My friend, Dominic Gonzalvez, dishwasher and dreamer, once said: "When you meditate on waking you gain control before the day fires its weapons of mass distraction." This space will be an attempt to break away from those massive distractions and focus on matters of the spirit in our every day lives.

Starting to see - again

Recent email to some friends:

Good morning!

I mean - it's a GOOD morning. Things are opening up for me again. I'm starting to see once more.

I find it such a struggle - this business of finding things, then losing them in the turmoil of everyday events from Bush to dental pain to a football game to planning observation sessions and fiddling with technology , , , whatever. I do so many stupid things, so many hurtful things, so many blind things . . . but once in a while the light breaks through. I have a few old touchstones I'd like to share with you - and one new one. The new first.

This comes from one of my astronomy students - the mother of a home schooler. She felt Frederick Franck was on the same frequency as I. How right she was. She had directed me to "The Awakened Eye." That's a book he wrote around 1978 and it's about what he calls "seeing/drawing" - or "drawing meditation." There's nothing new in here for me - but what a wonderful renewal! Franck articulates well what I articulate poorly. And he expresses himself in drawing superbly. His teaching drawing is really about teaching seeing, much as my efforts to teach astronomy are really about providing opportunities for deep awareness. His ideas neither surprise, nor shock me, but it's always pleasing to meet a fellow twanderer and to discover new - and sometime subtle - paths that branch off the well-worn trails you thought you had learned and now walk by rote.

Dom - you've mentioned from time to time that you might pick up Betty Edward's book again - Drawing from the Right Brain. You might find "The Awakened Eye" more in tune with your goals - especially if you pick up a pencil and a pad - do what he says - and above all, ignore the product - focus on the process. The goal is to see - to live in the present - the drawing merely a tool, much the same as focusing on your breathing, but more active or perhaps interactive.

There're so many things I could quote from this book - what struck me this morning was simply this: "If you want to see into it, see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed." (anonymous Zen master)

Contour drawing. Line drawing. Eye and pencil working as one. Anyway , , ,

That pushed me back into Whitman. I think he's getting lost. Maybe he simply gets lost because he said too much. I'm not sure. But I do think he understood - went down the same paths - that the Zen masters have walked.

"I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

and so much more . . . Leave of Grass . . . has it been lost of late? Is it still read in the schools? Is Whitman readily dismissed these days? ignored? I'm not sure. I don't hear much talk of him. I do get bogged down in him. He burns too hot, too continuously - I run out of breath just reading him .. . but in small doses there is so much there.

And Coleridge - the ancient mariner's story is my story - perhaps the story of all of us. But the part that haunts me - the part I have wrestled with so long - is one I have quoted before and to me relates directly to my attitude towards world events of late and my frequent, fruitless rants.

"O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare.
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware;
sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware."

He wasn't speaking of puppies or bunnies or grandchildren, or flowers .. . he was speaking of

"The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I."

Slimy things! Bush. bin Laden, the "Christian" and "Muslims" and "Jews" so full of self-contradictory hate. And yes, event the "peace" movement which so frequently is not "peace" at all, but breeds another fwave of hate. All that is "wrong" with the world.

And how , indeed do you bless them? How do you love them? That is what nags at me. And Coleridge had the answer - his mariner blesses them, "Unawate."

And Whitman had the answer - "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

And so did Franck - "see into it directly. When you begin to think about it, it is altogether missed."

and sometimes, with good guidance, I get an inkling of it too ;-)

Just as they are . . .

I was walking the path around our yard the other morning when the first oriole of the season flew in front of me, his bright orange feathers catching the morning sun as he landed in a tree 50 feet away.

I shouted a happy greeting like a kid who has just seen a friend enter the playground, Then I paused as deep joy swept through me. I turned to the oriole, I folded my hands and bowed a silent greeting, Hindu fashion, relishing the moment.

This event was neither anticipated, manufactured, nor staged in any way, It simply happened – and I have similar experiences quite frequently, triggered by things as diverse as a daffodil stem poking through the ground, or Orion throwing his leg up over my trees and climbing into the late fall sky.

They raise deep questions for me.

  • What is this joy?
  • What are its biological underpinnings?
  • Why should I experience it?


Each of these objects – some neuroscientists might call them “images” - give me pleasure – the oriole, the daffodil, and Orion – but how and why? They don’t offer me clothing, shelter, food or sex. They don’t stroke my ego or caress my body, or convey to me in any rational manner the answers to the mysteries of life. So why should I care about them? Why should they strike such a deep and joyful chord for me? Why do I impulsively – without any conscious thought – respond positively to them?

Associations you might say. They are familiar and I like my life and they are reminders of how rich and good and full life is? Yes – I agree. So what? I’m not sure what any of these words – “rich” and “good” and “full” mean. Again, the events don’t seem to satisfy any basic needs that I can identify, or that are usually codified.

The only answers I have are spiritual. Deep within me I want to be connected with the universe. These objects – these actions – these fleeting moments – provide that connection. For a moment I feel immensely well – immensely at peace – united with the essence of being. I can accept such descriptions – but they leap ahead of what we know in a rational way and I want to close the gap.

Why should I want to be connected? Why should it give me pleasure – whatever that is – to feel I am connected? Is that an answer? I’m not sure it’s even an explanation. I know enough – very little, I grant you, but enough – about how the brain appears to function to know myself as a wonderful, biological machine that has all these neat parts that work together in somewhat predictable fashion. Fascinating. But I don’t know enough – and I’m not sure anyone does – to tell me what neurons were stimulated when that oriole flew in front of me, what area of my brain was activated, what chemicals were released, or electrical activities initiated, or why any of this is useful to me in terms of survival as an individual or a species – in short, it doesn’t tell me why or how this happens.

I grant you, someone might have the answers, especially to how. I at least feel that question is answerable. Someone may be able to tell me what is happening inside my brain to create this experience. They even may be able to tell me why this evolved because it somehow fits into the scheme of evolution. That would be helpful and I would love to know it. But I suspect that even if this can be done, the great mystery remains. For even if we can know what chemicals are manufactured and released at the time we experience the sensation we call “joy,” and even if we know exactly which sparks jumped which gaps to result in various muscles moving to utter a sound of greeting to an oriole, can we ever say what “joy” is? If we understand the mechanism that produces it, does that means we understand what has been produced? Or is that to remain a mystery?

I suspect the Buddha might smile gently at my question, knowing that he already described my experience with the oriole when he said: "How wonderful! How wonderful! All things are perfect Exactly as they are!."

Part of me can accept that answer. The other part of me says, no - press on. This question is at the nexus of science and spirituality. For me both worlds are equally valid - the one revealed by science and the one revealed to us through mechanisms we don't begin to understand. But the question has to be asked. We need to at least try to build a bridge connecting these two worlds - or if nothing else, be able to identify the gap - the point where one ends and the other begins

As always, your answers or comments are welcome. Please email me at gstone@umassd.edu

Information, strings and eternal life

The New York Times > Science > About Those Fearsome Black Holes? Never Mind

The paragraph that really caught my attention in this story is this one:

Work by several theorists, including Dr. Andrew Strominger and Dr. Cumrun Vafa, both of Harvard, and Dr. Juan Maldacena, now at the Institute for Advanced Study, has contributed to a strange new view of the universe as a kind of hologram, in which the information about what happens inside some volume of space is somehow encoded on the surface of its boundary.

In such a picture, "there is no room for information loss," Dr. Maldacena explained.

I do not offer this as proof for eternal life, but I do think it's one more piece of evidence that points in the direction of some sort of continued existence - even of the individual. And that idea is new to me. (It has long seemed obvious to me both in terms of science and Buddhism that "life" is eternal - that is, life continues in the sense that the basic matter and energy that makes us up right now is recycled and used again - it is not destroyed, just changed. But until now I saw little scientific evidence that infromation - especially the information that makes up us as individuals - continues.)

The thrust of the NYT story, by the way, is that Dr. Stephen Hawking, the celebrated physicists, did not believe information could ever be retrieved from a black hole and made a famous bet to that effect several years ago. He now has admitted his mistake and reversed his position, conceding the bet. He ha done so through some new theoretical work that few at this point understand.

But as the story notes:

This esoteric sounding debate is of great consequence to science, because if Dr. Hawking had been right, it would have violated a basic tenet of modern physics: that it is always possible to reverse time, run the proverbial film backward and reconstruct what happened in, say, the collision of two cars or the collapse of a dead star into a black hole.

Behind all this is the basic concept that the universe consists of three fundamentals - matter, energy, and information. Up until now I had assumed information could be destroyed, therefore I assumed that the information that describes - informs - us could be destroyed. Now I am not at all sure of this.

First, I must admit that I am making a great leap here from little real knowledge. My understanding of modern physics all comes from popular sources. But what does seem quite clear to me is that the most mysterious and essential ingredient here is information. Matter and energy are building blocks. The plan under which they are arranged - a Buddhist might say "manifested" - at any given moment is information.

Given this, I have long toyed with the idea that a good model for ultimate reality is the radio. Using this technology we take the information that appears in one physical form - sound waves - and transfer that information (not the sound, but the information that resulted in the sound) into another form, radio waves. The fundamentals of how this is done are apprent to anyone who has done the most rudimentary study of the technology, but whether you understand the technology or not, it has to be obvious to you that sound originating in New York, for example, is not transmitted as sound to Boston, or we would live in a true tower of Babel, constantly surrounded by incdredible, unintelligible, noise.

So.. . . the information that make the sound noise intelligible to us is lifted from the actual sound and applied to radio waves which we can not see, here, or feel. These radio waves are then sent at the speed of light to another device - many devices, really - that can manifest them. That is, the radio receiver takes the information and applies it once more to the material in our everyday world, thus ressurecting the original sound. (You could think of this as the sound firstbeing alive, then dying, thenbeing ressurected.)

More recently I see the same process over and over again with the computer. This is most easily understood when we consider that no pictures - in our usual sense of a physical, two-dimensional object such as a photograph - no pictures exist in our computers. Yet over and over again we store and transmit the information that, given the correct materials, will manifest itself faithfully as a specific image - a specific picture.

I do not mean, by these examples, that when we die we becomes radio waves or the binary numbers by which computers store information. I mean only that they are understandable (and scientifically verifiable) processes by which information is manifested in different media, some of which are apparent to us and some of which remain entirely out of our reach.

Any primitive culture looking upon a radio or a computer could define this only as magic. They may, in fact, worship it, or the people who control it.

In a similar fashion I think the discoveries of contemporary physics strongly suggest that the information which forms us is stored in some mysterious fashion and could, at some other time, be manifested probably in a form which we in our current manifestation could no more recognize than we can now recognize the sound in a radio wave, or the image in a string of binary numbers. Subject to either of these manifestations of familiar informatin we would be at a complete loss to discern anything faintly resembling the sounds and images which are so familiar to us.

In all of this I am not trying to create an article of faith or even of hope. I simply find it fascinating because I see it as a rational model for ultimate reality.

Note that this model has nothing to do with good or evil, heaven or hell, god or no god - nor does it in any way suggest how we should act during this particular manifestation. That knowledge needs to come from other sources. I believe it does and that is a whole different topic which I will leave for another time, Suffice it to say Emerson outlined this well nearly two centuries ago and so does Buddhism. But I think these concepts of right and wrong - of a sense of universal unity - are independent of my speculation regarding information and our continued existence in some other manifestation. Or at least i don't see the connection. In the system I am speculating about thei nformation that once was Hitler would live side-by-side with the informatin that once was Gandhi.

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