Why I want to be a gibbon

I’d like to start by saying that I’m sorry that I’ve written so many editorials and no poetry lately. I’ve been spending some time consciously pondering what several concepts mean to me.  An important one is the idea of growing up.

When we are children we tend to idealize adults, the beginning of the path towards developing our “final” identity in a society with a million expectations.  Even into adulthood, there is a subconscious obsession with this concept of a linear development.  How many times do you hear the phrase, “when will you grow up?” or “stop being such a child” uttered to our peers who’s decisions or lifestyles we disagree with.  It is a vague concept, defined separately through the shade of society and through our own ambitions and conceptions, but one which we all must appreciate.

Two phrases are most commonly used in English: “becoming an adult” and “growing up”.  Becoming an adult represents the top down approach to me, marked by the idealization of what someone should be to fit into society as an independent human being.  It thus has quite the appeal to those lacking in imagination, with a preset path and the promise of a dignified existence.  It is generally characterized by being able to put food on your table, earn a wage, acting civilized and refrain from impulsiveness in day to day life, care for those who are your responsibility, and pay your taxes.  Generally important things, indeed, and for the most part the minimum required to take part equally in a functioning society.  However, if we’re to follow the top down approach alone, one can also generalize “living a life of low level nihilism and existential anxiety, generally sustained by impulsively creating periodic and meaningless goals leading to unfulfilling consumption and perpetuating the cycle of living in an alexithymic random walk, frequently broken briefly by intense desires (often sexual) which are quickly suppressed (heavily), and occasionally threatened by fundamentally even more nihilistic yet ultimately self defeating manic obsessive episodes “.  This may seem a little much, but really, imagine yourself with nothing but the above description of being an adult as your identity and ambition.

Growing up has a nicer semantic meaning.  It means improvement.  Up is the direction associated with better things, and the counterintuitive reality of it is that as we get higher the stars become closer and society fades further into the distance.  As we go up, entropy diminishes, and in reality we all have our own unique order that we aspire to.

How, though, do we define this order?  As I mentioned previously, the uncreative choose the simple path of being an adult, because it’s lauded to them as an achievement in its own right and not a bare minimum.  On the surface, it looks like the majority of us seem to be chasing achievement at specific things, arbitrary to varying degrees, as an end.  But, I would say that for everything every one of us aspires to, it started with a model.  It started with us looking at someone when we were a kid and being inspired by something we saw in them which was transcendent, or something that we saw as an adult which brought us to the moment of childlike awe again.  Children look at Michael Jordan’s unflinching perfection and dream of joining the NBA to be like him.  They see their dad fighting fires and they want to be brave like him.  They read the bible and they want to be just and loving and magical like Jesus.  They watch Hunger Games and they want to be focused with perfect aim like Katness.

Throughout my life,  I’ve wanted to be Steve Irwin, Michaelangelo (from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Reinhold Messner, Steven Newman, Meg’s dad from Wrinkle in Time, Ender Wiggin, Siddhartha Gautama, Illidan Stormrage, The Ellimist from Animorphs, Lara Croft, V from V for Vendetta, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Alan Watts, Fred Weasely, Dumbledore, Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf the White, Tom Bombadil, Michael Jordan, David Belle, Lynne Hill, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Yoda.  I don’t really know the connection and I don’t care to conjecture too much because I will never be any of them.  I don’t wield blades or staves nor command armies, nor can I do backflips.  I have only rudimentary command of the force and I have seen what happens to those who dream of followers.  In fact, I have a better, simpler model.

When I used to go to the zoo I mainly liked watching the gibbons.  They were just similar enough in their body layout to a person that I could easily imagine being one.  Everyday they spent swinging with such focused, seemingly nonchalant grace from branch to branch.  They were smaller than me but clearly stronger than an adult human, but no stronger than they had to be.  They clearly had an absolute focus on their next objective at each step of the movement, the next branch seeming to float into their hand more so than the opposite.  They had mastered their environment, there were no distractions, no fear, nothing but branches and the moments spent floating in between them.  Their enjoyment was one which could not be measured in relative terms as it was clearly the entirety of their being at that moment.

After a sincere attempt I’ve come to realize that I’m not anatomically a gibbon and thus the prospect of brachiating between trees is unlikely to pan out.  But now, after several months spent intensely realizing the necessity of focusing my life both on a macro scale and at a moment to moment level, it’s apparent that my natural weakness is the desire to be everything.

The desire to be a renaissance man is rooted in what is both the greatest human weakness and the greatest human strength compared to most animals, our ability to (sometimes perpetually) be physically in one place and mentally in another.  In a society with 1000 different paths, and a plethora of heroes, we are guaranteed freedom of choice in who we are, and the possibilities allow a wandering mind so infinitely many things to think about.  A renaissance man is rarely Leonard DaVinci, but instead so often a bored millennial who loves the weekends so dearly because they can try a new activity and assume a new identity, who are addicted to the internet because all knowledge is a new door, who daydream of traveling everywhere in the world while in lab because in the end everywhere is where they are stuck in the first place.

That’s not to say that skills don’t have synergistic value, and that new experiences and new places are not an innately fundamental part of being human.  It is to say that true success comes only when ones ambitions are like branches of a trees ascending into the sky.  If you fear an eagle while you are floating you will miss your next branch.  If you fear falling you will miss your next leap.  If you crave every fruit of the world you will move nowhere.  If you think, you blink.  If you blink, you fall, or at least your rhythm is distorted.  In the end, you must know your end goal past the clouds, and you must know your skill with every muscle in your body, but anything else just distracts.

With material prosperity sweeping over the world people are being sold a new lifestyle and new ambitions every minute.  You can now manage to fit into adult society and distract yourself endlessly at the same time.  To me, growing up is still about being one to transcend reality as much as it was in the past.  I don’t know yet exactly what I will do.  But I know that I want to do it like a gibbon.

The meaning of life

To  justify working 9:00 to 5:00 we espouse the values of hard work and then we plan for retirement.

To justify aging we call it inevitable and fondly reflect on our lost youth and health.

To justify disconnection, and even war, we talk about utopia and proceed to judge others on the same karmic baggage we usurp.

To justify death we talk about the circle of life and then proclaim that one end of that circle involves a land called heaven where our existence is eternal.

I accept all of life’s difficulties but I’ll never pretend that I don’t just want to live forever, love everyone, and party all the time, deep down.

On Minimalism

The concept of minimalism is something which is very important to me, in the form of a necessary maximization of efficiency.  Efficiency for what?  The two main situations where minimalism matters most in my mind are:

  1. The way we lead our physical life, and
  2. The way we treat our creations.

The first is the more obvious version which we all encounter to some degree.  To everyone who is not a hoarder by nature, what feels better than getting rid of unnecessary things cluttering your apartment when your life is already feeling so cluttered on so many other edges?

Yes, I realize it’s fundamentally a compensatory method.  But in the end, it has its advantages.

I started really trying to make minimalism an art two years or so ago.

  •  I realized that I didn’t wear half my clothes, so I donated them.
  •  I realized that most of my old books would never be read again and were $8 on kindle anyways, so I donated them.
  •  I got rid of my dresser in exchange for easily portable plastic drawers, and swapped my big desk for a neat compact $25 second hand desk which I can move more easily.
  •  I removed all the songs that I never listen to from my spotify and all the games I didn’t use from my computer.

I was a non-consumer leaning graduate student living in a NYC apartment in the first place, so that’s about all I had room to spare.  But in the end, this made me feel like my life was that much easier to preside over and pack up if need be. In the case of programs on a computer or phone, it’s evident that it’s less about physical space then mental space.

Also important is the economic impact (in terms of my own personal economy) of this form of minimalism.  I quite simply bought less in the first place from then on.  When I buy things, I really consider what I’m buying.

But, I’ve recently realized that the true meaning of minimalism lies elsewhere.

At the beginning of this year I began really working on making my lab life organized, making sure to have the week ahead on a google calendar, the month ahead broadly outlined goal by goal, and each task for the day written ahead of time.  My PI (boss for the non academics) told me to give him a thorough description of everything I want to do for the next month in 5 sentences.

5 sentences.

I had a bullet point list about a page and a half long.  But I forced myself to trim something off of everything.  And then I came to realized that sometimes, 3 points were really the same thing and could be summarized in one sentence. And somethings were just not that important, so they had to be scrapped.

15 minutes later, I had an actual outline of my project in that window of time like I hadn’t had before.  Complete with a more thorough understanding of all components.  He tacked my 5 sentences to his office corkboard, and all I had to do was consciously declutter my thoughts.

This has become a trend.  Recently, I wrote a 6 page thesis proposal for my first committee meeting.  Not only did I write 10 pages just to see the quality jump 100% upon shortening it to 6, but he also asked me to do something even better.  He pointed out that every Cell press paper requires you to have a 4 sentence overview at the beginning, each sentence that must be no more than 90 characters (it’s actually 85, but he gave me 5 characters slack).

90×4 = 360.  6 pages converted to 360 words.

In this case I really did struggle.  I submitted the 360 characters, and he had me reconsider about half of it.  In the end, it was an exercise in imperfection.  But, now I walk around with those 4 sentences in my mind, and not only am I able to utilize them, but I’m forces to constantly reconsider them.

And thus, I have a map to reconsider my project as a whole.

The same applies with art of course.  I’ve always had a fondness for haiku’s despite my dislike of unnecessarily rigid poetic structure because they force you to say something meaningful in 17 words, which may have been just that much more diffuse if you were allowed 34.

So, my observation, is that minimalism is these things to me:

  • efficiency
  • conservation
  • density of quality
  • direction
  • freedom to uproot
  • freedom to transform

That being said, it’s not entirely natural to me, as anyone who reads my early poetry knows.  But anyways, what is minimalism to you?  What tools do you use?


Somethings I’ve been thinking about lately are the nature and the real karmic manifestation of the multiple flutters of subconscious violence present in most people’s mind on a daily basis.  Sparked by conversations I’ve had with some people to whom the eastern concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, is important to, I’ve realized how much subconscious violence works against mindfulness.

Religions such as buddhism, hinduism, and jainism have specific daily restrictions and obligations to eliminate physical manifestations of violence.  This includes restrictions on using violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts as well as eating meat and other actions which incur violence against animals.  Jainism even searches for ways to minimize violence against plants during harvesting.  Though I feel minimal empathy for a carrot, this mode of thinking clicks with the way I’ve approached vegetarianism myself- one of active consideration.  I’ve okay’ed the eating of clams for myself, for example, because they lack a brain.

It’s notable, though, that none of these religions expressly bans war or takes a pacifist stance towards self defense.  This not only flies in the face of western perceptions of non-violence, but draws on a greater issue:  minimizing violence is not even a unidirectional, straightforward calculation.  Sometimes violence is necessary to minimize further suffering.  Injunctions are made, however, against active hatred of the enemy and excessive or malicious use of force.

So how does this all draw up to a spiritually centralized concept?  Ahimsa particularly states that violence in

  1. thought
  2. word
  3. and action

are equally bad.  Meaning, that their is a karmic loss as soon as we think of something non violent.  Karma, as I understand it, is not spiritually acquired luck or unluck, but rather just a simple statement that the roots of mindfulness or insanity are laid in simple actions.

And then, of course, once insanity has evolved actual outward manifestations of violence are likely to follow.  But today I’m focused on the roots alone.

So I took a decision.  I would go through a day and note all subtle forms of violence which arose in my mind.  Some simple triggers became pretty obvious:

  • reading the news, especially sensationalist news, begged me for a reaction, and it got it plenty.  Granted, I want to be educated about terrorist attacks, as one should not be ambivalent about violence.  However, reading about senseless violence like this seems to draw first a sense of more benign anger and an impulse to act, and then either a sense of despair and defeat or a sense of seething hatred for the perpetrators coupled with graphic desires to inflict pain in them.  In the case of terrorists, I tended towards hatred.  From a greater view on human nature, I tended towards defeat.
  • If I am walking through a dangerous neighborhood or see a loud and raucous character on the street it incurs thoughts about self defense if somehow something bad did happen.  And, though these are not particularly violent on their own, they can persist after the trigger is gone and turn to irritability.
  • More subtle triggers incurred a quietly destabilizing kind of violence.  A feeling of being stuck or helpless in life incurs no lack of empathy for anyone, but makes me want to lash out at a wall at extreme moments and in more subtle ones makes my thoughts somewhat more erratic, my breathe less tempered, and my movement choppier and less refined.
  • Certain daily activities can have implications of violence as well. Video games, even those without blood can have the ability to desensitize people to subtle forms of violence.  The same goes with movies.  A saying goes, “the wise soldier enters the battlefield as he enters a funeral”.  Yelling and smiling as “bad guys” die, even in simulations, can definitely lay the routes towards reduced empathy.

My observation is that for 1,2 and 3 the most important response is one of active acceptance coupled with affordable action.  Be economical with your response, stop paying out energy when it gets you nothing.  With #4 I think the answer is moderation and right outlook if you do decide to watch a war movie or play starcraft or whatever.

So, I am wondering, what subtle manifestations of himsa (violence) occur in your life, and what can you do to reduce it?

65 million things

Everyday life in the modern world involves 65 million things to care about. This is true wherever there is internet really but New York City not the least of places.  Buzzfeed and facebook beg for our attention with stories about last weeks terrorist attack, the prospects of curing Hungtington’s disease, joblessness in rural Michigan, and whether or not Hillary Clinton is a good human being.  In fact, to dig deeper into the progressive nexus of worries is to have the opportunity to fly from Sri Lanka to Samoa, Belgium to Bangkok, Uganda to Uraguay, and feel the emotional pain of each and every form of disparity throughout.

To millennials who grew up being told 1) that the point of their meager existence was to change the world in a not so meager way, and 2) that all human beings are of inherently equal value, it feels like the natural extension of the story.  The struggle of humanity are countless, and they are paramount to our modern culture.  Has ambivalence been the norm for 10,000 years of human civilization, just recently too evolve into empathy on a large scale in our modern culture?  Seems unlikely.  So, what factors have brought us humans to our modern thought loop?  To our goal of collective enlightenment which seems like a sisyphus-ian nightmare in the light of the news?  Is this our inevitable destiny, to be endlessly frustrated by the fact that we are stuck in the matrix of our own collective nature?

In my mind, three (broad) factors have shaped my personal evolution to these crossroads.

  1. As an abject counterexample to the 99% of human history and 70% of the modern world (don’t quote these estimates) that have their own problems occupying 100% of their thought space by necessity,  I am well off.  I have food, water, shelter, significant education, good health, and little debt.  This enables me to consider how I’m going to use any given percentage of my ambition to help the world.  This is a nice thing which I wouldn’t want to change, though it’s really only a foundation.
  2. The rise of multiculturalism combined with post WWII, civil rights movement inspired anti-ethnocentrism philosophy which is taught in schools, catalyzed by the teachings of my wonderful parents, helped me conclude that everyone in the world is your brother or sister.  And if they’re starving or dying, it’s intolerable.  Regardless of the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with all quote unquote “liberal values”, this is a wonderful thing and I’m glad so many people I’m surrounded by think this way.
  3. Today is the day of smart phones, facebook, Twitter and YouTube. There is a video of basically everything which has happened in the year of 2016 so far online. And you are constantly reminded of all of the things, and it doesn’t hurt that the more we each care the more of this stuff ends up on facebook or buzzfeed. This is the match which (constantly) lights the fire.

So I know what you’re thinking. So? Why are you blogging about how a lack of ambivalence is a problem? This is all great!


That’s why I want to focus on #3. The 65 million things. The other day I was getting blood drawn and the nurse suddenly flipped the chairs in built news TV in my face and turned it to CNN. And suddenly the slight lack of blood I had at the time made me more keenly aware than ever of how this stuff literally makes us dizzy.


Two things happen when we hear everything about everything everyday.  

  • One is the classic, “which class and specialization do I choose” dilemma.  So many things, so little time.


Emotional impulse dictate that we come to have strong opinions about everything, though in reality we can only put enough time and effort to have any impact on a few things in our lives.  It’s more efficient to just pick something and stick by it. Hence, yes there are 65 million things, but rather than being 65 million short breaths of an answer arranged haphazardly into the unstable frame of a modern social justice warrior maybe we should start applying the 80/20 rule.  

My new life mantra. The 80/20 rule dictates, as per my understanding, that, you put 80% effort into 20% of things, and 20% effort into 80% of things.  People do this, variously, but in my mind it’s the only way to truly prevent the kind of sociopolitical ADHD which modern information systems present without becoming truly ambivalent about anything. (*Better yet, I’ll put 80% of that 80% effort, thus 64% of total effort, into 20% of the 20% of things I care about, which is 4%)(**maybe this is overthinking things).


  • The second, and perhaps more important, is the rule of selective acceptance.


I use the term selective acceptance to contrast the term ambivalence.  One or the other will eventually stem from the fact that, of all the things we hear about, we have a chance to make any sort of direct impact on so few.  Yes, we can vote, that is great.  Yes, we can argue our point, that has diminishing returns.  But in the end there are few things that we can actively step out and do today which will prevent a mass shooting in Texas or organ trafficking in Myanmar.  Or, for that matter, even to prevent our friend from getting diabetes if she wants to eat that cake.  Point?  There are always factors which are out of our control, and one of the great spiritual truths that I have come to accept is that sometimes we need to breathe out and say, “this is out of my control, so I am going to put 0% energy into it”.  In fact,  I am now trying to consider all of this with each thought that comes into my head.

Because, once you start doing this, you realize that somewhere on the line to being a good person, so much of what you now do is in an eternal effort for control.
So. I would say that the direction of being empathetic in thought, word and action to the world’s problems is so very necessary.  But, the effort to selectively focus and divert attention and relinquish control is the real red pill.  It is how we wake up to the real world, and smell the eternal field of flowers that lies between every terrible loss.


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”- Bene Gesserit, “Litany Against Fear”, from Frank Herbert’s Dune.