Unchanging Waves of Time

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Remedios Varo, “Space-Time Fabric”

The distinction between past, present and future is the most persistent illusion of all, said Einstein. From the perspective of quantum physics, the past, present and future exist simultaneously in time-space. Time is static, it is us who are flowing through time. This revelation is well explained by James Gleick in his review of the movie Arrival:

“Even without help from mathematical models, we have all learned to visualize history as a timeline, with the past stretching to the left, say, and the future to the right (if we have been conditioned Sapir-Whorf-style by a left-to-right written language). Our own lifespans occupy a short space in the middle. Now—the infinitesimal present—is just the point where our puny consciousnesses happen to be.

But Einstein felt that this was fundamentally a psychological matter; that the question of now need not, or could not, be addressed within physics. The specialness of the present moment doesn’t show up in the equations; mathematically, all the moments look alike. Now seems to arise in our minds. It’s a product of consciousness, inextricably bound up with sensation and memory. And it’s fleeting, tumbling continually into the past.”

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“Arrival”

We may ponder the big question asked by Krishnamurti:

“Time is the past, time is now; and the now is controlled by the past, shaped by the past. And the future is a modification of the present. I’m putting it dreadfully simply. So the future is now. Therefore the question is: If all time is contained in the now, all time – past, present and future – then what do we mean by change?”

Zen Buddhism, as explained by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, compared time to a moving wave, which does not actually move water forward but creates the illusion that it does.

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Ogata Korin, “Rough Waves”

Yet, from an individual perspective, time is experienced viscerally and intimately. In Borges’s words, time is “the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” We are mentally conditioned to view time as sequential, progressing from the past into the present and towards the future. The human perception of time is rendered perfectly in Macbeth’s famous monologue, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, /Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time.” The word “syllable” is a remarkable choice here since our written communication also unfolds sequentially through time– from left to right or from the past into the present, at least for western speakers.

But not all languages are written in this way. In his “Temporary poem of my time” Yehuda Amichai wrote:

“Hebrew writing and Arabic writing go from east to west,
Latin writing, from west to east.
Languages are like cats:
You must not stroke their hair the wrong way.”

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Remedios Varo, “Clockmaker”

The idea that the language shapes our thinking is known as linguistic relativity.  The creators of Arrival played with that idea remarkably well. Louise, a master translator played by Amy Adams, is drafted by the US army to establish communication with a race of aliens who have just landed on the earth. The mysterious visitors are seven-limbed creatures, dubbed heptapods. Seven being the number of spiritual perfection, as Gleick describes in his review of the movie, “They turn out to be virtuosos of calligraphy: their feet/hands are also nozzles that squirt inkblots, which swirl and spin and coalesce into mottled circles with intricate adornments. Louise says these are logograms.”

Each logogram is a miniature work of art, a rich symbol evocative of the Zen ensō.

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Enso “Visually, an enso appears simplistic, but its true nature is much more complex and highly involved. In Zen, enso symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body and spirit create with the brushed ink of the circle being performed in one movement – one stroke, one chance. Often the circle is drawn complete representing perfection, or incomplete with an opening signifying that it is part of something much greater and that imperfection is vital to existence. Unlike other forms of art work, there is no possibility of modification. The perfect enso is achieved by having “no-mind”. The brush stroke should be guided by the spirit, not the wrist. It should be performed without effort.” Via https://diversejapan.com/2012/05/15/shodo-japanese-calligraphy-master-shoho-teramoto-the-enso-of-zen/

 

 

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A logogram (“Arrival”)

Logograms house the meaning of entire sentences or passages. What is more, they seem to be produced instantaneously rather than sequentially, unlike our earthy writing. They emerge suddenly like wondrous emanations. This is because heptapods do not see time as sequential. Having a simultaneous overview of each individual moment on the time-space continuum, they see wholeness instead of events unfolding one after another. Their written script goes simultaneously from right to left and from left to write – to meet in the centre, pulsating with meaning. As Louise masters the heptapod language, she develops headaches which are a sign of a tremendous consciousness shift. It dawns on her that she can see the future, including a tragic twist in her own life. Her mind becomes able to move forwards and backwards; she gets glimpses of events which the viewer thinks are flashbacks, but turn out to be flash-forwards.  Yet, in the holistic frame of temporal reference the direction of the time arrow does not seem to matter any more.

We do not feel ourselves as timeless in our day-to-day lives, quite the contrary. Nevertheless, almost all of us have moments when we experience a momentary rupture in the fabric of time. The poet Szymborska would call it the moments when we remember that we have a soul, which is timeless.

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Giorgio de Chirico, “Piazza d’Italia”

From the web:

http://laughingsquid.com/how-the-film-arrival-connects-the-concepts-of-language-and-time-to-tell-a-non-linear-story/

 

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Museums: Bridging the Gap between the Visible and the Invisible

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Jacques de Lajoue, “The Cabinet of Joseph Bonnier de La Mosson”

“The trucks and locomotives lined up in the railway museum carry neither freight not passengers. Nobody is slain by the swords, cannons and guns on display in the military museum, and not one single worker or peasant uses the utensils, tools, and costumes assembled in folklore collections or museums. The same is true of everything which ends up in this strange world where the word ‘usefulness’ seems never to have been heard of, for to say that the objects which now await only the gaze of the curious were still of some use would be a gross distortion of the English language: the locks and keys no longer secure any door, the machines produce nothing and the clocks and watches are certainly not expected to give the precise time of day. Although they may well have served a definite purpose in their former existence, museum and collection pieces no longer serve any at all, and as such acquire the same quality as works of art, which are never produced with any definite use in mind, but simply to adorn people, palaces, temples, apartments, gardens, streets, squares and cemeteries. Even so, it cannot really be said that museum and collection pieces serve a decorative purpose: decoration is the art of using pictures and sculptures to break the monotony of blank walls which are already there and in need of enhancement, whereas walls are built or specially adapted in museums and in some of the larger collections, for the specific purpose of displaying works. Collectors with more modest means have showcases built, boxes and albums made or else clear a space somewhere for objects to be placed, the aim every time seemingly being the same, namely that of bringing objects together in order to show them to others. Museum and collection pieces may be neither useful not decorative, yet enormous care is nonetheless lavished on them.

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The Library of Alexandria, Cosmos: Spacetime Odyssey

Our museums owe their name to the ancient temples of the Muses, though the most famous of these, the Museum of Alexandria, did not owe its fame to any collection of objects, but rather to its library and the team of scholars who formed a community within its walls. There is, nevertheless, more than one similarity between the Greek and Roman temples and our own museums, for it was in these temples that offerings were amassed and displayed. The object, which had been given to the god and received by him in accordance with the rites, becomes ίεpóν or sacrum, and shares in the majesty and inviolability of the gods. Stealing or moving it, preventing it from fulfilling its function or even simply touching it constitute acts of sacrilege.’ To talk of use in this context is in fact impossible. Once the object crossed the threshold of the sacred enclosure, it entered into a domain which was strictly opposed to utilitarian activities. Within this enclosure, ‘one can neither extract stone, take earth, chop wood, build, cultivate nor live’. Accordingly, objects could play only one single role, and were placed on display either in the sacred buildings which they then adorned, or else in buildings erected specially to house offerings, when these became so numerous that they threatened to clutter up the places of worship. As well as coming to pray, the pilgrims, who were also tourists, visited the temples in order to admire the objects they contained. …

In theory, once an object had been offered to the gods it had to remain forever in the temple in which it had been deposited. Every object was listed in an inventory and protected from theft. Even when they deteriorated they were not disposed of in any old way. …

‘If they were made of silver or gold, the following course of action was taken: a decree of the people resulting from a proposal from the priest or holy treasurer, in accordance with advice from the council, ordered that the offerings which were in a poor state be melted down into ingots or amalgamated to form one single offering; the same procedure was followed when dealing with all scraps of precious metal. If they proved to be an encumbrance or were broken, less valuable objects were taken from the temple and buried. Their dedication had consecrated them for eternity, and they were in no circumstances to be put back into circulation, so in order to shield them better from all secular use, they were often broken on purpose, if they were not already broken. This accounts for the piles of terracotta or bronze objects to be found in the vicinity of certain sanctuaries….’

(Pliny the Elder …)

We should now look more closely at what happens when the objects intended for the gods, namely the offerings, are placed on public show. As well as serving as intermediaries between mortals and immortals, they also came to represent to visitors the fame of the gods, since they were proof that this fame reached all four corners of the world: after all, even the Hyperboreans sent offerings to Delphi…. In the same way, they represented peoples who lived in far and remote if not fabulous lands. For present-day visitors they were a reminder of past benefactors, along with the circumstances surrounding the sending of offerings, and even of groups and individuals who had been involved in bygone events. Some of the offerings were testaments to the ability of certain craftsmen, sculptors or painters to produce extraordinary works the likes of which are no longer seen today. The weirdest, strangest, most spectacular offerings stood out from the ranks of more commonplace articles, exciting the curiosity and imagination of the visitors by challenging them to go beyond the simply visual and to listen to or read more on the subject. Thus it was that stories or anecdotes, some of which have come down to us through the works of Herodotus, Pausanias, Pliny the Elder and several other authors, revolved around offerings of this kind. These offerings could continue to function as intermediaries for this world and the next, the sacred and the secular, while at the same time constituting, at the very heart acted as go-betweens between those who gazed upon them and the invisible from whence they came.

…it was the role forced upon them, the role of guaranteeing communication between the two worlds [the visible and the invisible] into which the universe is cleft, which kept these objects out of the economic circuit.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it must be emphasized straightaway that the opposition between the visible and the invisible can take many and diverse forms. The invisible is spatially distant, not only beyond the horizon but also very high or very low. It is also temporally distant, either in the past or in the future. In addition, it is beyond all physical space and every expanse or else in a space structured totally differently. It is situated in a time of its own, or outside any passing of time, in eternity itself. It can sometimes have a corporeity or materiality other than that of the elements of the visible world, and sometimes be a sort of pure antimateriality.

Collections, or at any rate those which have been examined here, represent only one of a number of measures adopted in order to guarantee communication between the two worlds and the unity of the universe. This enables us to understand more clearly why there is such diversity in the objects making them up, in the places in which they are located and in the behaviour of their visitors, as it reflects the diversity in the ways the visible can be contrasted with the invisible.”

Krzysztof Pomian, “The Collection: Between the Visible and the Invisible” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pierce, Routledge: London and New York

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David Cox, “The Long Gallery of Hardwick Hall”

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Lakshmi – the Goddess of Worldly Enjoyment and Spiritual Liberation

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Lakshmi, the most widely worshiped Indian goddess, emerged on a lotus out of the primeval ocean of milk. In the pantheon of goddesses she is a soothing and gentle presence. In her book Awakening Shakti, Sally Kempton includes compelling words of Thomas Merton, which perfectly invoke Lakshmi’s divine essence as balancing the fiery essence of warrior goddesses such as Kali or Dhurga: “There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fountain of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being.” The ocean of milk not only gave the world Lakshmi but also soma – the life-giving moon nectar. Ayurvedic medicine speaks of soma as a vital essence which can be found in the bone marrow. It is supposed to govern sexuality and rejuvenation, cool down the fiery Kundalini power and, as Kempton puts it, it is “the water of life and the subtle nectar that moistens the heart.” In iconography, Lakshmi is usually portrayed flanked by two elephants showering her with water while she pours golden coins out of her hands in a gesture of abundance.

In many ways, Lakshmi is the primordial mother goddess. Before she was even named, she already existed in the minds of her worshipers as a lotus goddess on the one hand and as “sri,” explained by Rhodes as “splendor, glory, majesty, brilliance, and the divine power of auspiciousness,” on the other. Ancient Indian art rejoiced in depictions of lotuses resembling feminine figures curling gracefully upwards. Feminine figures holding lotuses symbolized life-force and fertility. Besides the well-known symbolic meaning of the lotus as rising from mud through the water and into the air, always gloriously untouched by any kind of impurity, it carries an additional significance pointedly explained by Rhodes:

“…lotus,” also literally denotes a foothold: ‘pad’ refers to foot and ‘ma’ refers to a measured expansion across a spatial dimension. The lotus seat serves as the foundation upon which the gods rest in their embodied forms when they become manifest upon the earth…”

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Osho Zen Tarot – Flowering (Queen of Pentacles)

As said before, in the earliest Vedic texts an abstract quality called “sri” was not associated with any particular goddess, though it already denoted a radiant divine feminine force, which bestowed abundance and dispelled misfortune. In the later Vedic period those qualities started to be called Sri Lakshmi. The name Lakshmi is related to a Sanskrit word meaning “sign, imprint, symbol, an embodied expression.” The goddess Lakshmi began to embody the abstract qualities of sri; she became the living symbol that manifested itself as a divine revelation of a deeper mystery.  Rhodes calls her “the quintessential devi” Devi, the Sanskrit word for “goddess,”  is derived from “div,” which means to shine, to play, to sparkle, to rejoice, and also to gamble, as Rhodes further explains:

“The term, then, also conveys the excitement of uncertainty, the expectancy of luck, and the vibrant sensation that anything can happen – all of these as opposed to the frozen stagnancy of absolute certainty. Laksmi is the epitome of luminous energy in action… When that luminosity expresses itself as bounteous beauty, delight, harmony, abundant wealth, and spiritual liberation-in short, prosperity of every kind – then it is recognized and called upon as Laksmi, goddess of abundance.”

By her devotees she is called “bhukti-mukti pradayini” – “bestower of material enjoyment and spiritual liberation.” She infuses the world with four qualities: kama, artha, dharma and moksa. The former three deal with worldly enjoyment, the latter denotes freedom from worldly attachment. They are the four goals of life. Kama is pleasure, sensuality, sexuality and passion. It gives the spark to procreate being the beauty of all life, and all the flavours of material reality. Artha is wealth and its fluid circulation in society. Unsurprisingly, the goddess’s most ardent devotees are merchants, who enthusiastically erect shrines to the goddess. Diwali, the most important festival devoted to Lakshmi, also marks the beginning of a new financial year. It is during Diwali that gambling is encouraged as well.

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The coins that are being poured forth from the goddess’s open hands or from a golden urn symbolize all forms of abundant energy, not only money. Lakshmi is also the goddess of self-worth, believed to make the inner beauty of a person shine through. Her sacred animal is the owl symbolizing the ability to see in darkness and to be able to move towards the light of wisdom. Rhodes adds that the golden coins can also be looked upon as “bija mantras” or “seed syllables that are produced from the body of the goddess as vibratory patterns of sacred sound.” They are the fruit of her womb holding “the potentialities of all of creation.” Through those sound-forms, i.e. the fifty-two letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the goddess is “unfurling herself into the universe as the matrka Sakti (matrix of cosmic energy). Together with her consort Visnu, Lakshmi preserves and upholds harmony in all the realms. This is her role as an upholder of dharma (the Sanskrit root word “dhr” meaning foundation and support). Rhodes writes:

“In general, we may consider dharma to be the energy governing harmonious relationships – with oneself, with one’s spouse, children, and family, with one’s community, with one’s natural environment, and with the gods.  On a cosmic level, dharma is the harmony of interconnectedness that upholds society and supports the creation…”

Many different translations of the word dharma have been offered, including  “virtue,” “virtuous conduct,” “harmonious relationship,” “”etiquette,” “communal obligation,” “social consciousness,” “balanced way of life,” “living in right relationship,” “doing the right thing.”

From Lakshmi’s perspective, doing the right thing often involves mundane tasks such as cleaning and maintaining self-discipline. Her festival begins with a thorough housecleaning because it is believed that she will not grace a dirty house. The final component is moksa – release from attachment, spiritual liberation. Mahalakshmi is the Great Illusion and a means to liberation from it. Kempton observes:

“The release from cyclical existence in samsara, then, comes from the same goddess who sanctions the world and embellishes it, even mesmerizing one to enjoy attachment to it for lifetime after lifetime.”

The goddess of luck has a sister called Alaksmi, who brings bad luck whenever an imbalance occurs. Lakshmi does not approve of “an overly zealous attention to any one of the four aims of life to the exclusion of the others.” The truth of beingness calls for a dynamic equipoise between the four elements. This task involves “weaving together” (the word Tantra means “weaving”) the seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Vedic Hymn to Sri conveys this paradox beautifully:

“Draw unto me, O sacred fire, the goddess Lakshmi,

The resplendent, the golden,

Doe-like, moon – lustrous,

Garlanded in silver, and in gold.

I invoke the goddess Sri,

Who manifests as golden light.

She blazes with the effulgence of fire

Yet glistens like soothing, cool waters.

Seated on a lotus,

The lotus-hued one

Smiles benevolently.

Contended, she bestows contentment.”

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Sources:

Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti, Kindle edition

Constantina Rhodes, Invoking Lakshmi the Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony, Kindle edition

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The Great Goddess

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Osho Zen Tarot – Existence

“I celebrate Indrāksī,

That goddess

Whom the gods glorify with many names:

 

Brightness

Bearer of the Conch

Red-clad Widow

Great Goddess

Moonglow

Great Heart of Austerity

Sāvitrī

Splendor of Meditation

Gāyatrī

Lady Brahmā

Sound-essence of the Wisdom Books

 

Lady Narāyana

Auspicious Darkness

Lady Rudra

Black-hued

Flame of the Sacred Fire

She of the Terrifying Face

Black Night

Mistress of Yogic Austerities

 

Raincloud-dark

Thousand-eyed

Wild-haired

Water-bellied

Great Goddess

She of Unbound Hair

She of Terrifying Form

She of Tremendous Might

 

Invincible

Bestower of Auspiciousness

Felicity

Destroyer of Disease

Beloved of Śiva

Attendant of Śiva

Sword-Flame of Agni’s Fire

She Who Reveals Herself Clearly Before One’s Eyes

Supreme Lady

 

Eternal

Bewitching

Goddess

Beautiful

Queen of the Universe

Indra’s Eyes

Indra’s Splendor

Indra’s Cosmic Power

Final Refuge

 

Destroyer of the Demon King

Vanquisher of Camunda

Womb of the Gods

Lady of the Great Boar

Lady of the Man-lion

Ferocious

She of the Terrifying Roar

 

Sacred Revelation

Sacred Remembrance

Constancy

Intelligence

Laksmī

Sarasvatī

Infinity

Victory

Abundance

Mother of the Mind

Unrivalled

Bhavānī

Pārvatī

Durgā

Daughter of the Himalaya

Ambikā

Lady Śiva.”

From Song of the Glorious “Eyes of Indra” translated by Constantina Rhodes, included in her book “Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony”

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Osho Zen Tarot – Receptivity

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“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”: A Short Review

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In the Harry Potter universe, house Hufflepuff seems the least exciting. Hufflepuffs are slow, methodical, dedicated, patient and loyal. Astrologically, they are connected with Taurus, which gives them an earthy, sensual quality. They may lack the charisma of Gryffindor (Leo), but they are the backbone and the salt of the wizarding community. Unlike Slytherins or Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs are not overly ambitious or rebellious. They do not seek attention for attention’s sake. Yet they possess a certain quiet charm and dignity. And they are so immensely steadfast that, if need be, they will sacrifice themselves for their loved ones.

Newt Scamander, sorted into Hufflepuff, the main character of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was born at the end of the nineteenth century. The temporal setting of the movie gives it a quaint, vintage aura, which agrees with Taurus as well since this sign loves the tangible, and puts slowness over speed. The name Newt is quite apt as well, evoking a tiny amphibian, not quite a frog, not quite a lizard, certainly not a dragon. But Hufflepuffs do not attach value judgements to life forms: a newt is as spectacular and miraculous as, say, a Peruvian Vipertooth. Newt’s job as a magizoologist involves the study of magical creatures, protecting them indiscriminately and spreading knowledge about them.

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Perhaps like a newt, Newt Scamander seems rather inconspicuous as the movie begins. The action develops rather slowly; the plot is rather predictable. Any danger the characters get themselves in is quite small compared to what was faced by the characters in the previous Harry Potter movies. For me the main strength of the vie is its undeniable charm. New York of the early twentieth century seems so warm and comforting; it envelops the viewer like the Hobbiton village. The magical creatures on the loose are just cute and harmless, with the magnificent Niffler (a beast with an uncontrollable urge to touch sparkling objects) as an ultimate Taurean character.

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The non-magical Polish wannabe baker is a kind-hearted, adorable man – nothing like the evil muggles of the Harry Potter universe. This focus on food, warmth and coziness has a very heartwarming effect on the viewer. Comfortingly so, anything that gets destroyed throughout the movie, is rebuilt and repaired at the end at the touch of a magic wand. This is quite refreshing when juxtaposed with the usual action movies relish in showing mayhem, destruction and their eerie aftermath.

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All in all, I would give the movie 5/5. A real highlight is Colin Farrel’s performance as a villain. The only drawback is that he will not be coming back in the upcoming instalments.

 

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Some Thoughts on Culture

The term “culture” comes from the Roman orator Cicero, who wrote about cultura animi – cultivation of the soul. The soul, like a rose, needs rich, nourishing soil, a loving care and time to bloom. In a very interesting article “There is no such thing as western civilization” (based on a lecture you can listen to here), Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us that a culture is not guaranteed through birthright:

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilization. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. … we cannot help caring about the traditions of ‘the west’ because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. … these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”

The whole vastness of world culture is open to the human soul. I was haunted by this thought recently while visiting an exhibition proudly entitled “Renaissance in Europe,” which proved quite a disappointment. Why cut off Europe from the rest of the world like this? Didn’t Renaissance open doors to the vast universe of other cultures? Besides, the rebirth of the wisdom of Ancient Greece and Rome would not have been possible without Muslim scholars, as Appiah reminds us:

“In the centuries that Petrarch called the Dark Ages, when Christian Europe made little contribution to the study of Greek classical philosophy, and many of the texts were lost, these works were preserved by Muslim scholars. Much of our modern understanding of classical philosophy among the ancient Greeks we have only because those texts were recovered by European scholars in the Renaissance from the Arabs.”

The so-called Western identity is a fairly modern concept: it emerged slowly in the nineteenth century, and gained momentum only in the twentieth century. Yet, it was in the Renaissance when contempt for “non-European cultures” was born. Christopher Columbus maintained that the “Indians” he encountered were characterized by “a lack of culture.”

In his reflections on culture, Krishnamurti, typically for him, tries to look deeper beneath the ostentatious differences between various cultures. He sees the cultural patterns of society as something the soul should acknowledge and ultimately free itself from. He writes:

“So the Indian culture is somewhat different from the European culture, but underneath the movement is the same. … The urge to find out what truth is, what God is, is the only real urge, and all other urges are subsidiary. When you throw a stone into still water, it makes expanding circles. The expanding circles are the subsidiary movements, the social reactions, but the real movement is at the centre, which is the movement to find happiness, God, truth; and you cannot find it as long as you are caught in fear, held by a threat. From the moment there is the arising of threat and fear, culture declines.”

Via http://www.jiddu-krishnamurti.net/en/think-on-these-things/1963-00-00-jiddu-krishnamurti-think-on-these-things-chapter-11

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Brigid Marlin, “Mandala East to West” via http://www.brigidmarlin.com/pages/Visionary/Mdla.html

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Soft and Strong: Notes on Water

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Francis Picabia, “Crashing Waves”

I. ”Water nourishes and soothes us. But this same stuff also carved the Grand Canyon out of solid rock over the course of millennia, and every day thunders down with unimaginable fury at Niagara and Victoria Falls.”

II. ”One of the roots for the word ‘water’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘apah,’ meaning ‘animate,’ something that gives life.”

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James Whistler, “Nocturne, the Solent”

III. “There is nothing softer and weaker than water. And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.”     Lao Tzu

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Leonardo da Vinci’s water powered gyroscopic compass

IV.”For Leonardo [da Vinci] water was the ‘vehicle of nature’ (‘vetturale di natura’), the driving force behind all natural things. He was obsessed with it.

Water, he reasoned, was the fluid that transported nutrients around the Earth, feeding plants and fields, just as blood … nourished the organs of the human body.”

V. “Water is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and sometimes thick or thin, sometimes it is seen bringing hurt or pestilence, sometime health-giving, sometimes poisonous. It suffers change into as many natures as are the different places through which it passes. And as the mirror changes with the colour of its subject, so it alters with the nature of the place, becoming noisome, laxative, astringent, sulfurous, salty, incarnadined, mournful, raging, angry, red, yellow, green, black, blue, greasy, fat or slim. Sometimes it starts a conflagration, sometimes it extinguishes one; is warm and is cold, carries away or sets down, hollows out or builds up, tears or establishes, fills or empties, raises itself or burrows down, speeds or is still; is the cause at times of life or death, or increase or privation, nourishes at times and at others does the contrary; at times has a tang, at times is without savour, sometimes submerging the valleys with great floods. In time and with water, everything changes.” Leonardo da Vinci

VI.”If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.

 

Going to church

Would entail a fording

To dry, different clothes;

 

My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,

A furious devout drench,

 

And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.”

Philip Larkin, “Water”

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Tinguely Fountain in Basel, Switzerland

All quotes have been taken from The Water Book by Alok Jha.

 

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The Holiness of Trees

“Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.”

C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”

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A book The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben was to me deeply comforting and rather alarming in equal measure. The alarming part had to do with a realization that trees are too often treated by humans as objects, forests – as lumber factories.  The comfort I found among the book’s pages was a certainty, a scientific fact proven rigorously by the author, that trees are receptacles of the deepest mysteries of life. Wohlleben may be a scientist but he approaches his subject with affection, even devotion. In another book I have been reading in parallel to The Hidden Life of Trees, Alexander von Humboldt is portrayed as a cold-hearted measurer of the world but when he encounters an ancient dragon tree on Tenerife, his cold heart cracks open, if only for a brief moment:

“It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him.”

Daniel Kehlman, “Measuring the World”

The wealth of information on trees contained in Wohlleben’s book is staggering. He starts by emphasizing the fact that most tree species are communal beings. Forests are “superorganisms” which can be likened to ant colonies. There, nutrients are ceaselessly exchanged, and no member of the community is abandoned in times of need. Why are trees so protective of each other? The author explains:

“Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”

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Caspar David Friedrich, “Forest in the End of the Autumn”

The primary means of communication among trees is scent. On the Savannah, acacias warn other trees when giraffes start feasting on their leaves. This enables the trees next in line for the predator to emit toxic substances and thus keep the giraffes off. Signals between trees are transmitted by means of fungal connections. Wohlleben uses every opportunity to stress that artificially planted forests (unless they are organic plantations) do more harm than good because they seriously impair trees’ ability to communicate:

“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”

Communication of trees happens both below and above ground. The former is effectuated by means of roots, which for trees extend twice the spread of the crown. Apparently, roots send sound waves (220 hertz) to other roots to communicate about danger. Roots have been compared to brain-like structures; they are neural pathways that transmit both chemical and electrical impulses.  How strange that still many scientists refuse to call plants intelligent. Wohlleben reflects:

“The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?”

A walk through an old-growth forest reduces blood pressure and has a calming effect. Tree plantations do not have the same effect. What is more, forests that have experienced no intervention from foresters, grow more harmoniously:

“Because of the deep shade, wild flowers and shrubs don’t have a chance, so the color brown (from old leaves) predominates on the natural forest floor. The small trees grow extremely slowly and very straight, and their side branches are short and narrow. The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral. In contrast to this, there is much more light in managed forests, because trees are constantly being removed. Grass and bushes grow in the gaps, and tangles of brambles prevent detours off the beaten path. When trees are felled and their crowns are left lying on the ground, the debris creates further obstacles. The whole forest presents a troubled and downright messy picture. Old-growth forests, however, are basically very accessible.”

Within the same species, trees do not follow the principle of survival of the fittest. Rather, they “synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful.” They make it so that they all produce an equal amount of sugar per leaf regardless of their strength or age. Again, it is the roots which are responsible for this equalization of the rate of photosynthesis, as “whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” In a natural forest trees grow close to one another. This “huddling together” is an advantage for the whole community since “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” However, a lot of foresters remove what in their opinion in an excess of trees. Again, such acts prevent trees from communicating with each other, leaving them at the mercy of predators.

In order for a tree to live a long life, it needs to grow slowly. To that effect, older trees purposefully deprive the young of light so that the rate of their growth becomes restricted. Modern forestry with their eyes on the profit margin does not promote steady and slow growth of trees. Trees are felled before they reach maturity in Europe, where we have lost almost all of true old-growth forests. One example is the primeval Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, the exclusive refuge of the lowland bison. The Polish government has started logging parts of the forest in recent months, which was met with a public outcry over a destruction of the 10 000- year-old ecosystem.

Ancient trees are crucial for the ecosystem, explains Wohlleben:

“…Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. First of all, she discovered large quantities of moss on the branches and in the branch forks of trees of this advanced age. Blue-green algae had colonized the trees’ mossy cushions. These algae capture nitrogen from the air and process it into a form the trees can use. Rain then washes this natural fertilizer down the trunks, making it available to the roots. Thus, old trees fertilize the forest and help their offspring get a better start in life. The youngsters don’t have their own moss because moss grows very slowly and takes decades to get established.”

Old trees are stronger than young ones; they also grow faster. Thus, they are our most powerful allies in the fight against the climate change. Even dead trees have an important role to play, as a fifth of all animal and plant species depend on them for survival. A felled tree trunk can even serve as a cradle for young trees, especially in the case of young spruces. This process is called “nurse-log reproduction.”

On other continents, the pivotal role of ancient trees is recognized and respected; in fact, it is only in Europe where ancient forests do not receive adequate protection:

“In the United States, forest preserves, such as the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, keep economic interests out of the forests. According to the state constitution, the preserve ‘shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,’ and the timber shall not be ‘sold, removed or destroyed.’ In the wilderness areas of these preserves, most structures are not allowed, power vehicles are banned, and chainsaws require special permits. What started as a measure to ensure that excessive logging in the nineteenth century didn’t lead to soil erosion and silting up of the economically important Erie Canal has turned into a resource dedicated to the forest itself and visitors who ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through. Even more remote is the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees. This primeval forest is home to the rare spirit bear, which although it is white, is not a polar bear but a black bear with white fur. First Nations in the area have been fighting since the 1990s to protect their homelands. On February 1, 2016, an agreement was announced to keep 85 percent of the forest unlogged, though it does allow for 15 percent of the trees, mostly old growth at low elevations, to be removed. After a long hard struggle, some progress, at least, has been made in protecting this very special place. Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coastal First Nations, is well aware of the forest’s importance: ‘Our leaders understand our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters… If we use our knowledge and our wisdom to look after [them], they will look after us into the future.’ The Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, see their forest as ‘the most exalted expression of life itself.’”

It is no wonder that trees are happiest in the balmy forest. An especially eye-opening chapter of the book was dedicated to “street kids,” that is the trees which live in cities. They suffer very harshly because of the temperature being too high for them, due to the dryness of the air and its pollution. Their bark gets burned and their roots rot because of dogs’ urine. They get damaged heavily by winter salt. Some species of trees suffer more than others when they are torn away from the protective forest. Others, such as poplar, quaking aspen, silver birch and pussy willow are born pioneers and actually enjoy striking out on their own and colonizing new territories. Their seeds can fly longer distances. They often grow alone in wide-open spaces. Therefore, their bark is often lighter in colour to protect them from sun scald. Birches and other lonely wolves among trees typically live more intensively and shorter than oaks, beeches or redwoods which prefer the familial atmosphere of the forest.

I found Wohlleben’s book awe-inspiring. It made me think how it seems that we humans cannot help applying our short-term thinking to beings, which are radically different from us. Trees are slow, still, majestic and, at least compared to us, eternal. They were here before us and will outlive us. Their symbolic meaning is vitally connected with the totality of life processes in the universe: “its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes,” as Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols. The tree represents “absolute reality” positioned at the centre of the world. It is a world-axis connecting the above with the below. There were two trees in Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Living and knowing, notices Cirlot, are two distinct and parallel processes. The tree of Life is usually depicted in full bloom, the tree of Knowledge, which brought people death and awareness, is shown as dry or on fire. It is a marvellous coincidence that in scientific taxonomy the endings of the names of trees are masculine whereas their gender is feminine. The tree is a central symbol of totality that connects microcosm and microcosm, the feminine and the masculine, life and death, change and permanence, and other opposites.

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William Morris, Tree of Life tapestry

Hermann Hesse offered the following beautiful reflections on trees:

“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Hermann Hesse, “Bäume” (Trees)

http://www.suhrkamp.de/buecher/baeume-hermann_hesse_19393.html

https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/21/hermann-hesse-trees/

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Arnold Böcklin, “The Sacred Grove”

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“Happiness” by Louise Glück 

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Abstraction White Rose”

“A man and a woman lie on a white bed.

It is morning. I think

Soon they will waken.

On the bedside table is a vase

of lilies; sunlight

pools in their throats.

I watch him turn to her

as though to speak her name

but silently, deep in her mouth –

At the window ledge,

once, twice

a bird calls.

And then she stirs; her body

fills with his breath.


I open my eyes; you are watching me.

Almost over this room

the sun is gliding.

Look at your face, you say,

holding your own close to me

making a mirror.

How calm you are. And the burning wheel

passes gently over us.”

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Hatshepsut: the Woman Pharaoh and Her Rise to Power

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Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh from the renowned eighteenth dynasty, reigned very successfully for twenty-two years. Her rule brought enormous wealth and prosperity to her country. She did not wage unnecessary wars but focused on extensive building projects (she was the first ruler to use sandstone and granite instead of mud bricks) and establishing trade routes instead. She had reached for power resolutely, yet without resorting to violence or bloodshed. This was an unprecedented move on a part of a woman. The moment she passed away, her male successor proceeded to systematically erase her legacy, defile her statues and get rid of all evidence of her power and achievements. Not only was she maligned by her successors but she was also vilified by Egyptologists well into the twentieth century. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist, archeologist, and professor at UCLA, has written a book dedicated to Hatshepsut, in which she looks at the double standards at play in relation to men and women in power:

“Women in power who do everything wrong offer great narrative fodder: Cleopatra, Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, Semiramis, Empress Lü. They are dangerous, untrustworthy, self-interested to a fault. Their sexuality and powers of attraction can bring all to ruin. History has shown that a woman who pushes the envelope of ambition is not just maligned in the history books as a conniving, scheming seductress whose foolhardy and emotional desires brought down the good men around her, but also celebrated in infamous detail as proof that females should never be in charge.

Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests.

If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fueled by ulterior motives.”

Hatshepsut believed firmly that Amun-Re chose her to rule over Egypt. When she seized power she was a young woman in her early twenties. Over the years, she gradually forged a masculine identity for herself since at that time (approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE) it was inconceivable for the pharaoh to be a woman. The highest position a woman could have hoped for was the First Wife of the King. This title belonged to Hatshepsut’s mother. Egyptian kings had sizeable harems of women at their disposal, destined to produce male heirs. Hatshepsut’s mother failed to do so. Consequently, the throne passed to a two-year old Thutmose III, whom Hatshepsut’s father had with a lesser wife. Hatshepsut became the boy’s co-regent, but eventually assumed the full power of the pharaoh.

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As her reign began, she confidently portrayed herself as a female ruler with all the images commissioned by her openly showing her gender. She identified herself with powerful goddesses, particularly with Mut, as well as lioness war goddesses – Sekhmet and Bast. She propagated a myth about her birth from a lioness. However, as the years passed by, uncertainty and ambiguity crept in. With time, all her images became completely masculine, though she still kept the feminine forms in hieroglyphic texts, as Cooney explains:

“To those elites who could read hieroglyphic text and participate in complex theological discourse, she presented the full complexity of gender-ambiguous kingship. There was no need to hide her feminine self from these learned men and women anyway because of their close access to her and her palace. But for the common man or woman who could not read and who might not understand such academic explanations, Hatshepsut presented a simplified and unassailable image of idealized and youthful masculine kingship. For them, she became what everyone expected to see—a strong man able to protect Egypt’s borders and a virile king able to build temples and perform the cult rituals for the gods.”

She had amassed enormous power despite the heavy odds against her. Still, her countrymen were not ready to acknowledge that real power knows no gender. They erased her name from the official list of kings. But the truth about her kingship eventually came out, as the meaning of her name had foreboded: Hatshepsut – Foremost of Noble Women.

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