In my dream an old musician told me his secret to life. He said: react to things as an artist. Here’s what I think he meant.
Normally we react to events and situations based on past experience. And usually we are quick to classify and bring to bear our summary encounters and limited purviews of personal history.
To react as an artist means opening to the moment. Not just connecting the dots deterministically and robotically. The older we get, the more autopilot seems to engage. If we’re not careful, pretty soon we’ve got everything sorted and nothing really informs us, or enlightens us, or moves us. We can travel long intervals unaware we are still at the wheel.
To react artistically, engages different parts of mind than the bookkeeping of our habitual conditioning. To play with the potential of a moment opens to a larger field of inquiry. It’s a not so subtle difference between creating and manufacturing. Every widget is not the same. And we may have to discover this by stretching our imaginations rather than pushing shapes into slots. Then our experiences become invitations to unfold creatively. Then we can peek into, behind and around things and ferret out umbral dimensions of illumination, connection and enchantment. Some claim this can be done with nothing but a grain of sand. Or maybe a wildflower in a pinch.
Today I listened to the rings of Saturn. I heard the plaintive voice of a father searching for his wife and daughter in the ghost realms of operation Wander Soul, played in the jungles of Vietnam by army Psyops. I heard the first human voice ever recorded and the first ever played back. The otherworldly summons of atmospheric trumpets. The crack of an atomic bomb ripping matter over clear skies of Hiroshima (oddly enough, survivors reported hearing nothing at all.) And none of this had anything to do (possibly) with my original intent, which was to find clips on YouTube for an experiment.
William Burroughs, a beat writer of the Kerouac generation, believed authentic meaning was non-linear. One can’t just take the news or media (or even language) as it is, packaged for easy assimilation. To discover real meaning, we have to pull things apart and tinker. And then reassemble allowing a collusion of mysterious linkages poorly represented by words like “synchronicity” and “serendipity.”
To penetrate the trance of daily life, Burroughs and others used sneaky methods that worked under the radar. For example, from a 3 column newspaper, he’d slice and dice sentences, words, phrases from each column to construct a work somewhere between random and sentient that sometimes, like panning for gold, reveals a glimmer or two of truth in the sludge of pedestrian accounting. This technique was called the “cut-up.”
Burroughs also expanded its utility to tape recorders. He’d cart around a recorder in his suit pocket, stealing snippets of conversation, cutting and splicing words and phrases together and playing it back aloud, aggravating those passing by and people he was talking to. But he would use the mingled aural fields of playback and real time to find serendipitous connections which factored into his writing and creativity.
The experiment that follows spins up these methods with a modern tool-set using Audacity on the PC. It starts with a swipe file of 5 recorded segments, encountered pseudo-randomly on YouTube: Trump’s fire and fury speech about North Korea, samples from Tropic Thunder, Bugs Bunny, Terrance McKenna, the Lincolnshire Poacher Number Station. (Number stations?? After researching what the heck a “Number station” was, I was sucked into spy transmissions and a rabbit hole leading to the other auditory marvels chronicled at the start of this post.)
Burroughs was fundamentally a gnostic. His priority was direct experience. So he pursued these openings and cracks in the matrix where through hack, circumstance or incantation he could get up close and personal with the happenings in our mazy world. His methods uncovered sometimes the indecipherable and sometimes slivers of found meaning, of sideways understanding that might shake the mind awake for a moment or two. And leave in its wake tendrils of lingering significance.
For the Gnostic, the one hope is not in a passive salvation or by trusting in received wisdom, but through direct personal experience or knowledge, hence “gnosis.” – The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs
Reading a history of Burroughs recently inspired me to give auditory cut-up a whirl. A wealth of source material is easily available online (no need to wander about town capturing dialog, although not ruling that out for future projects.)
After reviewing how to cut and paste and slide things around in Audacity, I spliced and mixed columns of each track captured on YouTube, working only with the found content to see what emerged. Here’s the result…
Perhaps the fragmented attention spans we see as the fall of civilization is merely a reshaping of our perceptual apparatus, allowing a more porous access to serendipity and synchronicity. Our air-tight chambers of logic or received belief may be due for an overhaul while we stumble about trying to organize the chaos, babies bombarded by input which they have little experience consolidating. Yet.
Sampling, montage, collage: these methods really do come closer to representing or expressing what the facts of perception are for most of us in this Post-Technological, Post-Modernist, Information Overload.
Sifting the light
Think about mining gems of non-linear ore, finding exotic signals tumbling in the noise of everyday experience which shake up our filters of information. These little phosphorescent sparkles of import, hint at something larger than what our day-to-day minds may have been designed to contain. And perhaps these primitive nets, woven with tools of digital gnosis, are our first bumbling attempts at casting larger spans of perception and reeling in greater depths of understanding than we’ve settled for or parsed to date.
The dream took place in a large mall. I was in uniform, back in the service; a sergeant, so towards the end of my tenure. A detail of later importance, I believe. My troupe had cleared out for the lower level of the mall, I hurried to catch up but noted one half of the mall in utter chaos. I shouted to the security guard, Ray Liotta(!), asking what was going on. People scurried for exits, Ray himself was jittery with nerves but resented my challenging his command of the situation. While berating my impudence, another Ray Liotta ran up, lacing the first Ray in an anaconda hug bringing them both to their knees. Original Ray’s eyes panicked abruptly then flickered lifeless, drained. I twisted around to bolt out of there and ran smack into my own doppelgänger. Its eyes solid black, like evil Willow’s blinded with magical rage in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It embraced me in a death coil but somehow I slipped free and sprinted toward the escalators. On the way down another person’s doppelgänger became caught up in the escalator and tripped, it’s head splitting like a melon full of black, tarry ooze. I shocked awake.
A few days previous, over a pint in a pub where all stories such as these begin, I had been discussing Jung’s idea that each of us has a “shadow” and that to become whole, according to Jung, we needed to reintegrate these rejected parts of ourselves in a process he calls individuation. Thinking about this dream, I wondered if this was the flip side of that —when the shadow integrates us instead. Yikes! But then I examined the dream elements a little closer.
Timothy Leary preached that set (our mindset) and setting (the environment) heavily influence how our minds shape reality. Especially in altered states. Set, in this case was my uniform, being back in the military, and it’s an infrequent but still recurring scene. Military, to me, represents a period of thought control, imposed conformity, of people used like puppets without free will, in the service of other interests. A mall is an archetype of consumerism, cliques and shallow entertainment (in my psyche anyway.) One deeper meaning to all this might be (and one I didn’t first grok) that to become our whole selves, our integrated selves, our old self must die. The shadow is not just the unredeemed parts of ourselves, Jung also claimed it was 90% gold. Aspects that may not fit in our culture or our cookie cutter models of identity that carry in themselves incredible powers. Powers that would likely alienate us from our current beliefs and mode of life. Or as Marianne Williamson says:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
I escaped this time, perhaps to my detriment. Perhaps it was a warning shot across the bow. Who knows what we are capable of becoming when we surmount our fears. Who knows what we have to give up to reveal what we had all along.
I’m sitting in stillness. Incense curls in the periphery, music, noises from the street. A mug of potent green tea. My tarot cards, bare on the table in their opaque stack. What kind of magic am I looking for? Say I cut the deck, like so, and turn over the top card: The Seven of Cups. Exactly what I was thinking. Because, what of it? What if I could slip from this dimension into another, if I could step into dream time, if I could construct immersive worlds and be anywhere and everywhere else than here? Would having this ability merely put me deeper to sleep? All the fanfare of the sensory realms, following every pleasure, transforming every pain, confronting fears, discourse with entities or godforms whose very cliches blow my mind with sparkling fresh clarities.
And what of the spiritual bypassing this card may represent? Beyond all this mere gratification of the senses, accomplishments of ego, that I am merely identifying with the thought of transcendence to avoid the disappointment of my impotence in achieving material pleasures. Is that the middle cup, shrouded and spiritual and glowy? Or the shadow appraising them all.
Is magic this ability to experience something special or is it a work of alchemy, knowing how to transmute whatever is at hand into something amazing until the point that whatever is at hand is amazing by itself. If so, and I think it may be, then I have work to do. With this transmutation stuff…
“Maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different.”
― Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall
A whiff of rosemary to clear the mind. My coffee cup, like lifting a barbell, solid enough to serve as a makeshift weapon should zombies pour over the windowsill next to my desk. Music I’ve never heard flows from tabletop speakers, a compilation somebody made for “Sunday Afternoons” and the first track playing is from Pink Floyd’s album: Endless River.
It’s the third day of the new sleep schedule. Lights out at 11pm. Lights on: whenever. Ten to twelve hours so far, catching up from the trip, perhaps. Or sullen protest to the new regime. Slowly waking up to dream recall, but still missing many an opportunity to record due to laziness and their memories evaporate.
Recently beginning to appreciate the connection between things. Which, at first, I thought only applied to external reality. However, while trying to gain more lucidity in dreams, it appears one must gain more lucidity during the day as well. Dreams are part of the fabric of life. Conversely, I realize, the importance of dreaming more while awake. The conscious mind lives so superficially. A small boy on the corner with a dog. A conscious mind notices just that. Meanwhile, in a larger plane of awareness, which encompasses consciousness but not vice versa, there exists a fabric, rather than a thread, of perceptions. The sad look in the eyes of the dog, the holes in the sweater, the shy fingers poking through and playing with frayed fabric, the red mottled with Rorschach stains, the memories evoked unfold in wisps and strands of unnameable feeling fragments.
Another whiff of rosemary. An interval of quietude within and areas of body checking in. Not with problems or discomfort but with a pleasant fullness, relaxedness that usually comes with a good stretch. I am grateful for this and thankful. It will not always be so.
I didn’t invent this technique, but I’m beginning to understand its potential. Deep, profound relaxation is something I’d like to experience more often.
It’s sometimes hard for me to unwind, so I’ve experimented with a variety of methods: biofeedback, progressive relaxation, yoga nidra, binaurals, float tanks. Probably the most extreme relaxation can be experienced through opioids. They are a powerful introduction to what’s possible, like psychedelics to a rigid belief system, but like psychedelics they are not a sustainable path. Besides, the whole point of relaxing oneself is not to depend on external circumstances (like drugs, alcohol, vacations, quiet neighbors, etc.)
I’ve bottomed out with the “be aware of tension and relax it” approach. Whether I tensed and relaxed muscles or breathed into them, or visualized them melting like a snow cone in Phoenix, whatever, there was a limit to how much response I could get. Relaxed, but not profoundly so. Not ecstatically relaxed where sinking into the sensation was pure bliss. I didn’t have the right key to unlock some ancient and baseline residual tensions in the musculature. Until I remembered something I’d heard and filed away. I don’t know, maybe I tried it half-heartedly once and thought it was cool and promptly forgot about it.
During my last float tank visit, after relaxing as much as possible with the conscious mind cajoling and encouraging and focusing on “letting go”, body scans, etc., I remembered this old idea. I scanned the body again, this time not looking for tension but for some place that felt “pretty good”, better than the rest; it might be a big toe, but there is always somewhere in the body that’s a bit more relaxed and at peace than anywhere else. And when I found this spot, I let that energy flood and inform the rest of the body. I repeated this procedure for wave after wave. Not sure quite how to explain the method… kind of like a tuning fork, finding a vibration and using that pitch to entrain everything to the note, or like unfolding/unpacking a sensation to flood/radiate to the rest of the body, particularly up in the face and scalp area. And there will be one part of the body that learns the vibration and new facility exceptionally quickly and well, and that part is promoted to leader of the next wave. This resulted in a profound unbinding. Exactly what I was looking for. So until this one bottoms out (I suspect relaxation has no limits) I’m happily exploring this new level. Give it a spin sometime.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.
An old man at the restaurant keeps staring at me. Maybe in his late 80’s, early 90’s. Finally, I looked up and held his gaze, smiled and nodded hello. His eyes sparkled. Clear, vividly present, in a manner. He was slight of frame, his pants were too loose, working down a bit in his chair. He wore a soft flannel shirt and directed a stream of rolling mumbles towards me, animated. I caught something about “where are you from” and answered, “Colorado. How about yourself?”
He continued to talk in long rounded, subaudible mumbles, I could barely pick out a word or two. I scooted a little closer and tried to make conversation, asking him about his cane. It had an interesting grain. He was a bit hard of hearing too, so I repeated it louder. He started in on an exposition of its qualities, origin, utility…I think. I caught no words this time. But he seemed to enjoy talking to me, so I decided there was more than one way to have a conversation and smiled, giving him my full attention, just being there with him in the moment as company.
His companion, an older lady, but a decade or so younger than him, got up to pay and he got up to come over to our table, continuing the thread. As he got close to my chair, I apologized, confessing I was having trouble hearing him well due to the noise in the restaurant. His companion approached and helped him pull his pants up high, fixing his shirt. She too was hyper-aware, of his condition, of things going on around them and told me it’s not just that he’s hard to hear and mumbles but that he jumbles words as well. She was from Poland.
While she was explaining and he was talking I noticed he was very aware of Rumiko’s hat that she had hung on a corner of the empty chair he stood at, and was very careful not to bump it or disturb it. I wished them well as they left. Wondering what all he said, but feeling we had a nice conversation, of sorts.
Later, we wandered back home, through street stalls set up with curious wares for Easter. One with a lady from Syria, who looked like she had a lot on her mind, selling sweets and baklava. Another stall run by a happy fellow, not from Ecuador I think, maybe Peru, selling a variety of stones and crystals, little stuffed dolls of witches riding broomsticks and stirring cauldrons and crucifixes of Christ with the words I.N.R.I. engraved.
One booth had samples of coffee. As I sipped, I received a detailed explanation of the magical properties of this elixir. This time the problem wasn’t hearing, but my still rudimentary grasp of the language. It was organic, healthy, had amazing healing properties, you could make just adding hot water or milk, maybe a little sugar. But you needed a monkey. Or something like that. In any case, I dreamed I purchased 4 bags (they are kinda small) last night, so on the way to lunch today I need to make a stop.
With age, a certain rigidity often creeps upon us. A crossroads we meet somewhere in midlife —sometimes much earlier. We start either shutting down ways of seeing and doing things or we start relaxing into new experience and potential. We end up becoming everything figured out/we’ve paid our dues/get-off-our-lawn types or we begin lightening our accumulated baggage to reach something beyond our limited and conditioned selves. And let go of our self-inflicted suffering.
The Bamboo That Bends Is Stronger Than the Oak That Resists.
Regardless of our personal histories, whether flogged with hardship or kissed with fortune, some brace against the world like an oak in a windstorm, defending the turf of their hard-won self, and others flow like bamboo, bending in the wind, retaining only an essence of unshakable being.
If one would be the bamboo, rather then the oak, the two most important life skills to cultivate are:
The ability to fully experience negative and uncomfortable feelings without avoiding, denying or resisting their presence. Without feeling they need to be managed, contained or that they reflect anything in particular about self-worth or capacities. They come and they go.
The ability to keep a separation between identity and beliefs and ideas. What we believe or think is not who we are and doesn’t need to be defended when questioned, slighted or attacked.
Conversely, if we want to be an Oak, fighting for our turf and self-importance, then simply reverse the formula:
Suppress, ignore and avoid any unpleasant feelings with whatever works: alcohol, food, addictions, escape, faith, rationalizing, etc. Keep a lid on them. Deny even having them because admitting, much less experiencing them, is weakness/sin/disaster. Comfort is the highest good. Or revel in them, vent them on others and allow them to define us. Hang on to them and don’t let them go, use them to justify and martyr ourselves. Use them as a barometer of our value as a person and the worth of others.
Take anything anyone says about our beliefs or ideas personally, become offended if they believe differently. Be assured that those not sharing our perspectives on life the universe and everything (i.e. 42) are what’s wrong with the world today and make it our personal mission to fix ALL the things. Or at least, complain about the sheeple that don’t share our illumination and post memes on social media about their ignorance and lack of common sense.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
“When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present, and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”