Category Archives: Spiritual

A Sort of Synesthesia

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Experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing, often compel me to try to communicate those experiences in some way.  A sort of obsession with the beauty, with the experience of being in the moment, undulating, flowing, singing, vibarting, simultaneously opens all the senses and quiets the mind is an experience that, at least for me, makes translation into words extremely hard. Sometimes I find the words to transmit something of value, but very often I find what I have  written is unconvincing or even completely mute.

I need a sort of synesthesia, making translations from what I sense to words more natural or perhaps even involuntary.

Talking or writing about the experience directly, as though it were a story or a play is something I cannot do.  The full experience is so rich, so overflowing, so infinite in possibilities that direct representation is clearly unattainable. But, like visual subtleties  easier to see with your peripheral vision, something of the experience can be captured indirectly, by way of analogies, of shadows and impressionistic portraits, in reflection, after the experience.

This is why some of the most effective, powerful art is abstract or impressionistic. To transmit infinity, direct representational art that creates the expectation of finiteness must be abandoned. Minimalism in music, moving us into rhythms and flows that slowly shift us to different states, is again, a sort of indirect encompassing that moves us somewhere, but not directly. Experiences in nature align with this method of illumination, gently soaking in, moving us, so that we gradually become aware of the fact that we have been transformed, our attention has been shifted, profoundly altering what we see and hear and know.

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Quietness — rich, vibrating, living, infinite — finds its way from our experiences to the experience of others as they immerse themselves in our art.

We have, together, attained a sort synesthesia.

 

 

 

 

Silence and Beauty

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Silence and Beauty – Makoto Fujimura (Jundt Museum)

Immersing myself in the light and color and feeling of Mako Fujimura’s paintings, I listened over and over to Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”, as though somehow this experience could open my eyes to the words that would communicate, that would transmit what I felt and saw.

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Immersing myself, I am drawn to deep stillness.

The quietness sings.

Time stops to listen, to dwell in the color and light and feeling

Light shines through the brokenness

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Words feel clumsy, infinitely poor in comparison. But words can tell my own story of brokenness opening me to light and color and feeling, to quietness that sings, to healing.

It becomes clear that the deep drive to express and illuminate the experience can only be satisfied by taking others by the hand and leading them to their own experience of listening, of seeing, of feeling. I can invite others to “come and see”, to know why their brokenness is the beginning and not the end, for there was One broken before they were.

And that One is ready to shine His light through their brokenness, to pour Himself into their darkness and trauma, to heal them with his Quietness and Beauty.

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take my hand

 

come and see

the quietness and beauty

in brokenness

 

 

 

 

 

The Colors of Memory and Wisdom

Reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, has taught me once again that fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction. And even though the vast majority of fiction is to reading what junk food is to eating, there are novels that inspire even the pickiest of readers, with the highest (or most peculiar) standards for what is inspiring or illuminating.

What we know is a such a minuscule particle in a vast infinite universe of what could be known, that the skeptical inquirer is doomed to a rather poorly illuminated reflection of tiny bits of what is known. But skepticism is not the only option. Those willing to use all the tools at the disposal of an aware, enlightened human being, can embark on a voyage filled with light and a rich, ever-unfolding life.

In the living experience and fable woven together in Zeyn’s novel, the human spirit and the Infinite meet in an explosion of life and color and light and dark, moving us to a place where we can see and feel far beyond the narrow confines of overly rigorous, reductionistic thinking and experience. The deeper truths in the stories, sometimes stated very plainly, other times only seen in the wholistic experience of the story, are profound, demanding a stillness and quietness before they open to our view.

The overwhelming energy moving through the story, illuminating my response, was one of light and color and memory and feeling, reinforced by the synesthesia of Nour, the little girl through which we see the story. While a few might consider Nour’s synesthesia to be an unnecessary device, I found it not only completely natural. For me it was a door anyone can enter if they will but take the time to listen to the music and feel the color in the stillness and quietness, to see the light shining through the broken places, to experience the infinity between the ticks and tocs of a clock.

When I taught 7th and 8th grade science during graduate school, I used to take my students out into nature with notebooks in hand and ask them to see and feel and hear, and then write. Most had a very difficult time finding the stillness necessary to do this. I know they had a hard time connecting with my descriptions of what happened on my walkabouts, when I moved into that living path mode of seeing and hearing. It was also my first time trying to describe this mode and inspire others to try it for themselves. After those experiences I often simply shared the insights I found in that state, realizing that it is a very hard thing to actually move somebody into that mode of being.

Nevertheless, over the years, I remained as hopeful as I was when I tried guiding the students, that this mode of seeing and hearing and feeling is open to anyone willing to listen to stillness.

Lately, though, I had started losing hope in the power of words to actually enlighten or inspire or even prompt others to begin a journey. I could find lots of examples that supported my growing doubt. But when I finished this book I was struck by the strong sense that I was wrong. Some written words are still very powerful, inspiring and healing, opening readers to that infinity I began to experience so many years ago in my walkabouts in the desert and later in the forests. Immersing myself in this story, I find again, in yet another form, that stillness containing infinity.

I was also reminded that when you have passed through extreme crisis, you learn what is important and what is not, you learn to choose the simple life and connections with those that love you and those that can benefit from your simple help. You remember that so many things in our surroundings, considered so important, cannot compare with the song of an insect, or connection with a friend, or peace of encompassing sunshine. You realize there is nothing to prove, that simple things contain everything you need because they are doors to infinity. You see helping those who struggle, easing the path of those who have very little and seek simply to live in peace, is an integral part of finding and sharing the depth and beauty we are wired to seek, to explore. One cannot truly have depth and beauty without the healing and compassion.

What remains for me, as I write these words in the afterglow of the story, is a sense of living stillness and remembering and color, and the deep peace when we remember the intense richness of knowing what is important.

 

 

 

A Silence, Rich with Inspiration

Glynne Robinson Betts’ 1981 Writers in Residence is for me a lyrical invitation to quietness. The photo illuminated essays on places, in time and space, where writers lived and wrote,  invoke a strong sense of life lived with wide spaces for thought and creativity. The sections on Carl Sandburg, Anne Dillard, Robinson Jeffers and several others, recall daily rhythms friendly to depth.

These passages somehow bring back my life in the late 60’s and 70’s, when computers were rare and time to think was not hard to find. In college in the early 80’s, there was still time to think, time to read through a book on a weekend or master complex ideas in quietness, with a devotion to deep comprehension. I wonder, how many now feel that call to stillness, to a silence that is rich in inspiration?

Where do we find the wide spaces today? And who lives there? Those that tasted the thrill of illumination through immersion in quietness remember those spaces, but what of those addicted to their mobile devices, what of those who believe social media connects, wikipedia illuminates and TED talks are the pinnacle of inspiration? While wikipedia is useful, TED talks are sometimes narrowly inspiring, the intense illumination of bare-handed, personal discovery leaves you changed, forever.

Seeking the simplicity of those wide spaces, listening till we hear the quietness sing, we find the same places the writers found, the same illumination that is never forgotten … we walk through an open door to the infinity that lives between the ticks of the clock, between the words on a page, between the breaths we breath.

 

 

 

Dual Tyrannies of Data and Democracy (and what to do about it)

In this new age of extremes, celebrity and elitism without bounds, those that pride themselves on their enlightenment often make a big deal about being democratic in their ambitions and data driven in their thinking and reasoning.

This is also a new age of openness and deception. The increase in both is of course coupled. As openness is supported or exhibited, some of what is exposed resists and retaliates with deeper forms of deception.

And in ths new age, the old illusions also persist — like the illusions of rationality or unbiased examination or study without preconceived ideas — illusions that have a great impact on inference and our abilities to draw conclusions from observations. Democracy enters when we attempt to create a cooperative or civil society based in some semblance of truth or grasp of reality.

The problems I am focused on in this perhaps too provocatively titled article, are those caused by the use of data and democracy as tools of forceful persuasion or even hammers of coercion. While the idea that democracy is a system predisposed to tyranny is far from a new idea, the dangers in the new bandwagon of data-driven thinking seem to be less well known or thought about (even though Cathy O’Neil’s, Weapons of Math Destruction is a good start). So we will begin there.


It might be seem strange for someone who is a mathematician, with a great deal of experience in data science, who even founded the Data Driven Modeling and Analysis team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to be concerned with or ambivalent about data driven anything.

Yet I am.

In fact I am very concerned. And the source of the concern is the inescapable fact that every inference, every conclusion and policy that is derived from data, is extracted from the data through the use of prior assumptions, many of which are unacknowledged or even very difficult to see. We can begin with the fact that we believe that rationality is the way in which truth is determined. But this is just not the case. Everything we do is framed in the deeper emotional/spiritual context in which “we live and move and have our being”.

As a result, even the decision of what data to collect is determined by our prior assumptions and preconceptions, and as a result, we can, often unconsciously, predetermine our conclusions before we even begin looking at the data.

The other problem I have with data driven scholarship is that, in its current forms, it only tells about what is, about the systems that have gained ascendancy and majority control of whatever it is that we are studying. It can say very little about what is possible. As a result, I believe that the industry of data driven scholarship and decision making will tend to reinforce what is, and limit diversity and real progress and innovation. (And by innovation, I am not talking technological innovation, but something much deeper and far reaching.)

This type of data science determines truth by, in essence, going with the majority vote in which the data doing the voting, has not only been selected by unseen and unacknowledged assumptions and biases, but is also, by its very nature, without an imagination.

What kind of data and data driven inference do I believe in? To begin with, I should say that I am very much for careful observation of the natural world, of human activity and behavior, and of the larger “inner” spiritual world on which everything is based. I think that the art of observation is a deeply neglected art, the rewards of which are little known and sorely needed. The problem lies in the fact that observation — data collection — is too often colored by stiff systems of preconception and unseen prior models of reality, influencing both choice of what to look at and what to do with the observations that are made.

Quietness and stillness as disciplines are not cultivated as ways to begin to really see beyond our current positions and perspectives. The fundamentally spiritual decision to let go and open to stillness is blocked by a complex of fear and fear inspired prejudice which are in turn based on previous experience with violation and force. Those experiences causing so many to relinquish child-like openness to reality, block them from full entry into the “kingdom of heaven”. As a result, those former children grow into adults that create systems that prevent them from entry into that illuminated kingdom and which they then use to block others from entering.

There are of course many flashes of insight that make it through the web of self-defense based preconceptions. But far too many of these quickly become part of that system that then blocks other illumination, blocking even the ability to understand the original insights correctly. The illumination falls prey to the temptations of greed for impact or fame or prestige or even simple fear, and the vision that could have been, fades.


There is of course the question of what to do about preconceptions and biases that are often predetermining results, especially in the case of data driven analyses. I believe the answer begins with opening your eyes, with taking the time to think:

  1. Take the time to think. The drive for bigger, better, faster has moved many people to abandon the discipline of taking time to think, to see, to feel. As a result, this basic first step to moving beyond our operating assumptions to something bigger and richer, to inspiration and growth, is severely limited.
  2. Time to think allows us to cultivate quietness and stillness as ways to let go and hear and see.
  3. We are only willing to see and hear and feel  what that quietness and stillness tells us in a state of emotional safety. This implies emotional wholeness underlies this whole project. Anyone who tells you differently is misguided at best. (This place of emotional safety is not external — this is a thing of the heart, not of “safe places” or elimination of harsh environments. The world is crazy and unsafe in which the emotionally whole still find a way to thrive, without expecting the world to be kept at bay.)
  4. Emotional wholeness requires cultivation of connection with others opened by the understanding that differences, instead of threatening us, enrich us.
  5. Connecting with others, observing their bits and pieces of illumination in a state of quietness, we are enabled to take the useful bits and let the rest go. (Because of emotional wholeness, we filter and thrive. No need for trigger warnings or cocoons that wall us away from reality.)
  6. Data is always filtered — quietness allows you to be aware of exactly what those filters are and to replace those filters if you find better ones.

While this approach to data (observation) and the inferences from that data is not new — it has always been the path of those taking the time to think and seek illuminated inferences, this path is becoming rarer. The noisy, overconfident bubble of thought leaders, influencers and celebrities are drowning out the careful thinkers and doers.


Democracy, even in its most beneficial forms, is only as good as the data driving it. Because of the difficulty in determining what is biased and what is not, the safest route is always to promote maximal freedom, opting for mild regulation only in the cases in which to not do so would harm the principles on which the democracy is founded. When freedom and compassion and safety and a healthy economic/social ecosystem are the principles, then this job is far from easy. But as soon as the regulation is influenced by entities that do not share those values, the whole enterprise is in peril. And if, in addition to this, the data that is used is twisted by the values that do not align with the goals above, it becomes hard to see what is and is not happening.

Of course, there are macro-measurements that reveal problems. When the divide between the rich and poor threatens to engulf us, we know something is wrong. When prisons are overflowing, when the rich are rarely held accountable, while the poor have difficulty for even small offenses or even simply because they are poor or nonwhite or both — when those things become impossible to ignore, we know the system is deeply broken.  And when the data is screaming and subtlety and nuance is no longer needed, when the data overwhelms preconception and prior assumptions, we know we are near a precipice.

But all is not lost.

As we learn quietness and openness to change, the data we gather and use will inform and illuminate, and the collective projects we embark on will reflect a synergy between freedom and cooperation. Time to think, quietness,  and the observations made in that frame of mind will supply the light and progress that keeps the biggest collective project — the democracy we live in — alive and headed in the direction of sustainable progress.