Emotional Impact Can Cut Off Options

I have had an epiphany. It concerns a bad decision I didn’t even know I was making. The reason I made this bad decision was because someone else made a decision. Namely, Amazon.com.

A couple of years ago I started making coloring books for grown-ups. It was a lot of fun. I wanted to get into the market in the easiest way, so I did what I saw several other authors do, I put the books up initially as Kindle eBooks with download links for PDF files so people could print the images to color at their leisure. Things went great for a couple of months, I got a good mix of reviews, mostly positive, and got several messages from fans who appreciated my work. Good times. I then created a couple of print-on-demand versions using Amazon’s PoD arm, CreateSpace.

Then Amazon made a policy change for their Kindle product. They launched an interactive platform within the Kindle application and started dumping titles that were interactive from their Kindle library. The adult coloring book market was hit hard. My books were blocked, one after the other, and all my good reviews vanished. I tried to comply by removing the links from the ebooks, and instead framing them as preview offerings, but that was a no go. Amazon informed me that coloring books were inherently interactive (even if you can’t actually interact with the images) and my books were not reinstated. That left me with one review on my PoD version, and it was one star from a person who didn’t care for my work. (Amusingly enough the specific image he mentioned in his review as being boring is one that other people have told me is the most frightening piece in the book. So it goes.)

I took this turn of events pretty hard and basically gave up on the idea of coloring books. That was a huge mistake. I realized what a huge mistake it was when I happened to check my CreateSpace account the other day. I had earned some royalties while I hadn’t been looking. (They were sent to an old address, but a quick email to the CreateSpace customer service department and some edits to my payment details got things sorted. The check was canceled, and the royalties were deposited directly into my bank.) While I wasn’t looking I had sold a few dozen copies online, without any support on my end. I recalled my encounter with someone at the one location that carries my books on their shelf, and how he insisted on shaking my hand to thank me for the hours he, and his partner, had spent with my images. I remembered the positive reviews, now hidden. I saw that I had made a very bad decision unconsciously, and it was time to reverse it.

I had failed to remember one of the single most important distinctions for creative people in the Internet age. Options. Since what I produce is mine to do with as I will, there are always options. Kindle isn’t the only eBook vendor out there, and besides there are plenty of other ways to get my images out to the public.

So, stay tuned for some more Color Your Nightmares books, folks! Be on the lookout for a Patreon effort as well. I have plans roiling in my head again, and the hours I spent today gathering images to work with reminded me of how much I enjoy this process.

Watch for what your brain decides while you’re not paying attention. It doesn’t always serve your best interests.

Grok: A Lever Against Robotic Thinking

“Grok” is a great word, that I don’t think gets enough usage. I like it for a great many reasons, not the least of which is that my good friend John Sherman, the man who said the words that ‘clicked’ for me and ended my spiritual search, uses it in his talks.

Grok came to us first from the Robert A. Heinlein novel, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In that book, the term is defined thus: “Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

In modern, common use, it has come to mean something like: “We connect in understanding beyond the level of common-sense knowledge and exchange of language signals.” It means to pass understanding in a direct way. Something like the “mind-to-mind transmission of the dharma” in Zen Buddhism. Webster’s dictionary defines the term this way: “to understand profoundly and intuitively”.

I think the word fits for us because we have all had this experience at one time or another. A moment where meaning crystallizes within our being as a sudden grasp of what is now obvious. I had one of these moments when learning how arrays work in the computer programming language Basic. No matter how many times it was explained, how my teachers put it, how many examples of code I perused, I just couldn’t get it. I could make it work, and make my programs utilize this important functionality, but it made no intuitive sense. Then one day, one of my teachers used the metaphor of a dresser with a set of drawers. The whole thing gelled in my mind. I grokked arrays. They made total sense from that day forward, and I have never gotten confused around their basic structure, nor the many types of databases that depend on this concept. This grokked concept has served me quite well in my professional career.

For this type of use alone, I think the word grok is quite handy.

Another useful thing about the word is it reminds us of the limitations of our language. During normal education, it’s easy to become entrenched in the idea that language captures reality. That what can be said is real. It’s easy to loose site of the fact that language is always, and merely, an abstraction. Language only ever represents, it is not the thing spoken. As Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.” Or, as Alan Watt said more wistfully, “The menu is not the meal.” A lot of work has been done in the quest for a perfect language. Ludwig Wittgenstein showed why this is impossible. In a nutshell, a perfect language would be one where communication was never flawed. There could never be any double-meanings. Every separate thing, including each and every 2007 Ford Taurus SE ever produced would have to have a separate word to designate it so that no two cars could ever be confused. Such a language would be many orders of magnitude more complex than reality itself, and no brain would be able to contain it. Whenever we use language, we must admit to a certain degree of approximation. This is especially so in English, which is, after all, not so much a language as it is an alleyway mugging of four other languages. In English it is possible to spell “fish” as “ghoti”, “gh-” as in “tough”, “o-” as in “women”, and “ti-” as in “nation.” “Ghoti” = fish. Then there are all the words that have more than one meaning, such as “chair”, “stand”, “pen”, etc. In such a language, it is good to keep reminders ready to hand that language is just a rough tool for getting across meaning.

Another great thing about the word “grok” is the type of connection it points to. The term indicates the most successful occasions of an attempt at communication. It points at those moments when two people are in exact mutual understanding, simpatico, and shared viewpoint. As social creatures, we yearn for these moments where we can say we are on the same page. When that happens, we can trust our capacity to work together and to thrive. It’s a beautiful thing.

Lastly, there is a mystery to the word “grok.” It contains a hinted at meaning that is not available in any human language. In this way, it forever holds a space we can go to beyond the limitations of all of our language. It shows us what we can strive for, beyond what we have been to date.

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Know That You Are Using Your Words

A while ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pissed me off. Let me first say that I have immense respect for Neil. I consider myself a fanboy of his. However, no one is perfect. Not even the Tyson.

People who follow Mr. Tyson will know that he has no love of philosophy and philosophers. I think he would echo the words of Steve Martin in saying, “That shit can really fuck you up.” (In fact, I think Neil paraphrased that very bit in one of his interviews.) He often goes on about how studying philosophy is a waste of time when you could be studying science. On the day he pissed me off whoever, the example he used wasn’t even philosophy. He used the example of the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That doesn’t come from philosophy, strictly speaking. It comes from Buddhism in general and Zen in specific. It is not a question to be answered. It’s a statement meant to stop the student’s mind for a moment. In other words, it’s not philosophy, it’s more like psychology. This stuck in my craw, but I didn’t quite realize why until today.

You see, I am veteran of many conversations where people claim that Buddhism is a religion, and then I (which is typical of most Buddhists, from what I’ve seen) answer something like, “Well, sort of, but not really. It’s more of a philosophy.” But on the other hand, I have also had many conversations where people make the claim that Buddhism is a philosophical system, and the context of the conversation made me say, “Well, sort of, but it’s a bit more like a system of psychology.” In these different conversations, I was correct(ish) for as far as those conversations went. But, this begs the question: What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Yes, in a way. Is it a philosophy? Yes, in a way. Is it a system of psychology? Yes, in a way. Sort of. Kinda.

The trouble here is not with Buddhism being schizophrenic. The problem is not with Buddhism being very varied depending on the cultural context it lands in. (Though that is part of it.) The real culprit is me. I forgot I was using English. Buddhism predates English. By a lot. It started out mostly in the Pali language, then migrated to where Chinese was more popular, did a foray into Tibetan, then got some Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese in there long before it got any English. What I am saying is that the difficulty is not that Buddhism is hard to identify. The issue is that English does a poor job of identifying Buddhism.

I am not going to suggest a better way to refer to Buddhism and Buddhist practices and techniques in English. Frankly, I don’t have one. My point is that our language can very easily prejudice us against concepts and distinctions from cultures in another language group. Terence McKenna used to say that language is thought, and your thought can’t evolve faster than your language does. Language is what you have to think with. It’s best to not let that become a limitation on your exposure to the wider world of ideas floating in the human space.

So, it would appear that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes me think deeply, even when he pisses me off.

Being mindful of your words can help you to stop the little buggers from biting off more than they can chew.

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