"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for the ‘Ephemera’ Category

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

Canzon: The Yearly Slain

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Ceres and Proserpina (detail)
Ludwig Schwanthaler
(c) Barnaby Thieme

Today I’d like to share a lovely poem by Ezra Pound drawn from Canzoni & Ripostes by Pound and T. E. Hulme.

The poem was conceived as a response to Frederic Manning’s charming but inferior “Korè“. The subject of both poems is the goddess Persephone, daughter of Demeter and queen of the Underworld, sometimes called Kore, or maiden.

The locus classicus of Persephone’s well-known story is the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter“, written in honor of her mother, goddess of corn, known as Ceres to the Romans. One day, while gathering flowers, Persephone was seized by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, who dragged her below the earth to make her his queen. Demeter was heartbroken by the loss of her daughter and abandoned her office, and the land became barren and the fields infertile.

This time of infertility is widely interpreted in European literature as autumn and winter. However, in Greece, the time of infertility is not winter, but summer, when the fields lie untilled as the hard earth bakes beneath the harsh Mediterranean sun. The great Greek fertility festival honoring Demeter’s return to activity, the Thesmophoria, was held in autumn, at the beginning of the planting season.

Pound and Manning associate Persephone’s absence with winter, and beautifully employ melancholy autumnal images to signify her departure. Using the more generic term for the goddess, Kore, or maiden, they transpose the story onto a higher plane of generality. The loss of the maiden is also the loss of the beloved, and the sorrow of solitude is externalized by the falling away of the summer leaves.

As you read the poem, note the intricate and demanding rhyme scheme. Each stanza is ABCDEFG, repeating precisely throughout the entire poem (i.e., the first lines of every stanza rhyme, and so forth). This rhyme scheme is developed and perfected by the great Provençal Troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Pound regarded as perhaps the greatest of all poets. If the poem is slowly read aloud, the rhyme scheme produces a powerful musical effect that binds the whole together.

Canzon: The Yearly Slain
  (Written in reply to Manning’s “Korè.”)
       “Et huiusmodi stantiae usus est fere in omnibus
       cantionibus suis Arnaldus Danielis et nos eum secuti

              Dante, De Vulgari Eloquio, II. 10.


Ah! red-leafed time hath driven out the rose
And crimson dew is fallen on the leaf
Ere ever yet the cold white wheat be sown
That hideth all earth’s green and sere and red;
The Moon-flower’s fallen and the branch is bare,
Holding no honey for the starry bees;
The Maiden turns to her dark lord’s demesne.


Fairer than Enna’s field when Ceres sows
The stars of hyacinth and puts off grief,
Fairer than petals on May morning blown
Through apple-orchards where the sun hath shed
His brighter petals down to make them fair;
Fairer than these the Poppy-crowned One flees,
And Joy goes weeping in her scarlet train.


The faint damp wind that, ere the even, blows
Piling the west with many a tawny sheaf,
Then when the last glad wavering hours are mown
Sigheth and dies because the day is sped;
This wind is like her and the listless air
Wherewith she goeth by beneath the trees,
The trees that mock her with their scarlet stain.


Love that is born of Time and comes and goes!
Love that doth hold all noble hearts in fief!
As red leaves follow where the wind hath flown,
So all men follow Love when Love is dead.
O Fate of Wind! O Wind that cannot spare,
But drivest out the Maid, and pourest lees
Of all thy crimson on the wold again,


Kore my heart is, let it stand sans gloze!
Love’s pain is long, and lo, love’s joy is brief!
My heart erst alway sweet is bitter grown;
As crimson ruleth in the good green’s stead,
So grief hath taken all mine old joy’s share
And driven forth my solace and all ease
Where pleasure bows to all-usurping pain.


Crimson the hearth where one last ember glows!
My heart’s new winter hath no such relief,
Nor thought of Spring whose blossom he hath known
Hath turned him back where Spring is banishèd.
Barren the heart and dead the fires there,
Blow! O ye ashes, where the winds shall please,
But cry, “Love also is the Yearly Slain.”


Be sped, my Canzon, through the bitter air!
To him who speaketh words as fair as these,
Say that I also know the “Yearly Slain.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 26, 2012 at 8:30 am

Brief Update

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Carnation, Lily, Rose, John Singer Sargent
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Howdy folks,

Sorry I haven’t been posting as much as I’d like in the past few weeks. I have a couple pieces in the works, but I’ve been awfully busy with my day job.

I’m currently thinking about writing an overview of tantra, something on entheogens and religious experience, a piece on the trickster figure, and another piece on the psychology of religion. I’m sure I’ll get to them all soon!

If there’s a topic you’d be interested in hearing about, please let me know in the comments section! Always wanted to know what’s up with Zen koans, or how the Greeks really practiced religion, or something else? Let me know about it!

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently and have just finished a couple of truly outstanding books, and I’ve reviewed them on the Goodreads site. They are Birth of the Young God, Hank Heifetz’s translation of the first eight cantos of Kalidasa’s magnificent poem about Shiva and Paravati; Geoffrey Samuel’s The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, a wonderful social history of two complex religious movements; The Cult of the Saint by Peter Brown; and Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture.

Two books I didn’t find so thrilling were Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution, about the influence of Mesopotamia and Egypt on Archaic Greek culture, and Michael Angold’s spotty history Byzantium.

More soon….

Written by Mesocosm

September 26, 2012 at 10:25 am

Posted in Ephemera, Links

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A Grand View of History

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“History writing today has passed into an Alexandrian age, where criticism has overpowered creation. Faced by the mountainous heap of minutiae of knowledge and awed by the watchful severity of his colleagues, the modern historian too often takes refuge in learned articles or narrowly specialized dissertations, small fortresses that are easy to defend from attack. His work can be of the highest value; but it is not an end in itself. I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man. The writer rash enough to make such an attempt should not be criticized for his ambition, however much he may deserve censure for the inadequacy of his equipment or the inanity of his results.” – Steven Runcimen, A History of the Crusades

Written by Mesocosm

September 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Posted in Ephemera, History

Pilgrimage: A Therapy of Distance

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I’ve discovered an author of the highest rank in Peter Brown – his The Cult of the Saint is a masterful study of the character and evolution of saint cults in late antiquity. The clarity, perceptiveness, and synthetic force of his ideas is beautifully conveyed throughout.

I was so struck by this characteristic observation on the nature of the pilgrimage that I had to share it with you:

The cult of relics … gloried in particularity. Hic locus es: “Here is the place,” or simply hic, is a refrain that runs through the inscriptions on the early martyrs’ shrines of North Africa. The holy was available in one place, and in each such place it was accessible to one group in a manner in which it could not be accessible to anyone situated elsewhere.

By localizing the holy in this manner, late-antique Christianity could feed on the facts of distance and on the joys of proximity. This distance might be physical distance. For this, pilgrimage was the remedy. As Alphonse Dupront has put it, so succinctly, pilgrimage was “une thérapie par l’espace.” The pilgrim committed himself or herself to the “therapy of distance” by recognizing that what he or she wished for was not to be had in the immediate environment. Distance could symbolize the needs unsatisfied, so that, as Dupront continues, “le pèlerinage demeure essentiellement départ”: pilgrimage remains essentially the act of leaving. But distance is there to be overcome; the experience of pilgrimage activates a yearning for intimate closeness. For the pilgrims who arrive after the obvious “therapy of distance” involved by long travel found themselves subjected to the same therapy by the nature of the shrine itself. The effect of “inverted magnitudes” sharpened the sense of distance and yearning by playing out the long delays of pilgrimage in miniature. For the art of the shrine in late antiquity is an art of closed surfaces. Behind these surfaces, the holy lay, either totally hidden or glimpsed through narrow apertures. The opacity of surfaces heightened an awareness of the ultimate unattainability in this life of the person they had traveled over such wide spaces to touch.

Brown P. The Cult of the Saints. The University of Chicago Press. 1981. pp. 86-7.


Written by Mesocosm

September 6, 2012 at 8:26 am

Bola: Vespers

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For my money, Bola is one of the greatest electronic music artists. Check out this 2002 demo, “Vespers.” The video is gorgeous, too.


Written by Mesocosm

September 5, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in Ephemera, Music

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“Nature Has Limits,” the Chocolate Chip Cookie Said

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I’ve been working on my chocolate chip cookies a lot recently, ever since I learned that if the butter is nice and cold when you mix up the dough, they have a marvelous, chewy texture that you can’t get any other way.

Unfortunately, when the butter is too cold, the sugar doesn’t dissolve fully when you’re beating, so the cookies have a slight granulated quality. It’s a delicate balancing act.

This weekend I learned a hard lesson. After baking several batches with carefully-calibrated adjustments, I believe I hit the very point of coolness at which the sugar is fully dissolved, and alas! The cookies are not quite chewy enough. It turns out that my idealized goal of a smooth cookie with just the right degree of chewiness is just a phantom. It’s a chimera, a mirage, a mere fabrication of my imagination. There is no way to reach it.

Like the North Star, the perfect cookie hangs above the horizon, guiding me onward but forever out of reach.

Written by Mesocosm

September 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Ephemera

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The Shamans of Prehistory

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The good folks at Erowid have posted my review of The Shamans of Prehistory by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, two prominent authorities on paleolithic cave painting. I am sympathetic to the book’s central argument that many painted caves served a ritual function related to archaic forms of shamanism, but I found their specific cognitive-archaeological model to be under-developed.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams ground their theoretical framework in an altered states model of shamanism and speculate that early shamans may have utilized visionary plants to induce trance states. The Erowid site which hosts a massive online archive of information relating to psychoactive plants and chemicals and their use.

You can read the full review here.

Written by Mesocosm

August 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne Rock Opera is What

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Thank you, BoingBoing, for reminding me that Christopher Lee has created a rock opera based on the life of Charlemagne. It appears to be a faithful account of the life of the Frankish ruler.

Here’s a picture of me standing at the spot in St. Peter’s in Rome where Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. Dusty after a long day of touring the Forum!

I also had the opportunity to visit his Romanesque cathedral at Aachen, where he is interred.

Charlemagne at Aachen

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August 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Music

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Pauline Kael on Violence in Film

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“It’s the emotionlessness of so many violent movies that I’m becoming anxious about, not the rare violent movies (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets) that make us care about the characters and what happens to them. A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory. I’m only guessing, and maybe this emotionlessness means little, but, if I can trust my instincts at all, there’s something deeply wrong about anyone’s taking for granted the dissociation that this carnage without emotion represents. Sitting in the theater, you feel you’re being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown. It’s as if pain and pleasure, belief and disbelief had got all smudged together, and the movies had become some schizzy form of put-on.” – from “Killing Time,” a review of Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force; The New Yorker, January 14, 1974

For years I struggled to understand what anyone saw in Pauline Kael, who alienated me early on with withering reviews of Stanley Kubrick. But the more I read of her, the more her reviews make me want to read, and to write, and to think.

Written by Mesocosm

August 9, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in Ephemera, Film

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