Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

ooooh yaaaa

August 14, 2009


   A while back I said that my favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz.  It’s still a pretty great flic, but the way I now constellate things has been eclipsed by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  The latter has recently been all over the movie channels due to the untimely death of director John Hughes.

  Ferris opens and closes the film succinctly summarizing his approach to life, as well as the best work of many philosophers that I particularly admire:  “Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Life moves by pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around you might miss it.”

  There is an early allusion to his predecessor Huck Finn.  Ben Stein, as teacher taking roll reads: “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.”  No response.  Same thing happens in Twain’s book when Huck skips class.  Guess which one said of his ploy: “it’s childish and stupid, but then so is high school”.  Could be either.

  The storyline is also like that of Ulysses (Joyce’s that is) in that while a rich and deep tale, it only spans one day in a life.  There is even a counterpart to Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at its end: “…first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”.

  After following Ferris across Chicago (instead of Dublin) for a day his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, is amazed and totally taken by his preternatural wisdom, adroit maneuvering, and incredible joie de vivre.  This is a high school comedy though and so at the end, watching him with confidence enter a gauntlet impassable for all but he, she simply offers:  “He is going to marry me”.

  As sort of a coda after the narrative is complete Bueller looks at us and says “You still here?  It’s over.  Go home, go.”  He has committed  day of his life to show us how to take hold of our own.  He figures that those who’ve learned something are on with it and those who haven’t will never get it. 

Only that thing is free which exists by the necessities of its own nature, and is determined in its actions by itself alone.
Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
-Diamond Sutra as translated by the Dalai Lama
What, me worry?
– Alfred E. Newman

Spirit of Place

July 3, 2009


  Ok.  I’m just about ready to rest my case.  I’ve written several times of the special beauty of my lawn.  The photo above ought to put all doubts to rest.  Representative of a good part of my small plot is that arrangement of several grasses, flowered clover, yellow oxalis, and wild strawberries. 

  Most people spend untold hours in the cultivation of their yards, but end up with only blade after boring blade of the same dang thing.  I spend as little time as possible and, well, results speak for themselves. 

  As opposed to most, I don’t attempt to inflict my own narrow opinion of what it should look like upon the earth.  Instead, I endeavor to create a condition in which such subtle wonder can unfold of its own accord.  Believe it or not, I planted virtually none of what you see above.

  What is more is that those colors are nearly perfect counterpoint for the string of Tibetan prayer flags strung across my roof high above.  It is said that with each flutter of every panel a prayer is repeated. They are nearly always moving.

Prayer Flags 010

  Perhaps that’s how the character of my lawn developed, having not always been so.  Only several years after the death of a brother (in whose memory I connected our chimney and roof vent pipe with the red, blue, green, white, and yellow squares) did things begin to change.  Or at least to my notice.

  It was imperceptible at first.  Then we had several seasons and several families of ducks that made home in front of our house.  And elsewhere coons and deer and cats and dogs and varieties of rodents wild and domesticated.  Five tree houses and now a yurt.  Once, while digging a hole for a fence post I found an ancient stone hatchet head.

yurt 1

  The prayer flags eventually wear out and I replace them with new crisp colors covered with tiny uchen letters.  It is somehow comforting to watch them waft in the breeze.  (Even though some folks ask just why we have our laundry line way up there in the encircling crown of maple and ash!)

  We’ve been here thirty + years and I absolutely don’t mean to say that I’ve things just the way I want them.  Yes, I trim and fertilize from time to time, but that’s just so these particular emergent rhythms don’t dampen.

  DH Lawrence wrote that “Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like.  But the spirit of place is a great reality.”*

  We’re all – flora, fauna, parents, and children – deeply imbued with the great reality of the spirit of our contorted tiny bit of the planet.

*Speaking of Lawrence, it may be obvious, but I’m also trying to make sure that the gamekeeper my wife runs off with is me…

Carpe Diem? Huh? And Then What?

May 22, 2009

Andrew grad Franklin field 09 

  Carpe Diem seems like the most natural and obvious of exhortations to shout at a graduation.  Seize the day.  Certainly, commencement exercises must constitute a major point of transition (fulcrum hopefully) for most participants.  But “hurry up and get on with your life” is probably not the best advice for a young broadly educated mind.

  Graduation ceremonies should always be powerful experiences for all attendees and the aforementioned such was no exception.  As the students and faculty began to file in the orchestra began to play and the trickle soon became a swarm.  I first thought back to graduations past until I noticed that tears had welled up in the eyes of both sisters as brother came into view.  Wife choked a bit, and well, me to.

   Made me think of brain science and what it can and cannot explain.  We have what have been called mirror neurons.  A set of neurons fires when you do something.  Mirror neurons fire when you observe somebody do that thing.  Researcher V.S. Ramachandran calls them “Ghandi” neurons because “they’re dissolving the barriers between you and me”.*

  That’s neat and interesting, but incomplete.  Other researchers have shown that phenomena related to consciousness can be observed, measured etc, but not consciousness itself.  Some think it a matter of time till it is seen how thoughts emerge from the brain, but none do now.

    As I’ve said above, while it may well be understood one day, I do not believe it will be found to be a sum of the parts sort of thing.  Stuart Kauffman again: “Whatever its source, consciousness in emergent and a real feature of the universe…. These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond natural law itself.”

  It is much easier for me to consider tenderness amongst siblings with that observation in mind than, say, mirror neurons.  We are more than the sum of the parts.

  While in Philadelphia I saw one of the two of Galileo’s telescopes known to be still in existence.  Fascinating to look at and think about.  They got him into trouble.  Not so much for debunking heliocentrism as for challenging the then prevalent western world view that spirituality was the only source of knowledge.    

  In her remarks the wonderfully enthusiastic Penn President Amy Gutman told those in cap and gown that their toughest challenge would be to find: “What matters most to me?”.  Not an easy question for most to answer, but indeed perhaps the most important.  I’d add that it is probably be just as important to learn to live in that question.  If you carpe diem with questions answers will follow.

Andrew grad Myerson 09

   That’s what Galileo did.  “It [the earth, not the sun] moves” he told the Pope and was placed under house arrest for blasphemy. He continued wide ranging research for the next ten years until his death investigating the speed of light and the nature of tides among other things.  Very significantly,  he developed the basic principle of relativity.

   Einstein wrote: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.  Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.  Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics – indeed of modern science altogether”.

  Or as Uncle Ed helped translate from another tradition: “Whatever you see is a reflection of your own mind.  The essence of mind has, from the very beginning, has been free of conceptual limitations.  Having recognized this truth, free your mind from grasping at phenomena and clinging to thought…”**

Andrew Board spring 09

*New Yorker May 11, 2009: Profiles

**Path of the Bodhisattva, Vimala Publishing

***Hint: Above image is not through a telescope, has not really yet been seen in 3D, but is indeed way out there and has not been seen before.

A Wonderful Bird Is The Pelican

May 30, 2008

  This is the time of year when white pelicans rest here in SE Iowa on their way north from winter break to their summer breeding grounds.  They are one of this universe’s many paradoxes because while they are ungainly up close, they are preternaturally elegant in flight.

  Regarding the proximate view, many will be familiar with this short poem by Dixon Merritt:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his belly can,
He can take in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I’m damned to see how the hell he can!

  The brown pelicans look very similar to the white in silhouette, but differ in plumage, behavior, and range.  The brown are frequently seen in small groups coasting smoothly over a southern shore.  Spotting a fishy morsel they’ll fold their wings (looking like a hipped umbrella) and dive into the sea.

  The white don’t dive, but oh do they soar.  Individuals or small groups rise on thermals so high and with such a complete lack of apparent effort that they resemble lower case ‘t’s floating at the outer ranges of one’s field of vision.  Larger groups closer to the ground form slowly pulsing or undulating chevrons.     

  Squadrons sometimes slowly describe circles in the sky suddenly changing from black to white and back depending upon their aspect to the sun. Large groups form gently rotating cylinders suspended in the air which bring to mind a friendly tornado in very slow motion.  

  I have no recollection of having ever seen them during my youth.  Thus, every spring as they pass through these parts I have to re-convince myself that their visit is no freak of nature.

  Reminds me of a passage in Robert Coles’ Spiritual Life of Children.  The Harvard psychiatrist interviewed children of widely diverse religious and secular backgrounds for insights into their inner lives and world views.  My favorite bit is of his time with an eight year old Hopi girl sitting outside her spare home high on a mesa. 

  As they talked, she noticed a pair of hawks soaring high above.  Then silent, she followed their graceful flight until the raptors were out of sight and then said: “I guess they’ll find something to eat.  I wish they were just going on a ride and not really hungry.  I love when they glide, then stop, flap their wings, and continue gliding.”

    The conversation then resumed for a time when of a sudden she stopped talking and “Her head turned about forty-five degrees to the left, she looked up – the hawks had returned.  How had she known?”

  Coles concludes:  “Some young people go through intense visionary moments… These are times when a mix of psychological surrender and philosophical transcendence offers the nearest thing to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” I can expect to see”.

  Do you recall having had such a moment at the ripe old age of eight?  Or later?  How likely can one be for those continuously perched in front of any sort of tube?  Is there a cerebral analogue to Fast Food Nation and obesity?  Remote Control Nation and, like, uh, uh, say what??

Monkey See…

May 16, 2008

  In the May 12, 2008 issue of the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell (author of bestsellers The Tipping Point and Blink) has an interesting article about the simultaneous spontaneous generation of scientific insights.  We associate the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell and evolution with Darwin.  But an Elisha Gray filed a patent for his version of the telephone on the same day as Graham.  The two had never met.  Alfred Russel Wallace developed a theory of evolution without any knowledge of Darwin or the Beagle.  Turns out that the “phenomenon of simultaneous discovery [is] extremely common.”  The other examples he goes on to cite amaze.

  The essay reminded me of French Jesuit Philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and the monkeys.  In the 1950s scientists on the island of Koshima gave food treats to its simian inhabitants.  Treats were much appreciated, but problematic to eat because dirt would stick to them.   After a while, one monkey figured out how to rinse and clean the potato bits in water and others soon learned by observation.  Incredible thing was that after a critical mass figured out the trick, all of a sudden they all did.  All.  Even those on nearby islands.

    Teilhard believed that all things were on a path of increasing complexity and convergence. First monkeys get on the same wavelength and then cogito ergo sum.  “For the observers of the Future, the greatest event will be the sudden appearance of a collective humane conscience and a human work to make.”

  Although he got sideways with the church, Teilhard believed that the nature of our universe was characterized by orthogenesis.  That evolution and its direction are purposeful.  “Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness…evolution is nothing but matter become conscious of itself.”

  Teilhard wove together all aspects of his vast body of knowledge to describe an ever increasing interconnected universe.  “The powers that we have released, could not possibly be absorbed by the narrow system of individual or national units which the architects of human Earth have hitherto used.  The age of nations has passed.  Now unless we wish to perish we must shake off our old prejudices and build the Earth”.

  “… these perspectives will appear absurd to those who don’t see that life is, from its origins, groping, adventurous, and dangerous.  But these perspectives will grow, like an irresistible idea on the horizon of new generations.” 


    Interesting to note that Teilhard was, at least in part, launched on his quest for understanding by the horrors of WWI: “…the war was a meeting…with the Absolute.”  (Remember the Razor’s Edge?)


April 10, 2008

  Ok, Julie Andrews is out with a new autobiography.  Sounds like her whole life was not just one big supercalifragilisticum.  Imagine that.  But, still, I’ll wager that the image of her resting in most minds is the one of her wonderful pirouette in that alpine meadow above Salzburg.  Only the blackhearts among us are not moved by the recollection. 

  News here is that there is scientific rationale behind her exuberance.  Know how your brain is but a bit more than a sodium ion pump?  (Oh, maybe a bit more…) 

  Well, “increasing negative ionization of the air (the kind of ‘charged’ air found on mountaintops, near waterfalls, or at the sea) produces changes in brain growth… The ions can also change the chemical composition of the neurotransmitters, and can elevate or suppress mood, something almost everyone knows (except couch potatoes) who has noted the exhilaration of the mountains, or the depression with a Santa Ana wind.”  – Robert Ornstein 

  Shunryu Suzuki takes the longer view:  “It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall.  And it seems to me that our human life may be like this.  We have many difficult experiences in our life.  But at the same time… the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river.  When you do not realize that you are one with the river, one with the universe, you have fear.  When you realize this fact…You will find the true meaning of life, and even though you have difficulty falling upright from the top of the waterfall to the bottom of the mountain, you will enjoy your life.”


The Marvelous

March 13, 2008

   But, shoot, look where Galileo got us: “There is a straight line from the physics of Bacon and Galileo to the atom bomb” (German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizacker).  Funny thing about science – just like religion – it’s yielded some really bad shit.

  Several interesting books (the exhortatory End of Religion by Sam Hamill and God Is Not Great, How Religion Spoils Everything by Christopher Hitchens) have been published recently about the terrors of religion.  Gotta remember that there is also the continuing tragic paradox of the Enlightenment.  Without the miracles of modern technology, the nuts and crackpots and despots about would be little more than babbling idiots – you know, sans WMD.

  Several years ago author Michael Frayn wrote a play called Copenhagen. It centered on his fictional account of the wartime discussions between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr which may or may not have helped stop a Nazi bomb.  The morality of any atomic research in all of its historical permutations is the larger background issue.

  During a discussion of the play on NPR, a physicist savored the “sweet technological problems” that were and are attendant to nuclear weapon research. He even giggled in so doing.  Later, on the same program, Werner von Braun was quoted: “we were only charged with getting the rockets up in the air…”  

  Here though, is what went through Robert Oppenheimer’s mind while watching the first mushroom cloud at Los Alamos:

       I am become death, the shatterer of worlds;
      Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom. – Bhagavad-Gita     

  Nothing like a slap in the face, eh?

  Frayn ends his play talking about “that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things”. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but can Pascal* leave his room without sowing seeds of destruction?

  Perhaps best after first having found a way to be comfortable there.

  Here’s the koan, courtesy of Seamus Heaney:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air. 
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it.  But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.

*”All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone”  Blaise Pascal 1623-1662