"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

Archive for November 2012

Mindfulness Meditation and Hip Hop

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Self is illusion, music’s divine
Noosed by the strings of Jimmy’s guitar
I swing Purple Hazed pendulum
Hypnotizing the part of I that never dies….

  – Saul Williams

What do mindfulness meditation and freestyle rapping have in common? If you answered “Both are associated with increased activity in the middle prefrontal cortex,” you’re right!

Dr. Siyuan Liu led a study recently published in Scientific Reports, describing the neurological activity of twelve experienced freestyle rap artists. (1) The researchers monitored the rappers’ brain activity with fMRI imaging while they improvised lyrics over an eight-bar musical track, and compared their findings to the subjects’ brain activity while they performed pre-written lyrics over the same music. Science Daily reports:

During freestyle rapping, the researchers observed increases in brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for motivation of thought and action, but decreased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role. (2)

This study caught my intention because Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, has persuasively hypothesized that the middle prefrontal cortex, a brain area which encompasses the medial prefrontal cortext, is strongly associated with mindfulness meditation. Dr. Siegel believes that synaptic growth and activation in the region are stimulated by years of meditation practice.

Siegel associates the middle prefrontal cortex with nine forms of attunement: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, self-knowing awareness, fear-modulation, intuition, and morality. (3)

Notice that Liu et al. report decreased activity in the “dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role.” This finding is significant, because it suggests that as mindfulness increased in the freestyling subjects, their self-identification with their thoughts and ideas decreased at the same time. As they became more creatively engaged and self-aware, they became less self-identified with their passing thoughts.

This is precisely what was observed by Farb et al. in another brain activity study of mindfulness practitioners. (4) Participants in the study were asked to reflect on the self-reflective meaning of a series of words, and those who were inexperienced in mindfulness meditation showed an increase in activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal regions, while experienced meditators did not.

Siegel comments on the study:

The coupling of these two regions suggests that without training, we are often unable to remove ourselves from the narrative chatter of our busy minds and distinguish ongoing story narration and mental time travel from immediate experience of the present moment. This narrative neural activity suggests that without mindfulness training people may naturally continue to be unable to ‘just live in the present’ and instead are filled with ruminations and self-referential judgments. (5)

I would speculate that any creative act of sustained and focused awareness functions as a kind of yoga, and leads to an increase in creative activity accompanied by a decrease in identification with the discursive self. This is what the Zen master Eihei Dogen described as “the wholehearted engagement in the way,” or the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow states.” Liu et al. do not mention mindfulness or meditation in their findings, but they do refer to “flow states” twice in their article. (1)

A disciplined and sustained creative focus is therefore associated with long-term personal transformation of consciousness. This is something artists have intuitively known about themselves for a long time – probably for as long as there have been artists.

When I recently heard Bill Viola speak, for example, he reflected favorably on his experience living in Japan, observing that “it was a culture that had mastered the art of getting the mind out of the way, which you have to do in order to create.”

One doesn’t want to make too much of scientific findings of this kind, which are merely suggestive – especially at this stage in the research. For starters, it is not always clear what increased activity in any localized area of the brain necessarily means, and most of the functional correlations described in this post are either hypothetical or not well understood. But the data are suggestive, intriguing, and congruent with some of the best hypotheses around regarding the neurological correlates of mindfulness.

Thanks to Don Salmon of Remember to Breathe for pointing out that I confused the medial prefrontal cortex and middle prefontal cortex.

1) Liu S, Chow HM, Xu Y, et al. “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap“. Scientific Reports 2, 15 Nov 2012.
2) NIH/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2012, November 15). This is your brain on freestyle rap: Study reveals characteristic brain patterns of lyrical improvisation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from
3) Siegel DJ. The Mindful Brain. W. W. Norton and Company. 2007. pg. 191.
4) Farb NAS, Segal ZV, Mayberg et al. “Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 313–322.
5) Siegel DJ. “Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 259–263.

Written by Mesocosm

November 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

Masks of God

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Zuni Dancer

I’ve been studying the native peoples of the southwest United States – particularly the Zuni, the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Apache. There is so much I wish I could share with you about their marvelous cultures, but I’m afraid I’m just a simple blog writer and don’t have time to do it all. If you are interested in comparative religions, though, I heartily recommend you pick an angle and dive in.

I was recently struck by an exchange with a Zuni woman that was reported by Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. She describes in rich detail the annual Shalako festival, in which a precession of masked dancers in beautifully-painted masks – some of them sixteen feet tall – enter the town and receive offerings.

These masked dancers are known to be members of the village, yet they are also viewed as gods, in some sense. They both are and are not the deities whom they “personate,” to use Fergusson’s apt term.

Fergusson reports:

The Council of the Gods comes annually to Zuñi and is received with the reverence due those in whom the divine is actually present.

We call these figures gods because Matilda Stevenson did so when she first wrote of them in 1879, but my informant, a very intelligent and well-educated Indian woman, refuses the title absolutely.

“They are not gods,” said she; “That word is wrong. The Zuñi have no gods; they are Ko-Ko.”

“Just so,” said I, expectant pencil poised; “And what is the English word for Ko-Ko?”

“There is no English word for Ko-Ko. I do not know. It is something different. I cannot tell you how it is to the Zuñi, but they are not gods.”

So there it is, as inexplicable as everything Indian must always be to the white man. They are not gods; they are Ko-Ko, and for Ko-Ko there is no English word, and presumably no English idea. It seems likely, from many similar conversations and a sincere effort to get the Indian point of view, that the Indian has no anthropomorphic gods. Yet such creatures as these of the Zuñis impersonate something divine: possibly merely an aspect of the great hidden spirit, which in one manifestation is so brilliant that the sun is a shield to hide it. (1)

Just as the men are not Ko-Ko, the Ko-Ko are not gods, but aspects of the divine, or, as Joseph Campbell put it, masks of God. These are symbols that invoke and instantiate a great mystery, and are recognized as such.

Zuni Pueblo, Edward S. Curtis

This reminds me very much of the bit of Ibn-al’Arabi that we recently looked at in a post on the artist Bill Viola. “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.”

There is an endless process of deferment, where the symbol is not the thing, but stands in relationship to something else, which is also not the thing, because the real thing is beyond words and ideas.

Even among so-called primitive peoples, it is very common to find a high degree of epistemological sophistication about such matters. Only small children in archaic societies believe that people in masks are actually gods and monsters. Indeed, in many societies that celebrate ritual masked dances, the initiation that brings young boys into adulthood involves being tormented by masked figures, who are ultimately unmasked, so the young man can really understand what has happened to him – that the masks are symbols for the divine forms of the tribe. We can find such initiations in a great range, from the desert southwest of the United States to the aborigines of Australia.

Many of the cultures I’ve been studying lately engage in ritual dances, and looking at one after another really gets you thinking about sacred dance and its nature. I’m sure it will surprise no one to hear that many Christian missionaries believed the Indian sacred dances were diabolical and should be stopped. It goes without saying, but it’s also exceedingly odd.

“Worship is not to be done by moving your body; it is to be done by sitting in orderly rows in a building and singing,” says the pious missionary, and to him that makes perfect sense.

My cursory research on the topic suggests that the Christian church has long frowned upon dance, going all the way back to the bishops of Alexandria in the third century, who discouraged their congregations from dancing in celebration of the holidays. They recognized dances for what they were: popular continuations of practices that had long been enjoyed and valued. They were therefore to be distrusted.

Corn Mountain, sacred to the Zuni
Edward S. Curtis

One fine day long ago, when I was living at a Zen monastery in the mountains, I was on the serving crew. Our job was to serve lunch in an elaborate and painstaking ceremony called Ōryōki, which is a bit like Japanese Tea Ceremony. The serving of the food is tightly orchestrated, so that everything works like a Swiss clock.

At one point during the serving, I was hanging out a bit in the kitchen. I knew that I wasn’t due back at the meditation hall for a few minutes, so I was waiting and thinking.

Now, the fellow who was in charge of the crew saw me standing there and must have thought to himself, “What on earth is this monk doing?” He yelled at me “Get to the meditation hall! NOW!” and raced off.

I am so glad that he did this, because it produced a minor insight for me. Here, I realized, is a man who has lost all perspective.

What we were doing out there in the woods was essentially a form of theater for a very small audience: ourselves. And even if I dropped an entire pot of stew in the abbot’s lap, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.

That bit of perspective was invaluable, because all these forms of demonstrative worship are bits of theater we do for one another. The distinguished Zen scholar Carl Bielefeldt has in fact argued that the purpose of Zen meditation is merely to ritually re-enact the enlightenment of the Buddha, and nothing more. A lot of people don’t like that – they would like to see the Great Light or whatever.

I’m not sure what my point is exactly. What were we talking about? Ah – right, masks. It’s the masks that we all wear, and they seem very impressive. And they are, and they aren’t. There may be an opportunity here, to see that this personality I wear is also a mask, and is, in fact, a mask of God.

If you take off your own mask, you get to see that there’s nobody here but us, and then we can all relax a little. It’s pretty good.

Addendum (Dec 6, 2012): The famous Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk once told John Neihardt the story of how White Buffalo Woman brought the first sacred pipe to his ancestors. He then made this statement:

“This they tell, and whether it happened so or not, I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.”

1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. p. 98.

Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Paleolithic Saints?

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Saint Christopher
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The gallery of Catholic saints contains some interesting oddities and cases of mistaken identity.

Take the case of Barlaam and Josephat, two fellows who were canonized in the Middle Ages. Their feasts were celebrated until the nineteenth century, when folklorists discovered that they were actually bodhisattvas. Their heroic life stories were told in Ashvaghosha’s Lives of the Buddha, a collection of biographies of the Buddha’s former lives, and they were mistaken for Christian martyrs by European monastic scholars working with a garbled translation.

Another favorite of mine is Saint Guinefort, who was never officially recognized, but was nonetheless widely venerated by a popular cult. Guinefort was a greyhound who was martyred in the thirteenth century after his master, arriving home at night to find the dog’s jaws covered with blood, mistakenly believed that Guinefort had bitten his child. In fact, the loyal beast had slain a deadly viper that threatened the infant.

Saint Christopher is said to have come from the dog-headed tribe of Marmaritae, where he was a cannibal and a barbarian, until he met the Christ-child and was redeemed, becoming an ascetic “athelete of God.”

I was recently alerted to another case of possible misattribution in the outstanding book The Quest for the Shaman by Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, an archaeological survey and analysis of shamanism that reaches back to the earliest human symbolic cultures in the Upper Paleolithic. The authors credit the librarian Martin Howley for this tale, which I find speculative but plausible. (1)

Our story concerns the patron saints of Milan, Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Their remains were discovered by the church father Saint Ambrose (d. 397) during the construction of the Cathedral of Milan. He had agreed to consecrate the building if any relics of martyrs were found, and in a letter he recounts:

Gervasius and Protasius

I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people. Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on transferred them to the basilica of Fausta, where watch was kept during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. (2)

The “bloody bones” were attributed to the Christian martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, who became the patron saints of Milan. Saint Ambrose himself was interred in a porphyry sarcophagus along with the remains of Gervasius and Protasius. (3) The sarcophagus was lost for several centuries, but is believed to have been rediscovered in 1864, and the cult of Gervasius and Protasius is now alive and well.

Several scholars, including the Aldhouse-Greens, speculate that what was in fact unearthed was a paleolithic burial site dating to the Gravettian period (around 30,000-20,000 BCE). This is the same cultural complex that is primarily associated with the well-known Venus-type fertility figurines of the Stone Age.

Milan lies well within the Gravettian range, and many burials associated with the culture involved decorating the human remains with red ochre, which gives the strong impression of “much blood;” indeed, this was probably why it was used. You can see what such a grave looks like here.

1) Aldhouse-Green M and S. The Quest of the Shaman. Thames and Hudson. 2005. pp. 32-3.
2) Medieval Sourcebook: Ambrose of Milan: Letter 22: The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.
3) “St. Christopher”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Accessed Nov 11, 2012.

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November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am

Bill Viola and the Seventy Veils

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Viola with his Memoria
(click to enlarge)

Unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. – Eihei Dogen

Last night, at a fundraiser for the San Francisco Zen Center, artist Bill Viola described his childhood preoccupation with perceiving reality from different angles and perspectives. He would stare at reflections of objects in the water, or lie on his side with his head on the ground for a long time, and things would take on a different aspect. Even giving close attention to the reflective fringe on a piece of fabric can open the door to another world.

He sensed that in those moments of perspectival shift, something real was disclosed. Perhaps he was seeing something more true than the ordinary world that we usually experience.

This sense of discovery and insight, in the midst of time-dilated experiences, characterizes a great deal of his video and installation art. There is a sense of mystery as blurry images gradually become clear, remote images move slowly toward the viewer, or the camera angle slowly shifts until we finally realize what it is that we’re seeing. There are continual images of transit and transformation, metamorphosis and epiphany.

Art historian John Walsh, who curated a Viola show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recalled hearing the artist reflect on the Sufi doctrine of the seventy veils that lie between human beings and God. As described by the great Sufi master Ibn al-‘Arabi:

The Prophet said, “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.” Look how subtle these veils are, and how hidden, for God says, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein” (50:15), while those veils exist, preventing us from seeing Him in this mighty nearness…. (1)

In ordinary life, when we’re constantly distracted by the intellect and its strategic concerns, there is a continual bewildered engagement with the various energies and images that direct our attention, but periods of stillness or of deep human experience hold the possibility of real awareness, of standing in relationship to a God who almost seems to break through the threshold.

During the brief Q and A following the lecture, I wanted to know about the possibility of openness that seems to absorb him as an artist – the sense of discovery that his art creates for audiences by preparing the viewer for peripatetic shifts in which everything suddenly resolves.

What is that open space, I asked, and is it possible to peer beyond the veil? Or are there only more veils?

I can only paraphrase his thoughtful and detailed reply, in which he talked about the different kinds of veiling and disclosure that can occur throughout life. Each experience has its own sense of discovery, and carries its own particular meaning. For example, as you age, things gradually come into focus, or things that were once clear can become unclear.

Some doors never open, he observed, and this is not a bad thing. There are doors that turn you away, and that turning away sustains the mystery that people need in order to live. Some doors remained closed because what they conceal would destroy you.

But there are also moments that convey something that is real, something that is known not with the mind but with the the heart and the body, and the totality of one’s being, something beyond words.

I think it is those moments of value that Viola tries to evoke in works like “The Passing,” a video work that juxtaposes unflinching images of the death of his mother with images of birth. The point of the work is immediately obvious, but the effect is profound, for the piece is not explanatory but visionary. It does not evoke a new intellectual understanding, but a reorientation of perspective and value.

Of the artists I’ve come across in my life, Viola has been the most effective at consistently bringing such moments forth for me. When I first came upon a huge retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago by chance in 1999, the effect of it was life-changing. At the time I was living in Charlottesville, studying Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia, but when I saw his work, I realized that there was a whole world going on out there, and I wanted to be part of it. I knew I wouldn’t find it if I remained cloistered away in intensive study for ten years. As a consequence of that discovery, I left school and moved to San Francisco.

Viola spoke with generosity, reflecting on the many kindnesses that were necessary for the process of creativity, and equally necessary for life itself. He encouraged everyone to embrace the creative force that not only forms the essence of art, but is the creative power that sustains the whole world.

Think of all of the things that were necessary to bring you forth and to prepare you for life, he counseled, all the teachers and parents who gave you what you need in order to live. Your past has been held by a lattice of inconceivable supports that you could never have hoped to ask for. And trust, as you move forward into the unknown, that your future will be, too.

1) Chittick WC The Sufi Path of Knowledge; Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. State University of New York Press. 1989. p 364.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

Edward S. Curtis

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In my last post on the Kwakwaka’wakw winter dances, I included a few photographs taken by Edward S. Curtis. As I’ve continued my study of Native American culture, I’ve been struck many times by his powerful photographs, and wanted to share some of my favorites with you.

Edward Curtis (1868–1952) traveled extensively throughout the west in his efforts to document dozens of Native American peoples. His work has been criticized by some for their artificial character, representing an idealized image of the Indian as noble savage and minimizing the conditions of squalor in which so many of his subjects were condemned to live.

Personally, I would not trade these images for anything. Many of them represent a precious, fleeting glimpse of a way of life that in many cases have been all but destroyed.

Click on any image to begin slideshow.

Curtis was also a filmmaker, and completed one feature-length silent film, In the Land of the War Conoes (available through Netflix). It was the first film to be shot with an entirely Native American cast, and includes extensive footage of Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonials, including the Hamatsa dance.

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November 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm