Archive for January 18th, 2010

January 18, 2010: Postscript to a Quiet Day in Barcelona

This has been a day of solitary preparation for the next three days of high performance. It was a good day and it ended well. Every so often, dining alone is a special pleasure: no conversation, just the extraordinary sensual mix of fine wine and food while reading a range of science news clips. There is simply not enough written in appreciation of the heady blend of wonderful tastes, aromas and cerebral inspirations.

In my solitary hour of dining and reading, I learned:

  • Antarctic ice is not melting as swiftly as feared (for now).
  • Genuine interest in learning is a natural antidote for fear and anxiety.
  • Curiosity-driven research was a central mission of the “Islamic House of Wisdom” in Baghdad in the 8th and 9th Centuries.
  • Neurons in different parts of the brain resonate at critical thresholds like tuning forks; a fact considered by researchers as suggesting a quantum entanglement underlying our richly textured and cross-sensory memories.
  • Information is addictive for evolutionary reasons and could be dangerous since its wide dissemination via the internet could be misused by those with terrorist intent ( e.g., open access to the genome of the 1918 flu virus).

What a wonderful dinner! It was a veritable religious experience to have great aromas, tastes, and new knowledge converge across a 90 minute slow-food extravaganza. What an exquisite quantum entanglement!

I am certain that I will long associate, no doubt for years to come, tonight’s rainbow of flavors with bits of new knowledge that all converge to form a story.

What leaps to mind, as I think over the day, and my solitary meal, is an apocryphal legend attached to the character of the Parisian woman of letters, Madame de Sévigné. As the legend goes, de Sévigné’s last words on her death-bed, who loved afternoon tea and superb dining, was simply and delightfully:

Bring on the dessert!

Well, maybe too much knowledge has a down side, much as too much good food comes with a literal and figurative price to pay. But, for now, I can only say with passion and respect, amen, Madame.

I’ll take the chocolate gelato with chocolate syrup!

© 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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While initially reluctant, I am now a devoted fan of Skype. The cost for making contact with family and friends across the globe is minimal, and the video capability is a real benefit. My positive view of this technology traces to my son’s departure for college in Iowa, followed by my daughter, and then my son’s decision to move to South Korea to teach for a year. Being a very close family, having them so far away from us would have been very difficult without it.

As I say this, I am especially thinking about the video function. Today was my son’s birthday. I am traveling on business in Barcelona, but a call to his Skype phone made it possible to see and talk to him, wish him well on his special day, and catch up. I am able to do the same in keeping in touch with my wife back home and stay connected to traveling colleagues. All this for pennies on the dollar, so, what’s not to love?

I am, of course, sharing nothing particularly new. Many have used Skype for years, and all this must come across as a yawn to them as it is very much yesterday’s news. In sharing it here now, I do so with interest in the psychological and spiritual impact of  “voip” technology.

I have weekly conversations with executives about the pressures related to the 24/7 nature of mobile phone/Blackberry/ iPhone telephony. There is now no place that the phones do not go. We see them at dinner tables in restaurants, at concerts, Broadway shows, in hospitals, at Church services, and in restrooms. Mobil phones have completely penetrated all public and private places and people complain of having no true down time as there is always a flood of email to read, though few show real motivation to curb dependence on their mobile devices.

My wife was one of the great critics of the cellphone intrusion until she recently became the proud owner of an iPhone. Now, she is a maven of the endless “apps” and can be seen in a parked car, in bed, in the living room, or a doctor’s office, amusing herself with one or another clever game on her phone. We are all quickly learning to live with carpal tunnel syndrome.

I, too, have my favorite apps and know the pleasure of wasting time getting engrossed in them. All of this has a place. The key is avoiding the excess that consumes thinking time and real conversation. We need to manage the technology, not be managed by it. Having said that, voip telephony used to stay in touch, when face to face conversation is just impossible, is a blessing.

Psycho-spiritually, it is a deep comfort to see a loved one: their unique smile, gestures,  and eyes when they speak. Email is altogether unsatisfying by comparison. It raises more questions than it usually answers. I feel the same way about text messages that are easily misunderstood (especially given the culture of new acronyms used to abbreviate often used phrases).

Distances do not seem so great when we can regularly talk by video-phone. The low-cost of Skype also makes real conversation of even hours possible and not the necessarily short mobile phone chats that would cost a fortune when traveling internationally, or the short email bursts that can, at best, only give  quick reassurance. I don’t get twitter, or micro-blogging. It seems to me these short notices of pedestrian activity add little and merely feed the narcissistic need to be “tracked” by others. Or, maybe it too provides a sense of connection in an increasingly fragmented world.

I come back to what seems to me the essential need: use it all mindfully with a clear sense of what value it creates, and watch its addictive properties. In the meantime, viva “la Skype”! I am grateful to be able to stay in touch with my family when on one of my frequent business trips.

© 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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Don’t we love symmetry? The way we hang things on our walls, arrange furniture, and landscape our yards is a testament to our deep-rooted need for it. We are ourselves physical exemplars of symmetry: two eyes, two cerebral hemispheres, two kidneys, two lungs, two ears, two arms and legs, two chambers of the heart ( right and left atriums and ventricles), two nostrils, five fingers on each hand, on and on. In music, we tend to prefer balanced harmony over discordant sound (though 20th century music introduced the unusually effective and evocative discordant sound of twelve-tone music).

We also see symmetry throughout the natural world. Nature seeks out equilibrium. Symmetry and the aesthetics of beauty are intimately intertwined. Mathematics is no exception and the study of mathematical symmetry has been a passion of esoteric mathematics for a long time. These mathematical investigations have also gone well beyond delving into the world of three dimensions. In fact, in the 1800’s, mathematicians studying symmetry introduced a 128-dimensional structure considered perhaps the most complex example, called E8.

I have written before about the extraordinary capacity of the human mind to imagine abstract maths that are then later embodied in empirically verified phenomena. E8 is apparently no exception. The most recent issue of New Scientist (January 16-22, 2010, page 12) reports that physicists of the University of Oxford have identified the E8 signature in super-chilled crystals. It appears that the electrons in the crystals organize themselves in accordance with the relationships defined by the structure of E8.

Once again, human imagination precedes natural discovery. To have dreamt it in the 19th century, in the disciplined language of mathematics, only to find it in the 21st, attests to the extent to which mind is fed by universal archetypes that move toward final expression in consciousness. We make conscious what is already there at the heart of matter awaiting revelation.

The source of such revelations is intimate and infinite: an inexhaustible fountain of revelation.

© 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.


Exotic Form of Symmetry Makes Real-world Debut

Mathematicians Solve E8 Structure

Mathematicians Map E8

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Perhaps you recall the lyrics of the Bobbie McFarrin tune with the title of this post. It sums up a pervasive philosophy that has wormed its way into the thinking of many. In this weekend’s Financial Times, philosopher Julian Baggini writes an excellent critique of the positive psychology movement entitled “Where happiness lies,” which I find myself agreeing with entirely.

The gist of the article is that it has become fashionable to dismiss negative emotions outright. People suffering from depression often feel guilty when others say such hurtful and ignorant things as ” just get over it,” “think your way out of it,” and ” just decide not to be miserable.” The uninformed even attribute laziness and selfishness to them. Actually, if there is any “laziness,” it is on the part of the  critics of the depressed who simply cannot bring themselves to entertain what it is like to suffer with this condition, or to think about the darker and threatening aspects of life.

We are increasingly becoming a culture obsessed with happiness. Even those with cancer are told to invest in a happiness campaign and to get beyond their anger and fear. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is now touted as the only form of psychotherapy that is well supported by the evidence and recommended by physicians. (It is also much preferred by insurance companies given the promise of quick relief, and short-term therapy).

While there is certainly nothing wrong with genuine happiness and CBT, used especially in cases of “catastrophizing” thought, (where small things become debilitating worries), there is so much more to the mystery of persons. There is nothing wrong with searching for positive solutions to life’s problems either, but are we being suckered into a universe of smiley faces and emoticons: a plain vanilla and superficial way of living that is neither examined nor fully lived?

Is happiness the right goal or is it, as Baggini argues, the quest for truth, wisdom, and deep understanding? Worshipping at the altars of happiness seems at least conceptually correlated with the cry for relevance in education that led to the elimination of departments of history owing to under-enrollment at some U.S.  universities, the proliferation of “cream puff” courses that are not too taxing, and a myriad of professional licensing short cuts.

What’s so terrible about struggling? To look at oneself is to face one’s demons, our ignorance, and the plethora of paradoxes and dilemmas that make life at once rich and confusing. It’s not fun but it is real.

“All things in moderation,” advises Socrates, and this seems the soundest advice. A rich and joyful life is not necessarily even often a happy one. It has a lot of drama in it, commitments that are often challenging, and vexing circumstances that must be managed. There are deep lows and great heights, but the consistent quality of a joyful life is that it is meaningful.

It’s interesting that so many young people are waiting to marry, living together instead to “kick the tires” so to speak, and see if the relationship works out. How are they defining “working out”? Are they waiting for the first sign that it might not be perfectly happy? Are they waiting for the “joker in the deck” when strain and conflict develops as proof that marriage isn’t a good idea? Marriage is a vow to take it on forever regardless of how it all turns out. It is not a vow to happiness but one of definitive choice based on instinct.

I, for one, admire those who take large vows with gusto and intent to permanence knowing full well that it wont be a walk in the park. I feel close to those who laugh and cry with their whole bodies, fully, spontaneously, and honestly. I respect those who smile naturally and not the many who wear false political smiles and who always say what is politically correct. I am vulnerable and truly myself only with those who have no problem being vulnerable themselves, who don’t have it all together, and who make no pretense about it.

To avoid all that makes one unhappy is to avoid really living. To be always unhappy is to not really know love. Finding the “sweet spot” between the extremes takes self-learning, existential honesty, courage, and realism with the capacity to imagine all the possibilities.

© 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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