Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”

 

So, I Am a Nyctophile

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Night image via Pixabay

I was just browsing some articles at learning-mind.com and I came across one whose headline included the word nyctophile. I didn’t know that one.

A nyctophile is a person who has a special love for night and darkness. This is a word with Greek origins – nyktos meaning “night” and‎ philos meaning “love.” You probably have heard of other “love of” words like book lovers (bibliophiles) and astrophiles (lovers of stars and astronomy).

I guess I am a nyctophile. I write a lot of articles here about night-related things from the dark night of the soul, mid-night, middle of the night insomnia, Mr. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (and that observance) and Twelfth Night and many posts about Full Moons and stars.

I’m writing this in the early night. Is that dusk or twilight?  I like knowing about word origins (etymology) and I write about that topic elsewhere. Thinking about night got me wondering what the actual difference is (if there actually is a difference) between words like night, dusk, evening, nightfall, twilight, eventide and sundown. When is it officially “night”? I wrote about all those words defined on another blog of mine.

And now I’m writing during eventide, which is an archaic word for this time that sounds rather Romantic.

Perhaps, my occasional insomnia is really a result of actually enjoying the night. In the heat of summer, the night is cooler. The air often smells more fragrantly full of herbs, flowers, and trees.

There are fewer people around at night. Outside and even inside my own home. I guess that could sound lonely but I find it very peaceful. I don’t miss the sounds of traffic and leaf blowers at all. That peace allows me to more easily write, meditate and just plain do some thinking.

Okay, that last item can be a problem. It’s hard for me to turn off my thoughts. I’m more productive at night. Some night’s I have more energy at night, even after a fully active day.  Unfortunately, that sometimes makes it hard to fall asleep.

That 3 a.m. middle of the night time is often the land of writers, painters, and poets who also find inspiration in the night sky and absence of distractions.

Sometimes looking up at the stars makes me feel small. Sometimes it makes me feel finite. Sometimes it makes me feel that I am infinite and that I am connected to the whole enormous universe.

William Blake thought he could see a world in a grain of sand. Late at night, I sometimes believe there are worlds, maybe galaxies, within me.

milky way
Milky Way via Pixabay

Think Like Leonardo

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One of da Vinci’s lesser-known paintings Salvator Mundi  (see note at bottom of this article)

It is easy to take the opinion that Leonardo da Vinci is the world’s most creative genius. You can debate that opinion but you have good evidence on your side.

I was fascinated with Leonardo when I first encountered his notebook drawings as a child. I know I did some biography book report on him in elementary school and built a model of his helicopter. It didn’t fly, but then either did Leonardo’s.

In my adult life, I came across How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb, and that got me thinking about Leonardo’s approach to thinking and creating. I taught several workshops using that book. They were fun to teach and participants always seemed to enjoy them too. (Gelb also published an actual workbook version of the book too.)

When Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo da Vinci, was published I eagerly read that too. It’s excellent and gives you much more about da Vinci’s life and it changed my ideas about him.

One thing that we sometimes overlook about Leonardo is that for all the ideas, drawings, models and theories he had, he actually produced very little work.  He was probably an easily-distracted genius and might even be labeled today as having attention deficit disorder. This is another thing that makes me feel closer to Leo. I too have many more ideas for poems than poems, more sketches than paintings, more outlines for novels that will never be written and more To-Do lists of things I will never do.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter. He created two of the most famous paintings in history –  The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But his lifetime output of paintings (as far as we know) was only a few dozen. Enough to make him a great painter, but certainly not the focus of his life.

If you were to engrave his headstone with “painter” I’m sure he would prefer that you add scientist and engineer.

Actually, he might suggest making it larger and including his interests in anatomy, fossils, birds, fluid dynamics from the heart to water pumps and viaducts, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry.

He is a great example of someone who blended the humanities and the sciences.

He certainly received some acclaim and patronage in his life, but he was also somewhat on the outside. He was born illegitimate, which in his time carried a harsh undeserved penalty.  He was gay. Even that he was a vegetarian and left-handed made him odder than others. He was heretical which didn’t help in a church-ruled place.

But he was brilliant, inquisitive, imaginative and all his oddity probably made him even better at thinking differently. Think out of the box? I doubt that Leonardo had any idea that there was a box.

In Gelb’s book, which reads like a workbook for the reader, he discusses what he calls da Vinci’s 7 principles that explain how his thought process worked.

From da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and works of art, each of Gelb’s principles is a lesson.

My favorite of them is connessione, the term for the appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena and probably all things. To me, that is the greatest gift that a student, teacher, artist, writer or anyone in any profession can have.

It’s not a fair coverage of the principles or a workshop to list here the other principles, but as an introduction, these are the other six.

  • Curiosita – an insatiable curiosity
  • Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione – the continued refinement of the senses
  • Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
  • Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
  • Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise

Sfumato, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, is interesting because we usually think of ambiguity as a bad thing.

For Leonardo, it was firstly a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. “Sfumato” in Italian translates to soft, smoky, vague or blurred. It was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance in order to almost dreamy depictions. In the notebooks, da Vinci described it as “… without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

If you took art history, it might have been grouped with the painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, such as cangiante, chiaroscuro and unions. If you look closely at the Mona Lisa, you see the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges around her eyes and in that famous ambiguous smile that still has us wondering what she is thinking.

But in the Gelb book, we move via metaphor from art or science to everyday life thinking. Do you embrace ambiguity? I know I am guilty of jumping too quickly when I have a question to a Google search or when I can’t recall a film title or actor or the name of that series about da Vinci I check IMDB.

Michael J. Gelb has further gone down the path with another book Innovate Like Edison that carries the subtitle “The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success.” But business success doesn’t appeal me to in the way that I find creativity intriguing. Still, in a light reading of this book in the library this past week I did find crossover.

One of Edison’s secrets is no secret at all. The idea of keeping a notebook to capture creative thinking and including drawings and doodles (you don’t need to be da Vinci to draw) in order to capture ideas for later has been used by artists, writers, scientists etc. for centuries.

Still, I am guessing that the majority of people do not keep notebooks after they leave classrooms, though they may scribble notes and drawings on paper. Somehow, collecting them together and saving them is much more powerful. I have shelves of journals of life events, dreams, garden notes, quotations, poetry and poem ideas, and many other topics. I love starting a new blank, bound book whether it be some grand one bound in leather (a retirement gift) or one of the many Moleskine notebooks from pocket-sized to tablets that are on my shelf, on my desk and even in my car.

There is something about ideas, words, and sketches being bond into what feels a “book” that gives them greater importance. My personal journals started like diaries when I was 13 with almost daily entries but over the years have become monthly essays made from notes I make day to day about events and impressions.

I can look back at what I was doing or concerned with back in April 1971 (high school graduation and heading off to college dominated) and one day I will hopefully be around to reread my timeline of the coronavirus pandemic that I’ve been recording the past three months.

Looking back at old journal entries makes thin synapses fire up again (most of the time) and is nostalgic. My major observation in the teen year journals is how much I lied in my writing. Was it wish fulfillment, magical thinking or the thought that someone else years later would read it and believe it? Was I thinking about my children, grandchildren – a biographer?

My garden notebook records the first and last frost dates, which seeds and plants did best in the vegetable garden each year and notes on houseplants, pests, fertilizers and green things.

My dream journals record dreams that even when written down often seem like someone else’s dreams and writing to me after just a few weeks or months.

Finally, all my online writing may have a longer shelf life than those journals. It certainly has more readers!

A page from the notebooks of Leonardo’s studies of a fetus in the womb – (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia

A note on the painting at the top of this article, Salvator Mundi.
This is generally considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci from about 1500. Art historians think it may be a copy of a lost original. There are many other versions, some certainly done by students and followers, but we also have chalk and ink drawings of the drapery that were done by Leonardo and indicate his preparation for the painting. It has much overpainting and has been restored, so the original may have been quite different. The painting shows Jesus Christ in an anachronistic Renaissance outfit. He is making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holds a transparent, non-refracting crystal orb in his left. That is supposed to indicate that he is Salvator Mundi, Latin for ‘Savior of the World.” The crystal symbolizes the “celestial sphere” of the heavens.

Inspiration

A friend asked me where I find inspiration for all these blogs that I write on.  That question has many answers. For posts on my blog about threatened and endangered animals and other things, I’m reading environmental and nature books, magazines and websites. For this site, inspiration comes from all directions – poetry, novels, non-fiction, TV, radio podcasts, the news, movies, art, music, and other bloggers.

How can you not find inspiration in looking up at the blue sky or the night sky of stars and be inspired to consider the vastness of the universe or the small role we play in it and the big role we play on Earth?

But the answer my friend was expecting was more like “the shower.”  I know what he means. This post was inspired by his comment which I was thinking about while taking a shower.  I find that I get a lot of ideas and inspiration for my writing and also for things I need or want to do. What is it about taking a shower that inspires?

Once inspired to write, I either have to do more thinking and often I need to do research. As a student, I never liked research papers. As a teacher, I saw that my students usually had the wrong ideas about research. I always asked them to think about the kinds of research they did before making a major purchase (appliances, car, home) or even the research you might do before picking a movie to see.

Let’s take that simple movie decision as an example. You might read reviews, watch a trailer, or ask friends for their opinions.  If you ask others for their opinions on a current film – let’s say it’s Toy Story 4 – you will likely get positive and negative responses. I looked at the reviews for the film currently on RottenTomatoes.com. They are overwhelmingly positive. But what if a few of your friends gave it a negative review? Who holds more weight with you – friends or “professional” critics? What if one friend says it is lousy but hasn’t seen it? Another friend did see it and hated it. He also hated all the earlier Toy Story films. One critic loves the first three films and thinks that number 4 is even better because it has more for adults to love. All these reviews are research and you need to be pretty discriminating in sifting through those reviews. Are you inspired to see the film?

Back to that original friend’s question about inspiration. Besides that watery shower inspiration, I find inspiration when I walk, when I am out in nature, when I am alone, when I am driving, and more so in the night hours than in the morning ones. I’m not alone in finding those activities as inspirational. I found posts online (like this one) that mention some of the same activities.  People suggest daily inspirations. I get the feeling people are sometimes looking for inspiration to live, to continue, to battle adversity. I’m not looking for that in the shower or on my walk in the woods. I am more in search of the spark. That trigger that sends me to the computer or my camera or my journal or my paintbox and easel.

Travel and big experiences can certainly be inspiring, but you can’t do that every day.  On a daily basis, I look for those smaller sparks:  How the movement of the planet and stars can remind me that I too am flying through the universe; how my samples of blue watercolors will inspire me to write about a sad friend.

Writing and Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth - "Frostbitten" (1962)
Frostbitten by Andrew Wyeth, via Flickr

As a writer and as someone who has long been an admirer of the art of Andrew Wyeth, I immediately clicked a link to an article titled  was  “A Writer Learns From Wyeth.”

Andrew Wyeth worked in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and tempera, and not much in words. Yes, I believe his paintings do tell stories, but words were not his medium of choice.

Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year. That may account somewhat for the fact that Andrew was not entirely literate. Peter Hurd, who was Wyeth’s brother-in-law, asked 12-year-old Andrew to look up something in the encyclopedia and discovered he could not do it.

Andrew was home-tutored because of his frail health and his father, the artist N.C. Wyeth, was his only teacher.  He learned art and he appreciated hearing stories and poetry read aloud, but reading and writing were not a regular part of his “studies.”

The article’s author, Beth Kephart, the author of 22 books, feels that “there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth.”  Like Kephart, I have made a pilgrimage to “Wyeth Country” in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and to the Brandywine River Museum where much of his artwork is displayed. I went out with my camera to find some of the actual locations of his paintings near there.

Wyeth found inspiration at the Kuerner Farm. The early 19th-century farmhouse, the red barn and the family were subjects for hundreds of paintings and drawings over seven decades.

Kuerner farm
The barn at the Kuerner farm.

Besides the stories in his painting, Kephart does find advice is some of Wyeth’s words about his work.  “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be,” is something any poet will identify with about poetry and probably their writing.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing without pen and paper or computer. As Wyeth said, ” I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.”

I look at some of his sketches and prep for a painting and I immediately think of writing drafts. Wyeth’s advice on revision to writers might be the same as he said about his art  “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”

Drydock
Drydock, 1987, Watercolor,

I like looking at his watercolors (like Drydock above) done on the same kinds of spiral bound pads that I use for my own watercolors. He has his own favorite tools, as do most writers. His medium rough watercolor paper (not stretched and 22 x 30 inches) and only three sable brushes (Nos. 5, 10 & 15) and no flat brushes for the background washes.

I particularly like Wyeth’s use of titles. The painting at the top of this post might have simply been called “Apples on a Windowsill” but it’s called Frostbitten which suggests a lot more. What would the title Faraway suggest to you? Take a look at his painting with that title – Were you close? If not, what story is suggested in that painting?

The paintings do have stories, though the stories behind them are mostly not known to viewers. For example, his painting Winter.

“Winter” — 1946

There is only a small patch of snow in the painting, where we might expect a white, wintery canvas.  The painting was inspired by a day when Andrew was walking near the railroad tracks where his father was killed.  He saw a local boy running down the hill facing the Kuerner farm and joined him. They found an old baby carriage and used it to ride wildly down the hill. The painting shows the boy and a shadow stand-in for Wyeth. Wyeth said of the painting, “The boy was me at a loss, really. His hand, drifting in the air, was my hand, groping, my free soul.”

That hill is the same one Wyeth would use two years later for probably his most famous painting, Christina’s World

Christina’s World

 

Embracing Chaos and Messiness

messy-paints-pixa

I bet that a lot of people reading this post are making resolutions for the new year, and I suspect that cleaning up messiness both literal and figurative in their life is on many of those lists.

Your parents have been telling you this since you were a kid. Your spouse, roommate, officemate and others may have been suggesting it. I am constantly trying – and failing – to achieve a state of orderliness that I can maintain.

The  chaos of a house or room or closet, garage, basement, or even a desk drawer or desktop just seems wrong. I also think that achieving even a small feat of order – such as an empty inbox – gives us not only satisfaction but the hope that we can accomplish the same order in our larger areas. may even in our personal life.

People are writing books about how to clean and organize, and I wrote here about the combined joy and sadness of throwing things away. But that process (and those readings) can make you very anxious and just remind you of your failures to get rid of the mess.

A good amount of the rhetoric of the recent election was about cleaning up the mess in Washington D.C. and across the country. Donald Trump’s campaign was a mess. But he won.

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But I have to thank podcast episode 53 of Hidden Brain for turning me on to the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. For the New Year, I appreciate a book that  celebrates the benefits that messiness has in our lives.

Embrace the messiness and chaos! It is important. Stop resisting.

The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but he looks at research from neuroscience, psychology, social science, and examples of people who did extraordinary things in messy and chaotic ways.

Some qualities that we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – seem to require a degree of disorder, confusion, and disarray.

This messiness doesn’t have to be visible, like that pile of stuff on and around your desk. Think about how unexpected changes of plans and unplanned events can generate new ideas and opportunities. Yes, these things can also make you anxious and angry, but you need to let that part go.

The book (and the podcast for the not-lazy but more aural learners) can help you stop underestimating the value of disorder. I’m typing this on the couch surrounded by unread magazines and notes for things I want to write and the remains of breakfast – and I feel fine.

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Fight the urge to untangle the rope mess.