We have patterns in our heads. That’s not news, of course. If we didn’t have patterns, we wouldn’t be able to read, or drive a car, or cook a steak. We have instructions, recipes, how-tos, habits, Pavlovian responses, Freudian imaging, Jungian archetypes… We’ve got it all. Our heads are pretty crowded. So let me tell you about granola bars.
Yeah, I liked that transition too.
So at this very moment I have a pan of hopefully-granola-bars in the oven. Probably by the end they’ll be pulled out, but you know, this takes time to write up. Anyway.
I have granola bars in the oven. And I have patterns in my head. They’re not all “learned,” at least not in the sense that I watched TV and then did what I saw. Some of them I imagine. We all do this when we cook. We stand up from wherever we’re crouched, we go to our kitchen orb, and we begin to cook.
But before we begin to cook we begin to cook. We have an idea of how it’s going to go. We know where all the best tools and pots and ingredients are. Before we get to our gleaming kitchen orb, we think we know everything that’s going to happen. And we behave accordingly. Even if things don’t go the way we imagined them.
So, let’s take an example entirely at random. You decide you’re going to make granola bars. You have never done this, but you are going to try to go on a hike. You are also still recovering from a cold, and so you think food out in the woods would be a good idea. You go into your kitchen. You get the ingredients ready. You open the tin of oats and they are steel-cut. The recipe calls for rolled oats.
If you are unsure of the difference, steel-cut oats look like tiny pebbles. Rolled oats are what you’ve seen when you see oats: flattened little flakes with a dot or something in the middle. So, you know, not tiny pebbles. Good to eat, particularly in dry applications such as, say, granola bars.
Now, here’s where the thing happened: I didn’t stop making granola bars. I was already short several of the ingredients, but simply replaced them. No sunflower seeds? Pecans, then, sure. No wheat germ? Meh. Who keeps wheat germ around? But see, the difference between two preparations of oats is pretty important. It would have been reasonable to stop this project. Nothing had been done — the oats were the first thing I opened. But I had created a channel in my brain — I had cut a path through the future toward a point, a clearing, in which I had granola bars, and I was heading that way. Because of that, I didn’t stop. I substituted one oat for another.
You might well ask why this could possibly matter to you. Well, that line previous: “I had cut a path through the future toward a point…” That line, it’s important. We are doing this all the time. If we find that, really, things aren’t going to work out that way, we keep trying to muddle along where we know the path once was. It’s precisely like getting lost in the woods. You know the path was here, because it was all in your head, and so you keep walking it, never noticing the path is three miles west of you and safely humped up by the side of the road, wondering if you’re going to cancel or make it eventually or something.
Now, if I had some sort of amazing cure for this I wouldn’t have made the densest, most difficult to eat granola bars in the history of humankind (they’re still cooling, but I tasted it. Also they’re falling apart, probably because the rounded little oat particles can’t cohere together nearly as well as flattened flakes). But it does strike me that the path isn’t necessary. It’s instinctive — it’s very, very difficult to not make mental pathways about the future. We’re constantly projecting forward, everything from what we’ll eat for dinner to what the end of the sentence we’re reading is going to be.
Seriously — every word in a sentence collapses the possibilities of the sentence: in a way you, reading, are performing the act of a some kind of science fiction quantum probability machine. You’re holding every typical, and some not-so-typical, possibilities for how sentences could go in your head, and each word forces you to discard some of them. This, bigger and with more lions, is your experience of the entirety of the world, for the entirety of your life.
I’ve categorized this post over in the category list as “chaos magic,” but it’s hardly even that. It’s about granola bars and being dumb. I have categorized it as such for the following paragraph.
Several years ago I developed a means to stop myself from going down certain mental pathways. It works quite well, and is very simple. I snap my fingers, suddenly and loudly, next to my left ear. I imagine (not being able to see out my left ear) that I have a little bit of the whoosh or flair of a stage magician presenting the next part of her trick. Sometimes I accompany this action with a cry of “avaunt!” or, if I’m feeling particularly Biblical, “get thee behind me.” The trick in this case is to imagine certain distractions, thoughts, or even methods of thought as demons, spirits tugging at your metaphysical coat tails. The particular methods of thought I had — and have — the most trouble with is the sort where I argue with a straw man, imagined in all their frothing anger or ignorance. This straw man can be someone I know or someone I respond to online, or no one at all. An imagined representative can be enough, as could a generic student who complains about the utility of the arts. I used to conceive of these mental arguments as valuable practice for the time when I will really have to deal with such things. But they’re not. Those sorts of practices do happen, and are valuable, but they’re like rehearsing lines: you stop what you’re doing and say that you’ll be practicing this thing now. Like a banishing ritual, it creates a mental space in which the practice is happening, and it won’t leave that space. These other arguments were ugly, spilling into every part of my head, taking over the part that looks at pretty trees as I walk and the part that thinks of ideas for stories as I shower. It wasn’t contained. The trick from the beginning of this paragraph helps to contain these arguments, at least insofar as it pushes back at them, pushes them out of the circle of my conscious mind’s light.
Perhaps we could develop a method, to become a habit, of “snapping our fingers” whenever we come up with an elaborate plan, too. At the beginning of every sequence of more than two actions, a pause to examine the plan? I’m not sure. I’ll probably mention it again if I come up with anything useful.
Well, more useful than basic meditation, which is that for the “sequence of action” that is one’s entire life.