Posted by: Alton | January 26, 2010

Perception

Mindfulness is pre-symbolic. It is not shackled to logic. Nevertheless, Mindfulness can be experienced — rather easily — and it can be described, as long as you keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the moon. They are not the thing itself. The actual experience lies beyond the words and above the symbols.

-Mindfulness in Plain English, Chapter 13

Abstraction is a dangerous thing. Representational logic is a necessary evil, but venture too far from the existant fabric that you attempt to describe, and you run the risk of completely losing the essential truth of a matter.

A recent ‘study’ published in the New England Journal of Medicine is a great example of this mistake. The paper was based on the extrapolations made through use of a computer model about the possible health benefits of a reduced salt intake on cardiovascular health. They concluded that if everyone consumed less salt to the tune of 3 grams per day, we would see 60,000 to 120,000 fewer new cases of Coronary Heart Disease a year. The study, as you’d imagine, is a complete farce.

Ignoring the self-regulatory mechanisms of water-retention, sodium intake/retention, and how they relate to carbohydrate intake, I’d like to point out that directly in the methodology of the study you can read that they based their model on correlations between cardiac incidents and subgroupings of individuals organized by a few basic vital statistics- but the statistics do not differentiate between LDL and VLDL, organize systolic blood pressure into three partitions- <130, 130-139, and >=140- and across the board show no understanding of the meaning behind these health factors. The most you could accomplish with such divisions is to parse the data into weak correllations. Unfortunately, the authors aren’t finished there. They then apply beta coefficients “derived from the Framingham Heart Study and the Framingham Offspring Study”.

The Framingham study is a great example of science that didn’t meet the authors’ preconceptions, and yet has been cited as a triumph of predictive health science on diet and nutrition for the latter half century. Rather than re-hash all the issues with the study, I’ll redirect you to Dr. Eades’s posts on the subject here, and here. Dr. William P. Castelli, the successor of the director of the original Framingham study, is quoted in one of the posts is a great snippet that probably didn’t make the NEJM study’s model:

“For example, in Framingham, Mass, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol.”

So the model itself is nothing more than faulty assumptions being exploded into news-grabbing grandiose headlines. Build on a faulty assumption- an imprecise abstraction, if you will- and everything built on that concept is completely meaningless and without value.

All of this reminds me of the value of letting go of assumptions, seeing things ‘just so’, and relaxing the mental tension that accumulates with any sort of abstraction or judgement. Absolutely any abstraction or attempt to constrain ‘what is’ in words or abstract thought is an inherent corruption of the existence of that thing-in-itself, and can be a profoundly subtle limitation on our ability to think and grow. On a large scale, these biases take the form of faulty assumptions. On a small scale, they form the groundwork for our personal preferences and biases, and can lead us to act without consideration.

Rather than let these processes act upon ourselves without consideration, we should attempt to quiet the mind- to see the world simply for what it is, and let go of our need to integrate, understand, grapple, and define. The word I’d like to borrow for the concept is Sati– the title of the chapter I quoted at the start of the post. The rough translation for the word is simply “Mindfulness”- awareness, perception, in an as-is state, without judgement, and existing -prior- to abstraction.

My goal with nutrition has been to rediscover this layer of truth in my own body, finding out the pathways that food take, and learning to perceive and listen to my body- without preconception. The natural world -only- interacts with us on this as-is level. In order to see clearly, we need to stop grasping at the world, and let the world present itself to us- to listen patiently to what -is-, rather than trying to fit the world into boxes. Trying to reach out will close us off- relaxing and ‘retreating’, we open ourselves to a world of perception and truth.

Now and again, it is necessary to seclude yourself among deep mountains and hidden valleys to restore your link to the source of life.

-Morihei Ueshiba

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