Archive for January 2nd, 2010

When studying in the mid-80’s for my doctorate in psychology, we considered it a fact that brain cells are the only ones in the body that do not regenerate. At the time, I thought it an odd feature of physiology given the centrality of the brain over the course of human evolution. It seemed absurd that brain cells would be so fragile and irreplaceable given their adaptive significance.

Two years ago, then 20 years after the doctorate, I took a post-graduate course in biological psychology as a refresher, and everything had changed: a change that is continuing and accelerating. Now, thanks to improved technology such as fMRI (fluorescent magnetic resonance imaging) it is the overwhelming weight of the evidence that neuroplasticity is fundamental to brain physiology. In other words, neural networks and pathways are freshly laid down and altered as we learn and grow and as we are challenged muscularly, emotionally, and cognitively each day.

“Positive neuroplasticity” is the capacity of the brain to regenerate functioning that has been impaired by stroke, dementia and the aging process, severe head trauma, or as a consequence of other CNS ( Central Nervous System)  diseases. There are now cognitive training exercises that neuropsychologists present to patients that can significantly improve diverse functioning, including balance in the elderly, memory functioning, and even offer support in the self-regulation of chronic pain.

All this being said, I am thinking about the alchemical treatise attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or The Secret of Hermes. Sources of this document are traceable to 650 AD. It was regarded as the central document of the Hermetic tradition.

In it, one passage has especially captured my imagination as I consider the revelations of brain science.

It reads:

That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, to perform the miracles of the one thing.

This ancient alchemical principle adds further framing to a better understanding of the mirroring in human nature of the core nature of the Cosmos. If the “above is as that which is below,” then neuroplasticity is an epiphenomenon of  Cosmic Mind. In other words, what we are learning about the temporal mind tells us something about the infinitely extensive and timeless “neuroverse”.


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January 1, 2010

As part of our New Year’s Eve celebration, we built and decorated gingerbread houses together as a family. This was itself a memorable and shared spiritual exercise. It was a mix of great fun in spite of, or, actually,  because of the natural tensions of different personalities on full display loosened up by the night’s merriment.

My wife and I worked on one house while our daughter expressed her artistry on a gingerbread home all her own. Being fond of spontaneity in her art and life, her house emerged from a series of decorative flourishes, one creating context for the next, and so on, until she declared it finished. It was a fine specimen sporting a  well fortified fence made of small chocolate bars.

My wife, herself a very talented artist and crafts-person, joined me on our shared project. We had the task of first mending roof pieces that we found broken. Some royal frosting as mortar, dabbed on each broken segment, and roof repairs were well underway. However, as a perfectionist, my wife’s dismay about the broken pieces raised her blood pressure and impatience from the start. Adding insult to injury, after running out of royal frosting, she went about preparing more but, for reasons unknown, the second batch turned out very runny, and things simply wouldn’t adhere to it.

More like my daughter, and very much a fan of “throw all caution to the wind and let’s see how she comes out,” I started to sprinkle, to my wife’s horror, various small candies on the roof, having coated it first completely with the freshly made imperfect frosting. Since it wasn’t thick enough, it ran down off the roof and, I thought, this would make for a fine array of serendipitous icicles: a calm and accepting sentiment my wife didn’t quite share. No, this prompted my wife’s further sense that all was truly lost and that it was best to toss it all out and just try again another time. For her, the gingerbread house-building business had become another exercise in futility with a failed outcome.

As a firm believer in self organizing systems, I thought it would all turn out great anyway, in spite of decorative mishaps, once the fluid frosting hardened. The sheer serendipity of it all was the real fun since I know nothing about how it’s “supposed to be.” It was more of a free-form watercolor like experience for me than a work in oils demanding heightened attention to fine detail and structure. In my naive mind, and perhaps nowhere else, I had turned our candied house into a fantastical piece of impressionistic playfulness. I liked it! By morning, my wife too agreed that our house looked surprisingly “o.k.” ( her code for pretty good).

Maybe these gingerbread houses won’t take awards, but the family that came over later in the day saw and enjoyed both creations. What I will long remember of this new holiday ritual is the dance and play of personality from structured to unstructured, ordered to random, planned to spontaneous, serious to just plain goofy and fun-loving. Our differences added drama to the process that we spoke of with far more pleasure on reflection than we appreciated in the heated, tired, late night moments during which we became embroiled in our art project and its attendant challenges.

More than anything else, what made this a marker moment of this year for me, was that we three were doing this together in the same space without any post-modern distraction whatsoever. There were no iPods, iPhones, blackberries, televisions, or laptops to distract any of us away into the more solitary self-stimulation that we see all around in our technology obsessed culture.

This was a corrective for so much of the typical Holiday hype and fevered rushing. We built two gingerbread houses that are now storied works. We have already enjoyed them twice over in retelling the story of their creation and putting them proudly on display for others. This time spent together in our makeshift atelier was a sacramental.

We were each focused and intent, and were fully and unapologetically ourselves in the process. This communion took place in sacred time as creative expression is always an outgrowth of Spirit in motion. Our differences in approach also made manifest the many faces of the Beloved, the dynamical spectrum of aspects of the One.

Whenever we are engaged in the arts, amateur or professional, trained or untrained, skilled or simply bold and hopeful, we enter the orbit of the Beloved. So, let us boldly paint, sculpt, draw, compose music, dance, sing, write and, yes, build gingerbread houses to the glory of Beauty, Love and the Sacred Heart. Ideally, let us find the space, place and time to do these things together more often.

Even writing, ordinarily a solitary endeavor, can be a shared exercise in active imagination. Interactive storytelling (wherein a story begun by one person is carried forward by another who begins where the first person left off) is a wonderful practice. One of the cleverest things I’ve seen in the last several years was an interactive novel where pages were left blank for the reader to fill in at the close and beginning of certain chapters.

We are all artists in action, whether we are aware of it or not. Our creative moments and the spiritual inducements to put pen to page, brush to canvas, or frosting and candy to gingerbread, are all gifts that arise from the deep well of the Spirit.

I recall in closing, on this first day of 2010, the inspired prayer of Miriam:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”.


© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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