Mortality and Madness – Part 2

“I am anxiously waiting
For the secret of eternal life to be discovered
By an obscure practitioner.”

From the poem, “I Am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

While I certainly qualify as an “obscure practitioner,” in spite of many years of tenacious contemplation and unrelenting reflection on the nature of human consciousness, I cannot claim to have even approached the discovery to which Ferlinghetti alludes in his poem. There are many different paths we can pursue to lead us through our temporal lives, and while some of them can open our hearts and minds to the ineffable energies that support sentient life in all its diversity and mystery, along the way, we sometimes encounter stumbling blocks that remind us of just how deep the mystery can be.

”Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; For grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known, as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed.”

–Thucydides Funeral Oration of Pericles

Recent conversation on how we view the quality and character of our everyday reality as being either ordinary or extraordinary, coupled with a sobering personal melancholy, has prompted me to consider this idea more closely.

It is particularly telling that we often hear about so-called “extraordinary people” longing for a return to life before they were considered so, and those whose life may be less spectacular in such demonstrative ways, thinking it enviable, wishing for something more, as if sentient life was not an astonishingly extraordinary gift all by itself.

It may be difficult to discern at every moment the value of whatever life we do possess, and the experience of the many possible varieties of misfortune can challenge even the most optimistic and out-of-the-ordinary among us, but we need look no further than our own eyes and hearts are willing to see and feel, to know that there is value in every life. The extraordinary is so often right in front of us; we sometimes simply fail to recognize it.

“Epicurus thought that of all the contributions that wisdom makes to the blessedness of the complete life, much the most important is the possession of friendship; that the chief concerns of the right-minded person are wisdom and friendship, of which the former is a mortal benefit, the latter an immortal one. In these pronouncements he is referring to something more than ordinary friendship: he means the friendship, fellowship, and love of persons who share the same ideals and the same philosophy.”

—from “Introduction to Lucretius: On the Nature of Things,” by M.F. Smith

The wonderful feelings of friendship and shared experiences that occur here on a regular basis, with some of the most gracious and thoughtful hearts and minds in memory, confirms what Lucretius wrote more than two thousand years ago. While we do not all see the world in the same way, and may not agree philosophically on every point, the wisdom and friendship of ordinary people can truly be extraordinary.

Mortality, Mozart, and Madness

“That it will never come again
is what makes life so sweet.”
–Emily Dickinson

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times from September 17, 2011

“Propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses, drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States, a Times analysis of government data has found.

Drugs exceeded motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in 2009, killing at least 37,485 people nationwide, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Yesterday, a person I worked with added to this somber statistic for THIS year. A young man, approaching thirty years old, married with two children, the youngest at age 2, died when a combination of drugs he ingested made it impossible for his life to continue. Regardless of the circumstances that led to this disastrous result, and in spite of all the efforts by those who tried to persuade him to quit, including his own self-admission to rehab and abandonment of drugs in the years before starting his family, yesterday, something went terribly wrong.

Less than a week ago, after not seeing each other in a while, we both happened to meet in a local restaurant on the weekend, and I held him in my arms, embracing upon first recognition, talking and carrying on like men sometimes do, joking about the boss and all the company gossip. He had started a new job and talked enthusiastically about how great it was and by all accounts, he seemed upbeat and alert. No sign of anything amiss.

My heart sank as the realization sank in. There would be no more chance meetings, and for him, there would be no chance to start again. Now, the only act of friendship I have left to show him will be to share in the grief and attend his final arrangements.

This morning though, driving to work to cover the shift for the boss for a few hours, I turned on the radio in the car for the twenty minute drive, just as the announcer introduced several selections about to play in honor of Mozart’s birthday. Already a huge fan of the composer, my melancholy mood seemed to lift a bit as the familiar notes from music he composed in Vienna about 230 years ago issued forth from the front and rear speakers in the station wagon. It was overcast and drizzling outside, but it almost felt like a break in the clouds within me.

According to Robert Cummings, in the All Music Guide:

“Mozart’s best music has a natural flow and irresistible charm, and can express humor, joy or sorrow with both conviction and mastery. Mozart was the last of seven children, of whom five did not survive early childhood. By the age of three he was playing the clavichord, and at four he began writing short compositions. Young Wolfgang gave his first public performance at the age of five at Salzburg University. He developed a fever of unknown origin and died near the end of 1791. (age 35)

Mulling over the tragic loss of a musical genius with so much more to live for, and contemplating the stark differences and deficits of the temporal world at the time of Mozart which prevented his siblings from surviving their youth, I find a whirlwind of thoughts starting to unfold and unravel in my mind. Are we doing any better in the 21st century?

In some ways, some aspects of our lives in the 21st century are more convenient and flexible, expanding our abilities to communicate with even some of the remotest areas of the world, providing numerous advantages in superior medical and scientific endeavors, while at the same time, not necessarily resulting in any clear, commensurate alteration in fundamental human nature. We sometimes seem to apply this new technology to many of the same primitive urgings and ancient mindsets that continue to endanger the very survival of the human species.

The study of human consciousness (and the resulting focus of my writing) has given me a sense of both the astonishing potential inherent in its profoundly affective nature within me, as well as the deeply mysterious and wondrous capabilities it provides to all of humanity. I disagree with James Hillman in his claim that “the psyche, (is) the soul” and that “psychotherapy is only working on that ‘inside’ soul.” It’s not all of us that have this wrong somehow. In my view, our souls are integrated with our mind and consciousness, and it’s our brains that are inside of us. We have to integrate them all into some sort of balancing act, and when something goes wrong…it can unravel completely, and when something goes right, it can produce genius.

…..more to come….

Thoughts on a Snowy Evening

I know something of emotional distress. It has been my companion over the years more often than I would have chosen myself. Each person experiences life from a unique vantage point, but as human beings, we experience many similar circumstances. Our common experiences, however closely related in a general sense, are frequently colored by our individual interpretations of them, and often barely recognizable as shared for that reason. While each person’s life is not repeatable in precisely the same way as ours, there are a few universal truths which can be appreciated by anyone who has had a broad enough range of experience.

One snowy, winter night, some years ago, as I thought of the turbulence that had come to define my life at that time, I looked up at the frozen mist, and lost myself momentarily in the echoes of memory, trying to connect to my heart’s rhythms and to my truest self. I realized at that moment, just how important our thoughts, memories and emotions could be.

Photo by Roderick Chen

I stepped out into the night and took a walk in the falling snow. I had been struggling with an inner pain that seemed to be eating away at me a little at a time, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I always stepped into the light of each new day with the hope that somehow I would find a way to put it behind me, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to linger deep within the forest of consciousness, and sometimes, the stillness of the night quieted my mind to the point where the echoes of my traumatic past came vividly alive.

In the dim light from above my head, I looked up at the frozen mist, and recalled a moment so painful, and so deeply rooted, that I lost myself momentarily in those echoes, and could not hold my passions at bay. They spilled forth with a vengeance, and I wept bitterly for just a moment or two in the silence and the snow. There was no remedy for my affliction. No gentle caress to ease the burden I carried along that snowy path.

The quiet beauty and elegant whisper of the snowflakes as they descended on that particular evening, far from being a welcomed respite from the emotional pain, actually felt like little stones striking my flesh. I stood trembling under the canopy of night, breathing deeply in an attempt to gather my strength for my next leg of the journey, in what I felt was a vain attempt to resume the trek past the pain.

Nothing in your life, PRIOR to this moment, can prepare you fully for life AT this moment. That is the nature of life. We live each moment as it arrives, and respond to the many twists and turns, with only as much wisdom as we have been able to accumulate by the time each moment arrives. It isn’t hard to lose our way, or to abandon hope for finding a safe place to begin again.

The way to gain a true picture of our place within the currents of time is to consider what the world would be like without us. The missing joys of our early childhood for our loved ones—the lives of our young friends unaltered by our friendship—the lost comfort of those whom WE consoled in times of pain—the feelings of love and completeness undiscovered by our mate and children—the uncertainty of the outcome of EVERY event lacking our involvement, as well as all the things that are yet to unfold due to our previous intervention—each of these considerations amounts to years of significant contributions that only WE could have made.

The world moves with or without us, and will continue to rotate on its axis as long as conditions in our solar system remain constant. Barring some catastrophic galactic event, we can, within reasonable limits, expect that the events of our lives will not alter greatly the chaos of the universe. However, as we step into the light of each new day, the endless realm of possibility, borne upon the tides of our sometimes unfathomable longings, awaits our contributions.

The Divine Light of Love

Recently, knowing of my passion for poetry, my nephew and his intended bride invited me to share in their celebration of love by composing and reciting an original poem about Love and Marriage. It was a wonderful gesture on their part to acknowledge my poetic inclinations, and to invite me to perform an original work as part of their wedding ceremony, but in a deeper sense, to be recognized as someone who knew enough about the subject to be included in such an important moment in their lives was a great honor, and I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to do so.

When asked to compose this poem for the celebration, I couldn’t help but wonder if anything truly original would arrive on the page. Humans have been expressing the notions and emotions of love since the very first words of human language were born. Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian poets were scribbling thoughts of love into poetry thousands of years ago. On the other hand, I did have some experience in the subject. Growing up, I was blessed to have parents whose mutual love and unwavering commitment to each other was perhaps the best example anyone could hope for, of what a marriage should be. My wife and I raised a family of six children, and over the years have experienced a pretty full range of the emotions and trials that can come in marriage. We have been blessed so far with five grandchildren and I felt like I could compose something worthwhile. As a philosopher and a poet, I agreed immediately. But it didn’t come easily.

Philosophers and poets through the ages have struggled to reach into the depths of the human soul, where love originates, especially the deeply rich and vibrant kind of love that was evident in the faces of these two young souls as they prepared to embark on the journey of a lifetime. If you would ask them, I think most poets would tell you, that the most direct path to the depths of our souls, to the spirit of life, is in the unconditional opening of ourselves to another.

These two souls bravely embarked on the journey toward the spirit of life, and stated their intention to lovingly and unconditionally open to each other. The image above was presented to me as a gift at Christmas this year, and it clearly shows the unmitigated joy of the moment, and the promise of the life and love to come. For them to succeed, it seemed to me, they would need more than just an appropriate and enthusiastic rendering of an original poem. They would also need our unconditional support and love, as well as the guidance that can only come from the divine source of all life.

In honor of the occasion, I presented to them, and now to my readers here, this expression of the experience of that source, which I entitled, “The Divine Light of Love.”

The Divine Light of Love

As the sun slowly exhales and sinks
Behind its sleepy, late day horizon,
Two hearts, two souls, two destinies-
Keep their appointment with the season of joining,
And merge with the tentative light
Seeping out over the lip of the evening sky,
Bathing each of the two, who were once asunder,
With the hopes and fears, joys and tears,
Storms and serenity, of a oneness yet to be.

Whispers of thoughts in contemplation of doubt,
Evaporate as harmony of the heart takes them in its tender grasp.
Each moment in time, each pulse of affection,
Each crystal of love’s ancient, eternal memory
Now floats past their mind’s eyes
Like specs of dust dancing in sunbeams,
Lingering just long enough to invite their gaze,
Before trailing off into obscurity, invisible,
Never again to be repeated in exactly the same way.

Divine light, we are told, is the source of such thoughts;
Their living, breathing, part or parcel of God;
Illuminating their hearts desires, and revealing their lives,
As branches on the tree of life.

There is no wisdom path they can see;
No obvious highway begins at the tree.
The path leading forward, now hidden, is dark,
But the light that will guide them has detected their spark.

The heavenly hosts, how they sing, how they sigh;
The angels have taken again to the sky.
Their probing and beautiful showers divine
Send streams of ambiguous, bittersweet wine.

There are many among us today who shed tears,
For we know and have traveled love’s pathways for years.
While we knew on our journey bitter droplets of pain,
Today tears of joy wet our faces like rain.

So now as these lovers seek the solace of love,
They ask every blessing and hope from above;
Their souls, steeped in hunger; their roots have been shaken-
God sent them each other, their hearts to awaken.

There’s nothing to do-let the story unfold.
For Natalia and Stephen, this day is pure gold.
All we can do is embrace them and pray,
That the divine light of love will be with them each day.

Neuroscience and the Arts

In the introduction to Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” he sums up the problem with only considering brain physiology as the means to come to terms with consciousness:

“Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this is not how we experience the world…It is ironic but true:the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

There was a time in the early days of my youth when it seemed to me that there could be no higher calling in life than to be an artist. As an adolescent, I recall being thought of and described by others as “artistic.” In response to this perception, my parents enrolled me in summer “art classes,” while in grammar school, and one year for Christmas, I received the art instruction kit entitled, “Learn to Draw,” by John Gnagy. I already had a great deal of enthusiasm for drawing images, but hadn’t really acquired much in the way of actual drawings. This gift challenged me to focus more on technique, and soon I was producing work that people began to notice and remark about.

In high school, I studied art more seriously, tried out different mediums, and began to develop a more personal and specific vision that resulted in work that was a bit more “outside-the-box.” I tried my hand at water colors, and even started to imagine life as an artist. In the summer of my senior year, our family vacation at the beach prompted what would become my first real rendering of not so much what I saw, but rather more of what I felt. There was an old storm-damaged pier that I had known since I was a young boy. I used to get up early in the morning before anyone else and walk alone through the weathered wooden pilings, sometimes losing myself in a daydream, and wonder about what experiences might have taken place around that pier before I showed up. Here is a photograph of the pier from years ago:

Here is the rendering which seemed to me to capture the experience of those mornings, and my memories of those walks:

I remember clearly the moment of creation. I vividly recall the brush flying across the paper of my artist’s workbook, recording the impressions that entered my mind and sprang from me uncontrollably it seemed, running down along my arm like a receding wave. I felt certain that something extraordinary was happening and that it was much larger than me. I recall feeling emotionally and spiritually spent afterwards, but oddly satisfied and calm.

A great deal has been written about how the cognitive abilities of our modern human brain were acquired as a result of their survival advantage. Conventional wisdom says that they did not develop for any specific purpose, and our ability to be creative with regard to survival strategies, just by coincidence, also gave us the ability to apply that same creative ability to making cave paintings, conjuring up rituals, as well as inventing innovative ways of expressing ourselves through language, symbolic writing, visual arts, and even dances and music. Could it be that our nature as cognitive creatures might include, as an essential aspect, the ability to be creative in ways which have had, at least up to now, no discernible survival advantage?

While creativity may only have been used by our human ancestors to obtain the necessary resources for survival initially, it is also clear that our subsequent evolutionary progress was accompanied by the expansion of our creative nature as cognitive creatures, equipped as we then were to imagine, dream, and ponder the possible. One could reasonably suggest that our continued existence as a species may well depend on our capacity for an ever-increasing degree of creative thought. If this is so, then its selection in the evolutionary process was far more than an advantageous accident, and its continued expansion may be an inherent quality of creativity itself.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote:

In man, experience is a result of his memory, for many memories of doing the same thing end in creating a sense of a single experience. Experience seems almost the same as science and art. But in fact, science and art come to men through experience.”

The process in the brain that makes it possible to remember our experiences and the process that makes it possible to have experiences in the first place are not the same process at all. Our eyes, nose, skin, ears, and taste buds all send signals to the brain through the central nervous system with information about what is being perceived, but the cerebral cortex must interpret that information as our sense of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. Without a sufficiently sophisticated brain to process the information gathered by our senses, the information would be far less useful. Although all of these sense perceptions could operate without memory, our ability to remember what happened while these processes were operating makes it possible to learn. The brain records that information and stores it in a marvelously sophisticated process making it available for future reference. So, while the processes work together in important ways to make sense of conscious experience, and to enable us to demonstrate our consciousness to others, they also function independently, in equally important ways.

The American philosopher and psychologist, John Dewey wrote in “Art as Experience:”

“Even now we owe to science a liberation of the human spirit. It has aroused a more avid curiosity, and has greatly quickened, in a few at least, alertness of observation with respect to things of whose existence we were not before even aware. Scientific method tends to generate a respect for experience, and even though this new reverence is still confined to the few, it contains the promise of a new kind of experience that will demand expression…Only imaginative vision elicits the possibilities that are interwoven within the texture of the actual. The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art.”

Neuroscience has advanced now to the point where we can clearly see that our ability to have access to consciousness is the result of many different processes working together, with memory leading the way as a ceaseless and ever-changing sequence of neural activities which manifest through a variety of coordinating brain regions and neural networks. It is a collection of neurological instruments that orchestrates the symphony which we perceive as consciousness.