Wednesday, October 28, 2020

ACT, subjectivism and relativism

For all the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, can it ever fully escape the trap of subjectivism and moral relativism? 

Cognitive defusion is a great tool, but where do we stop? If I keep defusing from every thought I find in my head, what is left? 

This article realises this, but is unable to offer a complete philosophical solution:

4. If the concept of defusion is misunderstood or taken to an extreme, it can lead to a sense of meaninglessness.

If thoughts are not absolute truths, perhaps there is no absolute meaning, no right or wrong, and no point of reference for determining what matters. A client may say that they want to be kind, behave in a fair and compassionate manner, and connect deeply with others. But when they begin to consider that thoughts are not absolute truths, they may begin to doubt whether this value truly matters to them or if it is “just a thought,” devoid of any real substance or meaning. A values statement is a string of words, after all, and words cannot capture absolute truth.

If you find that a client is headed toward this extreme, try to evoke a different way of understanding what matters: the kind of experiential knowing we have when doing things a particular way simply feels right and vital, and matters greatly at a personal level. The client’s values and direct experience of what is meaningful and important to them counterbalance the seeming meaninglessness of life. When clients realize that their minds are not exactly their most trustworthy friends, they can begin to appreciate the importance of relying on this experiential knowing to understand what matters to them.  Words can be helpful in assisting those realizations, but they should not be allowed to negate them.


Further, this paper states:


Although in no way arguing against the existence of an independent reality to the world, ACT’s pragmatic philosophy chooses instead to focus on the study of behavior-in-context using a more inductive scientific approach that ultimately views what is “true” as what “works” in the service of ACT’s stated goals. What differentiates functional contextualism from other philosophies with postmodern tendencies (e.g., hermeneutics) and keeps it from an anti-scientific stance of extreme relativism is its explicit goal of the “prediction-and-influence of psychological events. This goal permits ACT to employ common scientific methods and principles to develop a body of research that is open to correction and refinement using many of the normal methods of scientific inquiry (e.g., publicly verifiable knowledge, systematic observation, statistical inference). As with any philosophy, Hayes and colleagues acknowledge that these underlying assumptions cannot be fully justified, but should always be explicitly stated. 

However, Russ Harris in Reality Slap does come down heavily on the side of what seems to be moral relativism, or at least,  moral agnosticism.

[Quote to be inserted soon]

The frequently aluded-to "Chessboard Metaphor" does have its profundity and its uses, but who wants to be a chessboard? The chessboard does nothing. It is a tool in the hands of players, to be put away once the game is done. 

Is this a direct result from the Buddhist roots of ACT, or is it due to a misunderstanding of the actual meaning of those roots by the devisers of the therapy? Unlikey, given their high intellectual and professional standard.


So where does this leave us? (Work in Progress)


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Making a chotki (that can also be used as a Rosary)

 I've been praying the Jesus Prayer off and on since around 2009. I usually use a Catholic Rosary or count in my mind, but mostly I say the prayer for a set time without counting the number of times I've said it.

All these years, I've been searching for a chotki. The few I could find on Amazon or Ubuy or various Orthodox online stores were extremely expensive. In some cases the shipping cost was more than double the price of the chotki! I did find mentions of some chotki-making groups among the local Oriental Orthodox, but when I contacted them they told me that they'd wound up the project and advised me to try on Amazon.

I've searched for tutorials online several times, but everything I found simply seemed so complicated. (In retrospect, the tutorials were probably not the problem. I guess I was overwhelmed and intimidated and could never force myself to begin.)

In one of the tutorials I learnt that the two common materials used to make chotkis are yarn or some  material that they called "rattail" which was quite new to me. The authors of the various tutorials I'd read invariably seemed to prefer to use 1/8th of an inch size rattail. So I found and ordered some rattail lengths from Amazon. They arrived tied up in a loopy way, which I later learnt are called hanks, and they've been sitting in the bag I stored them in, for the past two years. 

It seemed this was a project destined never to be completed. Another drain on my energy.

That changed a while ago. While browsing YouTube, I aimlessly typed in "Orthodox Prayer Rope" and this video by Fr. Zacharias came up on top. The explanation in this video tutorial was extremely clear and simplified that I felt energised and optimistic that I could actually make one of these this time. I'd never felt this way on viewing or reading any chotki tutorial before this. So, a few days later, I located the bag with the rattail in it and opened the cover (it was still in its Amazon packaging) containing a set of rattail material (crimson and black) and got started. In the intervening time I also ordered wooden beads with 4mm and 10mm diameter holes from Amazon.

 While searching for the beads, I also stumbled on a Catholic Rosary with an Orthodox crucifix. I had never seen a rosary with such a crucifix before. The timing of this discovery was providential. This gave me the idea to make a chotki that could also be used to say the Rosary. Since rosaries most commonly have a crucifix and a chotki has a cross made out of the rattail or yarn that makes the knots, I decided to buy this Rosary with the Orthodox crucifix and attach the crucifix to the cross of the Chotki. (I had searched for Orthodox crucifixes separately, but they were either not available here or were expensive) Though I any Chotkis with crucifixes online, I thought that if I was going to do this, I might as well keep close to the Orthodox aesthetic and use an Orthodox crucifix. Also, in order to facilitate the dual use of this prayer rope, I added wooden beads after every ten knots.  

That's it for the introduction. Time to Show My Work


The Orthodox crucifix has something in Russian inscribed on the back: Consulting the Wikipedia page on the Russian Alphabet, my reconstruction of it is "Спасии Сохрани." Based on this online discussion, the meaning of the words seems to be something like "Save and Preserve"

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Hard Work, Focus, Mindset, and... Luck?

 From this review of Michael Phelps' book No Limits:

Plenty of other anecdotes in the book directly undercut the starry-eyed thesis of No Limits. Late in 2007, Michael slipped in an icy parking lot outside a Buffalo Wild Wings (“one of those restaurants with a sports theme”) and broke his wrist, a setback that could have seriously jeopardized his training schedule, and his Beijing dreams. Thankfully, the injury was not more serious because the parking lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings is just about the saddest possible place for a premier athlete to meet their demise.

I guess Michael didn’t consider the reality that, as he was suspended in midair over that hard, hard asphalt, he was completely helpless in the face of an unfolding universe. A little gust of wind here, an unseen splotch of black ice there, and it’s say his ACL that gets shredded, and those eight medals go to someone not flat on his back in a parking lot. Phelps has always wanted to win swimming races very badly and he has worked very hard to do it. He doesn’t win any races without this drive, but he didn’t win the races just because he wanted it the most. It’s also entirely necessary that his life be a blessed chain of advantageous circumstances, from the dimensions of his body—essentially ideal for swimming—to sustaining only minor injuries at Buffalo Wild Wings to growing up with an older sister who trained to swim in the Olympics.


 Or, as Aristotle put it in the Nicomanchean Ethics,


Nevertheless it is manifest that happiness also requires external goods in addition, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to play a noble part unless furnished with the necessary equipment.4 For many noble actions  require instruments for their performance, in the shape of friends or wealth or political power; [16] also there are certain external advantages, the lack of which sullies supreme felicity, such as good birth, satisfactory children, and personal beauty: a man of very ugly appearance or low birth, or childless and alone in the world, is not our idea of a happy man, and still less so perhaps is one who has children or friends1 that are worthless, or who has had good ones but lost them by death. [17] As we said therefore, happiness does seem to require the addition of external prosperity, and this is why some people identify it with good fortune (though some identify it with virtue2


Monday, September 7, 2020

First Impressions: Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

 I first read about this film here and here. Since it was on the theme of Mastery, I just had to watch it. 

One problem is that I am completely not a foodie. So I am certain there was much in the film that went over my head. That said, there was a lot about the film that impressed me in spite of my handicap. 

Jiro reminds me of one of those unflappable characters that show up in every Charles Williams novel. Jiro is a master of his craft. He has reached that point where he has the work has entered his blood and he can grasp patterns at a glance.

Does Jiro believe in in-born talent? It seems so, since his son mentions talent during one of his interviews in this film. However, towards the end of the film, Jiro makes it clear that he considers himself to have been a bully and a non-ideal student at school - a bad boy - who make good on his second  chance and now lives a life dedicated to mastery in his profession. 

The film talks of his difficult childhood, how he left home and started working early in life, how he endured all sorts of unpleasant work, and became a man dedicated to mastery in his work. But one thing was missing. How did he get started in this line of work? Who was his inspiration? Who was his teacher? Does he stand in a line of a long tradition of sushi making or is he a self-taught innovator?

The title of the film is "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." But when did he start dreaming of sushi? Was it from childhood? Was it as long back as he can remember? Or was it after he witnessed some expert making sushi and had eaten some really good sushi? 

The Father/Son bond is very beautifully shown. Jiro takes great pains to pass on, not only his cooking skills, but his life philosophy to his apprentices and most importantly, to his sons. He is building a legacy that must not died with him. 

Seeing Jiro and his employers cook here reminded me of reading about Butcher Ding and Woodworker Zi Quing.

They have flow. They are in the state of Wu Wei, perhaps. Another thing - none of them every seem to be in a hurry. They massage octopuses for more than an hour, as if they have all the time in the world. Thomas Sterner in The Practising Mind says that deliberately working slowly has actually helped him to do better quality work, and somehow the work gets done faster than if he tried to hurry!


One thing that strikes me very much is how un-selfconscious they are - all of them. Jiro, his son, his employees. The restaurant has the Michelin 3 Star rating. Do they worry about being able to sustain their quality? One of Jiro's employers talks about how Jiro's son needs to be twice as good as Jiro to be even considered equal to him. Makes sense. After all, Jiro had to learn everything the hard way, and his son has had the advantage of being trained by Jiro since his young adulthood. The pressure on him to perform, to out-perform, rather, his Dad must be immense. Yet in the film, he is cool and collected, serenely moving through the market and inspecting fish for purchase. 

Then it struck me. These people don't live in their heads. They are out their into their lives. Perhaps the very act of working with their hands has kept them psychologically and spiritually sound and sane.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Notes on Brian Johnson's Genius-Work Equation

 I first read this here. (Link doesn't work anymore). An overview of Brian's work is here

It is interesting to see the evolution of the equation. It started out without consistency the exponential factor. In fact in the initial stages, he only had time as a multiplier. Next, this was refined to consistency. In the final form of the equation, the product of focus, energy and the one thing now is raised to the power of consistency

Thus Brian Johnson gives us the final form of this equation (for now, at least):

Genius Work  = T x (E x F x W.I.N.)^C

Soul Force = (Energy x Focus x W.I.N.)^C   


Just for reference, the equation by Cal Newport that inspired this can be found here

I thought it would be interesting to track the provenance of each of the terms of the equation in the literature of self-improvement. 


The Hidden Secret in Napoleon Hill's Think & Grow Rich according to Brian Kim 

Start With Why

Man's Search for Meaning

The Intellectual Life - Sertillanges

Focus - the hidden driver of excellence




The Sacrament of the Present Moment - Jean Pierre de Caussade

The One Thing - Gary Keller

The Book of Ichigo Ichie

The Right use of School Studies for the Glory of God - Simone Weil

Ekhart Tolle - The Power of Now

Ryan Holiday - Stillness is the Way

Atomic Habits - James Clear

Tiny Habits - BJ Fogg

Mini Habits 

Small Habits Revolution - Damon Zacharides

The Compound Effect

The Slight Edge

Saturday, September 5, 2020

My Experiences with BJ Fogg's Tiny Habits:

 I first heard about Tiny Habits from The Prodigal Catholic Blog. At that time, BJ Fogg hadn't yet published his book. There was only the one week email coaching programme. I had already read Atomic Habits by James Clear. Looking for further information, I also came across Mini Habits by Stephen Guise and Small Habits Revolution by Damon Zahariades, both of which I read. I also signed up for the email coaching programme. 

Next to Accceptance and Commitment Therapy, this has been the most liberating psychological discipline I have encountered in recent years. The email programme really helped get me out of a rut in my life.

However, the nagging thought "It's not going to last, it'll all come crashing down. You'll see!" keeps playing over and over in a loop in my mind. (In those days, I was still a novice at ACT and so I couldn't practice cognitive defusion as well as I should have.) And in truth, I did crash. But I know exactly what caused that. 

I allowed my tiny habits to become bloated - and in a non-organic manner, too. I was trying an SRS, and I decided I had to follow the Leitner Calendar strictly. So then as the number of cards built up in three months time, I simply couldn't follow the daily schedule. At times, it would mount up to more than 100 cards per day, and I only had 30 minutes or so in my schedule for the SRS. So the predictable thing happened, and I entered the anxiety-avoidance loop and the SRS collapsed. That was a blow to my confidence and a large part of the Tiny Habits structure I'd built up collapsed too. 

Upon reflection, I understood I had not curated my habits as one would a garden. I had tried to build a skyscraper over a few months. Later, I bought BJ Fogg's book, and I believe he does address this concept in one of the chapters. 

These days, I do what Tynan says in Superhuman by Habit, as summarised here by James Clear:

When you don't feel like doing a habit, do a crappy job.

Another problem was that I had overloaded my calendar, and was trying to grow a forest of habits in a location where there was only space for a kitchen garden. I realised this when I read The One Thing by Gary Keller and The Dip by Seth Godin.

Armed with the wisdom from these failures, I pick up the pieces and set out to tame/slay the dragon of Chaos within me once again.

Friday, September 4, 2020

First Impressions: Good Will Hunting

 This is a well known film that keeps getting mentioned among cinema lovers, which I hadn't watched till now. So I decided to give it a watch. 

Sadly, I couldn't bring myself to love it. I mean, it's great that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck came up with a screenplay that initially started out as a college project and had the work ethic to push it through the execution stage and shipped the finished product. But the film as a work of art sadly falls short of its potential.

First, it does not touch upon the concept of mastery, the process of starting out as a fool, being an apprentice, reaching competence, then mastery and finally being able to innovate and push the boundaries of knowledge. The main character claims that he can do advanced math easily because of pure natural talent. He can do it because he just can. No painstaking practice was involved, at least not the way he tells it. The only time we see him practice is when he scrawls an equation on his bathroom cabinet mirror. Given the fact that the film doesn't choose to show him churning away at work, depth of knowledge in one field is difficult to stomach, but the story requires him to somehow be a master of multiple fields!

This story is sure to appeal to those of the Fixed Mindset and those who firmly believe in the existence of natural talent (distinction: I can concede the existence of natural inclination, but that is very far from the claim natural talent - that certain people can perform certain rational activities better because they just have superior ability, not even in their biology as a result of good genetics, but more deeply, because of having the ability in their deepest essence.) 

One of the characters talks of Ramanujan. His life was a testament to the grind, to obsession, to the one thing, if anything.

The presence of Robin Williams is basically the large part holding the film down and preventing it from being carried away by its flock of cliches. But even Robin Williams cannot make a good film out of what is not so. Anyway, the character played by Robin Williams could easily be thought of as an older version of Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society.

Also, Robin Williams keeps insisting to Matt Damon's character that experience is the only valid epistemological means. Surely a student of the mind as a psychiatrist should be would understand that the fact that we have mirror neurons is one of the amazing things about us. We can deal in abstractions. We don't have to experience everything, and it isn't even practically possible. Life being short, there will always be a great many important things in everybody's life that one is not able to learn through direct experience. If experience were the only way to true knowledge, we are all doomed.

Also, Matt Damon being a handsome attractive young man in his prime, really cannot pull off the misunderstood genius. (Russel Crowe could pull this off in "A Beautiful Mind.") So here he is a genius who is not a social misfit. Thus since they had to give him a backstory to explain his self-sabotage, they settled on a history of abuse in childhood. It's ironic, because after all the cliches about geniuses this film indulges in, they missed the one cliche that is actually true most of the time - geniuses are misunderstood and are misfits in society quite often. 

Also, Ben Affleck's character seems to want the best for his friend. His great fantasy is to find that his friend has one day left behind his dead end life in this dreary neighbourhood and has moved on - geographically as well as spiritually, to a better life. Quite noble of him, but the hidden assumption is that he himself will never amount to anything much and is condemned to a life of mediocrity or worse. But why? Is he mentally or physically crippled? It doesn't look like it. Then why this fatality? Once again evidence of the Fixed Mindset. Even the Fields' Medal winning professor is resigned to the fact that he will never make any contributions to mathematics as great as his new protege's. He has no faith in the process of mastery!


This is one movie which could use a healthy dose of the Growth Mindset. 

ACT, subjectivism and relativism

For all the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, can it ever fully escape the trap of subjectivism and moral relativism?  Cognitiv...