Thursday, 26 January 2012

How the world is a little bit magical

This is a strange topic for me to talk about, because it's something I have specifically avoided mentioning in my daily life. The main reason for this is that generally, although I suspect people have similar experiences, they are one of the topics which are generally considered too odd for normal conversation. An effect which is only amplified by the presence of so many staunch rationalists among my friends.

With those irksome friends in mind, I thought I'd start with a brief disclaimer to try and clarify my position. You see, I would perhaps choose to describe all of these as stories, which I tell myself in an attempt to make my day to day world a little more interesting. That, with my mind refusing to lay quiet for almost any minute of the day, having little special moments to fill that time with is a pleasant distraction, it helps make life a little richer.

Of course, that's a very bland description, that these are 'just fun stories I tell myself'. So I should also say that, while I like to think about seeing angels, just occasionally I'll be feeling a bit disconnected and one will come upon me unexpectedly. Those experiences are something else, a way of tapping in to the world more deeply than I know how to otherwise. I still don't know that I would say they are outside my own head, but the area they reach within me is more brilliant and fragile than any I have found by other means.

I've been trying to think which is the best example of the magical moments in life. I think my current favourite, moments when time seems to stop, is the most easily understood.

The first time this happened I was in Japan. As me and a friend walked a butterfly flew into the space between us and, just for a moment, matched our speed. It seemed as though it was frozen there and, just that little thing, made all the usual laws seem fractured and limited. This creature, which ought, by everything I knew, to be in constant motion, no longer was. It seemed to mock the natural flow of the world and by doing so offered a window into something more. I think the experience, because it was shared, had an added significance (though we've never spoken about it, I'm sure his interpretation doesn't reflect mine).

I hunt these experiences now though, searching them out. There is a particular place to stand at my work which, as well as being near to the coffee machine, also yields these moments. Great gusts sweeping between the building and the one opposite mean that occasionally birds get caught there, held still by the wind so they fail to advance.

I like these because they are so unexpected. A strange wind whipping the rain upwards then letting it hang there, as though suspended, just for a second. They come upon me in times and ways where I couldn't expect them, and as a result I think they touch me all the more.

Another phenomenon I look for is what I refer to as the golden path. It happened to me first when I was still a student, probably nineteen, and I was walking back home, laden from the supermarket. Looking up from the street for just a moment I found the entire thing was shining gold. That the sun had hit just the right point that everything, from the tarmac to the parked cars was resplendent in its light. I can't explain how strongly that hit me, I actually put my shopping down and just stared. It didn't make sense to me that others weren't doing the same. I could feel that this was some sort of pathway to heaven. Only, not a Christian heaven necessarily, just somewhere perfect and shining and bright. I almost walked down that way I think, but then I decided I wanted to live my life first and, blinking, I picked up my shopping and headed home.

I still see echoes of the golden path occasionally, when the sun catches the city just right, turning a rooftop into something celestial for just a few moments. It's never quite the same though, there's never that feeling that I could go that way. It's still special though, I still take it as something of an honoured sign.

I suppose that leads nicely onto angels. I have no idea when I first started seeing angels and, again, that is just a word for something filled with warmth and protection, something that feels, to me, older than any biblical sense of the word.

Angels appear most often when there is a street light near a tree. Where the branches of the tree reflect the patterns of light in such a way that they form a series of circles around it, there you can see them most easily. Really though, that's too restrictive a description. Anywhere you can see a light defined as the patterns of reflection around them, there's an angel sitting there.

I can't explain how I experience these in the way I do. Pointing them out to anyone else they might seem pretty or even a little mesmerising, but when I see them (and more than ever, when I'm surprised by one) they have sense of warmth, of the encompassing nature of the light which comforts me.

I think I'll finish with the unchanging road, which is a different beast altogether. It is a single, fairly small, road in Edinburgh which seems to me to have never changed. In my years here, even when little things have been removed from it, similar replacements have appeared nearby.

This is probably the one which sounds the least mystical, the most like just a story I enjoy telling myself and, I suppose in a way that's true. There's something else though, when I'm walking through this place, it seems eerie and filled with a strangeness, as though the whole road is watching me as I walk through it. I enjoy trips through there, it brings a taste of something more to what may have otherwise been a fairly drab day.

So, I suppose I should finish by trying to explain again why I hunt these out, why I enjoy these, frankly strange, experiences. Honestly, it adds a weight to the world which sometimes feels missing. Each time I experience one of them I have to re-situate myself, re-acclimatising to the city streets as places which now contain just a little more wonder and doubt. Wherever they originate from, whatever odd little corner of my brain they activate, I can't help but feel like I enjoy having those feelings be just a little more tangible.

My only real worry about writing about these things, is that somehow by farming them out for others to see they are going to mean less to me. Possibly that is another reason why I've kept them secret all these years. Seeing them there on the page though, I don't think that's true, I don't even see how that's possible.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Does the Tiger dream of the jungle it's never seen? And where does our jungle lie?

This is a particularly pertinent topic to write about for a couple of reasons. The first is that the point I'm going to make here is pretty much the central basis for the novel which I'm currently writing. As a result, being clear about expressing it is something I'd really like to improve at. The second is that (as a result of the former point) I have tried to use this exact explanation a couple of times recently and made a right pig's ear of it, so I'd like to try to find a more elegant route to make my point.

As the title makes clear, this is all about Tigers. Specifically that, a Tiger who is confined to a cage in the zoo it may act strange, almost mentally dysfunctional, as it paces back and forth (even if it has only ever known the inside of that cage). One way of explaining this is to say that the Tiger is dreaming about a different place entirely. It has been shaped so completely by millions of years of evolution to one particular environment that it seems natural to me that it has whole regions of its brain, of its raw instinct, which don't know what to do with themselves outside of a jungle. Physically, it can survive in a cage, restricted to concrete and iron, but mentally, perhaps it will always be lacking something there.

Perhaps I'm making a leap, but this seems natural to me. Evolution constructs everything specifically to a particular environment, to a particular set of circumstances. Humans need great reams of construction and ingenuity to survive at sea, in space or even just in the cold. We are all too aware of our physical restrictions and how they dictate themselves, but it seems that we ignore the mental ones. Surely creature's brains are moulded over millennia to particular circumstances in just as irrevocably and completely as their forms.

So then the question which always came to my mind was, what is our jungle? What is it in particular which our minds are adapted to expect in their day to day living? Clearly it's hard to make an argument for any one particular kind of setting, there have been humans living in extremes of all kinds for thousands of years and, as far as I can tell, doing okay. No, I think the one constant which exists in all human society (up until the first cities) is that we are social. Not just this, but also that we live in partially familial tribes of a limited size. Obviously these tribes were fairly fluid and I'd imagine that their size varied a lot based on the surrounding landscape and the opportunities which is presented. However we see these limited social groups throughout all of prehistory all over the world and you can even find similar communities in Apes. Thus the two constants which, it seems to me, existed through almost all of our evolution are: constant and significant social interaction and a limited social group*.

I think there are a number of implications to this. Firstly I think the idea that we have a limited social capacity leads to a lot of strange phenomena. For instance our need to find out and dissect celebrities lives in detail (even though, reasonably, it has little to no effect on us) could be seen as a result of them taking up a place in our social landscape. Equally I think that this could explain our general inability to deal with large numbers. That is, we simply aren't able to properly fit the size of a country into our heads (except in terms of abstractions) and, as a result, we are generally very bad at making decisions on this scale (for instance, at understanding that single anecdotes don't represent the statistical whole). We still come to most of our conclusions as though there were actually only one hundred or so of us. This is why articles about individuals either scamming the welfare system or falling through its cracks are so effecting (because we treat them as being representative of the whole).

I also think that this is what leads to us tending to dislike people who are different. Whether in a religious, sexual or more mundane sense, if someone appears to be making a choice to be different from us we often resent them. I think that the cause of this is that, in small groups, dissenters and disagreements are actually potentially very dangerous **.

All of the above ideas could potentially take up an entire entry on their own, for now I just wanted to give a broad overview of some of the effects it could have.

I think it's the ubiquity of social situations which is our real jungle however. In a tribal situation, where you need to live together in more tightly knit groups simply to survive, it's easy to see that you have to be social, that it is a necessary part of your day to day existence. I don't think that we can ever really escape that, nor should we try especially. I believe quite strongly that simple interactions, even those of an entirely pro forma “good morning” nature, are simply good for our brains, that they let us know that things are okay. I wonder about a lot of things in this area, how many mental problems are caused or exacerbated by a distance between the sufferer and those around them? How do our brains cope with the fact that every day we walk past people that we never even say hello to? Is that processed as dangerous by some dark corner of our brain?

This is the real heart of the point I wanted to make, that I think being around (and friendly with) other people is a significant part of our mental diet. Putting it another way every time you interact with another person, even if it's at a very basic level, you are communicating (brain to brain) with the most complex thing you will ever interact with. Perhaps you think I'm hyperbolising the importance of our social side, but honestly, I don't think you can. I really believe that talking with another human being is one of the best things you can do for yourself each day.

As a final word, I wanted to finish by admitting that there has been a certain amount of things which I have just asserted here, with little to no evidence. In part that's intended, I meant this as a place to air my thoughts out as they are, but still, it's lazy. If you have anything you object to please feel free to comment or otherwise bring it up with me. I'd honestly love to discuss all of these ideas and, potentially, change these beliefs.

*[There's a whole theory about this assertion where Dunbar's number is said to the be the number of people we can maintain stable social links with (and that the need to increase this number was what led to the evolution of increased intelligence). It's interesting, but not particularly relevant, as all I'm asserting here is that we evolved in limited social groups (and so it is reasonable to assume that we are adapted to that particular situation).]

**[I'd like to add that I actually think on a large scale (as we mostly live now), differences and variations from the mean are very valuable and desirable.]

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Why Blog?

So, I've decided to start a blog. I've entered the blogosphere, set sail on it's capricious seas. I think, importantly, in this first post I want to set out exactly why I made such a decision, what it is that possessed me to enter this strange arena. I will also, though they aren't entirely clear to me just yet, try and give an idea of the subjects which I will be covering, some sense of my oeuvre.

Enumerating my reasons then, well, firstly and most importantly I'm doing it for practice.

There are a few facets to this. There is the simple practice of putting words on paper, expressing myself in a clear and readable way, which, with my intention of being a writer, seems important to gather where I can.

There is also the secondary practice, towards those same ends, of putting myself out there. Taking an idea about which I may have some uncertainty and releasing it upon the world, despite the knowledge that doing so may cause ridicule.

The final kind of practice though requires a little explanation, as behind it sits the entire reason for the blog, the seed of this, now fruiting, idea. It was at a party when a woman told me that she was studying theology. Being a little drunk (all right, a lot), I decided that she would be fascinated, perhaps even impressed, if I described to her my own personal theology*. Now this is something which I have had, tucked away in the back of my head, fermenting, for a good while and I felt that I had quite a strong sense of it, that it was fairly solid. However, the moment that I came to try and describe it, to give word to that scattered sense I had, it seemed to fall apart. The fact was, although to myself the ideas were well formed, in actuality they only had a shape within the confines of my own head. On this occasion I was quickly interrupted by a militant atheist, who proceeded to drag me into a horrendous circular argument which, though she claimed otherwise, the poor woman watched with a mixture of horror and boredom.

So that's it, a small embarrassing event nestled in amongst the slew of others which are guaranteed to come with any night of drinking, but on this occasion I found myself more than usually bothered by it after the fact. It occurred to me that there may be a whole number of ideas and thoughts about which I feel utterly certain, but which have never been given enough structure to exist on their own, outside their natural habitat. Obviously on occasion this is desirable, but all too often I have found that, after describing my point of view to someone, it needs to be entirely restructured, that the fuzzy logic of my own mind needs some seating in reality before it achieves clarity.

So, with that in mind, I decided to start this blog as a place where that crystallisation may take place (it may not, my thoughts may not bend themselves to the page, but at least I will have tried).

*[I am sure that in the future I will attempt to describe it here, probably it will be just as much of a mess then]

The second reason why the idea of a blog appealed, is because I want to give myself motivation. Motivation to think these thoughts, to take advantage of empty spaces in the day and use them to craft idle musings into something more rigid.

Motivation also to produce something every week, a deadline to which I can yoke my productivity because, really, I would rather be someone who produces things and does little else (than someone who consumes).

Finally also, motivation to have these conversations, to discuss these ideas outside of these confines and, ultimately, to conjure some really interesting discussions into being.

The final reason is that one of the things I find most difficult in writing is the process of editing, whether in a simple line by line fashion or in grand restructuring. I hope that by producing these entries weekly I will build up a better tolerance and habit for simply doing this as a matter of course, without thinking of it as some insurmountable chore. With that in mind I promise that I will not put up any entry which is simply a first draft (perhaps that should go without saying, maybe the fact that it doesn't gives you a sense of the problem), I will always have gone through, line by line, to tidy it up as best I can.

Those then, are my reasons. I am not sure that it is a full or even a sensible list, but then this is my first attempt at something which I hope to improve at, so perhaps some lack of clarity is to be expected.

As to what kinds of things I will be discussing. Probably you have already got some idea from my comments above. To clarify though, it will be ideas which I see as important, ones which I have not had a chance to discuss (and thus clarify). I will try, however, to refrain from anything political or any sorts of polemics where I exclaim that one particular thing is bad or good.

We shall see, then, how long and fruitful this experiment proves to be.