Hammertime Day 6: Mantras

by alkjashRadimentary3 min read3rd Feb 201819 comments

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Litanies & MantrasExercises / Problem-Sets
Personal Blog

This is part 6 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.

I’d like to demarcate the line between the two natural halves of Hammertime (fast and interactive vs. slow and introspective) with an experimental post, more reflective than actionable.

Motivation

The seed of this post was planted in my mind by a conversation with Zvi. In said conversation, he invited me to read the rulebook of Mage: The Ascension and take it as literally as possible. The particular magic mechanic that struck me from Mage was the Paradox phenomenon, which (roughly speaking) causes magic to backfire in the presence of Muggles.

When it is performed ineptly, or is vulgar, and especially if it is vulgar and witnessed by sleepers, magic can cause Paradox, a phenomenon in which reality tries to resolve contradictions between the consensus and the Mage’s efforts. Paradox is difficult to predict and almost always bad for the mage. The most common consequences of paradox include physical damage directly to the Mage’s body, and paradox flaws, magic-like effects which can for example turn the mage’s hair green, make him mute, make him incapable of leaving a certain location, and so on. In more extreme cases paradox can cause Quiet (madness that may leak into reality), Paradox Spirits (nebulous, often powerful beings which purposefully set about resolving the contradiction, usually by directly punishing the mage), or even the removal of the Mage to a paradox realm, a pocket dimension from which it may be difficult to escape.

The upshot is not dissimilar from the rather commonplace observation that extraordinary people seem to distort the reality around them and also have a difficult time imparting their reality-distortion field to others.

My foray into the fantastical world of Mage led me to consider taking other mechanics of magic more seriously. Among the infinite variety of ways the human mind might break the laws of physics, only a very few magic mechanics have lasted in the public imagination. Again and again, fantasy writers return to the incantation: words that effect transformation by their mere utterance. What is so psychologically fascinating about incantation?

And if a single utterance can effect magic, what might the repetition of words of power accomplish, over the course of many years?

Day 6: Mantras

Epistemic status: true story.

I was not a particularly well-socialized child growing up, but even in sixth grade I knew there was something wrong with her. She was a bit standoffish, her hair a bit too bushy and disheveled, and she spoke with the cadence of a lost soul. If she had a name, it must have been something like Elphaba. I couldn’t place it at the time, what exactly was wrong with the girl. Only now, more than a decade later, can I give a name to her intensity: that uncommon ability – inimical to the instincts of all sixth graders who desire to fit in – to take ideas seriously.

I only ever had one conversation with the girl. I don’t recall what class it was in – some discussion group, perhaps, for a play of Shakespeare’s far above our reading level. While the teacher popped out to grab dry-erase markers, some eight of us sat around the round discussion table fidgeting as sixth graders are wont to do.

Then, somehow, the girl to my left transfixed me with her gaze and spoke:

Girl: Memento mori, memento vivere.

Me: Sorry?

Girl: It means, Remember that you are going to die. Remember to live.

[long pause]

Girl: Memento mori, memento vivere.

Surely, such a conversation must have been bracketed by benign chatter. Perhaps I triggered it with a bout of adolescent nihilism. Perhaps we led up to it by a meditating on “To be or not to be?” or “Alas, poor Yorick!” Then again, knowing that girl, perhaps not.

I never saw her again. As far as I know, she completely vanished after the sixth grade.

Memento morimemento vivere.

I cannot say how many years those words haunted me. I can say, however, that in the dark of countless middle school nights I was tormented by the shadow of mortality. That in the light of day memento vivere stirred in my heart a frantic energy to rise to the occasion and battle the injustice of being itself. That I repeated these words under my breath as I pondered questions of philosophy such as “Does teleportation kill the original copy of you?”

That half a decade later, when the girl’s voice had subsided into distant memory, I decided for some inarticulate reason that Memento was my favorite film before its opening credits finished rolling.

How many years did memento mori haunt me? You might say that the rest of my life, from the point of that conversation, has been a quest to recover words of such power from thousands of novels, manuscripts, songs and videos. Mantras to remind me of the direction of my transcendent dream. They speak now.

Everything can be made radically elementary.

That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.

People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.

The purpose of mathematics is to advance human understanding.

People become who they are meant to be by doing what is right.

Modern people cannot find God because they will not look low enough.

The line between Good and Evil runs through the heart of every human being.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams. So I spread my dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly on them.

There’s a naive rationalist in me calling me a sucker for falling hook, line, and sinker for Deep Wisdom. To him I have only this to say: whereas by repeating these mantras I am filled with a renewed energy and direction for life that lasts for many years, he would have come away with only a vague cynical smugness. So who’s winning now?

I have the sense that the mantras I repeat under my breath are imbued with my deepest values and serve as a solution to the Control Problem in myself: to cheaply propagate those values to future copies of me across the span of many years.

Daily Challenge

Share a favorite mantra and what it means to you.

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Most of my mantras are quotes, but I'll be eliding the author (you can find him/her easily enough).

I have a truckload of them, but I'll try to make an informed selection.

Take a simple idea and take it seriously.

Often we know things that would good but we do not apply them, or apply them enough (more dakka!).

The unexamined life is not worth living.

I dread thinking what my life would have been if I did not have an introspective bend.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

I think about this when I get instagram-envy.

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

One of many quotes about applying what we know.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Worth pursuing; and it's also worth remembering that if something seems too simple, it may have taken a lot of work to get there.

Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own.

Crucially, there is something that is essentially your own.

Above all, try something.
There is one rule, above all others, for being a man. Whatever comes, face it on your feet.

Don't give up, don't let the circumstances do the choosing for you.

To be free is nothing, to become free is everything.

Everything is more meaningful when it's been wrangled from life's cold fingers. We're all born in invisible chains we must rid ourselves of.

What is the mark of liberation? No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.

Shame is the motivation-killer.

Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.

I have a tendency to give many things or people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, and in some provinces, you don't want to do that.

In the past few months or so I've pivoted to optimizing my writing partially for quotability, for exactly this reason. I want to write words that haunt people so they'll pay the proper amount of attention to them.

I share the sentiment except I focus more on writing words that haunt me so that I'll be able to remember them.

Right, if I do it right they haunt me too.

It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

If we focus too hard on the minutia of our daily tasks, we can forget the beauty of their ultimate purpose, the vision which they advance.

This doesn’t scan like a good mantra, but after you hear Bruce say it...

Duncan Sabien has this one thing he says which has stuck with me.

Something along the lines of: "Better tomorrow than we were today. Stronger today than yesterday."

It's at the top of bayesianarea.com: Better today than we were yesterday, better tomorrow than we are today.

Thansk! That's the one I had in mind.

El mayarah (stronger together) and Live by the sword, die by the sword.

It's a reminder that having friends is a valid strategy. Surrounding yourself with people doesn't necessarily make you weaker, and it's possible to form a group that's more than the sum of its parts. Cooperation can assimilate chaos if the conditions are right; it's not an immutable axiom that chaos triumphs over order. A group is not necessarily dead weight, and relationships are not necessarily weak points, if you pick the right people to connect to.

The first one is from Supergirl and the second from SlateStarCodex.

Jonathan Haidt's writing is rife with these. One that has stuck in my mind is "Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second."

"Don't screw future self" is one that has served me well for more than a decade.

"When in doubt, go meta". Thanks to my friend Nadia for quoting it often enough for it to have found a place deep within my brain. May not be the perfect mantra, but it is something that occurs to me frequently and almost always seems yet again unexpectedly useful.

Just a restatement of "We ... do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are difficult," which for me is, "It's hard. Do it anyway." When inattention and repeated failure in grad school turned to constant anxiety turned to depression, I often found myself not doing things because they were hard, and in moments of clarity, that would rankle deeply, but I'd be unable to break past the "it's hard" barrier. Then, I found myself taking a firm, mentoring hand with friends of mine - one I never turned on myself. So, I began internalizing and repeating, "It's hard. Do it anyway," whenever the only reason I could give myself to not do something was that it was "hard." I liked it as a phrasing that brooked no rebellion, but acknowledged that yes, the task was hard. There are times, still, on particularly bad days, when "hard" is even as simple as doing the dishes, but this mantra does get them done.

The motto I try to live my life by is "Live a life that would make you happy, if others lived as you live" - it's like the golden rule, but even better. Obviously, it's influenced by a lot of thinking about decision theory, both as discussed here on LW, and in my own thinking about how to live life. I do probably have a lot to improve in terms of actually integrating my behavior with this rule.

Some other mantras I like:

  • From "How To Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie (a very handy guide to not being an asshole): "The only reason you aren't a snake yourself, is because your parents were not snakes"

  • User Dagon on LW once wrote "If you aren't taking actions contrary to incentives, you aren't making moral choices"

  • The future only exists as expectations based on past experiences

  • Even if you are twice as good a medic as the typical medic, if you are ten times as good at firefighting, you should be fighting fires, not doing medicine. (This is Adam Smith restated)

And, I guess I'll add a quote from a mathematician, just for our host Alkjash: "Sometimes general questions can be cleaner than specific questions, and easier to analyze" - Tim Gowers

I don't really know what to do with this. Whereas the other entries in the sequence so far have all had instructions that I could use to acquire a tool or learn a skill or solve some problems, in this case there is only.... a description of what mantras are/do and a challenge that carries the assumption that we already have mantras? I think to fit in with the action-oriented nature of the rest of the sequence so far, this needs some guidelines maybe about how to pick a mantra or what it should do for us.

I don't really have any mantras currently, though I think I used to have some maybe but I don't really even remember them or think that I would endorse them now? I guess this is a reminder for me to pay attention to thoughts I have or ideas or words I encounter that are helpful and/or meaningful to me, and notice them and maybe write them down and then think about whether there are some that I would want to integrate into my life more strongly.

I guess I have acquired a mantra!

My only goal is just to be. -Mimi from Rent

the idea of which is to put myself in a "mindfulness" kind of frame of mind and to remind myself that I don't have to try and regulate what I'm thinking and feeling all the time, that I don't necessarily have to do anything super important with my brain right now as I walk down the sidewalk, that I am allowed to relax even if there are things I could be worrying about and even if I'm having some feelings I don't like. (by default I have a mental habit of constantly trying to force my thoughts and attention and feelings in particular directions and fighting myself a lot, which contributes to anxiety and makes it hard to enjoy things.)

(side note: my high school English teacher also used Mimi's part in this song to teach us about how existentialism doesn't have to be depressing all the time :) )

"It's okay to care" -  I repeat this mantra when I notice I'm stopping myself from caring.

I was a nerd and a bit of a social outcast growing up. Nothing too extreme, but enough to feel different and lonely at times. I was always interested and obsessed with things but when I'd go to share it I'd usually get a "who cares" kind of response. Eventually, this morphed into an internal edict: "It is not cool to care". Liking something makes you vulnerable and I liked a lot of things.

I ended up going to a good college. Lots of math, art, philosophy, and film nerds - I met a lot of people who cared and it was great, but there was also a lot of "care-shaming" in a different direction. Namely, if you liked something that wasn't nerd-approved or subversive enough it was very much not cool.

Sometimes I just want to watch baseball and unironically care about it. I had a lot of moments like "Yes yes I know that Chomsky said sports are just 'training in irrational jingoism' but please, just let me go to a bar and get excited about the Super Bowl without having to justify it." Let me care in peace.

When someone cares about something harmless, I do whatever I can to let them have it, even if I don't care about it.

Most of the sayings that could become mantras are rarely used, but stored and sometimes reviewed.

Loosing hurts if it's a loss I can survive.

For me it means that any feeling of pain is an evidence of my continued life, helps to direct attention from past into action for my current and future self.

Helpful after grieving period.

The rules of the game are quite simple, but take a lifetime to master.

I take it to mean that most basic underlying rules for living are simple, something like "You can do anything" said in sarcastic tone.

But not all possible actions are helpful, and it takes experience and work to learn to live in a way that would be prosperous.

In addition it helps to notice that systems and rules devised by society are not the "reality" and could be changed, but also that they are complex and intricate systems that are hard to understand and worthy of understanding.

If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.

To me in means: "Even through the darkest times I need to save the seed of good, if I want goodness to thrive again" - to not loose all hope.

In reality I don't literally believe that some good outcome will inevitably magically happen if I manage to guard and save a small amount of hope and tenderness, but that helped me out several times.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I've dedicated a lot of my past few years to make people think critically about the use of evidence