Sunday, January 1, 2012

THE WILL TO BLISS REVISITED

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY


A pigeon flew in through a window
on the fourth floor and got trapped
in the sheen of the long corridors
in the large building where we lived.

My father caught him and handed
him to me. I held the bird tight
to my chest, then leaned over
the sill and handed him to the sky.

He dropped, a dead stone –
then wobbled, the wings
found again the art of the air –
and the pigeon wheeled

above the wide yard.
Flew away like the years.
But I still feel it beat,
that heart against my heart.

~ Oriana © 2012

My earlier blog entry, http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2011/06/will-to-bliss.html, I discussed happiness in terms of acting rather than thinking (“think less”). Recently, I have come across the work of Daniel Kahneman, succinctly summarized by the science writer Jim Halt:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/27/books/review/thinking-fast-and-slow-by-daniel-kahneman-book-review.html?_r=1 and a fascinating youtube video of Kahneman himself, explaining the experiencing self versus the remembering self: http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory.html

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. Surprisingly, he is a social psychologist. He “merely” showed that the model posited by classical economics, that of rational decision making by a supremely rational consumer and investor, simply does not hold up. (And I thought that everyone already knew that the stock market, for example, was totally “psychological” rather than rational; it was one of the first things I was told about capitalism: the euphoria, the crashes, the panic. I wasn’t told this by Marxists, but by patriotic Americans.)

If I were to summarize Kahneman’s findings as simply as possible, I’d say: we have two thinking systems and two selves.

TWO THINKING SYSTEMS:

System 1 is “fast thinking,” or intuition: effortless, largely unconscious, making snap judgments based on memory and emotion. It’s the equivalent of “parallel processing” in computers. System 2 is “slow thinking”: deliberate, conscious, analytical, laborious, rational (though not exempt from bias), step-by-step sequential (like “serial processing”), and painful. Your body is flooded with adrenaline – hence the dry mouth and dilated pupils. You can end up with a tension headache from using the slow System 2 thinking. It requires attention to boring detail, and who wants that? The IRS, that’s who. You can’t deal with an IRS audit on a purely intuitive basis: you have to document your income and expenses. It’s much more fun to trust intuition – to make snap judgments and jump to conclusions – even if intuition is right only half the time. Fortunately, when expertise enters the picture, e.g. medical training, the correctness of intuitive judgment improves.

One of the surprises of my life came in my teens. My father taught theoretical physics and advanced mathematics at the University of Lodz. One time, in my frustration over mathematics, which to me was the ultimate in slow, laborious System 2 thinking, and in particular with a monstrously complicated equation that was part of my high school homework, I asked him, “How come you know so quickly how to simplify an equation?” He replied: “Intuition.” A lot of training on top of a genetic gift for a certain field can shift slow thinking into fast thinking, the groaning and plodding into joyful intuitive leaps.

In a way, it’s like learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car. At first, we are in mind-body system 2: it takes a while to gain competence, and the learning process can be pretty uncomfortable. Once competence is achieved, we are – oh joy! – on automatic, unconscious of how we do it, freed to enjoy the sun and the wind, the trees and flowers.

Rather than engage my slow System 2 thinking, let me simply quote from Jim Halt’s review of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow in the New York Times, November 27, 2011:

System 1 (intuition) uses association and metaphor to produce a quick and dirty draft of reality, which System 2 draws on to arrive at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices. System 1 proposes, System 2 disposes. So System 2 would seem to be the boss, right? In principle, yes. But System 2, in addition to being more deliberate and rational, is also lazy. And it tires easily. (The vogue term for this is “ego depletion.”) Too often, instead of slowing things down and analyzing them, System 2 is content to accept the easy but unreliable story about the world that System 1 feeds to it. “Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is,” Kahneman writes, “the automatic System 1 is the hero of this book.” System 2 is especially quiescent, it seems, when your mood is a happy one.
I love cooking. I do it intuitively. A recipe serves merely to inspire me and give me a general direction. But why not toss leaks into the soup? What about dried shiitake, chopped into small pieces? Or, in the last moment, add a dash of cayenne? My intuitive soups turn into epics. Baking, on the other hand, takes measuring and timing. Long, long ago, when I was young and foolish and ignorant of where my true talents lay, I tried baking. I’m not saying my cheesecakes weren’t delicious – it was just that they were not fun to make. After repeated experience of realizing how much I hated baking, I decided: “never again.” Life is too short to do what you dislike doing – if you don’t absolutely have to do it.
Thus, in a recap of my previous blog entry, I advocate following your bliss: the more you can run on intuition, the happier you will be. And the happier you feel, the more likely you are to trust your intuition. In writing, the more you surrender to the unconscious process, the greater the enjoyment. It’s really somewhat unnerving to say it (I still perceive myself as an intellectual) that the less you think (using the slow System 2, that is), the happier you are.
TWO SELVES
These days we are always nagged to “be in the moment.” The Power of Now has sold millions of copies. Being primarily a poet of memory, I resent that. For me, it’s the “power of back then” – which, through the magic of writing, becomes the “eternal moment.” I understood early on that “what really happened” doesn’t particularly matter, and in any case cannot be captured; what matters is what we remember.
In addition to positing two systems of thinking, Kahneman posits two selves: the moment-by-moment experiencing self and the unreliable narrator, the remembering self. Again, to quote Jim Holt:
It is the remembering self that calls the shots, not the experiencing self. The remembering self exercises a sort of “tyranny” over the voiceless experiencing self. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
What Kahneman does not discuss is the importance of forgetting. Forgetting is one of life’s great blessings. And it’s our remembering self, the forgetful, inaccurate narrator, who lets details just drop away, so we remember what happened according to how meaningful it is to us in the present. Our present understanding changes the past. (Milosz discusses this in terms of the existentialist “philosophy of freedom” – again, see my past entry,  http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2011/06/will-to-bliss.html )
Some forgetting is of course unfortunate. The poem below makes me wish I’d written down the name of the village. But without my failure to remember, this poem would have not been born.
FORGETTING
Mazury region, former East Prussia

In the forest near the lake we found,
half buried in the sand,
a weather-scarred plaque
with the name of a German village.

We stared at the steep fence
of the Gothic alphabet.
Around, like a prayer for the dead,
the long shush of wind in the pines.

I repeated the name of the vanished
village like a spell.
I thought we’d always find
that greenest of all the lakes,

that path crowned with tall pine
where we sheltered in the rain. 
He put his jacket around me.
The needles shone with drops,

a forest of crystal. But I forgot
the spell – the lake nameless
among a thousand lakes,
the evenings hyphenated

with gold dashes of the fireflies.
The village weathered into silence –
the memory of a forgetting
I would remember all my life.

The name started with an A,
as in always, and ended
with an N, as in never.
In between, forest and wind –

the dead keening for the dead
in the amber forgetting of pines.

~ Oriana © 2012

**

Ultimately everything will be forgotten. We too will be forgotten. But, as the souls of trees told me in another poem, it’s not important to be remembered, only to be beautiful. 



Sarah (from Pietrusza Wola, Carpathia)

Interesting, yes. Of course it is also the remembering self that produces the phantom limbs – and the experiencing self which enjoys the real limbs, right now...and maybe this enjoyment doesn't involve awareness of  'the self', or need to.

I don't think Buddha neglected the remembering self – I think it was precisely this that he was saying did not exist in any permanent, reliable way. Which of course is no impediment to enjoying it.  He certainly saw the power of it, the reality of it. Confusing it with a stable truth or permanent foundation is the problem.

I am not sure about the narrative aspect of musing on experience – that it has to be like that – I'm a total introvert too, but I like to muse on it not in terms of story, or film, but in moments, maybe moments of selflessness too – they do get recorded somehow... when associated not with, say, films, but with objects...

Oriana:

I agree with everything you say – the experiencing and the remembering selves are entangled in a complex way. It’s a dance – a complicated tango, incessantly changing.

I too sometimes do my remembering simply by reviewing moments and images. But even if it’s just images, it’s never like looking at a photograph. I’m aware that remembering the images – or just having it drift by the mind’s eye, for some unknown reason – means creating that image according to what the meaning is now. Some details are automatically enhanced, others omitted.

I’m not saying that this is a conscious process, because we want to remember X but not Y, though that wish may play a role. And that creative aspect of memory fits my broad definition of narration. The type of therapy that interests me most is narrative therapy – how you tell a particular story, and how merely doing it in the third person leads to a gentler, compassionate treatment of the protagonist.

And yes, Buddha probably did acknowledge the remembering self – perhaps the only self that exists, but is constantly in flux as our memories change. No permanence to anything, no. And Proust too comes to mind – how a bit of cake can evoke a train of (some say much too detailed and thus unreadable) memories. 

The art of writing, as I know you know, is to a great extent the art of omission. Simplify, simplify, simplify! What threatens to engulf us is the too-muchness of everything. How delicious to be still and close one’s eyes for a moment, and let something drift into the inner sight. It's Proust, but it's also Wordsworth, with his "emotion recollected in tranquility." May we always have the tranquility it takes for a rich inner life.



On a somewhat different note: I find that the remembering self functions defectively during depression. It functions in the service of depression. Thus, positive memories are blocked (at one point I was challenged to write down ten good things that happened to me; after being literally unable to recall a single good thing, I finally managed to come up with three, a tremendous victory!), while negative memories come up in enhanced color. After committing myself to not being depressed, I could track my recovery by counting the number of positive experiences I could recall. I wasn’t suddenly flooded with remembered happiness. It took time. 

Now, thank goodness, I can even ponder a disastrous experience like my summer nightmare caused by hyaluronic acid injections that were supposed to help my knee pain (my left knee was first wrecked in an accident, and then seriously harmed by a knee surgery that’s soon stopped being performed). Even though this came on top of all my other medical disasters, and could lead to a serious “Why me?” session, I can now reflect on the experience, seeking a blessing in the curse (“In every blessing a curse, in every curse a blessing” – those little mottoes come handy). Without the distortion of depression, I find my remembering self to be downright wise, or at least capable of learning.

But I also have no doubt that the interplay between the experiencing and the remembering self is quite complex, and it is only at times that we can tell “the dancer from the dance.”

Charles:

You summed it up in the last paragraph better than Daniel Kahneman and Jim Halt combined. A beautiful blog.

Oriana:

Thank you. Yes, for me the ultimate value is beauty. That doesn’t mean a dismissal of the remembering self in favor of the experiencing self. In fact I love to re-experience beauty by calling up the images and experiences (e.g. suddenly seeing a coyote pack run along a hillside, or, while hiking on Hurricane Ridge, seeing an eagle fly at eye-level with me just feet away). When I consider the remembering self, it’s not just about selective narration; the experiencing self comes into play as well, as if revived. I don't feel I have full control of what I see with the inner eye, "that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude," as Wordsworth put it ("I wandered lonely as a cloud"). When I was depressed, that inward eye was the nightmare of solitude, flashing back moments of pain, or projecting suicidal imagery. But that is in the past. How astonishing to know that it won't happen again. How do I know? I "just know." My System I knows it, my intuition, so it's that bone-deep knowledge. It is astonishing. As I keep saying, my life has become a continual astonishment. 




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