Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

Defining Mesocosm

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Mesocosm with Assyrian Androcephalous Bulls
British Museum, 2011

In the last several months since Mesocosm went live, I have learned a lot about what the blog is and what it wants to be. Simply by following my interests, a pattern has gradually emerged which has given me a sense of what this blog is about, and where my own commitments lie.

Unfortunately there is no good word for the thread that binds my interests together. I might call it “religion,” except to most people the word connotes the Baptist minister, the Catholic mitre, or perhaps the Buddhist priest. It suggests, by and large, dogmatic assertions about the nature of the world, which are impossible to reconcile with what we have learned from careful observation of the cosmos.

I might call it “mythology,” a word which Joseph Campbell used, except to most people “mythology” suggests Jason and the Argonauts or Perseus – that is, stories with a fanciful or etiological function, often concerning the slaying of monsters and maidens trapped in tall towers.

These things are elements of what I’m circling around, but so is the wonder and bafflement one encounters when one hears from the physicist that our bodies and minds are ultimately composed of nothing more than a particular configuration of spacetime, or that many of the molecules that make up my body were formed in the fusion furnaces of stars that exploded long ago, casting new, heavy elements out into space.

What I’m talking about has more to do with not knowing than knowing. It’s the mystery that moved Ikkyu to ask:

why is it all so beautiful this craziness
this fake dream why? (1)

This state of holy bafflement has been recognized and evoked by poets and visionaries throughout time and the world over. The first Caliph of Islam, Muhammed’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, said that with respect to Allah, “Incapacity to perceive is perception.” In a completely different cultural and religious context, using identical language, the Bengali Buddhist master Jowo Atisha, who would transform Tibetan Buddhism in the eleventh century, wrote “This not seeing is itself seeing.”

It is the state of wonderment encountered when the limit of words and understanding is reached, and a cosmos of galaxies spills forth into infinite sky just past the threshold.

In his Book of Monastic Life, Rilke wrote:

I circle God and the ancient tower
a thousand years long,
and I do not yet know, am I a falcon,
storm, or great song.

I want to circle with him, and bring every tool I can to the table for rendering images of that mystery into the field of human endeavor and understanding, the wonder of Ikkyu’s fake dream. To me that means drawing it all in, from history, comparative religions, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, art history, poetry, philosophy, theology, philology, hermeneutics, systems theory, and physics – every one of those fields has something important to say.

I have circled the mystery for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of the religious life is arguing at the age of 9 against an anthropomorphic idea of God with my parents, both Episcopal priests of a patient temperament and humanist orientation. In college I plunged into philosophy and literature, swam in the seas of systems theory and physics, and opened the door to Hinduism and Buddhism. I traveled to India to learn from the Dalai Lama, and studied Madhyamaka intensively, first on my own, then with Gelukpa teachers, then at Jeffrey Hopkins’ Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies program at the University of Virginia.

In 2000, still ravenous, I moved to San Francisco. The third day after my arrival I began a weekly intensive study session on Madhyamaka philosophy with the director of practice at the San Francisco Zen Center, where I would live for two years before deciding monastic life did not suit me.

Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

I studied cognitive and developmental psychology, and continued my work in systems theory and self-organization, which I became increasingly convinced offered conceptual tools for analyzing complex phenomena that had hitherto lay well outside the reach of science.

At Burning Man, I witnessed first-hand how new and highly-idiosyncratic symbolic forms can take shape and mark people in profound ways. I worked as a contributing editor for Erowid for two years, and carefully tracked and researched neurotheology and a round of fascinating and brilliant experiments investigating commonalities between spontaneously-occurring mystical experiences and psilocybin-induced states. I corresponded with researchers, pharmacologists, and psychologists around the world investigating everything from the serotonergic receptor-binding to endogenous dimethyltryptamine as a source of religious vision.

Wagner drew me into opera with his mighty Ring, and I spilled out into an entire world of sacred music that has been giving shape to the voice of this longing for millennia, from the earliest polyphony of the Notre Dame School to the masterworks of the elder Bach to the haunting shades of Berg’s violin concerto or Silvestrov’s bagatelles.

I am still circling, using every tool I can get a hold of, convinced that what I’m getting at is something of profound importance, too important to be left to specialists. It is a mystery that is woven into every aspect of human culture, for those who are inclined to hear its music. Joseph Campbell perfectly expressed my sense of urgency:

Clearly mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible forms of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life, joining the world a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk. (2)

So I continue the work. I am reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the great Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, and the Mahābhārata; I’m also studying the Quran and the the history of Sufi philosophy, and working with Wittgenstein’s language game theory as a way to understand non-denotational religious belief. I’m translating a book of Rilke’s religious poetry and editing an essay on the relationship between contemporary particle physics and Zen philosophy for serialization on this blog.

And I’m looking for work! There’s not a lot of money in the God business. Well … at least, not the way I play it.


1) Ikkyu, trans. by Stephen Berg. Crow with No Mouth. Copper Canyon Press. 2000.
2) Campbell J. The Masks of God Volume I: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. 1969. p. 12.


Written by Mesocosm

March 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Musings

One Response

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  1. Bravo! I’m glad you’re sharing this blog. And I’m glad to be a fly in the wall as you and it develops.

    Andrew G Law

    March 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm

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