Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dream Fragments

I want to get back into the habit of recording my dreams, which I find makes a huge difference in their clarity and how interesting they tend to be. I decided to create a blog for anyone who might be interested in reading some of the more interesting ones I've written down (which at times read like stories), which can be found at nautilusdreamfragments.blogspot.com

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sleeping in the Cold

A few days ago, a visiting friend and I were walking home from a late night movie. It must have been past 1am. While walking along, we passed by a couple of people in an underpass. One was huddled on the ground, asleep, and the other was laying down a blanket, getting ready to settle down for the night. For some reason the sight affected me very strongly. Just from being outside for a few minutes I was quite cold, despite having a sweater. And here were people who slept out here.

I can remember countless times I've walked by homeless people during the day who asked for change. At various stage in my life, I've either been in the habit of giving change or not. Even when I was in the habit of doing so, however, I never really felt like it made a difference one way or the other. This was different. These people weren't asking for anything. They barely even seemed to register us passing by. They were just going about their daily lives. Just as I pull my blankets around me every night and fall asleep in my home, these people pull their blankets around them and fall asleep... outside, in the cold.

My friend and I stopped by the local grocery store to get some snacks, and on an impulse I found myself staring at the polar fleece blankets. They were designed to be holiday house warming gifts, just thin throws with pictures of penguins and whatnot on them. But it was all they had, and in the end I decided it would be better than nothing. When my friend realized I wasn't getting it for myself, she covered half the price. We made a detour on the way home, back to the underpass. Both people were asleep by then, so I just set the rolled up blanket next to them and left. Somehow it seemed better that way.

And I've been worrying about them ever since.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pictures from Around the Campus

I've been taking some time lately when I'm on campus, between classes, to relax and look around. I've gotten into the habit of keeping my camera around whenever I see something that really intrigues me. I'm rather obsessed with clouds, for some reason.

Once I was sitting in my favorite spot on the stone bench which looks out towards the mountains, and I somehow managed to get a shot of a blue jay in mid-flight; it was just changing directions before flying almost vertically into a tree.

Another one of my favorite experiences was a couple weeks ago, when I could see reflections of the sky on the cement right after it finished raining.

From some angles, the puddles almost looked like portals into another world.

I don't know what it is about having a camera in my hand, but it makes me look at the world differently. Even if I'm just on a lunch break.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Existentialist Love

I have several definitions of love. The one I'm going to talk about in this post is the weird, existential definition I've been developing.

Philosophical speculation has left me with the following (nope, not answer...) question: Never mind "what's the meaning of life", why don't I know it already, inherently, simply by existing? There are many religions and theories that deal with finding an "ultimate meaning", and personally I think it is indeed possible to discover such a state of existence where everything is whole and makes sense. However, there is still no (satisfying) explanation for why something is missing in the first place!

Neither logic nor emotions bring me any closer to finding an answer to such a question. Thinking about it only leads me in circles until I'm convinced that it simply does not make sense! And so, all I can do is look at the facts; here we are with this confusion, this lost feeling, this unidentifiable "missing piece" in existence. Here we are, capable of both deep joy and deep dissatisfaction. While I believe that a state of being must exist where everything makes sense and is whole, evidently there are also states of being where things don't make sense, and something is missing. Such is life as we know it.

This is where love comes in. None of us have all the answers. None of us are completely whole. However, each of us have found reasons to continue existing. We wouldn't be here otherwise. Each of those reasons are at least slightly different. At the same time, humans have enough in common with one another that many of these reasons can be communicated. Some people may be a lot closer to happiness and meaning than others, but everyone can benefit in one way or another from kindness and communication.

In one definition, love means caring about another person, wanting them to be happy, and doing or saying whatever is necessary to help them see meaning in life. Lyrics from a song by the Beach Boys (of all things) started me on this train of thought. It's the one that goes:

I may not always love you,
But as long as there are stars above you,
You needn't ever doubt it,
I'll make you so sure about it.

Really sweet, right? And a really interesting way of phrasing things. But it's the next verse that got me thinking:

If you should ever leave me,
Well life will still go on believe me,
The world could show nothing to me,
So what good would living do me?

So this song is describing the classic kind of romantic love where two people feel like they need each other so badly that if separated they're just... horribly depressed. But that line, "The world could show nothing to me", made me really sad. Myself, I've never been in a relationship with a guy, not even close. And yet, the world has shown quite a lot to me. Beauty and meaning is always there, waiting for me to recognize it. I've been heartbroken before, and the world was still there, happiness could still reach me when I looked beyond my pain.

I started thinking; if ever I wind up with a life partner and I died first, I would want them to continue to find beauty and meaning in life, even without me there. Seen from this perspective, love means communicating my own ability to be happy as best I can; it means I have one lifetime to pass on whatever I learn about happiness and meaning.

On a larger scale, it means that those who live on must remember the teachings of those who have died, so that they can in turn build on the knowledge and pass it on to the next generation. Caring about another person means wanting them to be happy, which means wanting them to have the ability to find happiness on their own, even when you are no longer there to guide them directly.

This concept is not limited to life partners; it applies to all human interaction. One lifetime is the maximum amount of time any person has to give what love and guidance to others that they can. But even passing a stranger on the street, just once, provides the opportunity to communicate meaning, in one way or another.

Love means helping each other, in whatever way possible, to see what the world has to show.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Beauty of Flight

Earlier this week I sat in a plane, looking out the window as it took to the sky. I've always loved flying. This particular experience had a more surreal quality to it than usual. I watched the city below disappear to be replaced by farmland, then deltas; tendrils of clear water reaching out across the cracks in the land. Before long, I was looking down on the tops of cumulus clouds, the light from the sun coloring them from the sides, the subtle shadows making them appear soft and yet more substantial than they are in reality.

It was a sea of clouds like this, as far as the eye could see. The beauty of what I saw made my eyes start to water. It reminded me of those times I would look up at clouds from the ground and think of how they looked just like the Renaissance paintings of the heavens. Only, the shapes of the clouds from above looked different. I realized that the people who created such paintings had never seen the sky the way I was seeing it now. I realized that throughout history, there have been humans who have always dreamed of flight, that they could only have imagined an experience such as the one I was having now.

I thought about how it must have felt to be one of those first few people to go into space, to see their entire planet from far away. I thought of how most of us, if given such an opportunity, would be overcome with wonder. And yet today millions of people board airplanes, take to the sky, and go places our ancestors could not even come close to reaching. What is now common was once unimaginable.

That day I counted myself lucky. Had fate been different, I could have easily been a land-bound dreamer, staring up at the sky and wondering what was up there. Instead, with barely a thought at the start, I was flying. For the sake of all my ancestors with unfulfilled dreams of flight, I took in all I saw around me with the same wonder I would feel if I were drifting through the cosmos and amongst the stars.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Checklists of Life

Many of us seem to think of happiness as a mental checklist, where once you have checked off each item on the list you will have achieved total happiness. Common, cliché items on the list include finding the right spouse, having children, getting a car and house of your own, having a successful career,  retiring to Florida or wherever... I think most people are actually quite conscious of the checklist at this level. Some may chose to aim for completing the entire deal, whereas others may pick and choose which items they'll aspire to and dig their heels in against the rest.

But what wasn't immediately apparent to me is that there are checklists within each of these larger items. For example, the checklist for a romantic relationship. There are some of the more obvious clichés to choose from (eg. “a first date involves going out to dinner and a movie, or perhaps just coffee or a beer”), then there are much more subtle ones; details that at first glance appear to give meaning to a relationship, but on closer inspection are really just common themes in the stories we watch, read, and tell ourselves and each other.

Personally, such checklists have a nasty tendency to upset me. I've never been entirely sure whether it's because I'm so much further behind in checking things off than my peers or if it's because I can't quite seem to bring myself to accept these happiness lists as my own. In theory, I should be able to compile my own checklist for happiness, then follow that.

Easier said than done. From all my personal experiences of true happiness, there is no item I can pinpoint and say, “That's the key right there!” and then expect the feeling to happen in a predictable or permanent way. In reality, there is so much richness to life, so much variation and depth of meaning to be found from the smallest blade of grass to peace between nations, that no checklist could ever be long or precise enough to guide an individual to the purpose behind living.

In my experience, happiness is not something to be acquired at the completion of some task or the acquiring of some goal. It is a state of mind. It is lost and reborn in every moment of its existence. Every instance of happiness differs from the last from the subtlest of ways to the most definable. Environment and circumstance may help determine the tendency towards or away from happiness, but ultimately it is a matter of perception. Those able to see the good, even in the presence of the bad, will be much more likely to feel good about life.

While I might not be able to provide specific directions for being happy, I have been trying to form a rough idea. Here's my “checklist” of ingredients for happiness:
_The absence of perceived judgment from others and any other obstacles to being true to oneself.
_Mind focused on the present (no anxiety for the future or guilt from the past).
_Any reason, large or small, for life to be seen as beautiful and meaningful, even if “this is all there is”.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Talking about Problems Vs. Talking about Solutions

For anyone who has ever realized how messed up the world is and that reality hardly seems to live up to ideals they grew up believing in, it's only natural for their first reaction to be to wonder why on Earth no one seems to see these horrible problems very clearly. Why don't more people care? Why don't more people do something? Do people really want to live like this? These are the questions that plagued my mind when I first started to truly, deeply question the culture I've lived in all my life. I had doubts before, but it was too terrifying to look at them closely. Because it goes without saying that changing the world is more than a one-person task. I eventually chose to look at the world's issues despite my fear because the world's problems are my problems; they affect the choices I make and the quality of my life... and everyone else's.

So for years I questioned my preconceptions, started looking at life from as many different perspectives as I could think of. And as of late I've even started to whole-heartedly believe that a more humane, meaningful and connected life and community is possible. However, one thing I haven't done much of is act. Action towards forming a new kind of culture or community requires not feeling alone. Not feeling alone requires seeking out others who are also willing to look at and question the world's problems. And here's the important point, the thing which has thus far kept me from action: many of the people I personally encounter who are willing to look at problems are like me; wondering why other people aren't waking up.

The thing is, amazingly, I never consciously realized (or perhaps admitted) just how many other people are “awake”. It's more than a case of chronic preaching to the choir; it's not even being aware that you have a choir, and a large one at that. Granted, they may not be singing in the same key, but that's not the point. The Occupy movement, for example, has been one of the most beautiful affirmations of humanity I have ever witnessed. And it has certainly redefined my conception of how many people are not only conscious of a broken system, but willing to speak openly about it.

Continuing with the “waking up” metaphor, I'm starting to think that maybe it's not so much that more of us need to wake up, but that more of us need to get out of bed, walk out our front doors and say hi to our neighbors. (It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to do this literally, either.) So here's what I intend to do: stop feeling so alone and give people more credit. The number of conscious but lost humans will always be underestimated simply because we assume we're more alone in our fears and goals than we really are.

Perhaps convincing everyone there is a problem is not a required first step. Perhaps all the resources needed to make a change are already in place. Perhaps we can start right in on talking about and finding solutions. After all, “the masses” may be much more willing to wake up and join in if they see something beautiful being created. Rather than someone bludgeoning them over the head with guilt trips and horror stories. It's like waking up to the morning sun peaking through the window, the sound of chirping birds and the faint smell of someone making coffee and maybe some bacon... instead the incessant racket of a blaring alarm that just makes you want to hit the snooze button repeatedly or possibly have done with it already and smash the blasted electronic contraption to smithereens.

In conclusion, I'm going to stop beating my head against a brick wall, go find others who are currently beating their heads against brick walls and suggest an alternative :)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Code Names

A conversation from a few weeks ago:

Me: “My female friends and I come up with code names for guys so we can talk about them without others knowing who we're referring to. Guys we're interested in, guys that are friends, guys we can't stand, guys we barely know... But never for other women. Why is that?”

My dad: “It's because men are an alien species.”

Me: “I KNEW IT!!!!”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Living in the Present

I think the happiest people are those who live in the present. When it comes to thinking optimistically, it's so much easier to do so by escaping to the past or future; reliving happy memories or imagining the way things might eventually be. Living in the moment sounds great. And it is... right up until you get bored in the moment. Or things could be better than they are. Or something not so pleasant happens. Suddenly, memories and imaginings start looking so much more appealing.

The reason that I think those who live in the present are happiest is because they don't try to mentally escape their life. If they become bored with something, they search for interest in the situation. If they're depressed about the way things are going, they look around themselves for something to be happy about. By turning to memories and plans when life becomes less than ideal, future and past thinkers inadvertently wind up placing more value on some experiences more than others. Those who consistently live in the present, however, develop the ability to find happiness in a much wider variety of experiences.

Another advantage of the present is that it feels more real than the past or future. This may sound obvious, but when faced with a choice between an unpleasant present and a vague but happy memory, I suspect most people would go for the memory. This doesn't completely solve the problem. You only escape the present to the degree that you are able to imagine things or recall events and feelings clearly.

In contrast, someone who is used to living from moment to moment will have a higher capacity for changing their perspective of the situation, in some cases turning an unpleasant experience into a meaningful one. The present thinker may wind up happier than the past or future thinker because not only can they find meaning in a wider range of situations, but their experiences tend to be more real. (As an aside, really taking in everything around you and observing many different aspects of life will also help with improving both imagination and the clarity of memories.)

Undeniably, it's still useful to know how to plan ahead, or learn from the past. There may be times when these skills are needed to take action or add context, and a change in perspective in the "now" may not always cut it.

However, I know that I, for one, am particularly underdeveloped in my ability to stay focused on the “now”. Personally, when I try to live in the present for any extended period of time, I inevitably have the thought, “So... is this all there is?” Even when life around me is going very well and I have a strong feeling of contentment, such a thought is nevertheless quite unnerving. Perhaps it just shows how ingrained my habit of always looking for “more” is. In any case, I look forward to gaining experience on how to live from moment to moment.

I'd be curious to find out where other people spend most their mental energy: the past, present, or future :)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Living in the past

As mentioned in the previous post, I tend to live in the future. Others, however, might choose to live in the past. A good example is my mom. When I was a kid, I used to get upset when I only had a couple weeks of summer vacation left. My mom would always try to cheer me up by saying, “But you had such great summer! Think about all the times we went to the park and the beach and how...” and she would list a few things then try to get me to add to it.

At the time, this only served to heighten my despair. I was a future thinker; I'd be thinking, 'yes indeed, summer vacation is really great... and it's about to be over!' It was baffling, back then, that my mom thought the past could hold any consolation for me. In hindsight, it's clear that my mom had experience deriving joy from memories and simply assumed I had the same ability. In fact, I barely began to reflect on my past at all until my early teens.

When I first started thinking in terms of the past, it was mostly regrets; things I wished I hadn't done and, even more often, things I wish I had done. Unfortunately, the past usually just left me crushed with guilt. I didn't like thinking about it because I wasn't totally happy with who I was as a person. That's why thinking about the future was so much more appealing. With the future, I could still become anyone. The good news is that once I started looking back on my life, I started to understand how certain events had shaped my values. I didn't always embody the values I believed in, but at least I began to identify what they were.

For quite a few years still, even happy memories of the best parts of my childhood only served to make me wish I could turn back time. I didn't seem to be able to look back without rewriting certain events and even my own perspective. My imagination was constantly at work on my memories, making edits to create a story that would only have been possible if I had learned early on lessons that can only come from hindsight.

Later, after I became an optimist, I began to learn the art of accepting good memories as they are, leaving them unchanged and experiencing their joy all over again. Sometimes even more joy than I felt at the time. For me, it's not quite the same as simply reliving the past like a scene from an old movie. It happens when, for example, I'm walking home from the bus stop and I catch the scent BBQ somewhere in the neighborhood. It reminds me of times in my childhood when my family and friends and I would be out in the woods having a BBQ picnic.

The present gets linked to the past and the result is a feeling better than either one on its own. If I hadn't had those memories, the scent of BBQ would have merely been some odd scent (or perhaps it would have just made me hungry). And while I may have been happy and content back when I was a kid, the present experience provides another layer of meaning, since I've had time to learn to appreciate things in new ways.

The past is a great tool for understanding yourself better, and for learning from your mistakes. But living too much in the past presents similar problems as living too much in the future. Guilt is only useful to a point, after which it can stifle your confidence and creativity, keeping you from moving on and changing. Even dwelling too much on good times that are over can hinder the forming of new ones. As with the future, the key is not to spend all your mental time there. Instead, visit your memories from time to time, learn from them, and use them to reinforce what you believe in and what gives you happiness.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Living in the Future

My own tendency, I find, is to live in the future. What I mean by this is that I'm constantly thinking ahead of where I am. I'm constantly planning, thinking about the next thing I have to worry about or to look forward to. If I have nothing I need to do on a particular day (a rarity for a college student such as myself), I find myself looking ahead to the next task I can think of. And once I have that task figured out, I plan further ahead. And once I've planned as far as I can in detail, I start thinking about where I'm going with my life in the long run... What I inevitably find is that it is pointless to try to see more than a few years ahead of myself. Sure, it can be done, but meaning seems to dissolve whenever I try.

The few times I have attempted to lay my entire life out in front of me, like a story plotted out onto a time-line, I've been seized by a sort of, for lack of a better phrase, “existential despair”. Looking at my life in such a way seems to shorten it and cause it to loose all it's depth; relationships are reduced to formulas and scripts, hobbies become a way of using up time, careers a way of filling up the time between hobbies and beauty and happiness become stagnant ideals.

Needless to say, I don't like to go to quite that extreme when I think ahead of where I am. However, I do have a habit of looking ahead to my next goal or thing I want and planning it out in great detail, inventing in my mind a detailed scene or a set of events to make up a story. At some point I realized that the purpose of this was not merely to plan for practicality's sake, but to give myself something to think about that would make me happy. So I want something now that I don't have? No problem! I have imagination. I can just create it in my head. If I think about it long enough, it'll eventually become as potent an experience as a memory.

One of the more obvious problems occurs when my goal is too far away or unrealistic to come true anytime soon, but close enough to reality that I don't recognize it as a fantasy. A memory or imagined event can never seem to reach the same strength of experience as the present, and the contrast between the happy but vague future improbability and the reality of the pesky present is the source of much frustration.

There are more healthy and practical ways to use thoughts of the future. For example, planning ahead in the sense of thinking about what needs to be done, deciding what you're going to do and when, then letting it go until action is required. Also, looking to the future can be used as a form of optimism, as a way of seeing creative possibilities or building confidence in your abilities (if you're not able to do something in the present, you still have time to develop new capabilities to attain your goals in the future). The thing to stay away from, as I know all too well, is living so much in the future that you fail to see what you have in the present.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Arbitrary Division

I want to learn about my people. All of my people.

For years now, I've been struggling with my cultural identity. At first glance, I thought I didn't have one. Others seemed to be so sure about what cultural group or subgroup they belong to. Many have traditions and values going back an untold number of generations. But I was always at least a little outside of these groups and subgroups. Even the ones I later identified as mine (the “American”, the sci-fi lover, the math geek, etc.)

This made me feel... disconnected, somehow. Disconnected because from time to time I would glimpse personal meaning in those traditions, stories and customs. And yet, because those traditions were not mine, because I was not a full member of those groups, and because I could not bring myself to accept 100% of any given set of values, I remained an observer. Don't get me wrong, one can potentially learn a lot as an observer. But not everything I need to learn. It's always, “Hey, that's an interesting culture, I wish I knew more about it”, and rarely, “The meaning behind that tradition is part of me”.

However, perhaps I am lucky that I don't fit into any one particular group. There may be some I would thrive in more than others, but I don't think I could ever again limit myself to a single outlook. Not since the first time I saw things from a new and completely different perspective. Today I realized what group it is that I belong to: humanity. Yes, I've thought this before, as passing idea, but today I truly believed it, felt it so clearly that it's as if it's always been this way, though I know I haven't always seen it as such.

War cannot even pretend to make sense to me now. The invisible walls between peoples, proclaimed to be so impervious by those who work so hard to make them, are like tiny lines drawn in the sand. It's as if I spent my whole life studying those lines, pondering over the symbology and meaning of their shapes as they are drawn and redrawn whenever waves obscure them, only to realize one day that it was only sand I was looking at all along.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Confusion about Selfishness

Have you ever been worried about being too selfish? It's an issue that seems to come up a lot and yet, like anything taken to an extreme, it eventually becomes clear that it's impossible to be completely selfless. Even the motivation behind wanting to become selfless is, in itself, selfish. One day it occurred to me that if humans were meant to be purely selfless, we would have given up our bodies to nourish the first predator or bacterial colony we encountered.

But even if you limit the question to human interaction, there is still only so far you can go with selflessness. True, not everything has to be a tit-for-tat interaction. Random acts of kindness, for example, can involve giving to strangers who will never know who exactly did the giving, thus eliminating the risk of someone giving only because they expect something in return.

In fact, with a random act of kindness what you get out of it is that happy feeling for having done a good deed. Wait a minute, you get something out of it?! Doesn't that make it selfish? Can't have that... Alright, so doing an anonymous good deed is selfish too, but so what? What harm is there in that particular selfish motivation? If you think really hard, you can probably come up with some scenarios where a person obsessed with doing good deeds could become delusional and wreak havoc on their community... but first of all, what are the chances of that happening, and second of all, it still seems far less harmful than, say, a serial killer let loose in that same community.

Both the serial killer and the good-deeds-obsessed person have selfish motivations, but the difference is that the serial killer is really bad at managing them. The problem I see with the good-deeds-obsessed person is not that they aren't selfless enough, but that they might not be willing to accept their own selfish motivations. This means that while their good deeds might be much closer to the "purely selfless" ideal than the norm, they might not act as often as they could. They might come up with some idea for a nice thing to do, then think, "Oh no, I have as much to gain from that as I'd be giving, so I can't do that. I'll just wait until I come up with a better idea."

If all a person ever did was anonymous acts of kindness, I'll bet they would still feel like something was missing. Sure, the need for feeling good about your moral integrity might be accounted for, but there are still other needs like safety, food and shelter, human connection, feeling loved and appreciated, having a valued place in the community, etc. My point is that people should pursue their own selfish needs, so long as they put a bit of thought into how they go about it.

It's entirely possible for someone to act on extremely selfish motivations, but do it in such a way as to greatly benefit everyone around them. In other words; mutual benefit. Otherwise, no one would ever have friendships or relationships. True, there are plenty of examples of unhealthy relationships where one person is doing all the giving without getting any support in return, but there are also examples of people that know how to have their needs met while simultaneously providing for other's needs.

So forget about, "How can I be purely selfless?" I think a far more interesting (and practical) question is, "What are some creative and mutually beneficial uses for selfishness?"

Monday, January 2, 2012

Friendship Bracelets

My hobbies tend to be a bit random, but once I get started on something... let's just say I get really involved. Therefore, when a friend said last summer, "Hey, let's make friendship bracelets!" I thought, sure, I guess I could try making one. And here's an idea of what inevitably happened:

And that's only about half of them. In addition I have six on my left wrist (one to represent each of my best friends since third grade), although I'm not likely to add any more for a while for fear of starting to look like a Persian carpet.