Monday, June 25, 2012

Rip Tide

Dreams pull like a rip tide
at a soul thrashing for the sand,

that clutch and surge 
of power in the terror felt, 
as one is drawn inexorably 
to the deeps.

The soul fingers the hem 
of the ocean's spirit and quails, 
monsters and mystery
anciently running the fathoms flicker 

and flash like barracuda scales or
the muscular rush of the whale's 
eerie echoed song, far off and haunting.

For the moment, here is turmoil, 
the ragged edge where 
seashells grind in the sand to nothing 
and waves roll in the level sunlight 
thrown back in curling gleams,

but soon, past bar and breakers,
the hectic shallows drop off to the long blue darkness,
and the soul is swept away in the churn 
of little bubbles, to sleep
among hidden fishes blind of eye
but sporting tiny lights and endless hunger.

The soul knows that hunger,
runs its tongue across a mouthful of fangs;
smiles, and finds itself
swimming hard for the bottom.

Blown Away By Art

Sometimes I think its wrong, the way we go about consuming media. Mainly in the sense that it is even possible to say that we consume it. The sheer quantity of art, literature, and theater is ridiculous, like the world has never seen.

And this is alright, I'm not against art or the making of it; indeed, I think there should be more, that everyone should be creating art of some kind. But if I think about it, I can't name a single painting that has ever moved me to a state of rapture, nor a poem that has given me more than a moment of total sublimity. Oh, don't be mislead, I'm not totally insensitive; there are countless paintings that have held my eye for a good while, and many more poems that I have loved. And of course, songs that truly take me away; Ode To Joy always works for me, but music is a little unique in this, somehow it has more power even given the musical over-saturation we live in, so there are innumerable others I could list.

I wonder sometimes what it would have been like to have lived in the middle ages, when people very rarely saw any art at all. I mean, when they did encounter a fresco or mural or something like that, probably at a church or cathedral, they were shocked. Scared senseless by an image depicting the torments of hell, or carried away by a work showing the celestial bliss of heaven. Speechless and in awe.

I can't imagine getting anything even like that from a painting. We moderns are so saturated by the various media around us, that such an experience is hard to even understand. We're almost numb to it. We have hundreds of channels for today's "theater," libraries and bookstores overflowing with books, museums for art of many kinds... How perfectly ordinary it is for us to pick up a book, or jump online to explore, among other things, the creative works of the world.

Typically, as soon as I finish a book, I pick up another (actually, I usually have 2 or 3 books going at once). I don't give myself any time to digest on it and truly reflect upon it, I just jump to another. It's not to say I don't think about what I read. I do, usually while reading it, pausing to ponder this or that; but as a whole, I don't finish a book in its entirity and then think about it for a while. Part of this serial reading is the need for escape, for entertainment and distraction, but also because there are more books that I want to read than I ever probably will. There's always more.

And even most people, who aren't weirdo serial book readers, are serial TV watchers, or movie watchers, or internet users, or likely all of the above in some mix. So there's never any real break (add to this the way texting, smartphones, and the like fill in every "blank" moment, completely obliterating any chance for personal reflection... but that's a whole other post). But what would our lives be like if we did pause to let a book or painting or whatever-it-is sink in. I think again of the middle ages, really all times before the printing press (and for most people, a good while after). I don't envy that life, which was one of labor and drudgery, with long days and little time off to make or enjoy artistic things. But consider the case of religious belief itself.

In my example of medival Europe, there was the Church, or the stake. Few people could read and books were rare; by and large there was little option other than the Bible. The monestary libraries had other books, even pagan works, that they copied and preserved, but clearly the Catholic religion was monumental. People were given the one teaching, and most people knew nothing else. Maybe they knew of Islam as some distant, shadowy evil to be crusaded against (that is, they had a concept of Islam only a little less vague than we Westerners do today).

So imagine the shock of someone back then coming across an alternative view! Assuming he was open-minded enough to really appreciate it. Well, he wouldn't be racing on to the next book, because there wasn't any next book. He just had to sit with these powerful new ideas, would have to be floored by them, and live with that flooring for a while. His largely virgin mind would not only be more sensitive to the power of an idea, he would have no further distraction (aside from daily life) to drown out the message.

See, ideas today hold exactly as much power as they did back then, only, now there are just far more of them vying in the mental space, so we grow accoustomed to them, treat them as trivial. In fact, we come to crave it, consuming art like a drug; it's almost monstrous. I picture in my mind some horrible demonic skeleton swallowing books and paintings, never satiated, because they just fall out the bottom. We chase sensation, blind to the power of even one of those sensations.

So it's not that I wish for a dearth of art or ideas. What I want is that level of sensitivity. I wish I could know what it was like to look at a painting of some demons, which looks slightly silly to me, a modern, and see naked terror laid out before me. I wish hearing a poem could change my life.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book: A Canticle For Leibowitz; and the Nuclear Question

I just finished reading A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. It is a remarkable book, a classic in science fiction writing (though it really doesn't strike me as too sci-fi). Though it was first published in 1960, the style of it seems like something that could have been written today; the storytelling is superb, somewhat satirical, and there's an almost absurd sense to it, verging on comical, but not in a ridiculous way. Maybe more in an existential way, but don't take that to mean it's some dense philosophical novel. It's very readable and accessible, despite the oft-used Latin, which is usually explained, or otherwise just there for atmosphere. The novel does, though, have important underlying themes-- namely, the cyclical course of history, the conflict between the church and secular society, and of course the nuclear threat. For, this book is about a post apocalyptic world slowly rebuilding itself after near annihilation in the mid-20th century. The book is in three parts (Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua), each set roughly 600 years apart. 

Thus, Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man) begins in the 25th century. The country (we hear nothing of the other continents until part three), or what little is left of it, is nearly totally illiterate-- immediately after "the Flame Deluge" the people rampaged against learning, proudly calling themselves Simpletons and burning books, as well as killing scientists, and later, anyone who could read. Only the the surviving Roman Catholic Church, centered in New Rome (somewhere, seemingly, roundabout St Louis) maintains learning of any kind. 

The Church preserves scraps and remnants of books in a monastery in the Southwest Desert, run by the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, set up by Leibowitz (an electrical engineer of the 20th century) for just such a purpose during the book burnings. Compare to what the Irish monks did in the dark age after Rome fell. The monks copy the now largely incomprehensible but highly venerated, almost worshipped works of science in the 20th century, things like circuit diagrams and other texts and literature. They do this in the hopes that someday, someone will understand them and be able to rebuild to pre-Deluge science, technology and culture. 

The section focuses on Francis Gerard, a novice monk who finds, during a Lenten fast, an old bomb shelter containing a box that holds within it scraps that appear to be the property of Leibowitz himself, which eventually end up contributing to Leibowits being canonized as a saint. It's a hard life for Francis in the monastery, but the world outside is worse, full of monsters (genetic mutants) and roving bands of highwaymen and tribal folk. 

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is set in 3174, in a time of building war between growing city-states of south-central "America" and the nomadic herders on the Central Plains, as well as a time of renewed abilities in science, including the rediscovery of electricity; rather like the European Renaissance. In the microcosm of the same monastery, we see the split growing between secular science and Church-run science growing, really the basic split between science and faith/morals

Finally, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done) is set in 3781. The world has progressed beyond even what the 20th century had, complete with space travel and even extra-solar colonies. That same monestary lives on, despite its duty to preserve the old knowledge being now unnecessary. There is a new cold war between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition. There are nuclear incidents, and the book culminates in ruminations on free will, good and evil, euthanasia, and again the cyclical nature of history, whether it is inherent. 

I have avoided giving many details so as not to spoil this jewel of a book for any of you who may wish to read it (highly recommended). I wish they'd had us read this in school, though of course, the Church vs Science/State issue would have been too risque for a public high school. But the discussions would have been enjoyable, I always liked classroom discussions like that. And the themes are important, and worth thinking about. That's probably why I've long been a fan of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres in books and movies. 

I have often though of nuclear weapons as humanity's greatest test. Well, not a test so much, as tests are administered from outside; more a situation that will really allow us to find out what we're made of. We either get a handle on our animal rage and control our apelike tribalism and hate, or else we die. Nuclear holocaust is not probably something we could survive, certainly civilization would not. And the idea that we'd eventually build up to this level, even if it took thousands of years, seems to me unlikely. 

For so many things to fall back into place, cultural, philosophical, technological, governmental, religious... sometimes it seems to me that high-tech civilization may have been a lucky accident. Like the evolution of humans itself-- the rise of such intelligent creatures depended on a lot of historical luck. If the climate in Africa hadn't changed from forests to grassland, we might still be howling in the trees. Or even if it had, but we hadn't adapted just as we did, we'd be extinct, or maybe just living like baboons, who also live in grasslands, quadrupedal and not all that bright. If (some of) the Greeks hadn't ditched the myths for that little window of philosophy they gave us, our society might never have been. Study the history of science, and you will see that this is so; the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilizations had science, yes, but never a Renaissance, never a truly secular, empirical culture. Until Imperial Europeans imposed it. There's no guarantee they'd have ever gotten there, though of course we'll never know. 

There is much to feel despair about in the world today. I find myself, when I allow myself to think long on it, almost totally stopped, knocked into inaction by thoughts of mass extinction, climate change, ecological rape, resource extraction run amok, chemical pollution, overfishing, dead rivers, the loss of the Amazon's forests, the slide in America and elsewhere towards fascism, overpopulation, famine and disease in the Third World, the widening wealth gap, even just the horrible environments we set up for ourselves to live in. But behind it all, and almost undiscussed, is the nuclear threat.

Oh I know there's the very public Iran debacle, and North Korea. Definitely both are a concern, and the fewer countries that have such weapons, the better. But North Korea having a few nukes with short range and pretty bad engineering, and Iran trying to attain them, worry me far less than the thousands upon thousands owned by the USA, Russia, and China, and to a lesser extent, the UK and France. Also quite worrisome are the Pakistani and Indian nukes, two countries that hate each other, and of course, little ol' war hawk Israel which almost certainly has them. With nuclear India and Pakistan on one side, and Israel on the other, you can see why Iran would want such weapons, though they deny it. 

I remember being taught in English class back in high school about foreshadowing: if the author, even in passing, mentions, say, a gun, chances are good that someone's going to use it eventually. This is my concern with nuclear weapons. Sure, the Cold War is more or less over (though Putin's Russia and quasi-Fascist America seem almost eager to resume it), and while it's been over 65 years since a full scale nuclear bomb has been used in war, the potential remains. The likelihood almost seems to increase, the longer we hold these missiles of death, hold them by the thousands. To say nothing of dirty bombs used by terrorists or rogue nations. 

Everything is on the line with this issue. I heard a quote not too long ago, something like "there is no ecological justice without social justice" meaning that social justice is more important. Makes sense in its way. You know, get the Third World, everyone really, educated, healthy, and stable; birth rates will fall, people won't have to denude their environment for sheer survival, etc. With the nuclear issue, it is made very clear: if we save all the forests and oceans, keep the whales and tigers and pandas alive, if we switch to clean energy and save the Appalachian hills, if we get Clean Air and Clean Rivers and more roadless areas and stop soil erosion... but go ahead and have a nuclear war, what the fuck does it matter? It's one thing for civilization to collapse from Peak Oil or Global Climate Change, but it's quite another to nuke ourselves into annihilation. 

Lastly, here's something weird I found out on Wikipedia. The USA's first nuclear test was named Trinity, and India's first was named Smiling Buddha. That these names would be chosen for the ugliest weapons the world has ever seen does not give me much hope. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Purpose of Meditation

Why meditate?

It's a harder question than it might seem. For me, obvious reasons leap to mind, mainly the fact that I'd probably go crazy if I didn't. Of course, that's just me, and still but one aspect. Seriously, though, I think I owe my life to meditation and eastern religion, back in my late teens. It was never an immediate fix, hardly a proximate one, I think it was like that one ray of light finding a chink in the box, that reminds you that the darkness has a limit. I can't give meditation full credit, but it was part, it helped me take myself less seriously.

Tangental to the above, there are real, measurable benefits to meditation. A slew of studies have been done proving that meditation lowers stress hormones and blood pressure, improves the immune system, aids digestion, and may even help with weight loss. Other studies with a more psychological bent have shown that it improves one's ability to focus, increase productivity, develop intuition, and so on.

As for that, I have long enjoyed the fact that meditation seems to help me be more creative. Somehow by reaching down into the Void, however briefly (for I'm not, I'll admit, a very 'good' meditator. My monkey mind is still pretty active), I come out with a fistful of inspiration. Not always immediately, but somehow by tuning into... well, I don't know, the underlying thrum of existence, even for a couple seconds, it has a ripple effect, a lasting one, carried away from the session. I don't know much about the act and process of creativity, it is a mysterious thing; but perhaps it lets me get out of my own way, like a crack in the dam where the water leaks out.

Another benefit would be the way it can enhance or build up your compassion. It helps expand your sense of self to include others, and ultimately, it would be hoped, the entirity of existence when you attain Buddhahood. Of course, for most of us, we can simply accept and appreciate even minor growth here, to help improve relations with those we live and work with, which is definitely a good thing on its own, and has its own ripple effect.

So. Besides just giving you a way to ground yourself down from the scary, annoying, anxious, stressful, angry, depressed, selfish, and/or restless mind, allowing you a window of peace in a mental world which is, being human, the major part of our world, besides lowered stress hormones and blood pressure, more creativity and love for others, why do this ridiculous thing, sitting on the floor with your legs twisted up, doing nothing useful or productive?

Well, the simple answer is the basic wonder of just spending 15 or 20 minutes alone with the sheer improbability of your own existence. It is said in Buddhism that to meditate to acheive any of the above benefits, the health, the psychological, the creative, it's all fine but it won't get you Nirvana or release. Meditating with expectation or anticipation is the opposite of meditation. Meditation is simply how a Buddha sits. When he sits, he sits, when he walks, he walks. There is no purpose to meditation.

Easy for a Buddha to say. For the rest of us, even if we are all already Buddhas and just don't know it, the point or purpose is to attain that clarity of understanding that we too, may simply sit when we sit, rather than battle a mind that won't let us just sit, but suddenly we get all itchy, suddenly we get all fidgety, suddenly we know there are a million better things to be doing, and spend 95% of our 15 minutes thinking about other things, and end up not being present at all. Oh well. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I'm an expert at
nothing, just an ignorant
unwashed heathen barking
at the moon. I'm just a fool
playing with a hermit's
life in the forest. Feral

as a black magic spell,
I have studied nature,
learned a great deal
about the ways of plants
and animals, and built stories,
stories, the finest magic
of all beings, heart and soul,
mine. Believing and behaving

so as to keep the forests
awake and happy, I sing,
the music pouring into
the soil and sky, spend all my
days making joyful music
and dancing to the chatter
of the leaves, or simply
sitting on a rock, naked,
toes in the moss, utterly radiant.

In other words, Heaven is
where my feet are standing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Religion, Stories, and the Spoken Word

You know, I've long heard modern consumerism compared to or likened to a religion, our national religion. I never took this seriously, thought it was more of a clever turn of phrase or a nice metaphor, but clearly not actually a religion. I'm no longer quite so sure. I was reading this essay, "Only the Poets Can Save Us Now," by Richard Reese, and came across thses paragraphs:
Spoken stories, poems, and songs create trances. Stories are utterly irresistible. Television is a story machine. People cannot turn it off, no matter how incredibly stupid the programs are. Advertisements are also stories. They create evil trances that strip away your self-esteem. ...

An advertising executive once nicely summed up the purpose of his business. He said, "Our job is to make women unhappy." Advertising is an evil trance. And it works! People are entranced by the commercials, and then they buy the products. If you ever go to a mall or supermarket, pay attention to the consumers. They roam up and down the aisles in a glassy-eyed, zombie-like state. They are searching for the product that will remove the curse on them. They are religious pilgrims seeking salvation.
And when you think about it, how is this any different from "the Fall" and the endless quest for redemption? We are fallen, our souls tarnished and broken, the priests tell us, and we may find healing only in the love of God, through the death and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Very convenient, to be told how evil and hopeless we are, then offered just the right solution. Provided we play by their rules. And really, it's the same as being told by the commercials on the TV that we are uncool, ugly, somehow deficient, and the only way to be whole human beings is to buy this product, the message all neatly tucked into a 20 second spot. It's a depraved, parasitic form of religion that follows the same pattern as the corrupt remnants of the Old Religion, itself long thin on real spirituality.

The only shift at all, really, is the one away from a spiritual basis to the story, to one of materialism. If we can understand religion to be not necessarily anything to do with some spirit world, that any idea of a spirit world is simply one perspective and one solution-- but instead see that religion is more fundamentally about making us feel whole, to tie us back together (religion comes from the Latin, literally "re-tie"), I think we get a better understanding. I'd say it's more a psychological thing in reality, if I didn't know that psychology is also just a perspective. A way of talking, a way of seeing.

But the essay's author also talks about the power of the spoken word. His whole thesis is, "Our world is sick and crazy, because it's under the spell of bad stories. We suffer from black magic, a voodoo curse." His point is that the stories we tell are whack, and we need better ones. He gives some great examples along the way, but I like this part, where he says, "Writing was invented to allow the accurate transmission of messages. ... Writing conveys information, but it has little power to enchant or entrance-- compared to the sung or spoken word." And as I think about it, I realize that this is true.

When I hear a poem spoken aloud, I find it easy to lose track of the meanings of the words, and simply flow with the rhythms and sounds. It becomes then like music, a song sung in a foreign language, which can still take you places you never thought to go. Sure, the meaning is an added layer, and not unimportant, and I sometimes struggle to understand on that level, those times when my mind is slipping away from meanings and into pure sound. And, reading a book can defintely blow your mind, but it usually stays on an intellectual level, it's dry, not alive.

There is a great energy associated with the spoken word that is absent in writing. Writing depends on the brilliant argument, but speaking is to the heart as well as the mind. They say the Devil can quote scripture, and can use it towards his own perverse aims. Note that he isn't writing his own scripture. It's the quoting, the speaking, that matters.

I am reminded again of that book, Orality and Literacy, which I spoke of here once. That bit about sound and hearing being that sense that is most closely allied with a sense of power, life, and being; the part about the reverence held for words among primitive cultures. We all know the start of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word..." And here, quoted from the same essay, is this quote from Jakob Grimm, of fairy tale renown. "A yet stronger power than that of herb or stone lies in the spoken word, and all nations use it for both blessing and cursing. But these, to be effective, must be choice, well knit, rhythmic words, must have lilt and tune; hence all that is strong in the speech wielded by priest, physician, and magician, is allied to the forms of poetry."

I don't know how far to take that. Do I believe in the chanted spell? Hard to say, hard in this world to rule anything out, especially not in a knee-jerk fashion. Surely the great speakers and persuaders, those with the magnetic charisma, have been able to talk people into some pretty crazy things. Hitler is the easy example, but think of the cultists who thought the spaceship of salvation was coming in the comet, and they all drank the Kool-aid. Think of all the politicians and advertisers, singers and poets, teachers and pundits. I don't know if there are spells that can unlock doors or change the weather, but to have effects like that on someone's consciousness, that's pretty powerful, and pretty real.

I'm pretty well in agreement that we need new stories, new songs, a new teaching. But, it's not going to work if we occasionally talk to our kids about recycling, the need to reduce our carbon footprint, while not just some of the time but all of the time we are humming the song of Growth and of Progress. We can't expect to have any change if we keep taking the kids to church, to hear how humans above all other living things are special and that the world was made for us, then park them in front of the TV to hear a similar message of egotism and narcissism. They may learn otherwise in science class, but the vast weight of the cultural stories we have now are against that. And as true as this is for the kids, the coming generation, it is true for us adults as well. What stories do we tell ourselves?