Beloved Distance – Book Overview

Beloved Distance Overview

In our modern globalized world, fraught with strife, violent conflict, and daily casualties numbering in the tens of thousands, separation is often perceived as the enemy of humanity. Keeping oneself at a distance from others is seen as the root of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and myriad other -isms which preclude even the slightest chance of peace. “To become a true global citizen,” Suzy Kassem sounds a common refrain, “one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’. … This is the only way mankind will truly evolve.”

A message of eradicating the distance between oneself and others resounds across the ages, from the Buddha’s warning, “There is … No sorrow like separation,” to John Lennon assuring us that if we all join together, “the world will be as one.” This perspective is practically a given among those who consciously seek our collective evolution. After all, the prototypical Fall from Grace was an act of separation from the Divine, as well as an innocent blindness to the difference between Good and Evil. And the antedote for our loss of grace? Unity. Connection. Oneness – the ultimate goal of an evolved species. And anyone who claims differently is likely still trapped in a toxic, dying paradigm that threatens to destroy us all.

In this work, I explore an alternative view: namely, that rather than being our enemy, Separation – or Distance – from a perceived Other is at once endemic to our human nature and an invaluable bridge to the connection we hungrily seek. And only by accepting the fact of our separation can we truly learn to creatively navigate the spaces that divide us.

Separation and Distance is, in fact, a fundamental component of our participation in this thought-form theater we term “reality”, beginning at the most basic of our sensory functions and extending throughout our entire human infrastructure. Experience of Distance from Others is not due to inferior design or devolved consciousness. Quite the contrary — it’s part and parcel of who we are, how we’re built. In this work, I propose that our acceptance of and successful integration of Separation, combined with our ongoing impulse to close the Distance between Ourselves and the Other, is the very thing which provides the essential influx, aggregation, and processing of “data points” which inform and evolve our human experience, raising it from mere existence to engaged, expanding evolution.

Starting from the following basic fact about our physical condition,

  • that at our most minuscule neural level, we are separated from direct contact with the world around us,

I will explore how:

  • due to this separation, we never have direct contact with anything, and
  • our experience of reality depends on a complex yet well-integrated process of data detection, decoding, and interpretation, which “fills in the blanks” in ways that are both enriching and problematic,
  • rather than suffering from separation, our experience of ourselves and our world is continuously enriched and evolved as an end product of this process, and
  • we can learn from our physical systems’ in-born capabilities to address the issues of “Otherness”, separation, and alienation in our outer world and actively, intentionally find commonality that makes us more than the simple sum of our connections.

We need not vilify and excise all Separation and Distance and sense of Other from our roster of acceptable life experiences. Indeed, we can holistically embrace the contradictions of Separation and the tensions of Distance in our experienced reality, in much the same way that our physical systems do. Rather than banishing the experience of Distance as “unreality”, I propose that we embrace it more fully as a building block of an expanded Reality and recognize the opportunities inherent in its gaps to take ourselves beyond the limits of our imagined constraints. For indeed, ultimately richness and meaning is added exponentially to our lives precisely because of the essential separateness of our natures.

CHAPTERS

Introduction

  1. We Can’t Get There From Here : On Building Community and Falling from Grace
  2. Discriminating Safety : Who Stays, Who Goes, and Why It Matters
  3. There Is No Here : How Separation Is Our Natural State of Being
  4. More Separate Than We Know : Other Dimensions of Our Distance
  5. Going The Distance : How Connection Is Our Natural Process of Becoming
  6. Filling In the Blanks : Of Data Loss and Instinctive Invention
  7. But What Does It Mean? : The Interpretations That Make Us
  8. Every Separation Is A Link : Welcoming Other-ness as an Opportunity

Conclusion

To work in the mode of Cajal

Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Purkinje Cell illustration by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The article I found yesterday about Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s roots in fiction was a welcome addition to my overall work direction. In it, I found my own sentiments mirrored — and by one of the great leaders in neuroscience.

If we would enter adequately into Cajal’s thought in this field,” Sherrington continues, “we must suppose his entrance, through the microscope, into a world populated by tiny beings actuated by motives and striving and satisfactions not very remotely different from our own.” Cajal highlighted that subject and object—the brain scientist and the neuron—descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.

Here was a man who literally transformed his field, and he did it (at least in part) by reimagining the human relationship with his objects of study — animating them with qualities similar to our own, because after all, we are “descended from the same evolutionary ancestor, contained the same physical material, and were beholden to the same mortal laws.”

It’s easy to lose sight of this correspondence in our increasingly fragmented world, where experts slice off ever slimmer targets of exploratory interest and specialize to the point where they know “more than anyone else about less than everyone else”. And in these days of funding battles and the struggle to be taken seriously in the scientific world, the idea of finding correspondences between a cell and a full-sized human being might seem like too risky a prospect to even entertain.

And yet, there’s so much to be gleaned from the correspondences we find, and there’s a lot we can learn from how our neurology behaves… just as Cajal learned a lot about our neurology by understanding how the human heart and spirit behave. Beloved Distance is a sort of “reverse-reprise” on Cajal’s particular “take” — as I turn our gaze from the microscope to our macroscape and reference not Don Quixote or shadows dancing on the ceiling, but the mechanisms of neurotransmitters leaping into the gaps between our neurons.

It may sound like a stretch, within the context of 21st Century science, but Cajal was in direct conflict with some of the dominant beliefs of his day, as well. And look where his approach got him — and took us: To a whole new understanding of how we’re actually put together, without which we’d have a much less complete understanding of ourselves, and perhaps a completely different version of medicine.

I’ve always had a marked respect for Cajal. It’s my understanding that the prevailing attitude of the day was that the nervous system was all continuously interconnected, like our vascular system. Cajal was an outlier, in that he believed in the “Neuron Doctrine” which held that all cells are individual entities (and so cannot be continuously directly connected). Others were believers in the Neuron Doctrine, but Camillo Golgi (whose stain made it possible for mere humans to view neurons) in fact devoted his Nobel lecture to discounting the Neuron Doctrine. He shared the stage / prize with Cajal in 1906, so the Spaniard was literally sharing space with someone determined to tear apart his work from the scientific pulpit.

What does it take, for someone to hold forth in their work, regardless of vehement opposition? Cajal’s defiantly resilient character, which took him through years of beatings by his father, surely played a role. And yet, there seems to be more at work than a cast-iron temperament. There are flights of fancy in the mix, too. Fancy which is deeply practical and has its place alongside the driest of facts laid out on a slide beneath the microscope.

That fancy, those flights, that imagination is something we all need, to carry us forward. It both tempers us and inspires us, and it makes the long slog of the necessary work into something more than… a slog. Just as we dance between separation and unity, between distance and closeness, the dynamics of creation and observation are complementary. And when blended with intention and intelligence, they can take us in some wonderful places.

You needn’t be a polymath to grasp how mutually beneficial supposedly opposing approaches can be.

You only need to be human… with a sense of adventure.

Sharing: The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

I came across this totally by accident, last night, but it’s very much in keeping with my current work. I’ve always loved the Paris Review. It was one of my most prized companions, back in the early 1980s. I’m still a fan – here’s one more reason why:

The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

By

Arts & Culture

For the father of modern neuroscience, cellular anatomy was like the most exciting fiction.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience.” All images courtesy Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.

Fiction is, by definition, a world away from fact—but Santiago Ramón y Cajal, often heralded as “the father of modern neuroscience,” used it to find objective truth. Cajal spent his days at the microscope, gazing down at faint, entangled fibers that appeared to his fellow anatomists as inscrutable labyrinths. Contrary to prevailing theory, the Spaniard discerned that the nervous system, including the brain, comprises distinctly individual cells (neurons), which, he theorized, must communicate across the infinitesimal spaces between them (synapses). It was Cajal who first applied the term plasticity to the brain; he went so far as to recommend “cerebral gymnastics” for mental enhancement, presaging twenty-first century insights and trends about brain exercise. “If he is so determined,” Cajal said, “every man can be the sculptor of his own brain.” If all Russian literature comes from Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and all modern American literature comes from “a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” then international brain research, including grand projects like the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, emerges from the unlikely work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Read the full piece here – it’s worth it!

Endings and Beginnings – On the last Friday in 2017

sparkler throwing off sparksSomething about this time of year strikes me as incongruous. It’s winter. So what? The days are short, the nights are long, and I feel more like hibernating than celebrating the change from one year to the next.

The whole “New Year” thing has always seemed a little contrived to me. Birthdays or anniversaries or other dates people pick out as important always seemed so arbitrary, like inventions people used to add structure and meaning to their lives.

And in fact, they are. But while my growing-up years were filled with skepticism about how important they are/were, I get it now. They matter to other people specifically because they add structure and meaning to their lives. And that’s not a small thing.

Within the context of writing Beloved Distance, the New Year makes even more sense to me, now. Something about thinking about distance, living distance, making peace with it, even making friends with it, has made me more aware of just how important it is for us to have those markers that tell us where we are in the course of our life’s journey.

Time stretches out in all directions, looping back into a past that we may or may not want to remember. It leaps forward, as we anticipate what will or will not be. It’s deep and wide, shallow and narrow. And the temporal distance between where we were and where we’re going needs to be measured.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure”, they say. And as our annual holidays — Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Years — roll on by, we mark yet another turning, another completion of the cycle.

To be honest, I’ve never been much for New Year’s celebrations. My idea of a good time, is going to bed at 10:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and waking up to a quiet New Year’s Day. I like the silence after the flurry of (someone else’s) celebration, when most of the world is sleeping it off. I find it contemplative. I’m also relieved that it’s over. When I’m tired, my hearing becomes acute, so when I stay up till midnight, all the firecrackers, shouting, and general hullabaloo feels like the world is shouting directly into my ears.

But it’s only once a year, so I just put up with it. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, anyway. I can handle just about anything for a few minutes.

Especially when it matters. And welcoming in the New Year does matter. It’s a marker along the way for us — for all of us, regardless of race or creed or class. It’s something we all have in common, after an extended season of disparate faith-based celebrations that sometimes seem at odds. Thanksgiving has evolved from a warm-feeling feast day to a grim reminder that history doesn’t always correlate with our fond (and manufactured) memories. Hanukkah is its own event, eight days of strengthening a sense of belonging to those who celebrate. Winter Solstice slots in there, celebrated by folks who deliberately differ from the mainstream. Then comes Christmas, with the 21st Century inevitability of accusations that non-Christians are trying to dilute the “reason for the season”.

The whole holiday season has turned into one extended practice of subgroups solidifying their ties by both drawing their own ranks closer and accentuating their differences from those outside their particular fold.

But then comes New Year’s. And what a relief it is. It’s a welcome break from the constant schisms, the bickering between “cousins” of faith. The New Year brings us all together. Like the ocean pulling away from the beach, to build into another wave, the tensions of the holidays collect into a soon-to-be-shared communal celebration that signals we can all get back to our lives as part of something bigger than all of us.

So, yes. For all its incongruity, for all its contrived sense, New Year’s is important. It’s a vital marker along the way that places us in the grand continuum, which lets us tie off the last year, put our failures behind us, celebrate our successes, and give us a chance to think about how we can do better.

We might be making it all up — or at least some of it — but it still matters.

Perhaps because we make it up as we go along.

To understand our place in the world, we must consider both body and mind

The Thinker by Rodin
“The Thinker” by Rodin

If you’re reading this, you have a brain. You may (or may not) use it to the utmost of your ability, but if your eyes are following this text, as you peer at your device or laptop or desktop monitor, your nervous system is working overtime shuttling information through your system, which most definitely includes your brain.

90,000 miles of nerves interconnect, both directly and through chemical synapses. They bridge the distance between our skin and our spinal cord, between our internal organs and our cerebrum. Our whole system is afire with electricity and chemical reactions, with our billions of neurons firing some 200 times per second. And all the while, the brain is “unconsciously” making sense of it.

As George Lakoff points out, an estimated 98% of thought is unconscious.

Lakoff embodied consciousness intro text
George Lakoff: How Brains Think: The Embodiment Hypothesis Click the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuUnMCq-ARQ for the full video

If you think about how busy your “conscious” brain is, just imagine how much moreso is the rest of you. All that chatter and static between your ears is but a paltry 2% of the total thought activity going on. Right now. All the time.

Just let that sink in for a moment…

Okay, let’s come back now. The brain-body connection has been talked about for decades, now, very much in terms of mental health and physical health. A lot of us have reached the conclusion that of course the brain and body are interrelated. How could they not be? The brain is part of the body, and its processes are organic, as well as consciousness-related.

The thing is, we seem to lose sight of this, when we think about our “higher mind” activities. When we get into philosophy and try to understand the nature of reality and our place in the world, we especially tend to split the brain from the body, like a space capsule leaving the rocket behind as it propels into the outer reaches of our cosmos. When we think long and hard about things, when we’re rapt with attention on abstract concepts. the very idea of the body seems to fade away. We forget to eat, drink, use the bathroom. We forget we have a body at all.

But of course, it’s still here. It’s not going anywhere — especially when we’re wrapped up in higher thought.

I usually think of Descartes, when I think of the brain-body split. Mr. “Cogito ergo sum“, who surmised that since he thought, therefore he was. Well, that’s fine. And certainly, it’s true. But I think it can also be said that “We think because we are.” So much of our physical systems are involved in thought, and so much of our systematic functioning is analogous to our thought processes, that the idea of neatly separating out the body from the mind and treating them as separate and distinct seems, well, very 17th Century.

Of course, it feels a lot neater, if we can conceptualize thought as something that’s mind-based, rather than body-based. It’s neater, somehow. It feels… cleaner. But as we’re learning more (and more, every day it seems) how much of the body is involved in processing the information our brains work with, that sanitized neatness carries a significant cost to true understanding. And that costs weighs us down with the burden of ignorance — both passive and active — as we both overlook important considerations and also willfully ignore the physical facts right in front of us.

In order to understand the workings of our minds, we have to understand the workings of the body. We have to understand how our nervous systems work, how they react and shape us in relation to the world around us. And when we understand the principles at work on the microscopic level, it gives us an added frame of reference, a finely tuned lens, we can use to gain greater insight into our innermost workings.

Knowing the body first, before approaching the brain, has stood others in good stead. Freud, in fact, started out as a neuroanatomist. I had no idea, till I did some digging a few months back. Long before he turned to psychoanalysis:

He carried out pioneering neurobiological research, which was cited by Santiago Ramóny Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, and helped to establish neuroscience as a discipline.

See Freud was a pioneering neuroscientist at The Guardian to read the full (and fascinating) article.

Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor in recent years, from what I hear. But apparently some of his findings are being proven out, much as Einstein’s Theory About Gravitational Waves Was Just Proved Right. I have to wonder if maybe Freud’s understanding of neurology actually put him ahead of not only his peers but also his professional descendants, so much so, that it’s taken greater neurological understanding on our part to fully appreciate what he was talking about. It’s a theory…

And just as debunked theories sometimes need a closer look, our favorite concepts sometimes need to be called into question. Like the idea that the mind and the body are (or can be) separate and distinct from each other. Like the idea that you can disregard the body when you’re engaged in intellectual activities. Like the idea that the mind can completely rule the body, or that the body must be overcome and made wholly subservient to the mind, in order for the human spirit to rise.

All the undercurrents of hostility to the physique that trace through the Western tradition, seem pretty much like the product of people with some serious body issues. But of course, they weren’t alone. And their Körperfeindlichkeit (hostility to the body) filled a need in the Western psyche that didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the human body, until fairly recently.

Fortunately, the trend is shifting, as more and more people are connecting body and mind in philosophical terms, as well as world view. And I find myself quite comfortable within this trend, albeit on the margins, since I’m not exactly up to speed on all the latest thinking. It’s been a long time coming — and about damn’ time, if I say so.

From where I’m sitting / standing / working, it’s literally impossible for us to understand our place in the world or fully grasp the meaning of our existence, unless we factor in the body. It’s both a full partner in our thought process, as well as full of microscopic templates that can inform our macroscopic patterns. Our bodies guide us unconsciously, and when we engage with them consciously, they can enrich us even more.

And now it’s time to get a drink of water. My brain can use the hydration. And the walk to the water cooler will do my mind good.

Why write? Why think? … Why not?

glowing light bulbI’ve always gotten in trouble for thinking the way I do.

Not necessarily for specific thoughts I’ve had, but the manner in which I think.

While some people think / philosophize / study in order to master a subject, establish their expertise, or carve out a corner of the intellectual landscape as their own, I think to explore.

Life is absolutely fascinating, and there’s so much to dig into… connecting the dots… seeing the correspondences… finding out what leads to what and what else is on the horizon.

Frankly, I’m more interested in asking interesting questions — with or without decent answers — than I am in reaching definitive conclusions. And that’s true, all across the board.

It gets me in trouble. It always has. And it’s probably not going to stop, anytime soon.

Some of my most dramatic troubles used to happen with a guy who’s now one of the up-and-coming stars of American philosophy. He’s published a number of books and a bunch of papers, and he was invited as a guest lecturer at a British university not so long ago. He’s apparently a pretty big deal in certain circles, and I’m really happy for him. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago, and he was amiable — a lot more amiable than I was expecting, actually.

See, he and I used to really go ’round. Our families were connected, and we ended up in each others’ orbits repeatedly. On good days, we had some amazing discussions. We could talk about just about anything, and when we were on the same wavelength, our exchanges were some of the most invigorating I can ever remember having.

On the other hand, if we were out of sync, he had a bad habit of attacking me. He’d get really intellectually aggressive, pressing me on points, not giving me much room to think… even physically attacking me on several occasions.

Of course we were something like 8 or 9 years old, at the time.

Back in the day, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal when we kids scuffled.  I often tussled with other kids — from the neighborhood or my own family. It was just one of those things we did. But the scuffling that happened with my philosophical compadre was… different. It didn’t seem to happen just because he wanted to horse around. It felt more like it was a direct physical attempt to dominate me, to put me in my place, to establish superiority over me, when intellectual attempts fell flat. If my self-created rival (who I always thought of as a friend) couldn’t win his point with words — because he was arguing to win, whereas I was thinking out loud to explore, and there really was nothing to win — he’d use his larger size and heavier weight to overpower me.

Literally.

Supposedly, he nearly killed me, once… according to my mother. She said something about him trapping me in a closed space where I could have smothered? I have a faint recollection of that, but it was really just one in an extended series of attacks from him.

He’s famous, now. He’s got a wife and kids, and he’s all set. I’m happy for him.

I’m also happy I’ve gone my own way. Far from that counter-productive sort of exchange, where there have to be intellectual winners, there have to be losers, and anyone who doesn’t participate isn’t worth the breath of arguing with them.

To be honest, I don’t have much use for that approach. I understand how people can be into it. I understand the draw. I’m just not interested, myself. I’d much rather find a meaty problem and dig into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies, ruminating, marinating, celebrating the intricacies of life on earth. A wide open world where there are no absolutes doesn’t intimidate me. It invigorates me. I figure, I’ll find out in the end… or not. Either way, it’s just how life rolls.

And life should be free to roll. No necessarily in ways that flatten others without regard for their well-being (because that would impact my well-being in turn), but in ways that widen the world and expand our options. In ways that add meaning to life and flesh out our purpose, that shine a little more light into the corners of our experience that often go unnoticed or undervalued. We’re learning so much more about neuroanatomy, so much more about biochemistry, so much more about how our “wiring” works — that electrical / chemical network that helps make us who and what we are.

The whole point of thinking and writing and publishing, for me, is to expand. My mind is pretty open, but it could be even moreso.  My options are pretty extensive, but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what else is out there? My understanding of life is finite and human, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grow in all directions. There’s a whole lot else I’m interested in finding out, and thinking, writing, philosophizing, are just some of the ways I have at my disposal.

So, why not use whatever tools and resources I have available, to see what else is out there?

Why not?

What’s the *real* problem with the #NetNeutrality ruling?

steel cable frayed
It feels like everything is coming apart

I just read a fantastic article at The Atlantic – Net Neutrality Was Never Enough (how the internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life). It was a welcome respite of rational thought in the midst of the pitched battles raging to keep the (recent – and assumed good) regulations in place.

I’ve been on the fence, myself, about the issue. And I agree with the author that

In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.

With great power comes great responsibility, and it feels like we have some catching-up to do, as regards the latter.

In any case, it’s been tough to keep a clear head, when it comes to all the issues. The dire warnings about Terrible Things (with Capital “T”s) that can happen, if the Obama-era Open Internet Order were rolled back, sounded awfully familiar in form, as well as substance. This could open the door to despotism. It could make widespread surveillance that much easier. It could unfairly tax already strapped consumers and innovators. It was not a good thing, and we needed to join the fight to oppose it.

The combative tone was familiar and reminded me of so many other political flares that have been fired into the proverbial fog-filled atmosphere that hasn’t had a chance to clear the smoke from the last set of flares, before the next set get shot into the collective consciousness. Reading the warnings — how they were phrased, what sorts of imagery they used — sparked the same type of visceral sense I’d gotten during the last presidential election cycle. More of the same.

Of course, my sense of impending online doom is tempered by the fact that I was one of the first people I knew who actually embraced the internet before it was taken for granted. I lost count of all the hours I spent online at the local library in 1992, searching and researching and reading everything I could get on-screen on the dumb terminal that was connected to the fat pipe of the local community college. I was the first person in my family to have an email account. And I lobbied enthusiastically for my family members to get their own — especially my parents, so we could stop arguing about who said what, when (we’d have the email thread to confirm).

I can well remember the experience of having a computer that wasn’t hooked up to the internet. And I still get a visceral response to the sound of a 28.8 baud modem chirping and tweeting. I remember the surge of anticipation, followed by uncertain will-I-get-online-this-time? trepidation when the phone connection failed and the modem went silent… and then the satisfying prolonged digital siren song that meant I was connected after a second (sometimes a third) try. When I upgraded to a 33.6, it was a whole new world. And to be honest, I still kind of miss that connecting ritual. I might still have my old 28.8 modem around somewhere.

Those first few minutes of connecting  back in 1995 were a mix of hope and trepidation, because A) I was about to connect to the rest of the world in ways that were never before possible, and B) it was going to cost me. I could easily run up a hefty phone bill, in the course of just goofing around. I’d done it before, by accident. And I didn’t want to do it again. I had to be vigilant. I had to watch my time. In 1995, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to splash into the pockets of my ISP, so I had to make the most of every moment I spent online.

When broadband came along, and I was no longer paying per minute for a connection, everything changed. And I’m not sure it was entirely for the best.

I do know this — while I’ve turned that fascination into a solid career that’s let me provide nicely for my household, I’ve also lost a lot in the process. All those hours I sank into activities which ultimately didn’t produce anything useful or life-improving. All the energy expended on protesting issues which turned out to be bigger than anything I could have influenced. The friends I’ve (re)discovered, then remembered why we drifted apart as the old irreconcilable differences seriously disrupted my peace of mind. And the shift away from spending an afternoon curled up with a book, to sitting hunched over my laptop. Carpal tunnel. Back problems. Headaches. Extra weight that took years to work off. Online life has given, and it has taken away.

Was that a real puppy? I may never know. All I know is that those 10 minutes … 10 hours… however many cumulative days… are gone. And what do I / we have to show for it?

Here’s what: A sense of connection. To the world. To friends, family, and compadres. To ideas, thoughts, and concepts that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Connecting online has become so easy, so relatively cheap, so ubiquitous, we just take it for granted.

Then along comes the reversal of Net Neutrality. And all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems.

Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes

And it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. Heck, that’s how it always used to be. The internet was slow and expensive and sparsely populated. And yet, we survived. What’s so terrible about interrupting our seemingly unassailable access to All The World All The Time?

Here’s what: It’s threatening our livelihood — as in, the thing that most bring us to life: our connections. The very idea of limited access is a dark cloud looming over the ways we’ve become accustomed to interacting with the world. And in a world where More Is Better, that limitation is blasphemy. How dare the ISPs and telcos that keep the floodgates of information open threaten the very lifeblood of our modern life? Indeed, the thought plunges us into  a chasm of uncertainty. When internet connectivity is the one given in our otherwise uncertain lives, threatening that puts us all on edge.

Even people like me who don’t think the way things are now, is the way they should always necessarily be.

Yep, reversing Net Neutrality poses an existential threat of sorts. And that’s bringing out the worst in people, who subsequently rely on their persistent internet connections to vent the full range of their consternation. Not only might this endanger the steady stream of movies and sports and gaming and other entertainment we’ve come to take for granted, but it’s impinging on our very ability to express ourselves wherever we want, however we want, whenever we want. If the new order is (supposedly) going to cost us more to tweet and post and consume, that puts a serious crimp in our 21st Century style.

But this is about more than style. It’s about who we understand ourselves to be, and how we create ourselves in the world. It’s about just how much we’ve come to depend on connection. And yes, true to the prevailing theme of my life, these days, it’s about Distance… Separation… How we understand the gaps between ourselves and others, how we bridge those gaps, as well as how we increase our knowledge about certain topics and reduce the “conceptual distance” which separates the state of not-knowing from knowing.

The crisis about Net Neutrality is, in my opinion, as much about our human need to connect, as it is about the threat of surveillance, control, or throttling innovation. It’s about us retaining our self-determination in the face of a rapidly changing world. And the drama extraordinaire is ample evidence of just how central connection across distance is to our very existence.

If it didn’t matter, we won’t be getting so worked up. But clearly, connection matters — today, more than ever before. How we’ll continue to work with it, remains to be seen.

Life is trying to tell us something

light streaks coming out of a burstWhen I think about philosophy, letters, learning, I generally get a visual of a medieval monk hunkered over an illuminated manuscript, toiling away in relative solitude, till the vespers bell rings. It’s not a negative image — it actually has really positive associations for me, since I myself love to hunker over books ‘n’ such in the solitude of my own upstairs study.

Or I think of professors delivering lectures before seminar halls filled with note-taking students. Tweed. I see tweed. Button-down shirts open at the collar, sleeves rolled up, hair touseled in whatever way. That’s a familiar sight to me, as well. At least, it used to be.

Or I think of a handful of philosophers (mostly men, er, white men, to be honest), gathered ’round in a office or cozy living room, holding cups of coffee or some other more “spirited” beverage, arguing the finer points of their arguments with gusto. I imagine them reveling in the exchanges, crossing metaphorical swords in bids to either win the point or at least sharpen their weapons and skills in the process. I’ve been in on more than a few of those kinds of discussions over the years. I’m not sure if I ever really won, but I certainly sharpened my wits in the process.

At least, I like to think so.

When it comes to learnedness, study, and devoting one’s life to the love of wisdom (the original meaning of the word “philosophy”), those are the standard-issue images and associations that come to mind for me.

And yet, when I think about my own approach to writing, reading, study, philosophy — which I practice pretty much daily —  I’m struck by the extent to which that happens far from the halls of academia. Indeed, I’m struck by the depth to which I believe that (for me, anyway), it all has to happen outside of academia. My inquiries, my readings, my contemplation, and my writing about it … that has to take place and unfold in the outside world, the everyday world, the domain of the mundane and unremarkable, the place of pragmatic, where gloriously pure theory has “fallen” to the realm of the applied.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the idea of pure theory. So long as it actually is pure, I’m all for it.

The thing is, purity has its limits. And those limits can make it not only impractical, but downright dangerous. If you consider a thing only in and of itself, without reference to how it intersects with other things, as part of an ongoing unfoldment of dynamic change, you can get yourself in trouble.

Killing dreaded pests with a chemical makes a lot more sense in a lab, where all you’re killing is the targeted pests. But if you don’t consider its effects on the rest of the insects and pollinators which further the cycles of life, before you take it out of the lab, and you don’t factor that in and adapt for it before you spray it all over every danged thing… Of you don’t consider the downstream impact of manufacturing bazillions of plastic bags, or improper disposal (read, dumping them in the oceans)… Well, you know…

And I wonder, in the face of the very real threats we’re facing on a regular basis, these days… where and what-for is all our education fitting in? We sink a sh*tload of money into our educations, and yet, here we are.

Here we are.

And the older I get, the better I feel about my choice to pursue my studies and thinking outside of academia. If I’d been independently wealthy, I might have spent a great deal of the past years in the Hallowed Halls. But I haven’t been in that situation — at all — so, I’ve been doing my thang out in the world, where I get to find out, up close and personal, just how well my philosophy works. I get to apply what I learn, and not only in the direct sense.

It’s not so much about brushing up on the latest digital marketing methodologies and search technologies. Nor is it about getting an MBA specific to a certain corner of the commercial arena. Nope, it’s broader and deeper than that — more humanistic, in a way. I study people. And not just in books. I look at the news (such as it is), and I watch what people do very closely. I read up on how we’re built, from our cells to our chemicals to our prostheses, and I think about how that affects us. How it shapes us. How it makes us function in relation to each other and the world in which we move.

Most of all, I invest time in thinking. A lot of time. Sure, plenty of people think through what they read / study, but I find I prefer to really, really think through what I’ve read, rather than devouring book after book. I’ve tried to push myself to read more. And it just doesn’t work. It’s like eating a meal. I need time to digest. I need time to assimilate. Once that’s done, I can move on to the next book. Or maybe I’ll wait it out and see where else my newfound knowledge will take me.

And as often as not, I find that life is telling me plenty that I need to know. One of the reasons great literary and scholarly works are so great, is that they help us make use of what the world has to offer. They have a sort of fractality, which mirrors our own grand dramas and dynamics in their more manageable collections of carefully chosen words. They can help us make sense of what’s going on around us, and they give us more tools / inspiration to deal more effectively with what is. Or at least give us some hope, however fleeting, that we might be getting somewhere in the whole grand scheme of things.

One of the things that’s made writing Beloved Distance so compelling for me, is the correspondence I’ve found between what’s inside us, and what’s outside of us. The same types of processes we find unfolding at the cellular level are also mirrored in our larger social lives. It’s been truly mind-boggling, at times, realizing how much a microscopic process can teach me about how to handle group dynamics… how to steer a project at work away from the proverbial rocks… or even adjust to the largest high-tech merger in history. The deeper I get into the neurobiology, the better I understand the biochemistry, and the more I just plain think about it all, the more meaningful it is for me.

And ultimately, the more useful it becomes.

You don’t have to be a nerdy-geeky type like me, to get a lot out of this kind of stuff. All you have to do is really think about it… and it can add so much to your life and your appreciation of what all the world has to offer us, in terms of lessons, inspiration, and rewards.

It’s all right there. For me, for you, for all of us. Life is trying to tell us something. And it can.

If we pay attention.

“Perceiving at a Distance” – The Conference that kicked off Beloved Distance

stone building with archwaysBack in February, 2016, I was roaming around the web, looking for interesting subjects to read, study, explore. I was particularly interested in neuroscientific and philosophical topics, and I came across mention of a conference called “Perceiving at a Distance”, to be held in Antwerp, Belgium the following June. As I read through the Call for Papers, and I explored the (now defunct and re-absorbed into the forgetful vastness of cyberia) it occurred to me that I might write something on “the fundamental ubiquity of distality”.

Huh?

Well, why not? I’d been fascinated by the nearly impossibly small gap that separates each of the trillions of chemical synapses in our bodies and brains. And I’d been doing a ton of thinking about it. Noodling about it. Pondering it. Exploring the concept spatially and non-verbally, as well as in my own written notes. It had been some 3 years, since I’d clued into that, and I thought for sure I had something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

Namely, that as uncomfortable as it might make us, the basic nature of our existence is separateness. Everywhere you looked, everywhere you searched, you’d find distance — distality. On the outside. On the inside. It’s everywhere.

Yeah! The fundamentally ubiquitous distal nature of human existence.

What’s not to love?

So, I outlined a paper.

And I sketched it out.

And I filled in the gaps.

And the more I explored it, the more I realized was actually there. I was onto something, but I’d just begin to scratch the surface.

So, I kept reading. I kept writing. I kept thinking. June approached, along with the CFP deadline. June passed, along with the deadline, but by that time I was in too deep… in too far… and I still had a ways to go.

It’s a pity the materials from the conference aren’t still online. I think I have a soft copy of them somewhere. But there’s also New Directions in the Study of the Mind is a new research project at the Faculty of Philosophy in Cambridge, supported by the John Templeton Foundation. And as I recall, I spent a fair amount of time on that site, reading what they had to offer, so if you’re so inclined, you might want to pay them a visit, too.

Anyway, time passed. The book concepts developed. The ideas gelled. And now I’m less than six weeks away from publication of a book that sprang from that original thought — that distance is very much a part of who and what we are… and rather than it being a bad thing, it can actually be a very good thing.

I’ll be posting pre-order links for the book in the coming week or so. Watch this space, to reserve your own copy of Beloved Distance.

Coming in January.

Which is sooner than it seems.

What’s wrong now? Cycling through the agony and the ecstasy of the daily news.

hands holding smartphone
I should know better than to start my day, checking my phone

Every morning I get up and ride my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I’d rather be doing something else. It takes a real emergency to keep me from my morning ride. What started out as a way to wake myself up (I’ve never been a morning person, but the working world is unsympathetic to my plight), has become a daily ritual that’s helped me lose 25 pounds over the past 2 years — and keep the weight off.

Sometimes I’ll lift free weights afterwards, but my primary purpose when I get up, is to get on the bike.

That’s really when I do most of my news-reading and social media checking. I don’t have a lot of time, in the course of the day, to keep up with current events. I’ve got a full plate at work, and I keep busy with a variety of other activities that don’t leave me a whole lot of time for Twitter or Facebook or (especially) Pinterest and Instagram and the other outlets for social interaction. So, I read while I ride.

Some days, I really question the wisdom of starting out the day reading the news. I mean, seriously. It feels a little masochistic, considering all the … problems we’ve got going on. War, pestilence, crime, a whole range of sexual infractions, and the endless political battles over really core aspects of our lives, like taxes and insurance and who gets in and out of the country. sigh. (I’m too weary to capitalize that.)

What a way to start the day.

Then again, I’m asking for it. Nobody’s forcing me to keep the news tab open on my browser and refresh it, first thing when I unlock my phone. So, I have only myself to thank for the sinking feeling that accompanies the breathlessness that sets in when I’m having a really good ride.

And every now and then, I get rewarded. If I can manage to scroll past the irritants at the top of my feed, something interesting now and then crosses my path. Something in science or technology. Something that sheds light on the nature of how we’re built, and gets me thinking about what it all means. And on a semi-regular basis, something neurological comes up.

I’ve been fascinated by the brain for years, now. Advances in imagery, along with increased computing power and the increasing availability of research papers online, have opened up the whole subject for me. I’ve participated in a couple of online neurology courses from the University of  Chicago and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (thank you, Coursera), and I’ve picked up a bunch of textbooks and classics from my favorite site of all time — abebooks.com. And over the past 10 years, I’ve become comfortable enough with the concepts and terminology, that I recognize topics of interest to me at first glance.

Here’s something I discovered today:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Microglia: The Brain’s First Responders

By: Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., and Beth Stevens, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: New knowledge about microglia is so fresh that it’s not even in the textbooks yet. Microglia are cells that help guide brain development and serve as its immune system helpers by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and discarding cellular debris. Our authors believe that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development, but also what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease … schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Early in the 19th century, the nervous system was believed to be a continuous network— essentially one giant cell with many spidery extensions bundled to form the brain and spinal cord. The discovery that nervous tissue, like any other bodily tissue, is composed of individual cells upended this theory, but the idea of interconnectedness persists.

Indeed, one of the most surprising findings in the neuroscience field in recent years is the degree of the nervous system’s interconnection. We ’ve learned that its cells are intertwined not only with each other but also with those of the immune system, and that the same immune cells that work in the body to repair damaged tissues and defend us from infections are also critical for normal brain development and function. 1,2 Some of these immune cells, called microglia, live permanently interspersed with neurons in the central nervous system and play crucial roles in nerve cell development, brain surveillance, and circuit sculpting.

Read the rest of the article here

This is the kind of news I love to read. Something that shows how much more we’re learning about how our internal systems work. It’s important we learn this, for it reaches beyond our biology and actually affects how we think about — and understand — ourselves in a larger sense.

We leverage our knowledge about our physical systems all the time in our larger lives. We talk about “stretching” ourselves, thinking about extending our abilities and professional capabilities in much the same way that we think about stretching our leg muscles before a run. We talk about “growth”, getting a palpable sense of increase as we draw on our lived experiences about growing up and watching things around us grow. We use physical metaphors all the time to wrap our heads around abstract concepts, and we don’t think twice about it.

That’s just something we do to make sense of our world so we can interact with it, master some parts of it, or at the very least learn a thing or two.

So, it’s pretty exciting for me to read about new discoveries and developments on a microscopic scale. Because even though everything’s playing out on a stage so small you need advanced equipment to see much of it, it’s still  playing out. And all those minuscule interactions are affecting us on an all-encompassing scale — they make up the difference in mass with sheer quantity, just as successful crowdfunding initiatives collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from a flood of relatively small contributions.

For me, seeing new research (which is so new it’s not in any textbooks) about how microglia interact with and support the nerve cells of the body… doing things nobody thought they could (or would) do… gives me a palpable sense of potential that’s absolutely massive. Those glial cells may be tiny, but the implications of their activities has real impact. And as our understanding about the literal jobs they do continues to deepen, we create new metaphors that parallel that knowledge — and widen how we think about the rest of our world as a result.

Scientists now realize that certain kinds of cells they’ve been discounting / dismissing for years actually serve a vital purpose that lets other cells function at their best. Where else might that be true in our lives? What else have we been discounting, that actually matters? The shift in our thinking might not be obvious, and it might not be instantaneous, but I’m convinced that it does happen. And it’s such a subtle process, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

I hope you’ll read the rest of the article  and have that same sense of discovery and wonder.

Because our bodies really are amazing.

And so are we.

The daily news notwithstanding.