On Staying Grounded

Walks are my main grounding ritual. I used to prefer easy nature hikes, but these days, I prefer semi-urban walks through landscapes that are a blend of the natural and artificial. The Seattle shoreline is a perfect example. Five minutes from my home, there is a waterfront park from where I can watch trains, ships, airplanes, cars and of course, lots of containers. On a recent walk, I took this picture of four ships waiting to dock. A rare sight, since the port of Seattle does not seem to experience many traffic jams.

ships

The interesting thing about walking the same route over and over is that you notice little changes and seasonal patterns. For example, variations in shipping activity. The variations are what create a sense of direct, living connection to the human drama playing out on Planet Earth.

***

Grounding. 

It is one of the verbs we use to describe behaviors that restore balance in our lives. These are the sacred rituals of your life, in a behavioral rather than spiritual sense of the word.

Rituals are behaviors pregnant with illegible experiential meaning that can take a lifetime of repetition to unpack. For many, a walk is just exercise or fresh air. So many calories burned in so many minutes. For me, walks mean more, and do more. I get better at taking walks with practice. I’ve probably done over a hundred Seattle shoreline walks in the last year.

I’ve written a bit about notions of sacredness and profanity recently, and just did a talk on the subject for a corporate client. The client challenged me to address the notion of quality in software deployment processes (a central concern in the emerging software engineering discipline known as DevOps), in the sense of Pirsig, and tie in my ideas about narratives and fox/hedgehog archetypes from Tempo.

An ideal case for the Ribbonfarm Holistic Detective Agency. I wish I got more stand-up philosophy gigs like this. They are by far the most fun someone like me can have while actually making money.

In the talk, I defined quality as repeatedly rediscovering the sacred amidst seemingly profane change. This post is an attempt to unpack that thought further.

***

It seems to me that I have no true sense of the sacred in my life, comparable to what my religious or spiritual friends claim to feel. To me, the term is merely convenient shorthand for certain behaviors that anchor my lifestyle, rather than a reference to something ineffable and mystical.

I like to occasionally troll religious people by claiming I am ritualistic rather than religious. It is a particularly good line for annoying those who claim to be spiritual rather than religious. I keep exactly what they discard from religion, and discard exactly what they keep.

Sacred rituals are behaviors that are not interchangeable with other nominally equivalent ones within some legible, utilitarian scheme of reckoning. If a walk were just exercise, I would be willing to replace my walks with treadmill sessions. Sacred rituals are also priceless. Behaviors that you will not change merely for money. Coffee is not a true ritual for me. Merely an addiction and a chemically weaponized defense mechanism against the onslaught of mornings. If you paid me enough, I’d be willing to quit coffee for tea permanently. But I don’t think I’d willing to stop taking waterfront walks for any amount of money. You’d have to offer me an equivalent sacred ritual.

Again the reason is mundane rather than mystical. The reason sacred rituals are priceless is that they are your personal measure of value in other things. Without the sacred rituals of our life, we’d have no idea what anything else was worth. Including all of life itself.

So in one sense, our sacred rituals are the most practical things in our lives. They are what we live for: inexhaustible fountainheads of experienced meaning that we unpack through repetition and return. They are related to habits, addictions, aversions, disciplines and behavioral tics, but they are also something more.

So arbitrary though it might seem, you could say I measure the quality of my life by the number of good walks I can take. If you don’t instinctively get what this claim means, you might be a life-optimizing utilitarian.

***

I wondered recently why grounding is my preferred verb for describing sacred rituals. There are three other words I can think of: centering, connecting and collecting. 

I have a theory about such words. The words you instinctively reach for, to describe your rituals, capture the essence of what you consider sacred. Sacredness itself is not a feeling. Sacred rituals can induce certain feelings, but sacredness is a property we project onto the realities we inhabit and relate to through skilled behaviors. So our preferred words reveal something about our home realities.

For a while now, I’ve used a four-way categorization of reality to think about any complex issue: material, intrapersonal, interpersonal and conceptual.

  • If your sense of the sacred is dominantly material, your sacred rituals involve grounding, like taking walks.
  • If your sense of the sacred is dominantly intrapersonal, your sacred rituals involve centering, like meditating. 
  • If your sense of the sacred is dominantly interpersonal, your sacred rituals involve connecting, like family dinners.
  • If your sense of the sacred is dominantly conceptual, your sacred rituals will involve collecting, as in stamps or books.

Of course, there are no pure behaviors. Notions of the sacred, and modes of relating to them, are richer than the language we use to describe them. But the words help fingerprint our particular proclivities.

***

Every reality has all four aspects of course.

For example, an office building is steel-and-concrete as a material reality. As an intrapersonal reality, it embodies your subjective experience of work. As an interpersonal reality, it is the locus of a set of relationships that help define you. At a conceptual level, it is the embodiment of an abstract corporation.

It is harder to see this for simpler realities. A stone is a lump of matter. Contemplating a stone induces certain intrapersonal realities for which I am sure there exists a Japanese word.  Skipping stones on a lake with a friend creates interpersonal reality. The black stone at the eastern corner of the kaaba mediates believers’ relationships to the conceptual elements of Islam.

We tend to build our sacred rituals around simpler, purer (in the sense of being dominated by one of the four realities) and more beautiful realities. This is for precisely the same reason textbook math problems are simpler to solve, involve fewer base concepts, and have more satisfyingly elegant solutions than real-world problems. Viewed as skilled behaviors, sacred rituals must have some of the characteristics of homework problems.

I am skilled enough to take a pleasant walk in unpleasant surroundings, but I prefer pleasant ones for ritualistic grounding purposes. There is an element of addiction to this preference of course. But also an element of learning discipline. Revisiting examples used earlier in a learning curve is one way to reinforce foundations and unpack meanings missed on earlier encounters. Practice at the edge of a skill expands capabilities but makes behaviors more fragile. Practice at the foundations of a skill makes capabilities denser and behaviors more antifragile. A walk through an unpleasant slum on a blistering hot day would probably leave me frazzled and on-edge, but would expand my walk-taking skills. But those skills would only stabilize if I kept returning to the base.

Some day, I hope to earn a black belt in walk-taking. Able to take a walk under any conditions.

***

My maternal grandfather used to solve arbitrary long division problems late into adulthood, just for fun. I don’t remember him, since he died when I was 3, but family members tell me I am very much like him.

If you haven’t solved a long division problem since fourth grade, try it. I suspect you’ll see that old behavior in a new light.

Taking a walk along the same pleasant route is like redoing a fourth-grade homework problem for me. Yes, I used to take walks back then too. Short ones to look at a bunch of Winget cement mixers that used to be parked down the street from where I grew up. They looked something like this.

winget

 

Some days I’d get lucky and also find a road roller parked next to the cement mixers as well.

Yeah, little boys are odd.

***

I sometimes joke that I am not an atheist but a poly-atheist. I don’t disbelieve in a god. I disbelieve in a thousand gods. Disbelieving in a single aspect-less, feature-less big-G God seems boring and not very challenging to me. It is a good deal more fun to go around disbelieving in a thousand little-g gods, by constructing a thousand little flying spaghetti monsters (I should note for those itching to go down this particular bunny trail, that there are obscure Sansrkit terms for these things and a long and complicated history behind these ideas in Indian theology. I expect similar ideas exist in other theologies).

There’s a complex conversation to be had there, involving foxes and hedgehogs and information theory, but the non-flippant term for my fundamental orientation is particularist. I may traffic in generalities, but it is particulars that really attract me. Generalities are scaffolding that help me find, appreciate or relate to fertile particulars. Depending on which of the four kinds of reality you favor in constructing your sacred rituals, you get different particularist/generalist orientations.

  • This walk, not the general, abstract idea of a walk.
  • This interesting prime number, not a theory of the universe involving the golden ratio.
  • This particular meditative breath, not rapturous Oneness with the Universe.
  • This interaction with this person, not holy awe around the idea of “community.”

The particularist-generalist divide is probably more fundamental than the atheist-theist divide.

No two pieces of reality are ever truly interchangeable to particularists. And paradoxically, this is what makes rich repetition so powerful in anchoring a sense of the sacred. To learn to appreciate difference, you must attentively contemplate apparent sameness. Somebody recently told me about the Balinese notion of time.

In the standard western perspective, time is long but thin— just past, present, future. In Bali, time is dense. The Balinese have ten kinds of weeks operating concurrently— solar, lunar, and 7-day, 6-day, on down to a one-day week (“Today is always luang.”) It’s like the difference between the shimmering density of polycyclic gamelan music versus western romantic narrative music.

This sounds about right to me. To want every walk to be an exploration of an obviously new route is to never sensitize yourself to the density of narrative time along a particular route, or develop skill at unpacking specific realities.

***

Let me conclude with a little prescription. Try this little exercise.

Inventory your candidate sacred rituals in a spreadsheet.

Discard the obvious addictions: behaviors you return to for re-experiencing sameness rather than appreciating variety.

For the rest, identify the aspect of reality each engages, by matching each with the most appropriate verb: grounding, centering, connecting, collecting. If in doubt, include all verbs that apply. Make a little matrix in your spreadsheet, with rituals on the rows and the four verbs on the columns, putting 1’s and o’s at the appropriate row-column intersections. Tally the rows in a fifth column. Now tally all five columns.

Rank order the four verbs by frequency. That’s your spiritual personality type. The last column sum is your particularism score.

The last row of sums is your sacred bottom-line.

There you go, a minimum-viable spreadsheet spirituality model for the quantified-self crowd. I’ll leave you to evolve the model and invent a companion tracking instrument to monitor and refine your practice of your rituals.

See, I can do nice things for utilitarians too.

Acknowledgements due to Hosh Hsiao, Kevin Simler, MFH and Jeff Hackert for helping me think through these ideas. 

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Very nice.

    I just wanted to note that group religious rituals also seem to involve centering, in this case of a community around some point in spacetime. You already mentioned the kaaba, which is a pretty obvious and large-scale example. In Jewish services it is the Torah and the moment the ark is opened to reveal it, in Catholic services it is communion…the structure of the service and the layout of the architecture all seem designed to focus the group’s collective attention on a single point. This might be obvious, but it struck me quite forcefully when I realized that common pattern.

    • Not to mention that the ark in Jewish temples is generally oriented so that the whole congregation is facing Jerusalem.

  2. Not sure about the generalist vs particularist divide.

    First of all I’m definitely anti-particularist. For example I really dislike the obsession of the historical detail. If you want to discuss the Internet in Germany with someone having a humanist background, they will almost inevitably point you to the arch-evil of its origin in the US military. For me this is simply an irrelevant trivia and the net would be basically the same if it was a gift of the angels, but for them it is like the conjunction of the 8 planets and the sign of the animal.

    Generalists on the other hand try to find a recipe for success. They look at what is most obviously the cause of something and then they go and spend money for plastic surgery in order to become a pop star. The guy who leans towards particularism might hire an astrologist whereas the generalist engages a Harvard professor. The latter is certainly more harmful than the former but it gives me an uneasy feeling if I was only left with the choice between those two.

    Sometimes both are correct and root causes can be cleanly identified and purified and then we see the general form and the law in the sky or the present depends linearly on some awkward dwarf who crossed our ways, a poltergeist, a traumatic suppression, a hidden variable.

    BTW I’m walking for the joy of it. I certainly could invent some complicated reasoning why I do like it and what it means, what are my personal attitudes, how to do it right and so on, but in my experience there aren’t any such causes and the motivations for choosing one path over another one vary. The joy of walking over long distances for hours eliminates the causes. I always have a goal but I’m not walking for that goal because if walking was a shortest-path optimization problem it could almost be eliminated. It is easy for me to add collecting to grounding and then I get a path bundle, a fiber space instead of a single path, an internal geography, a set of crossing lines as an approximation of a two dimensional surface. All of this appeals to me both intellectually and aesthetically but if it turns out a single path is preferable over all others modulo some minor variations this is also fine with me. It is a reduction of wealth but I don’t suffer from it.

    • Hmm… I think you mean something different by particularist. It’s not so much being caught up in particulars. It’s more about the particular serving as the context within which the general gets actually interesting. This is one reason I don’t really get interested in patterns or pattern thinking of any sort. I simply cannot bring myself to get interested in (say) a decentralized vs. centralized discussion in the abstract. In the abstract, that’s not an interesting question. Particularize it, and the game changes.

      • When you have a disdain for pattern thinking how would you characterize the diagrammatic techniques which have become something like your trademark, at least among intellectual bloggers? My default assumption about your thinking style regarding a simple opposition between decentralized vs centralized would be that at least a second intertwined conflict was needed that structures the field in interesting ways. Or instead of another conflict a duplication of the introduced opposition e.g. the singular universal, the universal singular, the singular singular and the universal universal. This won’t establish context either but enriches the form and increases the number of places where content is allowed to appear.

        • Disdain is not how I would characterize my position. It is more about aesthetic priorities. To me, recourse to diagrams and platonic forms represents a sort of failure to capture the essence of an idea in an aesthetically “correct” way, and so I view posts where those dominate as a sort of work-in-progress. My personal favorite posts are ones where any abstract structures are implicit and only indicated by a light pattern of non-realistic emphasis (the difference between a literary story and a parable for instance). But it is not always possible to cast every idea in that form, so I go beta when I have to.

          I think my most successful (to me personally) posts are ones where motifs and motivating examples anchor the structure, rather than abstract forms. In the Gervais Principle, MacLeod’s cartoon is more motif than abstract form. In the Locust Economy, the locust is the motif. In one of my posts that I consider problematic, Welcome to the Future Nauseous, I have both a motif (the central idea of ‘future nausea’) and an abstract form (the notion of ‘manufactured normalcy field’). The former is my personal favorite idea in the post, but the latter seems to be what has caught on, possibly because it has a certain prescriptive power and potential for explicitly influencing design.

          So perhaps my aesthetic preference is merely a matter of prioritizing appreciative over manipulative forms of knowledge. In a way, any element that offers too obvious a directive to action is an aesthetic failure (even if others find it very useful).

          I am still trying to develop an alternative aesthetic around prescriptive writing. So far, I have not succeeded in finding one that satisfies me.

          • Interesting. I have seen the formal techniques mostly as something which allow to dispense subjectivity. Not fully because the diagram still needs a setup and some interpretation but one still relies on something which is inherent to the formality of the method.

            In the ‘Future Nauseous’ article the role of the motif was possibly played by the airplane cabin turned into a living room. It’s something one can point to as the concrete universal. So it is the very thing that transports the abstraction of the “manufactured normalcy field” by building analogies: what is the airplane cabin of X? The problem then with ‘Future Nauseous’ is that it is not really needed, that it introduces some psychological speculation which can be dispensed using the idea of gradual changes in the manufactured normalcy of a civilization. One might even append a secondary speculation: isn’t Science Fiction, the genre whose proper protagonist is a radical other civilization also the literature of a post war generation who experienced the crash of a civilization, the breakdown of manufactured normalcy and the unraveling of scripts?

  3. I think you would do well to read one California writer–Wallace Stegner–and one of my Kentucky brethren, Wendell Berry. As Stegner says (quoting Berry), “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. ”

    http://www.mtbaker.wednet.edu/tlcf/the%20sense%20of%20place.htm