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As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

 

Om

The Om syllable is considered a mantra in its own right in the Vedanta school of Hinduism.

 

The word “mantra” comes from ancient Sanskrit combining man meaning mind and tra meaning instrument, with the idea being that it is an instrument of the mind. A mantra is a word or phrase in Sanskrit that you repeat over and over, either aloud or silently.

I first learned about it when I first encountered meditation because the repetition of a mantra quiets the mind and should bring peace and clarity.

“Om” is probably the most well know Sanskrit Mantra. Om is believed to be the sound of creation. It is the first, original vibration. Positive mantras create a powerful sound vibration that aligns the mind, body and spirit to divine energy.

Using mantras is a type of meditation and chanting one is treated like meditation – seated in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.

In transcendental meditation, a mantra is considered a personal and secret thing, but now you can find mantras online and even YouTube videos of how to pronounce the ancient Sanskrit words.

I was taught to chant it out loud seven times, then again seven times but softly, and then silently in my head seven more times or for as long as needed silently until the vibration of the sound connects in some way to your  subconscious mind.

I learned much later that in India tradition, the mantra is repeated 108 times, using a string of 108 Mala beads to help you keep count. This reminded me of the praying of the rosary and other props used to focus meditation or prayer.

So, are mantras really prayers? I think they can be, but they do not have to have any connection to a religious sect or practice. Mantras, when used properly, are said to direct your life force energy (Prana) through the body and your energy centers. That is why some practitioners credit them with deep healing.

It is easy to make fun of mantras, as Woody Allen did in Annie Hall. (Do you recognize the rather distraught young man in the clip above who has forgotten his mantra? It’s Jeff Goldblum in a bit part back in 1977.)

When I first was given a mantra by some “Buddhists” I met my freshman year of college, I was told that I could request anything and by chanting my mantra regularly my wish would be fulfilled. “Could I get a new guitar?” I asked. “Absolutely,” was the reply.

That is not what mantras are about.

I question the powers attached to an individual mantra. For example, Om Namah Shivaya is the “great redeeming mantra” and is supposed to help us to call on our higher self, overcome our ego, aid in purification and space cleansing, physical and mental healing and increase self-esteem and confidence. That seems like a lot to ask of six syllables.

Om Shanti translates as “peace” and is a popular mantra. Om Namah Shivaya is also a well known Hindu mantra and the most important mantra in Shaivism. It means “O salutations to the auspicious one!” or “adoration to Lord Shiva.”

You don’t have to use a Sanskrit mantra. There are other words and phrases in English or any language you can use. J.D. Salinger introduced me to the Jesus Prayer which is used as a mantra. That short prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Salinger is most famous for The Catcher In The Rye, but after the fame of that book sent him off to a hermit’s life in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote Franny and Zooey. That book introduced me – and I’m sure many others – to the Jesus Prayer.

Salinger’s novel also introduced me to the Russian tale The Way of a Pilgrim, which is essentially an introduction to The Philokalia – part of Christian mysticism.

In a literary sense, the story of the siblings Franny and Zooey, the two youngest members of the Glass family which was a frequent focus of Salinger’s writing, may be a reaction to the success of Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher, is full of teenage existential angst. It puts him into a mental hospital.  Salinger himself escaped the fame train that his first book put him on and went into isolation and read a lot about philosophy and spirituality.

Franny and Zooey is a modern American take on the path from existential depression to spiritual illumination. Franny explains the method of the Jesus Prayer in this way:

“… if you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to just do it with your lips at first – then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what but something happens, the words get synchronized with the person’s heart-beats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. The prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness.”

Positive mantras should be words that resonate for you. You could just use a word such as “peace” as your mantra. People will create their own mantra. Someone coming out of a broken relationship or leaving a job might say “I will find a better life.” The mantra can be about your intention.

More than a few self-proclaimed modern”gurus” have built a career (and fortune) by getting people to use mantras (whether they use that word or not) and to repeat over and over positive phrases such as “I am strong.”

In Franny and Zooey, Salinger also has a character warn us about using a mantra.

“You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment, I don’t see how you ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessations from all hankerings.’ It’s this business of desiring, if you want to know the goddamn truth, that makes an actor in the first place. Why’re you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier?” source

I identified as a college student with Franny Glass. She is a 20-year-old English major. Her story takes place when she visits her boyfriend for a college football weekend at his school.  She is already tiring of the phoniness of college life and the egotism of faculty and students – including her boyfriend.

“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.’

Her existential crisis is at a point where it is making her physically sick. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand the little book, The Way of a Pilgrim, she has borrowed from the college library that is in her handbag.

At the end of her story, she explains that the prayer means to her that ‘You get to see God. Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart—where the Hindus say that Atman resides…”

She is nauseous, sweating and has just confessed out loud what she is feeling. Franny faints on the way to the bathroom. “Alone, Franny lay quite still, looking up at the ceiling. Her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”

Salinger was writing Catcher fresh from getting out of WWII and surrounded by Beat Generation poets and novelists and their fascination with Eastern philosophies. We know that Salinger also was interested in Eastern religious philosophy such as Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but also Christian spirituality.

The nineteenth-century Russian peasant who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim tells the story of his journey as a mendicant traveller across Russia, He repeats the Jesus Prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra.

It’s too much to say that the two stories of Franny and Zooey are full stories of pilgrims or hero journeys or even someone in crisis finding enlightenment. And it’s too much to say that chanting a mantra will solve all your problems.

Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist monk who saw as the essence of Buddhism the belief that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life. He believed we have the ability to transform any suffering through a power we possess by being connected to a fundamental law.principle that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.

The name he gave to this principle was “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” This was the first mantra I was given in that college encounter with budding Buddhists. I chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and I used in meditations for about a year, but I left it.

I rediscovered it (though it had been flashing in my brain on and off for the rest of my life) only a few years ago. I read an article explaining the meaning of the words and then realized that part of what appealed to me about the mantra was that I did not know what the words meant. The mystery of the words was part of my attraction to them.

The past year I have used this mantra as a way to clear my mind of thoughts, especially when I am trying to get to sleep. Luckily, I have forgotten the meaning of the words so that the chanting carries no other meaning, no associations that are an opportunity to distraction. The silent chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo pushes other thoughts away. An empty mind can be a wonderful thing.

March hare

The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

hare

A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

I post here occasionally about what I am listening to in the podcast/online/radio world.  I still listen to many podcasts (too many, my wife would say) and I will update the list at some point, but this brief edition certainly falls under the category of self-promotion.

I have listened to the daily podcast of The Writer’s Almanac since 1993. It began as a public radio show that was harder for me to catch every day. I was glad when it became a podcasts that I could subscribe to and have waiting on my phone. It ran on public radio through 2017 and episodes are archived online. Now, the show is available as a podcast and online on the host’s, Garrison Keillor, website.

I had listened to Garrison Keillor starting in 1974 on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. I loved that voice and his ad-libbed weekly stories of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon.  I went on to read his short stories and novels. You can label him as author, storyteller, humorist, voice actor and radio personality. He hosted that show through 2016 when he retired and passed the reins over to others.

I was lucky to have three of my poems featured on the Almanac this month. I really enjoy hearing other people read my poems and that is not something I get to experience very often. The links are below and you can read the poems there online, but I strongly recommend that you listen to him read the poems. The poems are at the end of the program, so you could fast-forward through the news, but I enjoy the news of the day every morning as much, sometimes even more, as the poem.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. This Gothic beauty was the original setting of my poem, “Shame.”

“Shame” is a serious poem that came from an experience I had as a young man in a beautiful cathedral.
The other two are less serious, though not totally meant to be funny.
“Who Shows Up at My Poetry Reading” portrays the kinds of people I actually have had show up at readings. The poem often gets laughs when I read it, though fellow poets may be more likely to just nod in recognition.
My poem, “Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes,” came from reading an actual horoscope column online. The short-form horoscopes tend to be pretty positive, though you might get a warning prediction once in a while. What I thought was missing was ones that were somewhere in-between.
Prometheus

L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?

 

I read a review of the new animated series on Netflix based on the novel, Watership Down. The review’s title, “Plenty of Rabbits, None Cuddly”, tells you something about the filmmakers’ approach to the novel.

Watership Down is sometimes mistakenly taken to be a children’s story. Previous animated versions may have encouraged that view, and I suppose almost all animated films are viewed at first as being for a younger audience. But Richard Adams’ book, and this new animated series, is very adult in its language, plot and themes.

I wrote in an previous post that though my wife and I both loved the book, we didn’t read it to our sons. We stuck to Peter Rabbit (who turns out to also have some pretty violent experiences).

I made up my own rabbit tales for my sons to supplement Peter’s adventures and aligned them closely with the lives of my boys. Watership‘s author, Richard Adams, apparently did the same with his children.

The down where Hazel and prophet Fiver live, Sandleford Warren, is not a wonderful place to live. When Fiver has a vision of something terrible coming for their home, he tries to get the others to believe him and leave.

The vision comes true in the form of men and construction that destroys the warren and its occupants.

Hazel, Fiver and only a few others escape. They journey to find a new place and establish their own warren. Their Watership Down is to be a fairer, kinder society than the one they left. But they will need to quite literally fight a battle with the neighboring totalitarian state run by the rabbit tyrant, General Woundwort.

Rabbits fighting battles is not Peter Rabbit and not the other English land of anthropomorphic lovable animals, the Hundred Acre Wood.

Adams denied that he had loftier goals than to tell a rabbit story, but readers and critics have called the tale an allegory and found all kinds of symbols and metaphors for our human world from war to government to religion.

Because Adams created a rabbit language (Lapine), culture, history and mythology, some compare it to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is not that extensive and does not spread over multiple volumes. I have read studies on the novel that like the rabbits’ journey to The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. The review I read of the new animated series describes Woundwort’s camp as looking like  Auschwitz:.It is no wonder that Adams shrugged off the comparisons.

Adams’ book is not trying to be those other books. But it is trying to be more than just a story about rabbits.

There was (perhaps still is in some form) a real Watership Down that the author knew. It was a hill, or down, in Hampshire, England. He knew and learned a lot about rabbits in writing the book, and a reader will also learn a lot. The animated version does not have the book’s extensive rabbit facts (which I would compare to the inter-chapters on whales that Melville includes in Moby-Dick).

I enjoyed this new version. I like that it is allowed to stretch over four episodes. I appreciate the adult approach to the content. And now that my sons are both grown with children of their own on the horizon, they can watch Hazel and Fiver and then adapt the tales to tell their own children.

My rabbit stories always began as Peter’s story began: “Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.” And when I put the boys to bed, it was with that and maybe some bread and milk, blackberries and chamomile tea. No battles for our rabbits.

 

 

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