Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Thinking Solstice

My interest in ritual began when I heard about the research that showed that those who had longer sleep rituals went to sleep faster than those who jumped into bed and hoped for the best. If you take your time turning off lights, brushing teeth, fluffing pillows, the repetition of the same sequence sets the completion of the pattern in motion- falling asleep. The research focused on how the familiar sequence of steps triggered the associated brain chemistry, but I also remembered my early studies of perception, which emphasized pattern completion as one of the most basic organizing principles in seeing. Memory’s focus on prediction depends on recognizing patterns and anticipating what comes next. It’s a component of higher reasoning, and the more I thought about it the more pervasive it seemed to be. Since the sleep researchers were recommending that that people lengthen their sleep ritual to set the proper brain chemistry in motion, I added new steps setting up when I go to work in the studio. It’s effective and is one concrete way to make conscious use of the capacity to build patterns to get things done. In the creation of the right spatial temporal atmosphere, the act of preparing is sending signals through the brain that build a pattern that guides us into the rest of it. We create a form in space by our regular travels in any context, in the car, through grocery store, at work, within our home. Whatever becomes automatic moves to the cerebellum to free up more cortex to learn new things. The spectrum of human pattern making runs from the mundane to the sublime. The difference has less to do with the kind of pattern as much as the quality of our attention to it. Routines tend to be mindless. Rituals are mindful, bring attention and purpose together for the purpose of transforming a mental state.
When they took the ritual out of religion, it was robbed of its power. It may be one of the reasons that megachurches have caught on, using the rituals of rock-concerts, with lights, smoke, and music, to establish mental states of heightened brain chemistry, receptive to the sermon and unifying to the group. Ritual is behavioral alchemy, an engaging of the whole consciousness, of making one’s intentions concrete, demonstrating them by our actions. A ritual is an enacted image. If it’s repeated enough then a circuit is formed, that helps us enter the proper state of mind for the fullest experience.
Lining up with the solstice, holidays are an assembly of individualized rituals that pull us out of our regular actions so they don’t degenerate into mindless routine or burnout. They use lights to ward off the darkest time of year, have their own music and traditions and enact our connection to our larger community and the history associated with the holiday. Beyond the holiday the lesson of ritual is to live with reverence. Using the shape of our day we can build personally meaningful sequences of actions that train our capacity for attention. With every day shaped by an intentional pattern dedicated to being centered and in harmony with what’s unfolding around us, each stage is wide open for variation and conditioned for mindful attention. It’s one way we can consciously employ the natural functions of the brain.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Coming Change

An Integrated Model

Whether we acknowledge it or not, our knowledge is mapped in an inner model that’s responsible for how we see reality. The layout of what we know was constructed by what happened to us, things we did and experienced and where. We laid down particular patterns and aligned new experience where it matched known relationships. This recognition of similar relations between parts, the matching calculus of unfolding events, is what we experience as understanding. New knowledge is layered in where it best fits the underlying patterns we already understand. Complexity theory tells us that as a system becomes more complex, the organizing structure either collapses under the weight of too much information or undergoes an overall reorganization. The crises we see all around us reflect the collapse of the guiding inner model.
The prevailing image of an isolated self, standing outside of a separate world, can’t hold the volume of new knowledge growing rapidly with technology. Technology’s abundance of informative pictures needs a new overview, a model that integrates and clarifies a better way to see reality.
The body itself might be a good starting point. We are multiple entwined systems, a weave of nerves and veins, muscles and organs, on the complex armature of the skeleton. It doesn’t stop there. For our digestive system to do its job we have to feed it. This entwines us in vast systems for the production and delivery of food. In food and sheltering ourselves we are woven into a system of roads and jobs and conveyances, cars, buses, trains, planes, and depend upon all of them being in good working order. There is interdependence between these systems and ourselves. We can’t do without them and we have a part in keeping it working. As much as heart and lungs depend on each other the group of systems that we are depends on the larger group of systems within which we’re embedded.
Our ego based image of an independent self must be shed. It pretends we’re self-sufficient. The idea that we are separate from our environment is a dangerous illusion that disregards the many systems we need for our survival. Even possessed of the skills to live in a cave and hunt, if the water is polluted you die. In a mindset that piles up goods for oneself, taking up space and draining resources, the image looks like a cancer on the larger system, growing recklessly, sucking health from the surrounding areas.
The intersect and interweave of systems information exists on all levels. Homeostasis is the way living systems adapt and adjust to keep balance. It provides insight into harmonious functioning within the model of reality as a complex multivariable organism. We are not in control of the systems that support us so must be flexible to survive. The art of adjustment, the ability to move fluidly through ideas, adapting, filtering and restructuring as necessary is the life art of a living system.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Open Sections

Structure and Creativity

Recently Jon Stewart did an interview on Fresh Air. Talking about the “Rally To Restore Sanity” he referred to the rally as a beautiful “format”, an “outline that could be filled”, as though it was a drawing. He referred to “The Daily Show” as first and foremost a structure. A structure with a composition, a set of segments that could be used for whatever was currently important. These metaphors emphasize organization as visual structure. Every area of life could be organized more artfully, which could open more areas to creativity. It wasn’t until I had the format of this blog that I could release the ideas unfolding here. They were roiling around in my head but resisted being locked into a specific book, which would have restricted their scope. Applying a point of view and personal philosophy to what seems important at the time of writing keeps it tied in to the rest of my life. A good structure releases creativity on a whole new level. The brain’s reward system loves the prefrontal cortex, the newest evolutionary level, where imagination and analysis work together, finding connections and correlations. The use of our highest powers stimulates the pleasure system, which pushes ideas and invention even further.
People are unhappy and dulled when they aren’t making use of what they can do. The life-force wants to bloom, for us to extend our capability. Stewart’s emphasis on the program’s structure points out the freedom afforded by working with a preset format. The personality and character of a TV show is created by starting with an idea translated into a format, a composition, then within each segment anything can happen.
The consistent form with specific proportions is evidence of a visual component to any structuring. Just recently someone on the radio was talking about the need for a multi-disciplinary structure to look at climate change saying “We do it in a dry journalistic format when maybe a picture would suffice.” Paolo Soleri was an ecological consciousness decades ahead of his time, designing whole communities as integrated wholes. He felt we needed to re-envision our whole strategy for civilization. “Rather than a mad prophet ranting in the wilderness, Soleri has proved to be a voice of reason.” as the Guardian wrote not that long ago, “Nobody wanted to hear his diagnosis of the ills of US society, but it has been proved right - the car-centric, inefficient, horizontal suburban model has left us in poor shape to cope with climate-change problems.” In science beauty is the guide to a good theory. Our inherent aesthetic sense could guide us to a more beautifully functioning whole. Artist Mel Chin shows us an aesthetic for healing the wounds of the planet. Using plants that are hyperaccumulators to leach heavy metals from the soil he created a living mandala to focus our attention on what is possible. It’s time to heal the disharmony in the United States by creating a well-composed format for considering all problems in relation to the dynamics of the whole. Where proportions are ugly, the solution is wrong. We’d avoid all kinds of damage if we used this basic human capacity.

Thursday, November 11, 2010



All forms of organization require an overview, a proportional distribution of forces and resources. Good organization creates a balanced structure where the various elements are mutually supportive and in harmony. The composition of the whole should be the goal throughout.
The size of the windmill at Lewes, Delaware made me rethink my attitude regarding wind for energy, particularly where the context has not been considered. It so dwarfed the little buildings around it, it was like it had been placed by a race of giants and was totally out of harmony with the historic coastal town. I have read that residents are having health problems and there are complaints about the noise.
If the effort to reduce global warming creates disharmony in the whole, it’s not a good or lasting solution. The prospect of a line of windmills off the Delaware coast worries me.
I’ve taken refuge in the healing power of that unbroken horizon for decades. It’s an antidote to the constant visual activity of daily life. We respond physically to the space around us, our bodies in constant unconscious adjustment to where we are, particularly wherever there is motion.
The way the soothing repetition of the waves extends into the stillness of the horizon stretching the whole width of the visual field is deeply healing. Before we rush headlong into to solving a problem without thinking of the less tangible but more important repercussions to our collective mental health we need to step back and think of the aesthetics of the overall picture. I was startled to hear that it’s against the law to argue against windmills or cell phone towers on aesthetic grounds as though such considerations are frivolous and irrelevant. The look of the windmill at Lewes is an image of humanity as insignificant, worker bees at the base of a monumental shrine to a megalomaniac technological consciousness. The structure of a windmill may be beautiful in itself but to put it in the wrong context can be grotesque. Competition and the priorities of material gain interfere with creating an overall harmonic structure. It doesn’t have to be that way. In France I saw a cluster of windmills in a large empty plain with no villages nearby for them to measure against and the proportions worked. The land was big around them and empty of reference. Seeing it from a high-speed train was all the more appropriate to the picture. The modern can co-exist with history. Progress doesn’t have to dehumanize. Everywhere I went in France I saw consideration of beauty and harmony of form, thoughtful proportions and plantings, even in traffic circles. If we’re going to learn the art of living, attention must be paid to our integration with our surroundings. David Bohm wrote that creativity was an act of “fitting”, looking for what works best with the existing structure.
The restorative power of the ocean coast is not just in the waves and smell of salt water, it is the continuous horizontal line, its stillness that is so restful. To break that up will not only destroy that healing power it will create a new visual wound.
Art would not have existed throughout human history if it had no deep-seated value.
Modern culture underestimates the human need for harmonic form. It heals by entrainment, infiltrating our perception with a beneficial order. Thinking in categories shields us from the requirements of the whole. But the blatant disregard of the harmonic integration of all involved systems is irresponsible. Our pilgrimage to a place of beauty is led by the wish to heal and fortify what is best in us. Whether an individual is drawn to
the coast or the mountaintop (also endangered) the human need is clear. Destroying what visual beauty is left is an assault on the soul of the species.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Broken Whole

Image Ideas

An image idea proposes a way of looking at things. At its most artful it can change the way we see. A painting can trigger a personal emotional insight by illuminating some aspect of feeling. Creating a picture of information can facilitate a more perceptive analysis. A visual explanation gives an overview that shows relations and thus meaning. It avoids the limitations of words that separate ideas better thought of as intertwined. I was reading through definitions of philosophical categories that treated them as opposites when it really felt that they were more often intertwined or contained within another. Picturing them as sets or Venn diagrams would show these relations and not amplify distinctions that can inhibit understanding. As William James wrote, “Language works against our perception of truth.”
What we call the differences in philosophy are issues of focus. Categorical definitions, often separate ideas unnecessarily, interfering with our understanding of a bigger picture that includes them all by making us choose a “right” one from what can easily coexist. Images can hold more sophisticated ideas than words since images can contain and even reframe seeming contradictions. Visual philosophy sees ideas in relationship not in opposition.
Most important, images show the interconnections between elements of information. As the complexity of information increases more people are turning to images to communicate the meaning of the data. One example is an intriguing site that creates a three dimensional computer model to represent a company’s financial picture and shows in a glance how the complexities of budget and cash flow interact. (http://envisionfinancials.wordpress.com/) Peoples’ jobs are evolving in the front of this trend. A web designer I know began to map all the data for a corporation. An architect began to design an adaptable system for deploying a firms resources.
College students can now choose to major in Environmental Design or Social Design, a recognition of visual thinking in a larger context as a hope for solving complex
human problems. ”Metadesign” may be the thinking of the 21st century. Metadesign takes into consideration all of the processes involved in a given area, both concretely and metaphorically. Holistic solutions don’t overlook any parts of the problem. Not just about separate objects and spaces, the whole range of systems and functions are woven together, what has been compartmentalized seen as part of a whole much bigger than the sum of its parts. A student in Environmental Design had been given an assignment entitled “Reconciliation” to apply to a fragmented area of the community and I found it interesting to think about what reconciliation looks like. Considering the big picture helps us find the real issues underlying multiple problems. The need for a holistic approach that visualizes solutions seems obvious now that ecological consciousness is more mainstream. A re-visioning in the way cities work could stimulate positive growth in every area. People brought together in cooperation facilitates healthy processes as opposed to divisions of areas into self-fulfilling prophesies of deterioration and isolation.
Programs like Harlem Children’s Zone and Visual Learning Systems are designing new systems for education. HCZ understands the importance of the whole life experience and education from birth. VLS uses discussion of art to stimulate the minds and creative thinking capacities improving children’s scores in all subjects.
The design of spaces, systems and processes that facilitate cooperation, discovery, and appreciation of difference focuses on how we move through the world together. Creating a better global feng shui depends on seeing the potential harmony and designing a world that enhances the flow.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The Visual Revolution

For every person, the creation of inner images is fundamental to understanding. It’s how we put information together in our minds. By putting what we learn in relation to what we know, we construct it’s meaning for ourselves. Technology is shifting more of our conscious thought to acts of looking, finding, matching, comparing, balancing and other types of visual reasoning. It ‘s providing the necessity and the mechanism to make an important shift from verbal language as the dominant communicator of information, to image based approaches that show what’s significant in data by the way the it’s arranged. The possibilities of a visual approach to all levels of thinking offer the promise of greater clarity in our understanding of any subject. Verbal language is always partial, and extraordinarily bad decisions can be made when just a few facts are stripped of their context. Through the synthesizing knowledge offered by infographics and other visual presentations we can transform the parts into wholes, integrating information into understanding.
Barbara Stafford sensed just how profound would be the shift initiated by the computer regarding display of information. She felt that in the near future, the artist would be responsible for the design of knowledge as the visual potential of the screen is better utilized. Showing the relations of information enables the viewer to recognize key patterns and relationships. She wrote, “Perceptually combined information… avoids the intellectual limitations of linearity.” For Stafford, this means that the artist will change how information is understood. This shift is still in its infancy. The Internet still has a lot of words, but its structure is well described with the image of a three-dimensional web with every site the center of a constellation of other choices. This empowers every individual to develop a personal picture of information of in terms of location in space.
Young people have grown up interacting with animation and developing their spatial intelligence while playing video games. Recent studies have shown that this has improved scores in other subjects as well. Winston Churchill said one reason he liked to paint was because it reinforced and educated the mind’s best faculties- things like sense of proportion and balance, spatial concepts so important to all reasoning.
Communication depends on our shared responses to visual form. Paul Ekman’s decades of work studying facial expression in all cultures underscores the universality of visual understanding. Ekman is one of the teachers thanked by Edward Tufte in his book, ”Visual Explanations”. In this, as well as in his other books, he demonstrates how clarity of thought corresponds to a clear visualization and representation of the information. He wrote, “When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight.”
Education in visual thinking emphasizes how things relate rather than what they are. Philosopher Susanne Langer took the position that if we want to improve our capacity for insight we should look at art. She felt that the field of psychology could build its understanding of human feeling from the arts, as she wrote, “Art looks like feelings feel.” Art gives us a way to recognize our responses to visual form, and a means to reflect on how they underlay the rest of our thinking. How much clearer the understanding of a person’s emotions might be if asked to choose a painting from an art book instead of trying to describe a complicated inner state in words. As Joseph Campbell said, “The eyes are the scouts of the heart.” Perception is not passive. It is always searching for whatever will help us with our ongoing understanding of our unfolding being.
This approach to understanding may meet resistance because it relies on a model of reality created by each individual to determine the correct course, rather than the correct course being directed by external ideas of what’s right. But both the study of semiotics and quantum mechanics take us to a place where objectivity disappears. The observer affects the observed. The personal directs reasoning. William James pointed this out in the nineteenth century when he said a person builds their philosophy on the basis of what they already feel. Around the same time, John Dewey said that when the personal was taken into account it would revolutionize philosophy. Today the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that feeling directs thinking.
Broadening our ideas of intelligence to include and cultivate visualization could rescue us from a trail of woes resulting from dependence on language. Nobel laureate David Bohm’s work in quantum mechanics led him to conclude that the structure of language itself was responsible for many of the world’s problems. He saw the attention focused on nouns as placing too much emphasis on separate things, fragmenting the essential reality, which is interconnected, relational and dynamic.
Emphasis on more visual understanding could shift our approach to verbal discourse. Instead of disputes over the right idea, we could shift to a model that accumulates different ideas and finds relationships between them. In contrast to fixed opinions about the world, building a broader personal overview would include the full spectrum of views on any subject being considered, to see what’s most relevant to decisions to be made. Rather than reject what doesn’t fit our current view, we could welcome what’s different as an opportunity to enlarge our picture. Dogmas that exclude certain areas will be seen for what they are, barriers to an overview. Using intelligence to defend one way of thinking seems to resist learning, and have more to do with power than with understanding.
Thomas West wrote that the skill of the future would not be having the right model of how things work, but having the ability to continuously adapt and change our model, adjusting it to new information. He saw image based thinking as essential for coping with the sheer volume of information that verbal language would not be comprehensive enough to handle anymore. Technology creates new ways to use art as a tool to strengthen our understanding and develop skills utilizing the visual brain to imagine the form of knowledge and the abstract ideas constructed on its matrix.
Art extends our visual awareness and ability to think in images. Conscious visual reasoning may give us a way to understand the mind itself. It’s a resource to be tapped in the project of evolving our intelligence.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Healing Images

My brother Bill is a true contemplative, can see deeply into nature and appreciate its soul nourishing beauty more than anyone I know. He can step out of the “hurry-up” pace of modern activity to watch the birds, or the movement of the wind in the trees, currents of water in the stream, and enjoys being part of where he is and giving it his full attention. When he pulled over to see the field of sunflowers blooming in bright sunlight, the pleasure was extended by seeing so many other people doing the same thing, pulled to a stop, arrested by beauty, taking pictures to send to their friends. We want to share beauty and the pleasure we take in it. And we have more ways than ever to share things with others. He said the people who had stopped were talking to each other about it. It was an experience that unified strangers. He and I had a wonderful conversation about the power of beauty to demand attention and to bring people together in wonder. It got me to thinking about how we can all be each other’s gurus, sharing whatever makes us feel and think more deeply. People are tired of the superficiality being emphasized by so much media and welcome opportunities for more satisfying life experience.
When we feel pleasure at the sight of sunflowers it’s evidence of the endorphins, our natural opiates reinforcing what’s good for us and combating our pain. Connecting is good for our health, drawing attention out of ourselves and into our surroundings. We begin by connecting to the beauty we see and extend the connection as we share it.
I heard Dr. Herbert Benson on the radio recently discussing his newest book, “Relaxation Revolution”. An enormous part of the body/mind reciprocity is the way we visualize our condition. Diagnosis exacerbates a condition because its definition creates a set of expectations, images of the form the disease will take. He used the phrase, “remembering wellness” for picturing the healthy condition you know from experience, visualizing a time when the problem wasn’t there. He emphasizes the need to do it every day to rework long held negative images. Even more effective might be our memories of moments of connection, people talking about a field of sunflowers. Pain separates us. Remembered experiences of beauty in all of its forms restore our connection and can be used for self-healing.
Images of growth, in particular, fortify our vitality, and are a favored subject for artists and photographers. The process of growth is the experience of extending of ourselves, reaching beyond our previous limits, applying our learning, experience and outlook in our interaction with the physical world. Emerson spoke of the value of work as in, not the results or profit from the work, but the increased power as our skills are developed and improved. As Erich Fromm wrote, “Living is growing” which may be part of why we’re attracted to growth in nature. Images of nature reinforce our participation in cycles of growth and our identification with the life-force that could also be seen as spirit. Dylan Thomas imagined spirit so beautifully as “that force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Remembering the images that pulled our attention out of ourselves and into the world may be more restorative than we realize.
(Sunflower photo by Bill Waters)

Sunday, September 12, 2010



I recently read in “The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own” by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee that for the Himba tribe in Namibia, each person is born with a self-space like a bubble extending beyond the body that is always mingling with the self-space of others in the community. Because of this they felt they were never alone, and felt very sorry for westerners who thought of themselves as isolated in space. Our cultural mindset of an individual consciousness encased in a body creates a painful separation between our environment and ourselves.
We think of personal space as something that can be invaded or trespassed. Keeping the body and personhood safe is a high priority. Though people generally think of safety as physical, avoiding threats to the body, psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has spent his life working with prisoners, said that a threat to one’s dignity is just as serious. Since punishment is a threat to both he sees the increase in violence as due to the increasingly punitive nature of American society. He said a common statement among repeat offenders is, “I never got so much respect in my life as I did when I pointed a gun at somebody.” Feeling respected is part of a sense of safety, deeply rooted in our physiology. Just seeing a contempt face or someone rolling their eyes in relation to something you’ve said or done will make your heart beat faster. Physiologically, ridicule and mockery have the same effect as violence and can be the cause of violence. Nietzsche said, “Distrust anyone in whom the desire to punish is powerful.” The media revels in the thought that Roger Clemens might go to jail for lying, and that violates my sense of proportion. Obedience has become more important than justice, mechanically applying the same penalty, regardless of context. As the amount of rules increases, more and more of us find ourselves lawbreakers, transgressing codes designed to protect us. I’m often guilty of not wearing my seatbelt, but I feel I’m a better driver without it. If I do what I feel is right I can get a ticket.
Overemphasis on rules implies disrespect for the common sense of the populace. It communicates dangers that might not have been worried about before. It increases walls between people and stirs negative mental states like suspicion and worry. The labyrinth of barriers and limitations is part of a way of seeing built on separation. Every protection is another wall in the fortress between ourselves and others. Our safety is secured by our greater isolation. A new way of visualizing our place in the world might relieve this estrangement.
To envision ourselves as a part of a field of consciousness that includes us would help us accept the life lessons that are thrown our way as part of the knowledge we’re best suited to provide. We are, after all, unique places in space and time with a particular view that adds to the big picture. Trust is a precondition of safety and if you trust the overarching order as instructive you can be aware but not over vigilant. David Bohm, from his perspective in quantum physics, talked of beauty, art and creativity as acts of “fitting”, discernment of what’s works with the larger pattern unfolding in a given context. Since at a quantum level we’re all a continuous field, it might be time to let go of the cultural idea of ourselves as so separate. A change of image would lead to a change in attitude toward the world we’re immersed in, our systems and patterns of movement intricately woven through the totality of life experience. As part of our environment, it would be natural to act in harmony with it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Building the Picture


As I start to think about this year’s classes one of my chief excitements is meeting new students and learning more about the students I’ve had before. Working with students is an endless process of discovery, each a new source of knowledge. I often say that every person is a library, with different subjects in different areas housing the knowledge from personal experience. There’s a physical movement area, one person plays tennis, and another can’t get off the couch. Tastes and experiences in food vary widely. One might have been in and out of the hospital with serious medical problems. Another may research world affairs and agonize over injustice. Educational background tuned certain priorities. The personal mental life has a path all its own. The trail of choices each person makes in the cyber-realm, through phones, game consoles and computers, reflect what a person cares about and craft a highly individuated point-of-view and network of connections. And then there is a philosophy about being I can sense in a student’s art, that may have an intellectual or emotional history and cultural background that reveals a way of responding to the world. This perspective is the truth from a particular place in larger being.
Understanding that everyone’s perspective can add to our own, and that “gaining perspective” is always considered a good (even when it hurts) offers a way to have constructive discussions with people of widely differing views, appreciating what each has to offer our common understanding.
The competition to have the right idea is a construct of linear verbal thinking. Visual thinking can be cooperative because its hallmark is perspective. Building perspective is a goal that increases wisdom. In a wonderful talk by Dave McCandless on “The Beauty of Data Visualization” (http://www.ted.com/talks/david_mccandless_the_beauty_of_data_visualization.html) he points out how well designed charts of information can reveal importance and meaning far better and quicker than other methods of presentation. It’s an idea that’s time has come. The word “infographics” is starting to pop up in general conversation. We’re grateful when someone combs through mountains of data and designs it in an understandable form on a single page like McCandless did with health supplements. Amounts can be shown as size and instantly compared. Understanding is led by our sense of proportion, similarity and difference. Huge advances in the understanding of world problems could begin with visualizations of information about the most complex issues. Our visual skills are there to be tapped. Multiple maps within our brains record our personal history so we instinctively understand the one-to-one correspondence in terms of location. We can be shown what something means and point others’ attention to what we think needs it. We’re on the threshold of a visual revolution that will provide the necessary tools to navigate an increasingly complex world.
And in my personal world I’m looking forward to a new landscape of ideas created by the different views of a range of new students and what each has to offer our common understanding.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Suggesting Volumes


Anyone who doesn’t think of themselves as imaginative has only to look at the content of their minds when they worry. A big component of worrying is visualizing bad outcomes, from minor elements out of order to large-scale disaster. Worst-case scenarios are part of planning, whether intentional or of the self-doubt variety. On the positive end we daydream, and try out pleasant situations and invent new relationships. Clearly both are creativity at work. This capacity to project ourselves into the future and invent scenarios that develop the events that are currently unfolding is a triumph of evolution. A person who worries about the worst that can happen doesn’t think of it as creative, but the combination of future awareness and multiple possibilities is pure imagination. A certain amount of worry is an important aspect of planning. We need to visualize complex tasks and prepare for what’s needed. When we worry too much, we’re using our highest human powers to torment ourselves. I’ve read that excessive worrying is connected to superstition, reflecting an underlying belief that to think obsessively about a situation in advance can somehow deflect the adverse outcome. Though superstition is considered a thoughtform left behind in the course of mental evolution, its patterns persist under new names. We express our fears in mental images. My sister-in-law said she envisioned the worst so that whatever happened if it wasn’t the worst would seem good, and if it was then she’d be prepared. This is just one way we are always tempering, treating and modifying our emotions with images in our mind. Many modes of therapy have been developed that utilize this capacity, focusing on producing positive and healing images. What we see in our mind’s eye can have as powerful affect on the body as actual experience.
Imaging information aids intellectual understanding as well. I recently heard a woman on the radio who made her living fishing in the Gulf of Mexico call into a show about testing fish for oil contamination. She asked if they would publish where they’ve tested on maps, putting it “in layman’s terms”. Looking at a map one can see in an instant which areas have been declared safe. The endless stream of numbers that had been published so far did not make the overall situation clear. Since knowledge is mapped by location in our minds, seeing is understanding. I’ve heard visual thinking referred to as common sense. It’s the day-to-day life intermingling of the images in our head with the images in our surroundings. Plotting a new route to work when the regular road is blocked, sensing when an argument between friends is about to get out of hand and shifting their attention to other things. We can retrace our steps to find something we’ve lost because we have the space of our lives envisioned within us. Our ability to hold many relationships in our mind at once depends on locating them together in images.
We aren’t able to evolve this powerful capacity because, not happening in words, it goes unnoticed. A student said to me with assurance, “All conscious thought is in words.” But these mental images are conscious and affecting. We understand the meaning a situation has for us through the images we produce in relation to it.
The dominance of verbal language is diminishing as our connection to the cyber realm of information becomes more visual. Linear menus shift to sitemaps because a sitemap shows the relationship between the options – and seeing is faster than linear processing. Looking at art should be part of visual literacy. Since so much of the instant assessment we make with our eyes has to do with the feeling of things – what’s harmonic or off-kilter- attention to art will sensitize us to deeper levels and larger archetypes than we get from commercial media. Every one of us has a powerful imagination we’re using all the time. Cultivating it is a crucial part of developing minds that can cope with the future.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Changing Distinctions

Sixty Today

A commercial I saw yesterday had a guy saying “I know sixty is the new forty” then going on about how young he felt inside. What bothers me about this is the clear underlying assumption that younger is better. I found myself thinking back to a conversation with friends when I was a young adult where we speculated about the age we felt we were inside. Most were saying younger or a little older, but I found myself saying sixty. Maybe I’d always felt older inside but there was also the feeling that it would take me a long time to do what I wanted to do (not that I had any idea of what that was). I’d read that philosophers didn’t come of age until their sixties, so that seeded the belief that some aspirations took longer than others. My grandfather was my favorite person throughout my youth, and age seemed to be a part of the radiant equanimity I admired so much in him. Gaining in years led to the achievement of a state of mind and approach to living that couldn’t be rushed.
The claim to feeling young is a tacit agreement that young is better. I feel energetic, excited about life and more full of love than I ever was when young. Not only was young not better, young was being lost in the woods. It puts unfair pressure on young people who are supposed to be having the “best years of their lives” before they “waste their youth”. In such a complicated world, we might expect that the necessary skills for living would take time to acquire.
Our culture creates fear of age with terminology of loss as a marketing tool. When people are convinced that aging means losing something, their attention is focused on what will give it back. It’s a strategy that debilitates people’s attention to the actuality of their present life and the new experiences and meaning of the moment. Running after youth is a form of regression, not growth. The cultural view of aging focuses on what’s lost, as though the natural fading of some faculties is something to be fought rather than something that can be learned from and understood in an entirely new way. To me the losses are minor compared to the gains. I look at aging as a process of accumulation. Everything we’ve been is still there and available to us as past experience. Like the rings on a tree record the history of the tree, and the tree grows wider and stronger and taller, our memories and accumulated knowledge make us stronger, enable us to rise, to gain perspective through our increased experience. This helps me feels more comfortable and at ease in the world. I’ve increased my “clearing is the forest” in the words of Joseph Chilton Pierce and understand myself more as active patterns in the world than as material being.
So today I come of age. Maybe I’m a real late bloomer, but it’s taken me this long to begin to synthesize what I’ve learned into some coherent ideas, and twenty years of meditation to calm the tangle of anxiety that characterized my youth. I’m excited about the possibilities I’ve prepared for myself and rejoice to see my grandfather’s attitude toward life coming into reach. I’m happier and more engaged than I’ve ever been. What could be better than to be here now?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Moving Up

Current Choices

The action of selection is what we call “free will”. Riding multiple currents beyond our control, we are constantly making choices that determine the nature of the ride. Choices about direction are as simple and automatic as where we look in any given situation, what gets our attention. Once engaged we choose among the potentials of that situation as it unfolds. This is where self-awareness comes in handy and increases the available choices. If you’ve been paying attention to your patterns of reaction and the situations that result, you can choose a path that is not the automatic one of the past.
The new mammalian layer of the brain flows into the neocortex, so named because it’s the newest. It is where the perception of the future begins, and with perception of the future comes anxiety. There are two ways we handle anxiety. One is retreat into older layers of the psyche that deal with fear. This means withdrawing or defending. The other is to do something—anything- to move forward. As Alfred Adler said, the important thing is to get moving. That’s why exercise alone will improve general mood and mental function. But a bigger group of connections to the pleasure center is from our most human powers, the prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain. Evolution has built in an appetite for challenge and novelty, more reward response as we move the mental energy toward to front of the brain. We’re meant to use and develop our capacities, whatever they are, to grow as individuals. It’s the growing that feels good, extending our abilities, without thinking of the outcomes or results. Envisioning the future shapes the goals, but getting too attached to the outcome disconnects us from the process- being present to what’s happening at the time. And the current of time includes plenty that we can’t envision in advance so attention to the actual is a very important first choice.
Many fields of action influence our position in the current. The circumstances of work, family, friends, are each unfolding in a location alive with patterns. Our connections through computer networks, the moods and health of our mind and body all are factors in the place we find ourselves and from which we navigate via the selections we make about where we’re going. We adapt to the changes in the current or it wears us down. When conditions are bad the only choice we may have is the attitude we can take, but we can keep the energy in the evolved intelligence, the front of the brain if we’re looking for what’s to be learned and how we can use that knowledge. When Viktor Frankl was working at forced labor in horrible conditions, he envisioned himself standing in front of an audience giving a speech about how he survived. Imagination into a future that makes use of the current lesson created a brain chemistry that stimulated his ability to survive.
Increasing our freedom in the realm of ideas depends on having more possibilities from which to select and construct our own. The battle of right and wrong ideas is about who has the power to impose their ideas on others, the power to limit the scope of ideas.
Every time you hear someone cut off a topic of conversation as beyond discussion they are trying to assert power over what we’re allowed to think, but it is only through discussion and the hybrid thoughts that grow there that we can gain perspective and break free of the limitations of rigid, right/wrong categories and the anxiety that comes with them.
Helpful ideas spread from all parts of the globe. I’ve been enriched by Tai Chi and Lao Tzu, yoga and my neti pot, France (the country), and philosophers and thinkers from everywhere. The range of perspectives allows me to see more patterns and create a personal view that depends on having that many choices. If we drop the stultifying barriers inherent in fixed ideologies and allow the full range of the human mind to influence us, how could we not evolve as a species.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dangerous Remedy

Organic Intelligence

Since the sixties, thinkers have been suggesting it’s time to shift our model of reality from the giant machine to the image of the universe as an organism. Fritjof Capra talks about the shift in worldview that came with quantum mechanics in his wonderful book “The Turning Point”. He writes, “The universe is no longer seen as a machine made up of multiple objects, but has to be pictured as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process.” Seeing the whole is essential to understanding the significance in a situation and is the essence of ecological consciousness. We understand the big picture through concrete vision as well as within our spatial embodied imagination.
The heartbreaking pictures of the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico can be seen as our body bleeding. The globe that supports us all is pierced and hemorrhaging. All the images taken from space that show the growing damage hurt my heart like damage to my own body. Which it is, given I am absolutely dependent on it. A caller to the Diane Rehm show was the first to express out loud the fear this oil spill could kill the whole planet. The satellite and helicopter pictures are the diagnostic scans of our global body. The compartmentalized, rapacious way of looking at the planet that grows from the machine model avoids seeing the interconnections. It may suit the corporati and greed-driven, but an attitude of seeing the planet as a giant reservoir of resources to be exploited interferes with the balance of the all-inclusive organism. Chief Seattle said, “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.“ Stabbing oneself in the hope of riches expresses reckless self-loathing.
Organic intelligence is alert to the health of the whole. Since everything is part of an intricate network of interrelated systems, we’re happiest (best brain chemistry) when we’re developing our abilities and finding challenging ways to make use of them. This adds our health to the health of the larger organism in which we participate. Moving in harmony with the flow of being around us is natural if the underlying model of the universe has ourselves as part of an organic whole. If we’re disrupting other aspects of the larger being we’re like a cancer, growing without heed of the damage we cause, sucking up vital resources without regard to the host. Much of what divides us and keeps us from acting together is imagery that places us outside of things, casting us as the one that tinkers with the machine. This is the same image as the large scale Maker, which also puts the traditional God outside us.
The Gaia Hypothesis came out decades ago. James Lovelock’s conception was of a consciousness within the earth itself. Just like the adjustments made in our own body, it responds to imbalances. This universal motion of homeostasis exists on every level and in every system, adapting to change to restore equilibrium. Persisting in the belief in man’s dominion over the earth may lead to the earth itself wiping out the source of destruction.
The materialistic world of separate things has resisted seeing our interconnectedness because it’s a threat to a competitive attitude. Accumulating and controlling more of the planet does not serve the good of the whole. But there’s evidence mounting of the grassroots shift to a more responsible way of seeing. Two website groups that have contacted me recently are dedicated to positive change. The Superforest site
( http://teamsuperforest.org/superforest/ ) sees the essence of problems and solutions in the world as revolving around manners. Treating everyone and everything with respect means being aware of the consequences of our actions. As they say in their Humanifesto, dumping pollutants in a river is bad manners. The narrow sight lines of a competitive stance focus on the end result and miss much of what’s happening now and the consequences of single-mindedness. A cooperative attitude is tuned to the moment because cooperation is all about adjusting to the circumstances and harmonizing with others. The current most popular entry at The Truth Contest site
( The Truth Contest ) focuses on the Present and the nature of consciousness. Their site is committed to an ongoing attempt to articulate truth, to search out the universals that bind us. They turn the idea of a contest on its head since there’s no competition, no prizes, just an on-going dialogue that features the entries that generate the most interest. Extending themselves for the good of the whole, these sites are examples of healing forces, the action of Gaia’s immune system. They give me faith in the goodness of human nature and optimism about the future. I’m happy to now be connected to both efforts.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Warm and Fuzzy

More Love

In the June Discover Magazine is an article about epigenetics; in particular, the way genes are turned on and off by the way a rat pup was raised. When the mother licked the pup many times over the course of the day, the pup became a more confident adult, open to new experiences and to being with other rats. If the pup had a mother not given to licking, as adults they were more anxious, less open to the new. When the pup of a non-licker was given to a foster mother who was a licker, the rat had the same outcome as the pups genetically related to that mother. It was a more confident, less startle-prone rat. This study made clear how strong the effect of early upbringing is on the personalities of the adults. In Harry Harlow’s research with monkeys, young monkeys would choose a cuddly surrogate mother over a wire one that had milk. Comfort and touch were more important than food. Untouched monkeys in his research became psychotic, or violent sociopaths. This has to make you worry about cultures that are very reserved regarding physical contact, who don’t touch each other even in families.
I remember reading that baboons carry their babies around for months after they are born, easing the shock of separation from the mother’s body. It makes me sad to see a mother carrying her infant in one of those V-shaped baby-buckets, an idea born of marketing. The pediatrician that used to live upstairs always carried her baby on her hip, and it was a very confident baby.
People can go to psychiatrists for years trying to understand the reasons for their anxiety, and though they surely gain in overall self-awareness they may never know that they were seldom held as a baby, that being out there alone in the world too soon was scary. The attitude of vigilance is shaped right then by the customs of the group into which they were born. The particular way this attitude manifests may be genetic, but the disposition of fear is conditioned.
The good news is the brain is malleable, always reordering in relation to the environment to which it adapts. Every time we touch a friend we perform a little act of healing. The problems due to lack of touch in the past can be soothed by caring touch in the present. Touch is a powerful antidote to stress chemicals. Temple Grandin, uncomfortable with touching people as part of her Asperger’s Syndrome, made a hug machine, a bed that bent to push on her sides to reduce the tension in her body. I feel that comforting sensation whenever I lean back on my very soft couch. It may not produce the oxytocin that creates long term bonding but the pleasure tells me it definitely produces endorphins, like it probably did for the monkeys choosing the cuddly surrogate mother, and endorphins reduce stress.
Wilhelm Reich thought that sexual union was necessary for people to have enough independence of character to think for themselves. Without it he felt that people turned to the group and the attitudes and thinking of the herd. They found their connection to others in agreement with the cultural norms. Thinking about the rat study, it would seem that caring touch of any kind, creating connectedness, builds the confidence necessary to embrace difference, in oneself and others. A light touch on the forearm is enough to get good chemicals flowing. Every time we touch we create a physical image of connection and build a more connected self-representation in the brain. Even when we weren’t raised to touch others, it’s something that can to be developed. Our physiology needs it and more confident independent thinkers can change the world. More love, right from the start of life, in every cultural group, is the force that could turn the global trajectory from the fear-based attitudes of greed and domination that are ruining the planet to a place where cooperation and caring can begin the process of regeneration.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Uncertain Procedure


Behavior is an image in motion. Remembering that Jung said, ”Image is psyche”, we can see how symptoms create an image that reflects what initiated the reaction. The things that cause us psychological pain are rooted in conditioned patterns created by past threats, and show the lingering expectation of more. I’ve found that one of the clearest indicators of the trouble a person has had is in the degree of their self-protection. The need to protect oneself shows a background requiring protection, of being conditioned to relate to a threat pattern with an adaptive response. When we think of a person’s behavior as defensive, we should keep in mind that the fortress was built to protect from attack. Slumped shoulders are not just about posture; they are about cowering. Anyone that was hurtfully punished and humiliated in childhood has been convinced they deserved it. And so they expect more of the same and create what they expect. Alice Miller, in her many books, emphasizes the crippling long-term effects on adults who were mistreated by their parents. The names of her books, “Banished Knowledge”, “For Your Own Good” etc. refer to the broad range of parenting styles that deny the child’s individual reality. Accepting the practice by refusing to see how one has been hurt, the wounded individual passes the behavior to the next generation, debilitating a large chunk of the population with defensive antagonism upon which the worst aspects of modern society build.
The cultural appetite for meanness, expressed in news reports of torture and bullying, media humiliation of celebrities, radio hosts that ridicule others, feeds on people who have suffered this treatment and now need to vent the distress on others. A scene in the old movie of the Charles Dickens book, “Nicholas Nickleby”, shows an obviously poor young boy in the school watching gleefully as another of the children is beaten harshly by the school master. The image of violence as a way to solve problems is retained by the body no matter how many layers of rationalization and denial shield it.
The disregard for cultures with different values is one result of the emotional blindness that allows these conditions to propagate. The need to release pent up feeling is satisfied by subduing those who don’t share a particular way of seeing with all of the righteousness of parent smacking a child into obedience. Unexpressed rage is channeled toward whatever is being demonized at the moment. Drawn into an accepted outlet, the hurt caused is invisible, blocked by the protective shell around the ability to feel.
The shell was constructed in reaction to assaults of the past. The culture reinforces it creating a perpetual aura of danger requiring our vigilance, and we layer on our personal defensive strategies, built in childhood, to counter the behavior of the adult(s) that made them necessary. The tension creates symptoms in our bodies. Pain and discomfort isolate us further. Instead of judging ourselves for our lack of self-worth and all the behaviors that go with it, we should look squarely at what molded those behaviors so we can release them. If we’re not in touch with our own pain, the Golden Rule doesn’t work, because when we don’t understand what hurts us we can’t use that as a marker for what not to do to others. Throughout the Bible and the I Ching as well as other religious texts are many statements to the effect that we teach best by example. Getting into power struggles with children about who is boss lays a foundation for adult struggles that extend into international politics. Using punitive measures teaches a child to do the same and creates a violent, intolerant world.
The wonderful work being done in the Harlem Children’s Zone shows what’s possible when the growth of children is approached the right way. What they call “Baby College” is an effort to give young mother’s help understanding their babies and what kinds of childrearing will stimulate healthy psychology and intelligence. In a Newsweek article, “What We Can Learn From The Harlem’s Children’s Zone”, Raina Kelley writes, “the HCZ is another kind of proof that the playing field can be leveled.” They rightly see that developing and supporting the child’s intellectual development is the best way to build a road out of poverty. Key to the philosophy is eliminating corporal punishment and humiliation, which diminish empathy, and developing skills that allow empathy to flourish.
All of the recent brain research supports the need to change the way children are raised. Putting the emphasis on love and understanding will enable the young to trust themselves and grow into their full potential. Only then will we see more understanding in global communication.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Poles Together

Contradictory Truth

I recently heard a man on the radio insist that where there are contradictions, one thing is wrong and the other is right. In his mind, to believe that there are things in common among different religions is, to use his words, “silly”. That contradictory things can be true is an issue of perspective. Pull back and everything has an oppositional state equally important to keeping the whole thing moving. Alan Watts wrote of the “familiar tension between law and grace, works and faith, discipline and spontaneity, technique and inspiration, a synthesis of which is of the utmost importance for the living of the moral and spiritual life.” The issue is balance. Favoring one side over the other is untenable. The views of different cultures can at first seem contradictory, but each expresses a truth of its own context. To impose a standard from another context invites disharmony and misunderstanding.
On the mental plane of right and wrong, the fear a being wrong inhibits creativity. After all, creativity is by its nature trying something new. How could that ever fit a pre-existing idea of right? Depending on how past instances of wrong were treated, this can be paralyzing. With satisfaction in life dependent on growth, the inability to grow curls one into separateness. Though every specific instance may have right and wrong choices, it’s something we know in our heart at the moment. The more general the categories of absolute right and wrong the less likely there will be justice and understanding.
I found it interesting that in the wonderful talk by Jill Bolte Taylor describing her stroke from the inside, she said she couldn’t find the edges of her arm. Since her left hemisphere was the one not working, this suggests that the whole motivation of absolute boundaries is part of the fabric of this analytical and symbolic, verbal and numerical side of our brain. The right is the hemisphere of full perception of wholes. As soon as the brain starts to delineate, the first stage of symbolization begins. Once we define an arm as an arm we’ve already begun to substitute our representation, the thing we think of as an arm, with the living, active arm that’s carrying out our purposes in the world. The right side recognizes that we are in the world and part of it, whereas the left side sees it as something observed from the outside and manipulated. The excesses of left-brain dominance and this tendency to see the symbol and not the reality, exacerbated by digital menu culture, may be part of a detachment that seems to be affecting so many people today. We locate, separate and label, and this offers an illusion of control.
The right side sees the arm in motion, participating in a dynamic universe that we don’t control but navigate. For the right hemisphere, building a bigger picture of the whole increases our overall perspective and ability to function within it.
The idea of pooling knowledge, going beyond simply acknowledging different views to actively seeking them out, allows us to enlarge our picture of the world, reorganizing our worldview at a higher, more comprehensive level. Organized properly the new image will regain simplicity offering an ease of understanding that includes the full range of ideas and their context of relevance.
More attention to imagery will help us build the neglected right side of our brains. Finding artists whose work strikes a chord, spending time in nature and looking at the world around us, exploring new places and looking carefully at a friend’s face as they talk, are just a few ways we can begin to balance our minds and develop our perceptual wisdom. The skill of seeing what’s important in the picture may diminish our anxieties about the world by building our capacity to respond from within the whole.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010



The purest experience of imagery in mental processes occurs when we dream. Visual language is the medium of dreams. We are shown the way to look at something where the goals of waking life may obscure an important ingredient. Dreams are a mechanism in our ongoing adjustment for balance. The current idea about the dream compensating for the one-sidedness of waking life dates back to early Taoism, which has many passages where the dream functions as a counterbalance.
Since many researchers connect dreaming to learning and solidifying memory, this would reinforce the idea that what we learn has to be integrated into our inner model, connected to our existing representation of reality. Ulrich Wagner of the University of Luebeck, Germany, says sleep develops our capacity for insight as adjustments are made in the hippocampus, consolidating new information within that organizational center. The hippocampus is considered to be the headquarters of our internal model of reality and these nightly revisions and additions include the felt significance of our experience. With conscious purposes focusing most of our attention during the day, subtle feelings about experience are missed. In his book, Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck wrote about the dramatic nightmares Charlie had the day he saw his first bear. The dog enacted the movement and sounds of terror during REM, establishing his sense of the danger. Dreams reinforce circuits and display unconscious evaluations. They show us how we feel.
Dreams almost always occur in settings, drawing from and developing the existing inner model. Just like none of the individual objects is symbolic without the context, the setting itself can stay the same but host a range of different feelings, an ordinary living room shot with feelings of terror.
Judaism has always regarded dreams as important to deep level understanding. One of the many passages about dreaming in the Talmud states, “Dreams that are not understood are like letters that are not opened.” Rabbi Jonathan said, “A man is shown in his dreams what he thinks in his heart.” Psychiatrist Erich Fromm was saying the same thing when he wrote,” A dream is the true picture of the subjective life of the dreamer.”
Having a dream journal, even if I only remember one dream every few months gives me the opportunity to reflect on a dream at a distance. Looking back at dreams, seeing a larger context with more development over the intervening time, the picture can seem much more understandable than the morning after having the dream. My persistent nightmares of quicksand as a child, I now can see as a fear of suffocation, and the horror of disappearing completely from the surface world.
Most of us are pretty good at suppressing our fears, but to ignore them altogether is to not see a danger apparent to the unconscious mind. The dream insures these evaluations will be integrated into overall memory. Researchers have found that two-thirds of dream content is unpleasant. So bad dreams don’t mean something’s wrong with us, they show how we feel about what’s happened to us, or what we fear might happen. The idea that the unconscious mind is broader and smarter than the conscious mind is certainly supported by the many stories of dreams solving problems or predicting outcomes. There’s a rich history of predictive dreams (Lincoln dreamed of his assassination the week before it happened) and a parallel history of dreams showing solutions that eluded the waking mind (Mendeleyev’s organization of the Periodic Tables of the Elements). We are all artists at night, creative imagination unbound by the assumptions in our ideas about reality.
I think when we don’t remember our dreams it’s because they did their work, the adjustments have been made in the image that underlies the way we think and doesn’t need conscious attention. When we do remember, just by the act of remembering in the day, we perform another act of reinforcing the circuits and weaving it into the fabric of conscious memory. I remember some of my childhood nightmares more vividly than any particular episode from waking experience.
The correlation of sleep problems and depression shows how a lack of time sleeping and dreaming deprives us of the opportunity to balance the negative feelings. Understanding the value of this nightly development of our perceptive intelligence, we might value sleep more, and appreciate that important work is being done.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sharing Light

Images and Humor

At the top of my list of favorite funny lines was a crack made by Michael Feldman on his radio show “Whaddya Know”. During the first Gulf war, he asked the audience if they’d heard of the new smart bombs--- that refused to drop. Immediately a cartoon like image formed in my mind of two bombs hanging below the plane looking at each other with a caption like ”No way. There are PEOPLE down there.”
The inner image is important to humor because so often a joke depends on a shift of context. We think of “Smart bombs” as technology that can better find it’s target, then the punch line shifts our attention to human smarts and knowing better than to want to hurt others. This crossover from what was expected stimulates dopamine. It gets our attention and reminds us we can be wrong in our assumptions. I find it interesting that our reward system encourages us to recognize our mistakes. Optical illusions also give us pleasure with contradictions in visual expectations. In the right context, watching a magic show or looking at a mural that fools us into thinking there’s a door, is pleasure from being fooled. It’s good for our survival to be reminded of our illusions.
One of the things that delighted me in Umberto Ecco’s novel “The Name of the Rose” was the discovery that the medieval monastery’s book of forbidden knowledge was Aristotle’s book on humor. The idea that rigid ideology most feared humor made wonderful sense since humor depends on contradictions, on shifting conceptual contexts and an irreverent attitude. It can break us loose from conditioned mindsets. Humor is the enemy of dogma.
The area in the front of the left hemisphere that’s triggered when making a joke is an area associated with optimism and happiness. Humor lightens the heart, stimulating endorphin production. Clearly evolutionary forces are encouraging it’s use.
Norman Cousins, in his book “Anatomy of an Illness” credited watching funny movies with pulling him through a serious illness. He actually checked out of the hospital and into a hotel and healed himself with the Marx Brothers. His book “Head First” was one of the first to compile the research showing connections between mental habits and attitudes to health. In a more recent book, “Mind Wide Open”, journalist Steven Johnson noted that laughter suppresses stress hormones and stimulates immune chemicals. Laughter even strengthens ability to remember. Joan Didion once wrote that one of the important factors in a long-term relationship was “finding the same things funny and the same things absurd”. A shared sense of humor is one place we can feel a deep connection to another. This sense of connection frees our thinking from bondage. The need to go along with the crowd is often based on the drive to connect with others and without a strong personal bond people seek refuge in unifying ideology.
Humor often needs no words at all. Early cartoons were pure visual events that were free from the constraints of reality in the crazy situations depicted and the exaggerated expressiveness of the characters. The New Yorker is famous for its cartoons.
The funny home videos shown on TV and You Tube depend on watching an unexpected visual twist. Laughing at ourselves can save us from exaggerated self-importance. So often it’s the brutal honesty of observational humor that allows us to see delusional personal patterns and we laugh with recognition. The imagery of humor is a powerful corrective that helps us see a truth that our ideation may have blocked.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Building Gravity


Riding to the eastern shore with my husband, a big car whizzed by us to the traffic signal and idled with a powerful growling sound in the lane right next to us. The elaborate painting, specialized bodywork and big tires reminded me of reading Thorstein Veblen who developed the concepts of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” as aspects of the human form of display that were evident in other cultures prior to our own. Modern consumer materialism may be more elaborate than what he described but display precedes even human cultures. Bowerbirds make elaborate platforms with all kinds of things woven in including daily changes of flowers. They try to outdo the other birds in creating a stronger visual impression and thus attract the female. The degree to which something gets attention is the degree of its attraction. Visual power creates its own gravity, gives weight. Power could be seen as the ability to command others attention. An effective display gives greater visibility. Display grows from a mindset of competition. With a competitive approach to life, whoever is most visible, whose satellite representations can be seen far and wide, wins. The dark side of being a “heavyweight” is the pressure of having so much attention, how the media jumps on every imperfection, the more visible the personage, the more airtime. The gravity we’ve created pulls so much into us we can be crushed by it.
Weight pushes us down. To carry it is a burden. It puts emphasis on the material world and all the separate things in it. It focuses on substance, admires what is substantial. The metaphor of weight builds on accumulation; weight grows as stuff piles up. The ego loves this because we are enlarging on our sense of our scope by building our bower of visibility. In a way, the life story that comprises our ego, the way we identify ourselves, is a weight that can drag us down, is the rock that Sisyphus pushes endlessly up the hill.
What keeps us from feeling light is weight. To feel light may be necessary to joy, to liberation. Weight expresses attachment and desire. Lightness releases self-importance and is in harmony with present being. D. K. Chesterton said, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” To “take ourselves seriously” is to hold protectively to the identity described by our story. We struggle with our attachment to the things that weigh us down. It’s part of the human drama and not something we can reject and stay alive. The dualities of light/dark, light/heavy are cyclical conditions, part of a whole that oscillates. Whether the metaphor is applied to moods, or the smooth and difficult times in life, clinging to one end stops motion. They are the crests and troughs of an all- encompassing vibration, which we should acknowledge and accept as the experience of being human. As Milan Kundera wrote in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar to the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real…. the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mistaken Identity


In the course of my search for imagery that might assist a more comprehensive understanding of our spiritual nature it occurred to me that the image of light is associated with the all-encompassing universal intelligence in most if not all religions. Arguments between different faiths overlook this shared central image and I wondered why didn’t we see beyond the human-like god with its warring dualities to the inclusive light beyond it. A conversation with Kris Hjelli the night before he died pointed to the answer. He was very concerned by all the problems created by our anthropocentrism. The human mindset of being separate and better than the planet and everything on it was for him the root of the problem in our ecological dilemma. That humans think that only humans are important leads to disrespect and disregard for everything else and encourages an underlying selfishness. This started me thinking about whether the anthropocentric mindset might be behind our inability to go beyond human-like images of the divine. By putting an emphasis on the human image, it becomes other and separate. The Image molds the viewpoint and the viewpoint leads us to see a multitude of individual separate beings with a separate god outside of ourselves. Arguments break out around which separate supreme entity and codified book is the right one and none of that feels very spiritually focused.
The image that encompasses all of the separate views and is part of many references to the Infinite Intelligence is the image of Light. It’s a part of mystical experience in all faiths. It’s always been present, but our focus on what’s human kept us on the level of distinctions. Perhaps Islam’s distrust of images had to do with their focus on what is manifest, on what can be seen. But since imagery is so important to understanding, a better image may be necessary to get us to a place that includes us all. Since light includes and envelops all that is around it, it makes sense to go back to Light. After all it was there in Genesis, in the Clear Light of Buddhism, in the radiance of the saints. Darkness is ignorance, inability to see clearly. The metaphor of increasing our light makes the pursuit of learning a spiritual path, since it moves toward greater light. Knowledge illuminates.
Beyond the religious image of light, light has long been a central metaphor for intelligence. We bring a new issue to light, we cast light on a problem, something is seen in a different light. The light in the heart enables us to see our deepest meanings. A person might be referred to as bright, a prophet called a light to the world. When I say a person is full of light, it’s not so much a particular quality I’m feeling, but an outward directed interest, a lively curiosity that connects to what’s seen. We feel it as a level of attention and are more fully in the light in someone’s attentive gaze. The light of receptive attention feels like love. Words of love can betray. Responsive, accepting attention IS love. It doesn’t just represent it. We always have the choice to offer that to others, to be Light. We are drawn to the Light because it offers greater awareness.
What we see becomes known in a deeper way than what we hear or read. Envisioning something in relation to our existing inner model is the only way we can integrate our accumulating perceptions into our worldview. We all have these associations with light. It’s been so close we couldn’t see it. We couldn’t see beyond the human intermediary.
What is all encompassing suits me better. Learning, meeting people with different backgrounds and views, seeing and experiencing different places, all increase my light.
It’s something we could head toward together.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

To My Drawing Class- In Memory of Kristoffer Hjelle

In the time our class has been together we’ve become a community and a group mind comprised of many different ways of seeing. Losing Kris is a tremendous blow to us. His way of seeing and expressing itself broke boundaries in every direction.
In the community organism our class has become we need to stop and digest how the way Kris thought has influenced the way we think. As I write this I’m listening to a sound piece he made for me with binaural beats and nature sounds. He addressed my interest in meditation and the brain and combined it with his own sensitivity to nature. His ecological consciousness, including a compassion for all beings, turned up throughout his work. He pushed experimentation with media and the structure of drawings and ways to think about art that we can in some way metabolize, build into our own creative being. He broke down boundaries between different disciplines, combining imagery with sound and interactivity. We can build our own possibilities by the inclusion of his.
We can develop the neural circuits that were affected by his presence in the class, whether it was identifying with his ideas, his sensitivity, his use of media, or his willingness to structure drawings in entirely different ways. There was a boundlessness to his creativity that we can reflect on when we feel restricted.
Thinking about how he influenced us, remembering how our lives were touched, on some level makes him more present through the focus of our attention. Last Thursday night, looking at the hand stitched book he was making, I told him that some of what he’d written represented deep spiritual insight. He was very wise about the pitfalls of the human mind. This showed clearly in some of the papers he wrote for Amy Eisner’s class. He wrote, “We must not always look to etymology, history, or any other established approaches to find understanding, because the truth is that in one word, there is a bible of meaning and although an artist makes his own path, so will the reader. I say ditch the path and create your own.” This was his challenge to us.
When we reclaim the complete life of a person, we can feel all of the ways their way of being affected us and extended our understanding of how people look at the world. We may have shared an opinion and felt affirmed that someone as smart as Kris was thinking along those lines. He and I had conversations that I thought about long afterward and often changed the way I was looking at a subject. His ideas will have reverberations throughout the rest of my thinking. The length of a life has nothing to do with its value.
Recognizing how Kris has affected us enables us to deepen and grow and be grateful to him as the source of greater light.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Art Showing Feeling

√ It was after completing a series of very simple drawings in 1976 that I began to think art could be a useful tool to help people recognize their feelings. They were exhibited that spring at the Image Gallery in Stockbridge, MA. I was pleased and somewhat surprised at the reception they received, since my work is usually very detailed and I thought that was part of its appeal. Stacks of lines in varying degrees of balance, the drawings seemed like shorthand for expressing feelings difficult to describe in words. Anyone could immediately recognize how they were “stacked up” at that moment, how balanced they felt at any given time. When I went to work in a short term counseling facility, I quickly saw their potential usefulness. Often the reason it’s so hard to tell a counselor how you feel is because there aren’t really words that fit. Each word puts the feeling into a definition that may not really match. I adapted my series to hang in one of the counseling rooms, nine drawings ranging from total collapse to perfectly balanced. They seemed to make a difference, enabling counselor and client to get to the point more quickly and lay out the situation contributing to that state. Though I left after two years, the pictures stayed in use for the next seven. (The ones I’m posting are from the original series). It occurred to me after posting my last essay that anyone who wanted to reflect on their inner state could draw a stack of sticks and see how they feel, what mood they’re in, how they stack up that day. I thought I’d offer these up by way of encouragement to try your own.
Talking with students about my own drawing process I emphasize that I don’t know what’s going to happen when I start. I lay out big shapes and color fields in a way that feels right until the whole page is divided into a particular state of balance. When I look at it I’m often surprised at what it shows me. I’ll think, “Hmmm, I’m in worse shape than I thought.” Usually that thought makes me snicker at the immediate insight into my whole circumstance.
For the deep psychological strata, nothing is better than looking at great art. To look at a portrait by Rembrandt you can see your own deepest questions looking back. Current art challenges aspects of our immediate culture, and it can be deeply reassuring to see others pointing beyond the surface descriptions. In every case, it’s not just the recognition that we’re more than the boxes we’re put in, but the enlarged perspective we gain that is the best kind of learning. Since learning produces endorphins, the acquisition of more perspective makes us feel better. Great art shows us how much bigger we are than the world makes us think. When an artist hits my current state of mind dead on, I laugh out loud.
Drawing is a way of thinking visually. Whether your doodling during TV or depicting the detail on a dead leaf, you are showing yourself something your brain is trying to see. The doodle may have a musical feel in the repetition of similar shapes and have the same soothing effect. Drawing what you see develops powers of observation as well as showing what in your surroundings you care enough about to want to see better. Observation is the foundation of art and science. Building that skill serves you well in every way imaginable. It shouldn’t be reserved for artists. It develops a hemisphere of the brain long neglected by the dominance of words. Everybody should get a pad and see what they feel.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Art and Neuroscience

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun described a collaboration between brain science and art that I was glad to see happening. Working with Charles Conner, director of the Mind/Brain Institute of Johns Hopkins, Walter’s Art Gallery director Gary Vican said, “Artists are instinctive neuroscientists. They’re always looking for new ways to stimulate perceptual mechanisms. When we’re involved in looking at art the whole brain is fully engaged. It’s one of the most sophisticated things we can do.” The writer credited Clive Bell with coining the term “significant form”, but it actually traces back much further. When Susanne Langer used it in her writing in the 60’s she credited “ aestheticians of a previous generation”. Her magnificent and thorough work on the relation of art and feeling is especially relevant now as neuroscience shows that feeling directs thinking, is our filter for importance. In her book, “Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling” she writes, “Feeling is a dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity. Its whole relation to life, the fact that all sorts of processes may culminate in feeling with or without direct regard for each other, and that vital activity goes on at all levels continuously, make mental phenomenon the most protean subject matter in the world. Our best identification of such phenomena is through images that hold and present them for contemplation; and their images are works of art.”
The complex dynamics of feelings and the structure of art make art the best way to learn about feeling. This complexity cannot be reduced to one variable at a time since the meaning is in the whole and the relationships presented. There are correlations between the balance of a surrounding structure and the feelings we experience, and we seek out the structures that best express our own inner world. Art serves others by translating the dynamic patterns of feeling into significant form that can help us recognize our own obscure felt states. In the Walters study a questionnaire that asks about the mood of the subject before they pick the shape could add an important level of information since what we find beautiful can vary with our state of mind. Rudolf Arnheim’s work analyzed qualities in the composition of paintings, and building on the work of the gestalt psychologists, concluded that balance and change are central to how we respond. The edge of the spiky shape changes very abruptly and we respond as we respond to abrupt things. Smooth curves change gently and that’s how we feel them.
Today at University College in London is the Institute of Neuroesthetics. On their web site they write, “Artists are, in a sense, neurologists who study the capacities of the visual brain with techniques that are unique to them”. Neuroesthetics is a word coined by neurobiologist, Semir Zeki, which refers to the artist as observing and abstracting general patterns, finding general abstractions. All brain science began with the study of perception. It studied how the brain organized wholes and recognized patterns.
Art gives us images that help us understand the structure of feelings. As Langer said, “Art looks like feelings feel.” The work that stirs the most people engages the most universal felt states of being human. Like facial expression it can speak across cultural boundaries because we’re physically structured the same way and our patterns of response build on our embodiment.
Art can help science create synthesis between disciplines, find correlations between bodies of information that give perspective to the knowledge. One of the problems with the methods of science is that by limiting variables you may strip away essential context.
MacArthur winner, Richard Powers said he was headed into science as a career, but once into it the narrowness of the discipline shifted his attention to the possibilities of novels. His books weave connections from many fields finding parallels that illuminate how thought itself is structured. Throughout the sciences, artists could facilitate insight into important relationships through their perceptual understanding. In a multivariable world, the artist helps us discern what’s significant in the whole.

Monday, January 11, 2010



The word “forward” has generally positive connotations. It is the direction you’re facing, attentive to what’s in front of you. We think of “forward” in relation to what’s unexplored and “backward” as what’s already happened, suggesting nothing to be learned from that direction. Unlike “ahead” which implies a relationship to what’s behind, or a competition with another, “moving forward“ is pure direction, a more open present-centered state that keeps us in action, learning and developing.
As I learn more and more about the brain my tendency to try to visualize the gestalt helps me to consider what might be general principles of the mind and how they could be useful. One of the most significant is the idea that we are happiest when we move the energy forward in the brain. When researcher Elena Korneva massaged the front of a cat’s hypothalamus the cat purred. When she rubbed the back it showed signs of terror. Reaching from the frontal lobes to the older functions in the back, the hypothalamus is thought of as the brain’s metaphoric thermostat, mediating between body and brain mechanisms to keep us balanced. Our fear responses send energy to the back of the brain where memory and fight/flight responses are centered. When we take action on a problem the energy moves forward. Speech is an action. Studies have shown that happy emotions are associated with activity in the left front hemisphere. This is the location of Broca’s area, where we put our thoughts into words, an action the brain reinforces as good for our well-being. Perhaps the most helpful thing about keeping a journal in difficult times is the act of putting the troubles in words. Psychiatrist / novelist, Walker Percy wrote, “We tame the world with descriptions.” Naming something makes it feel more known. It is one of the uniquely human powers. Imagination and analysis, reason and discernment, all of the specialized abilities evolved to enhance human survival are in the front of the cortex. These mental actions are clearly in our interest to develop. Right behind the forehead in the prefrontal cortex, they are densely connected with our primary source of dopamine, the nucleus accumbens, considered a major pleasure center. Action utilizing our highest powers stimulates dopamine, which stimulates focus and attention. Nature builds incentives to keep us evolving. We are meant to use our capacities and are happiest when extending them. Nothing feels better than acting, because through our actions and their effects we fulfill our being and discover who we are.
As Howard Gardner has repeatedly emphasized, many of our higher powers are not developed by current education’s focus on left hemisphere abilities. More time is spent breaking knowledge into small units. Very little attention is given to synthesizing and comprehending relations between one area and another, the abilities that images educate. The concept of “forward” itself has been twisted by the linearity of left hemisphere thinking. Forward is really outward. When we shift our body position, facing a new perspective, then that becomes forward. Backward is the land of memory and the known. It moves energy to the back of the brain and taps into conditioned patterns.
Outward and forward is the direction of learning. Growth moves in all directions. Direction itself has been found to play a part in happiness. Energy that is directed pulls the mind’s energies into harmony. Direction is often equated with purpose, when we’re directionless we’re confused and ultimately depressed because there are so many human faculties going unused. When we don’t act, it’s often because early negative messages have made us fearful of doing what we really want or of our ability to succeed at something. But growth is much simpler than the grand plans that accompany external definitions of success. To take an interest in anything, to investigate, observe, inquire, and pay attention to where we are and where we’re heading pushes energy to the front of the brain. All directions outside of the self enable consciousness to become aware of itself within the whole. We can choose to direct our energy forward, in our brains and in our lives.