Thursday, February 25, 2016

Demons

A daemon, in computer-speak, is an ongoing background process (I'll use the more familiar spelling from here on out). When your iPhone offers to connect you to the local Wi-Fi, that's because a demon is constantly watching for networks to come within range. When your computer pops up a reminder of an appointment from your calendar app, it's because a demon was waiting and waiting to do so.

Demons are simple. Most work something like this:
Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet? Is it happening yet?
You can surely relate, because we all run demons. Here's an example:
Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa! Call Vanessa!
If you didn't have a process going somewhere in the back of your mind, how would you possibly ever remember to call Vanessa? If there weren't some mental repetition - perhaps only at a background, unconscious level - then you'd only remember to call her if and when you happened to randomly think of her. That wouldn't work at all! At some point in our evolutionary process, we were given the nifty feature of demons as part of some upgrade.

Scientists, who have extraordinarily poor insight into consciousness, generally, don't understand any of this. That's why it baffles them that we often manage to wake up just before the alarm clock rings...even when we've set it for a different time than usual. It's a demon, that's all! Demons don't work perfectly, of course, because we're not chip-based. But they're pretty damned good.

Emotional intensity determines how deeply a given demon gets planted. Add a couple exclamation points to the "Call Vanessa!" demon, above, and you'll be a lot more likely to get the message. But if your foreground thought process is occupied by a particularly gripping emotional state, even urgent demons might be ignored. The mind is constantly tilting one way or another - attending either to demons or to the matter at hand, depending on the respective urgency level. Just as you'd ignore more trivial to-do list items when working on a high-priority task, and ignore even your most urgent items if a hive of bees were chasing you, we constantly choose our responsiveness to demons. And the process making that choice is, itself, a demon (really, we're nothing but demons, all the way down, but it'd take more than a blog posting to make that case), constantly asking "Do I need to pay attention now? Do I need to pay attention now?" ad infinitum.

Depressed people don't blow deadlines and otherwise fail to take care of business because they lack energy (they have tons of energy...it's just not outwardly directed). Rather, they have a dysfunctional relationship with their demons. They both ignore them and feel burdened by them. Their obsessive mental reveries, in which they're tightly gripped, feel like an endless urgent current task, so the demons never take precedence (though their weight is felt....and the feeling of burden gets fed straight back into the reverie).

Psychologists consider stress a relic from our fight-or-flight days, getting us inappropriately hopped up over jammed copiers or parking tickets with the same faculties we once used to respond to attacking lions and such. But stress is a much more complex, and perpetually relevant, faculty. Stress tells the mind what to pay attention to. Stress helps us implant our demons, and also makes us pay attention to them. Or it helps us switch off our responsiveness to demons so we can concentrate entirely on running away from those bees.

But there's another connection between stress and demons. A demon never completely dies, it just fades from the limelight of conscious awareness. You can't remember items you urgently reminded yourself to shop for many years ago, but all such demons (including the high-priority stress-inducing ones) remain in subliminal play. You can't notice them individually, but their cumulative buzz is certainly palpable - though so familiar it's hard to notice.

Make an experiment of paying attention in quiet moments. The dull static of millions of discarded demons is your mind's background "radiation". And, alas, it all prods at us. The connection between a tidy computational process and the myth of cruel, pitchfork-yielding little devils (and the stress they can inflict) becomes clear.


The only proper course is to let it all go. You can't stop demons, you can only let go of your reactivity to them. Simply relaxing is insufficient; non-reactivity must be pursued more systematically, via daily practice. Meditation is the time-tested route, and this, fwiw, is the best, most stripped-down and simple meditation practice I've found.

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