Posts tagged 'philosophy'
During my recent travels, I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at statues of the Buddha. Doing so, I found myself marveling at the parallels between the physical characteristics of those depictions and the moral and ethical ideas that underpin his teachings. The kindness in the eyes, the relaxed posture that radiates with grace and dignity, the faint smile signaling deep calmness. But I also couldn’t help consider what it is that sets Buddhist philosophy apart from other religious or spiritual doctrines.
If you’re reading this, the mounting news of apparent breakthroughs in generative AI have surely not passed you by: Tools that can compose music, write code, paint pictures, and genuinely seem to be smart enough to pass various state exams have become publicly (and mostly freely) available in a surprisingly short timespan. This wave of commoditization has also shed the light of public discourse onto debates about AI safety which had, until now, been confined to relatively small, mostly academic circles.
Almost three years ago, Covid-19 began to manifest itself as a global, historical turning point. Since then, its far-reaching consequences have been analyzed and written about in much detail. Despite an abundance of insightful pandemic stories on an institutional as well individual level, I feel compelled to provide one more personal anecdote. Not because I’m looking for praise for the few hours of weekly voluntary work I that I’m doing since then.
Meditating comes with an interesting side effect: When you’re sitting still and observing your own thoughts, you slowly start to appreciate how weird and quirky your mind actually is. That can be scary at times—for instance, you realize how little control “you” ultimately have over what’s going on in there. But it can also be highly instructive. One interesting thing I’ve come to notice, during as well as outside of formal meditation sessions, is how much the degree to which I feel “fidgety” varies from day to day and even from one situation to the next.
I have referred to my meditation practice a few times now, but I realize that I never actually explained what I even mean by that. So, what is it that I do when I say I meditate? Why do I do it in the first place? And is it really worth the hassle? First, let me clarify what meditation, to me, is certainly not: It’s not “sitting around and thinking hard about a problem”—even though the term is frequently used in that sense in everyday language.
One thing that never fails to astounds me is how far the boundaries of possible human experiences extend. The label “beyond good and evil” is certainly overused these days, but lets try to take the idea seriously for a moment: What do experiences look like that are so totally incomprehensible that you can’t even begin to speak about them, let alone chart them on a mental map. Think of the comfort zone model for example:
More than a year ago, I published this blog post about my daily routine. Since then I’ve received a lot of feedback, ranging from curiosity to mild encouragement to raised eyebrows. In essence though, the comments most people brought up boil down to three things: “This kind of lifestyle seems dull / repetitive / strenuous / masochistic. How do you find any joy in that?” “Isn’t it all just a fluke?
At first it struck me as an exaggeration when James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, wrote the following in one of his recent newsletters: “Most big, deeply satisfying accomplishments in life take at least five years to achieve. This can include building a business, cultivating a loving relationship, writing a book, getting in the best shape of your life, raising a family, and more.” Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
The act of thinking is probably the most interesting human behavior, but one we usually pay very little attention to. But bear with me, and… think about it for just a second: What’s actually going on in your head when you think about anything? Or, when you try to think about nothing at all? And is that even possible? It’s likely that you’ll find that what we call thinking mostly consists of a strange, one-sided dialog: A semi-structured conversation between you and… Yourself?
The human mind has an interesting weak spot: It is able to ask questions to which it knows that no satisfactory answer can exist. No other form consciousness (of which we know of) shows this behavior—or is even remotely capable of doing so. A cat doesn’t ponder what the meaning of life is. No octopus contemplates the value of its existence. Chimpanzees don’t question their higher purpose. For animals, despite many of them undoubtedly being conscious in ways not dissimilar to ours, a state of mere being is enough.
If you’ve got about 20 minutes to spare, I’d invite you to listen to the following performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101) by the great Igor Levit: What caught my attention about this piece—apart form the beauty of the music itself—are the peculiar titles Beethoven chose for each of the four movements. Normally, these are intended to clarify the composer’s intentions for the benefit of the performer.
These days, I find it hard not to think about concepts such as chance and luck. About all the good things in life we take for granted. About how we often act on the assumption that we rightfully deserve our privilege, even though most of it came to us out of sheer serendipitous coincidence. But also about the other side of that coin, namely the haunting feelings of guilt and remorse evoked by a sudden exposure to others’ suffering vis-a-vis our own happy, content existence.
There’s this famous story about Christopher Wren, the legendary architect who rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London in 1666: One day, while inspecting the ongoing construction, Wren came across three bricklayers who must have triggered his curiosity. He struck up a conversation, asking each of them in turn who they were and what they were doing. The first one answered: “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working here to feed my family.
Of a Happy Life by Seneca. At various points in his writing, Seneca uses fictional debates as a way to illustrate and then counteract objections to his views. In one particularly intriguing dialogue in “De Vita Beata” ("Of a Happy Life"), he and his virtual alter ego argue back and forth wether pleasure or virtue form the basis of a fulfilled, happy existence. Of course, the issue at stake here could hardly be of any greater significance: How does one live a good life?
Frankly, I didn’t have the best of weeks this week. I found myself questioning my self-worth based on perceptions of having fallen short of certain achievements. It’s pointless to judge yourself solely by outcomes of course, particularly those that aren’t entirely under your own control–as the Stoics would put it. But to understand that basic principle is one thing, while applying it in everyday life is quite something different.
I consider myself reasonably fit. I know I can run a mile in seven minutes, or a kilometer in four and a half. On even ground. In cool climate. When I’m feeling fresh and relaxed. But upwards on a 75% incline? On a rocky hillside? In 40°C or more? With lungs full of smoke, the roar of a wildfire in my ears, and under threat of a sudden and violent death?
That tiny moment between sleep and wakefulness is a fascinating thing: Your mind hasn't quite caught up with reality yet, but it already tries to make sense of what's going on. When something feels even a little bit off during those split seconds, that can be a frightening experience: The light comes in from the wrong direction. The air is too humid. The touch of the bedspread seems unfamiliar.
Our mind is under ceaseless attack. Constantly, our senses assault it with a gazillion bits of information about the outside world, and the mind itself produces its own fair share of deductions, inferences, and projections on top of that–things we commonly refer to as thoughts. There’s just no way any system anywhere could process all that data in real time, so over eons of evolution, human minds have developed rigorous methods to separate what is considered useful from all the other crap.
I once was given advice by a senior product manager that toppled one of the fundamental assumptions I had held about the PM role. What he said was: “Don’t go down with your products.” I had intuitively thought of the PM as the proverbial captain who is supposed to go down with his ship (at least as far as popular opinion is concerned) but what my colleague suggested sounded more like an invitation to opportunistically hop from one product to the next, jumping ship whenever things started to look dire.
Abraham Lincoln has been quoted saying: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." As it turns out, he probably never said that at all. But I still think we can learn something from that advice, despite its uncertain origins. Preparation In its most literal sense, the expression reminds us that time and energy spent in preparation tends to pay off by allowing us to do the actual work more efficiently.
It's been over a month now since I joined Cockpit365, a startup where more or less everything is in flux: The product, the organizational structure, the market, the ecosystem, … So I didn't know what to expect - except to expect the unexpected. In fact, I wasn't sure if I would even survive the first month, given both the personal, professional, and economic dynamics at play. But here we are: One month in, and hopefully many more to come.
People say that life is short, but that’s not true. Life isn’t short, it’s long. In fact, it’s the longest thing we ever experience first hand. We only perceive life as short because we don’t make the best use of the time we have. It has become all too easy nowadays to waste away an entire lifetime with distractions like TV or social media. All the while we subconsciously hope that some day, by some miracle, a more satisfying future will roll around in which we will be… happy.