Michael Ashcroft

Thinking Out Loud No. 49 // Friday 17 September 2021 // 7 minute read

Hello everyone!

A quick note up top to let you know that I’ve decided to open up my Alexander Technique course for sale any time should you be interested. No more launches. I wrote about why I’m doing this here.

I think this is the first time I’m using a naughty word in a newsletter, let alone in a subject line. Let’s see what happens. I promise I won’t do it all the time if more of you end up opening this one, although I’ll laugh heartily if you do.

Anyway, I hope you are all feeling utterly fantastic. It’s been a sunny week here in London and I’ve tried to enjoy as much of it as possible.

In this issue I talk about:

Enjoy!

Michael

May all beings feel really fucking fantastic

If you’re at all familiar with Buddhism you may know that it talks a lot about the cessation of suffering. The Four Immeasurables (brahmavihārās) are captured in this Tibetan Buddhist prayer (from this source):

  1. Immeasureable Love (metta): "May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness."
  2. Immeasurable Compassion (karuna): "May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering."
  3. Immeasurable Joy (mudita): "May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering."
  4. Immeasurable Equanimity (upekkha): “May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.”

Now, I really like these. I have no beef here and see no reason not to strive for them myself.

That said, there is an important distinction between the absence of suffering and feeling really good.

As I wrote recently in Striving for the good qualia, a lot of my life has involved exploring what makes me feel bad and then figuring out how to avoid those things. The frame here is clearly one of reducing suffering and the causes of suffering.

But as I remove the causes of suffering and, indeed, suffer less, I find myself approaching some kind of steady state of “this is fine, pretty good even”. There’s a sense that I might get stuck at a feel good local maximum: “I feel the best I’ve ever felt! This surely therefore must be the best I can feel, so I guess I’ll just stay here."

Recently, though, I’ve been noticing exciting new qualia emerging from this place of less suffering. These don’t seem to be associated with the absence of suffering itself, but with actually I feel really good in new ways. Of course I’ve experienced plenty of joy and happiness in my life, so the idea that I can feel good isn’t new, but something about this is different.

It’s possible that the things I’ve been doing to reduce suffering are the same things that create good feelings, but I think the realisation here is that there is a vast expanse of positive experience above the axis, so to speak. It’s not just that I should seek to remove things that take me below the line, but that I can explore what it might mean to be taken above the line.

Some of you who have heard of wireheading might at this point worry that I’m falling into wireheading. I’m not doing that. Instead, I think I’m just coming to see that, when the human organism functions as it is supposed to, there is an associated positive experience and that itself is something I want for all beings.

I want all beings to feel fucking fantastic, not just to be free from suffering, although of course I want that for them too.

Things I have made

It looks like my writing in the last week has been quite meta, focused on how I’m choosing to do the things that I’m doing rather than on any particular what.

In design games so you enjoy playing them I start from the position that the universe is fundamentally a playful thing, akin to a dance. If everything is a kind of game, then, it follows that the game can be consciously reshaped in ways that make it more fun to play. I also happen to believe that enjoying the game will make me a better player, so why not apply this to various parts of life?

Speaking of games, since I’m mentoring for Write of Passage again I wanted to write something that captures the power of writing online. In writing gives you access to the online game I talk about how there’s a game being played around us. Passive enjoyment through observation is free, but participation has a cost: writing and sharing our own ideas.

Finally, still in the theme of games, I’ve been thinking about how I want to structure my business such that it supports me in my own personal goals, not just in service of itself. In getting my business to nudge me towards behaviours I want I talk about why I’ve decided to stop doing launches for my course and instead switch to a model where it’s generally available for sale, in the expectation that this will help focus my attention on reading, thinking and making on a consistent basis.

Oh, and apropos of nothing, I also did a long Twitter thread on the anatomy of the skull-spine joint should you be into that kind of thing.

Things others have made

Immeasurable Tattoos

Since I talked about the Four Immeasurables above, I wanted to shout out my friend Tasshin, who recently etched them into his skin in tattoo form.

I love this. Whenever I think about getting a tattoo, which is seeming more likely as I get more feral, I come up against the question of what is sufficiently meaningful to me that I would get a tattoo of it. I don’t have an answer for myself yet, but I can’t think of anything more perfect for Tasshin than this.

Here are the designs, created specially by Silvia Bastos (an artist well worth keeping an eye on) and which have kindly been released under the Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

LSD, anosmia and my new favourite Internet beef

The Internet is a wild, fun, silly, sincerely earnest place.

On 28 July another friend (Sasha) wrote "COVID-19 Took My Sense of Smell, then LSD Brought it Back", which is exactly what it sounds like.

Then, on 3 August, the well-known Scott Alexander (of Slate Star Codex fame) wrote a critique of sorts, "What Should We Make Of Sasha Chapin’s Claim That Taking LSD Restored His Sense Of Smell After COVID?", where many people in comments expressed that it was more likely a coincidence or that Sasha was making it up.

And then in my favourite moment of this story, Sasha wrote a response to Scott, "On Naive Skepticism, or, No, Really, LSD Did Cure My Anosmia", which includes what might be the best chart of all time:

So if you have a little time, reading through these three pieces is a lot of fun and illustrates well how different people see the world.

I HAVE A NEWSLETTER!

I publish a newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which chronicles my journey as an online maker of things, but it's also is where I talk about whatever I'm interested in at the time.​ There are 900 of us now, come play!