21 October 2007

Denizens of Western cultures, especially males, are conditioned that accomplishment is the substance of our lives.  Quests for glory have been the engine for human advancement and the downfall of every civilization. For me personally, ambition has been a steadfast companion and monkey on my back since I was a child.

I was first attracted to spiritual practice as a young man, when I gained enough self-awareness to see that I was pursuing accomplishment as a consolation for human connection forgone.  I tried to seek enlightenment the way I had sought scholarship in the past: through mental effort and cleverness. I devoted time each day to yoga practice, devising my own routines and inventing new meditations. But spiritual states are fundamentally different; effort is as likely to get in the way as to bring fulfillment. The times when my disciplines worked best for me was when I experienced as a revelation just how absurd and pointless was my practice.

Teaching has been a marvelous teacher and a dangerous distraction. From myself, I learn lessons that I am too proud to hear from any other; but the role of teacher has allowed me to turn wisdom into a conceit.

Grace comes through me and in spite of me. At best, my efforts have prepared the ground, softened the earth in which seeds may sprout.

– Josh Mitteldorf

20 October 2007

For all his singularity, the Yankee maverick Charles Ives [born this day in 1874] is among the most representative of American artists. Optimistic, idealistic, fiercely democratic, he unified the voice of the American people with the forms and traditions of European classical music. The result, in his most far-reaching work, is like nothing ever imagined before him: music at once unique and as familiar as a tune whistled in childhood, music that can conjure up the pandemonium of a small-town Fourth of July or the quiet of a New England church, music of visionary spirituality built from the humblest materials--an old gospel hymn, a patriotic tune, a sentimental parlor song. The way in which Ives pursued his goal of a democratic art, and his career of creating at the highest level of ambition while making a fortune in the life insurance business, perhaps could only have happened in the United States. And perhaps only there could such an isolated, paradoxical figure make himself into a major artist.

...One of his father’s most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: ‘Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds–for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.’ Charles Ives grew up determined to find that wild, heroic ride, that music of the ages--the spiritual power he felt in the singing at outdoor camp meetings and in bands marching during holidays.

– from a biography on the site of the Charles Ives Society

Ives’s trademark is the ecstatic cacophony of many things happening at once.  If Bach’s genius was to write contrapuntal melodies that fit together perfectly, Ives’s art was to combine melodies that clash exquisitely.  And he did this around the turn of the century, decades before polytonality became a fashion in Europe.

listen to Afterglow, a song for soprano and piano on a poem by James Fenimore Cooper

listen to Halloween, a short orchestral piece


At the quiet close of day,
Gently yet the willows sway;
When the sunset tints are low,
Lingers still the afterglow;
Beauty tarries loth to die,
Every lightest fantasy
Lovelier grows in memory,
Where the truer beauties lie.

~ James Fenimore Cooper

19 October 2007

“In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

“Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.”

Stephen Pinker

Pinker goes on to cite numbers and hard evidence to support the thesis that human life has been getting less violent, not only over the centuries, but right now in our own lifetimes.  Worldwide, the number of armed conflicts has declined, and the number of people killed in each conflict has also declined, decade by decade.  Murder and violent crime have also declined concurrently.

We are more aware of violence now, perhaps more horrified by it, even as civilized behavior is advancing.

Read his speech to the TED conference (Technology, Engineering & Design), in Monterey CA, March ’07
Watch and listen to the same speech (20 minutes)

18 October 2007

“The Zen monk has no desire to be absolved from sin... [He] wishes to help others avoid the misery of sin, and as to his own sin, he lets it take care of itself, as he knows it is not a thing inherent in his nature...

Says Christ, ‘When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth; that thine alms may be in secret.’ This is the ‘secret virtue’ of Buddhism. But when he goes on to say that ‘thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee’, there we see a cleavage between Buddhism and Christianity. So long as there is any thought of somebody knowing your doings, whether he be God or Devil, Zen would say, ‘You are not yet one of us.’... The perfect garment shows no seams, inside or out; it is one complete piece and nobody can tell where the work began or how it was woven. In Zen, there ought not to be left any trace of consciousness after doing alms, much less a thought of recompense. The Zen ideal is to be ‘the wind that bloweth where it listeth, and the sound of which we hear but cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth’.

– from Essays in Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki, born this day in 1870

17 October 2007

Securely sunning in a forest glade,
A mild, well-meaning snake
Approved the adaptations he had made
For safety’s sake.

He liked the skin he had—
Its mottled camouflage, its look of mail,
And was content that he had thought to add
A rattling tail.

The tail was not for drumming up a fight;
No, nothing of the sort.
And he would only use his poisoned bite
As last resort.

A peasant now drew near,
Collecting wood; the snake, observing this,
Expressed concern by uttering a clear
But civil hiss.

The simple churl, his nerves at once unstrung,
Mistook the other’s tone
And dashed his brains out with a deftly-flung
Pre-emptive stone.


Security, alas, can give
A threatening impression;
Too much defense-initiative
Can prompt aggression.

~ Richard Wilbur 

16 October 2007

Many scientists have contempt for religion, and see it only as a tool for mass manipulation and deception.  In this discussion from Edge.com, Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson take a more balanced view.  Wilson’s hypothesis is that religion has been favored in human evolution because it promotes social coherence.  Haidt notes evidence that people who describe themselves as religious tend to give more freely, be better adjusted and healthier.  The danger, of course, is that religion discourages individual thinking, and is easily subverted by despots and demagogues.  But can’t the same be said for other ideological systems, political and even scientific?

“Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. But I do agree with Josh Greene that sometimes we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week.”
Jonathan Haidt 

“Religions are not the only belief systems that can become detached from reality. Political ideologies, intellectual movements, and even scientific theories can also distort the facts of the world to promote a cherished cause. The only reason that science is less vulnerable to distortion than other belief systems is because scientists are expected to hold each other accountable for their factual claims.” 
David Sloan Wilson 

Science Times article

15 October 2007

If the moon gets stuck in a tree, cover the hole in the sky with a strawberry.

— Cooper Edens  (Remember the Night Rainbow, 1979)