Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meditating at the River's Source

Tomorrow morning we start a 10 day silent meditation program recommended by several of our local Nepali friends. Strangely enough, the place's name ("Muhan Pokhari") translates as the "River source for the lake". It sits right at where a river exits a large national park and flows into Kathmandu and a set of terraced rice fields. The meditation style itself, Vipassana, translates as "seeing things as they really are". 

Many people I know consider Nepal a deeply spiritual place and there are many seekers here, including many from the West. In a baffling coincidence, the same stranger (an Australian, naturally) that sat down next to us on a hilltop at sunrise looking over the Annapurna range also checked in to the hotel room next door that evening in our next city. A quick back of the envelope calculation based on the number of tourists in both places suggested it was about a 1 in 400,000 event.

She was on a group tour lead by a guru that stressed the importance of personal belief in shaping reality. She excitedly shared her experience with "orbs", that if loving energy was in the air, a nighttime photo with the flash showed all kinds of small glowing spheres. She had photos full of orbs from the cave that leads to where Devi's falls flows underground. We went there the next day and took our own photos to see if it would work but they just had streaks from where the flash reflected off water dripping from the cave roof. I'm not sure the interpretation of streaks versus orbs, unfortunately. 

Over dinner, I shared with the Australian that I once tried hypnosis and under guided imagery discovered that I had an "obsidian heart", which I thought had a negative connotation. "No, no" she said, "you should go Google gem meanings!".... The first Google hit? "Obsidian has been used for clear vision and to see into the future." Honestly, I can't make this up!

When I started this project, I thought that one of the appeals to non-scientists would be hearing about "The forecaster's way", a philosophy that could be applied to daily life and the quest for understanding the universe. Last night, when I tried to explain my beliefs to a Nepali friend, Prassidha, I was surprised at how well it aligned with some of the teachings he knew of.

I reckon at least two of the basic tenets are

1. Nature doesn't care what you think.
2. Pay attention and be mindful.

Nature doesn't care what you think. One of my biggest fears in trying to live as a scientist is that by being skeptical, I am closing myself from possibilities. Our new Australian friend mentioned that her guru once willed money to appear in his hand. Dilbert has a cartoon about a garbage man (included below, click to enlarge) that chooses the reality of what he finds in the garbage, that it doesn't depend on what others choose to discard.

Dilbert cartoon about choosing one's reality
When I was 19, I spent far too much time trying to learn how to levitate. Not meditate, levitate. I poured over picture books of floating gurus. They could also teleport but I figured I would start with the basics. I sat and sat, visualizing myself hovering, but never made it far off the ground. I gave up after reading "It only works if you believe. If you believe and it doesn't work, then it means you didn't really believe." I read one guru console a disappointed student by saying, in effect, "maybe you're not the levitating type?" 

The thing about forecasting is that my personal hopes, fears and beliefs had no effect on the actual outcome. I can "Think Snow" all I want, but that is not going to make any more (or for that matter, less) snow. Next week's river level in Bangkok is going to be what it wants to be, no matter what I think.

I will put one asterisk on this tenet. People do care what you think (good Einstein quote at Bill Hooke's blog there). Stock market forecasters can impact stocks going up and down because the stock market can listen to what is being said about it. Same with polls and elections. Some of Bangkok's water is controlled by canals that are run by humans, so in that sense what river forecasters hope, fear or believe is going to happen does affect the actual outcome. 

Pay attention and be mindful. Even though they have access to some of the largest supercomputers in the world, somewhere right now a meteorologist is sitting down with a set of colored pencils to hand-draw air pressure levels on a blank map. This is a generational thing, for sure, younger forecasters (myself included) often preferred to automate things and spend more time, for example, actually getting to eat lunch.

However, it is a meditation on the data.  They spend time with their problem, giving it attention and thinking about its parts. As they draw, they consider each individual curve and line, while also subconsciously (or even consciously) marinating in the meaning of the broader pattern of the data. They are developing and exercising their intuition. 

So what of the power of positive thinking then? The map drawing is not a way of imposing forecasters' desires on the outcome, but rather passively receiving the message of the information, using data that was actively collected and analyzed. The forecaster does not will money into his hand but rather spends time looking through his wallet to see what is there. 

I'll leave you with this quote from the Buddha about belief

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

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