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1 January 2008       

Consistency is an over-rated virtue, so do change your mind

This is the season when, for a day or two, millions of people delude themselves into thinking that fixed goals, firm purposes and rock-like convictions will bring happiness. Set up some distant destination — whether of weight loss or career progression — and trudge doggedly towards it, advise the secular priests of self-improvement. But every lifestyle guru makes one basic mistake. They confuse integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which doesn’t. So why not abandon the narrow path to disappointment and opt instead for some new year’s irresolution?

Make 2008 the year in which you choose to change your mind. Because truth, like time, is forever on the march. You will be in the best possible company.

 —   Gulf Times editorial by Boyd Tonkin

2 January 2008       

The language of plants

Flowers call out to bees with their scent and their color.  There are also hidden, lesser known modes by which plants communicate among themselves.

Roots send chemical signals that establish territory.  This is how desert plants manage to space themselves appropriately, to avoid dividing up the available water so finely that no one can grow. 

In moister climates, roots compete for water and nutrients, but recognize other roots from the same  plant and keep their distance. 

When a plant is attacked by insects, it emits signals into the air, pheromones that can cause neighboring plants to toughen their skin and generate pesticides.

 —   New Scientist article on plant communication
 —  Seed article on evolution of language

3 January 2008       

The Purpose Prize

Transcending the tunnel vision that allows us to accomplish each day all that we need to survive is hard enough for most of us.  Occasionally we get a vision of how our piece of the world could be organized differently, but somehow our having the idea is not sufficient to initiate the transformation.

Creating the institutions that are needed to get from here to there is the ultimate challenge for leaders and reformers.  The Purpose Prize was created (two years ago) to recognize and support people who manage to do that.

Donald Berwick founded the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in order to get the message out to hospitals:  there are simple, low-cost changes that management can make that will reduce mistakes and save lives, while simultaneously making work more rewarding for the doctors and nurses in the facility.  IHI unabashedly embraces modern techniques of propaganda and marketing adopted from corporations whose mission is to make money, and political campaigns, whose mission is to convert voters.

4 January 2008       

The Last of the Magicians

Isaac Newton, born this day in 1634, is so readily identified in our minds as the father of scientific physics that it is difficult for us to imagine his thought processes, how thoroughly physics and metaphysic were intertwined in his age. 

He interpreted the Bible, and engaged in vigorous debate over its meaning.  His chemistry experiments were based on the methods and theories that we now associate with alchemy.  To Newton, the action of gravity over an extended distance with no intervening particles or rays apparent was very much a supernatural phenomenon, even as he described it in precise mathematical terms.  Thus it never occurred to Newton to deny the existence of God, though his God did not necessarily intervene in managing terrestrial affairs, but only created our world and set it in motion. 

That color is a property of light, and that white light can be separated into colors are ideas we owe to Newton.  Before that time, color was imagined to be a property of the colored object, and it was thought that light was tinged with color upon reflection from an object with this property.  Newton established his conception via experiments with prisms, which yielded monochromatic light for use in his experiments.   After realizing that light of different colors is refracted differently in a lens, he invented the reflecting telescope, which could be made free of chromatic aberrations.   

John Maynard Keynes, who collected original manuscripts of Newton, was fond of saying that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: he was the last of the magicians.”

Biography by Robert Hatch

5 January 2008       

Laughing river god, tickled by water

Maurice Ravel was already 26 and Gabriel Fauré’s most promising student when he composed his first ‘hit’ piano piece in 1901.  The inscription, hand-written by the poet Henri de Régnier said «Dieu fluvial riant de l’eau qui le chatouille», ‘River god laughing as he is tickled by the water’.

The effect of this music for the listener is sweeping and, well, impressionistic; but for the pianist studying the work, it seems as inevitable as clockwork — almost formulaic. 

Liszt had written a piece with a similar title 18 years earlier, but Liszt’s evocation of water seems crude and constrained by comparison.  Ravel’s new work would come to be regarded as the quintessence of impressionism on the piano.

I like Paul Crossley’s interpretation because he plays it with lots of liberty, and not as fast as he can.

Listen to Jeux d’Eau performed by Paul Crossley

6 January 2008       

science and ‘Science’

To be a Scientist, capital ‘S’, is to belong to an international community, the most reliable arbiter of truth that mankind has yet constructed.  A Scientist reads and listens and seeks to understand, and places his faith in this great network, from which we derive our picture of the world.  The reading is sometimes technical, and the practice requires a substantial commitment; but the reward is to feel comfortably secure in our perspective, and occasionally to look down with an air of superiority on people who derive their worldview from superstitions, ideology or religious dogma.

To be a scientist, small ‘s’, is to rely on our own senses, our own deductive ability and our own judgment to form a picture of the world. We are constantly learning, constantly making mistakes, constantly re-evaluating.   The Scientific community is a valued resource, to be sure, as is the Liberal press; however, their pronouncements must be digested and questioned and meticulously compared to other experience, other sources (including those ‘tainted’ by ideology and dogma).    There is no security here, no comfortable community of shared beliefs, no satisfaction or sense of superiority.  If we are tempted to feel pride in our self-reliance and honesty, that sentiment is quickly dashed as we appreciate the humbling frequency of our own errors and misjudgments.  We resign ourselves to loneliness, and relish the moments when we stumble upon another soul who has arrived at some of the same perspectives as have we, independently and by an equally arduous path.  We savor the humility of the agnostic, seasoned with an occasional glimpse of mystery and wonder.

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 January 2008       

No substitute for good judgment

We can realize that we tend to be too cautious, and vow to take more risks; or we can vow to ‘choose our battles’ so we don’t get distracted by the small stuff, but there’s a limit to what we can accomplish with compensation.  At a certain point in our development, there is no substitute for deep healing, and the development of good judgment that follows.

Here are some of Roy Eidelson’s   Ten Mistakes I’ll Probably Make in 2008:


1. Sometimes, I’ll make choices driven too much by safety concerns and too little by other important considerations. Fear will prevent me from carefully weighing alternatives and their likely outcomes--and potentially important opportunities will pass me by.

2. But at other times, I will foolishly and impulsively fail to exercise due caution. This temporary sense of invulnerability will leave me regretful about the consequences of my actions.


5. Sometimes, I’ll be unnecessarily suspicious of people who actually deserve my trust. These misjudgments will foreclose promising possibilities for collaboration.

6. But at other times, I will be gullible and believe things that are untrue. Even worse, I’ll mistakenly place my faith in individuals who will abuse that trust for their own selfish purposes.

... Justice, Superiority, Helplessness... Read the rest here

“Wisdom comes from good judgment; good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

8 January 2008       

Full of fresh starts

“The only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.”

Storm Jameson, born this day in 1891, wrote more than 50 novels over a 60-year literary career.

Jameson’s writing, like her commitment to politics, was full of fresh starts, each undertaken with the same passionate intensity. In the best of her work, passion joins analysis, exploring the questions of the day in the landscapes of their making. She wrote about individuals and their communities, social justice, the cultural heritage, cultural memory, crossing frontiers and opening borders, exile, cruelty, and kindness. “Individuality,” as she represented it, was a matter of private experience, and at the same time, of experiences held in common. Out of her own life-history, she created a mirror reflecting the long twentiethcentury transformation of Europe.

Jennifer Birkett and Chiara Briganti

9 January 2008       

Shaped for delight, and primed for endless birth

We bear to future times the secret news
That first was whispered to the new-made earth:
We are like worlds with nations in our thews,
Shaped for delight, and primed for endless birth.
We never kiss but vaster shapes possess
Our bodies: towering up into the skies,
We wear the night and thunder for our dress,
While, vaster than imagination, rise
Two giant forms, like cobras flexed to sting,
Bending their spines in one tremendous ring
With all the starlight burning through their eyes
Fire in their loins, and on their lips the hiss
Of breath indrawn above some steep abyss.

When, like the sun, our heavenly desire
Has turned this flesh into a cloud of fire
Through which our nerves their strenuous lightning fork
Eternity has blossomed in an hour
And as we gaze upon that wondrous flower
We think the world a beetle on its stalk.

Roy Campbell

10 January 2008         

Love that (not man apart from that)

Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
     and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
     the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
     and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
     not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
     the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
    and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
     the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
     of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
     or drown in despair when his days darken.

-Robinson Jeffers was born in Pennsylvania, 10 Jan 1887, and found the God he celebrated in the Carmel Valley (California).  He wrote of a divinity inseparable from the natural world.

11 January 2008      

A small legacy of perfect music

Maurice Duruflé, born this day in 1902, lived to a ripe old age, and left a legacy of 14 pieces.   He was a perfectionist, to be sure, honed and revised his works perhaps obsessively.  But he was also devoted to his parish as organist of St. Étienne-du-Mont, and to his students at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  (Where there is charity and love, there is God.)

Listen to Ubi Caritas, #1 from Four Motets Op 10
Listen to two movements from the Requiem Op 9: 
       Pie Jesus (performed by counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton)
       In Paradisum

12 January 2008      

The varieties of human experience

What is the essence of what we value about our lives as humans?  Is it our capacity for intellectual creation?  Our sensual experience?  The quality of consciousness?  Something more social or communal than this?  Or is there some synergy in the way that all these wondrous capacities play simultaneously?

Stephen Hawking turned 66 this past week, defying medical prognostications decades in the past.  He provides us an example of what it is to have a rich and deep and creative intellectual life without speech or physical competence or even the capacity to care for himself.  In youth, he used to love mountain climbing, travel and adventure.  As his disability progressed, he had to give all that up; but has made substantial contributions to scientific understanding of  the nature of physical reality, the origin of the universe, and philosophical questions about man’s place in the cosmos.

At another limit: L’Arche is a  community of profoundly retarded adults and the helpers that care for them, founded on the principle that not only is their experience fully human, but there is something about their stripped-down intellectual life that allows them more direct access to spiritual experience, and that mentally disabled people have much to teach us in this regard. (NPR feature by Krista Trippet

Among philosophers, it is a popular notion that it is the continuity of our memories of everyday experience that is the basis of human consciousness.  What, then, does it mean to be asleep, to lose that consciousness, and resume it hours later?  The York University laboratory of R. Shayna Rosenbaum has studied people with traumatic brain injury, who have no moment-to-moment memory of what they have just experienced.  Her team has found that these people may retain the capacity for epathy, humor, irony, and other complex responses to their social experiences (Science Magazine article)

As I write, a Persian cat comes in and out of the room with me, occasionally making contact, asserting her autonomy.  May I speak of her ‘experience of life’?  If so, how does it compare to my own?

I’ve sometimes tried to imagine what it would be like to be a porpoise or an elephant or a bonobo.  (All these animals are suspected to have complex social interactions and communications that may be called language.)  But in truth I cannot really imagine the experience of an Australian bushman or a Japanese businessman.  Sometimes my own daughters seem inscrutable to me.

For us who have all our abilities intact, we may have profound fears of encroaching disability.  We may even have ideas that begin ‘Life would not be worth living if I ever lost...’

...and yet the thrills of being alive (and human) may be diverse.  We are blessed with many forms of ability and experience, any one of which is cause for a full lifetime of celebration.

13 January 2008      

Entertainment, diversion, distraction

We are all overloaded with anxieties, losses and disappointments that accumulate more rapidly than we can digest them. Our egos are submerged in emotions that tug at us continually. But after a period of emptiness and quiet without distraction, our attention may percolate to the top and regain control. Why are we so reluctant to allow this empty space? Precisely because we don’t wish to experience all that pent-up worry.

This is what entertainment is about: it diverts our attention that might otherwise be consumed in processing anxiety and distress. Distraction can act as a drug, impossible to completely avoid and therefore a more persistent devil than chemical addictions.

For many who practice meditation, our open secret is that most sitting time is occupied not by focused attention, but by disposing of the anxious thoughts that bubble to the surface. Once these anxieties have dispersed, a clear, joyous light from within may come into view.

Movies, books, conversation, browsing the web, travel, work…all these may be worthwhile learning experiences, but they may examine them in context to ask if they are also sought as a distraction from facing the irritation within us.

Perhaps it’s time to stop seeking inspiration on this page, allow the inner dust to settle sufficiently for the light to shine through.

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 January 2008      

Reverence for life

Albert Schweitzer ministered to suffering in West Africa, studied and performed the organ works of J. S. Bach, wrote about the devotional life, advocated for peace.

“I am life which wills to live... The will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me.  If I am a thinking being, I must regard life other than my own with equal reverence, for I shall know that it longs for fullness and development as deeply as I do the saving or helping of life, the enabling of whatever life I can to attain its highest development.

In me the will-to-live has come to know about other wills-to-live.   There is in it a yearning to arrive at unity with itself, to become universal.   I can do nothing but hold to the fact that the will-to-live in me manifests itself as will-to-live which desires to become one with other will-to-live.

Ethics consist in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do my own....Whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one.”

— from a 1936 article by Albert Schweitzer, born this day in 1875.

15 January 2008      

A Psalm of Creative Fulfillment

“It is not enough to say we will not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.  We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but on the positive affirmation of peace.  We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.  Somehow, we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness humanity’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race.  If we have a will — and determination — to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”

Martin Luther King, born this day in 1929

16 January 2008      

10,000 mourners, each bearing a yak butter lamp

The ultimate teacher, the absolute, is never separate from us.
Yet immature beings, not recognizing this, look outside and seek him far away.
Sole father, with your immense love you have shown me my own wealth;
I, who was a pauper, constantly feel your presence in the depth of my heart.

Wisdom-teacher pervading all the world and beings, samsara and nirvana.
You show how all phenomena can arise as teachings.
Convincing me that everything is the absolute teacher;
I long for ultimate realization, and feel your presence in the depth of my heart.

Khyentse Rinpoche, translated and quoted by Matthieu Ricard in the photo essay Journey to Enlightenment

17 January 2008      

The Bastard

Born to himself, by no possession led,
In freedom fostered, and by fortune fed;
Nor guides, nor rules his sovereign choice control,
His body independent as his soul;
Loosed to the world’s wide range, enjoined no aim,
Prescribed no duty, and assigned no name:
Nature’s unbounded son, he stands alone,
His heart unbiased, and his mind his own.

~ Richard Savage, 1697-1743 was born out of wedlock, and proud of it.  He fought fiercely for a birthright that may not even have been his.

18 January 2008      


Over the past decade Internet and Web technology have matured and surpassed nearly anything mass media can offer. It’s instant news, usually with audio or video, often reported by eyewitnesses rather than filtered by some blow-dried idiot. It’s preserving what’s left of our national heritage by archiving ‘purged’ documents. It’s subjecting every significant political, social and economic development to the scrutiny and analysis of the world’s collective brainpower. It’s the unifying element linking diverse cultures into an evolving planetary society not subordinated to states or lines on a map. And it’s the universe’s greatest source of jokes, one-liners and satire.

(It’s also Governments’ worst nightmare: an informed and activist citizenry.)

Warren Pease

19 January 2008      

Prelude and Postlude

Apparently no one has ever told Lera Auerbach that she can’t make music any way she feels like doing it, and the results are delightful.

Listen to Prelude #4 in e for violin and piano
Listen to Postlude for violin and piano

20 January 2008      

Practice and routine

Spiritual disciplines have a natural life cycle.  They begin with inspiration and gradually fade into rigidities.

Creating habits is among the most powerful of choices available to us as seekers.  We select practices that shake up our routine, and reinforce the qualities of mind that we wish to cultivate.  We feel fresh and new.  But over time, practice becomes stale from familiarity.  When we find ourselves performing by rote, it is time to continue our challenge by adopting new forms.

Paradoxically, it may be just when we cease our avoidance and become fully comfortable in a routine that we know it is time for a change.

— Josh Mitteldorf

21 January 2008      

To live is to see the water

Ser un Instante

La certidumbre llega como un deslumbramiento.
Se existe por instantes de luz. O de tiniebla.
Lo demás son las horas, los telones de fondo,
el gris para el contraste. Lo demás es la nada.

Es un momento. El cuerpo se deshabita y deja
de ser la transparencia con que se ve a sí mismo.
Se incorpora a las cosas; se hace materia ajena
y podemos sentirlo desde un lugar remoto.

Yo recuerdo un instante en que París caía
sobre mí con el peso de una estrella apagada.
Recuerdo aquella lluvia total. París es triste.
Todo lo bello es triste mientras exista el tiempo.

Vivir es detenerse con el pie levantado,
es perder un peldaño, es ganar un segundo.
Cuando se mira un río pasar, no se ve el agua.
Vivir es ver el agua; detener su relieve.

Mi vagar se acodaba sobre el pretil de hierro
del Pont des Arts. De súbito, centelleó la vida.
Sobre el Sena llovía y el agua, acribillada,
se hizo piedra, ceniza de endurecida lava.

Nada altera su orden. Es tan sólo un latido
del ser que, por sorpresa, llega a ser perceptible.
Y se siente por dentro lo compacto del hierro,
y somos la mirada misma que nos traspasa.

La lucidez elige momentos imprevistos.
Como cuando en la sala de proyección, un fallo
interrumpe la acción, deja una foto fija.
Al pronto el ritmo sigue. Y sigue el hundimiento.

La pesada silueta de Louvre no se cuadraba
en el espacio. Estaba instalada en alguna
parte de mí, era un trozo de esa total conciencia
que hendía con su rayo la certeza absoluta.

Ser un instante. Verse inmerso entre otras cosas
que son. Después no hay nada. Después el universo
prosigue en el vacío su muerte giratoria.
Pero por un mometo se detiene, viviendo.

Recuerdo que llovía sobre París. Los árboles
también eran eternos a la orilla. Al segundo,
las aguas reanudaron su curso y yo, de nuevo,
las miraba sin verlas, perderse bajo el puente.

~ Rafael Guillén

To be an Instant

Certitude comes as a bedazzlement,
instants of light. Or blackness.
The rest is just hours passing, the backdrop,
gray for contrast. The rest is the void.

It’s a moment. The body untenants itself, sets free
that transparency with which it can see itself.
It moves into things, materializes in matter,
and we can sense it from some distant place.

I remember an instant when Paris struck me
with the weight of a burnt-out star.
I remember that total rain. Paris is sad.
Everything lovely is sad while time exists.

To live is to pause with one foot lifted;
losing a step to gain a second.
Watching a river flow, we don’t see the water.
To live is to see the water, to hold its patterns.

I was lazily propped on my elbows over the iron railing
of the Pont des Arts. Suddenly, life flashed out.
It was raining over the Seine and the water, riddled,
turned into stone, the ash of hardened lava.

Nothing alters its order. It is only a heartbeat
of a self which, by surprise, becomes perceptible.
And the density of iron is sensed from within,
and we become the glance that pierces us.

Lucidity always selects unforeseen moments,
as when in the projection room, a failure
interrupts the action, leaving a still-shot.
The motion begins again, and we sink into it.

The heavy silhouette of the Louvre
no longer took up space, but was installed
in some part of me, part of that total consciousness
split by a ray whose aim is absolute.

To be one instant. Yourself immersed in other
things that are. Afterwards, nothing. The universe
continues its whirling death in the void.
But for one moment, it pauses, fully alive.

I remember it rained over Paris. Even the trees
on the banks became eternal. The next moment
the water renewed its course and once more I
watched it, seeing nothing, lose itself under the bridge.

~ Rafael Guillén, tr Sandy McKinney

22 January 2008      

Healing without scars

There is intriguing evidence that complete, scar-free healing and even regeneration of severed body parts are possible in higher animals, just as these powers are common in lower animals.  Now it turns out that the reason we form scars is not something that evolution has ‘lost’ over time, but due to a gene that affirmatively suppresses healing. 

Paul Martin’s lab at U of Bristol has studied gene expression in wound healing, using implanted arrays.  This technology is the missing link between digital electronics and biochemistry.  Thousands of genes can be tested at once, and a profile reports how much each one is ‘turned on’ in a given tissue at a given time.

In this week’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine, Martin and colleagues report success in suppressing scar formation in mice by turning off a gene called OPN.

Scars are more than a cosmetic issue.  Hearts develop scarring after heart attacks, making the tissue stiff and the pump less efficient.  Livers are scarred by toxins.

Medical interventions to stop something from happening are much easier than interventions to make something happen.  We may expect wound-healing potions on the market in the near future that take advantage of this technology.

Science Blog article

23 January 2008      

Children’s friend

“You ought to see me here in the role of the children’s friend! There are no more lovable and agreeable folks and little folks anywhere than in this neighbourhood. I cannot go for a walk without my heart laughing; and when I caress a couple of these adorable children I feel as though I’d taken a long, cooling drink.”

— Johannes Brahms, letter to Clara Schumann from Swiss holiday, c 1856

For all his undoubted melancholia, his loneliness, for all his occasional bitterness and his cyclical bouts of misanthropy, Brahms had a childlike genius for finding joy in simple things. His capacity for enthusiasm was unbounded, and he never lost it.

— from Life and Works of Brahms, recorded on Naxos in 4 CDs

24 January 2008      

Ministering to violence

Peter D. Kramer recounts a story from his days as a medical student, when he was assigned to an E.R. in Boston City Hospital.

I came under the tutelage of a remarkable doctor from India...That night the police wheeled in an enormous drunken brute with deep gashes around the eye, all bleeding profusely.  It took four cops to hold the man on the stretcher.  He was screaming and threatening and foaming at the mouth, and of course the police threatened back.

My mentor asked the police to leave the room — this was one of those boxcar first-aid rooms with barely enough space for us to maneuver around the pallet and nowhere to hide — and he and I were left alone with the dangerous patient.  The Indian doctor talked calmly to the man, asking whether he had lost consciousness, addressing him with the directness and deference usually accorded a corporate executive worried over his blood pressure...

The surgeon placed a small blue sterile sheet with a square hole in it over the drunkard’s face and began stitching the cuts.  To lie in a state of near-blindness while someone wields a needle around the eye creates apprehension in normal and sober people, but the work went on without incident.  Afterwards, I said to my teacher, “I didn’t even see you inject the Novocain.”

“Oh.” he said. “I work without anesthesia in these cases.”

There is extraordinary power in being able to disarm aggression by declining to meet threat with threat.

— from the introduction to Moments of Engagement by Peter D. Kramer

25 January 2008      

Avoiding excessive moderation

“Perfection is a trifle dull. It is not the least of life’s ironies that this, which we all aim at, is better not quite achieved.”

“Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.”

W. Somerset Maugham, born this day in 1874, was orphaned at an early age, and endured abuse in a British boarding school, and neglect in the care of his uncle.  His native language was French, and he stammered when he spoke English, but took it upon himself to develop a good command of the written language. 


26 January 2008      

A Blessing for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the music of laughter break through your soul.

As the wind wants to make everything dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the freedom of the monastery bell,
May clarity of mind make your eyes smile.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what's said,
May a sense of irony give you perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May fear or worry never put you in chains.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
To hear in the distance the laughter of God.

from Benedictus, a book of blessings, by John O'Donohue, 1952-2008

27 January 2008      


Live beneath your means.   Choose a home where the monthly payments are half what you can afford.

Share.  Cooperate.  Affiliate with others.

Give away a substantial portion of your income, in the form of large, formal gifts and also small acts of generosity to the people around you.

Build exercise into your life, bicycling , walking, or jogging to the places you need to go.  Is it possible for you to live auto-free?

Minimize ostentation.  Be willing to pay for health first, convenience second, style rarely, prestige never.

Entertainment is a place where your budget can usually be trimmed substantially,

• because there is so much good entertainment available free, and
• because we use entertainment to distract ourselves from self-examination, and often we’d   be happier without so much entertainment.

The idea is to feel opulence and abundance at whatever income level you happen to be.  There is no virtue in deprivation.  On the contrary, treat yourself often and generously.

-Josh Mitteldorf

28 January 2008      

Renaissance music of the 20th century

John Tavener, born this day in 1944, brings mystical spirituality to his compositions.  Often hypnotic, punctuated with surprises, texturally rich and original.

In his album Eternity’s Sunrise, the music is performed by Paul Goodwin conducting the Academy of Ancient Music.  The music is transcribed and arranged for viols, bells and a lute, with Goodwin’s trademark Renaissance sound.

Listen to Lyrical Fragments of Sappho

Wikipedia tells us that John Tavener traces his ancestry to John Taverner, the choral composer from 16th Century Oxford.

29 January 2008      

Where wonders await us

...even in the twentieth century scientists continued to imagine that life at great depth was insubstantial, or somehow inconsequential. The eternal dark, the almost inconceivable pressure, and the extreme cold that exist below one thousand meters were, they thought, so forbidding as to have all but extinguished life. The reverse is in fact true: the most common backboned creature on our planet is a fish known as the benttooth bristlemouth, and it is only found in the deep sea. Yet who has ever heard of it?

...The hadal zone with its freezing water, heavy pressure, and darkness is seemingly harsh, but some of the imagined hardships are illusory. The freezing water, for example—which comes from the Antarctic seas—carries oxygen necessary for life. Were it much warmer the oxygen content would be insufficient to support fish and giant squid. And while the pressure is extreme (at just four thousand meters deep it is equivalent to that of a cow standing on your thumbnail) the creatures of the hadal zone don’t feel it, because the pressure inside their bodies matches that without. And while there is no sunlight, light from luminescent creatures abounds.

...the lives of these creatures are shaped almost entirely by ‘finding something to eat and someone to love.’ Such needs are acute in the deep ocean, for food there is scarce and mates are few and hard to find. Yet life has adapted: fish living a kilometer or more down require only a hundredth as much energy as surface species. Their metabolism is so slowed that to us more active beings they seem to be almost suspended between life and death. Their very bodies are insubstantial—the scientists of the Challenger expedition were the first to note that they possessed a ‘diminished amount of earthy matter.’ In fact, 85 percent of their bodies is water...

The Deep teaches us that nothing in the deep oceans is as it seems. Octopuses can look like cartoon elephants or red-robed clowns cheekily sticking out a tongue. Worms can look like pink floating pig butts that have somehow become detached from the rest of the pig, and squids can look like surreal cockatoos—except that they’re ten feet in length (see illustration). Suspended in crystal-clear water that extends endlessly in all directions, shape-changing is the only defense for some. When threatened, the googly-eyed glass squid (whose eyes stand out on stalks) can change shape from long and thin to spherical, so that it looks like an inedible jelly. If this fails to deter a predator, it draws in its head and releases ink into its spherical body, thus disappearing into the dark.

excerpted from a Book review at NYBooks
Photo gallery from Claire Nouvian’s book

30 January 2008      

The Leaf and the Cloud

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will whether or no.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

~ Mary Oliver

31 January 2008      

Consciousness and the Brain

Since its inception in the early 20th century, neuroscience has succeeded in becoming intimate with the brain. Scientists have reduced our sensations to a set of discrete circuits. They have imaged our cortex as it thinks about itself, and calculated the shape of ion channels, which are machined to subatomic specifications.

And yet, despite this vast material knowledge, we remain strangely ignorant of what our matter creates. We know the synapse, but don't know ourselves. In fact, the logic of reductionism implies that our self-consciousness is really an elaborate illusion, an epiphenomenon generated by some electrical shudder in the frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine; there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows or cares about you. In fact, you don't even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.

The problem with this method is that it denies the very mystery it needs to solve. Neuroscience excels at unraveling the mind from the bottom up. But our self-consciousness seems to require a top-down approach. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?’ The paradox of neuroscience is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm, as reductionism has failed to solve our emergent mind. Much of our experiences remain outside its range.

- Jonah Lehrer, writing in Seed magazine

According to classical mechanics, the description of both the state of a physical system and its dynamics can be expressed at the intrinsic level. But then how does one understand the occurrence of experientially whole thoughts? How do extrinsic-level actual entities arise from a dynamics that is completely reducible to an intrinsic-level description?

One possibility is that the intrinsic-level components of a thought are bound together by some integrative process in the mind of a spirit being, i.e., in the mind of a ‘ghost behind the machine’, of an homunculus. This approach shifts the question to an entirely new realm: in place of the physical brain, about which we know a great deal, and our thoughts, about which we have some direct information, one has a new ‘spirit realm’ about which science has little to say. This approach takes us immediately outside the realm of science, as we know it today...

...In this respect quantum theory is wholly unlike classical physics, in which a human consciousness is necessarily idealized as a non-participatory observer — as an entity that can know aspects of the brain without influencing it in any way. This restriction arises because classical physics is dynamically complete in itself: it has no capacity to accommodate any efficacious entities not already completely fixed and specified within its own structure. In quantum theory the situation is more subtle because our perceptions of physical systems are described in a classical language that is unable to express, even in a gross or approximate way, the structural complexity of physical systems, as they are represented within the theory: there is a fundamental structural mismatch between the quantum mechanical description of a physical system and our description of our perceptions of that system. The existence of this structural mismatch is a basic feature of quantum theory, and it opens up the interesting possibility of representing the mind/brain, within contemporary physical theory, as a combination of the thoughtlike and matterlike aspects of a neutral reality.

from Why Classical Mechanics Cannot Naturally Accommodate Consciousness but Quantum Mechanics Can, by Henry Stapp