Sunday, July 22, 2012

On the interconnectedness of everything. Apropos of nothing.

Warning: this post has nothing to do with fitness, of course, in the sense that everything is connected, it has everything to do with fitness.

To be clear, this isn't a discussion of physics, in quantum physics you can say that every particle is connected to every other  particle and that electrons and positrons can travel back and forward in time, see here and here and every atom that makes up your body was here at the start of the universe. However, physicists hate it when you then start to make philosophical extrapolations based on what is happening at a sub atomic level. The chances are you've never travelled back in time.

The philosophical flip side to this can be called 'co-dependent origination', in the introduction to Narrow Road To The Interior, the classic work of the Japanese poet Basho, the translator Hamill states

"Basho believed in co-dependent origination...holding that all things are fully interdependent, even at point of origin, that no thing is or can be completely self-originating."

However, this post isn't really about that, what this is about is coincidences, connections and patterns. Why certain themes or people may re-occur in your life. A sense of connectedness or synchronicity if you will. Are the patterns and connection really there or do you overlay them on top of reality because they seem to fit.

Stalker to Vietnam to where I live

A few months ago, I was flicking through TV channels, and happened across a TV program called The Culture Show, an author I'd never heard of (Geoff Dyer) was talking about a book he had written about a film I had never seen (Stalker). It seemed interesting, so I rented the film and watched it, and then bought the book Zona, which is about the film; and read it. I was then in a book shop, looking at some of Geoff Dyer's others books, as I didn't know much about him, I opened another one of his books randomly and the chapter was about a photographer called Larry Burrows.

Scene from the film Stalker

Now, I know who Larry Burrows is because I have read the book Lost Over Laos, which is about him being killed during the Vietnam war. I also own the book Requiem by Tim Page & Horst Faas which has a Larry Burrows photograph on the front of it. Tim Page (photographer, features heavily in Michael Herr's book Dispatches, supposed inspiration for Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now) according to wikipedia was born in Tunbridge Wells (the town I live in, and like many people, even though I live here, the exact reason I ended up living here are unclear even to me, I have no family connection to this town, it is not where I grew up or had to move to to get a job). Now, I always thought Tim Page grew up in a place called Green St Green, which is very close to where I mainly grew up, but that could be wrong.

Photo by Larry Burrows: near Khe Sanh 1966. Front cover of Requiem too.

Now, I don't think this means that I should go to Vietnam or Russia, but it does show a connection between seemingly unrelated topics and people, which is interesting (to me at least, as this didn't happen to you, the connections for you wont be there, unless you just read one of those books, in which case, this post will seem strangely meaningful). All from randomly coming across a TV program. You can connect anything to almost anything, its whether those connections are meaningul and real.

In the film Stalker, the characters are on their way to a room in the 'zone', and when you get to that room, all your dreams will come true and everything you truly want will happen. But here's the rub, what if you come out of that room and nothing has changed? That means, the life you have now is what you truly want, and you'll have to stop moaning because its all you've got.

The director Tarkovsky, said there are no hidden meanings to the shots and scenes in his films. A shot of a syringe in a puddle is just that, it doesn't meaning anything. Except, when you film something or hold a single shot long enough the mundane can take on meaning. Everyday occurrences take on meaning if you take them out of context or highlight them, like taking a photograph of it, and capturing a moment in a still forever. In everyday life you look at people everyday, and most encounters don't mean anything, you forget them, if, however, you hold someones gaze a bit longer than normal and they reciprocate, in a split second that moment will be meaningful to you both (but not to anyone else), if however, you are just staring at someone, then there is a good chance you are actually stalking them and you probably need help!

[In your mind is a pattern of how to walk and breathe, a stereotype, and it seems normal. And you wont even think about it, until it goes wrong or someone actually points out that your gait is wrong, or you are breathing in the wrong way. Then suddenly these things will stick out to. And if you try to change them, they will feel awkward and clunky, after all how you breathe is fundamental, probably no one will even notice that you are trying to breathe differently or walk differently, to them the world is the same, but to you it wont be ]

Synchronicity, Big Sur and the Alan Watts blues

Synchronicity is when

two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. (wikipedia)
Carl Jung thought that events could be grouped by meaning, that life was not a series of random events, that somethings were not mere coincidences. To quote Lewis Carroll from Through The Looking Glass

'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!'
'--but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways.'
'I'm sure MINE only works one way,' Alice remarked. 'I can't remember things before they happen.'
'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked.

There is a concept in Japanese called mono no aware. In the introduction to Basho's Narrow Road To The Interior Hamill explains that this is 'the beauty of temporal things', an emotion brought on by engagement with things,

A particular quality of elegant sadness, a poignant awareness of temporality
 This was the first time I had heard of this phrase, and then almost simultaneously I read about it Alan Watts autobiography.

I was reading Alan Watts autobiography on a train, he was talking about where he grew up in a place called Chislehurst. At that point the train I was on went through Chislehurst, it didn't stop there, the next stop on the line is the place where I mostly grew up.

Alan Watts was writing about Big Sur. I've been to Big Sur, I slept there in a car once, me and my brother on a road trip. That moment  is frozen in time now. I might go back to Big Sur but I'll never go back to that moment, human beings can't time travel like electrons or live backwards like the White Queen.  Linking Big Sur to someone like Kerouac is easy (I read that book too), the connection is obvious. The coincidence is when the connection isn't obvious. Watts mentioned the Esalen Institute, I've been to Big Sur but never heard of it. A day or so later I was looking up Anatomy Trains courses and Thomas Myers was holding one at the Esalen Institute, and then I was watching an old documentary about the physicist Richard Feynman, and it mentioned that he had taught at Esalen as well. Does this mean I'm meant to go to Esalen or is it just a series of coincidences and I am looking for meaning?

Big Sur: I went there once, maybe you did too

Sliding doors and infinite possibilities

Looking for connections and patterns is a trait of the human mind. That's why your brain will try to make sense of optical illusions and will see two dimensional pictures and interpret them as three dimensional.

But more than this, we want to believe in fate and connections. You walk past that girl/ guy and think he/she must be the one because you also happened to see them in a coffee shop the day before or they go to the same gym as you. And, wow, yes, you must have a connection because you both drink coffee and you both exercise, this is fate! But a different coffee shop or a different gym and it could have a different guy or girl you saw. So it must be fate, that is was this person, in this place at this time. But maybe not, chances are you live in a town where quite a few people have the same background and the same demographic as you, auto correlation. You probably tend to go to the same places at the same times, you probably tend to commute the same journey at the same times of day. Its more surprising that you don't bump into the same people more often. You will tend to gravitate to the same subjects, and things you like, and places you like (why you like these things above other things is a different question), so again its more surprising that you don't meet like minded people all the time. This is why it still stands out to you when you do make a connection with someone and thinks fates right hand is guiding events. With the internet, of course, you can because now you are using the whole world as your network and your interests are funnelled to the websites and forums that interest you.

In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman gives quite a few elegant example of how we can see random events and believe they are not random. As humans we are on the look out for patterns and anything that has changed, this is how we survived in the past, noticing things out of the ordinary that didn't fit our pattern. Kahneman gives example from aerial bombing to births in hospitals, random events tend to cluster and we see these as meaningful, you can have a string of baby boys born in a hospital, just as you can throw a six several times in a row with a dice, this is how randomness works.

"We do not expect to see regularity produced by a random process, and when we detect what appears to be a rule, we quickly reject the idea that the process is truly random. Random processes produce many sequences that convince people that the process is not random after all." (Kahneman, 2011:115)
And "many facts of the world are due to chance, including accidents of sampling. Causal explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong." (ibid, p118)

However, our belief is so strong in patterns and events we find it hard to let go even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The successful CEO, could have just got lucky, as could have that goalscorer, and all those memberships you sold because of your fantastic sales strategy, maybe you were going to sell them anyway, and next month you'll be trying to explain why the strategy isn't working this time.

[I have no idea how I ended living where I live, doing the job I do at the place I work; anymore than why I think about running 100 miles and kettlebells while you might think about climbing a mountain, water skiing or collecting stamps. Unless you had a vision at fours years old telling you exactly where to live, what to do and what to like, then you're probably in the same boat (if you told me you had a vision I would doubt it and probably think you're lying as well).We want to believe our life has meaning, and our actions are not random chance. We all want to believe that the choices we made are the right ones, and we chose the right path for the right reason. And if you think you're own the wrong path, then why are you still on it? For some people it was all over before they even got to choose, so why are you waiting? ]

But, maybe, just maybe, somethings are too much of coincidence, you are being pulled in a certain direction and you push in that direction too. Because, if everything is connected, and if everything 'is unfolding as it should' then it makes you feel better. The idea of fate gives it all meaning, because who want to live in a world where everything is random, somewhere in the middle of the chaos we want someone or something to say 'this way'. You are on the right path, this is the way.

"The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home." - Basho
Further reading

Basho & Hamill (1998) Narrow Road To The Interior and Other Writings. Shambhala Classics
Geoff Dyer (2012) Zona: A book about a film abut a journey to a room. Cannongate
Geoff Dyer (2011) Working the Rooms. Essays. (I haven't read this, but this is the book that has a chapter on Larry Burrows)
Horst Faas & Tim Page (1997) Requiem. By the photographers who died in Vietnam and Indochina. Random House. (note this book is somewhat rare and hard to get hold of, & I'm keeping my copy!)
Michael Herr Dispatches. Picador
Daniel Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books
Jack Kerouac Big Sur
Leonoard Mlodinov (2009) The Drunkards Walk. How randomness rules our lives. Penguin Books
Tim Page The Mindful Moment. Thames & Hudson
Richard Pyle & Horst Faas (2003) Lost Over Laos. A true story of tragedy, mystery and friendship. Da Capo Press
Alan Watts (1972) In My Own Way. An autobiography. New World Library

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