The importance of wholesome structures

Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, has some important lessons for maintaining clarity and sanity in a world of proliferating distractions.

In meditation circles, it’s common knowledge that prolonged stability of attention can create the conditions for deep insights to arise. However, we live in societies where attention is being monetised and manipulated by the advertising economy. Social media is engineered to foster addiction; newspapers are engaged in a clickbait race to the bottom. The river is flowing fast – away from clarity, insight, connection, and wellbeing – towards attentional degradation. There is a vicious circle in which we no longer have the willpower to do those things that nourish us and so we just scrape along the bottom: clicking, swiping, bingeing. Is there a way we can pay attention the people, things, and places we really ought to, and so become happier in the long run?

Getting jiggy with it

Fortunately, Crawford thinks he has identified something that will enable just this. He describes a process in which a skilled carpenter cuts several pieces of wood to the lengths she will require other pieces to be. This is called a “jig.” Rather than measure subsequent pieces of wood, she simply cuts the new wood by resting her saw against the jig. The jig is an improvised structure: one that it makes it easy to perform a task correctly and without cognitive effort. Crawford sees jigs everywhere: in the short-order cook’s kitchen, and in the world of information work.

For example, I’m writing this in a notebook on the train to see my parents. I have no headphones and no books with me. My phone is stowed, it’s data connection off. This set up is a kind of jig. I can think, meditate, write—or not—or watch the beautiful West Country scenery roll by. My attention is less likely to be dragged away from these pursuits as it could be were I using a computer, or could feel the bulk of a smartphone in my pocket. Later, if I type this up, working from these notes will themselves be a kind of jig. I haven’t even taken Crawford’s book with me. This is a big deal for someone who can’t usually travel for a weekend without bringing three books, one of which might be 500 pages long and impenetrably written.

What happens when mind and body are in the same place? It’s actually quite nice, often, or has the potential to be. But we need structure to make it happen. Willpower is a finite resource. There are good jigs and bad jigs, and we use them all the time. Pen and paper offer more attentional protection for writers than an iPad; meditation retreats provide seclusion in which the heart and mind settle; joining a gym provides you not only with equipment but a dedicated space – if you go. Holidays are jigs for relaxing; gambling machines are jigs for ridding yourself of money. The internet is perhaps the mother of all jigs, a chaotic uber-jig, that simply amounts to the closest thing we have to a goddess of distraction.

What kind of jigs do you use? Is there a way of arranging these structures to best support your nobler intentions?

Thoughts on consciousness

If we believe that consciousness is the only ground of meaning and value (i.e. a universe without any conscious beings to experience it might as well not exist) then three conclusions may follow.

1) There would be nothing more worthwhile doing than enriching the conscious experience of self and others through activities like philosophy, meditation, the arts, counselling and cultivating our emotional lives, sciences, socialising and collaboration.

2) We might value neurologically diverse minds not only for their inherent worth as conscious beings but also perhaps as comparatively rare forms of consciousness.

3) Any meaning derived from the exploitation of conscious animals for food or sport would be at least partially undermined by violating this quality that makes all other value possible.

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about an AI singularity but (by these standards) bringing about a super-conscious intelligence may also be one of the most worthwhile things we could do. This providing it didn’t suffer inordinately or inflict greater net suffering on conscious life.

The Moon Thief in Urthona

I’ve written a poem in response to a zen koan. The Moon Thief will be published in the forthcoming spring issue of Urthona.

‘The Moon Thief ’ came out of an encounter with the koan in the poem’s epigraph: the great Zen poet Ryokan, meditating in a mountain hermitage, offers his clothes to a thief but cannot give him a full appreciation of the moon. Mark writes: ‘I was walking home from work and suddenly thought, “there’s another side to this story.” Working in and around the silences of the koan brought many scenes and characters over time.’

This long poem relates the quest of a drifter and thief desperately seeking a treasure that will heal his inner wounds. He stumbles upon Ryokan, the Japanese hermit poet. In this version, the chance encounter changes everything for the thief – but what will he find at the summit?

Here’s the original koan that inspired the poem.

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours

Subscribe to Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts to read The Moon Thief. The next issue’s theme is ‘the beauty of friendship’ and it looks great.