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Two Renegades

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The art of reading consists to a large degree in developing the ability to find works to which you will respond deeply.

As I’ve tried out my new reading chair, I’ve discovered profound rewards in reading two under-appreciated geniuses of the twentieth century, the playwright Heiner Müller and the Tibetan “renegade monk” Gendun Choephel. Although their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, they were kindred spirits – relentless independent thinkers who were able to drink deeply from their respective traditions, and to let those energies and ideas pour through their own creative processes, without being overwhelmed or determined by them.

Reading a series of interviews with Müller, compiled in the Semiotext(e) edition Germania, one encounters the fascinating perspective of an intellectual who remained in East Germany by choice, not as a dogmatist, but as an extremely resourceful analyst of history and culture.

For Müller, the Berlin Wall was one of the great monuments of the world. Here, you could come and see it – this is our historical situation, and it’s right there, in concrete. The world that he foresaw after the disintegration of the detente between the US and the Soviet Union was one in which history would cease to exist, not because things would stop happening, but because it would no longer be possible to describe events in a way that made sense.

Gendun Choephel was brought up in one of the last generations to go through traditional training in the monastic universities of Tibet. His prodigious powers of debate were notorious, and he had a tendency to argue against traditional Buddhist doctrine with a tenacity and insight that stunned his contemporaries. In one instance, he shocked his teacher into silence with a virtuosic proof that Buddhahood was impossible, and was subsequently beaten up by some of his fellow monks who tried to force him to recant.

I can’t help but remember Stephen Dedalus being beaten up at Clongowes for praising Byron over Tennyson in “Portrait of the Artist.”

It is extremely rare to find someone deeply immersed in Tibetan scholasticism who is nonetheless not programmatically determined by its traditions, capable of asking real and penetrating questions of long-accepted conclusions. His interest led him into a Quixotic attempt to help modernize and democratize Tibet, which primarily seems to have resulted in getting him thrown into the dungeon of the Potala Palace, where the young Dalai Lama XIV was in residence.

When the Dalai Lama reached his majority, his first act was to declare general amnesty, and Choephel was released, a broken man addicted to opium and drink, who lived just long enough to see the Chinese army march into Lhasa. He died three weeks later.

His newly-translated book Grains of Gold is a masterpiece and is to my knowledge completely unique in Tibetan literature. It consists primarily of his travel log as he spent more than a decade traveling through India, visiting the sights, and confronting the vast gulf separating the heavily-mythologized perception of the Land of Sages held by his compatriots and the realities of a post-Mughal colonial state. His travels and observations are mixed with a heady blend of lyrical descriptions, including a proclivity for quoting the Sanskrit poet and playwright Kālidāsa, one of my most-cherished literary authors.

Curiously parallel, both men drank from the same well, and were alert to different concerns. Müller recalls attending a production of one of his own plays in Cologne, in which a dialog was staged between a man and a woman, and every time war or murder was mentioned, the man would throw a cake between the legs of the woman. I was immediately vividly reminded of Choephel’s account of a Nepali king who was treated for a karmic obstacle by being placed inside a large gilded statue of a woman and emerging from her womb.



Grains of Gold

Mesocosm on Heiner Müller

Mesocosm on Kālidāsa


Written by Mesocosm

August 14, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Musings

RIP Sasha Shulgin

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Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

He was a unique and strange genius, and a legend. I’m honored to have met him several times. He opened a lot of doors for a lot of people.

Written by Mesocosm

June 2, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Musings


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I’m in Portland, Oregon for a work conference. I’m a tech writer by trade. That means I’m a communications specialist surrounded by engineers, and our problems are not the same problems. I get the strong sense that most of the people at the conference have a similar feeling, and deal with it in different ways. That is, except for the developers in the room, who seem to feel a little out of place with all the tech writers.

At times I think of the medieval scribes as the spiritual forebears of my profession. I don’t mean this in a sardonic way, I mean really, there is a kinship.

On the plane yesterday, I was reading an article on Old German literature from the early Middle Ages. One of the earliest important religious poems, called Muspilli, or “Destruction of the World,” comes down to us in garbled form, because the only surviving copy was written by a scribe in the margin of another text – a presentation manuscript of theology dedicated to the Carolingian ruler Louis the Pious.

I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake, and all I can say is that I hope Joyce knew about Muspilli, because he would have loved it. Also, I saw the tomb of Louis the Pious on my honeymoon.

Tonight I am reading a book of essays by the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn in my hotel room, which I bought last night at Portland’s famous book castle, Powell’s. Many of them were written in the early 2000s and deal with 9/11 and the escalating insanity of the US response.

In one essay he writes that we’re minutes away from launching the invasion of Iraq, and I tried to remember my own experience of it, and I couldn’t remember anything. I remember staying up late and seeing live footage of aerial bombardment of Iraq, but that was from the previous invasion, launched not by President Bush, but by President Bush.

It took me a moment to remember that I missed almost all of the action in the 2003 invasion because I was living at a Zen monastery at the time. I was in retreat when the fighting started and didn’t hear anything about it at all for several days. I remember my father telling me about the term “shock and awe” on the telephone.

I found a copy of Heidegger’s Vorträge und Aufsätze at Powell’s for ridiculous cheap. It has a very interesting essay called “Who is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?” That is a very good question.

And I found Mortimer Wheeler’s books on the Indus Valley civilization, which I’ve been looking for for years. And the out-of-print Bollingen edition of Dante’s Commedia, with the full translation and commentary by Charles Singleton.

Opening to a random page of Paradiso, I get “Already that blessed mirror was enjoying only its own thoughts, and I was tasting mine, tempering the bitter with the sweet, when the lady who was leading me to God said, ‘Change your thought: consider that I am in His presence who lightens the burden of every wrong.'”

When I pause to think about it, it makes me sad that so many people know only Dante’s Inferno. It’s nonsensical to read it in isolation, and doing so horrendously perverts the entire sense of the poem. One scholar once observed it’s like studying New York City and from the bottom up, and stopping with the sewer system.

It’s also worth noting that Purgatorio is better than Inferno, and Paradiso is better still.

I look forward to writing more on Finnegans Wake – I should be finished with it soon.

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May 5, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Musings

Witch’s House to be Dismantled

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I’m sad to report that the “Witch’s House”, a unique repository of folk art in Wisconsin, is now to be dismantled by its owner, the Kohler Foundation, and shipped in its entirety to nearby town of Sheboygan.

The Kohler Foundation struggled for years to make the site available to the public, battling neighbors reluctant to open their idyllic stretch of Beach Drive to tour buses and “weekend gawkers.” The village of Fox Point, where the house is located, previously took the Kohler Foundation to court to block use of the site as the museum.

“I’ve been trying to save Mary’s environment for 27 years,” Ruth Kohler, director of the arts center, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“We’ve worked with a lot of art environments, from as far away as New York and Louisiana, and we’ve always been able to change the minds of the village or town that the site was in. We’ve never had a complete stalemate like this before.”

Those of us who have known and loved the site for many years are saddened to see it torn from its setting, which is integral to its effect and an organic part of Nohl’s imagination. Many of the pieces were fashioned from driftwood taken directly from the beach abutting her property.

I began my previous post on the Witch’s House by quoting the artist, Mary Nohl, who observed that “Being conventional is worse than all other sins.”

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March 27, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Art, Musings

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Various Matters

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"Idole cloche," Thebes, c. 700 BCE (Louvre)

“Idole cloche,” Thebes, c. 700 BCE, Louvre (click to enlarge)

What we have in this image is one of my favorite pieces from the Greek antiquities collection of the Louvre. This goddess “bell statue” comes to us from Thebes c. 700 BCE, and it’s a stunning example of the Geometric period of Greek art. The sense of the goddess as all-encompassing is conveyed by her bell-shape and is amplified by the inscription on her surface of various marks typically expressive of the round of life and death in that age, such as the Swastika.

In unrelated news, sounds like I’m late to hear this, but I’m excited that The Diary of Malcolm X: 1964 is due to be published this week, assuming it isn’t successfully blocked by some family members. I certainly hope it appears in print as-scheduled – 1964 is the year Malcolm X undertook the Hajj, which was a milestone in his own life, and for the course of civil rights activism in the United States as a whole. I also very much see Malcolm X’s spiritual journey as textbook case of Jungian individuation, so it’s fascinating to study in that light as well.

Let’s see … what else? I’ve been working on a mammoth post on the Gothic cathedrals for some time, but have been bogged down by the magnitude of the topic. Even to point in a cursory way to a handful of the key features is an enormous job, but I hope to get it up soon.

Via the always-excellent, I give you Catṡlechta and other medieval legal material relating to cats, a study of medieval Irish laws pertaining to cats. It contains gems such as:

BREONE i.e. This is a cat and she has purring and protecting (or an inarticulate cry) and three cows are paid for it if it has both, purring and protecting. If it has one of the two, it is a cow and a heifer or there might not be anything for purring at all and that obtains whenever it is more than or equal to that which it protects.

Read, and enjoy.

Written by Mesocosm

November 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Musings

…and then I woke up

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Last night I dreamt that I was talking to a friend about Superman, and how much his selfless heroism meant to us as children.

Before I fell asleep, I was thinking about my old post on the orphan hero, and I guess it put thoughts of Superman in my head.

I remember being really moved by the Richard Donner Superman movies as a kid. I recently saw the director’s cut of Superman II, and had forgotten how much he really seemed to care about people, and how frightened he was that they might be harmed. It’s rather moving, especially in a world of bad-ass anti-heroes.

That bodhisattva-like altruism also came across beautifully in Grant Morrison’s superb limited run The All-Star Superman.

Morrison is pretty much my favorite comic book author, but he’s hit or miss when it comes to established titles. He can’t help bringing his personal oddball interests into play, and that works great in a series like The Invisibles, which is built for it, and is, incidentally, the best comic book series ever written. But when Batman starts talking about Dzogchen (as he does in Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. run), it comes across as forced.

Somehow, in his Superman run, he really nailed the essence of the character in a wonderful way. And if you ever see the documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, you can hear about how he was meditating on how to treat the character and the story, when he ran into a guy on the street dressed in a Superman costume. Morrison approached Superman and asked him a lot of questions about himself, and the guy replied completely in character, saying some remarkable things, like “Batman is a great man, but he doesn’t truly believe in people.”

Anyway, the point of this story is that later on in the dream, I received a dream notification from D. C. comics, warning me not to use Superman’s likeness in my dreams without their permission (really). I was unsure how concerned I should be, but it was a little anxiety-provoking.

Most likely, D. C. comics, possibly in collaboration with NSA, has developed the technology necessary to monitor dreams for copyright violations.

Written by Mesocosm

February 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

Posted in Musings

Fields Book Store

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Dürer's Melancholia (detail)

Dürer’s Melancholia (detail)

I was saddened to hear from my friend David, proprietor of the marvelous Fields Book Store in San Francisco, that they’re going to be closing up the brick-and-mortar shop and shifting exclusively to online sales.

Fields is one of the best-curated bookstores I’ve ever seen, with a wonderful collection of rare and scholarly books on a variety of fields, ranging from psychology and history to esoteric subjects and religion.

The store is one of the best arguments I’ve ever seen for the preservation of physical bookstores – I have seen books there that I did not previously know existed, such as the day I stumbled upon an English-language edition of Étienne LaMotte’s History of Indian Buddhism.

It is sad to see yet another bookstore go down, and tragic to note that Fields was the oldest bookstore in San Francisco.

If you’re interested in arcane or religious topics and you aren’t already familiar with this landmark, be sure to bookmark their website, as they will be continuing on as a virtual store.

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December 5, 2012 at 10:47 am

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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.

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November 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

“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.

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September 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

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Humpback Whales Bubble Net Feeding off of Juneau, Alaska

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Howdy folks! Miss O’Cosm and I are just back from a trip through the Inside Passage of Southeastern Alaska. I have a lot to tell you – especially about the magnificent Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest. I had the great good fortune to connect with the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, and will have a great deal more to say about it in the near future.

We also had a marvelous time with the wildlife of the Alaskan coast. One highlight was seeing a bald eagle by the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm – it flew perhaps ten feet above us with a large salmon in its claws, followed closely by a few dozen arctic terns, who harried the eagle out of their territory with a great chorus of their ghostly cries.

But the big winner was our evening whale watching excursion out of Juneau – we saw around ten orcas within minutes of leaving the dock.


Not long after that, we came upon a pod of ten humpback whales engaged in bubble net feeding, which is a cooperative hunting technique in which groups of whales ensnare vast amounts of herring or mackerel in enormous bubble nets.

The group of whales swims in formation beginning around 60 feet blow the surface, spiraling upwards while exhaling from their blow holes. This creates a huge cylinder of bubbles that traps the fish. The whales then surge upward from below with their mouths open, swallowing enormous amounts of food and breaking the surface in a stunning display.

We saw the whales perform this behavior about eight times in the course of forty-five minutes or so. Here are two videos that I took of this incredible behavior.


Note that these animals are forty to fifty tons each. In this next video, they’re so close that you can see the bubbles coming right up by the side of the boat, which made us a bit nervous! And if you watch to the end, you’ll see a magnificent display of their flukes as they paddle off.


Sadly, something that I couldn’t capture in these videos is the songs. We had a hydrophone in the water, and on several instances the whales sang a short, intense song just before bursting to the surface.

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July 13, 2012 at 7:22 pm