Archive for April, 2010

My lady told me the other night, over a divine meal of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts (it really is brussels sprouts! with an extra s! I couldn’t figure out why it was underlining it at first), that she doesn’t like it when scientists (specifically particle physicists) dissect the world into tinier and tinier pieces until the meaning is all sucked out of it. The world becomes a mass of nothings.

The universe is pulsating with an energy that we call electromagnetic waves. The frequency range of electromagnetic waves is huge–from radio waves, which can sometimes have more than 10 kilometers between them to the tiny cosmic waves, which move in wavelengths of about a billionth of a millimeter–with X rays and ultraviolet and infrared and TV and gamma rays in between. But the average human eye can detect only a very small portion of this vast range–only, in fact, the portion with wavelengths between 0.00038 and 0.00075 millimeters. It seems a small differential, but these are magical numbers for our eyes and minds. We know this section as visible light, and we can distinguish about ten million variations within it. (from Colors by Victoria Findlay)

The world is a swirling mass of electrons and photons just waiting for a finely tuned assemblage of rods and cones, optic nerve and cortex to happen by, absorb the waves and interpret the results.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend at the recent Earth Day celebration here in Eugene. My friend teaches a Brahma Kumaris meditation class. She told me that Brahma Kumaris teaches that the soul is as tiny as a grain of sand and it lives in the middle of the forehead, just behind the eyes.

Our souls interact with the physical world through our bodies. My body is a wonderful and magical tool (fully equipped with millions of rods and cones) that I inhabit. Everything that I “see” is, in its original form, a wave of vibrations, perceived by my receptor cells and interpreted by my cortex.

Question of the day: at what point does the physical world become meaningless?

(Memory of the Garden at Etten by Vincent van Gogh)


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A friend once said that only narcissists commit suicide. At the time I felt like that a fair enough assumption (we were talking at the time about a wealthy, good looking movie star who had made the attempt but failed), but after reading and doing a little writing on Vincent van Gogh, I think I’ve revised my view. Here was a man who failed at everything. He was wracked with religious guilt (his father and grandfather were ministers for the Dutch Reformed Church, based on the teaching of John Calvin). He was mentally ill, plagued by paranoia, insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares and despair. He was in pain much of the time due to loose teeth, stomach problems (both likely caused by malnutrition), epilepsy, and possibly syphilis.

I was discussing this with my partner and she said that life destroys some people. That they then take their lives is not narcissism, but blessed release. This reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me of that old saying that used to be on everybody’s bumper:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Coming down to the earth burns. And, I think, some people just aren’t capable of building up the same defenses as everybody else, and the world burns them up.

The second thing I’m reminded of is the Hindu story of Ganga, the maiden who sprang from the holy water Brahma used to wash the toes of Vishnu. Ganga was ordered to descend to the earth to wash over the ashes of a king’s ancestors, in order that they be able to be released from earth to ascend to heaven.

But Ganga was so powerful the gods were afraid that she would wash away the earth when she descended. Shiva agreed to take her into his wild mane of hair and to let her out little bits at a time. Ganga is the Ganges River, worshipped as sacred to the Hindu people.

I had a teacher once who showed us a drawing exercise in which you take a pencil and circle it above piece of paper, bringing it closer and closer to the paper, until you are actually drawing the circle. The moment the pencil touches the paper and the circle is drawn, a miracle has occurred. Something that was once an idea (non-physical)  now exists in the physical world. We bring it down and give it form.

You are a porthole. Ideas (inspirations) come into you, products (physical things) come out of you (in the form of artwork, or automobiles, or washed dishes–whatever it is that you do in the world).

We are the spiritual being Ganga descending to the earth. We are Shiva receiving and transforming divinity. We are the earth itself  holding the ash for purification and release. As Vincent van Gogh can attest, finding form in the ocean of chaos is not easy.

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Vincent van Gogh was a man who was intent on saving his soul through his painting. He was perfectly awful at marketing himself, unlike Picasso who was beloved despite treating his friends and lovers horribly (he once fired a handgun into the air in group of fans) or Salvador Dali who was beloved despite the fact that he was eccentric beyond the pale (he once nearly killed himself after donning an air-tight deep sea scuba helmet for laughs and kept ocelots for pets. I’m not even really sure what an ocelot is).

Vincent van Gogh was beloved by nobody, except his brother Theodore. He was remembered by those who knew him as being dirty, disagreeable, intense, awkward, egotistical and, strangely enough, eager to please. He visited brothels, drank copious amounts of absinth, and treated his epilepsy with the poisonous plant digitalis. He had constant stomach pains from drinking too much black coffee and not eating properly. He wasn’t the picture of health. His neighbors called the authorities on him and he eventually checked himself into the Saint-Paul-de-Masoule asylum in France. There, he painted a picture every day. All in all, he painted and drew 1600 pieces during his 37 years on earth. You might say he painted like a madman.

I am risking my life for my work, and my reason is half gone.–van Gogh

I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day. Somebody was interviewing Steven Sondheim, the man who, among other things, wrote the lyrics to West Side Story. During the interview he said that  anyone who creates art–takes a photo, paints a picture, writes a song–is doing so to create form from chaos. The world is crazy, unpredictable. In order to find our place within the crazy, we make marks on paper, distill ideas into pages or onto a canvas, freeze time as best we can. Get it down, before destruction.

One of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs (Tamburitza Lingua) has a line that goes like this:

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…and kerplooey. You’re done. You’re done for. You’re done for good. So tell me did you? Did you do? Did you do all you could?

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A few weeks ago I became intrigued with Vincent van Gogh. I remembered a story that a teacher told me, about how van Gogh shot himself in the stomach (which is an excruciating place to be injured) and that it took two days for him to die. His last words were, “Who knew that life could be so sad?”  (The teacher wondered why he had chosen to shoot himself in the stomach. He conjectured a guess that perhaps that is where his pain was coming from. Solve et coagula.)

It has been said that Vincent van Gogh saw the world differently than others, which is reflected in his paintings.  It is certainly true that he related with others in a very different way than was socially acceptable (beyond cutting off his own earlobe, he held his hand in a lit lantern to convince a girl’s parents to let him see her, he threatened Gauguin with a razor blade after throwing a cup of absinthe at him [on a slightly different note, after being threatened by the blade, Gauguin apparently decided to try and stare van Gogh down which is not the course that I would have chosen in that situation. Alas, I wasn’t there. Had I been, history would have certainly been very different.], and he agreed to marry a woman ten years his senior, who he didn’t love, because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Or something like that.)

Vincent suffered in his life, that is assured. He failed at dealing art, quit his teaching job because he wasn’t being paid, was fired from a missionary gig, and failed the examinations for the ministry after fifteen months of study. At this point, he decided to become an artist, despite the fact that his mother thought his drawings were “ugly.”

After this, things got a little bit depressing. He was starving most of this time because he spent his money on art supplies, he had hallucinations and heard voices in his head, he poisoned himself by eating his own paint (probably accidentally), he couldn’t sell any paintings (the only one ever sold while he was alive is pictured above) and no women wanted him except the one he didn’t love. And yet, he continued to paint every day. In his words: “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Was it really necessary for him to make that choice? What about contentment? Where does that fit in? It is my goal to be happy by not holding grudges, by not talking negatively about people, by being compassionate.  My counselor once asked me if I wanted to become Jesus and I said yes. Why not?

But she (my counselor) felt like we need conflict in our lives in order to live authentically, to continue peeling back the layers of the onion. So here’s the question: If van Gogh could have been more content, would he have been able to paint the way he did?

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Yesterday I went and spoke with an engaging woman who is finishing up her schooling in embalming. The woman, despite the fact that she is learning how to embalm/preserve bodies in the “traditional” method, is a proponent of a newly re-emerging burial method called the natural burial.

Human beings have been burying their dead for 100,000 years. It has only been in the last 100 years that the funeral industry has taken over the ritual of caring for the bodies of the dead. In the past, if her child died, a mother’s job would be to carefully wash his body, comb his hair, close his eyes and set his features for viewing before his last transition.

The idea now is nearly blasphemous. Who would ever want to do such a thing? Who would want to be that close to the empty frame of a once lively loved one?

My new friend, the soon to be embalmer, feels like we have lost an important ritual. She said that the subconscious mind needs to say goodbye, to understand that something is forever gone, to grieve. Solve et coagula. Rip it open, clean it out, let it heal.

Now what we likely see when a loved one dies is a painted up and waxed over body, filled full of formaldehyde, put into a beautiful wooden box and placed in a concrete and steel tomb underground. The ritual resides in the broccoli casserole and the scalloped potatoes, but no longer in the preparation of the body. We are now told that it is better to leave that job to the experts, who know better than us what is best. It’s a job that is too painful and difficult for the untrained.

When the ancients buried a body, the flesh was likely broken down in less than six months (depending on the soil conditions and temperature). When an embalmed body is interred it can take decades to decompose.

When I die, I would like to allow the organic process of decay to take place. I’d like the elements stored up in my body to be returned to the earth in a timely fashion. I don’t want pink #4 in my veins. I’d understand if nobody wants to wash me up, but that’d be nice too. I’ll put in a good word for you on the other side…


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Character assassination. The police won’t come for me, but I’ll feel like crap. I might not even know why I feel like crap. (This is where I think Steiner’s demon [the one you create when you try to control a person] comes into play. I think of it more as an energetic demon that eats away at my sense of peace.)

I make a choice to assassinate someone’s character. I feel justified in doing so, because she is not a good person! Well, that might not be exactly true, but at very least, sometimes she makes poor decisions! I need the world to know that person X made a poor decision and I noticed it!

Self righteous anger also can be very enjoyable. In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority…Here we are not trying to help those we criticize, we are trying to proclaim our own righteousness. (from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions)

I’ve been really getting into the death thingie lately. Today I’m mostly focused on the idea that a fear of death keeps us from living the life of complete bliss that we could otherwise be living if we weren’t afraid of dying. How ironic.

Is it possible that we slander other people because we’re afraid of dying?

I’m reminded of Barack Obama’s state of the union address, during which he uttered the phrase “I will not accept second place for the United States of America” several times over. This is dualistic thinking at it’s prime: I need to be in first place at all times.

How does this apply to being dead? Dead v. alive is dualistic in nature as well.

Oh descendant of the Kuru dynasty, resolute intelligence dedicated to Me is one-pointed–I am its only objective. But irresolute intelligence is splayed by endless desires for mundane enjoyment…[Unwise persons] hearts are filled with desires and their goal is heaven. They advocate the many sacrifices and rituals that yield wealth, worldly pleasures and high birth. (from Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 2)

Since I’ve begun this (pleasantly titled, if I don’t say so myself) microseries on death, I’ve come to recognize that the clench I feel in my stomach and heart when someone challenges my first place status is my fear of death. Recognizing it and saying it out loud takes some of the power out of it. I also recommend deep breaths and Terra Firma Nerve Tonic #2. Good stuff.

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I watched this video (in its entirety) in college. Not in the lederhosen class. In a different class, with a different professor. This class was taught by a really lovely professor who told us a story about getting a severe injury when paint spattered into his eye. He told us how he made up a ritual which included a handmade styrofoam boat with mascara on it that he sent out to sea in order to save his eye. (It worked.)

The metaphor of the aghori is lovely. He is an acetic who lives in the cremation grounds. He rubs his face with the ashes of the dead, drinks and eats from a bowl made from a skull, smokes copious amounts of marijuana, and eats flesh fresh off the funeral pyre. I can’t say it better than Jones:

Aghora (literally, “non-terrifying”) is the spiritual path that seeks to negate all that is ghora (“terrible, terrifying”) in life. The ghoraencompasses all those experiences that most people find intolerable, for almost everyone is as ready to enjoy life’s pleasures as they are to avoid misery. Most spiritual advisers admonish their devotees to shy away from the ghora, but aghoris (practitioners of Aghora) embrace the ghora fervidly, for what most terrifies an aghori is the prospect of becoming mired in duality. Aghoris go so far into the ghora that the ghora becomes tolerable to them; diving deeply into darkness, an aghori finally surfaces into light. No means to awakening is too disgusting or frightening for an aghori, for Aghora is the Path of the Shadow of Death, the path that forcibly separates an individual from attachment to every ordinary self-descriptor. (http://jonesthought.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/sadhus-indias-holy-menliving-with-the-dead/)

I used to be afraid to dance. I was terrified of looking foolish. So terrified that I would stand with my hands in my pockets, head bobbing to the music, while my friends let loose and boogied all around me. That sucked. I wanted desperately to be able to let loose too. But I knew that if I did, people would surely think to themselves, what is this lady thinking? She is not cool enough to dance like us! They knew. And I couldn’t prove them right. In hindsight, I remember the feeling: I was mortified with the idea of being vulnerable.


late 14c., “to kill,” from O.Fr. mortifier, from L.L. mortificare “cause death,” from mortificus “producing death.”). Religious sense of “to subdue the flesh by abstinence and discipline” first attested early 15c. Sense of “humiliate” first recorded 1640s (in mortification).

Sometimes it’s that which shatters us that liberates us. (recent twitter by Marianne Williamson)

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