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9 December 2007

Enlightenment for its own sake

How do you expect me to discover a deep experience of spiritual ecstasy if every time that I glimpse the threshold, I rush back to take notes for next Sunday’s Daily Inspiration?

~ Josh Mitteldorf

8 December 2007

Light at the end of the tunnel

It’s not just that everyone in the world is a little too merry.  The other reason that those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere tend to feel low this time of year is that we’re not getting enough sunlight.  Blue fluorescents, vitamin D supplements, and melatonin can be ways to compensate.  But there’s nothing like natural sunlight, for its emotional as well as physiological boons.

It helps simply to remember that short daylight is affecting us, and our moods may turn up shortly.  And relief comes sooner than you may know:  for those of us who live the below the 42th parallel (Chicago), the worst is over.  Even though the shortest day is still two weeks ahead of us, it’s the early sunsets that affect us most, and sunsets have already begun their recovery.  This is because the earth’s orbit is not quite a perfect circle.  We are closer to the sun this time of year, and the earth is traveling a bit faster.  You may recall that a 24-hour day already has 1/365th of a rotation built into it to allow for the fact that the earth has traveled a little further around the sun, and has to go a little more than 360o around in order to get back to facing the sun each day.  But this time of year, the earth is making progress at the rate of a little more than 1/365th of the way in each day (because it's closer and traveling faster), so in 24 hours its rotation doesn’t quite bring us back to the new direction of the sun.  So, this time of year each day gets started a little later than the day before and the difference adds up to make both sunrise and sunset a few minutes later than they should be.  This is the reason that the latest sunrise occurs almost a month later than the earliest sunset (for mid-latitudes).

Explanation by John Holtz

7 December 2007

Talking whales

Pacific Gray Whales summer in the Arctic, where they filter-feed on the microscopic shrimp that grow abundantly in Northern waters.  They breed in Baja California, 5000 miles to the south, and eat nothing for seven months until their return migration.

The Gray Whale is an example of one of the most successful cooperative conservation programs that our species has ever undertaken on behalf of another.  More than 150 years ago, at a time when whale oil was a staple fuel, it was discovered that Gray Whales come to lagoons in Baja to breed each spring, and there were easy targets for whalers.  Attacking the newborn calves was an effective way to lure the mother into waiting harpoons. The Gray Whale was hunted to the brink of extinction, before coming under international agreements of protection beginning in the 1930’s. Since then, the Gray Whale population has flourished, and marine scientists believe that the current world population probably exceeds the pre-whaling historic prevalence.

There is a parallel story concerning the Gray Whale which highlights one of the great mysteries of the natural world. While the Gray Whale was aggressively hunted, the animals developed a hostile relationship with man. The giant animals had a reputation for surfacing under whaling boats and overturning them. But now the Gray Whale has developed an affinity for humans, and the most reliable companions for tourist boats that go looking for whale encounters. They are known to snuggle up alongside boats, seeming to enjoy it when we scratch their backs.

Animal domestication is usually explained by evolutionary effects of breeding for docility. But that explanation doesn’t work for the whales, which have had only a few generations of recovery time in 70 years. Whales are known to be highly social, and many scientists have speculated about what might be coded in their whistles and sirens. Could it be that whales’ communication is sophisticated enough to tell stories about encounters with boats and humans, and that whales have learned the way humans learned — through shared culture?

6 December 2007

Dave Brubeck

He always had music coming out of his fingers, though he couldn’t read or write it for the longest time. (A special exception was made so he could graduate from college with a music degree.) He returned to school in California to study with Darius Milhaud, a classical composer deeply influenced by the Jazz tradition.

“Indeed, although popularly held opinion asserts that Brubeck was well-trained in the classics and sought primarily to fuse classical music and modern jazz, this is in fact erroneous as he received scant formal training in the classics even under Milhaud and sought primarily to employ the Milhaud classical mantras of polytonality and polyrhythm in his compositions. It was Milhaud’s legitimization of the jazz style to Brubeck that gave the young pianist the drive to explore and expand upon the prevailing jazz paradigm.”
— from official biography at Duke Univ web site

A lifelong pacifist and social activist, he brought black and white jazz musicians together in the 1940s and 50s, culminating in an anti-racism tour in 1961 with Louis Armstrong.

Dave Brubeck, 87 years old today, is still creative, still married to his college sweetheart, Iola Whitlock, and still composing and touring.

Listen to Raggy Waltz from the 1959 album Time Out
Listen to John Salmon playing Overture to Glances

5 December 2007

Chanukah story

Rashida and Aviva liked to play hopscotch and jump rope together. Their fathers were mortal enemies, each of whom would have punished his daughter severely if he found them together. Playing in secret only made their games more exciting and therefore more fun.

As the Chanukah celebration approached, it was natural that Aviva wanted to light candles together with Rashida, but she dared not invite Rashida to her home. Then Rashida suggested a plan.

They might have tricked their parents into coming together under false pretenses, until their fundamental humanity became known to each other. They might have arranged to enact a simulation of great danger, from which Rashida’s father would be called upon to rescue Aviva, and the heart of Aviva’s father would then open to his daughter’s rescuer. Better yet, they might have devised a danger for themselves from which they could be extricated only by a cooperative effort between their parents.

They considered and rejected all these ruses, and opted instead for a direct course. They conceived an act of open defiance that would at first enrage their parents, but held the promise of a deeper and more permanent elimination of their fathers’ prejudice, should they succeed.

Together they boarded the bus for a remote and dangerous corner of Jerusalem, where (to be continued…)

4 December 2007

“Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.”

& Happy birthday Wassily Kandinsky, 141 today.

3 December 2007

More than you know

“Our subconscious is not an unthinking autopilot that needs to be subjugated by rationality, but a purposeful, active and independent guide to behaviour...our brains constantly monitor our internal and external environment such that when the input becomes important enough, the subconscious decides to engage the conscious and we become aware of what is there.”

— from Kate Douglas’s New Scientist article on the subconscious

“We suspect that the normal unconscious brain monitors the environment for cues that prompt it to decide whether to awaken and engage... The decision to engage at all is, in effect, an unconscious decision to be conscious.”

Michael Shadlen

To me, the message of this work is that our conscious minds have limited control over our moods and thoughts — even our behaviors.  One of the most powerful things we can do with our available conscious volition is to train our subconscious minds to act in accordance with our conscious will.  This is a process of a href="">self-hypnosis.