The essential teaching

It’s better not to make value judgments.

—Gautama the Buddha


I’d prefer not to have any preferences

1 July 2010

Age at its best

There is no shortages of literature portraying old age as a time of disability leading to depression.  Here’s a portrait of a man at the end of a life well-lived, in the imagination of its author, 65 when he wrote these words.

While the Master’s gray-shot hair had gradually turned completely gray and then white, while his voice had grown softer, his handshake fainter, his movements less supple, the smile had lost none of its brightness and grace, its purity and depth...The radiant welcoming message of that smiling old man’s face, whose blue eyes and delicately flushed cheeks had grown paler with the passing year, was both the same and not the same. It had grown deeper, more mysterious, and intense...I experienced what radiated from him, or what surged back and forth between him and me like rhythmic breathing, entirely as music, as an altogether immaterial esoteric music which absorbs everyone who enters its magic circle as a song for many voices absorbs an entering voice...Like everyone else, I noticed our master’s increasing withdrawal and taciturnity, and the concurrent increase in his friendliness, the ever-brighter and more ethereal radiance of his face...

Herman Hesse was born this day in 1877

Only in fiction, you say?  I was fortunate to meet Bryn Beorse in 1979, the final year of his life, and he came as close to Hesse’s description as anyone I’ve ever known.  Bryn led two lives:  As a UC Berkeley professor of engineering, he was a pioneer in developing technology to draw solar energy from the ocean.  As a Sufi master, he had a small following of devotees who recognized him as a master teacher.

2 July 2010

Shamcher Bryn Beorse

Renewing America

“If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.” 

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.

— Thomas Jefferson

3 July 2010

Governance from the fishbowl

I will fault human institutions before individuals for the world’s ills, and I will never fault ‘human nature’.  We are endowed by evolution with behavioral plasticity.  With a humane upbringing, in the context of a just and caring community, the great majority of people will behave decently.

We all know that there are people who are capable of horrific crimes.  But human societies can be constituted so as to resolve disputes justly, head off violence, and provide the basic needs of all members:  food, shelter, medical care and, above all, an opportunity to contribute their talents and efforts for the common good.  We should accept nothing less.

People in general are not violent, not selfish, not uncaring.  But, as P. T. Barnum noted (or not) , perhaps we as a species are too trusting, and easily fooled.  When democratic societies act collectively in ways that are violent or grossly unjust, it is almost always because the people were hoodwinked by conniving leaders and a slavish press. 

I believe that transparency in government would be a remedy for the great majority of institutional failures, corruption and war.  With any measure of democratic control, people simply would not tolerate the abuses of authority that are common today.

I propose that submission to a public webcam 24/7 be a condition of public office for anyone entrusted with crafting legislation, making policy, or allocating public expenditures. 

— Josh Mitteldorf

‘In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.’
—Anne Frank

4 July 2010


No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
My days and nights dissolve in God’s own Light.
Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.

I have known the One and His secret Play,
And passed beyond the sea of Ignorance Dream.
In tune with Him, I sport and sing;
I own the golden Eye of the Supreme.

Drunk deep of Immortality,
I am the root and boughs of a teeming vast.
My Form I have known and realised.
The Supreme and I are one; all we outlast.

Sri Chinmoy

5 July 2010

‘The most important thing about a person
is always the thing you don’t know.’

Barbara Kingsolver put these words in the mouth of a fictional Frida Kahlo, whose archetype was born this day in 1907.

Nothing wondrous can come in this world unless it rests on the shoulders of kindness.
- BK

6 July 2010

What is reality? View from a Poet and a Physicist

But Being was for him [Parmenides] not that is-ness but a ‘sphere’ in his poem – what I was calling the possibility of existence, the laws that would have to obtain for anything that did come into existence, an indestructible fact – I don’t know if this sort of thing is a useful way to speak of it. It seems like argumentation or puzzle solving. Whereas the point is something else, the point is the mind operating in a marvel which contains the mind – the point is the marvel, not this that one likes and that which one doesn’t like, but the marvel, the Loved, the Loved and Not Loved – It can really not be thought about because it contains the thought, but it can be felt. It is what all art is about.
George Oppen, from a letter to his sister

Quantum mechanics is all about wave functions that live in a space of all possible configurations of the world.  The wave function has a magnitude and a direction.  The direction is an essential part of the calculation when two wave functions collide or overlap.  But in the end it is only the magnitude that touches the reality that we can measure or observe.  The probability of a given configuration is the magnitude squared.

The relationship between the physics of the wave function world and the physics of the microscopic world has been a bone of contention in quantum physics since the beginning (1925).  The most common resolution says that when we make any observation, suddenly the wave function ‘collapses’ to a point, meaning that the probabilities spread out over different possible configurations is all concentrated in  single configuration that our experiment observed. 

Here’s an alternative possible relationship between the wave function and the world we observe.  The gist is that the macroscopic world selects those quantum states that aren’t so fragile as to change noticeably every time you look at them, in a process likened loosely to Darwinian selection.

An article published recently in the research journal Physical Review Letters [by Brian Ferry and Tim Day] describes the transition from quantum to classical world as a “decoherence” process that involves a kind of evolutionary progression somewhat analogous to Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection. The authors built on two theories called decoherence and quantum Darwinism, both proposed by Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher Wojciech Zurek. The decoherence concept holds that many quantum states “collapse” into a “broad diaspora,” or dispersion, while interacting with the environment. Through a selection process, other quantum states arrive at a final stable state, called a pointer state, which is “fit enough” (think “survival of the fittest” in Darwinian terms) to be transmitted through the environment without collapsing. 
— from a Washington State University press release, reprinted in Science Daily

(At least we can agree that it’s not a clockwork of particles streaking through space and bouncing off one another.)

7 July 2010

“We are not held back by the love we didn’t receive in the past, but by the love we’re not extending in the present.”

Marianne Williamson, born this day in 1952

8 July 2010

It’s all cause for celebration

If the falling of a hoof
Ever rings the temple bells,

If a lonely man’s final scream
Before he hangs himself

And the nightingale’s perfect lyric
Of happiness
All become an equal cause to dance,

Then the Sun has at last parted
Its curtain before you -

God has stopped playing child’s games
With your mind
And dragged you backstage by
The hair,

Shown to you the only possible
For this bizarre and spectacular

Go running through the streets
Creating divine chaos,

Make everyone and yourself ecstatically mad
For the Friend’s beautiful open arms.

Go running through this world
Giving love, giving love,

If the falling of a hoof upon this earth
Ever rings the

Daniel Ladinsky, translating Hafiz, (from The Gift)

If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness
When everything is as it was in my childhood
Violent, vivid, and of infinite possibility:
That the sun and the moon broke over my head.
—Richard Eberhart

9 July 2010

The labor movement is alive and. . . alive

Bob Herbert writes today about unionism as a social movement, unions that support one another in times of need, recognizing their common cause.

“As long as I am identified with the leadership of this great union, we are going to extend a hand of solidarity to every group of workers who are struggling for justice.”
— Walter Reuther (United Auto Workers) 1968

“My view of the labor movement today,” he said in an interview, “is that we got too focused on our contracts and our own membership and forgot that the only way, ultimately, that we protect our members and workers in general is by fighting for justice for everybody.”
— Bob King (United Auto Workers) 2010

10 July 2010

Shed fear

Always present, occasionally noticed.  I’m sometimes aware of the influence of fear in my emotional life.  Fear disturbs my sleep and regularly presents unwanted thoughts to my consciousness.  Fear influences my decisions and holds me back in irrational ways.

The campaign against fear has two parts.  One is to confront fear, to put myself in situations that make me afraid.  When these are chosen wisely, they need not entail actual risk to life and limb.  The second piece is to study how irrational fear affects major life decisions, to imagine what decisions would be made in the absence of fear, to take those paths even before I am emotionally ready to do so.

My daughter, who has been plagued by nightmares and obsessive fear her entire life, traveled on her own to spend this summer in Ghana.

— Josh Mitteldorf

11 July 2010


“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

Henry David Thoreau, born this day in 1817



“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

12 July 2010

I contain multitudes; you contain multitudes

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as
between us and others.
          — Michel de Montaigne (Essays, 1588, v 2 #1)

Il se trouve autant de différence de nous à nous-mêmes que de nous à autrui.
         — Michel de Montaigne

13 July 2010

The French Revolution as it appeared to enthusiasts at its commencement

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
(As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,—who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;—they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;—
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

— William Wordsworth, 1827
(extracted from a longer poem on his education and influences, sent privately to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

14 July 2010

Human first

One of the hardest psychological hurdles I had to deal with after the stroke was the loss of independence.  Getting into and out of bed.  Going to the bathroom.  Going someplace in the car.  Preparing my meals.  I needed help with every one of those things.  I’m embarrassed by having to ring my bell and summon my attendant for trivial things:  “Would you close the window?” Would you tie my shoes?”

Dependency has been so fierce because I used to be a super-independent person.  I’ve always prided myself on my independence.  I’ve come to appreciate, from my new perspective, just how much ‘independence is revered in our culture, and how humiliating we consider dependency.  I can see the way I had absorbed those ideas from the culture, how deeply I shared them, and how much they influenced my values.

I can also see that part of the appeal of independence was not to be vulnerable.  When i became dependent, i was immediately much more vulnerable.  But what I discovered was that it was my vulnerability which opened me to my humanity.  i saw how I had pushed away my humanity in order to embrace my divinity out of fear of my vulnerability; and I saw he way the stroke was serving me, opening me to that human vulnerability.

 — Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass

15 July 2010

From a friend of Einstein

He had a marvelous sense of humor, and that’s a very important part of life.  The fact is that scientists have, on the whole, developed a sense of humor because so much of science is a history of failures.  If you’re a creative person, you know it’s true in other kinds of creative life, but more so in science as so much of science ends up to be wrong.  You do something, you spend weeks and months, and finally the whole thing collapses.  You need to have a sense of humor, otherwise you couldn’t survive. And Einstein, I think, understood that particularly well. 

Freeman Dyson, interviewed by Krista Tippett

16 July 2010

Language Acquisitions

Burn, or speak your mind. For the oak to untruss
its passion it must explode as fire or leaves.

The delicious tongue we speak with speaks us.
A liquor of sweetness where its root cleaves
ripens fluent, as it runs for the desirous
reason the touching sense. The infant says “I”
like earthquake and wavers as place takes voice.
Earth steadies smiling around her, in reply
to her self-finding pronoun, her focal choice.
We wait: while sun sucks earth juices up from wry
root-runs tangled under dark, while the girl
no longer vegetal, steps into view:
a moving speaker, an “I” the air whirls
toward the green exuberance of “You.”

Marie Ponsot

...for myself, motherhood was essential because I was extremely selfish and egotistical and unaware of the deep reality of everybody else in the world until I had a baby. Suddenly, I realized that we all belong together and that we’ve got to fight to make that real and to carry it out in our lives. I think the great thing that motherhood gives you is a no longer relative kind of love: you really love your children, period, if you’re lucky. You just love them, that’s all. You don’t evaluate them, you don’t even care whether they love you or not—even though that can be a great joy. But you’re not doing it because you want to please them; you’re doing it because you love them, and that’s not the same thing. It roots you in the world in a very profound way, I think, in a very satisfying way. And it enables you to carry on well past the first, second, and third stages of exhaustion.

17 July 2010

The ultimate nature of things

Shun the smugness of derived belief, no matter what the source.
Trust no one’s revelations but your own.

The endless void; eternal bliss — are two sides of a coin.
Who tells you of a future certain — lies.

Mystery be our sole refuge,
And the only true religion is the faith of “I don’t know”.

But if  (in moments of quiet reflection or ecstatic epiphany) you discover yourself to be among those lucky few within whom a window opens, a glimpse into the ultimate nature of things, a vision of compelling reliability because the experience itself bears with it the imprimatur of undeniable certainty — be you so blessed, then go for it, dude!

— Josh Mitteldorf

18 July 2010

Symbiosis everywhere

Symbiosis, the system in which members of different species live in physical contact, strikes us as an arcane concept and a specialized biological term.  This is because of our lack of awareness of its prevalence.  Not only are our guts and eyelashes festooned with bacterial and animal symbionts, but if you look at your backyard or community park, symbionts are not obvious but they are omnipresent.  Clover and vetch, common weeds, have little balls on their roots.  These are the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that are essential for healthy growth in nitrogen-poor soil.  Then take the strees, the maple, oak and hickory.  As many as three hundred different fungal symbionts, the mycorrhizae, we notice as mushrooms, are entwined in their roots.  Or look at a dog, who usually fails to notice the symbiotic worms in his gut.  We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet, and if we care to, we can find symbiosis everywhere.  Physical contact is a nonnegotiable requisite for many differing kinds of life.

Lynn Margulis

19 July 2010

‘True, we love life, not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving. There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness.’ 

Francesco Petrarca, born this day in 1304


He was the first to climb a mountain merely for the delight of looking from its top.

20 July 2010

Seems to explain a lot, doesn’t it?

‘I once befriended two little girls from Estonia, who had narrowly escaped death from starvation in a famine. They lived in my family, and of course had plenty to eat. But they spent all their leisure visiting neighbouring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded. Rockefeller, who in his infancy had experienced great poverty, spent his adult life in a similar manner.’

Bertrand Russell, from his Nobel Lecture, 1950

A wise herd will learn to tolerate the eccentricity of those who rise above
the average, and to treat with a minimum of ferocity those who fall below it.

21 July 2010


The most shocking misdeeds of governments and powerful corporations can’t stand up to the light of day.  When these actions become unhidable, they will have to cease.  Over the last decade, the Internet has changed expectaions about what can be kept secret.  Wikileaks has facilitated the work of the whistleblower like nothing before in history.  Journalism as a mouthpiece for the powerful cannot long endure.

“...We receive a classified document anonymously...we vet it like a regular news organization...release it to the public, then defend ourselves against the inevitable legal and political attacks...We almost never know the identity of the source, and in the rare cases we find out, we destroy that information immediately...

“What sort of information is important in the world?  What sort of information can achieve reform.  There is a lot of information, but information that large organizations are spending economic effort to conceal — that’s a signal that when the information gets out there’s a hope of it doing some good. That’s what we’ve found in practice, and that’s what the history of journalism has shown.” 

Watch Julian Assange at TED

22 July 2010

Do you have answer?

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who flirts with positions that are unacceptable to the scientific community:  Is it possible that some aspects of human consciousness are independent of the brain?

Eagelman calls himself a ‘possibilian’.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives is a collection of fantasies about what out lives might really be about, as discovered after they are over.

#10 ‘Spirals’  In the afterlife, you discover that you are (were) a computing device designed by dim-witted creatures who hoped you (we) would be able to answer cosmic questions that the dim-witted creatures can’t figure out themselves.
Listen to a reading of this chapter from Eagleman’s fantasy, ‘Sum’

#7 ‘The Cast’  Do people from the past play roles in your dreams?  Acting in other people’s dreams is a major occupation for souls in the afterlife.  Somebody’s got to do it.
Emily Blunt reads this chapter from ‘Sum’ 

Book review and interview by Robert Jensen

“As scientists, our goal in some sense is to reduce the mystery, but that doesn’t reduce the awe”

23 July 2010


Think me not unkind and rude,
That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not, laborious band,
For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery,
But ’tis figured in the flowers,
Was never secret history,
But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
Which I gather in a song.


— Ralph Waldo Emerson (listen)

24 July 2010

Q & A

Q: Would a computer programmed to be  ‘conscious’ fear its own death?

A: We can’t know whether a computer ‘feels’. We only know what we feel ourselves, and we assume that other humans have comparable experiences. To imagine that a computer program, however sophisticated, could feel anything relies on one fashionable theory of what constitutes consciousness.

Q: Would its behavior be consistent with fear? Would it take steps to protect itself against pulling the plug, or disabling the program?

A: It would if the humans who programmed it chose to give it those responses.

Q: Were humans programmed that way?

A: All living things were programmed to avoid death. Under a microscope, you can observe behaviors of protozoans that look an awful lot like fleeing for their lives.

Q: So do the protozoans fear death?

A: They have no brains, no nerves. It’s quite a stretch to imagine that a paramecium feels anything at all, so their behaviors are best regarded as purely reflexive.  But for humans, behaviors and feelings can be related in the paradoxical sense: We know we're happy when we feel ourselves smile, and we know we're sad when we feel our tears.  I whistle a happy tune, and the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.

Q: Is fear of death useful to humans?

A: Yes and no. It was useful to our ancestors to be able to flee from predators with enhanced speed, fueled by adrenaline.  For each of us, there are a few crucial times in our lives in which the experience of terror, the fight-or-flight hormones, the single-pointed concentration, the will to fight for our lives serves us well.

Beyond this, it has become a cliche that without awareness of death, life would not be precious or impassioned or zestful, that we would squander our time in uninteresting ways. Perhaps this is true, or perhaps it is an overblown, collective cry of ‘sour grapes’.

Q: Is fear of death harmful to humans?

A: Certainly it is. It is the root cause of a tragic epidemic of depression in the elderly. For most of us, there are times when fear of death distorts our emotional connection to the present. For some of us, fear of death is ever-present and crippling, a lifelong obstacle to lightheartedness and freedom.

Q: Supposing that chronic fear of mortality is both realistic and crippling, is there anything that can be done about it? And if the fear fear of dying can be lifted, will the thrill of living be dimmed or enhanced?

A: I don’t know. I am encouraged by the insight that fear of death is a programmed, evolutionary vestige, rather than a thoughtful response to the human condition.

— Josh Mitteldorf

25 July 2010


Just yesterday I discovered the music of Karol Szymanowski (Polish, 1882-1937).  He reaches to capture the experience of mystical ecstasy.

Listen to Three Myths, Op 30, for violin and piano, from Polish TV
1- La Fontaine d'Aréthuse       2- Narcisse        3- Dryades et Pan

26 July 2010


Nonviolence does not mean that we respond to a violent world with passivity and introspection.  Rather, nonviolence is our commitment to end war and oppression with courageous acts of passive confrontation, because we know this means to be most effective in the long haul.

— Josh Mitteldorf

27 July 2010

Gandhi Salt March, 1930

Beatrix Potter was strong-minded in an age when women were expected to be obedient.  She wrote and illustrated the children’s stories for which she is so well known as a way to independence.

Beatrix Potter discovered the symbiotic nature of lichens, and presented her results to a dubious biology community.

Beatrix Potter kept a diary in secret code from age 15-30, which was only deciphered (and published) 15 years after her death.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix, a dozen dozen years old today.

28 July 2010

“Two aesthetics exist: the passive aesthetic of mirrors and the active aesthetic of prisms. Guided by the former, art turns into a copy of the environment’s objectivity or the individual’s psychic history.  Guided by the latter, art is redeemed, makes the world into its instrument and forges, beyond spatial and temporal prisons, a personal vision.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, from a Suzanne Jill Levine interview on Borges

. Listen to the interview

The Art of Poetry

To gaze at a river made of time and water
And remember Time is another river.
To know we stray like a river
and our faces vanish like water.

To feel that waking is another dream
that dreams of not dreaming, and that
the death we fear in our bones is the death
that every night we call a dream.

To see in every day and year a symbol
of all the days of man and his years,
and convert the outrage of the years
into a music, a sound, and a symbol.

To see in death a dream, in the sunset
a golden sadness—such is poetry,
humble and immortal, poetry,
returning, like dawn and the sunset.

Sometimes at evening there’s a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

They say Ulysses, wearied of wonders,
wept with love on seeing Ithaca,
humble and green. Art is that Ithaca,
a green eternity, not wonders.

Art is endless like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.

—Jorge Luis Borges

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.
—Borges, interviewed for Argentine radio, 10 November 1941

29 July 2010

Arriving Again and Again Without Noticing

I remember all the different kinds of years.
Angry, or brokenhearted, or afraid.
I remember feeling like that
walking up a mountain along the dirt path
to my broken house on the island.
And long years of waiting in Massachusetts.
The winter walking and hot summer walking.
I finally fell in love with all of it:
dirt, night, rock and far views.
It's strange that my heart is as full
now as my desire was then.

Linda Gregg

30 July 2010


Life lies before us as a huge quarry lies before the architect.  He deserves not the name of architect except when, out of this fortuitous mass of materials, he can combine with the greatest economy, fitness and durability, some form, the pattern of which originated in his own spirit...Believe me, most part of the misery and mischief, of all that is denominated evil in the world, arises from the fact that men are too remiss to get a proper knowledge of their aims and, when they do get it, to work persistently in attaining them.  They seem to me like people who have taken up a notion that they must and will erect a tower, but who yet expend on the foundation not more stones and labour than would be sufficient for a hut.


31 July 2010

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design