Wednesday, March 26, 2014



        Where to begin.  Every culture has a story about How It All Began, and the stories are all different. A single god creating the world in 6 days, another world evolving over eons, a committee of gods in a joint project of creation, the world hatching from an immense egg,  Each story is considered the highest, unimpeachable truth, and parts of the story will permeate the culture. 
       As everyone knows, our country is divided over creation stories. Science presents us with the Big Bang and Western religion gives us the 6 day creation. We struggle over the identity each tale provides. I’m going to tell you of a wonderful instance where science and religion tell the same story - but I’ll have to give you background first, and it will take a while.

        Last week we had two experiences that were very engaging.. We saw the film « Particle Fever » about the Large Hadron Collidor and the search for the ‘magical’ Higgs Boson, and we went to see Yoga: The Art of Transformation, an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

       I think I’ll start with physics, if you will bear with a poet's attempt at comprehension. The Big Bang. The world born out of a cataclysm, and the background microwave radiation left over from the explosion that is said to prove it.  

Courtesy of Particle Data Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
Physics has a  Standard Model that has tried to unite Einstein's Theory of Relativity with Quantum Field Theory, which is a description of the tiniest of our worlds. The result is a mysterious prediction - anti-matter. Enter Supersymmetry to account for this strange phenomenon. That theory proposes that for every particle (proton, neutron, etc), there is a 'superpartner'.

        Another problem that physics hadn’t solved was what makes stuff - what makes mass, what gives substance to particles? Scientists thought it was another particle, called the Higgs Boson, and they might find it if a huge SuperCollidor was created. Beams of protons would collide, at almost the speed of light. Particles would explode as they did after the Big Bang, replicating the conditions immediately after the event.

 So, to continue our story:  the Large Hadron Collider was built, and  the Higgs Boson was found, and that was the big story that appeared in all the newspapers and hundreds of Internet sites. But it was only part of the story. In fact the Standard Model was now in question.

        More background: The Standard Model is based on the universe we live in,  and governed by equations - the elegant, beautiful, pristine model that Einstein believed we would find. Some said our universe was actually set up for life to occur, others that it was not only set up for life to occur, but « It knew we were coming ». (Freeman Dyson). 

        Not only a world perfectly tuned to life - but consciousness, said the metaphysicians among the physicists, may be as natural a feature of our world as time and space.     

        But that seemed to raise the need for a Creator, an argument for Intelligent Design, and that is not an option for science, so the only other option was - worlds upon worlds!  Andrei Linde and others proposed a multiverse - an infinite number of universes. If there were infinite numbers of universes at least one, if not more, would support life, they reasoned, so there is no need for a creator.  

       There would be no possible connection between these worlds.  Each one would have it’s own mathematical constants,  its own laws perhaps, or maybe there were different constants within the same universe. 

       No universal law, no Theory of Everything.  But how can we imagine this multiverse? How to describe it?  Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, announced that «  Our Universe could be just one bubble floating in an ocean of other bubbles ».
Computer simulation. Each ray is another expanding universe

       Now, back to the SuperCollidor.  If those magic superparticles predicted by Supersymmetry didn’t show up during the Collidor’s collisions, they probably did not exist. If they didn’t exist, it might be the end for Supersymmetry (still with me?) The multiverse would be the model to go forward. There were no superparticles found. Maybe at higher energy levels, maybe in the future, but that was only a very small maybe.

       In the film physicists watch the Standard Model begin to disintegrate like particles colliding in the cosmos.  One researcher speaks of 40 years of work - disproved. For others it was a revelation, an understanding that there would (hopefully) be more revelations ahead, and it was time to move on. And I will also - to India.

      It was a revelation to enter the exhibit of Indian art, and the world of Brahma and Krishna, Shiva and the devas, yogi and Sufi. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of God, Krishna responds to Arjuna’s desire to see Entirety:  "
My dear Arjuna, O son of Prtha, behold now My opulences, hundreds of thousands of varied divine forms, multicolored like the sea." Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, Verse 5. 

Vishnuvishvarupa, "Yoga: The Art of Transformation

There are several creation stories in Hinduism, but creation is always vast and the time scale is endless. The world is cyclic - creation and destruction, creation, preservation, destruction. It has happened a million million times, and time has no end.                                                 

And there are multiple universes. Seven dimension below and seven above - a multiverse of intention, operated by platoons of gods in a state of transcendence. The practice of yoga would allow humans that transcendence, that ultimate bliss - the answer to the problem of suffering, which is the ancient and ongoing ordeal of India. 
The subtle philosophies of India have been elaborated by a forest of sages, rising above the undergrowth of ignorance and mystery. One who stands particularly tall is Abhinavagupta, who lived in the 10th century.  In his Paramarthasara, he describes the workings of the universe, which correspond to the fields and forces within us.  This leads him to a conclusion - that there are  « numerous universes floating… bubbles in an ocean ». There it is - the same words the theoretical physicist used. A convergence.  

        But what is my point? Ha ha, you physicists, India had the answer a millennium ago and they didn’t need a ten billion dollar Large Hadron Collidor to do it? The ancients possessed greater wisdom then we do?

        No. Not my point. I do believe that traditional cultures have much we must learn from in order to survive the calamities that are predicted for the future. 

I do feel that industrial civilization may well be the downfall of the planet, and I do believe that applied science has created products and processes that are harmful to us.

       But I am awed and made (irrationally?) hopeful by the idea that ancient understanding and modern theory can converge. I think that a coming together of the ancient and the scientific might be our only hope, if only that convergence was someone or some government’s priority. 

      What if climate and biological science and traditional knowledge of the earth and  its life forms came together in a project as huge and well-funded as the SuperCollider. The vision is not impossible: 
I think of our friend Nathaniel’s 18 months in Africa learning local cultivation practices, and the knowledge he is gaining from advanced study in health, social and biological science. He hopes to return to Africa in order to apply this new knowledge to what communities already know, in order to create sustainable solutions for their future. A true convergence. Multiversity.  

Indian rendition of a bubble universe




Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dimastalgia: On The Loss of Traditional Skills

Photo collages by Bill Fulton
       Last year in Myanmar I watched an elderly woman snap the stem of a lotus, pluck the minuscule fibers and spin the sheerest silk. I watched a man paint tiny stylized elephants on a vase that would receive 14 layers of lacquer. (He was carrying on a tradition that goes back to the Shang Dynasty - 1400 years B.C.E. ) Travelers stopped at the workshop of a family who make  graceful wooden umbrellas with hand-painted canopies. We watched them carve the handle, ribs and finial, and paint the colorful designs. 
Photo collages by Bill Fulton
We saw the fishermens' "ballet" on Inle lake - one leg wrapped around a paddle, steering, hands free to hold the conical net. Later there was the gifted flutter of a dancer’s hand miming flight. We saw the old ways of building ships and making cabinets, aware of the co-operation required.  One European shook his head and muttered how it was worth all the money to come this far just to see what his countrymen no longer did.

      The arts and crafts of the world, painted, carved, sung and enacted, unfold for the traveler. We stand rapt watching deft hands, snap photos with digital devices intended to replace the wonder we no longer create.

      There is a profound sense of loss that I believe we experience as traditional arts and everyday skills disappear. I call it Dimastalgia, from the Greek diadikasía, meaning process, simasía, significant, and algia - pain. It is the loss of skills and techniques that provided utility and beauty and the feelings that generates, and I believe that this loss is a feature of our times. It may not be conscious until we suddenly have an experience that makes us aware of what has disappeared.

      In the Netherlands, I had such an experience. Along the waterway in Groningen are the restored sailing barges that allowed the Dutch to trade along the Baltic as far as Russia.  You are instantly aware of their grace and clever construction. In the marine museum I saw an exhibit of the myriad devices that made sailing possible, and, a sailor myself,  I was suddenly filled with the knowledge, the nomenclature, the skills that building and sailing a ship required. It was a culture, a rich world, experienced now only as sport or pleasure. Our awareness of the lost beauty of this ancient form of transport is apparent when hundreds show up at a harbor to see the Tall Ships arrive under full sail. 
Bernardus Bueninck  Loading quay for  Hunze boats ,Groningen

Of course you may respond that homo sapiens have always replaced one technology with another, presumably a better one. But the rate of change has accelerated dramatically since the industrial revolution, and now each generation may rely on new, different devices. The fact that we are quick learners does not mean there is no sense of loss.           
          You may also wonder if this is merely nostalgia I am describing. No, I would answer. Nostalgia is usually partial and one-sided. For example, there are those who miss the 1950s - Elvis, sock-hops, car-hops, be-bop. But what of the Cold War, the nuclear threat, McCarthyism, sexual repression? No one misses that darkness. To acknowledge dimastalgia does not mean that one ignores the disease, infant mortality rate, lack of social mobility, physical dangers, etc of the past - nor does it represent a desire to live at a different time.

        Dimastalgia is the recognition that skills that sustained us for milennia are disappearing, and that loss is one of the vacuities of the present age, and a possible threat, as we shall see.

       What is especially poignant is the attempt to maintain the arts. The situation in China is an example. The government, in order to create more consumers, is moving millions from the countryside to cities. The headline in the New York Times reads:

 In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’

Screen shot does not play video

      BEIJING - Once or twice a week, a dozen amateur 
      musicians meet under a highway overpass on the
      outskirts of Beijing, carting with them drums, 
      cymbals and the collective memory of their destroyed
      village. They set up quickly, then play music that
      is almost never heard anymore, not even here, where
      the steady drone of cars muffles the lyrics of love
      and betrayal, deeds and kingdoms lost.

     The musicians used to live in Lei Family Bridge, 
     a village of  about 300 households near the overpass. 
     In 2009, the village was torn down to build a golf 
     course and residents were scattered among several  
     housing projects, some a dozen miles away.
     Now, the musicians meet once a week under the 
     bridge.  But the distances mean the number of 
     participants is dwindling. Young people, especially, 
     do not have the time.
      I want to keep this going,” said Lei Peng, 27, who 
      inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather. 
      “When we play our  music, I think of my grandfather. 
      When we play, he lives.”

      Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s 
      music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village 
      life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is disappearing, and
      with it, traditions and history.

    And we might add, a loss of meaning, significance and pleasure for the individuals who lived within those cultures. To learn a skill, an instrument, a dance is to experience mastery, and a powerful feeling of satisfaction. But what if there is no one to teach you, or the materials and tools are not available? Think of all the Native Americans on our own continent who have struggled to maintain their culture, and what happens to people whose place and heritage have been destroyed.

     The loss of culture is the loss of diversity and adaptability. Human adaptability has been the key to the survival of our species. One marvels at the variety of shelter we have built, from igloo and tipi to the tongkonan of the Toraja in Sulawesi.  
Tools have been carved from bone and bamboo. Clothes fashioned from hide, bark and wool. Non-specificity in diet meant food could be sourced from whatever plants and animals were available. 

       The hand shaping the brain, the brain shaping direction. Each culture, each adaptation represented a solution to the conditions in a specific locale, and in some cases there were variations within the same region. For example, the cultural variants of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Diné (Navaho) peoples in the Southwestern deserts. All of these models represented sustainable life styles that did not permanently harm the environment. 
Vintage postcard  Hopi village of Oraibi  Founded in 1120 C.E.

One of the major problems of globalization and industrialization may be the loss of this diversity - what if we have only one set of solutions available, and if/when that fails - if climate change or another disaster ends our current civilization, and survivors must restart - we will have lost the skills and knowledge our species depended on prior to machinery. The loss of farming and food gathering techniques may be especially crucial.
Alternatives become difficult to imagine when there are so many basic skills we no longer have - and believe we no longer need. What would be left for inscription if electronics failed, and handwriting is no longer practiced?

       Our daughter-in-law Natalie Grant, a fourth grade teacher, informs us that under the new Common Core guidelines her students will do all their work on ipads. There doesn’t seem to be a need to teach handwriting any more, when we rely on keyboards. But it takes a special mental and physical conjoined process to symbolize thought in letters, and connect those letters smoothly - a neuroscientist would call it an « intrahemispheric specialization ». We know a child’s brain is actually changed while acquiring this new skill. What will it mean for the development of the brain if we give up handwriting for keyboards and clicks? How does the act of writing effect the brain? 
     «  Writing no longer means only using pencil and   
          paper, but using computer word processing programs. 
          Writing using paper and pencil does not require the 
          same cognitive, motor, and spatial tasks as those 
          required when using a computer keyboard. Although 
          the conceptual knowledge of written language can be   
          the same, the motor activity and the spatial abilities 
          that are used are rather different. » Which implies that 
          our brains are going to develop differently.
Alfredo Ardila, "There is not any specific brain area for writing:  From
                          cave‐paintings to computers." International Journal of Psychology, 
                               Vol. 39, Issue 1 - Can Literacy Change Brain Anatomy?

           The author of The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture expresses his personal opinion:
        "There really is something quite new about bonding 
        very early in life with keyboard, mouse, and 3-D 
        graphics, and it will be very interesting to see what it 
        produces by way of new heuristics (problem-solving 
        behaviors) in adult life. I am not surprised that we are 
        so eager as a society to welcome the Internet into our 
        public schools. I am a little surprised that we are so 
        ready to say goodbye…….to the books in the school
       library. And I am actually stunned that we imagine that 
       commercial sponsors of in-school computer networks 
       will not take their lesson from the tobacco companies 
       as they eagerly underwrite the development of more
       appealing ways to help children learn how to be happy 
       and successful adults." 
               Wilson, Frank R. (2010-10-27). The Hand: How Its Use Shapes 
                      the Brain,  Language, and Human Culture (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 
                      5635-5640). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

       Ah humans! We move into brave new worlds brought about by technology without even considering the implications until its use is established. Will we one day experience dimastalgia for beautiful penmanship & calligraphy as we do for the arts and skills we lose every day? 
 Poem by Du Mu  Tang Dynasty 9th Century C.E.

Finally, what might Darwin say about Dimastalgia?
                    What Darwin Never Dreamed

                 Hold on!    Hold on Old Ways!   
      Hold fast as if you were deeprooted in Time’s cliff 
      What if we only knew this one way to live   this one 
      click here of a world   and what if it founders  floods 
            turns dark    sudden as a Florida sinkhole   
     I watched 3 men in Burma lift their steel mallets in turn
     and pound fireforged metal to the shape of need   
     and I watched the very old woman pull
     the  secret fiber at the center of a lotus stem
     spin it into weaver's yarn 
     and I say we need to know what the Buddha knew:
            There is treasure in the lotus     
     and we need to play the music of the blacksmith’s dance
     and someone must know how to   how to   Do  
     what the milennia taught us at all the separate sites we 

       ...Is it to late to say if     this flash of an era ends  
          or is it already when    the sun and fire and wind 
          and what remains of sweetwaterflow    
          are all that is left











Wednesday, December 18, 2013


         We are those who feared the encroaching darkness. 
Was there a time I have wondered, imagined, that we did not know/were not sure/did not assume that light would return, that days would grow longer? At least not return by itself,  without our intercession. What would it take to bring back the light? Sacrifice? Of an animal, a human? Would prayers and chanting and ceremony bring back the light?  
Did you know that Stonehenge is aligned on a sight-line toward sunrise and sunset on the day of Winter Solstice?

        What did winter mean during the Neolithic? 

During early periods of farming and herding in the Northern Hemisphere? It meant that communities might not survive winter. Starvation might occur. Cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed when snow covered fodder.

          Yet, we humans in the North celebrated Solstice. Though some meat was preserved, fresh meat was available. The fermenting of beer and wine that began in late summer was now complete. The deciduous trees were bare, but the great firs stood green and alive. The Sun God, they realized,  was about to be reborn, and so it was the time of the last great feast of the year.

        And so we still celebrate, though the myth has shifted for some and been forgotten by others, and the event has been monetized. We bring light into the world at the darkest time, and we rediscover giving and charity and some of our best human impulses.  And we hope - keep hoping - that those impulses will remain with us.

So I wish you light and love and a generosity of spirit!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Feeling of Well-Being

All photos by Bill Fulton
        I want to tell you about Groningen, in the Netherlands, but this is not a travelogue. Bill and I didn’t come here as tourists, but to be with our friends. I want to write about how a place can hold you, in both senses of that word. But first I’ll describe this small city.

      The old town is surrounded by a canal, and it is self- contained and self-providing - no need to drive elsewhere for what you need. You can walk everywhere, and though cars are allowed in the city, the only traffic to worry about are streams of bicyclists.There is a central marketplace for Tuesday & Friday Market, shops, cafes, restaurants, a university, movie theater, concert hall and three museums.

     Groningen gifts you with a lovingly cared for aesthetic. It is charming and accessible - we circumnavigated in 45 minutes - and there are beautiful old sailing barges docked along the canal. Nights are softly lit, and light sparkles the dark water of the canal. 

     But I have been in charming places that did not create the sense of well-being that we experienced.  I think that comfort comes from an integration of mind/ heart/ body that I usually only experience in nature, not in cities, and I think there are several reasons for this.

     The first involves the proportions of this small city, and the harmony of the architecture. The buildings are on a human scale - most are no more than 5 stories, and most are in the style of Dutch architecture of the 17th century.The harmony of the buildings comes from their related styles.

         Another source of well-being is the relative quiet. No rush of traffic, trucks honking, jackhammers yammering - an absence of noise pollution. The sound of church bells is as natural to this town as birdsong in a forest, and the Dutch do not walk down the street yelling into their cellphones. 
      And there is what happens to your body, to your psyche when there is no possible threat. Our first night we left our friend’s house at 11. At first I was anxious, as I am here at home, walking on dark streets at night - then I realized we were perfectly safe. We walked slowly back to our apartment through narrow streets and unlighted alleyways, free to enjoy the moon, the shadows dancing on the water, and the holiday lights.
The lighted church towers become landmarks, so you always know where you are.

No gun-waving or knife-brandishing mugger would appear as they have twice in  my own city.

        When you can relax, without having to be vigilant or on guard, you can be open, and of course when you are open you can be more loving and caring and creative, as we  discover again and again.

        Groningen is a soulful city. It's as though the river spirits and the spirits of all the shipbuilders, the captains and sailors who navigated the canals and rivers to the sea watch over it.

       Now I know who you are, dear readers. You do not need a long lecture on the contrasts between what I have described and life in American cities, or the statistics on what stress and a lack of a feeling of well-being do to us - and how much we spend on things and therapies to make it go away. 

       I will simply end by saying that Groningen reminded me of how cities once held us, and it taught me how adaptable we humans try to be and what we are willing to put up with
when we are not being held,