Here’s a strange fact: I can remember every flu I’ve had in my adult life (where “flu” means I was in bed with a fever).
Partly, this is because I can count the number of flus I’ve had on one hand and partly it’s because I’ve always found fever dreams to be interesting. Who needs LSD when you can catch a flu and hallucinate for free? In one particularly memorable flu I had, I remember visualising geometrical shapes for hours and hours. It was like my own personal Pink Floyd lightshow. But it went on so long that it got annoying and I wished I could make it stop. Some years later, I learned how to make fever dreams stop. I’ll tell the story of that shortly.
Down here in Australia, we have been slowly catching up to the rest of the world in covid infections after our initial covid-zero “victory”. I’d say about half of my acquaintances have now had the virus. I know this because everybody who gets the virus loves to tell others about it. Last week an acquaintance of mine was relating their experience. They were explaining how unusual covid was because they had been hallucinating geometric shapes while in bed with a fever, something that had never happened to them before. Based on this fact, they concluded that the sars-cov-2 virus must really have been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan because it “felt unnatural”.
The story resonated with me because their experience of hallucinating geometric shapes sounded identical to the flu I’d had many years ago. Their conclusion about the origins of the virus was also invalid. Specifically, it is based on an error of reasoning sometimes called attentional bias where a person gives undue weight to something just because they are paying attention to it. Learning how to direct your attention is an important skill, especially in the modern world where literally all the institutions in society are fighting to get your attention. It was through directed attention that I was able to make my own fever dreams stop when I had a flu a few years ago.
At the time, I had been working through the exercises in the book “Concentration” by Mouni Sadhu. Sadhu, whose real name was Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski, was born in Poland, spent WW2 as a prisoner of war and afterwards travelled to India where he undertook Vedanta study in an ashram. He later migrated to Australia where he lived in my home town of Melbourne working a day job as an engineer while practising esoteric spirituality on the side; surely a lonely practice among the rampant bourgeois materialism of the post war years in Australia.
The book “Concentration” is about achieving mastery of your mind. It’s light on theory and heavy on practical work. The core exercise of the book is extremely simple. You take out a pin and hold it in front of your face at a comfortable distance. You must focus your sight on the head of the pin, seeing it as clearly as possible. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you cannot allow a single other thought to enter your mind while you are staring at the pin. If ones does, you must restart the exercise. You go through this process trying to focus on the pin without interruption from other thoughts. First you aim for 15 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, then 30 seconds, then one minute and then two minutes.
Two minutes doesn’t sound like much but it takes months of daily practice to get there. In the process you learn about the contents of your mind and specifically that you have a whole stream of noise running through it. Some of the noise comes from external sources like television, radio, internet and some from internal sources. Maybe you were listening to a catchy pop song in the morning. The melody will suddenly pop into your head while you’re staring at the pin and you have to start the exercise again. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you need to buy at the supermarket later or that thing you have planned on the weekend. You have to start again. Getting to two minutes of uninterrupted concentration is a significant achievement.
I had just reached that goal and had moved on to the next exercise in the book when I came down with the flu. As I was lying in bed with a fever, the usual fever dreams began. I had the idea of trying to apply the concentration method I had learned to make the fever dream go away. I set out to deliberately change the focus of my concentration away from the fever dreams and onto an empty black space. Voila! It worked first time. I was able to turn my mind away from the fever dreams just like I had learned to turn my mind away from random thoughts and focus on the pin. As soon as my concentration slipped, the fever dreams returned.
The ability to do this is of philosophical relevance. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, made the argument a couple of millennia ago that the fact that disease affected the mind was evidence that the mind would expire at death just like the body.
“Since the mind is thus invaded by the contagion of disease, you must acknowledge that it is destructible.”
Lucretius assumed that fever dreams are inevitable. There’s nothing to be done about them except wait until they pass much like the physical disease itself. But if you can control fever dreams and stop your mind being “invaded” by them, then his argument falls apart. This doesn’t prove that the mind exists after death, but it does show that there is a “substance” outside of the mind that can govern the focus of the mind and force it to concentrate on a pin or not concentrate on fever dreams. This substance is the Will.
In the 1800s, exercises that developed the will became very popular in Europe following the publication of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”. Many of these exercises involved the deliberate use of the senses. For example, you might set out to notice everything that is coloured red in your neighbourhood. You might go for a walk and deliberately try to smell all the different smells that are present. You might sit down and try to hear every sound including things far off in the distance. These exercises are very similar to Mouni Sadhu’s pin concentration exercise and part of the reason why Europeans became interested in the Veda and other eastern philosophies is precisely because they realised that those philosophies had already discovered the will, something that was new to Europe (Schopenhauer was also influenced by the Eastern philosophies).
Note that the ability to concentrate is implied in the scientific method. This was given the name “will to knowledge” in the 1800s because you were using your will in order to learn something. Western science has been primarily concerned with learning something about the material world while Eastern science (like the Veda) was far more concerned with learning something about the spiritual. This all ties in with a longstanding bias against the material world which also exists in the western tradition (Plato especially). The reason philosophers and sages didn’t turn their attention to the material world wasn’t because they couldn’t but because the material world was considered the “lowest” sphere of existence and you wouldn’t waste your time on it.
The upshot of all these will and attention exercises is that you learn to be highly sceptical of things you have not paid active attention to. As you have not paid active attention to most things in the world, you learn to become sceptical of pretty much everything. This is the basis of true science and is captured in Feynman’s first rule of science: thou shalt not fool thyself. The easiest way to fool yourself is to unquestioningly believe something you have not paid active attention to.
This brings us back to my acquaintance and his covid fever dreams. Most people have never actively paid attention to colds and flus because colds and flu are an everyday part of life and we are taught from a young age not to worry about them i.e. not to pay attention to them. You go to bed for a few days and then get on with your life. In modern times, you might not even go to bed. You’ll pop some pills to keep you going and plow through the illness. Prior to 2020, nobody cared about your respiratory infection and if you tried to tell them about it they wouldn’t have wanted to know.
What happens when we create a new name for a respiratory infection and then overturn all the existing rules of society over it? One of the things that happens is that everybody starts paying attention. Those who have done will/attention exercises know what’s that like. You go out and decide to look for everything red in your neighbourhood. Suddenly, red things seem to be everywhere and you’re amazed by all the red things you never noticed before. It feels “new”. But the red things were always there. The only thing that changed was your mental state. So it is with covid.
Of course, the whole point of the giant propaganda machine we have created in the modern world is to direct your attention. When you set out to direct your own attention, such as by staring at a pin, you realise how many of the random thoughts running through your mind are somebody else’s thoughts and that it was somebody else’s will which put them there.
The self-improvement ethic (which later became known by the less useful name of self-help) of the 1800s did have this going for it: it was about learning to direct your own attention and use your own will. Most people at that time were trying to break through the propaganda of the Church but our modern propaganda machine is far more pervasive than the Church could ever have dreamed. Now more than ever, winning back control of your attention and your will is a valuable thing to do.