Love Thy Neighbor

What can it mean, a command to “Love thy neighbor?”

In the post-Enlightenment perspective, our world is defined from the outside in, and it seems natural that the imperative is to behave kindly toward others, a paraphrasing of the Golden Rule.

But if Jesus was a mystic, I suspect that what he meant was to culture the experience of love within us. A wide range of thoughts and emotions arises continually within us, as if from nowhere and outside our will. Yet we are able, perhaps as often as several times per minute, to choose which thoughts to nourish with our attention and which to set aside. If we choose to reinforce the loving feelings and allow vindictive or spiteful thoughts to languish, then over time the love takes root within us. We feel safer, more satisfied and more connected.

There is nothing wrong with living by the Golden Rule. But in the long run, culturing love within ourselves can change our behaviors from the inside out.

— Josh Mitteldorf

1 July 2012

If time is not real, then the dividing line between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.
— Herman Hesse, born this day in 1877

Time is but the shadow of the world upon the background of eternity.
— Jerome K. Jerome

2 July 2012

What’s it like to be a rose bush?

If a maple tree is attacked by bugs, it releases a pheromone into the air that is picked up by the neighboring trees. This induces the receiving trees to start making chemicals that will help it fight off the impending bug attack...Plants also communicate through signals passed from root to root. In this case the “talking” plant had been stressed by drought, and it “told” its neighboring plants to prepare for a lack of water. Desert plants claim a territory by emitting warning signals through their roots.

— read an interview with Daniel Chamovitz in Scientific American

3 July 2012

Re-thinking the American Revolution

 Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?

In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.

Howard Zinn

4 July 2012


This is the opening of the Mass for Life
by my Dad’s personal favorite composer, Frederick Delius

The text is from Also Sprach Zarathustra of Friedrich Nietzsche.

O thou, my Will! Thou change of every need, my needfulness! Preserve me from all small victories!

Thou fatedness of my soul, which I call fate! Thou In-me! Over-me!
Preserve and spare me for one great fate!

And thy last greatness, my Will, spare it for thy last—that thou mayest be inexorable in thy victory! Ah, who hath not succumbed to his victory!

Ah, whose eye hath not bedimmed in this intoxicated twilight! Ah, whose
foot hath not faltered and forgotten in victory—how to stand!—

—That I may one day be ready and ripe in the great noontide: ready and
ripe like the glowing ore, the lightning-bearing cloud, and the swelling milk-udder:—

—Ready for myself and for my most hidden Will: a bow eager for its arrow,
an arrow eager for its star:—

—A star, ready and ripe in its noontide, glowing, pierced, blessed, by annihilating sun-arrows:—

—A sun itself, and an inexorable sun-will, ready for annihilation in victory!

O Will, thou change of every need, my needfulness! Spare me for one
great victory!—

Thus spake Zarathustra.
Oh du mein Wille! Du Wende aller Noth du meine Nothwendigkeit!
Bewahre mich vor allen kleinen Siegen!

Du Schickung meiner Seele, die ich Schicksal heisse! Du-In-mir!  Über-mir! Bewahre und spare mich auf zu Einem grossen Schicksale!

Und deine letzte Grösse, mein Wille, spare dir für dein Letztes auf,—
dass du unerbittlich bist in deinem Siege! Ach, wer unterlag nicht seinem Siege!

Ach, wessen Auge dunkelte nicht in dieser trunkenen Dämmerung! Ach,
wessen Fuss taumelte nicht und verlernte im Siege—stehen!—

—Dass ich einst bereit und reif sei im grossen Mittage: bereit und
reif gleich glühendem Erze, blitzschwangrer Wolke und schwellendem Milch-Euter:—

—bereit zu mir selber und zu meinem verborgensten Willen: ein Bogen
brünstig nach seinem Pfeile, ein Pfeil brünstig nach seinem Sterne:—

—ein Stern bereit und reif in seinem Mittage, glühend, durchbohrt,
selig vor vernichtenden Sonnen-Pfeilen:—

—eine Sonne selber und ein unerbittlicher Sonnen-Wille, zum
Vernichten bereit im Siegen!

Oh Wille, Wende aller Noth, du meine Nothwendigkeit! Spare mich auf
zu Einem grossen Siege!—

Also sprach Zarathustra.

5 July 2012

It can’t be work

In religion, [we find] the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How like the unlimited aim of money! I wonder what the effect would be on our spirituality if we gave up on the pursuit of a unitary abstrac goal that we believe to be the key to everything else. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. In both cases, I think the object of the pursuit is a spurious substitute for a diversity of things that people really want.

Charles Eisenstein

6 July 2012

Already at birth
I was parted,
not just from mother –
but body from mind,
mind from its source –
that’s why I take up
this soft blade
of breath
to cut me back into one.

Peter Levitt, from One Hundred Butterflies

7 July 2012

Meditation practice as rehearsal

I have been in the habit of practicing meditation with the hope that, via some mystical process that I accepted but could not understand, my practice would someday lead to enlightenment.*

Today I came to see ‘practice’ of meditation as akin to practicing the piano, or practicing what I preach. In meditation, I am rehearsing the mental stance that I would like to wear habitually.  This is less mysterious – almost obvious in its clarity.

What is less clear: Is it also possible to achieve transpersonal change via meditation?  For example, can metta meditation bring peace or satisfaction to another?  Can we contribute to a more peaceful world simply by holding the vision and the intention?

— Josh Mitteldorf

*To be fair to myself, I should add that I have noticed that meditation practice usually improves my mood and leads to greater productivity – sometimes dramatically and unmistakably so.  So it’s not all about investing effort in a future goal.  To be honest, I should add that part of my motivation in spiri- tual practice has always been an unholy desire to prove myself more worthy, a form of one-upmanship.

8 July 2012

Fake it til you make it

Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of an informative new book on the science of optimism, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, says positive thinking is not the main thing about optimism...

In an interview, Dr. Fox said: “The important thing is having a sense of control over your life, your destiny. When you have a setback, you feel you can do something about it.”

Or, as she wrote: “Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough. Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”

— from Jane Brody’s NYTimes column on health

...and don’t forget to organize and act collectively when institutional odds are stacked against you.
 - JJM

9 July 2012

Those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy.
E. M. Forster


Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation? Foolish preparation!
Jane Austen

10 July 2012

When I was through, he spoke hesitatingly, then, carried away by the importance of his subject, ever more passionately. “How can you bring yourself to say ‘God’ time after time? How can you expect that your readers will take the word in the sense in which you wish it to be taken? What you mean by the name of God is something above all human grasp and comprehension, but in speaking about it you have lowered it to human conceptualization. What word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated as this! All the innocent blood that has been shed for it has robbed it of its radiance. All the injustice that it has been used to cover has effaced its features. When I hear the highest called ‘God,’ it sometimes seems almost blasphemous.”

Martin Buber

Buber replied thus: “Yes, it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it...”

11 July 2012

Sonnet XXXIV

Eres hija del mar y prima del orégano,
nadadora, tu cuerpo es de agua pura,
cocinera, tu sangre es tierra viva
y tus costumbres son floridas y terrestres.

Al agua van tus ojos y levantan las olas,
a la tierra tus manos y saltan las semillas,
en agua y tierra tienes propiedades profundas
que en ti se juntan como las leyes de la greda.

Náyade, corta tu cuerpo la turquesa
y luego resurrecto florece en la cocina
de tal modo que asumes cuanto existe

y al fin duermes rodeada por mis brazos que apartan
de la sormbra sombría, para que tú descanses,
legumbres, algas, hierbas: la espuma de tus sueños.

Pablo Neruda, born this day in 1904

You’re the daughter of the sea and oregano’s cousin.
My swimmer, your body is pure water,
and when you cook, your blood is living soil.
All your habits are earthly in their flowering.

Your eyes turn to the waters, and the waves come up.
Your hands turn to the earth, and the seeds burst.
Of the water and the earth, you are the profound proprietor.
They gather in you like the very make-up of the clay.

Naiad, the turquoise slashes you,
and then, resurrected, you flower in the kitchen,
so that you become whatever is,

and at last you sleep, surrounded by my arms, which part
the darkness from the dark, so that you may rest . . .
legumes, seaweed, grasses: the spume of your dreams.

tr Terence Clarke

Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread.

12 July 2012

Oil on canvas by
Arthur Rackham



Behold, the sea itself...


words by Walt Whitman; music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

13 July 2012

“It is only our absurd ‘scientific’ prejudice that reality must be physical and rational that blinds us to the truth...The imagination is not a faculty for the creation of illusion; it is the faculty by which alone man apprehends reality. The ‘illusion’ turns out to be truth.”

—  Harold Goddard

14 July 2012

Now and then, I’ll catch a glimpse that whom I’ve touched are who I am;
a whiff of immortality I sense, two daughters’ lives might seem my own.
No edifice I build upon such thin and insubstantial stone;
patiently, with insight I sort truth from all seductive sham.

Let oneness never be my mantra, lest I fear that I deceive
myself, imposing a hypnotic frame on what I believe.
If oneness be the deep, abiding nature of reality,
then let me quest impartially, and wait ’til oneness come to me.

—  Josh Mitteldorf

15 July 2012


O Himalaya, tell of that time when man first lay
in your lap. O let me imagine that dawn
unstained by red. Run backward, circle of
day and night, ancient eras a moment in your lifetime.
You are a poem whose first verse is the sky.
Your bright turbans dazzle the Pleiades.
Lightning across your peaks sends black tents wandering
above the valley. The wind polishes the trembling mirrors
at your hem. Streams cascade down your forehead,
your cheeks quiver. As morning air cradles intoxicated
roses and the leaves are silenced by the rose-gatherer’s wrists,
so speech is silenced in the roar of falling water.

— Mohammed Iqbal (1877 -1938) one of the two great South Asian poets of the 20th Century (the other was Faiz Ahmed Faiz) advocated ceaseless endeavor, writing with equal ease in Persian, Urdu, and English. He was knighted by the British but is rarely called Sir Mohammed.

Translated from the Urdu by Rafiq Kathwari, guest poet at 3Quarks Daily.

16 July 2012

Do we need one more reason to be kind to ourselves?

Remorse is not among the eternal verities. The Greeks were right to dethrone her. Her action is too capricious, as though the Erinyes selected for punishment only certain men and certain sins. And of all means to regeneration, Remorse is surely the most wasteful. It cuts away healthy tissues with the poisoned. It is a knife that probes far deeper than the evil. Leonard was driven straight through its torments and emerged pure, but enfeebled—a better man, who would never lose control of himself again, but also a smaller, who had less to control. Nor did purity mean peace. The use of the knife can become a habit as hard to shake off as passion itself, and Leonard continued to start with a cry out of dreams.

— E M Forster (fr Howard’s End)

17 July 2012

How the world works: solid matter and Type 1a Supernovae

Gases like air can be squished with a hand pump, but solids and liquids are something else again. You can squeeze as hard as you want on a rock and it won’t compress significantly. Liquids are deformable, but not compressible: if you filled your bicycle pump with water, you would break the piston before you could squeeze the water.

The pressure that makes matter feel solid comes not from anything really solid, but from lots of electrons bouncing around*.  The electrons don’t form a regular gas, which would be compressible like air. Instead, they congeal down to the lowest quantum state they can find. (Then they push each other aside into the next quantum state and the next, because electrons won’t tolerate having other electrons in the same quantum state. That’s called the Pauli Exclusion Principle, but what it really means is that electrons have sharp elbows.)

So the reason that it’s so hard to compress stone or water or anything solid is that the electrons have already taken all the low-energy quantum states. To push them closer together, you’d have to lift some electrons into the next highest quantum state, and the energy for that turns out to be on the order of a Rydberg per electron, which translates into a pressure of 10 million atmospheres. That’s about how hard you’d have to press your bicycle pump before you’d get noticeable compression in a cylinder full of water.

That’s a lot of pressure compared to everyday life, but in the context of geology or astronomy, such pressures are common. The pressure at the center of the earth is enough to compress rock to several times its normal density.

And stellar pressures are something else again (TBC tomorrow...)

* This was the discovery that stunned Ernest Rutherford in 1909, after he had already won his Nobel prize.  How many scientists can you think of who did their best work after their Nobel?

18 July 2012

How the world works: solid matter and Type 1a Supernovae
(...continued from yesterday)

No slouches, the electrons that give matter its solidity are zipping around at about 1,000 miles per second. Still their speed is less than 1% of the speed of light, so they can be understood pretty well without invoking Relativity.  But there are some stars in which electron speeds can go much higher. Called white dwarf stars, they have reached a kind of purgatory after they have burned up all their hydrogen, so they are not generating enough heat and gas pressure to hold themselves up. The gaseous star then collapses inward until it is stopped by something hard, and that happens when its core becomes so dense that it is no longer gaseous but liquid.

The hydrogen has burned to helium, and the helium burned to carbon. Here’s what makes white dwarves so noteworthy: because of the high temperature, their carbon cores remain gaseous way beyond their ordinary density. They don’t become liquid until they have a density a million times as high as ordinary matter. Liquid diamond – one ton per teaspoon. An entire star collapsed until it is the size of the earth. And the electrons are whizzing around much faster than in atoms at low temperature. The electrons are approaching the speed of light.

In 1931, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that the electrons would behave differently as their speed approached the speed of light. They would be less like particles of matter and more like particles of light. Softer. Less solid. The star’s core would not be hard, and the star could continue collapsing until it disappeared as a black hole. Chandrasekhar calculated that there was a critical threshold mass for the star: if the star is lighter than the threshold, then its core has enough solidity to keep it from collapsing; if the star is heavier, then its electrons approach too close to the speed of light, and the star keeps collapsing to a black hole. Boom. 

The threshold mass is called the Chandrasekhar limit, and it is about 40% heavier than our sun.  Most stars are smaller than this, and they become white dwarves when they run out of fuel.  But some are larger, and they collapse with a bigger bang, forming a black hole.

All white dwarf stars have to be smaller than 1.4 times the mass of the sun.  But sometimes a white dwarf star finds itself next to another, uncollapsed star, circling in orbit close enough that some of the atmosphere of the other star can be sucked in by the dwarf’s gravity. Slowly the white dwarf accretes mass.  Heavier and heavier, then suddenly they reach the Chandrasekhar limit and – boom! A supernova of type 1a.

Here is the dilemma, constantly faced by cosmologists seeking to map out the universe: How can we tell whether an object that we see in the sky is very bright but far away, or very dim and rather close to us? When Type 1a supernovas were discovered, they helped resolve this issue because they are all the same. They all go off just when they cross the threshold of the Chandrasekhar mass. They have the same intrinsic brightness, and by comparing their apparent brightness we can tell how far away they are. It also helps that when they go off, they are temporarily about as bright as a whole galaxy, so they are visible from all over the universe, and they each time we spot one, there is a galaxy for which we can say, ‘now we know just where that one sits’.

19 July 2012


If we cut the US military budget in half it would still roughly equal the defense spending of the entire rest of the world combined. Between that and getting rid of the Federal Reserve, over a trillion dollars would be freed, enough to feed everyone on our planet, deal with social issues, and heal our planet. Many people believe that widespread poverty and deprivation are inevitable. But compared to war, eliminating poverty and restoring the environment are cheap. According to Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute, it would take under $200 billion a year to restore the earth’s environment and meet global social goals.

Foster Gamble

The crisis has matured to being on the threshold of mass awakening.
Barbara Marx Hubbard

20 July 2012

Precept #11 of Thich Nhat Hahn

Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.

— #11 from the 14 Precepts of Thich Nhat Hahn

This has been a challenge for me ever since I entered the world of work. I feel that capitalism is ‘harmful to humans’. It is difficult to participate in the American economy without feeling myself either an oppressor or a victim.  Most employment entails some of each.

I have felt best about myself as a teacher, placing appropriate challenges in front of students and encouraging them to think for themselves.  I have thought it right to devote some portion of my public life to work that furthers a more human economy.  I have reminded myself to be gentle, to forgive myself for making compromises in order to live comfortably and conveniently. 

I am open to friendly counsel and new perspectives in the area of right livelihood.

21 July 2012

To-do list

1. Be kind
2. Ask questions
3. Cultivate an attitude of wonder toward all you do not understand, but do not let this interfere with a vigorous pursuit of rational investigation
4. Tell the plain truth
5. Demand an end to state-sanctioned violence
6. Invite joy into your life at every moment of the day

— Josh Mitteldorf

22 July 2012

Google Translate

The amazing thing to me is how reliably you get a comprehensible, if not grammatical rendition of a document in any language.  If you haven’t already, try it here.

Poems are often amusing, sometimes hilarious.

As recently as 10 years ago, AI people said that ‘natural language’ had turned out to be a much harder problem than early computer enthusiasts had guessed, and that a program to understand a book or an article would require a huge database of commonsense knowledge, and a brain-like system for relating new knowledge to old.  But that’s not what Google Translate is, and not how it works.

In typical Google fashion, they have used the entire internet as a huge database.  Where documents exist in more than one language, they have matched the two texts against each other with a computer algorithm, and based purely on statistics, they match a phrase in (say) Bulgarian with a corresponding phrase in English that some human has used to translate it in the past.

It’s useful.  It brings us together.  It’s now possible for us to know something about the news that people read in Bangalore or Accra or Kabul.  And it’s another significant step toward international understanding and world peace.

In my Chrome browser, Google always offers to translate a web page that is in another language.  In other browsers you may have to go to the web site and paste in the web address.

23 July 2012

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.  Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.

– Erich Fromm

Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions.

– Earl Gray Stevens

24 July 2012

A sentence worth reading twice

Until we are presented with a plausible account of how the concept of “matter” arose out of matter itself, we should be prepared to argue that there is nothing in matter as described by physics that would suggest it could rise above itself, and enclose that which it has risen above in quotation marks.

Raymond Tallis

(from a book review in The New Atlantis.

Consciousness is not physical.

25 July 2012

‘Bright faith’ is the faith that we are given when our hearts are opened by encountering somebody or something that moves us. Whether it is someone we know or a historical figure like the Buddha, we can begin to sense the possibility of another, better way to live.

‘Mature faith’ is anchored in our own experience of truth, centered in the deeper understanding of the mind and bdody that we come to know in practice. This deeper level of faith is also called ‘verified faith,’ meaning it is grounded in our own experience, rather than coming from outside.

Sharon Salzberg

26 July 2012


This piece was my introduction to Dohnanyi almost 20 years ago. I purchased the CD as a sort of mistake, after a chamber music buddy had recommended to me the other, more famous Dohnanyi Quintet #1. The piece he wanted me to learn was Dohnanyi’s Opus 1, written when he was just 18. It is a heroic work, masterfully written, if slightly overwritten, in the style of what my onetime wife used to call ‘19th Century male music’.

The Quintet #2 is something else again, a mature work from a time when Dohnanyi had nothing to prove to anyone. The piece is challenging in its own way, but utterly without gratuitous virtuosity.

This is the closest that music comes to philosophy, and the philosophy presented here is mysticism. The beginning is shrouded in an ominous haze. The end is transcendent redemption.

Listen to the Piano Quintet Op 26 of Erno Dohnanyi, born this day in 1877.

27 July 2012

Smarter than we gave them credit for

Just days after a poacher's snare had killed one of their own, two young mountain gorillas worked together Tuesday to find and destroy traps in their Rwandan forest home, according to conservationists on the scene.  ‘This is absolutely the first time that we've seen juveniles doing that ... I don't know of any other reports in the world of juveniles destroying snares,’

Read more from National Geographic

28 July 2012

Mindfulness Meditation Demystified

Focus is the locus
of the hocus-pocus.


29 July 2012

a visual jokus

Mysteries of Astronomy

Science Magazine lists 8 unsolved puzzles. Dark matter and dark energy are mysteries less than 15 years old, but they suggest a great hole in our understanding of the large-scale motion of galaxies. It has been widely assumed since the time of Newton that the motions of astronomical bodies can be explained entirely by the laws of gravitation, but now we know that this doesn’t work: Either there is a new force we’ve never seen before, or else there are two new forms of energy/matter that pass right through all the stuff we’ve ever seen on earth and in the sky, and shows its presence only by gravity.

A much older mystery concerns the sun’s atmosphere, or corona. The hottest part of the sun is in the center, where energy is being generated, and the successive layers are cooler and cooler as light is diluted on the way out. The center of the sun is millions of degrees, and the surface is only thousands of degrees. But here’s the mystery: the sun’s corona is millions of degrees once again. It’s way out of equilibrium, and we don’t know why.

Here’s another that suggests a secret door to a hidden world: Cosmic rays are energetic particles (mostly protons) that reach the earth from all directions, traveling just under the speed of light. We think we understand cosmic rays in a general way: they could be getting their energy from the enormous magnetic fields around spinning neutron stars (pulsars). But every once in a while, the cosmic ray detectors will catch a whopper, with more energy than even a physicist can imagine. More energy in a single proton than a fastball from a major league pitcher. They have 100 million times more energy than the top energies that physicists have been able to reach in the world’s largest particle accelerators. Two mysteries: first, there is no known physical process that can reach energies that large; and second, particles with that much energy ought to lose it very quickly just traveling through interstellar space.

Mysteries out of the sky like this offer no clues to guide a new theory. Where do we begin?

30 July 2012


“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

— ending of Middlemarch, by George Eliot

31 July 2012

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design