Personal Development, Ph. D.

Passion. Rejection. Awe. It is not a medieval love affair. It is a story about me and science. Holy teen ages.

While studying in Russia, the self-made weekly schedule almost looked like this: 4hours math, 7hours physics, 3hours chemistry. Mates didn’t call me Stephen. Scientific subjects were easier to understand due to latin terminology, and this is the main reason I took these classes so frequently. But I liked them very much. It was fascinating: Abstract thinking had to reason with physical evidence.

Once I came back home, I got in touch with the local hippy, willing-to-be-holistic community. They talked about quantum physics as a way to hack the traditional thinking. That which leaved no space for miracles. Woo woo, you might yell. At that time I was hungry to delve into that hopeful worldview.

Hunger kept me alive. Yes, I proudly wore my pink glasses. People kept asking a ton of grounded objections: Why isn’t alternative medicine healing everybody? How is that scientific community did not accept some supposedly “revolutionary discoveries”? I couldn’t ignore them.

I got stuck for a while. Folks I hung out with were beautiful, yet regrettably undertrained at critical thinking. I could not reject them, for I got acquainted enough with mystery to understand that something had to be solved. I stepped away into the unknown, looking for a light to switch on.

One day, an NPR post shared by the stunning Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe hit my FB timeline. I was relieved and not alone. I met Marcelo Gleiser.

It’s as if scientific issues are simply matters of opinion — and not the product of a very thorough process of consensus-building among technically trained people.

While visiting the dentist during the yearly check-up, it is more likely to talk about the next Armageddon, rather than teething business. Why is that?

That’s what’s happening, a drive toward a subjective take on science — the polar opposite of what science stands for: A way of extracting universal truths about the natural world through a detailed process of observation and data analysis.

Things are pretty messy out there. Scientists tirelessly discuss about inductive and deductive reasoning. Not to say that someone considers science a retirement-ready idea. Nevertheless, scientists fight in their own field. Dope.

The article further quotes George Johnson to complete the picture:

“Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.”

It sounds like economics took control over epistemology. And it could be history as well: as Max Planck once said, “New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

What about science?


 

Evidence. I desperately looked for it while drowning in uncertainty. And if I tried to somehow handle bigger problems, I knew what I had to wait for: overconfidence either panic. I’m particularly fond of the scientific method, because it offers a choice.

Storytelling is very compelling to me, and I wouldn’t mistake its effectiveness with critical reasoning’s. The former is the final output, the latter provides it with a proper structure. To me, the more accurate is critical thinking, the more power a speech could deliver.

True science, as well as true religion, is a great example of humbleness. Certainty has never set anyone free, nor satisfied. Jesuit Father and astronomer George Coyne wisely reminded me that

Discoveries lead to further ignorance.

Nevertheless, Marcelo Gleiser sets the limits of scientific knowledge:

Scientific certainty depends on the range of applicability of a given theory. If it is being applied within its range of validity, we can trust it as the best approximation to the truth.

That “range of applicability” is the creative element that connects the subjective take of the world with a broader one.

Problems need a switch in subjective paradigm to be effectively solved. The idea floats in the air, until someone gets to prove it. A creative approach is built upon novelty and usefulness, which means that a new combination of datas and ideas have to match a validating standard of approval.

A scientist might find something new in the datas, whether in the literature that served him to shift his knowledge. To make the leap, he has to state something that has never been said before. That becomes plausible when it matches an independent set of criteria.

After Karl Popper introduced the notion of falsifiability, science revealed its undeniable kin with philosophy. To him, truth was something to eventually attain, rather than something to own. He spread experimentation as a negative method, rather than a positive one. Experiments remind us that a given theory is temporarily fallacy-free, not a solid truth to rely upon.

To Sam Harris, science is embraced when adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence. Religion hits

 when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy.

Marcelo Gleiser gets deeper into that dangerous intersection, nurtured by an illogical collection of science and religion:

The scientific impulse to unify is crypto-religious. […] To search for simplicity is essential to what scientists do. It’s what I do. There are essential organizing principles in nature, and the laws we find are excellent ways to describe them. But the laws are many, not one.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, the major misconception ever prevented us from a better understanding of who we are. Sam Harris delightfully explores the boundaries of consciousness and conceptual thinking, blending Krishnamurti’s radical view with the unstoppable force of scientific progress:

Even if one thinks the human mind is entirely the product of physics, the reality of consciousness becomes no less wondrous, and the difference between happiness and suffering no less important. Nor does such a view suggest that we’ll ever find the emergence of mind from matter fully intelligible; consciousness may always seem like a miracle. In philosophical circles, this is known as “the hard problem of consciousness” — some of us agree that this problem exists, some of us don’t. Should consciousness prove conceptually irreducible, remaining the mysterious ground for all we can conceivably experience or value, the rest of the scientific worldview would remain perfectly intact.

See how the intangible concept of soul and the ever-changing identity process are marvellously merged by Maria Popova in the previous post.

 

Identity

Expression is a final act. Everything that has ever been thought comes to somehow impact the world. I just had some insights about the way I do it and…I’d like to express them.
I’ve been noticing that I too often speak as if I were a broadcaster, when I’m actually advising myself out loud. I say what I need to be told. I remember of an awful period, when a sort of cosmic boredom coexisted with a resolute mystic pursuit. Mystic traditions often point to the “Ego” as the source of all sufferings. I followed their advice literally. “I’d never say ‘me’ again. I’d rather set myself at the bottom of every conversation, and avoid to take any position.” That actually was deep shame. Shame came from that spring when I fell in love, and I suddenly, miserably got turned down. Shame came from the money I took away from my parents to chase my dreams, without fulfilling them and – even worse – no idea about what went wrong. I was so afraid of speaking for myself, that I’d stammered out “Alessandro, you’ve got to appreciate this offered supper”.
In the spare time, I used to go for a stroll in the woods. As my self-lead talk unfolded, I sometimes performed the disciple, sometimes the master. Inspiration came to me. The Muse visited my body. I had nothing to do but listening to her through my own mouth. I had nothing to do but believing instead to be the Muse. Upanishads affected me – I could be everything. There was no heterodoxy. I placed myself in the middle, swinging between the two, depending on how I felt.

As a blogger, I prefer to talk for myself. Previous post though were filled with “you should” and “you shouldn’t”, an hardwired storytelling I’ve adopted from the ton of self-help books I’ve been through. They are plenty of should and shouldn’t, of dos and don’ts. God bless them, they helped me. Meanwhile, I became to dislike the mechanism that runs them.

What fascinates me the most nowadays are people who tell stories. I like people who show up and humbly talk about themselves. No bullet points, no underlining. They suggest there’s nothing more important but our shared human condition. Topics may seem interesting or boring, but that is due to me alone.

One of those people is Maria Popova. Her one-woman labour of love inspires me to write, to show up, to consider my blog a recording of the process of arrival into who I am. A beautifully crafted piece of art that I relish listening to is OnBeing. What a blast is their conversation on the podcast! Maria Popova delightfully explains the journey it took her to label “we never see the world as it is” as emboldening statement, not dreadful anymore.

I think we never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. And we deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — that we come to see it, not is despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Was it — I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. And that’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one. And it’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance.

She then resumes in a few crystal-clear words the identity issue I’ve been struggling with for years. Be or not to be?

We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely-curated catalogue of those.

It is beautiful and powerful that we as mankind pushed our sense of identity so far. That description captures a tangible outlook of who we experience to be from a higher prospective.

To confuse the Absolute with a more integrated feeling of who I am is a major deception I’ve been facing with along the journey. I’ve often embraced the powerful myth of “Unity”, which has never to be accepted as a destination, rather a mere process. Popova hits the target with the following:

I find, over and over, that the fullest people — the people most whole and most alive — are those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments, and it always is.

These people are mind-boggling. Their example is the most powerful tool to inspire change. “You should” statements drive a ridiculously little share of long-term changes. They might be the kick somebody needs to get started. But unless that turns into a personal, well-built reasoning, it would lead nowhere. The former wrongly assumes that one’s worldview should be others’ as well. The latter shares the journey which everyone has been through, leaving no simple, easy-to-do answers on the table. I’m particularly skeptical about the impact of any to-do list. When it comes to personal issues, even a friend’s piece of advice could miss the point. How could a stranger’s one be deeply successful? Respecting someone’s authority alone would give a short-term satisfaction. A long-term one requires to be a good friend of ourselves.

To share stories with people who act like there is no better, nor worse place to be. That is something meaningful. I’ll pay attention to shared conversations and stories over ex-machina, commencement-dressed speeches. I want to avoid the easy how-to-do approach, in order to embrace the how-to-be.

The War of Art – An Ego review

Ego. Short word. Major depletion.

“Ego is a shame”. “I’ll tell you how little and dirty you are by the number of times you name yourself.” Hellz yes. “Ego is the cause of all your sufferings”.

I had a tough time with my ego. Everything seemed to be wrong with him. I housed every deadly weapon I could use against him.  All the self-help literature I’ve been through rejected it as a plague.

At that time, no tangible options were left but to fight against myself. Resistance increased, until I felt paralyzed. No thoughts were allowed to knock at my mind. No person was worthy to talk to. There was no possible way to salvation, except silence. It had a name. I’ve ignorantly labeled it Asparsa Yoga.

I set up everything by myself. I marched toward an inspiring future, envisioned from the Saints I was following. I’ve never felt so unhappy and alone.

After I met Buddhism, the practice eased a bit. “Sit with the enemy and have a cup of tea. You’ll discover it is not so bad”. It worked.

I remember how catholics stared at me while reading Feeding Your Demons. And yet the message was vital: I had the power to heal my worst and most hated parts by giving them full attention.

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Steven Pressfiled is very rude with Ego.

We demolish the Ego to get to the Self.

Not to be overwhelmed by fear, these words might be useful. But I do not consider them a cheerful way to better understand who I am. Pressfield describes the Ego as if it were the worst of our enemies.

Ego believes

  1. Death is real.
  2. Time and space are real.
  3. Every individual is different and separate from every other.
  4. The predominant impulse of life is self-preservation.
  5. There is no God.

He enumerates Self principles as well:

  1. Death is an illusion.
  2. Time and space are illusions.
  3. All beings are one.
  4. The supreme emotion is love.
  5. God is all there is.

I believe death and birth lose any key role once we experience the flow. Sometimes ago, I pretended to live entirely in the world of Ideas. Time and space weren’t real to me. Actually, I was wandering like a homeless. After a 35 days fasting, I very much appreciated that there was something solid to swallow.

I believe Ego is just the most scared part of us. He needs compassion alongside with incitement. We don’t demolish him to get to the Self. We encourage him to flourish, to become the Self he’s already. Ego is part of us. “How are you?” – that is how the Ego feels. Because “All beings are one”. If I hurt my Ego, I hurt myself.

Self-preservation or love? Atheism or divine service? Todo Nada. Todo Nada.


 

I can’t describe who I am. There is no bottom line, and there shouldn’t be one. It is anyhow crucial to set some milestones along the journey. Being someone who deals with artistry, Pressfield’s work is still a masterful piece of advice:

The professional [artist] identifies with her consciousness and her will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will manipulate to serve her art.

To believe in geniuses and Muses is very useful to separate who I am from what I do. I like to consider myself a channel. The Muse inhabits me and acts through my hands, speaks through my mouth. Doing doesn’t belong to me. Letter H is a suitable symbol of the human condition. It defines us as a bridge between two dimensions. We are not the origin, nor the ending.

Words are so feeble, though. There is a superhuman strain to go further. When Upanishads assert “You become what you think” – it is all true. It happens at that very moment.

I’d leave you with one thought.

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