Present-mindedness

Hello friends. I’m doing it! I busted out my little digital typewriter again, to make me sit down and actually write a blog post.

I’ve been busy lately. All my books came back to me at the same time time, so I’ve had to work on them all simultaneously. But it’s fine. The work is getting done. In terms of my reading, I’ve been re-reading Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments in Truth. He has a marvelous voice, very warm and personable. The book is long, but one wishes it was longer–it ends in the mid 20s, well before the culmination of the freedom struggle. What you realize reading his book is how much of an oddball Gandhi was. Even his Hinduism wasn’t straightforward. He really only read the Indian holy books in England, when he was in college, and he was very influenced by Western new-age spirituality and mysticism. He was involved w/ various theosophists, for instance, and he was also involved with the British vegetarian community (vegetarianism was a major fad in Edwardian England). A lot of the way he looks at Hinduism feels very distinctly Western–for instance, his view that untouchability is meaningless, or how he looks down on ritual (at one point, he goes on pilgrimage and feels ashamed of how non-spiritual the activity seems to be). His Hinduism seems intensely personal, and rather unconnected from any established tradition. If anything, it’s a bit…Christian.

Seeing how Gandhi was a bit of an outsider made me feel more connected to India myself. Gandhi and I are from a similar caste and region of India, and if he can come at Indian society so askew, and yet be literally the most Indian person in the world, then why can’t I? Perhaps I’m not Indian in the same way as other Indians, but I am Indian enough. I mean Gandhi only spent two years of his adulthood in India before moving back permanently at around the age of 45. He lived a lifetime outside India, and in the parts where he writes about it, he sometimes seems a bit like a stranger to it–he has almost no experience of it as an adult. Made me feel excited to read other Indian books!


Have been struggling to get abreast of all the periodicals I subscribe to. At some point I thought it would be a great idea to subscribe to the four big literary reviews (NYRB, LRB, TLS and Paris Review) and a few of the others as well. Terrible idea. Each issue is as long as a novel, essentially, and who has the time to read these books every two weeks? But on the other hand I find the coverage much more interesting than the NYT Book review. So I’ve been trying to think how I can keep abreast of it all. Still not entirely sure, other than a lot of skimming. But I’ve canceled the subscriptions (which were through kindle) because the issues were piling up horribly.

Went through a phase where I read lots of Alan Watts, a popularizer of Eastern religion during the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. He too has a very warm, congenial voice. All of his books are essentially the same, but the best is probably The Wisdom of Insecurity. I’ve sort of gotten into meditating and mindfulness and stuff lately, which is going well. Many problems are solved by remaining in the moment: there is no need to have any worries about the future, for instance, because the future isn’t yet here. It also solves other problems that I wouldn’t have thought would be affected: many of my insecurities and resentments disappear when I’m more present-minded. For instance if I am envious of someone, the envy dissipates if I focus on the here-and-now, my existence in this body, doing whatever I am doing. The envy can only exist in an entirely notional world where I evaluate my worth in some abstract way, based on abstract markers and expectations, as if totaling up the score in a board game.

On the other hand, present-mindedness does open up some new problems. The main one is: what is there to thing about? Like ninety percent of what I think about is the future, so if that’s lost to me, what’s left? It means spending a lot more time contemplating, a lot more time just sitting around, a lot more time staring at the walls. A lot of my activities seem less meaningful, for instance reading the literary reviews seems a bit pointless–I read them to keep abreast of the field and see what everybody was talking about. And I have no doubt that that’s a valuable thing to do, professionally, but in the present, it feels oddly pointless and removed from my interests. I already have plenty of books to read: I’d rather be reading Gandhi than reading about all these other books.

Reading also takes on a different complexion. For one thing, reading for pleasure seems much more important. If I’m not enjoying a book in the moment, then why am I reading it? There’s no way a person can know everything–so there’s no need to read just to meet some abstract idea of being cultured or educated. At the same time, even pleasure can feel empty. Ideally, I think, I want to be reading the book because it’s necessary: something about it is essential for me at this moment. I’ve been reading to listen to and follow that voice.

Lately (bc of the Alan Watts), I’ve been thinking about the ideal of effortless action–the Taoist principle that you should be like water and follow the path of least resistance, do what is easy. It makes intuitive sense to me. Like today I was thinking, shoot I need to make a dentist appointment, so I just pulled out my phone and did it. Normally I would’ve made a note about it in my to-do list and just worried about it. Similarly, if something is out of place, I’ve been picking it up, instead of just thinking, man I should do something about that.

In the midst of all this, writing has been extremely easy for me. I can’t overstate how great the writing has been lately. I just sit down at the computer and type for an hour, and then I walk away. Sometimes I think about the book when I’m not working on it, but msot of the time I don’t. There’s no anxiety, because, you know what, I’m doing the best job I can. And what’s there to be anxious about? That it’ll someday get a bad review? Who cares? No, what really used to make me anxious was the fear that I really wasn’t a good writer, but now I feel like the term just isn’t very meaningful in day to day life. Like when does me being a good or bad writer actually matter to me, in the present? It only matters when I’m thinking, "Wow I am so great" or "Wow, I suck." But if I stay focused on the present, those thoughts don’t come up. Normally I get into these thought spirals where I try to reassure myself that it’s okay to not be a genius. But if I’m present-minded, then the notion of ‘genius’ has no meaning (at least as applied to myself). Genius only matters when I think, wow, Proust is a genius. But how can anyone else call me a genius? When would that happen? How would I hear about it? Me calling Proust a genius is an expression of wonderment at his work. Me calling myself a genius is something different–it’s just an attempt to find some further, greater significance in my daily life. Because meaning is kind of like a drug. You start off feeling good after a day of writing, and you think, "Wow, this book is really great. It’s gonna change everything." And that makes you feel even better! But you get hooked on the drug, and you start to tell yourself things that you know aren’t true, and then a part of yourself pushes back "Maybe the book won’t change anything." But you want to hold onto the good feeling so you argue, "No, it will!" But if you just give up on that good feeling, the whole exercise becomes moot. The lesson I guess is that some mental pleasures really aren’t worth the accompanying costs.

Anyway I’ve gotten pretty far at breaking my addiction to meaning! Because if you’re present-minded there’s no meaning either. It’s kind of like an acid trip. You’re just in a place, doing things, and that’s it. There’s nothing more. Actually, the feeling reminds me quite a bit of being on LSD. It turns out that LSD is just the experience of existing (but also stuff moves and is really pretty).

All of this stuff seems so obvious that it seems impossible I didn’t know it before, but I think the problem is that it needs to be paired with a practice of staying in the present, and that practice has to be continuous. To the extent I succumb to that desire for meaning, I lose that equanimity, and that’s something that happens roughly 100 times a day.

Anyway, I feel like I’m starting to sound like one of those New Agey people I’ve always felt tempted to make fun of. But it’s kind of astounding that all this stuff is real. It works. It really can provide you with peace and contentment. Of course, my present-mindedness will probably wear off in a few weeks, and I’ll be embarrassed by this post, but so what. For now it’s great.


And, finally, my reaction to the Twitter imbroglio is that I’ve gotten very annoyed, all of a sudden, at being inside so many walled gardens online. I want to own my own data again! My first step in breaking out was to break the DRM on all my kindle books and start using a non-Kindle e-reader. I’ve been using this guy: the Inkpalm 5. It’s essentially a tiny e-ink Android tablet. SUPER convenient. I can keep it in my pocket and pull it out whenever I need to read. The volume buttons on the side work as page turn buttons. And I’ve been using KO Reader, which has a lot more functionality than Kindle–I’ve been able to put my entire Kindle library onto the device.

Of course, it’s complicated, and in some ways not as easy to use, and I might end up switching back at some point. I go through phases w/ non-Kindle readers: I used a Sony PRS-350 for a while, and then a Kobo, interspersed w/ virtually every kind of Kindle. It’s a bit of a sickness.

But lately I’ve just accepted that I like tinkering with gadgets! It doesn’t actually make me more productive, and I don’t read any more or faster–if anything, it’s the opposite. But so what? It’s a hobby.

To jailbreak the Kindle I needed to bring out my Windows laptop, which has been gathering dusk on a shelf for a while. Took a while to update everything, but you know what? Windows is pretty good! If anything, it’s useful to not have iMessages distracting me constantly. I downloaded Scrivener 3 for Windows and started working on my novel on the PC, and I’m finishing up this blog entry on it too. It’s nowhere near as convenient or easy to use, but the freedom has started to mean more to me than it did. I like to know where all my files are–I like to get at them and be able to port them over to other services. I’m thinking that next I might try and free all my music too.

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