop up to the surface fighting for air, gasping, thankful for each time you get to swallow? In each of the common and everyday above instances, there runs a common theme: The importance of the breath. Just as these occasions are average, so breathing is something we do daily, although we never give attention to it. Constant, unchanging, it remains with us throughout the day, even if we do not heed it, dependable, vital. Despite being something we do around 20,000 times a day, breathing is, for the most part, subconscious, an effort produced by the brain because it has to be done, rather than because we will it. It is only after a workout, for example, when we push ourselves, that we find we have power over it, and really feel a need for it. However, the breath is much Unknown.jpegmore important than we believe. For thousands of years, the breath has remained an essential part of our cultures, West and East, ranging from Vedic writings from India to Ancient Greek philosophy to modern day Buddhism and mindfulness practices, which have tried to bring back an ancient appreciation of the breath. In this blog, I will discuss the physiology of breathing, its philosophical and meditative significance, and how it can help in daily life.


Beginning with the physiology is essential because sometimes, one appreciates something more when they know how it works; and also because, once one understands how something operates, they are more aware of how to improve it. The process of breathing, although covered it in school, is not always covered in detail. Respiration, or ventilation, is the act of inhaling fresh air and exhaling stale air. It is an exchange. The purpose of respiration is to exchange carbon dioxide (CO2) for oxygen (O2), the former being poisonous, the latter good for us, hence the need to get rid of CO2 and get more O2 in the body. While you can go weeks without food and days without water or sleep, you cannot go a single day, let alone a minute, without air—that is how vital it is. Beneath the diaphragmatic-breathing-illustration.jpgsurface, the process of inhalation goes like this: Together, the diaphragm, located between the abdomen and thorax, or chest, and the intercostals, which are muscles between the ribs on either side of the lungs, contract, allowing the lungs to expand. A dome-shaped muscle, the diaphragm flattens out, and the intercostals move up and outward, expanding the total area in the chest. Near the neck and shoulders, the sternocleidomastoid (a real mouthful!) moves the clavicle—the collarbone—and sternum, in harmony with the scalenes, all of which contract upward, opening up the chest farther. Put together, both actions make room for the lungs to expand. The chest, increases, as do the lungs, whose inner pressure is exceeded by external pressure, causing a suction effect so that air is sucked in. Exhalation is the opposite: The diaphragm relaxes, and the interior intercostals go down and in with the abdominals and obliques, shrinking and thereby increasing the volume of the lungs, causing a reverse suction, where the higher concentration of air within the lungs is diffused outside, to the lower concentration. Like a rubber band, the lungs remain passive purify-lungs.jpgthroughout respiration. Instead of thinking of the lungs as actively sucking in air, it is better to think of them as passive bands that are either stretched or released. Lungs are big pink sponges, colored so because they are full of blood vessels, inflated so because full of pneumatic branches ending in alveoli, where air is stored. Extending from the collarbone to the diaphragm, they are both divided into lobes. The right has three lobes, the left only two since it leaves room for the heart. Pleural membranes surround the exterior of the lungs, coating them with a fluid to help them contract effortlessly and smoothly, accounting for friction during inhalation and exhalation. How does the air get from your mouth and nose to your lungs? Air passes from the nasal cavity and mouth to the pharynx, which is pretty much the throat, whereupon it goes down the larynx, better known as the voicebox—where your voice is produced—before moving down the trachea. Here, it comes to a fork, two bronchi, left and right, each extending into Unknown-1.jpegsecondary bronchi, then tertiary bronchi, and finally into bronchioles, at the ends of which are small sacs called alveoli. This section takes place in the lungs, and because they physically branch downward, resembling an upside-down tree, it is referred to as the “bronchial tree.” A flap of cartilage lies between the pharynx and larynx. It is the epiglottis, and when relaxed, it lies up against the throat, opening up the passage of air; however, when it contracts, such as when swallowing, it acts like a drawbridge, moving down over the larynx, blocking anything unwanted. The job of the epiglottis is to let only air pass. All of these muscles are involved in subconscious breathing. More muscles are activated during exercise, as Respiratory center 1.jpgextra help is needed to speed up the process. At the bottom of the brain, the respiratory center stimulates the diaphragm and intercostals based on CO2, O2, and muscle stretch receptors. Chemoreceptors in the brain test blood in the body, and if there is a lack of blood, they alert the medulla oblongata, which will tell the body to produce oxygen faster. As we know, much of breathing is subconsciously controlled, its rate and depth preset by the brain, and altered when necessary, but we also have voluntary control over it. At rest, we breathe about 12-15 times per minute, and twice or more that amount during exercise. About 17 fl. oz. (0.5L) of air are displaced by the diaphragm; when forced, 70 fl. oz. (2L), totaling 150 fl. oz. (4.5L) added up. The air we breathe is 78.6% Unknown-2.jpegnitrogen, 20.9% oxygen, 0.4% water, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and 0.06% other elements. Accordingly, a lot of nitrogen is taken in, more than is needed, yet a lot of it is safe for us, only posing a threat when we are underwater, because then it remains in bubble form, at which time it can get into our blood. Luckily, our system is made to take in the right amount of oxygen we need. Of our total lung capacity, only 10% is used subconsciously. We always have at least 35 fl. oz. (0.1L) of air leftover despite having a total capacity of 204 fl. oz. (5.8L), meaning we never exhale all the air in our lungs, even if we try our hardest. The average flow air in the breath is 18fl. oz. (0.5L), but we have a reserved capacity of extra air in case we need it.


Meditation and running are a great combination because the two complement each other. Both value the breath and call for relaxation, which in turn strengthens oneself. To practice the two together, it is advised that you run at “conversational pace,” which is a pace at which you can comfortably sustain a conversation with someone else and not feel out of breath. When breathing during this, you should breathe from the bottom up, not the top down as we instinctively do, for there are no alveoli in the upper lungs. Shallow breaths from the chest deprive you of oxygen since there is not sufficient gas TobiasMacpheeRunThroughGrass.jpgexchange involved. Slow breaths from the diaphragm, at the bottom of the chest, near the stomach, will help you stay energized, prevent cramps, and focus you. Another important tip is to make your exhale longer than your inhale. Inhalation leaves residue oxygen in the lungs, mind you, such that, every now and then, the leftover oxygen will interfere with your respiratory system, resulting in a cramp because the oxygen got in. This way, by exhaling longer than you inhale, you not only reduce the chance of getting a cramp, but you also get a deeper, rhythmic breathing cycle. In the traditional philosophy of Yoga—not modern day Yoga, with the stretches—the regulation of breath is called prāna vritti. Central to its teachings is prānāyāma, or expansion of the vital force, prāna being Sanskrit for breath or vital force, āyama vertical or horizontal pranayama-breathing-lessons-nadhi-shodhana.jpgexpansion. Yoga training in prānāyāma requires that you first master āsana, posture, before moving onto breathing, to the extent that proper breathing is only enacted after achieving proper posture. Āsana involves straightening the spine so you are erect, a straight line able to be drawn from head to hips; opening up the chest, allowing the lungs to expand naturally; pulling the shoulders back between the scapula, or shoulder blades, thus enlarging the chest activity; and relaxing the whole body, releasing all tension from the muscles. The spine represents Earth, the empty space in the torso Ether, respiration Air, and Water and Fire, being diametrically opposed, represent life force (prāna). Therefore, all of nature is manifest in the body as a sacred unity, a gathering of the Elements. Once āsana is practiced sufficiently, one can move onto prānāyāma, where one is instructed to apply attention to the breath. Sahita prānāyāma is one specific technique that involves inhaling (pūruka), retaining (kumbhaka), then exhaling (recaka), each of which is equally prolonged. As such, each stage should last as long as the others, usually held for a few seconds, lengthening by a second. You should sit either on a chair or on the ground in a comfortable position, get Unknown.jpeginto āsana, properly aligned, erect, and breathe in a few seconds, retain it for the same length, then exhale for the same time, and repeat. It is similar to “box breathing,” a technique used by Navy Seals, who inhale for four seconds, hold it for four, exhale for four, and wait before inhaling for four—perhaps it was based on the ancient practice of sahita prānāyāma. By thus controlling the breath, you give it a regular rhythm. According to Yogic texts, there are five breaths: 1.) Prāna, which extends from the toe to the heart to the nose 2.) Apāna, which extends from the throat to the ribs 3.) Samāna, which extends from the digestion system to the joints to the navel 4.) Udāna, which is in the skull and eyebrows and 5.) Vyāna, which occupies the circulation of the breath, distributing the life force throughout the body. The aim hereof is to slow the breath as though you are asleep, when your mind goes adrift, wavering, and you can see into the absolute state of consciousness, “continued consciousness.” Just as we instinctively, subconsciously take shallow breaths as a habit, so we must learn to turn controlled, rhythmic breathing into a subconscious, instinctive habit. Through our days, we should be able to notice that we are breathing deeply and steadily by habit and therefore by instinct, rather than as we normally do it, subconsciously.


Other traditions, too, outside of Indian philosophy, practice extension of the breath. The Chinese philosophy of Taoism, in T’ai Chi, has a practice called “embryonic respiration,” whereby the breath is sustained for the goal of a longer life, ch’ang shen. It was thought that the breath gave the power of the immortality; if one could hold one’s breath for 1,000 seconds, they would become immortal. Obviously, the breath was taken very seriously, and it was trained rigorously. Other benefits of the breath were believed to be the ability to walk on fire, to not drown, and to cure sickness by expelling bad humors and airs. Islam and Hesychasm in the East also have breathing practices. Sufis say Dhikr, a kind of devotional prayer that is immensely private and isolated, always involving the Unknown-1.jpegbreath. Ancient Greek philosophy held air to be vital as well. One of the first philosophers, the pre-Socratic Anaximenes, held that the arche (αρχἠ) of the world, the single element from which the Cosmos and everything in it was made, was Air. A monist, he like Thales and Anaximander believed a single element was the basis of reality. Air, he taught, was concentrated in the breath, which functioned as man’s psyche (ψυχἠ), or soul/spirit, whence came “psychology.” Although its origin is widely debated, the saying of “Bless you” has been proposed to have come from an Anaximenes-influenced Ancient Greece: A sneeze was thought to expel the breath, which was synonymous with the soul, so people would say “Bless you” to keep the soul inside the body. A couple centuries later, the Stoics posited the existence of two principles in Nature, one passive, the other active. Pneuma (πνεῦμα), translated as breath, was conceived to be the active principle, a sort of fiery air immixed in the breath that pervaded reality. From it, we get words like “pneumatic” and “pneumonia,” all relating to the breath.


Unknown-2.jpegToday, the breath is becoming the center of attention again in modern mindfulness practices. It is well known that oxygenation has tons of health benefits, such as lowering stress, improving one’s clarity and moods, removing negative thoughts, and grounding oneself in the present.[1] Buddhist writers often identify the breath as an “anchor,” something to which to return when distracted, to shift to in order to be present, to consult when invaded by thoughts. Some of the thinking is: If you can notice, appreciate, and love something so small, precious, and minute as the breath, then you can surely extend that attention and love to everything else in life, big or small. In other words, if you can appreciate the simplicity of the breath, then you can also appreciate, for example, the simplicity of a tree, or the smell of the coffee you make every morning, adding a depth to everyday life, an added layer of meaning. Both Buddhists’ and Zen Buddhists’ central teaching regarding the breath is to notice. You just have to acknowledge at any moment, “I am breathing”—nothing else. To stop in the middle of the day, halting whatever you are doing, and notice the breath, to just know and be conscious of the breath is to appreciate it, considering we move through our days like automatons without ever giving notice to our unsung breaths, without which we could not live. During mindfulness meditation, the goal is to feel the breath, passively, observantly, unobtrusively. The feeling of the breath as you inhale and exhale, as it comes in through your nose, down your throat, down the bronchial tree, and out the mouth—this is to what we must pay attention. A particular Zen practice calls for beginning practitioners to count the breath, by counting breath5.jpgthe in’s and out’s, only the in’s, or only the out’s. Whichever you choose, it is advised that you count up to a number like 10 before restarting; and eventually, once the count is ingrained enough, having been trained multiple times, you will not have to say it out loud or mentally voice it—your breath will naturally fall into rhythm. Conclusively, what can be said is this: That while both Yoga and Buddhism attribute great importance to the breath, they differ in their approaches to it, Yoga’s being to control the breath, to apply rhythm, to attune the breath voluntarily; Buddhism’s being to notice the breath, to watch Unknown-4.jpegit, to fully and intentionally be present with it; one is active, the other passive in its method. Nature is the perfect place to be mindful of the breath. Simply stand, the sun shining down on you, leaves blowing around, and be mindful of the fact that as you exchange CO2 and O2, you are actively engaging with the trees around in a mutual exchange, symbiotic, one giving life to the other, perpetuating, giving existence to one another. You, the trees, and the animals and wildlife are all interconnected, sharing the eternal breath.


Personally, when I do mindfulness meditation, despite having read about the importance of the breath, I never feel anything special, never get what they mean by “appreciating the breath,” no matter how much I try, always trying to “feel” the breath as I inhale, then losing it as it moves past the nasal cavity, wondering where it went, then exhaling through my mouth, monotonous, uninteresting, without any specific feeling. Hence, I usually focus on using my senses rather than focusing on the breath. However, recently I discovered that an appreciation of the breath through mindfulness can be achieved in another way, one more suited to my subjective tastes, when I can truly be alone with it and feel its benefits:


Unknown-5.jpegIt was 78ºF on a Saturday morning, unbearably hot for a weekend in January, and I was with my fellow runners at track practice. We were all exhausted. We had only just warmed up, yet we were already sweating, all of us taking off our jackets and sweats and putting them on the turf. Our coach gathered us, back to the sun, and announced fatalistically, “You will be doing 5×300’s, Varsity at a 48-second pace. This is going to be the hardest workout all season, and they will only get easier after this.” As soon as he said 5×300’s, my heart sank, my eyes widened, and my jaw nearly dropped, and I could feel my teammates collectively doing the same. Anyone who is a short-distance sprinter specializing in the 100m will know how dreadful 300’s are—how they strike fear into your soul, unforgiving, excruciating, unfeeling, merciless. Only 100 meters less than the 400m and 100 meters more than the 200m, they are a terrible, formidable middle state, a Purgatory between two Hells. This said, the senior and freshman runners alike were mortally terrified. Having no choice in the matter, though, we approached the track, with heads down and a shuffling gait, unwilling—or was it unable?—to face the track, to look it head on. We were divided into groups of about six to 10 runners, and I was placed in the first heat, with the seniors and juniors, who had to run them at a 48 second pace, which cheered me up a bit seeing as it was the time one got on a regular 400m, but it also meant I had to run 48 seconds, too. Staggering on the track, we got into our lines, bent our legs, got low, surveyed the track, taking in the great distance we had to traverse, contemplated the suffering we would endure, and hoped for the best, forcing out a final breath of repose. Coach said “Go,” stopwatch in hand, and we were off. I followed closely behind the Unknown.pngjuniors, like a dog does its owner, careful not to lose them, not to fall back with the others who were behind, as I wanted to push myself. The sun was beating down on us, and my body was pushing to keep up with them as we turned the bend, straightening out, until it was me and three other runners leading the pack, behind us a few others. When we finished our first rep, I was relieved. It was not too bad; we were running at a pace I likened to a fast jog, the kind of pace at which you go for a casual mile, but with more haste. Those who came up the rear were breathing hard. That morning, before coming to practice, I had completed a 20-minute meditation in which I tried to focus on my breath and my breath alone. As I confessed, it did not work so well, and I could not for the life of me stay with my breath. There and then, though, standing arms akimbo on the grass, sweat across my forehead, legs heavy, I found solace in my breath. In contrast to the rapid, shallow breathing of my teammates, I walked around calmly, breathing slowly and intentionally, in and out, not from the top of my lungs, but the bottom, from the diaphragm, which made all the difference. Because of this, there was a noticeable difference. I was much more collected. With this in mind, I headed over to the starting line again, ready for rep two, eager to try a new strategy: When I ran, I would focus only on the breath, like I was supposed to during meditation. This next ran, I told myself, was not a run at all, but another meditation session, a practice of mindfulness—mindful sprinting. My thinking instilled within me a kind of vitalization, a readiness for pain, whereas the other runners came up sluggishly, not looking forward to this next rep. Instead of viewing the track as a stumbling block, I viewed it as a hurdle (no pun intended), something to overcome, over which to jump, and thus from which to grow. The sprint was an opportunity, not a punishment. We lined up again after the last heat finished. Once more staggered, we heard “Go,” and we went. Familiar with the pacing, I set myself behind the juniors and kept close to them, careful not to speed up at the bend, but to relax. I breathed as though I were not running, but sitting still, meditating, still Unknown.jpegbreathing from the diaphragm and exhaling through my mouth. The first 100m was not hard, nor was the second. It was always the third which was hardest. My friend, who had up until then been running at my hip, had fallen behind on the second leg, his legs too tired, his breath too short, to keep up. This was the final straightaway. Lactic acid had built up in my legs, making them heavy, so that just raising my leg took most of my effort. I thought of what my Coach had told me, namely that I needed to keep my knees high, especially at the end; so I turned my attention to my breath. Unlike pain, unlike tiredness, the breath is not transitory, but is permanent, constant, unchanging, eternal, a dependable cycle of air, of vitality, which coursed through my body, an unending cycle, infinite, and it entered into the foreground, while the rest of my attention faded into the background, even the track, even my periphery, even the pain I felt in my legs, even the pressure in my chest, even the sweat dripping as I ran—it all went away, impermanent, mere sensations, perceptions, which could easily have been illusory, as opposed to the breath, whereof I was most certain at that time—Respiro, ergo sum—the only certainty, the only object of which I was conscious, to which I was willing to devote my attention, and so it felt as if my mind and breath were alone, two objects painted into an empty wind_breath.jpgcanvas, my thoughts and my breath, both transcendent and immortal, real, unlike pain, which felt unreal at the time, and the track was the dependent variable, my breath the independent variable, the distance equal to the pace and the infinite Now, the passing away of time into seconds as my legs carried me forward, knees high, arms pumping cheek-to-cheek, my breath still constant, till I was nearing the end, feeling great, triumphant, and suddenly all the sensations dawned on me, but they did not matter, not the pain, not the feeling in my lungs as I watched my running shadow on the track, so I did not feel alone with my breath, whereupon I saw the finish line, and, pushing one last time, made it to the finish line. As I peeled off to the side to make room for the others, I interlaced my fingers and put my arms over my head, opening my chest to make my breathing easier, more controlled, while the others were out of breath.  


[1] A simple search will bear hundreds of results if you want to read more. Here are two: 18 Benefits and 21 Benefits

 

For further reading: 
Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham (2012)
Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar (1996)
Mindfulness & the Natural World 
by Claire Thompson (2013)
Encyclopedia of the Human Body 
by Richard Walker (2002)
Wherever You Go, There You
Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom
by Mircea Eliade (1958)
The Complete Human Body 
by Dr. Alice Roberts (2010)
The Greek Thinkers 
Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Philosophies of India 
by Heinrich Zimmer (1951)
Coming to Our Senses
 by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
The Human Body Book 
by Steve Parker (2007)
Mindfulness 
by Joseph Goldstein (2016)

Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
Chi Running by Danny Dreyer (2004)

 

 

Technology and Social Media: A Polemic

§1


Much gratitude is to be given to our devices—those glorious, wonderful tools at our disposal, which grant us capabilities whereof man centuries ago could only have wished, the culmination of years of technology, all combined in a single gadget, be it the size of your lap or hand. What a blessing they are, to be able to connect us to those around the world, to give us access to a preponderance of knowledge, and to give longevity to our lives, allowing us to create narratives and storytell; and yet, how much of a curse they are, those mechanical parasites that latch onto their hosts and deprive them of their vitality, much as a tick does. That phones and computers are indispensable, and further, that social media acts as a necessary sphere that combines the private and public, creating the cybersphere—such is incontrovertible, although they are abused to such an extent that these advantages have been corrupted and have lost their supremacy in the human condition.

§2


Technology is ubiquitous, inescapable, and hardwired into the 21st-century so that it is a priori, given, a simple fact of being whose facticity is such that it is foreign to older generations, who generally disdain it, as opposed to today’s youths, who have been, as Heidegger said, thrown into this world, this technologically dominated world, wherein pocket-sized devices—growing bigger by the year—are everywhere, the defining feature of the age, the zeitgeist, that indomitable force that pervades society, not just concretely, but abstractly, not just descriptive but normative. In being-in-the-world, we Millennials and we of Generation X take technology as it is, and accept it as such. To us, technology is present. It is present insofar as it is both at hand and here, whereby I mean it is pervasive, not just in terms of location but in terms of its presence. A fellow student once observed that we youths are like fish born in the water, whereas older generations are humans born on land: Born into our circumstances, as fish, we are accustomed to the water, while the humans, accustomed to the land, look upon us, upon the ocean, and think us strange, pondering, “How can they live like that?”

§3


As per the law of inertia, things tend to persist in their given states. As such, people, like objects, like to resist change. The status-quo is a hard thing to change, especially when it is conceived before oneself is. To tell a fellow fish, “We ought to live on the land as our fathers did before us”—what an outlandish remark! Verily, one is likely to be disinclined to change their perspective, but will rather accept it with tenacity, to the extent that it develops into a complacency, a terrible stubbornness that entrenches them further within their own deep-rooted ways. This individual is a tough one to change indeed. What is the case, we say is what it ought to be, and so it is the general principle whereupon we take our case, and anyone who says otherwise is either wrong or ignorant. Accordingly, following what has been said, the youth of today, the future of humanity, accepts technology as its own unquestioningly. As per the law of inertia, things tend to persist in their given states—that is, until an unbalanced force acts upon it.

§4


What results from deeply held convictions is dogmatism. A theme central to all users of devices, I find, is guilt; a discussion among classmates has led me to believe that this emotion, deeply personal, bitingly venomous, self-inflicted, and acerbic, is a product of our technological addictions. Addiction has the awesome power of distorting one’s acumen, a power comparable to that of drugs, inasmuch as it compromises the mind’s judiciary faculty, preventing it from distilling events, from correctly processing experiences, and thereby corrupting our better senses. The teen who is stopped at dinner for being on their phone while eating with their family, or the student who claims to be doing homework, when, in reality, they are playing a game or watching a video—what have they in common? The vanity of a guilty conscience—would rather be defensive than apologetic. The man of guilt is by nature disposed to remorse, and thus he is naturally apologetic in order to right his wrong; yet today, children are by nature indisposed thereto, and are conversely defensive, as though they are the ones who have been wronged—yes, we youths take great umbrage at being called out, and instead of feeling remorse, instead of desiring to absolve from our conscience our intrinsic guilt, feel that we have nothing from which to absolve ourselves, imputing the disrespect to they who called us out.

§5


Alas, what backward logic!—think how contrary were it to be if the thief were to call out that poor inhabitant who caught them. Technology has led to moral bankruptcy. A transvaluation of morals in this case, to use Nietzsche’s terminology is to our detriment, I would think. Guilt is a reactionary emotion: It is a reaction formed ex post facto, with the intent of further action. To be guilty is to want to justify oneself, for guilt is by definition self-defeating; guilt seeks to rectify itself; guilt never wants to remain guilty, no; it wants to become something else. But technology has reshaped guilt, turning it into an intransitive feeling, often giving way, if at all, to condemnation, seeking not to vindicate itself but to remonstrate, recriminate, retribute, repugn, and retaliate. Through technology, guilt has gone from being passive and reactive to active and proactive, a negative emotion with the goal of worsening things, not placating them. Digital culture has perpetuated this; now, being guilty and remaining so is seen as normal and valuable. Guilt is not something to be addressed anymore. Guilt is to be kept as long as possible. But guilt, like I said, is naturally self-rectifying, so without an output, it must be displaced—in this case, into resentment, resentment directed toward the person who made us feel this way.

§6


—You disrupt me from my device? Shame on you!—It is no good, say you? I ought get off it? Nay, you ought get off me!—You are foolish to believe I am doing something less important than what we are doing now, together, to think it is I who is in the wrong, and consequently, to expect me to thusly put it away—You are grossly out of line—You know naught of what I am doing, you sanctimonious tyrant!—

§7


When asked whether they managed their time on devices, some students replied quite unsurprisingly that they did not; notwithstanding, this serves as a frightful example of the extent to which our devices play a role in our lives. (Sadly, all but one student said they actually managed their time.) They were then asked some of the reasons they had social media, to which they replied: To get insights into others’ lives, to de-stress and clear their minds after studying, and to talk with friends. A follow-up question asked if using social media made them happy or sad, the answer to which was mixed: Some said it made them happier, some said it made them sadder. An absurd statement was made by one of the interviewees who, when asked how they managed their time, said they checked their social media at random intervals through studying in order to “clear their mind off of things” because their brains, understandably, were tired; another stated they measured their usage by the amount of video game matches played, which, once it was met, signaled them to move onto to something else—not something physical, but some other virtual activity, such as checking their social media account. I need not point out the hypocrisy herein.

§8


I take issue with both statements combined, for they complement each other and reveal a sad, distasteful pattern in today’s culture which I shall presently discuss. Common to all students interviewed was the repeated, woebegone usage of the dreaded word “should”:
—”I should try to be more present”—
—”I should put my phone down and be with my friends”—
—”I should probably manage my time more”—

§9


Lo! for it is one thing to be obliged, another to want. Hidden beneath each of these admissions is an acknowledgment of one’s wrongdoing—in a word, guilt. Guilt is inherent in “shoulds” because they represent a justified course of action. One should have done this, rather than that. Subsequently, the repetition of “should” is vain, a mere placeholder for the repressed guilt, a means of getting rid of some of the weight on one’s conscience; therefore, it, too, the conditional, is as frustrated as the guilt harbored therein.

§10


Another thing with which I take issue is when the two students talked about their means of time management. The first said they liked to play games on their computer, and they would take breaks intermittently by going elsewhere, either their social media or YouTube to watch videos. No less alogical, the other said they would take breaks by checking their social media, as they had just been concentrating hard. How silly it would be for the drug addict to heal himself with the very thing which plagues him! No rehabilitator assures their circle with alcohol; common sense dictates that stopping a problem with that which is the problem in the first place is nonsense! Such is the case with the culture of today, whose drugs are their devices. In the first place, how exactly does stopping a game and checking some other website constitute a “break”? There is no breach of connection between user and device, so it is not in any sense a “break,” but a mere switch from one thing to the next, which is hardly commendable, but foolish forasmuch as it encourages further usage, not less; as one defines the one in relation to the next, it follows that it is a cycle, not a regiment, for there is no real resting period, only transition. Real time management would consist of playing a few games, then deciding to get off the computer, get a snack, study, or read; going from one device to another is not management at all. Similarly, regarding the other scenario, studying on one’s computer and taking a break by checking one’s media is no more effective. One is studying for physics, and after reading several long paragraphs, sets upon learning the vocabulary, committing to memory the jargon, then solving a few problems, but one is thus only halfway through: What now? Tired, drained, yet also proud of what has been accomplished thus far, one decides to check one’s social media—only for 30 minutes, of course: just enough time to forget everything, relax, and get ready to study again—this is not the essence of management; nay, it is the antithesis thereof! No state of mind could possibly think this reasonable. If one is tired of studying, which is justifiable and respectable, then one ought to (not should!) take a real break and really manage one’s time! Social media is indeed a distraction, albeit of a terrible kind, and not the one we ought to be seeking. Checking a friend’s or a stranger’s profile and looking through their photos, yearning for an escape, hoping for better circumstances—this is not calming, nor is it productive. A good break, good time management, is closing one’s computer and doing something productive. Social media serves to irritate the brain even more after exhaustion and is not healthy; instead, healthy and productive tasks, of which their benefits have been proven, ought to be taken up, such as reading, taking a walk, or exercising, among other things: A simple search will show that any of the aforementioned methods is extremely effective after intense studying, and shows signs of better memory, better focus, and better overall well-being, not to mention the subconscious aspect, by which recently learned information is better processed if put in the back of the mind during something else, such as the latter two, which are both physical, bringing with them both physiological and psychological advantages. Conclusively, time management consists not in transitioning between devices, but in transitioning between mind- and body-states.

§11


The question arises: Why is spending too much time with technology on devices a problem in the world? Wherefore, asks the skeptic, is shutting oneself off from the world and retreating into cyberspace where there are infinite possibilities a “bad” thing? Do we really need face-to-face relationships or wisdom or ambitions when we can scroll through our media without interference, getting a window into what is otherwise unattainable? Unfortunately, as with many philosophical problems, including the simulation theory, solipsism, and the mind-body problem, no matter what is argued, the skeptic can always refute it. While I or anyone could give an impassioned speech in defense of life and about what it means to be human, it may never be enough to convince the skeptic that there is any worth in real-world experiences. It is true that one could easily eschew worldly intercourse and live a successful life on their device, establishing their own online business, finding that special person online and being in love long distance—what need is there for the real world, for the affairs of everyday men? Philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to consider the Pleasure Machine: Given the choice, we can choose to either hook ourselves up to a machine that simulates a perfect, ideal, desirable world wherein all our dreams come true, and everything we want, we get, like becoming whatever we always wanted to become, marrying whomever we have always wanted to marry, yet which is artificial, and, again, simulated; or to remain in the real world, where there are inevitable strifes and struggles, but also triumphs, and where we experience pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness—but all real, all authentic. There is, of course, nothing stopping one from choosing the machine; and the skeptic will still not be swayed, but I think the sanctity of humanity, that which constitutes our humanity, ought never be violated.

§12


What, then, is the greatest inhibition to a healthy, productive digital citizenship? What can we do to improve things? The way I see it, the answer is in the how, not the what. Schools can continue to hold events where they warn students of the dangers of technology, advise them on time management, and educate them about proper usage of technology and online presence; but while these can continue ad infinitum, the one thing that will never change is our—the students—want to change. Teachers, psychologists, and parents can keep teaching, publishing, and lecturing more and more convincingly and authoritatively, but unless the want to change is instilled in us, I am afeard no progress will be made. Today’s generation will continue to dig itself deeper into the technological world. They say the first step in overcoming a bad habit or addiction is to admit you have a problem. Like I said earlier, technology just is for us youths, and it always will be henceforth, and there will not be a time when there is not technology, meaning it is seen as a given, something that is essential, something humans have always needed and will continue to need. Technology is a tool, not a plaything. Technology is a utility, not a distraction. Social media is corrupting, not clarifying, nor essential. We have been raised in the 21st-century such that we accept technology as a fact, and facts cannot be disproven, so they will remain, planted, their roots reaching deeper into the soil, into the human psyche. Collectively, we have agreed technology is good, but this is “technology” in its broadest sense, thereby clouding our view of it. We believe our phones and computers are indispensable, that were we to live without them, we would rather die. To be without WiFi—it is comparable to anxiety, an object-less yearning, and emptiness in our souls. How dependent we have become, we “independent” beings! This is the pinnacle of humanity, and it is still rising! Ortega y Gasset, in the style of Nietzsche, proclaimed, “I see the flood-tide of nihilism rising!”¹ We must recognize technology as a problem before we can reform it and ourselves. A lyric from a song goes, “Your possessions will possess you.” Our devices, having become a part of our everyday lives to the extent that we bring them wheresoever we go, have become more controlling of our lives than we are of ourselves, which is a saddening prospect. We must check every update, every message, every notification we receive, lest we miss out on anything! We must miss out on those who care about us, who are right in front of us, in order to not miss out on that brand new, for-a-limited-time sale! But as long as we keep buying into these notification, for so long as we refuse to acknowledge our addictions and the problem before us, we will continue to miss out on life and waste moments of productivity, even if they are for a few minutes, which, when added up at the end of our lives, will turn out to be days, days we missed out on. As my teacher likes to say, “Discipline equals freedom.” To wrest ourselves from our computers or phones, we must first discipline ourselves to do so; and to discipline ourselves, we must first acknowledge our problem, see it as one, and want to change. As per the law of the vis viva (and not the vis inertiæ), things tend to persist in their given states, until its internal force wills it otherwise. We bodies animated with the vis viva, we have the determination and volition to will ourselves, to counter the inertia of being-in-the-world, of being-online, whence we can liberate ourselves, and awaken, so to speak. We, addicts, have no autonomy with our devices—we are slaves to them. Until we break out of our complacency, until we recognize our masters and affirm our self-consciousness thence, and until we take a stand and break from our heteronomy, we will remain prisoners, automata, machines under machines. We must gain our freedom ourselves. But we cannot free ourselves if we do not want to be freed, if we want to remain slaves, if we want to remain in shackles, if we want to plug into the machine. A slave who disdains freedom even when freed remains a slave. Consequently, we cannot be told to stop spending so much time on our devices, to pay attention to whom or what is in front of us; we must want to ourselves. Yet no matter how many times or by whom they are told, today’s youth will never realize it unless they do so themselves. They must make the decision for themselves, which, again, I must stress, must be of their own volition. Until then, it is merely a velleity, a desire to change, but a desire in-itself—nothing more, a wish with no intent to act. It is one thing to say we should spend less time, another that we ought to.

 


¹Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 54

Athletics in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is remembered for many things, among them philosophy, science, architecture, and drama. Rich in culture and diversity, the Greek city-states were the perfect place for new innovations and achievements. In addition to the intellectual climate, the Greeks were famous for their athletics as well. In Ancient Greece, the athlete received just as much honor as the intellectual, and thus the mental and the physical flourished together. Of the athletic achievements in Greece, the most notable are the Olympics. The Games saw the coming together of the city-states in a collective embrace of the athlete and his feats. And outside of the Olympics, the Greeks continued their love for sport.


Unknown.jpegThe first Olympics, it is said, were held in 776 BCE, its purpose not athletic but religious. When the Olympics were first conceived, the Greeks intended for it to be a religious ceremony, a way for them to honor Zeus. Introducing athletics into the Olympics was a way of pleasing the Gods, as the performance, they hoped, would entertain the gods. However, the ceremony was not wholly religious in that the Greeks did it also to celebrate their humanism, specifically that of which the body was capable. Athletic achievement was one of the highest honors; it showed to what discipline and dedication could lead, and it inspired others by example. Originally, the competitions extended only to foot races and wrestling. Only later were horse and chariot racing, boxing, and javelin added. The popularity of the Games grew thereafter, and in 582 BCE Delphi initiated the Pythian Games; a year later, Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games; and in 573 BCE, Nemea had their own Olympic Games. Popular legend says the marathon is derived from the historical battle of the same name. The historian Herodotus recorded that the Greeks “sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner…. The Athenians… established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.”[1] Pheidippides gave word to Sparta that Athens had defeated a massive Persian army, running 26 miles, it is said, in a day, which led to the creation of the modern-day marathon. In 394, the Olympic Games were outlawed by Theodosius.


Unknown-1.jpegThe standard performance was the Pentathlon, a five-event competition consisting of the broad jump, discus, javelin, wrestling, and 200-yard dash. Jumpers would begin at a stand still, dumbbells in hand, and leap; discus throwers used 12lb-weights; wrestlers were graded by referees based on takedowns and form; and the dash was called the stadion (σταδιον), since it was the length of a stadium. Running in Ancient Greece was comparably tantamount to today, with up to three events: the diaulos (διαυλος), a single lap around a stadium; the dolichos (δολιχος), 12 laps around a stadium; and the images.jpegarmor race, which was adapted from military training, and was a race in which the competitors sprinted with a full suit of armor on. Evidence of marble sprinting blocks can be found in stadiums, dilapidated, worn-down, from repeated usage. Boxing was a popular sport, more so than today, and attracted large audiences. Hide gloves that extended to the elbows were worn by boxers, and hits were restricted to the head alone. There were no rounds; the winner was determined by whoever surrendered first. Unlike modern boxing, the Greeks did not compete based on weight classes, so the competition devolved from a sport of skill to a sport of pure brawn and muscle. A hippodrome, built specifically for horse-racing, was constructed for the Olympics, the arena wide enough for 10 four-horse chariots to race at once, everyone scrambling around the 23 turns that awaited them at every corner. To the enjoyment of the crowd, this affair would usually end with one racer making it to the Unknown-2.jpegfinish line successfully—the others, due both to the lack of space and tight corners, all wiping out. Like today, this event caught the attention of rich bidders, who would bet on horses; if their bet paid off, they—not the racer—got the horse. More popular than all the other events combined was the pankration (παγκρατιον), which translates to “all-strength.” This event was a mix of boxing and wrestling. The only rules were no stomping and no finger-breaking. Gory tales of famous pankratiasts survive, some accounts telling of one who killed his opponent by ripping out his innards. Women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games, so they got their own version: the Heraea, which had but one event, which was running.


Today, athletes have four years to train for the Olympics, whereas the Greeks had 10-months of training. Athletes trained in gymnasiums (γυμνασιον) or xystos (ξυστος), a type of colonnade. Wrestlers had their own training grounds called palæstra (παλαιστρα). Runners, on the other hand, trained outside. “They [athletes] also set the Artist-re-creation-of-ancient-wrestling.jpgexample of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles,” wrote Thucydides [2]. A shocking fact to some, the Greeks competed naked, covering themselves in olive oil to prevent themselves from getting dirtied from the mud, as well as to make themselves more mobile and slippery. Married women were not allowed to spectate during the games, but girls were allowed to because then they could find future husbands. Every city-state came to a truce during the Games, even if they were in the middle of the war, because everyone looked forward to the games, which occurred every four years, like today. The city-states even had separate games for younger athletes, those who were not yet matured. Olympia and Pythia had a boys division, and Nemea and Isthmia had an intermediate (ageneioi, αγενειοι) competition. So competitive were the Greeks that they had only first place prizes; there was no second or third, nor was there a team prize; the individual athlete had his time to shine in the Olympics—it was, after all, a celebration of the body and human excellence. The Greek roots athlon-, meaning prize, and agon-, meaning game, from which comes agony and antagonist, all embodied suffering. The agonistic games were not meant for fun for the athletes; rather, they were vigorous, challenging tests that put them to their limits, forcing them to endure more. Each Game, it is estimated 40-50,000 spectators came from around Greece, and each athlete was announced by their name, followed by their home city.


Upon winning an event, the victor would be crowned. The Olympia gave out olive wreaths, Pythia laurel, and Isthmia and Nemea parsley. Those who won were awarded lavishly. Plutarch said Solon had a handsome reward for those who got first: “[T]he victor in the Isthmian games was to have for reward an hundred drachmas; the conqueror in the Olympian, five hundred.”[3] During the winner’s celebration they were showered in leaves (phyllobolia, φυλλοβολια), given free food for a lifetime by their home polis (sitesis, συτησις), awarded with all kinds of gifts, promised free seats at future Unknown-3.jpegGames (prohedria, προεδρια), praised by poets, made into sculptures, and bestowed the honor of having their name engraved into the corridors which led to the arena. The Persians, when they witnessed the Olympic Games, purportedly remarked that the Greeks were “men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honour!”[4] It was strange to them, that these people would commit themselves to such arduous training, to fight their brethren for their namesake, and not out of anticipation of compensation. But according to Homer, “there is no greater glory that can befall a man than what he achieves by speed of his feet or strength of his hands.”[5] Those who lost at the Olympics, understandably, fell victim to depression and carried with them tremendous shame, a stigma which stuck with them through life.


During childhood, children would play in ball rooms (sphairisteria, σφαιριστερια), where they would play, you might guess, ball. It is thought that they played a version of wall ball, in which they would bounce a ball, either on the wall or on the ground, catch it, then throw it back. Evidence also shows that they might have had their own version of lacrosse. With sticks with nets at the end, they would play on two teams, each trying to get the ball past the other. Youths had trainers of their own, paidotribai (παιδοτριβαι) and gymnastai (γυμνασται), who respectively were the equivalent of wrestling coaches and physical educators. Some other games they played were khytrinda, a variation of monkey-in-the-middle and tag; posinda, a guessing game; and drapinda, which was like duck-duck-goose, where the objective was to catch the other children, who pretended to be “runaway slaves.”


Amidst the philosophical contemplation, political strife, and cultural growth, the Ancient Greeks found the time to enjoy their four-yearly Olympic Games that united all the city-states, reminding them of the common joy they shared for athletic competitiveness and glory. Victory odes from poets are plenteous and tell of the greatest athletes, all of whom trained hard, fought hard, and won hard. Sometimes we forget how similar we are to the Ancients, who once you think about them, are not so far of from us as we think: We share the same love of athletics and the same appreciation for the wonders the body can do when put to the test.


[1] Herodotus, The Histories, VI.105
[2] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, I.6
[3] Plutarch, Twelve Lives, p. 99
[4] Herodotus, op. cit., VIII.26
[5] Homer, The Odyssey, VIII.145

For further reading: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History 2nd ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy (2008)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2: The Life of Greece by Will Durant (1966)
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)
The Story of Man: Greece and Rome by Paul MacKendrick (1977)
The Western Experience 6th ed. by Mortimer Chambers (1995)
The Founders of the Western World by Michael Grant (1991)
The History of the Peloponnesian War
by Thucydides (1990)

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox (2006)
The Histories by Herodotus (1990)
Twelve Lives by Plutarch (1950)
The Odyssey by Homer (1990)
The Illiad by Homer (1990)

Attention and Mindfulness (2 of 2)

Summary of part one: Attention is “the process of focusing conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited range of experience requiring more extensive information processing” and requires an external stimulus. Research by Colin Cherry (1953), Donald Broadbent (1958), and Anne Treisman (1964) found that we can attend to one task at a time, suppressing all other incoming stimuli, based on quality of sound.


Unknown.png“It is easy to eat without tasting,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Coming to Our Senses (p. 118). At first glance, this sentence seems random, out-of-nowhere, and completely absurd. Of course we taste our feed when we eat it! However, Kabat-Zinn argues that while we claim to experience and sense things, we do not truly experience them. His message throughout the book is that we have become out of touch with ourselves, with our senses, our bodies, and with the world around us; we fail to experience things for themselves, insofar as we rush through our lives, treating food as “just another meal,” hastily consuming it, not really taking the time to taste each individual flavor. When we eat a hamburger, all we taste is hamburger, not meat, lettuce, tomato, etc., but just hamburger. Our meals are prepared then eaten, but we do not taste them as they should be tasted. Kabat-Zinn states that when attention and intention team up, we are awarded with connection; from connection, regulation; from regulation, order; and from order, we arrive at ease, contentment. There is an effect called sensory adaptation that we seldom recognize yet is always at work. Constant exposure to an external stimulus builds up our tolerance to it, resulting in the numbing of that sense, to the point that we do not notice it. The reason others can smell our body odor but we ourselves cannot is an example of this, because our odor is constantly emanated, and the brain, to avoid distractions, builds up tolerance, to the extent that we no longer smell our own bodies. The purpose of sensory adaptation is to prevent us from becoming entirely distracted. The world is full of smells, sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, but imagine if we were exposed to all of them at once—this is why we need to adapt to our senses. Of course, were we rapt on studying so that all else was ignored, the sound of a car would still interrupt us, considering the intensity of it would overstimulate our senses. While sensory adaptation has helped us biologically, Kabat-Zinn notes that it also works to our disadvantage, particularly the dampening of our Unknown-4.jpegsenses, without which we cannot live. Breathing is of especial importance in meditation. It is necessary to all living things, we must remember; yet we take it for granted, repeatedly neglecting it, forgetting to check how we are doing it. If we took a few minutes every day to attend to our breathing, we could all reduce stress, find composure, and even lower our heart rate through practice. This applies to all sense. As Aristotle keenly reminds us, “[O]ur power of smell is less discriminating and in general inferior to that of many species of animals.”[1] Unlike most animals, humans’ sense of smell is weaker, and so we rely less upon it. Smell and taste are underrated when it comes to senses, although they are of equal merit. Like breathing, both are taken for granted, appreciated only when we are sick, when we can no longer use them—only then do we wish we could taste and smell again. Just as Kabat-Zinn said, we truthfully eat without tasting. Eating our food, we feel pleasure, in the moment; but if we were sick in the same circumstances, we would appreciate our senses that much more; as such, we must live each day as though we were sick.


There are different kinds of meditations, of ways of being mindful. During meditation, you can do a body or sense scan, where you spend a few moments going through your body, focusing on the sensations in a particular part of the body, examining it, then moving on; or you can, for a few minutes at a time, focus on each of your main senses, perhaps using only your ears for a minute, your nose the next. Proprioception is an obscure sense: it is the sensation of each body part in relation to the others. In a body scan, this is most prevalent, when you feel your body in totality, as a whole, yet are able to focus on one body part. William James, writing about boredom, could just have easily been writing about this state of meditation:

The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time.[2]

Unknown.pngTypically, when one meditates, one can either close or open their eyes, fixing them at a certain point, listening to the sounds of the world around them, acknowledging every part of their body, paying attention to the breath, overcome by a static sense of stillness, as they are neither in the past nor the future, but the present, simply being, moment to moment. There are two types of attention in meditation: abstract, or inward, and sensory, or outward, attention. The former involves impartial introspection, the clearing of the mind, the decluttering of ideas. “This curious state of inhibition can for a few moments be produced by fixing the eyes on vacancy. Some persons can voluntarily empty their minds and ‘think of nothing,’” wrote James, describing hypnotism, though inadvertently describing meditation as well.[3] Sensory attention, on the other hand, is simply being attentive to the senses and all incoming stimuli. If you are interested in meditation, there are several exercises that can be done to sharpen your attentiveness, like dhāraṇā, jhāna, samādhi, or you can practice some brahmavihāras. In dhāraṇā, the meditator is aware of themselves, as a whole and as meditating, and an object; after dhāraṇā, they move to jhāna, which is awareness of Unknown-5.jpegbeing and of an object; and finally, in samādhi, they find themselves in unity with the object. Samādhi is translated to “one-pointedness” and refers to pure concentration, pure attention. When in this state, the meditator is in what William James calls voluntary attention. This attention occurs when there is a powerful stimulus, yet you focus on something of less intensity. If you are studying and there is noisy construction outside, focusing on the studying, even though the construction is louder and demands your attention, would be an act of voluntary attention. This state, however, cannot be held indefinitely. As James writes, “[S]ustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back [a] topic to the mind.”[4] Hence there is no such thing as maintaining voluntary attention, rather coming back to it over and over. Brahmavihāras are like reflections upon Buddhist virtues. There are four traditional brahmavihāras: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Feel free, too, to make your own meditation, where you reflect on something outside of the given topics—questions in philosophy, like good and evil, justice, and the sort, are some starters.


Unknown-9.jpegI briefly mentioned the idea of clearing the mind, of emptying it of ideas, and to that I shall turn again. Thoughts, in Buddhist writings, are treated like clouds, wispy and flowing; they are temporary; sometimes they are clear, sometimes they clump together; sometimes they are sunny, sometimes they are like a storm. Either way, thoughts are not permanent, nor can they harm you in any way. Generally, we ought to be on the lookout for negative thoughts. When they arise, we must simply dismiss them. Thoughts are the fire to our thinking’s gasoline, for thinking about our thoughts merely propagates more and makes them worse. It is better to let thoughts pass than to intervene through force. Meditation calls for dispelling all thoughts, good or bad. It is misleading to think that we are trying to get rid of them, that we are trying to single some thoughts out from others. This is not the case; rather, we must acknowledge that we are thinking and let them pass. If a positive thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass; if a negative thought comes, do not perpetuate it, let it pass. Another thing to remember is that simply acknowledging that you are thinking is being mindful, and you should not get frustrated with yourself for this reason. An important facet of Buddhist psychology is the distinction between perception and conception. Perception is pure sensation, and conception is labeling, to put it simply. Sitting in peace and silence, you hear a sound, process it, identify it as the rustling of the trees and the singing of birds, and continue meditating—such is an act of conception, for hearing a sound is perception, but classifying it, labeling it, is conception. Unknown-8.jpegLabeling is necessary for living. Without it, there would be no way to comprehend the world. We would be exposed to a chaotic mess, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensations we cannot understand. Almost everything we see and process is conceptualized: this is a tree, that is a plant, this is grass, that is dirt on which I am walking. One is tempted to think of Kant’s categories of the mind and the differentiation between phenomena and noumena. Our mind actively shapes our world, grouping things together, creating causal links, imposing spaciotemporal relations, constantly conceiving things. Perception is to noumena as conception is to phenomena. Rarely do we perceive things as they are, as things-in-themselves, but conceive them imperfectly. We need to carry this to meditation, in thought and in sensation. We must try not to classify things by texture, color, or shape, nor judge thoughts by appearance, nor label anything as “good” or “bad.” Another danger of thinking is daydreaming, to which all meditators are vulnerable, especially if their eyes are closed. When we doze off, finding comfort and relaxation, following our breath, we might accidentally slip into our fantasies, moving from the external to the internal, where we begin to plan for the future or reminisce in the past. No matter which you do, neither is good. William James warns us, “When absorbed in [passive] intellectual Unknown-10.jpegattention we become so inattentive to outer things as to be ‘absent-minded,’’abstracted,’ or ‘distrait.’ All revery or concentrated meditation is apt to throw us into this state.”[5] By meditation, James is not referring to it in our sense, but to the act of pondering. We should not fall into the trap of thinking about the future or ruminating about the past, because as Marcus Aurelius said, “[M]an lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.”[6] The past is in the past, and there is nothing we can do to change it, and wishing you could redo something will not help. And the future has not happened yet, so making unrealistic expectations will not help either.


images.jpeg“But we do far more than emphasize things, and unite some, and keep others apart. We actually ignore most of the things before us,” notes William James.[7] For such a formidable tool to which we all have access, the art of attention and how to properly apply it has all but been forgotten by today’s society, to their disadvantage. We live in an age where A.D.D is rampant, and more and more kids are diagnosed with it. Further, our technology strips us of our connection to nature, to the world, to each other. We are no longer in touch with ourselves or our senses. With mindfulness and meditation, however, by living in the present and embracing our senses and life, we can make our lives meaningful.

 


[1] Aristotle, De Anima II.8, 421a9-10
[2] James, The Principles of Psychology, XI.2, p. 261
[3] Ibid.
[4] Id., XI.6, p. 272
[5] Id., p. 271
[6] Aurelius, Meditations, III.10
[7] James, op. cit., IX.5, p. 184

 

For further reading: Buddhist Psychology Vol. 3 by Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006)
The Principles of Psychology by William James (1990)
Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2005)
Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein (2016)
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (2014)
Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida (1985)
De Anima by Aristotle (1990)

What is Humorism?

Unknown.jpegPsychology and medicine, finding their beginnings in Greek culture, have come a long way; and since their speculative foundations, their influence has become larger, more pertinent, and more accurate than ever before, with the invention of prosthetics in the field of medicine and cognitive studies in psychology, for example. It seems as though anything is possible, as though nothing cannot be achieved. One may wonder, then, from where psychology came, from whom modern medicine developed. Small questions, like why, when someone is in a bad mood, we say they are in bad humor; or why, when someone is angry, we say they are hot-blooded, or short-tempered, never fail to come up regarding the origins of either discipline. A glance through history, to the invention of psychology, can show us the foundations of both psychology and medicine—the ancient system of humorism.


The theory of the four humors is derived from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC) who posited the existence of the four basic elements that constituted all of reality: air, fire, earth, and water. Everything in the world, he explained, was a synthesis of all four, each contributing their unique characteristics and properties to create everyday objects. For this reason, early theory in medicine was based on philosophical theory, so the two subjects were closely intermingled, the cause of many a medical error in ancient times. The man whom we ought to credit for the beginnings of modern medicine is the Unknown-4.jpegGreek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC), who is most renown for the Hippocratic Oath, which is still used today. Despite the countless contributions he has made to medicine, there is difficulty when it comes to pinpointing which works he actually wrote and which works were written by either his student Polybus or perhaps even rival doctors of his. Some of his works, furthermore, seem to diverge in content, contradicting earlier theories. Central to Hippocrates’ method was a holistic approach to the body. “Hippocrates the Asclepiad says that the nature even of the body can only be understood as a whole,” remarked Plato [1]. Each part of the body was to be examined against every other part, so as to treat everything as one. He wrote of a popular principle at the time: “Certain sophists and physicians say that it is not possible for any one [sic] to know medicine who does not know what man is.”[2] Such importance placed upon the human body and its composition made the humoral theory possible, as well as the secularization of medicine itself. Apollo and Asclepius, the Gods of medicine, were thought to be the causes of disease up until Hippocrates, who, diagnosing epilepsy—once thought the work of the Gods—said it “appears… to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than any other disease, but has a natural cause from which it originates like other affectations.”[3]


The natural cause of which Hippocrates spoke was the humors. From the Latin word umor, meaning fluid, the humors were four fluids within the body, each aligning with one of the four elements of Empedocles. Hippocrates identified blood with fire, phlegm with water, black bile with earth, and yellow bile air. During the Scientific Revolution, the 16th-century physician William Harvey performed studies on the circulatory system, when he would eventually disprove Hippocrates and Galen. Acknowledging the two physicians and Aristotle (he supported the humoral theory), he wrote in his book regarding animal Unknown-2.jpeggeneration, “And thus they [the Ancients] arrived at their four humors, of which the pituita [phlegm] is held to be cold and moist; the black bile cold and dry; the yellow bile hot and dry; and the blood hot and moist.”[4] According to Hippocrates, one could tell whether the upcoming season would be one of sickness or health by analyzing the weather; if there were extreme conditions, like extreme coldness during winter or heavy rains during spring, then more diseases were to be expected, whereas normal conditions foretold of health and prosperity. Cold seasons exacerbated the cold humors, phlegm and black bile; while warm seasons exacerbated the warm humors, yellow bile and blood. Alchemist Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus (1493-1541), was a notorious physician during his time, often burning the works of Galen in public to disrespect him and his theories. Instead of the four humors, Paracelsus preferred a more alchemical approach, diagnosing based on saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and sourness, adding a fifth property, life. In addition, he gave these elements their own properties, such as combustibility, solidness, fluidity, and vaporousness. The human body has a balance to it, what Hippocrates judged as a body’s krasis (κρασις), or mixture. A healthy body has a good mixture, eucrasia (ευκρασια), meaning it has an even amount of all four humors. Pausanias, a doctor in The Symposium, explains that,

The course of the seasons is also full of both these principles; and when, as I was saying, the elements of hot and cold, moist and dry, attain the harmonious love of one another and blend in temperance and harmony, they bring to men,… health and plenty, and do them no harm.[5]

Unknown-3.jpegWhile one should strive for an ideal balance, eucrasia, one should stay as far away as possible from dyscrasia (δυσκρασια), or bad mixture, for if it is extreme, it can result in death. Too much phlegm (mucus), warns Hippocrates, can clog the throat, choking off airflow, resulting in asphyxiation, for instance. Another Renaissance physician, shortly after Paracelsus, named Santorio Santorio (1561-1636), calculated that between the perfect balance of eucrasia and the imperfect balance of dyscrasia lie 80,000 unique diseases stemming from different combinations of humors. Determined to prove Hippocrates and Galen right, Santorio carried out extensive experiments, measuring the body’s temperature before and after diagnosis with a thermoscope, then measuring it daily thereafter, comparing each new temperature to the healthy one.


“Those diseases which medicines do not cure, iron cures; those which iron cannot cure, fire cures; and those which fire cannot cure, are to be reckoned wholly incurable,” stated Hippocrates confidently [6]. Should some poor soul suffer from dyscrasia, there were several cures with which he could proceed, and there was a cure for each type of imbalance. Hippocrates invested his faith in incisions, stating that iron, by which he means knife, is the next step up from remedies; if surgery does not work, he says one should proceed to cauterize; but if fire does not work, then one is out of luck. Other proposed cures were sweating and vomiting, which would either excrete or purge any excess humors. Of course, then there was bloodletting, the deadly, inaccurate method of making a cut in the skin and cleansing the blood. So popular was bloodletting that by the 1500’s, “[t]reatment was still based on the Hippocratic theory of humors, and bloodletting was a panacea.”[7] Virtually any disease could be cured by bloodletting—that is, until William Harvey. Besides these cleansing methods, there was an easier, more efficient way of handling humoral diseases, one which did not require knives or fire: using opposites to counteract. If there was too much blood, a doctor could counteract it with black bile, opposing the hotness and moistness of the former with the coldness and dryness of the latter; similarly, too much yellow bile could be countered with phlegm, and vice versa. Hippocrates was also famous for prescribing his patients varying diets that would in the same way counter the excess humor, usually advising the replacement of wheat with bread, of water with wine.


This raises the question, though: Why does humorism matter, why is it relevant at all, considering it is outdated and completely incorrect, and why should we be interested? As I said at the beginning, humorism was the foundation for psychology; specifically the foundation for the psychology of personality, a much-studied and much-debated area of research today. Roman physician Galen (c. 130-200) was arguably the first person to attempt a formal study of personality. A studied physician of Hippocratic writings, a learned student of Stoic logic, Galen was an empiricist at heart, emphasizing experience over speculation, what he called demonstrative knowledge (επιστημη αποδεικτικη). Neither Hippocrates nor Galen studied the interior of the human body, as the dissection of humans was taboo; thus, their findings were purely theoretical, which is rather ironic for Galen, who did cut open animals, just not humans. Galen identified two types of passions: irascible passions, those which are negative, and concupiscible, those which are positive [8]. He observed four Unknown-1.jpegtemperaments arising from the four humors. (Temperament, interestingly, translates to mixture!) In fact, “Before the invention of the clinical thermometer and even for some time afterwards, bodily ‘temperature’ was only a synonym for ‘temperament.’”[9] His theory of the four temperaments is so influential that their adjectives have carried over today: too much blood creates a sanguine character who is cheerful; too much phlegm a phlegmatic who is calm; too much yellow bile a choleric who is angry; and too much black bile a melancholic who gloomy; and for the latter two, one can say bilious. Hippocrates noticed these characteristics in his time and attested, commenting, “Those who are mad from phlegm are quiet, and do not cry nor make a sound; but those from vile are vociferous, malignant, and will not be quiet, but are always doing something improper.”[10]


One may dissent again: Why is this relevant? for it is outdated. Although Galen’s theory of the four temperaments is largely out of use [11], it has spawned interest in following Hans_Eysencks_4_Personality_Types.gifpsychologists of personality. The infamous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI (1943), can be seen as a derivative. It utilizes different traits to arrive at a certain personality. Those who wish to know their personality have to decide if they are introvert or extrovert, if they intuit or sense, think or feel, and perceive or judge. Another option, the Big Five, or Big Three (1949), identifies people based on their levels of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Big Three limits the scales to neuroticism, extraversion, and openness. Lastly, the direct descendant is psychologist Hans J. Eysenck (1916-1997), whose method of deducing personality was influenced entirely by Galen. Eysenck created a dichotomy between extraversion and introversion, neuroticism and psychoticism, recognizing several character traits reminiscent of Galen.


[1] Plato, Phaedrus, 270c
[2] Hippocrates, On Ancient Medicine, p. 13b*
[3] Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, p. 326a
[4] Harvey, Anatomical Exercises on the Generation of Animals, p. 435b*
[5] Plato, The Symposium, 188a
[6] Hippocrates, Aphorisms, §7, 87
[7] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 5, p. 532
[8] This is a very superficial description; for a more detailed one, read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, 1.81.2,ad.1
[9] Boorstin, The Discoverers, p. 341

[10] Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease, 337a
[11] Read Florence Littauer’s Personality Plus for a modern perspective

For further reading: 
Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge by Jacques Brunschwig (2000)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
Anatomical Experiments on the Generation of Animals by William Harvey

An Intellectual History of Psychology by Daniel N. Robinson (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 3 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 3 by Will Durant (1972)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 5 by Will Durant (1953)
The Psychology Book by Wade E. Pickren (2014)
The Story of Psychology by Morton Hunt (1993)
The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin (1983)
On the Sacred Disease by Hippocrates
On Ancient Medicine 
by Hippocrates
On the Natural Faculties
 by Galen

Extra reading for fun: Personality Plus by Florence Littauer (1992)

*Pages referenced to Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 9, 26, by Mortimer J. Adler (1990), respectively