Thursday, September 10, 2009

Letting Go

In many disciplines, both spiritual and artistic, a concept arises that is paradoxical within the very meaning of the term "discipline", and which more often than not causes my brows to furrow and my blood pressure to rise a notch - that is, the concept of "letting go". In Zen Buddhism one sits for endless hours taming the wild ego in meditation, holding deep and intense focus without distraction, just to be told that ultimately one must let go of that control and hard won discipline if enlightenment is even to be glimpsed. Dancers and athletes practice moves over and over and over again, battling monotony and fatigue so that in the moment of performance they can simply "let go", simply play. From many Christian pulpits one hears the admonishment to control one's desires, act morally and righteously, study the bible rigorously, but then "let go, let God". Are these just diverse definitions of an over-used cliche, or is there a common thread here, a simple, even elegant key to something larger?

I'm curious about this because I have my own discipline, my own artistic practice that I find to be the foundation for all of my creative work, and in fact the very bedrock for my sanity, without which I would most certainly spin out of control in the blink of an eye. It's sometimes boring, repetitious and mundane. At times when I'm creatively blocked, or anxious at the day to day madness all around me, or simply frustrated by my inadequacies, I can view it as a crutch, a lazy habit, simply something to keep me busy and distracted. But deep down I always know that it is absolutely necessary, and so I cling to it....and then I realize I'm clinging, and a tiny voice whispers in my ear "let go", and my brows furrow, my blood pressure rises a notch, because I'm caught in yet another paradox - how does one will oneself to let go, control oneself to be out of control?

Of course, that's my head talking, and if I let my head run things I would have to be on prozac, or perhaps something more powerful. Luckily, these head games tend to make me laugh, and laughter originates in the heart, or sometimes the belly, parts of the body that seem oblivious to paradoxes. And discipline. And rules. In fact, they seem much more interested in playing, or to use the cliche, in "letting go". Oh my, did I say that?

Ok, so the head is not yet ready to capitulate, though it will do its best to avoid paradoxes (it hates being laughed at) while exploring this curious and intriguing idea of letting go. Heart and belly will of course be dutiful companions, just in case there is a relapse. So let's, with grace and good humour, look at some different ways the concept of letting go pops up, meandering around in a wide circle, or perhaps a spiral that gradually guides us to the center in ever-tightening coils.

I've always been struck by the last phrase in that famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, the 13th Century monk, which in my favorite translation goes like this: "It is in dying to self, that we are born to eternal life." "Dying to self" sounds to me a lot like "letting go of self", but how can we just let go of our...self? Most modern psychology stresses a strengthening of the self to overcome neurosis or psychosis, so what was that ancient Italian Saint talking about? Surely he wasn't suggesting we plunge into selflessness, lack of identity, nothingness? (uh oh, I can feel a laugh building in my belly, better resolve this quickly). No no, existentialism - the ultimate head trip - hadn't been invented yet, so he must have had something else in mind. Buddhism, however, had been invented, and perhaps by "self" he meant all of those identities, costumes and masks we wear to present to the world, and indeed to ourselves, to convince the world and ourselves that we actually exist. You know what I'm talking about - doctor, lawyer, indian chief, saint, whore, bad boy, good girl, punk, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, hero, villian, genius, rascal, artist, captain of industry - all of those endlessly changeable and ephemeral trappings that we weren't born with and which, when we physically die, will evaporate. In short, our ego. Could it be that dying to our ego allows us to be born to...eternal life? Now that rather Buddhist notion came straight from the mouth of a European Christian.....who knew? Perhaps there is a web of meaning around this term "letting go" after all. But what does St. Francis have to do with a great performance of Beethoven's last piano sonata, or for that matter the composition of Beethoven's last piano sonata?

To be continued.....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letting Go II: Beethoven, performance anxiety, and the art of playing shortstop

Indeed, what does a Beethoven sonata have in common with a prayer from a 13th century monk? Beethoven certainly was no saint himself - especially later in life he was irascible, moody, anti-social and a tyrant to cooks and housekeepers under his employ. He was deaf and in constant bad health. Yet amidst all of this his later works, written in his fifties (he was to die at 56 years) are some of the most sublime and spiritual works of western art. If you get a chance listen with your eyes closed, without distraction or disturbance, to the second movement of his last piano sonata, opus 111 (if you can, get the recording played by Mauricio Pollini). This is not the work of a man in a bad mood, bitter over his deafness and isolation, angry at the world. This is the work of a man who has LET GO...let go of his disappointments, his pain, his decaying body. In the words of St. Francis he has died to self, and in that music is an earthly resonate touch of the eternal.

Which brings to mind another form of letting go, that of musical performance. I know a bit about this, having taken up classical piano in my twenties, studying and practicing intently for 10 years until carpal tunnel pains and the realization that I had more important things to do caused me to quit the obsession. I started late and was not a natural talent, but I reached a modest level of skill and in certain moments, always when alone, was actually able to not only play, but be the music. Those moments, small as they were for me, had their own sublimity. But perhaps more importantly, going through this phase in my life taught me to hear, and to appreciate the difference between a really authentic musical performance and one less than authentic.

Classical musicians for the most part are highly and strictly trained, often practicing 6-8 hours a day on their instrument above and beyond their other studies. This high level of discipline has a danger, that of turning the musician into a technical virtuoso without heart and feeling. I suspect this is why most people don't listen to classical music - it can sound cold and soulless compared to a good Zydeco band rocking out with joy and passion. On top of that comes the issue of performance anxiety, one I'm intimately familiar with. When performing in front of people the classical artist becomes self-conscious, aware of an intent scrutiny from the audience totally lacking in a rock concert, where the primary expectation is a good dance beat. Most of the audience knows every note to be played, every nuance in the score, and probably has a particular favorite performance locked in their memory. This can freeze a performer in the vise of judgement, which might push some deeply buried psychological buttons from either childhood or even, in the case of inexplicable phobias, from past lives (is it possible that, having been tried and executed in a past life one might carry that fear of judgement forward into later incarnations? I'm not one to answer that definitively).

So, when you hear a stiff, soulless classical music performance, you may be experiencing the musician's inability to LET GO, let go of self or self-consciousness. In such a case the best course of action is to be compassionate, it could be you afterall! And when you hear Mauricio Pollini play Beethoven's late piano sonatos, you will experience two people simoultaneously who have let go - Beethoven and Pollini.

Somehow, this discussion of performance anxiety and self-consciousness has brought up an experience of mine in adulthood, an experience of dying to self on a children's playing field, and the discovery of a personal experience that illustrated a phrase in Dostoevski's "The Brothers Karamozov" - to paraphrase, it's not miracles that create faith, but faith that creates miracles.

To be continued.....

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Letting Go III: A Grounder Up The Middle - The Yin Of It, The Yang Of It

Did I say miracles? Well, Dostoeveski did, and that quote has stuck with me since I first read it in my early twenties. I'm not prone to religious dogma, but I've experienced a few strange things (some of which I may reveal over time) and can at least attest to the word miracle with a small m.....I'll leave MIRACLE to the priests in black who are trying mightily to create faith with capitol letters. Here I have a story to tell of a miracle on a children's playing field, one so small you may argue over my use of the word, but significant nonetheless. But first, I diverge...

The other day I heard a discussion which was eerily relevant to my musings on letting go, and which sent me down a different path in my thinking (this is almost always a good thing; I rarely know where I'm going anyway and if I do think I know where I'm going it's usually the wrong destination). A Buddhist scholar was describing the Taoist notion of Yin and Yang, the male and female principles inherent in the world and indicative of the duality of existence. He was speaking of how one acts in the world, how one finds balance within the duality, and he described what he called the Yang will and the Yin will. Yang is the creative, and the Yang will was the will to act upon the world to achieve an end. He spoke of an out of balance Yang will as one that bulldozes over things regardless of the consequences, as an invading army or an abusive spouse. Yin will, as the receptive opposite to the creative Yang, expresses an attitude of letting the universe do its thing, go with the flow, or letting go of control. An out of balance Yin will is pliant, passive, unengaged - a defeated country, an abused, helpless spouse. As soon as I heard the phrase "letting go" my ears perked up, and that's when the new path opened up for my exploration.

"But, but, but..." I thought to myself "isn't letting go a kind of release of will? How can one have a Yin will, a receptive will?" The word "paradox" suddenly loomed large, and I began fidgeting in my chair. I thought back to St. Francis, and the phrase "dying to self".....letting go of self, of ego...then it hit me! It's an act of will to let go of your ego, a conscious decision, a kind of directed energy. And to let go in a performance is no less an act of will, a willful giving in to the play, a willful letting it take you over, having its way...

Which brings me back to the miracle on a children's playing field....

To be continued......

Monday, September 7, 2009

Letting Go IV: Yin, Meet Yang. Yang, Meet Yin. I'm Sure the Two of You Will Get Along Just Fine

This is a story about an adult co-ed softball game, and a particular tiny moment in time that revealed a simple but profound truth to me; however, to set up the story I have to go back to childhood, that time of big dreams, joyful play and boundless enthusiasm. I'm thinking in particular of my fifth grade year, a time when my classmates and I invented, or perhaps re-invented, a recess game we named "Smash". It was a simple game - 12 to 15 of us would gather out in the schoolyard with a ball of almost any kind, surrounding it closely as it lay on the grass. Eventually one brave soul would snatch the ball and run, the rest of us tearing after him with the intent of tackling him to the ground as viciously as we could, at which point he would let go of the ball and someone else would grasp it and run, only to be chased again by the screaming mob. If, either through fear or just bungling, the ball carrier dropped the ball before being tackled, a penalty was assessed, consisting of the entire horde jumping on top of him in a classic dog pile - thus the name, "Smash". Being 10 year old boys, this seemingly senseless activity was endlessly fun.

The typical strategy for the ball carrier was to run like hell and hope only one or two of his fellow players would catch him to make the tackle. I was not one of the large guys in my class, in fact a bit on the small side, so playing this game had more hazards for me than most. However, I had a wild streak in me in those days and played the game a little differently. My small size had one advantage - I was quick and could snatch the ball up and get away before the others could react, usually attaining a good 10 yard lead on the group before they came up to speed. It was at that point that my strategy diverged - I would stop, turn, put my head down, let out a roar and charge straight into the howling pack, usually to be bruised and battered while being pummeled soundly to the ground, laughing gleefully.

That year was also one in which I really discovered baseball. My friends and I would go out almost every nice Saturday morning in the spring and play on the schoolyard diamond until sundown, oblivious to the world outside of the playing field, lost in the endless drama of fly balls, grounders, and the glorious line drive in the gap. That summer I joined a little league team and started at shortstop for the first time, reveling in my new found role in the middle infield, excited at the possibility that any play might come my way. I was perhaps an above average player, but nothing spectacular, so I was pleased when at the end of the season I won my first and only award, granted to me by my teammates - a tiny trophy with the label "Most Inspirational Player".

Now let's flash forward to my 44th year. A few years before I had joined an adult coed softball team, and each summer we played every Saturday for a couple of months. The idea of joining a team like this is pretty basic - the opportunity to run around like a kid for a couple of hours, have a few beers and a few laughs afterwards, and occasionally go home with a teammate to have drunken sex. That's about it. And so it was for me for several summers until a fateful Saturday afternoon when in the flash of just a few seconds...

I was playing shortstop, my old childhood position. In softball the game is played on a little league sized field, quite a bit smaller than a hardball field. This is fine when you're a little munchkin, but playing infield that close to a batter when he's 250 pounds and swinging out of his shoes requires being on one's toes at all times lest a vicious line drive finds itself colliding with your noggin. On that particular day we were being hammered by the other team, a condition that had most of my teammates sagging in despair but which inspired in me a seething anger, an irrational desire to have my revenge in some manner, however small. Late in the game the opponents best hitter - a huge fellow who had already humiliated us with 2 impossibly long home runs - came to bat with a runner on first. His presence at the plate shot my adrenaline up, and I settled into a steely resolve, bent over at the waist, glove hovering inches above the dirt, ready for anything he could send my way. On the first pitch he lashed a vicious grounder past the pitcher, headed up the middle into center field.

What happened next transpired in no more than 3 seconds, so let's take ourselves into slow motion, like in the movies. I can remember clearly my reactions and thoughts, but they must have been flying at the speed of light (the effects of anger and adrenaline, perhaps), because so much happened in that micro-moment. My first automatic reaction at the first hop of the ball was to break toward second base, a simple reflex and no more. Then I clearly remember thinking there was no way in hell I could catch up with that ball; the best I could do was frustrate and humiliate myself by making the effort. A clear signal went to my legs to stop, give up on it, resign myself to the inevitable and position myself for the ensuing throw in from the center fielder. you remember my previous discussion of Yang will and Yin will? It's only in retrospect that I'm making this connection, of course, but I see it clearly now - my Yang will, the desire to create, to act, kicked in and I bolted even more quickly toward a point in short center field where my only chance to cut off the ball would be. Simultaneously, my Yin will, the receptive, looked my doubts straight in the eye and ordered them to "let go". Sadly, despite the heroic partnering of Yin will and Yang will, I realized as I approached the last step toward the ball that it would be impossible to catch up to it - my animal instincts, trained for millions of years in my DNA to calculate instantly the trajectory and speed of game in the hunt, knew with certainty that I was too late. There would be no joy in Mudville, as the tale of Mighty Casey so sadly laments.

This is where, as I think back on Dostoevsky's truism, the faith of childhood took over. Rather then helplessly watch the screaming grounder rip past me, my Yang will gave one last order to my aging body and I leapt with all my might, body parallel to the ground, my Yin will shouting "Let Go!!!!!!". Practically dislocating my shoulder, I thrust my glove out and as I hit the ground, sliding on my belly, the ball nestled into the very tip of the webbing. The impossible had happened - I had stopped the ball, cut it off from it's destined journey into the outfield. It was, by definition, a miracle.

But I wasn't done. I knew there was a runner heading from first to second base, and if I got the ball there before he arrived we would make an out. There was a dilemma, however, that needed to be reconciled - I was on my belly in short center field 5 yards behind the bag, my back to the play. I had no time to get up and look to make a throw, so by instinct I did the only thing I could - I flipped the ball blindly over my shoulder in the general direction I presumed second base to be. The second baseman was covering the bag, the ball somehow went right to him, a half step ahead of the runner. He was out. Another miracle.

Now, you may argue that the play was always possible, that it unfolded just as the laws of motion and momentum would dictate, that my characterization was merely hyperbole. But I know better; one moment the ball was past me, the next it was in the webbing of my glove. The toss to second base was awkward, completely blind, and nothing but an act of faith. I know a miracle when I see one (besides, I did say miracle with a "small m").

And like all good miracles, there was something gained. Later, upon reflection, I remembered my trophy in little league, and realized why I had won it - in their boyhood hearts my teamates knew that when I was on the field I treated every play as a possible miracle. And I realized that a cynical, jaded middle-aged man had been granted a moment of grace - the miracle had finally happened.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

So Many Synchronicities, So Little Time!

I have two clear indicators that tell me I'm touching onto the Tao of things, rising above common everyday experience and getting a glimpse of the possible, and the possibly wondrous. One is when I'm in the zone in my art making, when all of the dead ends and failures and frustrations suddenly fall away and spectacular works appear like coins under the pillow from the tooth fairy; or, as one friend put it, when one plus one starts adding up to three. The other indicator is when I start noticing synchronicities, those uncanny coincidences resonating with meaning. Frequently both indicators appear during the same day or week, at which point I start looking over my shoulder for angels and spirit guides (haven't caught any glimpses yet, alas). This is a tale of one of those periods of time.

It all began in the library. I am convinced from experience that there are library gods who nudge and guide us to books we need to read, and that the particular library gods in the Central Denver Library look favorably upon me. I like to wander the shelves on a regular basis, letting the gods have their way, prompting me towards 3 or 4 likely candidates to check out, out of which at least one will be the perfect book for that moment. In this case my eye fell upon a rather unlikely candidate, a book about making altars based on the East Indian tradition of Vastu Shastra, similar to and possibly pre-dating the Chinese tradition of Feng Shui. Feng Shui
is the more widely known knowledge of how to balance the energies of any given space to maximize mood, health and energy for those inside that space. I had been thinking about Feng Shui in relation to my art practice, and how it might be applied to promoting my work, but I'd never heard of Vastu Shastra, so it was peculiar that the book caught my attention, especially as it concerned altars.

I have a confession to make: I was raised a Catholic, and as a child I absolutely hated going to church. When I was old enough I even became an altar boy for the sole purpose of desperately trying to make the weekly torture more interesting. It didn't work (I hope my mother doesn't read this; if so...mea culpa Mom). As a result I have been one who is not favorably inclined toward altars of any kind, Catholic or otherwise, and usually prefer to imagine myself dancing naked in pagan splendor through a warm meadow - the "altar" of nature, so to speak - rather than kneeling before a table loaded with icons. But then, as Bob Dylan once said, I'm so much younger than that now. So I checked the book out. And guess what? It was really interesting.

My curiosity was piqued by the method of using the four elements - fire, water, earth and air - in relation to both the four cardinal points of the compass and to specific colors relating to the intention of the altar (the pagan in me was pleased). My apartment is perfectly oriented to the compass points, and as each direction is related to a particular intention, I had all the wall space I needed to experiment. But where was I to start? There is an Altar for Health (already healthy here), an Altar for Creativity (already creative here)...all sorts of altars. Then one caught my eye - the Altar For Attracting Helpful People and Universal Support. Heaven knows I need help, and the universe has not exactly been busting its chops in my interest lately, so I had my altar and I began to slowly assemble it. A trip to the thrift shop here, to the fabric store there, a little artwork from my studio storage, a rock from the bed of the the Platte River, and voila! I had my altar. I concocted an activation ceremony, ringing a little bell representing air, lighting a candle representing fire, rolling the river rock in my hand, dipping my fingers in a crystal bowl of water. I placed a tiny horseshoe magnet just behind an offering tray in the middle of the altar. I placed a doorway peephole in the tray, figuring the universe might want to check me out before opening the door. Then it was time to write an invocation to be placed in the offering tray - I wrote "Talk To Me!" on a plain piece of paper, placed it in front of the peephole, and the deed was done.

Little did I imagine what was to happen a few days later.

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New Exhibition

I'm opening an exhibition of my work Friday, May 1. Just finished hanging it and it looks great! It's at Namaste Hospice Art and Events Center - they have a big First Friday celebration this coming Friday, lots of food, drink, and music. Check it out!

Hour and location are as follows:

Namaste Hospice Art and Events Center
3946 Tennyson, Denver

May 1 - June 27
Thursday & Friday 12pm-5pm
Saturday 11am-3pm

Opening Reception May 1, 6-10pm

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fear is a Vampire, Part II: The Cult of the Malevalent Universe

Tuning into NPR recently while driving I came upon an interview with one of the Cohn brothers, of movie making fame. He was talking of a book of poetry he had just published, and at the end of the interview William H. Macy read the title poem of the book, entitled "Drunk Drivers Have the Right of Way". It was a bleak, ugly little poem about how the brutes and power mad in life bulldoze down the rest of us and win out in the end....always, inevitably. It got me to thinking about vampires again.

What struck me about the poem was how it was less a poem then a declaration of belief, a lecture from the bully pulpit (the bully pulpit of cultural celebrity and wealth) about "reality", meant to dispel any illusions the reader might have about the truly ugly nature of life. It was...rather patronizing, in a patriarchal kind of way, like the Old Testament God with His plagues and pestilences. And like the Old Testament, it had a kind of fatalistic helplessness about it, but with a late 20th century nihilistic/existentialist/post-modern emptiness of spirit and heart.

I've only seen one of the Cohn brothers' films, "Fargo". In that film a group of brutal, brutish thugs following some blind impulse toward destruction and mayhem catalyze the darker impulses of ordinary white-bread citizens in North Dakota, leaving a long trail of blood and meaningless, stupid violence. There is a hero, the local sheriff, who prevails in the end but seems completely untouched by the events she witnesses, only sighing now and then at the tragedy of it all. It is a vision of contemporary life that presumes we are the living dead, our life-blood sucked dry, leaving us either as brutes stumbling about like the living dead in horror films, or soulless, emotionless automatons - drunk drivers and their victims. In this vision, life happens to us, and if we're lucky we get by; if not we get stomped like bugs.

I understand the cultural critique inherent in this, and I applaud the Cohn brothers for putting a mirror up to our eyes. And "Fargo" was pretty funny in a weird, deadpan kind of way, lifting some of the edge. However, after hearing the poet Cohn deliver his sermon-in-verse of hellfire and damnation it struck me that there is another agenda here. It seems many people like the poet Cohn are not content with suffering existential terror alone - they want to pull us into their black hole of despair and self-pity, as if by doing so they will somehow find a measure of redemption, or at least re-inflate their ego a little bit by proving their superior insight and sensitivity (no self-flagellation here, more like a BDSM dungeon with us as the unwilling guests).

Then it occurred to me - the poet Cohn was making a bid to become a cult leader! In general, cult leaders are narcissistic attention junkies who, like celebrities of all ilks (including art celebrities), need an audience to verify their existence to themselves. And of course, there is no shortage of people on the other end of the narcissist feed-back loop who need someone with charisma whom they can nibble upon with hungry adoration, desperate to fill their empty souls and impoverished bellys with the crumbs of personality dropped expertly from the celebrity/cult leader's plate of inflated ego. The poet Cohn's magnetism consists of his absolute certainty of the malevalence of the universe, a clever strategy since it invokes so much fear and terror in his audience, rendering them incapable of distinguishing wisdom from intellectual flabbiness, insight from blindered perception, heart and soul from mental mind games. And like many cult leaders he's a vampire, the Prince of Fear, proving once again that fear is a vampire.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fear is a Vampire

I attended an informal talk with two art critics recently. The room was packed with energetic, forward-looking artists, eager to absorb useful information and insights from the arbiters of culture employed by our local newspapers. The moderator asked them to comment on their view of the local art scene, the trends and potentials. The first one to speak on the subject opened up the conversation with this line - "As we sit here on the cusp of the next Great Depression, completely paralyzed,....", and he went on from there in a low-key, almost bleak tone of voice; it felt like he was going to stop at any moment and take a deep sigh, maybe melt into a puddle of dark, black despair in front of our eyes. As you might imagine, the energy in the room immediately began a slow fizzle, the audience's shoulders drooping, eyes furrowing. I felt like shouting out "Speak for yourself!", but kept my mouth politely zippered (in retrospect, I wish I had spoken up).

In thinking about his comment on the way home it occurred to me that practically every meaningful discussion these days is prefaced by a reminder that the economy is bad, as if none of us is aware despite endless news reports and headlines warning of impending doom. I thought this might make a good Saturday Night live skit. Imagine a room full of people at a cocktail party sipping drinks and chatting, the conversation going something like this:

John: Well Glenda, since the economy is tanking, can I get you a drink?

Glenda: Yes John, I'd like a red wine in light of the highest unemployment rate in 25 years.

John: Being on the cusp of the next Great Depression, I bet you'd love a good Cabernet. I'm paralyzed myself, but before I go to the bar, let me introduce you to my good friend Hilda. (takes Glenda by the arm and steers her to a woman just entering the room) Hilda, so good to see you! Have you heard that 5.3 million jobs have been lost since September? Let me introduce you to my friend Glenda.

Hilda: Well John, given that we're in the middle of the worst recession in 30 years, I'd love to meet your friend!

Ok, SNL would do it better, but you get my gist. Musing on this brought my mind to a book I read a while back, "Toward a Psychology of Being" by Abraham Maslow. A psychologist born in 1908, Maslow came of age during the Great Depression and the slaughters of WWII, and his studies were steeped in the pessimism of Freud and the Existentialists. Curiously, his writings managed to turn Freud inside out, and his philosophy developed quite differently.

Maslow took a look at motivation, and made some interesting observations. He identified one type of motivation, the predominant one in our culture and age, as deficiency motivation. This is a motivation based on lack, on the desire to fill an empty hole, so to speak. Primary biological needs come under this category - hunger, thirst, shelter, etc. - but also a need for love, for attention because of lack of self-esteem, for prestige, for fame, for a new shiny car, for all of those things we don't have but want want want. In other words, neediness. Most people are driven primarily by these motivations. But he also took a focused look at a type of person he found intriguing, what he called the self-actualized person. These people have deficiency motivations, but their primary motivations are what he called growth motivations. These motivations are for creativity, exploration, learning, loving (versus wanting love), expansion, etc. He found this was a group who were more joyful, more giving, more ambitious, more curious, whatever the circumstance they found themselves in. He also found that these people were superior problem solvers, theorizing that those dominated by deficiency motivation saw various aspects of reality in light of whether or not it satisfied deficiencies, while the self-actualized had a more complete picture of reality, saw situations more clearly for what they were rather than for what they might be useful for, and therefore were able to make better choices and decisions. While Freud focused on the unhealthy - the neurotic and the psychotic - in order to learn how to cope, Maslow chose to focus on the healthy - the self-actualized - in order to learn how to live fully.

Motivation built on fear is a deficiency motivation. It clouds our thinking, confuses us, "paralyzes" us. I have a friend who spends most evenings on the Internet researching theories and opinions about the current world economic crisis. Every time I see him it's all he can talk about, and he's worked himself into a frenzy of paranoia and misery, an out of control feedback loop. He has chosen this, of course - deficiency motivation can cause us to make bad choices. He's a bit like the art critic I spoke of, not only afraid but insistent on making sure everyone else views reality from a vantage point of fear (misery loves company). They both drain energy from others, sucking it into a vortex of their own imaginings. They are cowards, afraid to live while simultaneously cringing at that fear of all fears, the fear of death.

Fear is a vampire - it sucks your lifeblood and turns you into a zombie, the living dead.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Tao of Art Making: Part I - Feedback Loops

I was speaking recently with an artist friend about the difficulty she was having climbing out of a creative rut. She was blocked, had not painted for weeks and couldn't get off the dime. This is a perennial problem for most artists of all types - cycles of creative fever and action followed by the sudden disappearance of passion and joy, the muse silent, the divine spark quenched. I call it an art hangover, and like an alcohol hangover it makes us feel lousy. There is no simple hair-of-the-dog cure for an art hangover, but there are tricks and techniques that, if employed with diligence and discipline, can go a long way toward mitigating the depth of the crash into the creative black hole, and smoothing the road of return. In other words, there is The Practice. And, as the term implies, it takes practice. Regular practice. Disciplined practice. Persevering practice. Faithful practice.

It also takes an understanding of how the creative process works. Every one of us has to dig deep to find the individual blueprint of that process, but there are common landmarks within that sometimes mysterious, sometimes murky terrain of the inner self that can be shared. There are maps that can be consulted. There are compasses that always point to true north. There are doorways that can be opened with a skeleton key. I call it The Tao of Art Making. And yes, hitchhiking is permitted, even encouraged.

The art making process can be considered on one level as a system - the artist's intent interacting with the raw materiality of the world to create a painting, a dance, a book, a symphony. An idea cannot just sit in the head, it has to emerge into materiality, and it needs a system to accomplish that, a system that is flexible and evolves. This is where feedback loops come in, a fundamental concept of Systems theory. In a feedback loop you have output, input, a comparer, and a regulator. Input is the goal, output is the result, the comparer tests the goal with the result, the regulator adjusts to meet that goal. The thermostat in your home is a particular kind of feedback loop, a negative feedback loop. The goal is the desired temperature of the room, the result is the actual temperature, the comparer is the thermometer, and the regulator is the switch that is controlled by the thermometer, turning the heat on or off. This is called a negative feedback loop because when the system is out of equilibrium (too hot or too cold) the regulator tries to bring it back to stability, reducing the difference between input and output. A positive feedback loop adds to the difference between input and output - the most obvious example being a microphone and speaker getting too close to each other, the mic picking up sound from the speaker, adding it to the speaker, which it then picks ups and adds again, and so on until a loud screeching overload is heard and everyone covers their ears, screaming "Turn off the feedback!!!!".

Now, back to my artist friend. She's stuck in a negative feedback loop - the system is stable, but it's producing nothing new. Art making goes in cycles, just like most of the rest of life, and a stable system can be a good thing. It allows one to step back, take a deep breath, recuperate and evaluate with a sober eye and mind. But my friend is stuck, and the negative feedback loop has gone from stable to pathologically depressing (ok, that's a bit melodramatic - she has a touch of the blues). She wants to be in a positive feedback loop, but she doesn't want to become a screeching microphone either. It looks like the choice is between two pathologies; this is a dilemma. However, there is a third option - the morphogenic positive feedback loop. This is a positive feedback loop that PRODUCES CHANGES IN THE SYSTEM! In other words, it's a self-evolving feedback loop. As an artist, or in any walk of life I would hope, that's what the search is for.

Let me give some examples. I read long ago about a writer who published a wildly successful first novel, gaining fame and wealth and a retainer from his publishing company to complete a second work. He never did. He got caught in a demonic negative feedback loop, and suffered permanent writer's block. Five years later he committed suicide in despair. At the other end of the spectrum is Vincent Van Gogh, a story we all know well. He got caught up in a pathological positive feedback loop, spinning further and further out of control (aided by a doctor who was prescribing poisons to cure him), producing great works that sadly chronicled his increasing dementia, until he ended the torture by also taking his life. Here are examples of the two extremes of pathological feedback loops. Then there is the story of Emanuel Swedenborg, a man I wrote about in a previous blog. A brilliant Age of Enlightenment scientist, Swedenborg suddenly, at the age of 56, began having conversations with angels. He spent the rest of his life until the age of 84 writing about what they had to say. Happily. Smiled alot. Was a great dinner companion, generous and gregarious. He had found a morphogenic positive feedback loop, and took the ride of his life.

This all begs an important question: How does my friend get out of her rut, her slightly pathological negative feedback loop? There are many temporary fixes, but in the long run she needs...The Practice.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

How a Little Dream Became a Big Dream

Are dreams meaningless nocturnal hallucinations, or meaningful nocturnal visions?

Off and on throughout my life I've kept a dream journal. I leave a notebook and pencil on my nightstand and if I wake up from a dream I try to fight through my grogginess to jot down as much detail of the nocturnal adventure as I can. I hadn't been keeping a dream journal for awhile, and in fact hadn't been remembering many dreams at all in the past year. So when the library gods steered me to the book "Transforming Dreams" by Kelly Bulkeley, I was reminded that a key component of my creative diet was missing. Determined to re-balance my psychic nutritional menu, I placed a fresh yellow legal notepad and newly sharpened pencil on my nightstand once again.

In this book Bulkeley, a noted dream researcher, places his attention on the Big Dream, that dream that shakes us up and and leaves us wondering for days what it was about, often becoming a catalyst for a new behavior or a transformation to a new kind of consciousness that permanently alters our way of looking at our place in the world. I've had a few Big Dreams over the years, but it had been a very long time since the last and I felt a pull, a kind of anxious yearning to have my psychic juices stirred once again.

That night, I woke up from a dream:

I'm at a club or gym of some kind. There are lots of teenage boys and young men milling about in white robes and cotton pants. I realize it's a martial arts academy. It seems strange that I'm here since I've never taken martial arts training of any kind, preferring yoga to judo or kickboxing, and indeed I've never been one with an interest in any of the fighting arts. I look across the room, and to my surprise I see Captain Picard of the Star Trek television series. He's wearing a shimmering multi-colored robe, Japanese in design. I realize that he's the head teacher of the academy.

Much to my surprise, Picard catches my eye and motions me to join him. I cross the crowded room and he greets me, suggesting I accompany him to a back room. He explains that there is a tournament about to begin and he will have to change into his fighting clothes. He pulls the elaborate robe over his head and tells me to put it on. I'm flabbergasted, but he insists so I slip the robe on. As we turn back to the main room Picard explains that everyone picks a partner who will fight with him, and I will have to make a careful choice for my second. As I'm walking alongside him I keep tripping awkwardly over the hem of the robe; it's way too long for me, and I'm embarrassed at my clumsiness.

We get back to the fighting room and everyone is hastily picking their partner; my range of choice is narrowing quickly. I look around frantically, finally spotting a fellow I know sitting alone at a table. I stride over to him and put my hand on his shoulder, indicating I've chosen him as my second. He looks up at me and I remember that he isn't much of a fighter either, but he'll have to do. He grins and shrugs, and we both see that we're going to get clobbered. The absurdity of our situation hits us and we break out laughing.

I woke up from the dream laughing out loud, and the more I thought about it the more I laughed. There I was, a gentle, pacifist non-fighter who wouldn't harm a flea, being given a ceremonial warrior's robe and promptly tripping over the hem because it was too big for me! This struck me as one of the sillier dreams I've had in awhile, definitely not in the category of a Big Dream. However, It was my first dream since I brought out the dream journal, so I dutifully recorded my comical exploits and rolled back under the covers, still chuckling to myself, and drifted back to sleep.

But that was not to be the end of it.

To be continued....

Friday, March 13, 2009

How a Little Dream Became a Big Dream : Part II

I woke up the next morning and read my journal entry, getting another chuckle from the silly antics it described. It may have been a small dream, but as the first entry in the journal it carried a certain degree of significance and I lent my thoughts to its possible meaning. It was obvious that I was out of place in the martial arts academy, a feeling I encounter often enough in my day to day life. It's also not unusual to find myself in a situation I'm unprepared to handle, whether by chance or my own blundering, so the dream scenario of being on the verge of getting the crap beat out of me certainly reflected an aspect of my reality. The image of tripping over the hem of the too-long robe was a particularly vivid memory - obviously a fighter's mantle will never fit me properly and I'll only trip over my own feet if I attempt it. With that analysis I dropped the dream from my thoughts and went about my business for the morning.

It was while biking to my studio later that morning that something from the Bulkeley book came to my attention. He suggests that in analyzing a dream it's useful to isolate significant elements and expand on what they might mean to the dreamer outside of the context of the dream, thereby shedding some new light on their place within the dream. With this bit of advice I set about taking the dream apart in my mind.

The first element I examined was the use of the term "warrior", not one that normally enters my common vocabulary. I'd even used the word in my grogginess at 3am when I wrote the entry down. This seemed curious to me, until I remembered a book I'd read a few weeks prior to the dream, a book about the phenomenon of shamanism and its transfer from the indigenous context to contemporary urban culture, sometimes called neo-shamanism (think Carlos Castaneda, for example). There was an interview in the book with a Siberian shaman in which it was posited that with effort and training one could travel inward and find one's spiritual twin, and by meeting the twin discover one's true calling in life. The spiritual twin, as the shaman described it, could manifest in only 7 ways - Healer, Teacher, Warrior, Magus, Executor, Protector, or Messenger. I had found this interesting in a Jungian archetypal kind of way, and had decided that as an artist, or one who uses a kind of alchemy to turn common materials into something magical, the term Magus best fit for me. But now my dream had picked up on the Warrior image; at that moment of revelation I saw that this dream might have more to say than I had concluded earlier. As I glided down the Cherry Creek bike trail I fell into a deeper revery.

Now I had no choice but to look more closely at the appearance of Captain Picard in my dream. I'm not a fanatical Star Trek watcher, but I sometimes enjoy science fiction and I think the Star Trek series made good use of the device of encountering alien civilisations in space as an allegory for our postmodern clash of cultures here on Earth. The series has had at least four different crews in different time periods within the over-arching narrative. With each iteration the tone changed according to the personalities within the crew, and particularly in the person of the captain. In thinking of this I realized that of all the captains, Picard was the one I admired most. His character was a fierce warrior for sure, but one who was prone to quoting Shakespeare, or Milton, or the Upanishads. He grew up on a family winery and was familiar with good food and a fine bottle of wine. In other words, he was a cultured warrior. I suppose if I was going to be a warrior, I would want to be a cultured warrior.

This put a new spin on Picard's appearance in my dream - instead of treating it lightly as a pop culture image randomly tumbling around in my brain and finding itself lodged in my interior narrative by happenstance, his presence now meant something far more significant. Here was not just a warrior, but a Master Warrior, the Master of a martial arts academy. And this Master Warrior, one whom I admired, had picked me over all the highly trained warriors in the room to wear his ceremonial Warrior's Robe. What an honor! By insisting I don his robe he was recognizing me as his equal, despite my lack of training - he had seen something within me and was bringing it to my attention.

But, all that tripping and stumbling! I could hardly get across the room without falling on my face as all those around me leaped and twirled and punched and kicked in the most controlled and graceful fashion. Surely I was not fit to wear this garment, this persona of the warrior. Then I had one of those aha!!! moments, slamming my bike to a halt and staring with wide eyes and slack jaw into the sky. The robe wasn't too big because I wasn't fit to wear it, I JUST NEEDED TO GROW INTO IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I must have laughed for 5 minutes. Of course the Magus was not enough. The dream was telling me I needed to take the stance of a warrior as well in my life and work. The Magus/Warrior, if you will. The magician certainly, but one with strength and courage and daring, one who can defeat his demons, whether inside his psyche or in the outer world. I had the Magus part down, the Warrior needed some work but it was there, deep in the person of my spiritual twin.

And that's how a little dream became a Big Dream.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part I : Enlightenment Era Mathematician,Scientist, Philosopher, and....what the hell?

There are the big names in the history of science and math - Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Einstein, to name a few - and there are peculiar names in the history of science and math. One of the more peculiar and interesting of these names was a Swedish man known as Emanuel Swedenborg, born in 1688, died in 1772. He lived in the midst of what is known in Europe as the Age of Reason, a time when science and math toppled the tower of authority of the church and yanked mankind forever from the center of the universe (well, Rush Limbough is still there in his own mind, but that's another topic). It was an exciting and heady time for those who had the privilege of education and access to books, for the explosion of discovery and discussion under the umbrella of unbridled reason was explosive and far-reaching. It was this era that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution, the quantum revolution, and our current technological revolution. Emanuel Swedenborg was the right man at the right time and place - a brilliant, curious and passionate spirit who latched onto the possibilities and ran a very, very long way.

Swedenborg was privileged, born to a politically ambitious Bishop who had married into money, and received not only the best available education of the day, but also the ability to travel and study abroad. From a young age he was obsessed with the possibilities of mathematics and science, and dove headfirst into every topic he could get his hands on. He read voraciously, apprenticed with instrument makers so he could build his own laboratory equipment, searched out all of the greatest minds of his day so he could engage in direct dialogue with them, and generally sopped up everything he could wrap his brain around. Swedenborg never married (though reportedly had many lovers), so was never tied down by the responsibilities of family life and devoted himself entirely to his studies. He spoke nine languages fluently, including Latin and Hebrew (Latin was the language of all published works of that day). He wrote extensively - his volumes of published works in the fields of mathematics, biology, engineering and anatomy take up three full shelves at the Denver public library.

To get an idea of the brilliance of this man, one need only look at his work in human brain anatomy. In his fifties, settling down after a long brilliant career, Emanuel decided to study brain anatomy and traveled to Paris to work with the, then, most learned brain anatomist (this involved, ugh, dissecting dead people's brains, but what the hell). He proposed, from his studies, theories about the function of parts of the brain that were only to be proven 200 years later by neurologists having sufficiently sophisticated equipment! This man was a brilliant synthesizer, able to put together his own investigations and the discoveries of others and make them into wholly new and groundbreaking conclusions.

Then, at the age of 56, angels started talking to him.

To be continued.....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part II : Madness, or Rude Awakening?

That's right, angels (or would it be more proper to say Angels?). Emanuel woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of his 56th year and found himself in the presence of angels, who promptly told him he was to listen to what they would tell him and write it down for posterity. He spent the next 26 years doing exactly that, writing and publishing many volumes written in the same lucid and rational style he had employed in his scientific writings, albeit about the structure and meaning of heaven and hell rather than the structure and meaning of brain anatomy. He also spoke from time to time with the wandering souls of past acquaintances who were deceased. He developed some odd psychic-like abilities as well - once on a trip to visit friends in a city 300 km from his home, he suddenly became very agitated during dinner, exclaiming that there was a fire in his neighborhood and it was threatening his house. For two hours he paced about with anxiety, until finally he calmed, announcing that the fire had been stopped three doors down and his abode was safe. Remember, the quickest form of communication in those days was horseback, and 3 days later news finally arrived that confirmed every detail that he had described, to the minute!

But let's back up a bit. Emanuel Swedenborg was not exactly your typical Enlightenment Era scientist. For one, he kept a dream journal for most of his adult life. In those days that was, to say the least, unusual. Dreams conjured up biblical references, and that was a definite no-no in the Age of Reason; and besides, what's reasonable about dreams? He never published these, but after his death a nephew discovered them and had them published, causing quite a scandal since they included very detailed erotic descriptions from time to time - you know what I mean, don't you? To be keenly interested in dreams suggests a bit of woo-woo in Emanuel's nature. And, in some of his philosophical writings during the time he was studying brain anatomy, he revealed his intent with that pursuit - to find the location of the soul. Soul? You mean, woo-woo? Emanuel also had one very unusual practice he used from his teen years - when thinking on a subject or problem, he would hold his breath as long as he could while concentrating on finding the solution. This is, in fact, a traditional East Indian yoga meditational practice, one he would have no contact with but which he apparently stumbled onto and found quite useful. Obviously there was more going on with this man than one might assume (remember, always examine your assumptions!)

Being a practical man, Swedenborg had his angelically inspired writings printed in Germany so as not to alarm his neighbors and colleagues, but word got out, as it always does. Many of his scientific friends became extremely concerned, and some paid him a visit to see if he had indeed gone off the deep end. Every one of them came away shaking their heads, saying that he seemed not only quite functional and lucid, but that he appeared to be extremely happy and jovial. Now remember, he received no electo-shock treatment, lobotomy, Freudian analysis, anger management counseling, 12-step counseling, or prozac - yet he was perfectly happy, and talking with angels to boot! Damn, I gotta get some of that...

Not surprisingly, much of Swedenborg's scientific work was lost from the literature in light of the embarrassment within the scientific community over his later writings. He was only rediscovered early in the 20th century and is now regarded as a giant in the history of science. But what are we to make of the last 26 years of his life, the years in conversation with angels? Was he psychotic, hallucinating? If so, what exactly is...hallucinating? What are dreams, but sleeping hallucinations? Or are they? hmmmmmmmmmmm...........

To be continued

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part III: Vision or Hallucination?

A funny thing happened to our friend Enanuel, and when funny things happen it's often a message from the universe telling us to stop and take note, wake up from our sleep of normality and have a second look, and maybe even a third. It's easy to ignore the message, chalk it up to "hallucination", or "imagination run amuck", or "religious escapism", or, worse yet, "psychotic delusion". That is, in fact, what most of his closest friends and colleagues did. The amazing thing is that Emanuel ignored them and happily went his way, responding with a smile and a wink, then proceeding back to his home to have more interesting conversations with angels and spirits. For 26 years. Without haste, without rest.

So what can we make of this? First off, I'd like to say I'm not interested in trivializing the pain and tragedy of the very real incapacitating mental illnesses that so many around us endure. Having said that, I don't think Emanuel suffered an illness - he not only was not incapacitated, he continued writing prolifically to a ripe old age. He was thought of as a charming and intelligent conversationalist, a kind and considerate neighbor, and a delightful dinner companion. This poses a conundrum for the contemporary psychiatric point of view, from which view his talking with angels can only be considered abnormal and the result of some kind of brain malfunction. However, there are other points of view to be considered. From the traditional shamanistic perspective the visitation of angels makes perfect sense - the differance between an animal spirit guide and an angel may be no more than a differance in cultural filter (an aside is relevent here - studies of near death experiences in different cultures suggest that, at least in the first stages of death, we organize and understand what's happening through these same familiar cultural filters - Christians see angels, Buddhists see spirits of Bodhisattvas, Hindus see Krishna or Shanti, etc.). In many traditional cultures spirits are taken for granted, and one who perceives spirit is said to be...inspired. Of course, science has proven - proven I say! - thaat this spirit belief is nothing but fantasy, brainwashing, and/or abnormal brain function.

So here we are with two ways of looking at Emanuel's late life transformation. On the one hand, our contemporary scientific mechanistic view - he was hallucinating. On the other hand, the traditional shamanistic spirit/magic view - he had a vision. Hallucination or vision? Turns out, it depends on how you look at it, just like...oh my god...quantum physics!!!! When looking at light, if you're looking for a particle you see a photon particle, if you're looking for a wave you see waves and frequencies. What light is depends on how you look at it. Or, maybe more importantly, on what your assumptions are. And as we all know (I hope), it's always a good thing to examine our assumptions.

So Emanuel Swedenborg can be said, among other things, to be an object lesson in examining our assumptions through the magical catalyst I like to call woo-woo. I think I said it before but I'll say it again - I like woo-woo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Woo Woo part 1 : Waving Particles, Probably Like Making Art

I like science. I don't always get it completely, but there is one thing I get - when you travel way out there to the far reaches of science, whether quantum physics or astrophysics or anything in between, it gets very woo woo. I mean very, very woo woo. I like woo woo.

So lets start with light. Very basic thing, light, but what the hell is it? Have you ever really asked yourself that question? Scientists have, and they've been asking it for a long time, and they're still arguing about it, which is kinda good and kinda unnerving at the same time. Back in 1803 a guy named Thomas Young devised a simple experiment to get at the problem of what the hell light is. He cut a slit in a piece of paper and shined a light through it onto another piece of paper a few inches behind it. The light striking the back piece of paper formed a kind of fuzzy round image. He then cut a second slit in the front piece close to the first slit, and shined the same light through the two slits. This time the light on the back piece formed a pattern of alternating dark and light slits, brighter and darker in the middle and gradually losing intensity at the edges. What did this tell him? It told him light was a wave.

To wrap your brain around this, think of yourself as a kid, camping out in the mountains next to a lake with your family. You and your sibling get up early one morning but your parents are still sleeping because they got carried away drinking that expensive wine they brought along, and they're on vacation and don't give a damn when they wake up, and being adults they're clueless anyway. So breakfast will have to wait and the two of you decide to take a hike around the lake. It's a very calm morning and the lake is glassy smooth, perfectly calm. What's the first thing the two of you want to do standing at the edge of that peaceful, calm lake? You wanna throw a rock in it and make waves. Why? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT KIDS DO, THEY MAKE WAVES! So you both throw a rock, each trying to outdistance the other. And it's very cool when the rocks hit the surface a few yards apart and start two circles of radiating waves on the otherwise peaceful, calm lake. As you watch you notice something about waves -there are alternating high points and low points that are moving along the lake, the high points being higher than the surface and the low points being lower (later in high school physics class you find out, if you were paying attention, that these are called crests and troughs) . This is very pretty and mesmerizing, until the two bands of radiating waves collide and a strange thing happens -when a crest meets a crest, it leaps up higher, when a trough meets a trough it dives down lower, and when a crest meets a trough it's just flat. Wow, very cool!

The name of this phenomenon is wave interference, and waves of all kinds do it when they cross. Now, in Young's slit experiment, the bands of light are just like the colliding waves on that bucolic lake of your youth. When the light went through the two slits, the slits bent the light just a bit so that the waves of light crossed each other. Where two crests crossed, they formed a bright band of light, where two troughs crossed they formed another band of bright light, and where a crest crossed a trough they neutralized each other and formed a dark band. This is what water does. This is what light does. Therefore, light must be a wave.

This may not seem like such a big deal to us in the 21st century, but is was a big deal in 1803, and for the next hundred years or so this was the way science thought about light, as a wave. Until a young dude named Einstein showed up on the scene.

To be continued...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Woo Woo part 2 : Particles Waving...again, and again, and again.....

So, light is coming to us from the sun in waves, but what is it traveling on? Ocean waves are energy traveling in the medium of water, but light, which is also energy, is going through space, which is empty..."Hmmmm", says the mid-19th century physicist, "there must be something in space after all. Let's call it ether!" Which is kinda like saying to a man who just told you he talks with angels that he's hallucinating, which is really saying to him I don't know what the bleep is going on but if I give it a name I feel better. So everyone was feeling good about the ether theory until two guys in 1887, Michelson and Morley, did an experiment to prove there was no ether (trust me, it's complicated but the experiment worked). Suddenly, everyone was in a quandary - if light travels in waves, how does it do it in a vacuum?

Then, in 1900, the plot thickened. Max Planck, considered the father of quantum theory, proved that energy travels in discreet packets, which he called quanta. In other words, energy at the smallest level does not go up and down smoothly, but jerks up (or down) in little spasms, or jumps - quantas. And this is where Einstein comes in; taking a clue from Planck, Einstein created an experiment using photo-sensitive materials and showed, in a paper published in 1908, that when light was shined on these photo-sensitive materials it knocked off individual electrons, not in a wave pattern but in a scattered pattern. Einstein showed with this experiment that light was, in fact, individual photons, or quanta of energy, pummeling the photo-sensitive material like a barrage of photon torpedoes! (OK, Einstein didn't call them photon torpedoes. In the early years of the Star Trek TV series, they employed physicists to consult them on the science of the the future. Photon torpedoes, warp drive, etc., were all inventions of these physicists/consultants. There's a book on the topic, called "The Science of Star Trek").

Now comes the dilemma, or shall we say, the woo woo. Thomas Young proved that light travels in waves. Einstein proved that light is a particle. So what is it, a wave or a particle? Let's think back to Young's double slit experiment, and use it to create what is called a thought experiment; in other words, imagine a real experiment that we can't really do but which we can...imagine. Let's say we have that double slit thingy, and behind it a wall that the light hits after traveling through the slits. Now, lets cover one of the slits, say the right slit, and fire a photon toward the left slit (Einstein couldn't do this in his experiments, but today this is actually possible). The photon hits somewhere within that fuzzy circle on the back wall, possibly anywhere. If we fire enough photons toward the left slit they will eventually hit every point on that fuzzy circle, just as would have happened if we fired trillions of photons all at once at the left slit. Now, imagine everything going into very, very slow motion, except we are still quick as a bunny at the controls of the experiment. We fire a single photon at the left slit, but being quick as a bunny while the photon is slow as a turtle, we lift the cover off of the right slit just before the photon passes through the left slit. Guess what happens? The photon never, ever hits the area of the the dark bands that showed up in Young's original experiment. We try firing photon after photon through the left slit, but if the right slit is open NONE of them lands in those dark bands.

Sheesh! What's going on here? When only the left slit was open, the photon could land anywhere, but just by opening the right slit, the photon is absolutely prohibited from landing on one of the dark bands! How does it know the right slit is open? What, did it spend time at the photon Starbucks before it took off getting instructions saying "right slit closed, anything goes, right slit open, be discreet"? In other words, are light photons conscious? Do they have morals and ethics (this would put them one step above the average Wall Street stock trader).

This is known as the wave/particle duality, and is a big conundrum for physicists even today. It turns out, what light is depends on how we look at it (does this remind you of looking at art?). If we set up an experiment to measure waves, as in Young's double slit experiment, we see waves. If we set up an experiment to measure particles, as in Einstein's photo-sensitive material experiment, we see particles. Light is very accommodating to our desires! Woo Woo; who knew?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Woo Woo part 3 : Timely Waving Particles

Einstein came up with all sorts of woo woo in his life, though he wasn't alone. Science during the 20th century has taken us so far out on a limb we can't even see the trunk anymore. Most of us don't really understand it, but we hear of Chaos Theory, String Theory, Bell's Theorem and more, and we know something very strange is going on.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity is taken for granted by now, but there are some very interesting implications that came out of it that most of us don't think about. For instance... one of the conclusions of the theory is that as an object accelerates time slows down for it. For objects within our rather humdrum speed range here on earth, this difference is negligible; if you speed down the interstate in your Harley trying to slow down the aging process you're wasting your time (pun intended). However, if you were a twin, and got onto a very fast rocket ship for a round trip to Mars, by the time you got back 20 years later you'd be younger than your sibling. Now, this is kinda woo woo, but there's more. The faster you go, the slower time goes, and as you approach the speed of light time slows to a crawl. At the speed of light time stops! Neither you nor I can possibly even approach the speed of light, but there is something that can - light. In fact, light always travels at the speed of light (I bet you knew that).

It takes about eight minutes for a photon of light to leave the sun and collide with the earth. But light, traveling at the speed of light, is not experiencing any time passing, since time stops at the speed of light. Therefore, a light photon, if it were conscious (and who knows?) would experience leaving the sun and colliding with the earth SIMULTANEOUSLY!!!!!! In fact, a photon would experience everything in its existence simultaneously, even if it started 13.5 billion years ago at the big bang and was still traveling today. Past, present, and future all at once.

Now that's woo woo, and I haven't even gotten to quantum physics yet (even Einstein thought quantum physics was woo woo, but it's formulations have been proven to work every time, and today it's accepted as a description of reality on the subatomic level). But all of this begs another question - why do I love woo woo, especially scientific woo woo? Woo woo doesn't pay the rent, or put food on the table, or predict the winner of American Idol, so why care?


To be continued....

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Woo Woo part 4 : Why Why Woo Woo?

Not too long ago I heard on the radio an interview with a neuroscientist about the significance of dreams. His explanation used a computer analogy - he stated that the mind has a trash bin like the one on your home computer desktop, and that dreams were the excess information that was being tossed into the trash bin to make room in storage for future information. According to this eminent scientist dreams were simply random flotsam and jetsam that, other than being part of the house cleaning process, had absolutely no significance. Beyond betraying that this is a man who pays very little attention to his dreams (and one who probably has little or no interest in woo woo), his assertion brought up a very interesting point about analogies and the assumptions they imply.

The analogy of the brain as a computer, albeit a very complicated computer, is one that most of us tacitly accept. We've all heard, and probably used, the analogy that our bodily functions and instinctual drives are governed in our brains by its hardware, while our cultural learning is a function of its software. Brain-as-computer is really just a rewording of the analogy that rose out of Newtonian physics, the universe-as-clockwork analogy. With the scientific revolution of Newtonian physics (actually, Newton built on Descartes, who built on Galileo, but we'll call it Newtonian physics to be brief) it was realized that everything works according to Universal Laws of Physics like force, momentum, and gravity. And, since these universal laws always hold, you can predict what is going to happen at any given time by having enough information to plug into the calculations derived from the laws. Like clockwork! If you have enough information you can predict the future, such as the exact time of a lunar eclipse 10,000 years from now, or what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow. It's really amazing how well this works. The brain-as-computer analogy just says that a computer is a very complicated machine compared to a clock, and the brain is a very, very complicated gizmo...I mean, I mean computer....

So here's a guy in the 21st century, very smart, very educated, maybe a potential Nobel Prize Laureate, calling the brain a gizmo! With a desktop trash bin, no less! Very common sense actually, given the successes of neuroscience in probing the code of the brain/computer. However, this conclusion is based on the universe-as-clockwork assumption, which is tres, tres old school; I mean, the Age of Enlightenment was what, 400 years ago?

This is where woo woo comes in, namely the woo woo of relativity theory and quantum physics. We have the Newtonian Universal Laws, but those laws don't work on the subatomic level. Therefore, THEY AREN'T UNIVERSAL! On the subatomic level, the universe is not a clock, or a computer, or a gizmo needing a good mechanic. It is loaded with woo woo, and woo woo has the wonderful effect of making us examine our assumptions, because it shows us that they don't always work. And if they don't always work, we have to think, expand, and grow to absorb the woo woo into a coherent reality.... heaven forbid, we have to create new assumptions!

So let's get back to the neuroscientist playing with the brain gizmo, kinda like taking apart a TV set. Let's say he doesn't know anything about TV sets, but sees this image on the screen and hears sound coming out of the speakers. He's a curious guy, a tinkerer with a great mechanical mind, so he starts taking the TV apart. He discovers that turning one knob changes the image, another changes the loudness of the sound. Now he takes the knobs apart, and discovers all the wiring which goes to the screen and the speakers, and he concludes that the source of the images and sound must be inside these mechanisms. Then he pulls the power plug and everything stops because the TV is, well...dead. This re-enforces his view that the source of the images and sound are somewhere inside, since their existence is dependent on the TV being alive, so he keeps probing deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until the poor TV set is nothing but a chaotic pile of wires and glass and plastic strewn over the floor. He's charted diagrams, measured voltages and currents. He's figured out exactly how everything works, but he can't find the source of the images and sounds. He stands there scratching his head, figuring he must need better equipment or something (like a bigger computer). Poor guy. If he wasn't assuming that the source was inside the machine, if he realized that he was actually confronting woo woo, he might at some point intuit that the source came from a remote location.

In other words, is it possible that dreams aren't completely a function of the brain, but at least in part are remotely broadcast and the brain is simply a very sophisticated receiver? Is it possible the mind itself is not completely a function of the brain? Is it possible when we dream we are living in the land of woo woo? These are just some of the questions the woo woo of dreams begs.

That's the why why of woo woo.

Addendum: In my feeble attempt at explaining physics in this series of blogs I shamelessly ripped off Gary Zukov from his "The Dancing Wu Li Masters". If you have any interest in the new physics, this is an incredibly clear and engaging examination written for the non-scientist. Highly recommended.