Thursday, November 19, 2020

Emergence Magazine

 "Silence isn't the absence of something,
but the presence of everything.
When I speak of silence, 
I mean silence from the
noise pollution of modern life,
sounds that have nothing to do
with the natural acoustic system.
Silence is the poetics of space,
what it means to be in a place."

As so often happens when one encounters something one's soul resonates with on a deep level - such as my "accidental" discovery of the film In Pursuit of Silence and its accompanying book Notes on Silence (that I wrote about in a previous post) - other related phenomena soon make their appearance. Case in point: the quote above is taken from Emergence Magazine - or, more precisely, volume 1 of (what I hope is) a series of future publications - which I stumbled across by following up a link to a short essay on Hempton's ongoing efforts on documenting "silence." Since I have abused the adjective "extraordinary" far too many times on my blog (when referring to books and other things I've been touched by) for it to retain any semblance of intended meaning, please take your pick of any of a host of substitutes: exceptional, remarkable, phenomenal, magnificent,...for they all apply. Emergence is a quarterly online magazine that contains essays, interviews, podcasts, and photography on an enormous range of topics at the crossroads of culture, ecology and spirituality. Indeed, it is a veritable treasure trove of textual and visual wisdom, ranging from an homage to the photographic sensibilities of Christian mystic Thomas Merton, to David Abram's musings on animistic engagement with our perceptual world, to the poetic recollections of experiencing the first "Earthrise" from the moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts. But this short list hardly does justice to the wonders you'll find lurking in a Borges' Aleph-like Volume 1's 296 pages! Like In Pursuit of SilenceEmergence Magazine offers gentle guidance and meditative comfort as I struggle to shake the cobwebs off my creative muse. By happy coincidence, just as I was about to close the link I just opened to the online magazine to check that I got it right, I saw that Volume 2 is ready for pre-order! I suspect that those of you who have found something of value on my humble blog will find great - spiritually creative - value in the offerings this online magazine has to offer.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Mazes of Silence

"Theologians push the origins of the pursuit of silence far back in time. The doctrine of tsimtsum, developed by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, makes the pursuit of silence nothing less than the foundational act of the universe.

Luria began his own pursuit as a young man in a series of solitary retreats to islands in the Nile, where he gained renown for being able to interpret the language of birds, swishing palm-tree fronds, and burning embers. (Certain kabbalists thought that after the destruction of the temple, guardian angels used birds as a kind of remote storage for some of the deepest secrets of the Torah, hence their chirping was full of wisdom. Luria kept mum about what the leaves and coals had to say.) Eventually he moved to Safed in Palestine, and there developed the body of mystical thought for which he is most remembered. He himself wrote almost nothing, being constrained by the vastness of the truth he wished to articulate. “I can hardly open up my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed,” he explained. Tsimtsum (roughly translated as “contraction”) is also premised on a problem of space. If God is everything—infinite and all-filling—how could there be any room for God’s creations? Thus, the first act in genesis had to be God’s withdrawal of Himself into Himself in order to make space for anything else. This withdrawal—a kind of inner retreat of the Divine—has been described both as a self-limiting and a self-silencing. (The Jewish identification of God with language makes any pullback on His part a retraction of the Divine tongue.) In Luria’s vision, God becomes the original monkish pursuer of silence, retreating into the dark, secluded depths of His nature so that creation would one day have the chance to sing in the light. Early commentators on Luria’s theories likened this process to a kind of cosmic inhalation: “How did He produce and create His world? Like a man who holds and restricts his breath, in order that the little may contain the many.” Each new expression of God’s creative force had to be preceded by another withdrawal, another self-emptying.

A humanistic reading of Luria’s myth might lead us to reflect that when we shut up and yank ourselves out of the picture, the world rushes vibrantly into the gap we leave behind—springing into fresh visibility and audibility. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Nahman of Bratslav, however, invested the lesson of tsimtsum with a further mystical twist. Nahman argued that mankind had to reproduce the steps the Divine had gone through in His self-silencing so as to make contact with God’s essence. A process of emptying and quieting takes the pursuer deep into an inner void that opens onto the emptiness left behind by God. Yet once inside what Nahman described as the “mazes of silence,” the righteous one discovers that in some inexpressible fashion God exists within the void as well."

- George Prochnik (1961 - )

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Silent Language

"Images are silent, but they speak in silence. They are a silent language. They are a station on the way from silence to language. They stand on the frontier where silence and language face each other closer than anywhere else, but the tension between them is resolved by beauty. Images and pictures remind man of life before the coming of language.

In the ancient languages one notices that the birth of words from silence was not taken for granted but was considered an event of sufficient importance to require a pause in the flow of language before the arrival of the next word. Words were constantly being interrupted by silence. As a river being born receives at every moment waters from different springs, in like manner after every word a new spring of silence flowed into the stream of the sentence.

In the ancient languages the word was merely an interruption of the silence. Every word was rimmed around with silence. It was this surrounding rim of silence that gave it its individual shape, and kept it separate and distinct from all other words, fenced off from them with its individuality guarded by the silence. If there is no silence between words they lose their individual shape and personality. Instead of being persons they become an undifferentiated mass.

In the ancient languages there was a silence in the interval between two words. The language breathed silence, spoke silence, into the great silence from which it came."

- Max Picard (1888 - 1965)
World of Silence

Monday, November 02, 2020

Meeting Yourself in Silence

"The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful."

- Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)

For regular followers of my blog (I hope at least a few of you remain!), I apologize for the recent dearth - heck, a veritable void - of posts and images. While legitimate reasons may (oh, so slightly) outweigh embarrassed half-baked excuses, the real truth(s) are revealed in Merton's quote: the dearth has as much to do with surrendering to too many (non photography related) projects as it does to my - and, everyone else's - ongoing battle to maintain some semblance of "inner peace" that - without which - it is impossible to sustain the creative process. 

I have always been a photographer of the heart; meaning, that I when I sense my left brain working - thinking, processing, analyzing - I put my camera back in its bag and turn my attention to other matters. I have also long embraced my heart's need for a deep contemplative quiet before my muse awakens. Unfortunately, such states have been increasingly hard to come by; what, with an unceasing pandemic, growing unrest in my country (a day away from a profoundly important election as I type these words), and spillage of day-time anxiety over what the next few months and year will bring over into dreams (and nightmares). And so, in turn, my camera sits patiently in its bag, and my blog wallows in its dearth of new images. But, alas, a ray of hope...

Merton's quote is taken from an essay ("The Modern-Day Desert") that appears in a truly extraordinary book, Notes on Silence, written and edited by Cassidy Hall and Patrick Shen. This book - discovered by chance as I was looking for something "completely unrelated" on the web a few weeks ago - has been a blessing; it is, at once, a spiritual salve, a place of solace, and a portal to precisely what my soul needs to help stumble its way through the muck and morass of this dark time. The book is also as much a metaphoric portal to otherworldly spiritual realms as it is a direct one to the mother project from which it was spawned; namely, an equally remarkable (and multiple award-winning film) called In Pursuit of Silence

Both film and book are joyously mystical meditations on the ineffability of silence. Not in a pedantic "let's listen to sounds of silence" sort of way (a topic well covered by other documentaries), but as revelatory / participatory pointers-to / glimpses-of what lies beyond the silence. Words, images, film stills, quotations, transcripts (in the book) - and, yes, "sounds" (and the lack of them) in the film - are brilliantly combined, mutated, and transformed into a new transcendent meta-language that hints of truths that pure silence is itself but a waystation to. You will meet myriad musicians, artists, mystics, philosophers, monastics, and theologians, and learn about the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence. 

Of course, the inner serenity I thought I had lost - and which I most certainly, and inexcusably, took for granted - was never gone! But it took this film and its accompanying Notes on Silence to remind me what "inner serenity" looks like. Seeing silence is akin to meeting yourself for the very first time.

I encourage anyone whose artistic muse dwells in inner silence to first view the film, and then order a copy of the book to keep by your bedside reading table. It is a treasure trove of timeless wisdom.

PS/Postscript. The image at the top of this post was taken mid-Oct at the Peaks of Otter Lake (along the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA). Apart from a few forgettable "snapshots" around the house and garden, this image is among the first "real" photographs I've taken in months. My muse may not have fully awakened, but I can see vestiges of an "inner serenity" that Notes on Silence reminded me never really left.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Unexpected Meeting

"Mathematicians attach great importance to the elegance of their methods and their results. This is not pure dilettantism. What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration? It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details. But this is exactly what yields great results, in fact the more we see this aggregate clearly and at a single glance, the better we perceive its analogies with other neighboring objects, consequently the more chances we have of divining the possible generalizations. Elegance may produce the feeling of the unforeseen by the unexpected meeting of objects we are not accustomed to bring together; there again it is fruitful, since it thus unveils for us kinships before unrecognized. It is fruitful even when it results only from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem set; it makes us then think of the reason for this contrast and very often makes us see that chance is not the reason; that it is to be found in some unexpected law. In a word, the feeling of mathematical elegance is only the satisfaction due to any adaptation of the solution to the needs of our mind, and it is because of this very adaptation that this solution can be for us an instrument. Consequently this aesthetic satisfaction is bound up with the economy of thought."

Henri Poincare (1854 - 1912)

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Crystalline Physiology

"Molecular biologists usually characterize life by objective properties like self-reproduction, variability and selection, adaptation, and metabolism. These characteristics do not constitute the definition of life but are properties of what we have previously recognized as living (on the Earth) on intuitive and subjective grounds. I think there is no objective definition of life (especially of extraterrestrial life) but only a subjective definition: we will decide that a system is 'living' when we will have relations with it (essentially based on communication) which will appear to us sufficiently rich, interesting, complex. Since any type of communication needs a physical support, the system considered must itself have (or be) a complex physical structure. The living systems on Earth have a hierarchical structure of the following type: living system ... organs ... cells ... 'central memory' (DNA). The transition from one stage to another in this scheme may be contingent and have no logical necessity. One could treat the problem at any of these levels. But molecular biologists are used to building the macroscopic from the microscopic. Since there is no other well established working method, I will thus restrict myself to the aim of finding a model of 'central memory.' It will be required to have the fundamental characteristics of DNA: to be stable, to contain rich information, and to diffuse, thanks for a reading mechanism, this information into the surrounding medium (protein synthesis in the case of the cell). These will be the minimal characteristics of ... model for a crystalline physiology. The places of possible occurrence in nature of this kind of physiology, terrestrial and extraterrestrial rocks, interplanetary dust, white dwarfs and neutron stars are then discussed."

Jean Schneider, "A model for a non-chemical form of life: Crystalline physiology," Origins of Life, Volume 8, pages 33-38, 1977.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Mathematical Structure

"A famous thorny issue in philosophy is the so-called infinite regress problem. For example, if we say that the properties of a diamond can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its carbon atoms, that the properties of a carbon atom can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its protons, neutrons and electrons, that the properties of a proton can be explained by the properties and arrangements of its quarks, and so on, then it seems that we're doomed to go on forever trying to explain the properties of the constituent parts. The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis offers a radical solution to this problem: at the bottom level, reality is a mathematical structure, so its parts have no intrinsic properties at all! In other words, the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis implies that we live in a relational reality, in the sense that the properties of the world around us stem not form properties of its ultimate building blocks, but from the relations between these building blocks. The external physical reality is therefore more than the sum of its parts, in the sense that it can have many interesting properties while its parts have no intrinsic properties at all."

- Max Tegmark (1967 - )