Emotions in a different domain

Behold, a brief historical synopsis first

In the first decade of the 19th century, a couple of years after the wave of revolution in  France had settled, Joseph Fourier, priorly an active member of the revolution, joined the group of scholars that accompanied Napoleon to his campaign to Egypt. Fourier eventually became the governor of southern Egypt but he returned to France in a few years. He then started working on one of the then active research areas, the characterization of the the flow of heat in a material.

Okay now something to chew

As water naturally flows between two points only when there is a difference in height between them, heat also flows between two points when there is a difference in temperature between two bodies. Now imagine a table: If I ask you to tell me the temperature of the table what you would do is put a thermometer at a random position on the surface of the table, read the temperature there, assume the temperature across the table would approximately be the same and tell me that value, end of story. (You would also probably warn me not to ask you such moronic questions but that’s not the point 🙂 ). Such an approximation isn’t harsh in the grand scheme of things but in the quantum level it wouldn’t hold water.

The distribution of temperature on the surface of the table and its variation over time is modeled by what is called a heat equation. Simply stated the heat equation is the expression of the distribution of difference of temperature across the surface of a material over time. (At this point you are asking yourself “what’s with the freshman science lecture  biruk, get to the point.” But bear with me for a second okay 🙂 ). The heat equation is a partial differential equation (partial differential equation or PDE is an equation used to determine the value of something, in this case heat or temperature, in relation to other variables such as the heat source, position etc… and the variation of these variables over time and/or space.)

Before Fourier’s contribution, there had been quite a remarkable progress in the determination of the heat equation. What was missing was an appropriate model of the complex characteristic of the heat source. Since the heat source was part of the equation, it had to have a proper mathematical representation but it was impossible to come up with some simple equation/model because of the complex(messy) nature of nature. Here comes the light bulb moment. Fourier’s idea basically was that any complex mathematical model of something, as messy as it gets, is the sum of many (infinite) but very simple equations known as basis functions. It’s sort of decomposition of the composite but in a clever way. baam…

Let us take a simple example. Consider a simple pasta sauce. My pasta sauce usually contains, among other things tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, basil & black olives. In between the utter orgasm of their taste buds after devouring my pasta (you guessed it, my pasta is delicious 🙂 ), if someone were to ask me what my sauce is made of, a usual answer would be 100g of tomato paste, 65g of onion, 20g of garlic, 30ml of olive oil, 2g of basil and 45g of black olives and I cooked it for 15 minutes. An amalgam such as a tomato sauce can now be represented by a bunch of basis functions (the ingredients, their amount & time it took to cook them).  In other words [100, 65, 20, 30, 2, 45, 15] would be a code for my sauce. The index (position) of each number in the list (vector) is associated to each ingredient (in this case position 0 is tomato paste, position 1 is onion etc..) and the numbers represent the amount of ingredient associated to that position/index in the vector  This is the sheer brilliance of Fourier transform: Changing the representation of something from one domain to another (in our case from organic ingredients to bunch of numbers).

Fourier transform has a wide range of applications in engineering but we aren’t interested about that today. Rather we are gonna stretch our imagination to what it would be like to have a Fourier transform of more subjective concepts such as love, intelligence, happiness, fear etc… Meaning understanding subjective emotions using an objective frame work.

For example the human brain has been studied by being broken down into different regions. Neuroscientists are always mapping particular states of emotions with different regions of the brain. You are familiar with expressions such as “when you are happy there is some activity in this part of your brain, when you are in love it’s like a fire works in this and that part of your brain, when you are meditating for a long time such and such parts of your brain which are associated with stress shrink, if you are good in math this part of your brain has a  5% larger size than an average person’s brain etc… ” Now this is a case of an unadulterated fourier transform: mapping of organic emotions to brain activities and sizes. Here the basis functions are the different brain regions and the transformation involves some sort of representation (electrical, chemical etc…) of the states of these regions. It is now almost possible to tell your state of emotion by looking at the chemical content of each section of your brain. Some other domain such as the electrical state of a person, can also be chosen as a basis function to represent these states and understand them from a different light.

Now if the complete mapping of abstract emotions, which have long been considered subjective, to a different, perhaps more objective form were to become possible then one question should definitely be raised. Will this mark the end for these states to be considered personal i.e specific to each person or will the subjective endure and perhaps lead us to a third previously unknown dimension i.e subjective of the objective.

Zen: Beginner’s mind

It was by sheer accident that I came across the name Shunryu Suzuki and his epic book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind”. Before that I only had a marginal knowledge of zen and the ensemble of wisdom piloted by philosophy from the east.

I wouldn’t dare to provide an exhaustive definition of Zen here but simply put Zen is the the art of living wisely by forming a genuine connection with the flow of life. Being engaged to your activities of each moment. When you cook you cook, when you sit to meditate you sit to meditate, when you attend a lecture you attend a lecture etc… By being constantly present and by letting our mind pervade our body when doing things, we express our true nature.

“…to cook is not just to prepare food for some one or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice… “.

The other most interesting thing about Zen is the inherent pragmatism embedded in it. Here there isn’t a lot of concern about the metaphysical aspects of all natural things, nor there is no craving to take a dip in the uncertain realm of speculations about the primary causation for the existence of humans, the universe and the world as we know it in general.

“…Buddha was not interested in the elements comprising human beings, nor in metaphysical theories of existence. He was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing. How we become enlightened was his main interest…”

The title, “Beginner’s mind”, by itself unlocks a fundamental zen wisdom. Beginner’s mind is the state of your mind when you start doing something for the first time. It can be starting to play an instrument, learning a language, starting a job or school, a little child starting to learn alphabets or basic algebra etc… There might be some frustration if you demand an immediate mastery of the skills but the state of the beginner’s mind is usually marked by utter excitement and not wanting to stop to learn. But what happens after more recitals and a few months/years down the line ? The original attitude towards what ever you were learning usually gets eroded if not gone completely.

Don’t most of us also suffer from this in our relationships with our loved ones? Be it with girl/boy friends, wives/husbands, friends, co-workers, neighbors etc… relationships don’t usually continue with the same enthusiasm they started with. It’s not uncommon for the excitement to start to fade away after we get to know each other a little bit better.

There is no doubt about repetition being the path to mastery and ascending confidence in doing something but when this is done mindlessly it leads to the “experts mind” which isn’t a “ready for anything mind” but which is a mind accustomed to doing things a certain way. Therefore maintaining our “beginner’s mind” intact should go along with our quest to achieving mastery in anything or pursuance of relationship of any sort.

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something”.

Perhaps one of the pillars of Zen teaching is the teaching of the “the single minded way”. Being unable to muster our mind into the whatever we are doing is a very common phenomena and a transient attention span is a thing of concern for many. This could be caused by something external such as distractions which can’t be ignored by our sense organs (like the extremely loud music that was flooding from headset of the guy sitting next to me while I was writing this :-))  or internal causes such as having preconceptions, doubts, fear etc… about an activity before doing any of it.

“…When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex… “
While the external set of distractions can be avoided by taking simple measures such as sitting somewhere quite, the internal ones can be circumvented by clearing ones mind and immersing oneself fully into an activity that he/she is doing.
“…In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely…”
For Suzuki the frog is the epitome of mastery of Zen practice. The frog sits undisturbed for hours without attaching importance to its sitting. “If something comes along to eat, he will snap it up and eat, and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen not any special thing”.
If the fundamentals of the Zen teaching were to be boiled down into a few key points one of them would definitely be the sincere expression of our true nature.
When the mind and the body are fully coordinated and engaged in doing something there is no doubt that through the trace of each action we can also trace our authentic nature.